The Santa Fe Trail: An Unintended Form of Exile

Magoffin, Susan Shelby. 1827 – 1855. Photograph, ca. 1850. Missouri History Museum Photographs and Prints Collections. N12846.

By Kaylie Schunk

What is the cost of adventure? Many sojourned west for opportunity and for the supposed right to harness uncultivated lands and resources. In the case of Susan Shelby Magoffin, she was a young newlywed with a sense of adventure. However, the West is not the romanticized place of Magoffin’s imagination. Through the source of Susan Shelby Magoffin’s diary from 1846-1847, the Santa Fe Trail, and the west generally, prove to be a place of isolation from family, gender, culture, state, nation, and God as she attempts to survive the conditions of the journey but more importantly, the departure from her emotional attachments. Additionally, with this isolation, Magoffin demonstrates a genuine fear of the unknown in her isolated state, which relates to the hesitation and apprehension of many women as they went west.

Initially, Magoffin is euphoric as she explores the west with her new husband. She describes herself as “a wandering princess” (Magoffin 11) who sleeps surrounded by the flowers her servants have picked for her[1]. However, Magoffin’s tone changes as she realizes that westward exploration and her husband’s engagement in trade causes a disconnection from the familiar, which is replaced by a region that is completely foreign and unknown. This fear of the unknown is demonstrated throughout her travels. As they settle in for the night at Big John’s Spring, she “could not suppress the fear, or rather the thought of some wilt savage or hungry wolf might be lurking in the thick grape vines, ready the first advantageous moment to bounce upon my shoulders” (Magoffin 18).[2] Magoffin is vulnerable in her new surroundings as she tries

to console her fears of being attacked in this unfamiliar region. Other women, who had traveled West, Furthermore, her fear over her new surroundings causes a demonstration of the sublime, which is common during the period of nineteenth century Romanticism. Magoffin describes Big John’s Spring as “romantic” as she is in awe of this new landscape (Magoffin 18).3 The only means to subdue this anxiety of this expansive and foreign landscape is by her dog. He “kept strict watch for Indians, bear, panther, wolves, &c. and would not even leave my side as if conscious I had no other protector at hand” (Magoffin 78).4 Therefore, Magoffin’s vulnerability and fear is due to her inability to understand her surroundings. She is left with only her dog, as a source of familiarity, to protect her from these foreign experiences and forces on the Santa Fe Trail.

Likewise, Magoffin’s isolation from her family has left her vulnerable and lonely on the Santa Fe Trail, which is similar to many women who explored the frontier. First, Magoffin uses letters as a way to express her new experiences on the Santa Fe Trail. After “seeing the little [buffalo] calves[,] I sat down immediately and wrote to Papa” (Magoffin 45).5 Letters are her way of keeping connected her family, despite her isolation. “Though I cannot hear from home, it is gratification to know that I can send letters to those who will take pleasure in reading them” (Magoffin 63).6 However, Magoffin’s consolation from these letters deteriorates as she continues to not hear back from her family. Like other women of the frontier, Magoffin felt disconnected from her life back home. “Towards the conclusion of the diary, she states, “I do wish I could have a letter from home; how lonely it is, week after week & month after month, and I hear nothing more than if I ever belonged to their numbers” (Magoffin 236).7 Magoffin’s adventure with her new husband cannot satisfy her isolation from her family. Similarly, “Journalist Eugene Victor Smalley was appalled by the isolation of homesteaders…‘Each family must live mainly to itself, and life, shut up in the little wooden farmhouses” (Hine and Faragher 363).8 While Magoffin was not living on a permanent homestead and she did not have her own family with her husband, isolation was evident for frontier settlers. Furthermore, Magoffin is more isolated than women who were living on permanent residences. She does not have any children to tend to, and Magoffin is never able to have a sense of permanence and home. She is only aware of what and who, especially her family that she left behind.

Magoffin’s vulnerability due to her isolation from her family leads to her apprehension for her family members on the trail, which does not save some from leaving her anyways. Magoffin is fearful of the West’s ability to cause isolation every time her husband goes hunting for buffalo. “It is a painful situation to be place in, to know that the being dearest to you on earth is in momentary danger of loosing his life, or receiving for the remainder of his days…a tormenting wound” (Magoffin 44).9 Magoffin has given up her family and her sense of security for her husband. Due to this sacrifice and her devotion to him, she is in constant dread when he hunts. The West has shown her the reality of isolation. Furthermore, he is one of the only forms of security that she has left because he was in her life prior to this journey. Her husband serves as a mediator between Magoffin’s past and their future in the unknown West. Therefore, she is forced to be reliant on him. Similarly, the women of the West were heavily reliant on their husbands. While most women did not choose to journey west, they had to trust their husbands as they chose this new life for their families.

Furthermore, Magoffin’s fear of loss for her family on the Santa Fe Trail is not unwarranted. While her husband proves to survive the conditions of the trip, her unborn child does not survive the journey. “I should have been a happy mother, but… Providence has interposed and by an abortion deprived us of hope” (Magoffin 67).10 Through this miscarriage, Magoffin cannot even rely on the most intimate of familial relations in the West. Rather, her unborn child’s emphasizes her own isolation as she is not able to sustain life within her. Magoffin is not even able to have her own family to ease the loneliness feels from her isolation from her family back home. This resonates with a boy “of southwestern Kansas” who asked, “Will we always have to live here…and will we have to die here, too?” (Hine and Faragher 364).11 The feeling of isolation and loneliness was common for children, along with their mothers. This child and the unborn Magoffin demonstrate the theme of seclusion that children inherited from their parents, especially their mothers. This unborn child was never given the chance to make connections to others and to ease the loneliness of his or her mother. This shows the effect of the West on isolation as it caused apprehension for families, especially for the women, and it led to a succession of loneliness.

In addition, Magoffin is similar to other women of the West because she was rarely in the company of women. For many women of the frontier, “the companionship of other women was hard to come by” (Hine and Faragher 363).12 This contributed their loneliness because they did not have people to talk about their mutual interests with, and there was no one they could relate to. Magoffin becomes of the very women present among the numerous military men. At the military ball, she was “surrounded by the Gen. and officers of his staff” (Magoffin 143).13 Furthermore, the tension resulting from the lack of women causes potential conflict. A soldier “had written to his wife all about me, and I am afraid the poor woman…will… be tempted to kill me” (Magoffin 146).14 The lack of women in the West caused potential marital problems for the many wives who did not make the journey with their husbands. While he may be a soldier and not a typical frontiersman, the presence of women, especially in the years of early expansion, were very rare. In turn, this caused men to flock to these women similar to these soldiers. Men were so desperate for female presence that prostitution became rampant in the mining camps. Therefore, this trend of flocking to women, due to their rarity, was a common theme of the West due to female isolation and male for that matter.

Along with social isolation, women like Magoffin had to adjust to the isolation from their state and, sometimes, country, which caused loneliness due to their strong state and national identities. Magoffin was from Kentucky and persistently compared the West to her home state and tries to being Kentucky to the West. When she reaches Santa Fe, she believes that through “a Yankee’s ingenuity and Kentuckian’s taste” she “can make it a beautiful place” (Magoffin 142).15 However, by the end of her travels, she is also isolated because of her identity as an American. This is seen by her acknowledgement of the lag in news traveling from the United States.  She feels disconnected to the United States because “’tis too soon for us to have received the news from the U.S.” (Magoffin 149).16 Furthermore, the Magoffins are isolated and targeted due to their citizenship statuses as Americans. An uprising in Mexico caused the Magoffins to flee because “for without doubt ‘tis the intention of nearly every one of them to murder without distinction every American in the country” (Magoffin 192).17 The Magoffins were in a country that were not welcome in, which caused them to become isolated and targets for potential violence.

Lastly, Magoffin’s journey on the Santa Fe Trail caused an isolation from her faith, which differs from many of the frontier communities of the nineteenth century. The traveling schedule was one obstacle for Magoffin. “Did I not in the very beginning [of the journey] forget-yes, and how can I be pardoned for the great sin-that it was the Holy Sabbath” (Magoffin 31).18 She is so busy trying to adjust to this new lifestyle that she forgets some of her foundational practices. She claims that she is “sinful, my flash prone to evil” (Magoffin 195).19 However, she does make an effort to redeem herself for being “thoughtless,” but it is strained due to the clash of Catholicism and Protestantism (Magoffin 31).20 In the Mexican territory, the faith is predominately Catholic. Magoffin is Protestant, which caused her to have to pray in a Church she did not understand. She believed that it was just as worthwhile to worship within herself in a church of another denomination as long as she was worshipping. She asserted that she “attended mass…, not for show, but to worship God” (Magoffin 214).21 This new form of faith and the journey’s contribution to Magoffin isolating herself from God, does not parallel to most nineteenth century frontiersmen. Rather, they found solace through the religious communities they built. “Common beliefs and rituals helped to build sustaining bonds of affection. Religion was the greatest ally of the pioneers in the formation of western communities” (Magoffin 365).22 Perhaps, Magoffin was not given the chance to build up a sense of community through religion. Due to the short durations, in which, she was in a region, she may not have been able to form a bond through religion because of time. However, she would have had to join fellow Protestants to help create such a community, which was dominated by Catholicism.

While it may appear to be a romantic idea to travel to the West, it was certainly not what Magoffin and other women of the West believed it would be. Rather, the West proved to be a place of uncertainty and loneliness as these women were isolated from their families and often their own gender. This caused a deficit in socialization as women could not find others to relate to. Furthermore, Magoffin and women of the period dealt with how to reconcile their identities for their home state and, in some cases, country. It proved to be difficult for the West to surpass the esteemed homelands of these frontier women, which contributed to their loneliness. Also, American citizenship was a cause for isolation in Mexican territories, especially during the Mexican-American, which is the backdrop of Magoffin’s testament. Lastly, there was spiritual isolation for Magoffin that was not necessarily true for women on the frontier. Magoffin struggled to balance faith as she traveled, and she had to practice her faith in another domination’s church. Therefore, she was, again, unique and isolated from the population around her. Conversely, the people of the West saw their loneliness and used religion as a means to form much needed communities. Therefore, the life of Magoffin and many women who traveled west was veiled by a sense of adventure and wonder. When in reality, it was a period of hardship, seclusion, and lonesomeness.




Hine, Robert V. and John Mack Faragher. The American West: A New Interpretive History. New

New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000


Magoffin, Susan Shelby. Down the Santa Fe Trail and into Mexico. Edited by Stella M. Drumm. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1962

            [1]. Susan Magoffin, Down the Santa Fe Trail and into Mexico: The Diary of Susan Shelby Magoffin (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1962), 11






            [2].Susan Magoffin, Down the Santa Fe Trail and into Mexico: The Diary of Susan Shelby Magoffin (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1962), 18


  1. Ibid.


  1. Ibid., 78.


  1. Ibid., 45.




  1. Ibid., 45.


  1. 6. Ibid., 63.


  1. Ibid., 236.


  1. Robert V. Hine and John Mack Faragher, The American West: A New Interpretive History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), 363.



  1. Susan Magoffin, Down the Santa Fe Trail and into Mexico: The Diary of Susan Shelby Magoffin (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1962), 44.


  1. Ibid., 67.



  1. Robert V. Hine and John Mack Faragher, The American West: A New Interpretive History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), 364.


  1. Ibid., 363.


  1. Susan Magoffin, Down the Santa Fe Trail and into Mexico: The Diary of Susan Shelby Magoffin (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1962), 143.



  1. 14. Ibid., 146.



  1. Susan Magoffin, Down the Santa Fe Trail and into Mexico: The Diary of Susan Shelby Magoffin (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1962), 142


  1. Ibid., 149


  1. Ibid., 192



  1. Susan Magoffin, Down the Santa Fe Trail and into Mexico: The Diary of Susan Shelby Magoffin (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1962), 31.


  1. Ibid., 195.


  1. Ibid., 31.


  1. Ibid., 214.
  2. Susan Magoffin, Down the Santa Fe Trail and into Mexico: The Diary of Susan Shelby Magoffin (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1962), 365.

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