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Autres voix, autres témoignages. Les femmes et la conquête de nouveaux territoires

Susan Magoffin’s Santa Fe Days in 1846: The Value of Testimony

Les journées de Santa Fé en 1846 de Susan Magoffin : la valeur du témoignage
Susanne Berthier-Foglar
p. 162-182


Susan Magoffin, la jeune épouse d’un commerçant de la piste de Santa Fe, accompagna son mari en 1846 pour un voyage où la caravane suivait de près l’Armée de l’Ouest et pendant lequel elle tint un journal. Cet article traite des 37 jours que dura la pause de la caravane à Santa Fe et aborde plus spécifiquement la façon dont l’auteur appréhendait l’altérité dans un environnement inhabituel et parfois dangereux. Pour apprécier la valeur du témoignage, je combine une analyse du discours avec une évaluation statistique du contenu. La description, parfois naïve, de Santa Fe sous l’occupation américaine illustre les raisons de la guerre contre le Mexique. En tant qu’agent de la destinée manifeste, Susan Magoffin admirait le général Kearny en lui attribuant des qualités surhumaines et en participant à ses efforts de propagande. Alors qu’elle était enracinée dans sa classe et sa culture, elle voyait la population mexicaine et les Amérindiens avec un esprit ouvert bien que ses motifs pour apprendre l’espagnol, ainsi que le métier de commerçante, avaient une fonction plus prosaïque.

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Index chronologique :

19th century, XIXe siècle
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Texte intégral

  • 1  Sandra Myres, Westering Women and the Frontier Experience—1800-1915, Albuquerque: UNM Press, 1999, (...)

1On June 11, 1846, less than a month after President Polk signed a resolution acknowledging the existence of a state of war with Mexico, Susan Magoffin, the 18-year-old wife of a wealthy trader, set out from Independence, Missouri, across the Plains into Mexican territory with her husband’s caravan. 455 days later, at the end of her stay, she left Mexico a few days before the fall of the capital. On the trail, she conformed to the custom of immigrants who had “a clear sense that they were participating in an historic event”1 and kept a diary. While such journals obviously have a biographical value, their use—especially the use of female diaries—as testimonies occurred simultaneously with the demise of Frederick Jackson Turner’s “Significance of the Frontier” thesis. Turner’s colonists—hunters, pioneers, and traders—were clearly male, and their female companions remained unmentioned. Turner’s one-sided analysis of the frontier, centered on conquering males, eroded with a general “reversal of the gaze” among historians who started to consider the views of conquered as well as subaltern individuals. With the advent of non-traditional history writing, female diaries of western migrants came to be considered as testimony of a specific experience of western migration in the last decades of the 20th century.

  • 2 Stella M. Drumm (ed.), Down the Santa Fe Trail and into Mexico–The Diary of Susan Shelby Magoffin 1 (...)
  • 3 Virginia Scharff, Twenty Thousand Roads—Women, Movement, and the West, Berkeley: University of Cali (...)
  • 4  Sandra Myres, op.cit., xvii.

2Susan Magoffin’s diary was first published in 1926, edited by historian Stella Drumm2 who supplied ample information about the people encountered on the trail, rendering the diarist invisible under “an avalanche of annotation” with footnotes creeping “from the bottom nearer and nearer to the top of page after page”3. In 1926, the focus of the historian was on the war and Manifest Destiny, and not on minority history. Nevertheless, the journal became a “minor classic”4. In 2003, Virginia Scharff redressed the balance somewhat and analyzed the diary from a feminist point of view, replacing Mrs. Magoffin in western history between Sacagawea and women’s suffrage, restoring the female connections of the text.

  • 5  Tasks detailed in Sandra Myres, op.cit., 123-127.

3As a testimony, Susan Magoffin’s diary has shortcomings; in the first weeks on the trail she plagiarized Josiah Gregg’s Commerce of the Prairies and saw what he claimed had to be seen, whether it was a prairie-dog town, a heat mirage or a romantic sight. Descriptive inclusions of this type, found also in letters, had the same non-essential function as sending postcards, a simple confirmation that one was there. Moreover, the seriousness of the political situation took second place behind last-minute shopping for “little articles” (1)and the young writer—at least while still on U.S. territory—felt oblivious to the dangers and implications of the war, barely noticing companies of dragoons catching up with the trading caravan. Indeed, the traveler’s discourse is interspersed with the stereotyped girlish language of 19th century journal writing, starting with the announcement that “the curtain raises now with a new scene”, the writer urging her “feeble pen”—while camping in mosquito country—to “put on thy specks and assist this full head to unburthen itself” (1, 31). Later, in her self-deprecating way, Susan Magoffin admitted that she was writing from the point of view of the “little circle” of her vision (112), leaving the reader to wonder about the value of her testimony. In any case, class was a strong influence on the diary; Susan Magoffin belonged to the happy few upper-class westering women. She had no children to take care of; the usual travel chores, such as setting up the camp, collecting buffalo chips when wood was missing, cooking over an open fire while singeing one’s dress, and doing the laundry5 were taken care of by the Magoffins’ three “tent servants” and by Jane, her personal attendant. Her tent was the portable version of the Victorian home, with a table, a bed with sheets, blankets, counterpanes, pillows, a carpet and chairs. She exhausted herself picking flowers, realized she could order the Mexican servants to do so for her and felt like a “wandering princess” (11-12).

  • 6  See Glenda Riley, The Female Frontier—A Comparative View of Women on the Prairie and the Plains, L (...)

4While there is evidence of class struggle in the diary, and of the dominant position of the Magoffins, I prefer to consider class, not from a Marxist point of view, but rather as a cultural trait, which is an accepted practice6. Focusing the analysis of the diary only on the imperialistic attitude of the traders, and their role in the conquest of New Mexico, would have obscured Susan Magoffin’s open-minded view of Others which is a major feature of her trip to Mexico. Within the multiple readings on which I rely, Susan’s responsibility as a young wife of her class who had to learn how to oversee servants, a task she called “the great bugbear to most housekeepers” (111), can be seen as an occupation rather than an ideological statement. This holds good for the section of the diary on which I focus. I am aware that if I had analyzed the journal as a whole, I would have had to deal more in depth with the relations between Mrs. Magoffin and her servants, who were undoubtedly suffering from wartime stress, and with the ways she quelled their squabbling and her maid’s alcohol consumption, behavior “correctable by the rod” (175).

  • 7 Miss Amelia Bloomer had not yet invented her biped fashion. See Glenda Riley, op.cit., 167-168.

5Similarly, although a feminist reading of female diaries is a way to deconstruct 19th century gender related constraints, such as Mrs. Magoffin’s obligation to excel at managing the servants in the hope for “one bright smile and big kiss” from her husband (111), it would give a partial picture of a woman who took the freedom to roam the countryside in Apache territory, and who socialized with people with whom it would not have been considered proper to be seen in her hometown. On the trail, the presence of women was a common experience. With other westering females, Susan shared problems unknown to male travelers, starting with her inadequate wardrobe7. Long skirts were still hampering Susan’s progression, especially when crossing a field full of burrs or a swarm of mosquitoes (33, 152). Holding her dress up “to her knees” when climbing the steep bank of a river or when fearing an attack of “bugs, worms, snakes” became common for Susan who set the knee as the absolute limit of decency, criticizing the Mexican women who pulled their—already short—dresses even higher (28, 95). By contrast, the diary’s picture of Susan’s gender-related helplessness is not merely a social construct but is also based on physical limitations such as her two pregnancies on the trip, one ending in a miscarriage and the other one in the death of her newborn. Moreover, the age difference with her 45-year-old husband also explains why she saw herself as her husband’s “little one”, and had to be protected from every danger, such as the mosquitoes, to the point where she felt caged “like an imprisoned creature frightened half to death” (112). At times she seemed totally inadequate on the trail, and her husband used her weakness, maybe without having planned it in the beginning, to get “double protection” from the military (63).

  • 8  John Faragher, Women and Men on the Overland Trail, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1 (...)

6The method I have chosen to adopt in order to analyze the value of Mrs Magoffin’s testimony is based on two techniques, a literary discourse analysis combined with a statistical content analysis. For reasons of space, I will focus my attention on the Santa Fe days of the diary (August 31 to October 7, 1846) because they describe a unique interaction between the various groups that had a stake in the government of what had become an occupied territory (102-149). Indeed if the American and Mexican traders and the officers of the “Army of the West” featured prominently, Susan Magoffin also met the conquered peoples of the land, Mexicans and Indians. Furthermore, the Santa Fe days have daily entries when action happened; the delay between an event and its recording was short and their value as testimony is higher than for reminiscences which tend to be shaped by what the writer thinks he/she is expected to write. For the content analysis, Faragher developed a method based on Ralph K. White’s theory of “testing written materials with a predetermined list of values […] noting each time the writer makes a statement that implies the employment of a given value”. The purpose of the method was to avoid the pitfalls of an analysis based solely on intuition and to provide a quantifying method for cultural discourse. While choosing the “values” to be examined remains a subjective procedure, the quantification indicates “the main concerns of the author of the narrative”8.

7The nine thematic categories which can be traced in the text of the Santa Fe days are as follows:

  • meeting people of her class and culture (with list of names if applicable);

  • meeting people of different class, same culture (with list of names if applicable);

  • meeting people of different culture, any class (with list of names if applicable);

  • meeting large parties of people (whose individual names are listed under 1 to 3);

  • extroverted description (of society, land);

  • integration into Mexican society, text written in Spanish in the diary (words or partial sentences);

  • mention of commerce;

  • introverted discourse;

  • key events mentioned.

  • 9 Ibid, 203.

8While Faragher uses a sentence-based content analysis, I will opt for a line-based analysis, using—for convenience—the printed text instead of the microform of the handwritten original or the original itself in the Beineke Library at Yale University. The first step of my content analysis was to determine the number of lines written per entry and to draw a graph superimposing the key events on the highs and lows. Extrapolating Faragher’s theory about the relevance of the frequency of occurrences9, I posit that the quantity of text written into the diary is in direct relation to the main concerns of the writer whether the entry is about a single event or secondary sub-events.

Graph 1: Lines per entry

Graph 1: Lines per entry

9Day one in Santa Fe (August 31) represents the highest peak with 107 lines, while the second peak (September 3)—with a moderately low 50-line length—corresponds to the assessment of the political situation in Santa Fe. The median portion of the Santa Fe days is marked by three peaks of even heights (60, 70, and 60 lines) corresponding to the three parties to honor the conquerors. After the last peak the entries peter out, stagnating on two different occurrences at level zero. Low points are days of sickness, such as September 2, when Samuel Magoffin is in bed, or days of depression of the writer who experienced a low herself, not finding anything interesting after the departure of the army, the center of her social life.

Day one in Santa Fe

  • 10 Virginia Scharff, op.cit., 50.

10Thirteen days had passed since Kearny’s invasion of the city when the Magoffin caravan entered Santa Fe. On August 31, Susan’s first Santa Fe day started under the protection of the “Star-spangled banner”; she was overjoyed to be in her “own house”, in a city she “once would have thought a folly to think of visiting”. She exuberantly claimed to be “the first American lady, who ha[d] come under such auspices” (102), a statement for which she has been much criticized10: her usage of the term “lady” excludes not only every female outside of her social class, but also all the women outside her culture. In her defense, it should be noted that by accepting such social classification, she was merely conforming to the social norm of the time, and it would be anachronistic to expect an ideology of all-encompassing female sisterhood from a 19-year old in 1846. Gradually she extended the meaning of “lady” to include Mexican women, mostly of the trading and ruling classes. Her (male) fellow travelers expressed an infinitely more disparaging view, excluding all the foreign females from the “lady” category, and dismissing also a mysterious woman from Illinois who apparently reached Santa Fe before Susan but who left no trace of her stay.

11The first description of Santa Fe blends scenery, religion, and politics. Since she only arrived late the night before, her awareness of the city remained sketchy and she referred only to one street, a river, and a rather rural intermingling of houses and cornfields. She did not see the church on the night she entered the city, but soon noticed the outlandish custom of bells “chiming […] all the time […] both night and day” (103). The strangeness of the place was alleviated by the fact that General Kearny had “taken entirepossession [my emphasis] of the city, seated himself in the former Governor’s chair, raised the American flag and [held] Santa Fe as a part of the United States” (103). These four actions, with the same fundamental meaning, highlight the importance of the American occupation. Nevertheless, in Susan’s eyes, the fact that the church bells still chimed was proof that the General had “not molested the habits, religion &c of the people”. She was therefore happy to imagine the occupied population as being “pleased with their truly republican governor” (103).

  • 11  Carey McWilliams, in Patricia Limerick (ed.), The Legacy of Conquest—The Unbroken Past of the Amer (...)

12After the overall description, combining the exotic differences with the safety represented by the American occupation, the second descriptive paragraph is devoted to the new home she calls nuestra casa, well in advance of the romanticizing period of the late 19th century when Spanish language terms, such as “haciendas, ranchos, vias, calles, and caminos proliferated”11. Susan describes, in the appreciative manner of a Santa-Fe-style decorator, her four-room New Mexican home with whitewashed adobe walls and dirt floors, cushioned benches against the walls of the great hall, and the bedroom with shutters, so well adapted to the local habit of the mid-day siesta. Today, adobe architecture has gained fame, but such was not the case in 1846, and Mrs. Magoffin’s joyful acceptance of a home made of compacted raw earth is therefore remarkable. The first dinner, on the night of her arrival, was a celebration of conquest when brother-in-law James Magoffin—the flamboyant negotiator representing President Polk—welcomed Susan and her husband with champagne and oysters. The social activities started on the first full day with a visit of General Kearny himself paying respects to young Mrs. Magoffin who hoped that she had not gone too far and that her compliments “were of the right kind and in their time and place”. Seeing reality as a medieval chivalric fantasy and seemingly ignoring that a war was going on, Susan Magoffin apparently took the formulaic phrases of the General at face value. Her diary gives a minute transcription of what she saw as a courtship between the knight and his lady, a metaphor for the alliance between the conquering army and the international traders:

He says as he is the Gov. now I must come under his government, and at the same time he places himself at my command, to serve me when I wish will be his pleasure &c. This I am sure is quite flattering, United States General No. 1 [Mrs. Magoffin’s emphasis] entirely at my disposal, ready and will feel himself flattered to be my servant (106-107).

Three parties in Santa Fe

13During her Santa Fe days, Susan was invited to three important parties, represented by the three median peaks of the graph. The occasions for the parties, as well as the guests listed, give a good insight into the power structure of those—Americans or Mexicans—who had a stake in the occupation. The first party, the army ball, “a Spanish ball given by the officers to the traders”, was reported in the diary on September 11, and happened the evening before (117-124). Susan’s affected lack of interest in such a trivial event is contradicted by the 66 lines she used to describe it in her diary. The first thing she noticed when entering the ballroom was the “stripes and stars” decoration, rather unusual for a “Spanish ball”; then she saw the outmoded clothes, making her feel superior as the fashion-conscious traveler.

  • 12  Josiah Gregg, Commerce of the Prairies, 1844-1845, vol. 1, 239-240, at (...)

14She enjoyed the attention of the military, but felt overwhelmed by the foreignness of the large number of Mexicans, in particular the Señoras and Señoritas dripping with countless ornaments. While in the twelve days since her arrival she had met Mexican women in her home, and practiced her Spanish, the Mexicans of the party are described in a grotesquely stereotyped way, starting with el Señor Vicario (the priest) who was short but wide, and Dona Tula, aka La Tules, who owned a gambling house and had the “fascinating manner […] to allure the wayward, inexperienced youth to the hall of final ruin”. This woman must have fascinated more than one American because she deserved a special mention by Josiah Gregg as being “a certain female of very loose habits”12. The third individually described Mexican among the partygoers was a “dark-eyed Señora with a human footstool”; the diarist’s bewilderment is shared by this reader at least as I have not found any other reference to the practice of using servants as furniture.

15The return invitation to the army ball was a dinner given by the Leitendorfers, a trading family, in honor of General Kearny and his principal officers, with an invitation to the Magoffins. The entry on September 19 runs 70 lines, making it the second highest peak in the graph after the first day in the city (134-137). Nevertheless, the details provided contained revealing omissions. Susan does not tell us much about Mrs. Leitendorfer; she met her at Bent’s Fort, misspelled her name, and described her as one of the “Señoritas” who shocked by combing her hair in public (61-62). We can only speculate whether she knew the woman was Doña Solidad Abreu, the daughter of a former governor of New Mexico, as the information given is derived from Stella Drumm’s notes. Neither Mrs. Magoffin, nor Stella Drumm, give any information about the two sisters of Solidad who were present at the dinner. Unlike most of the individuals peopling the footnotes who conform to what Virginia Scharff considers “sameness”, the Leitendorfers were outrageously different. According to Stella Drumm, the father of the two trading brothers was:

  • 13 Diary, 62n (note by Stella Drumm).

Gerasio Probasco Santuario, an Italian soldier of fortune who fought in many wars; while a prisoner at Milan he escaped to Switzerland, where […] he changed his name to John Leitendorfer13.

  • 14 Frank S. Edwards, A campaign in New Mexico with Col. Doniphan, Philadelphia: Care and Hart, 1847, 3 (...)

16The extraordinary lineage of the Leitendorfers makes one wonder whether there is a link between the professions of the father and the sons, a view which is corroborated by the fact that a certain “trader Speyers”, who was also on the Santa Fe trail with the Magoffins, is recorded in another source as “having ammunition and arms with him to sell to the Mexicans”14.

  • 15 The only exotic element of the traders’ dinner was the cinnamon custard desert which Susan immediat (...)

17The dinner itself, like most other meals, is described in great detail in the journal, allowing an interesting comparison between the traditional fare of blue corn tortillas with chili verde of her first New Mexican meal and the more standard food served by the trading families15. Events surrounding Kearny’s toast, confirmed the same impression. The General referred to “The U.S. and Mexico […] now united, may no one ever think of separating”. Apparently not everyone spoke English at the table and to be sure of complete understanding, Antoine Robidoux, Kearny’s translator, gave a Spanish version of the statement. Susan wrote that Mrs. Leitendorfer’s brother responded to the toast; however, she did not transcribe his words. We surmise that he consented and “cried out viva viva” with the other Mexican gentlemen around the table.

  • 16  Appointment, by General Kearny, of Civil Officers; September 22, 1846.

18In her report of the dinner, Susan did not comment on the announcement of the annexation of Mexico, signaling the normalcy of the statement, but expressed concern about the health of the General “who had been under the Dctor (sic) for some days past”, and who, undoubtedly needed all the strength he could muster to pursue the procedure of uniting the U.S. and Mexico. Another element that the young diarist did not know, or did not care to mention, was the soon-to-be confirmed appointment of her host, Eugene Leitendorfer, as auditor of public accounts of the government of New Mexico by General Kearny16, epitomizing the conquest by international traders.

  • 17 See Richard White: “It’s Your Misfortune and None of My Own”, A New History of the American West, N (...)

19The last party during Susan’s Santa Fe stay—reported in the September 24 entry, totaling 66 lines—was a ball “given to the Gen. & his Corps by the newly appointed officials and citizen merchants” at the Palace of the Governor, closing the triangle after the army ball and the traders’ ball (142-146). One of the tasks General Kearny had to accomplish after his conquest of New Mexico was to set up a territorial government, which he did on September 22, 1846.More than any other government established before statehood, the New Mexican territorial government had strong colonial characteristics, with a large number of appointees being (mostly American) traders, such as Governor Charles Bent, who had invested in the commercial resources of the land17.

20Once more the subjectivity of the account of the occasion is apparent. Susan was more interested in the army than in the government whose legitimacy she never questioned. The men named in the entry for the ball—Major Swords, Captains Turner, Johnson, Clark, Lieutenants Gilmer, Hammond, Warner, and Peck—were all military figures. While lack of interest in politics was common for her time and gender, her lively attempts to charm the military officers can be linked to her wish for protection further along the trip, and she “kept [her] tongue constantly going to keep them entertained”. The 19-year-old obviously enjoyed being the center of attention; courted by the military officers, she admired herself for being admired (“there is nothing more pleasing than to see a lady agreeable and entertaining in her conversation”). The notion that she might be going too far into impropriety was thus quickly set aside by the thought that her behavior could only please her husband.

  • 18 Bernard De Voto, The Year of Decision, 1846, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1942, 330.
  • 19  Virginia Scharff, op.cit., 38.
  • 20  See Janet Lecompte, “La Tules and the Americans”, Arizona and the West, Nr. 20, autumn, 1978, 215- (...)

21Her lighthearted conduct earned her a reputation of naïve girlishness. For Bernard De Voto she was “the belle of the occupation”18; while Virginia Scharff gives a more accurate picture of the woman she calls “ingénue and invader”19. The buzz around the young traderess is perhaps most significant for stressing the link between war and commerce. The last ball was far from being an unpretentious social event; rather it was an affair honoring the American government of an occupied city with most of the guests—at least the ones named in her diary—belonging to the military. The locals are not absent from the diary; the traderess chose her wardrobe to honor them, “a scarlet Canton crape shawl […] to be in trim with the Natives”, a color that, she was pleased to observe, attracted everyone’s attention. After her showy entrance, she noticed that few Mexican ladies attended the ball, a fact she explained with a mourning period for “an old gentleman [who had died] a few days since, the relation of half the city”. That there might be another reason for their absence, such as a wish not to be seen as associating too openly with a new government of uncertain future, remains unsaid. The Mexican ladies present are dismissed as hopelessly behind in matters of fashion, “looking exceedingly odd” because they had not adopted the bustle that was worn by every woman in “The States”. With skirt-shapes taking precedence over everything else, it not surprising that the only Mexican individually identified among the partygoers was Dona Tula (La Tules), who was in a sense also a trader, not the least because of her money-lending activities20.

The callers

22During her Santa Fe days Susan met people on an almost daily basis, either at parties, or as visitors in her home. Their names, and if applicable their titles, were recorded in each entry, and are used here for the content analysis.

Graph 2: Class and culture taxonomy

Graph 2: Class and culture taxonomy
  • 21  According to De Voto, the wagoner mistook the Magoffin home “for a different kind of house” and be (...)
  • 22 Diary, 134, 144.

23I use a class and culture taxonomy graph showing only two categories, although the background work was more detailed. One lists people of Susan’s class and culture, excluding her husband Samuel, while the other includes people of a different culture; in the latter category, it did not seem relevant to distinguish between different classes of people because the diarist herself did not make a clear distinction. To take two extreme cases, neither the little market girl nor the priest were treated as belonging to a specific social class, as even the usual consideration of wealth vs. poverty apparently did not apply. When considering Others, Susan Magoffin categorized people emotionally as endearing, neutral, and disliked individuals. The category “same culture, different class” has been omitted from the graph for lack of relevance; Susan mentioned only two people in that category, her servant Jane, and an American, who looked like a wagoner, and who entered her home by mistake (133)21. Moreover, the graph does not take into account the fact that some visitors are named (General Kearny, Dr. Masure) while others are not. However, such characters as “una Señora”, an officer from Baltimore, the General’s aide de camp, Mrs. Leitendorfer’s sister, the Comanche “ambassador” (113, 133, 142), being individualized, are counted in the graph. When visitors are mentioned collectively (“a little party of officers”, many “gentlemen of the city”)22 they are not taken into account; since the diarist usually relished in naming people, using a collective designation seems to decrease the importance of their presence.

24Not shown on the graph, but useful for the content analysis, are the thematic elements concerning extroverted/introverted discourse, as well as efforts at integration, use of Spanish language and mentions of commerce. Parties and visits are generally linked to extroverted discourse, while days without visitors, or with a low number of lines, tend to be introverted days. Efforts at integration occur whenever culturally different visitors are present, with a more important amount of Spanish language being used in the diary on those days. Mentions of commerce are linked to the diarist’s bargaining efforts with the market people who came to her home. There is a notable concordance between the peaks of graph 1 and graph 2 which is at least partly due to the obvious fact that the more people the diarist met, the more she had to write about. A day without visitors was a bad day, therefore not worth recording. On the other hand, an important day, such as September 3, when she reported Kearny’s “superhuman” feat in taking possession of the city merited fifty enthusiastic lines devoted to a meeting with only one person.

25The three peaks in the taxonomy graph also show variations in the makeup of people in each party. While for the army ball, her entry mentions five American officers and three Mexicans (excluding the person listed as “human footstool”), the traders’ ball showed a much larger proportion of foreigners because the army officers, not being individually listed, were not counted. The diarist never shied away from painstaking name-plus-title records; the fact that she named seven individuals who were either French-Canadian, such as Robidoux, or Mexicans, indicates her priorities and is a testimony to the transnational characteristics of the trading families. On the other hand, the government ball was a party with an overwhelming presence of the military, with ten officers being named, compared with only one Mexican, suggesting that—in the mind of the traders—the army was the government.

  • 23  Sandra Myres, op.cit., 130-132.

26Most of the people Susan mentioned belonged to her class and culture, and were army officers or traders, although the distinction was somewhat blurred when traders, such as her brother-in-law James Magoffin, were temporarily employed by the military. Among the 56 recorded visits, only one was by a female, the rapidly eclipsed lady from Illinois, who disappeared from the diary as soon as she was mentioned. Among the military men, some visitors called more than once, the most frequent being General Kearny (eight times) followed by Lieutenant Warner of the Topographical Engineers (seven times). Rank-and-file soldiers are almost invisible in Susan’s diary; while at first she welcomed the fact that the army camp was next to her home, she came to loathe their “everlasting noise […] from early dawn till late at night they are blowing their trumpets, whooping like Indians, or making some unheard of sounds, quite shocking to my delicate nerves” (110, 114). This is a good example of Susan Magoffin’s class-based taxonomy; the visitors of her class and culture were part of the normal experience of her upper-class life. She bonded easily with people who shared her upbringing, and even looked forward to an extravagant California adventure, toying with the idea of new home in a country that, on the day she wrote her diary, still belonged to Mexico. Nevertheless, whether they belonged to her class or not, whenever people, such as drunken officers, overstepped the bounds of propriety, they were excluded. The taxonomy graph shows that approximately half of the people mentioned in the Santa Fe days were Mexicans (27 out of 56), all were strangers to her cultural sphere and some did not belong to her class. The way Susan considered different cultures was part of the liberating experience westering women enjoyed while crossing the continent23. On the trail, she expected to be free from conventional restraint and wanted to see “such independence” despite the fact that she had every aspect of her life taken care of (10).

27Liberation also took the form of un-ladylike behavior, such as a siesta in the sun on a buffalo robe, or under the carriage if the weather was too warm (12, 49). Nevertheless some personal rules of acceptable behavior applied. On one very hot night, Susan took all her clothes off except her chemise, adding, “even that would have been sent off without regrets, had not modesty forbid (sic) me” (29). The sense of transgression stemmed from the fact that she was camping and only a shell of canvas protected her from the wilderness where wolves “howled” and Indians “lurked”. Liberation was also linked to the discovery of new activities such as fishing, fording rivers, riding, climbing mountains, and walking at night along the wagons; while not being improper, these activities were not part of her usual regimen. Freedom from restraint also applied to males for, after 40 days on the trail, Susan noticed her husband, a wealthy businessman, mounting “a bare-back horse without a bridle” and riding through “deep water with his feet drawn up” looking like a mill boy (56).

28No doubt, these experiences on the trail prepared Susan for her encounters with the alien population. While she could never get used to the heavy use of make-up—flour-paste and blood-red pigments—which made the “Spanish beauties” look “like [some]one from the tombs” (102), she befriended many foreign women who became acceptable companions. Even if all were not appropriate company, as was the case of the gambling hall owner La Tules, the simple fact that Susan attended parties with them implies that the social rules had been relaxed and allowed a situation that would have been impossible in her hometown setting.

29Altogether, the Santa Fe days mention 27 occurrences of meeting people of a different culture. Most of them were women with whom Susan discussed intimate family matters or exchanged advice about men. Some appear quite frequently, such as Doña Juliana/Julienne who was poor, but “a great friend of the Americans and especially to the Magoffins”. The diary does not report political discussions between two women, but the fact that Doña Juliana requested a cape pattern, “high in the neck” (107, 131)to walk the streets unmolested by the stare of American soldiers seems to suggest that she accepted the American norm. That the diary was written by a woman, mostly about women, makes it a testimony of transnational domesticity, with a constant exchange of patterns and recipes. Susan never passed up an occasion for a visit. For her, describing homes seemed a better alternative than driving into the war-zone, and she wished she could stay longer in the Chávez house near Albuquerque (154). Her appreciation of Mexican domesticity, and her innocent requests for recipes, probably saved her life later in war-torn El Paso where she stayed with the families of patriots taken hostage by General Doniphan of the American army during the stay of the traders in El Paso to safeguard the latter’s well being.

  • 24  Frank Edwards, op.cit., 47-48.

30Susan did not limit her friendship to the “ricos” of the country. She met a 6-year old market girl, who endeared herself to her American customer and who is described in effusive terms. The girl who remained an unnamed muchacha is mentioned four times, but is probably covered twice more by the collective term “market people”. Although the diary is a valuable testimony of domestic affairs and the relationship between traders and the army, the fact that Susan rarely left her house in Santa Fe made her oblivious to street news. She might not have been aware of the measles outbreak among the children of the city, a disease brought by the American army, something she was not told by her visitors. Edwards, of Doniphan’s command, who was aware of the origins of the highly contagious disease, gives a heartrending description of endless funeral processions24. Since the muchacha disappeared from the diary after September 18, almost three weeks before Susan’s departure, the question of her fate—whether she was kept at home by her mother, or worse—remains open.

31Among the people of different culture, Indians represented the ultimate Others. In the course of the diary, between Independence and El Paso, they appear sporadically as invisible threats; even the traditional traveler’s activity of inscribing one’s name on Pawnee Rock was marred by the fact that the area was “a good lurking place [for Indians] ever ready to fall upon any unfortunate trader” (40). Unseen, they were like bears, panthers or wolves, and in Apache territory they left a trace of graves along the trail, or captive orphans to be bought. Even their women were different to Susan, who was to say the least astonished when told that the Indian giving birth in the room below her at Bent’s Fort had gone bathing in the river with her baby half an hour afterwards (68). The first Indian Susan actually saw was “wearing only a breech clout”; then came “well armed warriors”, thought to be spies, hence the fantasies about buckling up her pistols and fighting “blood-thirsty Indians” (17, 67, 70). Her ambivalent feelings about Indians are exemplified by the words she wrote in the Jornada del Muerto when she quipped that “this is truly exciting times (sic)” although she knew that Apaches “always want[ed] the scalps” (180, 151).

32As their nakedness, or weaponry, made these Indians dangerous, it is surprising that Susan gladly extended her friendship to a “Comanche chief” in Santa Fe who is nevertheless mentioned only as “what’s-his-name”, and later as “my friend”. His conversation in English and Spanish was pleasant, and above all “he was well dressed in new boots, pants, hat, and white blanket-coat” (112-113) the latter being an acceptable exotic feature on the frontier. Of course, Susan never engaged in a conversation with half-naked Indians but, when the person to whom she was speaking was acceptably dressed, she was ready to accept deviations from the norm. For instance, the Indian’s misused words were deemed entertaining enough to be transcribed in the diary and she did not take offense when the Comanche asked her if she was “good” meaning “well” while remaining aware that in her social circle the opposite of a good woman was a bad woman. To dispel the remaining uneasiness that she might have felt—and that future readers from her family might feel—about an Indian calling on her when she was alone, she was careful to mention that he had official business in town and was carrying a letter to General Kearny, “something of a treaty” (113) which he showed to her. The reference to the treaty may suggest that the chief was the person identified as the Comanche “ambassador”, a friend of General Kearny’s, who came looking for him at the Magoffin house on September 23 (142).

  • 25 Marc Simmons,“History of the Pueblos Since 1821”, in Alfonso Ortiz (ed.), Handbook of North America (...)

33The absence of a name makes identification difficult, which is probably one of the reasons why Stella Drumm did not present the chief/ambassador in her footnotes. What we infer from the diary about the identity of the Comanche is rather disturbing. On October 10, 1846, when passing the pueblo of Sandia, Susan wrote that she visited her Indian friend, the one she met in Santa Fe, who was the head chief of his tribe (151). The Comanche chief, or “ambassador”, was therefore more likely a Pueblo seeking an alliance with the new authorities against the raiding Navajos25. In the Santa Fe days of her diary, Susan Magoffin had not yet mentioned the Pueblo tribes. She had named various Plains tribes, and recorded a Navajo raid on the New Mexican settlements, but was to be confronted with the Pueblos only later when they became gullible customers tricked into buying empty bottles for the price of full ones (153). The lack of an Indian name cannot be explained by the fact that she was unable to transcribe the Tiwa language because the man surely used a Spanish name for current affairs, and Susan often wrote full sentences in Spanish in her diary. Despite the diarist’s openness to foreign cultures, she seemed more inclined to forget Spanish names than American ones, at least in Santa Fe. The situation was different when she reached El Paso where most of her companions were Mexicans—leading the reader to believe that, in Santa Fe, she did not consider Mexicans and Indians as important as the new owners of the country.

Propaganda and the show of power: the Church and the Fort

34Among Susan’s social activities in Santa Fe, other than partying and receiving callers, two stand out with a special meaning; both took place under the control of General Kearny, involved leaving the home (something Susan never did un-chaperoned) and are ideologically linked. Moreover, they were deemed sufficiently important by the diarist to be transcribed into her journal on the day they happened.

  • 26 Diary, 113 (1st Sabbath), 126 (2nd Sabbath), 137 (3rd Sabbath).

35The first one was a propaganda effort by the occupying force. Susan counted the Sabbaths in Santa Fe, lamenting the fact that the military did not observe the sanctity of the day and that she did not know how and when to attend mass, until finally, on the third Sunday, Kearny, a Protestant like herself, invited her to come with him26. Her attitude about what to expect in a Catholic church—a touristy or a religious experience—is unclear. While she yearned for religious celebrations, the first thing she mentioned about the church was that she was seated “in a recess from whence [she] could see nothing”, which obviously did not prevent her from gathering as much as she could about the action around her. She described the kneeling, the standing up, the Latin that nobody—not even the priest—understood, and the sly glances in the Americans’ direction. Everything seemed alien to her Protestant background, the fandango music, the indecipherable pictures around the altar, and the statues. Her “first lesson in Catholicism” was closer to an ethnographic adventure than to worship but it taught her to accept religious otherness and opened the way for more regular church-going, later, in the war zone.

  • 27  William L. Marcy to General Kearny, June 3, 1846, House Executive Documents, 29th Congress, in Fre (...)
  • 28  Frank Edwards, op.cit.,64.
  • 29 Ibid.,123-124.

36Kearny’s attendance at mass can be seen as part of a sophisticated exercise in manipulation that contributed to his image as bloodless conqueror of New Mexico and to his “mission of conciliat[ing] the inhabitants, and render[ing] them friendly to the United States”27. One of the main concerns of the Mexicans was an attack on their religion by their Protestant invaders and Kearny did everything he could to dispel that fear, such as attending—with his officers carrying lighted candles—a procession honoring the Virgin Mary, while, according to his words, making a fool of himself (129-130). Unfortunately, no Mexican testimony is available regarding actions that would, today, be called PsyOps, but other Americans, such as Edwards, were keenly aware of the unusualness of such a tactic28. Using Catholicism as a propaganda tool “could not have been better calculated to allay the terror and dislike”29 of the Mexicans, even if the occasion was the funeral of Major Owens, an American Catholic trader, who fell at the battle of Sacramento, opening Chihuahua to the American forces.

37Three days after Susan’s first visit to church, Kearny invited her for a second propaganda activity taking her on a tour of the remodeled fort, the symbol of American power over Santa Fe. She was dazzled by the visit, from the moment Kearny picked her up “mounted on a splendid bay charger,” while husband Samuel was left at home (140-142). She was ready to admire everything, the soldiers saluting their General with respect “while he kindly returned the salute”, the artillery, the barracks—remembering to note that they were “formerly for Armijos troops”—and the fort proper. It was:

[s]ole master of the entire plain below. It is the most perfect view I ever saw. Not only every house in the city can be torn by the artillery to attoms (sic), but the wide plain beyond is exposed to the fullest view (140).

38Susan Magoffin was sufficiently interested in the technical details to remember them, and to transcribe them in her journal, noting dutifully the double wall, with an infilling of stones and mortar, and the location of the underground ammunition magazine. While the American improvements of the Mexican fort were considered in a positive light, Glorietta Park, the next stop on her tour with Kearny, needed “a Yankee’s ingenuity and Kentuckian’s taste […] to make it a beautiful place” (142). Transforming the new territory was not only a matter of politics and commerce, but of esthetics, and such a statement confers the diarist the first lady title in matters of fetishizing Santa Fe in the American way, making her the original creator of a tourist Mecca with its distinctively Americanized New Mexican style.

39At a personal level the visit to the fort represented the turning point on Susan’s trip into Mexico. For the innocent young woman this outing with Kearny was pleasurable, but foreshadowed the war she would witness and the events that would shape the rest of her trip, with the rebellion of the New Mexicans, the murder of the American Governor, and the end of the “bloodless conquest”. The day of the visit to the fort ended with the ball given by the new government to honor the military, the last joyful event recorded by the diarist. After Santa Fe, the caravan traveled south, into dangerous Apache territory, reaching El Paso. The entries in the diary became irregular with month-long lapses, bouts of disease, another pregnancy, descriptions of war-scarred Chihuahua, Saltillo, and Monterrey, the reloading of firearms in the Magoffin household, ending with a nightmarish militarized convoy into a country littered with the bones of Americans and burned-out wagons to reach the port of Mier, on the Rio Grande, where they would embark for Matamoras and “the States”.

40Because of the diarist’s locked-in view of the city, concentrating her vision on the people surrounding her and eliminating the outsiders, the enemies of the Americans, the Santa Fe days are different from the rest of the journal. They are a testimony to the link between trade and the military conquest of northern Mexico. Susan Magoffin’s interaction with the military and the transnational trading families gives a complete panorama of conquest, from the point of view of the conqueror. Use of statistics for content analysis corroborates discourse analysis and represents an interesting, albeit time consuming, tool for the integration of diaries into ideological discourse.

  • 30  Glenda Riley, op.cit., 10-11.
  • 31  Virginia Scharff, op.cit., 62.

41Class and gender, which appeared at first as limiting factors, hampering Mrs. Magoffin’s vision of commerce and politics, gradually emerged as assets. According to Riley’s theory of multiple frontiers, Susan participated in the “female frontier” as well as in the “trading frontier”30, giving her a rare double insight into a period of transition as well as a female vision of conquest. Her gender-oriented Manifest Destiny stressed the importance of housekeeping and her wartime homes signified the American penetration into Mexico. She was busy “sweeping, dusting, arranging and re-arranging […] furniture, making […] beds, ordering dinner” (112) earning her the title of housekeeper of Manifest Destiny31. On the other hand, domesticity, shared by American as well Mexican women, became a common ground establishing a link between the cultures. She was also part of the trading frontier, and while appearing oblivious to commercial matters, she learned Spanish, learned to haggle, started to become interested in the trading goods and kept shop herself.

42Politics are largely absent from the diary, and events recorded are usually related to potential threats. Under duress, Susan’s political consciousness awakened, first linked to moral considerations, when—after her miscarriage at Bent’s Fort—she considered warfare as “follies and wickedness” of man, condemning the invasion of Mexico that was about to begin (69). Political thought came later; in occupied El Paso she pondered the words of a Mexican patriot who believed George Washington would never have invaded a foreign country (211). By then she had become a diplomat of Manifest Destiny, demonstrating daily, at her domestic level, that she trusted the people who could have killed her.

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Works cited

Drumm Stella M. (ed.), Down the Santa Fe Trail and into Mexico—The Diary of Susan Shelby Magoffin 1846-1847, Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 2000 (1926).

Edwards Frank S., A Campaign in New Mexico with Col. Doniphan, Philadelphia: Care and Hart, 1847, at

Faragher John Mack, Women and Men on the Overland Trail, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1979.

Gregg Josiah, Commerce of the Prairies, 1844-1845, at

Lecompte Janet, “La Tules and the Americans”, Arizona and the West, Nr. 20, autumn, 1978, 215-230.

Limerick Patricia Nelson (ed.), The Legacy of Conquest—The Unbroken Past of the American West, New York: Norton, 1987.

Merk Frederick, Manifest Destiny and Mission in American History, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1995 (1963).

Myres Sandra L., Westering Women and the Frontier Experience—1800-1915, Albuquerque: UNM Press, 1999.

Riley, Glenda, The Female Frontier—A Comparative View of Women on the Prairie and the Plains, Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1982.

Scharff Virginia, Twenty Thousand Roads—Women, Movement, and the West, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.

Simmons Marc, “History of the Pueblos Since 1821”, in Alfonso Ortiz (ed.), Handbook of North American Indians, Vol. 9, Washington: Smithsonian Institution, 1979, 206-223.

De Voto Bernard, The Year of Decision, 1846, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1942.

Weber David J., The Mexican Frontier 1821-1846—The American Southwest under Mexico, Albuquerque: UNM Press, 1997 (1982).

White Richard, “It’s Your Misfortune and None of My Own”, A New History of the American West, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991, 155-157.

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1  Sandra Myres, Westering Women and the Frontier Experience—1800-1915, Albuquerque: UNM Press, 1999, xix.

2 Stella M. Drumm (ed.), Down the Santa Fe Trail and into Mexico–The Diary of Susan Shelby Magoffin 1846-1847, Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 2000 [1926]. Hereafter referred to as “Diary” in footnotes.

3 Virginia Scharff, Twenty Thousand Roads—Women, Movement, and the West, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003, 38-39.

4  Sandra Myres, op.cit., xvii.

5  Tasks detailed in Sandra Myres, op.cit., 123-127.

6  See Glenda Riley, The Female Frontier—A Comparative View of Women on the Prairie and the Plains, Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1982, 23 and Sandra Myres, op.cit., 135. Myres (10) considers Faragher’s analysis of female diaries in terms of class and sexual struggle as being Marxist and if I have adopted in modified form some of his methodology, I do not subscribe to his ideological stance.

7 Miss Amelia Bloomer had not yet invented her biped fashion. See Glenda Riley, op.cit., 167-168.

8  John Faragher, Women and Men on the Overland Trail, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1979, 198-203.

9 Ibid, 203.

10 Virginia Scharff, op.cit., 50.

11  Carey McWilliams, in Patricia Limerick (ed.), The Legacy of Conquest—The Unbroken Past of the American West, New York: Norton, 1987, 255.

12  Josiah Gregg, Commerce of the Prairies, 1844-1845, vol. 1, 239-240, at

13 Diary, 62n (note by Stella Drumm).

14 Frank S. Edwards, A campaign in New Mexico with Col. Doniphan, Philadelphia: Care and Hart, 1847, 37,

15 The only exotic element of the traders’ dinner was the cinnamon custard desert which Susan immediately recognized as a recipe worth keeping.

16  Appointment, by General Kearny, of Civil Officers; September 22, 1846.

17 See Richard White: “It’s Your Misfortune and None of My Own”, A New History of the American West, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991,155-157; Patricia Limerick, op.cit., 78-87.

18 Bernard De Voto, The Year of Decision, 1846, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1942, 330.

19  Virginia Scharff, op.cit., 38.

20  See Janet Lecompte, “La Tules and the Americans”, Arizona and the West, Nr. 20, autumn, 1978, 215-230.

21  According to De Voto, the wagoner mistook the Magoffin home “for a different kind of house” and believed Susan to be “a female whose existence she had heard whispers about”, (op.cit., 332). Nothing in the text vouches for such an interpretation.

22 Diary, 134, 144.

23  Sandra Myres, op.cit., 130-132.

24  Frank Edwards, op.cit., 47-48.

25 Marc Simmons,“History of the Pueblos Since 1821”, in Alfonso Ortiz (ed.), Handbook of North American Indians, Vol. 9, Washington: Smithsonian Institution, 1979, 206-223.

26 Diary, 113 (1st Sabbath), 126 (2nd Sabbath), 137 (3rd Sabbath).

27  William L. Marcy to General Kearny, June 3, 1846, House Executive Documents, 29th Congress, in Frederick Merk, Manifest Destiny and Mission in American History, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1995 [1963], 221-222.

28  Frank Edwards, op.cit.,64.

29 Ibid.,123-124.

30  Glenda Riley, op.cit., 10-11.

31  Virginia Scharff, op.cit., 62.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Graph 1: Lines per entry
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Titre Graph 2: Class and culture taxonomy
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Susanne Berthier-Foglar, « Susan Magoffin’s Santa Fe Days in 1846: The Value of Testimony »Revue LISA/LISA e-journal, Vol. II - n°4 | 2004, 162-182.

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Susanne Berthier-Foglar, « Susan Magoffin’s Santa Fe Days in 1846: The Value of Testimony »Revue LISA/LISA e-journal [En ligne], Vol. II - n°4 | 2004, mis en ligne le 03 novembre 2009, consulté le 30 juin 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Susanne Berthier-Foglar

Dr. (Grenoble, France)
Susanne Berthier-Foglar, maître de conférences, enseigne la civilisation américaine à l’Université Stendhal – Grenoble 3 et travaille sur les Amérindiens du Sud-Ouest des États-Unis avec une double approche culturelle et historique. Parmi ses sujets d’étude figurent le néo-chamanisme, les représentations de l’Indien chez Tony Hillerman, la réécriture de la conquête du Nouveau-Mexique par Rudolfo Anaya, la protection des zones naturelles et/ou sacrées, la critique sociale dans La vie aux trousses de Sherman Alexie et les casinos des Pueblos. Elle s’intéresse aussi au discours administratif dans des documents tels que Condition of the Indian Tribes de 1867 et les rapports du Board of Indian Commissioners. Inversant le point de vue, elle a également travaillé sur la visite de Buffalo Bill en France en 1889.

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