Bent's Fort: Crossroads of Cultures on the Santa Fe Trail
A Woman at the Crossroads of Cultures
The year 1846 was an exciting one for eighteen-year-old Susan Shelby Magoffin. It was the year Susan would accompany her husband, Samuel, on a trading expedition to Mexico. It was also the year that Susan and Samuel Magoffin were expecting the arrival of their first baby.
The only overland route to Mexico was a bumpy dirt path called the Santa Fe Trail. It began at Independence, Missouri, and stretched south and west across the prairies to the Mexican town of Santa Fe. One of the few settlements along the trail was a trading post called Bent's Fort. The fort sat along the north bank of the Arkansas River in what is now the southeast corner of the state of Colorado. Until the United States went to war against Mexico, the Arkansas River formed part of the boundary between the two countries. Bent's Fort was an important stop on the Santa Fe Trail. Just a short distance beyond the fort the trail curved to the south, crossed the river, and entered Mexico. Little did Susan Magoffin suspect when she left Independence that her travels would be interrupted for twelve full days at Bent's Fort during the eventful summer of 1846.
The 800-mile (1,280-kilometer) Santa Fe Trail had been open since 1821, but few women from the United States had traveled it when Susan Magoffin accompanied her husband to Mexico. She wrote about the trip each day in a diary kept along the trail. "My journal tells a story tonight different from what it has ever done before," Susan wrote on an evening in June before her departure. "From the city of New York to the plains of Mexico, is a stride that I myself can scarcely realize. " Her diary has preserved for us a record of daily events along the Santa Fe Trail, including buffalo hunts through prairie grasses "so tall in some places as to conceal a man's waist." Susan's diary also gives us some of the best descriptions of Bent's Fort and the people of many cultures who met there.
As Susan wrote in her diary after a few days on the trail, "...now for a bit of my wonderful travels so far."
Susan Magoffin's journey on the Santa Fe Trail was anything but lonely. "We now numbered...quite a force," she wrote a few days out from the trailhead. Indeed, their trade goods filled fourteen wagons, each pulled by six yokes (pairs) of oxen. It took twenty men to drive the wagons and to manage the two horses, nine mules, and two hundred oxen. The Magoffins' personal belongings filled an additional wagon, and a covered carriage known as a dearborn carried their maid, Jane. Also traveling with Susan was her dog, named Ring. Susan described Ring as white with brown spots and of "noble descent." He proved to be a good watchdog along the trail.
Because Samuel Magoffin's business was successful, he and Susan were able to travel the prairies in some comfort. Susan rode in a private carriage. When the caravan stopped to make camp, three Mexican servants set up a tent for her and Samuel. Susan slept in her own bed, which she had brought from the East. The bed was unloaded from a wagon each evening and reloaded each morning. "It is the life of a wandering princess, mine," she boasted in her diary.
However, this privileged journey was not without irritations for her. "Snakes and mosquitoes," she admitted, "are the only disagreeable parts of my prairie life. " And at night Susan was glad to have Ring by her bed when wolves prowled close to camp. Her days on the trail echoed with "the cracking of whips, lowing of cattle, braying of mules," and the "whooping and hallowing of men." Most days blistered with heat. Driving rains on other days turned the trail to mud and forced the wagons to stop altogether. But, she wrote, "As bad as it all is, I enjoy it still. I look upon it as one of the varieties of life, and as that is always spice, of course, it must be enjoyed."
Along the Santa Fe Trail the Magoffins sometimes shared the pathway with other traders' wagons heading the other way. By chance, on the twelfth day of the trip, they met Charles Bent, who was riding east along the trail. He and his brother William and their friend Ceran St. Vrain operated Bent, St. Vrain, and Company and the Bent's Fort trading post. Charles was returning to Independence on company business. Susan took advantage of the chance meeting to ask Charles Bent to deliver a quickly written letter to her father "back in the states."
The Santa Fe Trail was busier than usual during the summer of 1846. There were 130 merchant wagons moving toward Santa Fe. All the traders on the trail that summer traveled with the knowledge that in May the United States had officially declared war against Mexico. In addition to the hardships of the trail, traders had to deal with the fear of becoming entangled in fighting between the armies of the two countries. The Magoffins at one point shared the trail with two companies of American soldiers working their way to Santa Fe.
It took the Magoffins forty-five difficult days on the trail to reach Bent's Fort. It is no wonder that on July 27, Susan was relieved to see its solid adobe walls rising above the banks of the Arkansas River. "Well it fills my idea of an ancient castle," she told her diary. And although Bent's Fort was really just a trading post, it did resemble the castle of an ancient king.
On July 27, 1846, a massive wooden gate in the east wall of the fort creaked on its hinges. Through the open gate and into the fort's central plaza walked Susan and Samuel Magoffin. Bent's Fort was teeming with people. "The shoeing of horses, the neighing and braying of mules, the crying of children, [and] the scolding and fighting of men," Susan complained, "are all enough to turn my head." Craftsmen worked noisily. Mexican women tended open fires from which came inviting aromas and the promise of a hot meal. All talked excitedly, greeting the fort's latest guests and asking for news from the East.
The fort provided sleeping quarters and hot meals for traders who might have camped out for months before reaching it. At Bent's Fort, craftsmen repaired wagons and travelers bought supplies. White trappers sold beaver pelts brought down from the Rocky Mountains. Mexican traders offered exotic goods from distant lands, and Native American hunters presented buffalo robes by the hundreds. All hoped for fair deals from the trading company of Bent and St. Vrain.
In addition, the fort had been contracted by the United States Army to house soldiers who had become ill marching or riding along the trail. These soldiers belonged to a part of the U.S. Army called the Army of the West. The recovering soldiers rested in their second-floor quarters or drilled halfheartedly in the dusty plaza.
Charles and William Bent and Ceran St. Vrain had been operating their business at the Bent's Fort location for fourteen years by the summer of Susan Magoffin's visit. The bulk of their early trading had been with white trappers, often called mountain men. By 1846, however, considerably more of the trade was with Native American tribes such as the Arapahos and the Cheyennes.
On July 30, 1846, Susan Magoffin passed her nineteenth birthday at Bent's Fort. But it was not to be a happy day. She told her diary, "I am sick!" "Strange sensations" in her head, back, and hips forced her to bed for the day. The Bents provided Susan and her husband with a large corner room on the second floor of the fort. Her own bed and other pieces of furniture were brought from the Magoffins' wagons to make her more comfortable. But even medicines given by a doctor at the fort failed to ease Susan's severe pains. It became obvious that the pains meant Susan would lose the baby she was expecting, and the child was born dead about midnight.
Susan, of course, was saddened by the loss of her baby. However, a few days later she was writing in her diary again, thinking of others at the fort and commenting on events. Susan wrote with great admiration about another woman at Bent's Fort, who gave birth to a healthy baby on the same day that she lost hers. "My situation was very different from that of an Indian woman in the room below me," she wrote. "She gave birth to a fine healthy baby...and in half an hour after she went to the River and bathed herself and it, and this she has continued each day since. It is truly astonishing what customs will do."
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