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Mary Donoho:

The Santa Fe Trail's New First Lady


Kelley Pounds


    "First White Child Born in New Mexico."  Little did historians realize how much Marian Meyer's discovery of that headline would change recorded history of the Santa Fe Trail.  Ms. Meyer first ran across the August 19, 1885 issue of The Santa Fe New Mexican on microfilm in 1984.  Though the headline intrigued her, she couldn't read the article's blurred print.  Making a note on a card, she intended to look the article up at another library.  Instead, she ended up filing the card in her box labeled: "Things To Do When I have Time."

    It wasn't until 1987, while working on a book about Santa Fe pioneer women, that Ms. Meyer ran across her note again as she searched for something else.  Serendipity grabbed her by the hand and led her to the History Library at the Museum of New Mexico, where she found that 1885 issue on much clearer microfilm.  What she read stunned her.  For decades historians believed that Susan Shelby Magoffin was the first American white woman to travel the Santa Fe Trail.  Evidence of her 1846 journey existed in her diary, first published in 1926.  But in this newspaper article, Ms. Meyer discovered Mary Donoho, a woman who crossed the Trail thirteen years before Susan Magoffin.  Mary left no diary.  Or if she did, it has yet to be discovered.  Instead, like most of us, she probably worked through busy days without considering the importance later generations might place on the full, though somewhat tragic life so typical of her time.

    Little is known of her early life, and it is not certain whether she was the first, second, or third of ten children, but Mary Watt Dodson was born November 24, 1807 in Kentucky.  Her father, James Dodson, was a doctor prone to wanderlust, and her mother Lucy Davis Dodson, was a distant relative of Jefferson Davis, who later became president of the Confederacy.

    Mary moved with her parents from Kentucky to Alabama, back to Kentucky, and finally to Missouri.  She married William Donoho in Columbia on November 27, 1831, at the age of twenty-four.  "[Mary Donoho] was a strong and fearless woman, intelligent and practical as well . . ."  The words of Bright Ray, author of Legends of the Red River Valley, 1941, appear to describe Mary eloquently.  Her father's inherited zeal for travel combined with personality traits stereotypical of women with red hair served her well, for in 1833 she and her husband left Independence, bound for Santa Fe.  The fact that she took her nine-month-old daughter, Mary Ann, on a commerce trail with a company made up of at least 182 traders and 144 soldiers, all men, attests to her intrepid nature. 

    Their son James claimed he and his older sister, Harriet, were born at La Fonda, the inn at the end of the trail, where scouts, trappers, plainsmen and traders met for gambling, drink, and lodging.  Thus Harriet and James, born in 1835 and 1837 respectively, were the first white children to claim New Mexico as their birthplace. 

    While William continued his trading ventures in New Mexico, making frequent trips to Taos, it has been suggested that Mary ran the hotel by herself the majority of the time, hosting public bailes (dances) and seeing to the needs of her lodgers even as she cared for her three small children.

    In 1835 Mexican president Santa Ana appointed a colonel in the Mexican Army, Albino Perez, as jefe politico of New Mexico.  New Mexicans resented being ruled by a non-native unfamiliar with their needs and interests.  Hostility escalated into mob rebellion in 1837, when the new Mexican constitution went into effect, imposing taxes New Mexicans had never before been forced to pay.  The revolution resulted in the assassination and beheading of Perez and the election of Jose Gonzales of Taos as governor.  By this time, the growing danger for outsiders in Santa Fe urged the Donohos to return to Missouri.

    Accompanying them were two women, Rachael Plummer and a Mrs. Harris, who had been captives of the Comanche.  William Donoho had secured their releases through acquaintances in Taos.  Mr. Donoho purchased a third Comanche captive as well, Sarah Horn, who returned to Missouri the following spring.

    Sarah Horn and Rachael Parker Plummer both wrote and published the stories of their capture and captivity, and Rachael's words revealed Mary Donoho's compassionate side.  "I have no language to express my gratitude to Mrs. Donoho.  I found in her a mother, a sister to condole with me in my misfortune . . . a friend . . . who was continually pouring the sweet oil of consolation into my wounded and trembling soul." 

    Rachael Parker Plummer may have gained Mary Donoho's special sympathy because of the heart-wrenching consequences of her capture.  Rachael had an eighteen-month-old son and was pregnant with her second child when the Comanches raided Fort Parker.   Rachael's nine-year-old cousin, Cynthia Ann Parker--mother of the famous chief Quanah Parker--was also taken in that raid.  Rachael witnessed the brutal beating of her eighteen-month-old son, James Pratt, whom she was permanently separated from soon after.   She also watched helplessly as her six-week-old baby was tortured and murdered.

    William Donoho escorted Rachel Plummer back to Texas, reuniting her with her husband and family.   Sadly, Rachael died a year after the reunion, her dream of seeing her son again unrealized.  Four years later, little James Pratt was returned to Rachael's father after seven years in captivity.

    While in Texas, it is believed that William Donoho traveled through the Red River country and stopped in Clarksville, where he visited William Becknell, the "father of the Santa Fe Trail."  William Donoho returned to Missouri, and in 1839 , Lucy D. Donoho was born.  Penelope followed on February 19, 1842.  That same year the Donohos enlarged a log house, and Mary, with the help of slaves inherited from her father's estate, once again engaged in the hotel business while it appears William interested himself in land deals and thoroughbred horses.

    Aside from the death of her father, Mary's first known brush with personal tragedy occurred on July 10, 1842, when seven-year-old Harriet died.  No obituary has been found, so the cause of her death is not known.  The youngest Donoho child, Susan, was born June 12, 1844.

    James died intestate fifteen months later, throwing Mary into a six-year battle with the courts.   At age thirty-seven, with five children to support, Mary did everything within her power to reclaim control of her life and her property.  The court allotted her the use of the hotel and its furnishings, along with a year's provisions of pork and corn.   But Mary needed money.  With the court's permission, she advertised an "Administratrix Sale" and sold horses, cattle, and sheep.  She also sold several personal items including furniture, two trunks, a gun, and one gold watch, which commanded $60--quite a sizable sum for the time.

    Mary's oldest child, Mary Ann, married prominent Clarksville merchant Gilbert Ragin on her fourteenth birthday.  That same year, two days before Christmas, seven-year-old Lucy died.  Once William's estate was settled in 1851, the Donoho hotel thrived under Mary's management, growing famous throughout the area for its fine accommodations, excellent food, and the hospitality of its proprietress.  Mary hosted parties and balls at the hotel as well, and it was at one of these that Penelope Donoho first met attorney John C. Burks.  Penelope was almost sixteen when she married Burks, but she died twenty months later of "puerperal developments."  The death of her infant son soon followed.  Fifteen-year-old Susan, Mary's youngest daughter, married John Burks scarcely four months after Penelope's death.  Another victim of childbirth complications, she died a year later.

    Mary Donoho outlived all five of her daughter,s for Mary Ann, the infant who once crossed the Santa Fe Trail with her mother and father, herself the mother of four children, died at age forty.  Resolved not tot leave her sizable estate in chaos upon her own death on January 12, 1880, Mary's instructions in her nine-page will left no room for misinterpretation.  Mary's repeated use of the word "my," and the fact that she orders James' inheritance bequeathed to his lawful descendants in the event of his death suggests her determination to maintain control in an era when women claimed so little.  Though it was common in that time period for women to marry young, one is left to wonder if Mary, who married somewhat late in life, pushed her daughters into early marriages because of some stigma she might have once suffered as an "old maid," or if she merely bowed to her daughters' wishes.  The latter seems unlikely, unless, perhaps, her daughters saw marriage as a way to gain control over their own fates.   At any rate, Mary Donoho asked her son James to ". . . have neat tombstones erected over the graves of my deceased husband and my five daughters . . . the expense to be borne by my estate."  It's curious to note that James chose to erect matching headstones for his five sisters, all inscribed with the Donoho name, but not that of their husbands.

    Mary Donoho had wanted to return to Santa Fe, but never realized her dream.  Five years after her death, her son James returned with his own family to his birthplace, traveling by train instead of the ox- and mule-drawn wagons of his parents' day.  While there he was interviewed, his story published in The Santa Fe New Mexican under the headline: "First White Child Born in New Mexico."


    Because Ms. Meyer recognized the importance of that headline, we now know that Susan Shelby Magoffin was not the first American white woman to cross the Santa Fe Trail.  Indeed, as Ms. Meyer suggests, she may have been the sixth.  Not only did Mary Donoho cross before her, but Mary's son James claimed that a white woman lived in Santa Fe during the 1830s, and at one time some controversy existed as to whether her child might have been the first white child born in New Mexico.  Therefore, Susan Magoffin was preceded by Mary Donoho, the unnamed woman, Rachael Plummer, Sarah Horn, and Mrs. Harris.

    Other women crossed the trail as well.  Carmel Benevides made the trip numerous times with her "husband" Joseph Robidou, Santa Fe trader and founder of St. Joseph, Missouri.  Six Spanish women, as part of a wealthy family banished from Mexico, traveled to the United States in 1831.  And at least two French women made their way to Chihuahua via the Santa Fe Trail at some point prior to 1844, when Josiah Gregg's The Commerce of the Prairies was first published. 

    Since Susan Magoffin was accompanied by her maid, it seems odd for her to support the claims of her fellow travelers that she was the first "American lady" to travel the trail.   However, Ms. Meyer suggests this could be because Jane was black, even though no mention of her ethnicity exists in Susan's diary. 

    In Jean M. Burroughs' fictionalized account of Susan Magoffin's life, titled Bride of the Santa Fe Trail, Jane is portrayed as a black woman who had cared for Susan since childhood.  If Burroughs' supposition is true, Jane might have been the first African American woman to travel the Santa Fe Trail all the way to Santa Fe.  "Black Charlotte," wife of Dick Green and slave to Charles Bent, preceded Jane at least to Bent's Fort, where she worked as a cook in the early 1840s.  According to David Lavender in Bent's Fort, published in 1954, Charlotte supposedly made the claim that she was the "only lady in de whole damn Indian country."  As Ms. Meyer and other historians have learned, our perceptions of the past can change from one day to the next.  Who knows how many important women are waiting to be discovered in dusty attics or on blurred microfilm.

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Sources: Mary Donoho: New First Lady of the Santa Fe Trail, by Marian Meyer.  1991  ISBN: 0-941270-69-6, Ancient City Press.  A Concise History of New Mexico, by L. Bradford Prince (governor of the Territory of New Mexico from 1889-1893) 1912

This article first appeared in the Jan/Feb/Mar 1998 issue of Calico Trails