For more than 100 years, 19-year-old Susan Magoffin, another trader’s wife who made the journey in 1846, was called the “First Lady of the Santa Fe Trail.” However, author, Marian Meyer, found evidence in the 1980s that Mary Donoho had traveled the trail 13 years earlier in 1833.
Mary Watt Dodson was born on November 24, 1807, to James Dodson and Lucy Davis Dodson in Kentucky. She was one of ten children.
Mary moved with her family from Kentucky to Alabama, back to Kentucky, and finally to Missouri. There, she married William Donoho in Columbia on November 27, 1831, at the age of 24. Over time, the couple would have six children.
She was described as a strong, fearless, intelligent, and practical woman. In 1833, she, along with her husband William, and their nine-month-old daughter, Mary Ann, left Independence, Missouri with a caravan, led by Captain William N. Wickliffe, which included 182 traders, 144 soldiers, and thousands of dollars in merchandise, to travel down the Santa Fe Trail to Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Upon their arrival, they lived in Santa Fe, where they had three more children, Susan, born in June 1834, Harriet in January 1835, and James in May 1837. These children were the first white children to claim New Mexico as their birthplace.
In the meantime, William was trading in New Mexico, making frequent trips to Taos, while Mary ran a hotel on the plaza by herself the majority of the time. There, she hosted public dances and saw to the needs of her lodgers while still caring for her four small children.
In 1835 Mexican president Antonio López de Santa Anna appointed a colonel in the Mexican Army, Albino Perez, as the governor of New Mexico. Area residents resented being ruled by a non-native unfamiliar with their needs and interests, which escalated into a revolt in 1837. At this time, several Santa Fe residents, concerned about the growing danger of outsiders in Santa Fe, urged the Donohos to return to Missouri.
Instead, William moved his family to Clarksville, Texas, where William and Mary would have two more children, Lacy in 1839 and Penelope in 1842. They again ran a hotel, which later served as a stagecoach stop. In 1842, Mary’s daughter, Harriet, died.
In September 1845, William died intestate, throwing Mary into a six-year court battle. With five children to support, she worked hard to keep their assets. She eventually reclaimed the rights to run the hotel and was able to sell some of the personal items.
William’s estate was settled in 1851, and 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 Donoho outlived all five of her daughters and died on January 12, 1880. Her estate was left to her only surviving child, James. James returned to Missouri five years later, traveling by train instead of the ox and mule-drawn wagons of his parents’ day.
While there, he was interviewed, and his story was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican under the headline: “First White Child Born in New Mexico.”
Meyer, Marian; Mary Donoho: New First Lady of the Santa Fe Trail, Ancient City Press, 1991.
Santa Fe Trail National Register of Historic Places Nomination