Friday, December 22, 2023

The Case of the Curiously Convenient Coffin!


It was a normal trip for Kate Messervy Kingsbury – two months of dust, mud, gnats, mosquitoes and heat, plus the occasional swollen stream, wildfire, hailstorm, strong wind, blizzard and ever-present peril of Ute or Apache Indian attack. She disliked both of her previous treks, but knew that this, her third such punishing journey, offered the last, best hope for survival. Then, just east of Dodge City, Kansas her husband John opened a crate labeled “private stores” – and inside it was a zinc-lined casket.

“The Case of the Curiously Convenient Coffin!” True crime TV from CBS’s 48 Hours or NBC’s Dateline? No. Just another tale from the Santa Fe Trail – one of New Mexico’s most historic transportation avenues.

Each of New Mexico’s major eras – Pre-Columbian, Spanish Colonial, Mexican and United States – had its own major artery – the North-South Indigenous Trade Route, El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro, Santa Fe Trail and Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway (AT&SF.)

Long before the Europeans arrived the kingdoms and tribes of northern Mexico set up the NORTH-SOUTH INDIGENOUS TRADE ROUTE into present day Colorado to swap items such as turquoise, obsidian, salt and feathers with Native Americans.

Built from this original pathway EL CAMINO REAL was a 1,600 mile long road linking Mexico City and San Juan Pueblo, 40 miles north of Santa Fe. Used as a trade route by the Spanish Colonials from 1598 to 1821 and – since the mother country forbade business dealings with anyone else – THE ONLY source of commerce and culture into New Mexico.

SANTA FE TRAIL was an 800-mile wagon route connecting Missouri and Santa Fe between 1821 and 1880. (Mexico, unlike Spain, welcomed outside trade, especially from United States.) After the U.S. - Mexico War ended in 1848, it became THE highway that connected the more settled parts of the United States to the new southwest territories – used by merchants, the military, stagecoach lines, gold seekers, adventurers, missionaries and emigrants.

In 1866 railroad expansion began in the new state of Kansas, and by 1873, two different rail lines reached from there into Colorado. Three different railroads vied to serve the New Mexico market. The ATCHISON, TOPEKA & SANTA FE got there first in February 1880.

El Rancho de las Golondrinas Living History Museum, our volunteer gig, was a working ranch and camping stop on the Camino Real beginning around 1720. Its gateway exhibit area, Golondrinas Placita, is interpreted as such. The adjacent section, Baca Placita, depicts the era of the Santa Fe Trail from 1821 to 1846. Across the creek on the “Far Side” portrays late 19th century New Mexico after the arrival of the railroad.

We are given instruction and historical information on each period. And encouraged to educate ourselves further. To that end we also belong to the End of the Trail chapter of Santa Fe Trail Association (SFTA.) (Our branch’s name refers to its position as the terminus of the trade route – not to the age of its supporters.) Its membership includes many retired educators and others with an interest in studying, documenting and sharing their findings about the Trail in person and on paper. Plus local historians and archaeologists who also bring interesting subjects to the table. Such as “The Case of the Curiously Convenient Coffin!” – actual title “Death at the End of the Trail.” (Less tabloid-y. But still informative, like the lecture itself.)

Much of the SF Trail research is based on personal accounts and diaries of those who traveled that road. Among them the roadway’s founder, Captain William Becknell – here describing his virgin voyage. “The next day, after crossing a mountainous country, we arrived at Santa Fe and were received with apparent pleasure and joy. It is situated in a valley of the mountains, on a branch of the Rio del Norte [Rio Grande] … about two miles long and one mile wide, and compactly settled.”

Most travelers were merchants seeking to quickly sell their goods and return home – “a short-term enterprise, with all the attendant hardships and exposure to harm, so it held no place or attraction for women,” according to historian and co-founder of the SFTA Marc Simmons. “Notwithstanding, there was a significant number of women who faced the westering experience with unquenchable optimism and, indeed, if diaries can be accepted as barometers of true sentiment, there were some who embarked with downright eagerness. The change of routine, the excitement of prairie travel, and life in the open air soon won over others who had started with dread and apprehension.

“Marian [Sloan] Russell, perhaps best representative of such women, discovered on the trail to New Mexico an exhilarating adventure that shaped the future course of her life,” As Mrs Russell phrased it, “this was a land of enchantment, where gods walked in the cool of the evening.” (Possibly the first usage of New Mexico’s nickname.)

Additional chroniclers were nuns like Sister Blandina Segale of the Sisters of Charity – “Trinidad [Colorado] has lost its frontier aspect … Billy the Kid’s gang is dissolved … The remaining men who were ready at the least provocation or no provocation (except that of strong drink) to raise the trigger have settled down to domestic infelicity.” (Is that disappointment in her voice?)

Another group was wives of military officers assigned to the forts being established in the southwest during 1850s and 60s. Alice Blackwood Baldwin made her trip in the fortification’s ambulance – upscaled for comfort. “Soft, upholstered seats that were extended when required and served as beds at night … The floor was covered with straw, over which rugs were laid to keep out as much of the cold as possible.”

Merchants settling in New Mexico to establish permanent shops often took their wives and families. Samuel Magoffin brought his new 18-year-old bride Susan Shelby – the “properly educated” daughter of a wealthy plantation-owning family. Like Alice Baldwin she traveled west in relative luxury – “one Dearborn with two mules (this concern carries my maid), our own carriage with two more mules.” They “glamped” (in modern lingo) in a carpeted tent with a bed and mattress, table and chairs.

Her carriage rolled over and the tent collapsed during a violent storm. Susan took ill in Bent Fort, CO and one day after her 19th birthday suffered a miscarriage. Reaching Santa Fe on August 31 they moved into “quite a nice little place.” Two months later, and once again expecting, the couple headed to Mexico on the Camino Real. “I do think a woman emberaso [pregnant] has a hard time of it, some sickness all the time, heartburn, headache, cramps etc., after all this thing of marrying is not what it is cracked up to be.”

In July 1847 she gave birth to a son, who died shortly thereafter. Her diary ends two months later. Samuel sold the Santa Fe business and the couple moved to Kirkwood, Missouri where Susan gave birth to two daughters, then died in 1855 at age 28.

All these individual stories made us wonder about journeyers on the Trail from our former home state. We found but one – a memoir-writing merchant with a serendipitous two-degrees-of-separation connection to the aforementioned occupant of the zinc-lined coffin.

Born in Warren, CT “James Josiah Webb was one of the most prominent traders on the Santa Fe Trail from the 1840s into the early 1860s. He made 18 trips to Santa Fe as well as maintaining a store there.” Among his partners were William S. Messervy and John M. Kingsbury – brother and husband of the casket’s occupant. In 1839 Webb and Messervy opened a store in Santa Fe selling fabrics, groceries, housewares, and hardware obtained in the northern marketplaces. Kingsbury joined the firm in 1849 spending the majority of his time until 1861 in Santa Fe. He married Kate in 1853.

Prior to her marriage Kate was diagnosed with tuberculosis. “One prescribed therapy for the disease … was a regimen of travel to more healthful climates, where fresh air and rest supposedly provided much of the cure”

Kate moved to Santa Fe in 1854 and gave birth to a son in January 1855. According to correspondence between the two brothers-in-law the child was “not perfect.” Kingsbury, concerned that Kate’s health and stamina “were weary” from caring for their sick child, sent them both home to her family in Massachusetts, where sadly the boy died.

Kate’s doctor advised them, “her lungs are past cure. All that remains ... is to get her back again to Santa Fe if possible. Her friends think different. They say if we start she will never reach St. Louis … What am I to do? She is willing to start & wants to leave here.”

Mid-March 1857 Kate, John, her sister Eliza Ann and Facunda (her New Mexican maid) were on their way back to Santa Fe. James Josiah Webb described her last night, June 5, 1857.

“Mrs. Kingsbury was at no time improved in health on the whole route … then just after midnight she seemed to realize the end was close. She said, ‘is it possible that I have come this far on my way and must now take leave of you all?’ She then commended with perfect composure, and took leave of her sister and John. She wished to assure them that the course they had pursued was in every respect to her satisfaction, and asked forgiveness for every hasty expression, or unkind word that had passed her lips during her illness, her every wish had been complied with, and everything in the power of man had been done to promote her comfort.”

John had anticipated this sad possibility and wanted to give his wife a proper Christian burial rather than leaving her in an unprotected grave at the side of the Trail. He knew that neither embalming nor ice would be available. So Kate’s body was placed in the tightly-sealed zinc-lined box to slow down the rate of bodily decomposition. Then he and Eliza Ann accompanied it to Santa Fe, covering the 375 miles in a record 11 days. She was interred at Masons and Odd Fellows Cemetery, the only burying ground for people not of the Catholic faith. At the end of the 19th century, several old cemeteries were “decommissioned” and new ones placed outside of town. Sometime between 1890 and 1903, Kate’s remains were exhumed and moved to the new Odd Fellows Cemetery.

James Josiah Webb provided almost 20 years of retail service to New Mexico – most while living in Connecticut. He retired from the trade business in 1861 and died in Hamden, CT 28 years later.

The Trail Association says that Webb “left a comprehensive archive … more extensive than any other trader.” So excited about the new land, culture and people he was experiencing that he just had to share it.

Some people are like that you know.

You may ask – “Any idea how many died along the trail? No clue. No records of any kind relating to that were kept. But probably not many compared to the totality of those who traveled the Trail … many were buried in unmarked graves.” (Larry D. Short, President, SFTA)

Numerous diaries and journals of the above-mentioned travelers and others are available online or through and other booksellers – e.g. William Becknell, Marian Sloan Russell, James Josiah Webb.

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