The Wild West of Yester-Year

The Courageous Mary Donoho

By Rachel Kovaciny


Can you imagine being the only woman on a two-month journey over land, accompanied by over three hundred men?

Or traveling almost nine hundred miles while walking on your own two feet or riding in a wooden wagon over what could barely be called a trail, much less a road? And doing all of that while caring for a nine-month-old baby?
When Mary Donoho accompanied her husband William over the Santa Fe Trail, she did all that. She became the first female US citizen to travel the entire trail going south from Missouri to New Mexico.

Mary, her husband William, and their nine-month-old daughter were part of a large wagon train that included traders, soldiers, and freight wagons. The wagon train was massive, made up of over three hundred people and a hundred wagons carrying nearly two hundred thousand dollars’ worth of trade goods. (That would be about six million dollars today.) William was one of many who invested trading items bound for what was then called Nuevo, Mexico. Items like bolts of fabric and farming tools were readily available in Missouri, but difficult to get in far-flung Santa Fe, which was part of the newly independent Mexican nation. Many people made vast fortunes trading along the Santa Fe Trail, and William and Mary Donoho intended to do the same.

Mary was born in 1807 to James and Lucy Dodson, who lived in Kentucky. Her family moved several times when she was growing up, finally settling in Missouri. There, Mary met William Donoho, and the two married in 1831, when Mary was twenty-four. Two years later, they left Missouri and headed for new lives hundreds of miles away. They would have to skirt around territory belonging to the Comanche, cross deserts and mountains, and face extreme weather. Mary, William, and their baby were hardy folks and handled the trip just fine.

In Santa Fe, Mary and William built an inn they called La Fonda. Because William left for months at a time on trading trips all across New Mexico, Mary managed the inn by herself. The Donohos lived in Santa Fe for several years, where Mary gave birth to three more children. She hosted public dances and other community events at the La Fonda, besides managing the hotel and caring for her family.

Unfortunately, in 1837, the Perez Rebellion made the area unsafe. Mexico’s President Santa Anna had appointed Colonel Alberto Perez the governor of New Mexico, but Perez was not from New Mexico. An outsider trying to govern them offended the Mexican citizens. Tensions escalated from grumbling to all-out rebellion, and the Donoho family fled to Texas for safety. 

They settled in Clarksville, where they built the Donoho Hotel. Mary birthed and raised two more children while managing their new hotel. William Donoho died in 1845 and did not leave a will that passed ownership of the hotel to his wife. Since it was uncommon for women to own property like a hotel at the time, Mary spent six years battling to legally retain ownership and control of the Donoho Hotel. She eventually won her court cases. Under her management, the hotel became renowned for her peerless hospitality and fine accommodations. 

Mary Donoho learned a valuable lesson from her husband’s mistake—when she died in 1880, she left a detailed, nine-page-long will that bequeathed everything to her son, James. He was her only remaining child—she had outlived all five of her daughters. James eventually sold the Donoho Hotel and returned to Santa Fe. In a newspaper interview there, he described his mother as a practical and intelligent businesswoman. One can only assume she was also courageous and determined to have endured and accomplished so much! ♦