Last updated: March 1, 2023
“She was as brave as beautiful, as her feats of daring were the talk of the country. On several occasions she swam the Rio Grande on horseback when not a man would undertake the feat.”
On November 20, 1811, María de la Cruz Carmen Benavides, known as Carmel, was born into a New Mexican family with deep Spanish colonial roots. Her mother, María Guadalupe Baca, was part of the Spanish Baca family who colonized New Mexico. María Guadalupe was the child of don Juan Domingo Baca y Chavez and doña Ana Gertrudis Ortiz; both of whom were members of prominent and wealthy New Mexican families. As historian Mary Jean Cook put it, “The genealogy of Carmel Benavides is indeed an impressive who's who of early New Mexico history” (p. 10).
Carmel grew up in a home just steps from the Santa Fe Plaza, which became the western terminus of the Santa Fe Trail. Her home was passed down from generation to generation through her maternal grandmother’s family. Carmel kept the property even after leaving Santa Fe; she later sold it to New Mexico’s governor, L. Bradford Prince, and thereafter the property became known as Prince Plaza.
When she was just seventeen, Carmel began to associate with Antoine Robidoux, a French-Canadian fur trapper and Santa Fe merchant. Antoine was one of six brothers who dominated the fur trade in the Southwest from the 1820s to the 1840s. While from different cultures, it is likely that both Carmel and Robidoux shared some cultural practices including the Catholic faith and the ability to speak French and Spanish.
Though they never officially married, they remained partners throughout their lives, resulting in a common-law marriage. Their partnership was beneficial to both. Carmel’s connection with Robidoux led her to travel the Santa Fe Trail frequently. In addition to a lifetime of adventure, their marriage also brought Carmel a strong set of French Creole connections. Likewise, their partnership also allowed Robidoux to claim Mexican citizenship (which resulted in reduced taxes on trade goods, among other benefits) and gain strong familial connections which helped build trade networks from Mexico to the US. Marital connections like Carmel and Antoine’s played an important role in Southwestern trade by extending commercial networks and ensuring strong bonds across nations, states, and even continents.
It is possible that Carmel was the earliest woman of European descent to cross the Santa Fe Trail. Records of her travels are incomplete, but there is evidence that she was in both Missouri and Santa Fe at different points in her life, which likely means she crossed the trail. She may have crossed the trail six times, but given the limited historical accounts of her exact travels, the exact number could be higher or lower.
The birth of her daughter, Carmelete, in Missouri in the 1830s signals that Carmel likely crossed the Santa Fe Trail in the 1830s. While not much is known about this daughter beyond her birth, more is known about Carmel’s adopted daughter, Martina, whose mother was Carmel’s cousin. Martina’s mother and father passed away in 1827 and 1828, and—by 1841—she was listed as part of Carmel and Antoine’s household in the Santa Fe census. In 1847, Martina was married in St. Joseph, Missouri, signaling another possible Santa Fe Trail crossing for Carmel. Martina gave birth to a daughter named Amanda in 1852 and passed away soon after. Carmel cared for her granddaughter Amanda after Martina’s death.
Carmel, Antoine, and Amanda were living in St. Joseph, Missouri when Antoine passed away in 1860. Leaving Carmel the executer of his property and debts, Antoine lovingly referred to her as his “beloved wife Carmelletta.” After his passing, Carmel and Amanda travelled the trail back to Santa Fe.
Amanda married Christian Frederick Stollsteimer in 1866. His role as a Ute Indian agent in Colorado led Carmel and Amanda to move to Colorado, first to Conejos and later to Durango. Carmel passed away in Durango on January 29, 1889, at age 76.
An adventurous person, Carmel lived much of her life on either end of the Santa Fe Trail. Along with her husband, she was involved in trade and outfitting wagons for the trail. And while she may have been the first woman of European descent to traverse the trail, her role in connecting communities is perhaps more impressive. Despite some gaps in her story, we know that Carmel’s commitment to family brought people together across great distances.
- Cook, M. J. (1998). Carmel Benavides, An Early Santa Fe Trail Woman. Wagon Tracks, 13(1). Retrieved from https://digitalrepository.unm.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1091&context=wagon_tracks
- Levine, F. (2019).Desperately Seeking Carmel. El Palacio: Art, History, and Culture of the Southwest. Retrieved from https://www.elpalacio.org/2019/07/desperately-seeking-carmel/