This is a bicentennial article about a man who occupies a prominent place in American history, and whose life is tinged by myth. This man was born in a Kentucky log cabin in 1809. He rose from an early hard frontier life to national prominence. Abe Lincoln, you say? No, it’s Kit Carson.
Carson may have given the later mythmaker William F. Cody ideas about a life in the West as the stuff of legend. Compared to Carson, Buffalo Bill had a thin résumé, though he did a better job of marketing himself. Cody may have heard of or read an anecdote that appeared in Carson’s dictated (Carson was a lifelong illiterate) Autobiography (1859).
In 1849, Carson guided an army detachment to rescue a white captive named Ann White (they failed, she was killed) from Apaches. As they buried her, someone in Carson’s party found a book amidst her personal effects, a Dime Novel titled “Kit Carson: Prince of the Gold Hunters.” Passages were read to the scout that told of a gallant Carson coming to the rescue of a wagon train attacked by Indians. In his Autobiography Carson states, “I have much regretted the failure to save the life of so esteemed a lady.” So in an odd way the unlettered Carson bought into his own mythology. He truly felt guilty that he had let down the doomed woman by failing to appear in time to save the day. Though it was the considered opinion of many who knew him, such as John C. Fremont, that a similar feat wouldn’t have been beyond Carson’s abilities because Carson was a man who was “prompt, self sacrificing , and true” and possessed “great courage.”
Christopher Houston Carson entered life in Madison County, Kentucky, on Christmas Eve, 1809. He was one of nine children born to Lindsey and Rebecca Carson. Lindsey Carson was a Revolutionary War veteran and a widower who had six children from a first marriage, fifteen in all. Carson’s father was 64 when the famous scout was born.
Following the frontier, the Carsons moved to Franklin, Missouri Territory, when Kit was two. They bought farmland from two sons of Daniel Boone, the famous trailblazer himself living nearby in retirement. Here young Kit grew up, taking to the woods to learn hunting and trapping. He was apprenticed to a saddlemaker, a job that he detested, and he ran away in 1826 at sixteen.
Kit hired on as a laborer in the “Santa Fe trade”; his initial job was to tend to the livestock that accompanied the wagon caravans. In 1829, Carson accompanied the mountain man Ewing Young and a large trapping party to California, the place that would figure prominently in his life in a celebrity-making way. On this trip, in a skirmish with Apaches, Carson killed his first Indian, and scalped him. In the course of his life, Carson killed a number of people both Indian and Hispanic, mostly in the milieu of war or the violent background of the fur trade. In this he was a typically stoic man of his time. But the contemporary leftwing academic take on him as a genocidal monster is wrong.
By the 1830s Kit Carson was a first rate mountain man despite his diminutive stature (5 feet, 6 inches). Bernard DeVoto, in Across the Wide Missouri (1947), his Pulitzer Prize-winning history of the Rocky Mountain fur trade, calls Carson (along with Jim Bridger and Thomas Fitzpatrick) in his old-school bombastic style, “…the mountain man as master craftsman, partisan, explorer, conqueror, and maker and bequeather of the West.”
In his trapping years Carson ranged from the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of present New Mexico to the Northern Rockies. He attended a number of summer Rendezvous, those annual commercial bacchanals so important to the fur trade. As a member of a Rocky Mountain Fur Company brigade, he spent the winter of 1832-33 on the Salmon River of present Idaho with such mountain stalwarts as Bridger and Fitzpatrick. At the 1835 Green River Rendezvous in present western Wyoming, Carson fought a duel from horseback with a French-Canadian trapper named Joseph Chouinard over the affections of an Arapaho woman named “Singing Grass.” Kit shot Chouinard’s thumb off in the fight and sustained a flesh wound to his own head (historians disagree as to whether Carson then killed Chouinard), and afterwards married Singing Grass. She died in childbirth while delivering Carson’s second daughter a few years later. And by 1840 the fur trade suffered the economic demise noted by history. But a new chapter in Carson’s life was about to begin.
CARSON’S ASCENT INTO the national consciousness began after his 1842 introduction to John C. Fremont aboard a Missouri River steamboat. They were both unknown, but Fremont had recently married Jessie Benton, the politically savvy headstrong daughter of the powerful Missouri U.S. Senator Thomas Hart Benton, a progenitor of American Manifest Destiny and future enthusiastic proponent of the Mexican War. Fremont had great dreams about western exploration, and a new father-in-law who could aid in the realization of those dreams. Carson would participate in the first three of four future Fremont “expeditions.” These government-sponsored epic wanderings took Fremont and Carson from the Great Plains to the Pacific.
Along with Carson, Fremont employed a number of “retired” (and most still relatively young) mountain men on different journeys, including Fitzpatrick, Alexis Godey, Basil Lejeunesse, and William Sherley “Old Bill” Williams. Fremont — “The Pathfinder,” as the eastern press dubbed him — in his egotistical way always fancied himself an explorer in the Lewis and Clark mold. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The ex-mountain men in Fremont’s employ had over the previous twenty years tramped through the same country that Fremont supposedly “discovered.” For instance, the press hailed him as the discoverer of South Pass, while Fitzpatrick had been with the first party of American trappers to traverse that wide saddle in the Wyoming Rockies from the east in February, 1824. (It had actually been first crossed from the west by some of Wilson Price Hunt’s returning “Astorians” in 1812.) Since then it had been a regularly traveled route in the mountain trade even by the first use of wagons bound for the 1836 Rendezvous. The idea of Fremont discovering a place that he was guided to by people who first saw it decades earlier is laughable, but Carson went along with the charade. To him it was a job. South Pass had for twenty years been an integral reference point for what Bernard DeVoto called “the mountain man mind.” But the boss was certainly full of himself. DeVoto wrote extensively about Fremont in The Year of Decision: 1846, once playfully referring to him as “Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines.”
In the spring of 1842 the Fremont-Carson party went through South Pass and along the western slopes of the Wind River Mountains in present western Wyoming. Fremont insisted on climbing the 13,745 feet peak that bears his name today. He was convinced that it was the highest in the Rockies (so much for those 54 “Fourteeners” in present Colorado, and Fremont Peak isn’t even the loftiest in “the Winds,” Gannett Peak is at 13,804) and wanted to plant a American flag at the summit. The party accomplished this feat with some difficulty, so Captain Jinks could have his moment of glory. Carson might have thought him crazy, because his hard won experience had taught him to play it safe in rough country. It was dangerous not to. For years, he had roamed the western wilderness by well-worn Indian trails, broad river valleys, and through the lowest and most accessible mountain passes. Paradoxically, the mountain men were too smart to be mountaineers.
The second expedition in 1843 traveled through much of the Pacific Northwest and then proceeded to trespass in Mexican California. They returned east by a hard crossing of the Sierra Nevada in winter. Starvation threatened, and Carson saved the day by butchering some of the mules.
The third expedition beginning in 1845 is the one that catches the eye of historians. Fremont, Carson, and 55 men found themselves in California on the eve of the Mexican War. A credible historical conspiracy theory has Fremont as an agent provocateur in California with the blessing of his father-in-law, Senator Benton, and indeed of President James Polk himself.
Carson participated in a series of byzantine historical events beginning with Fremont’s support of the short-lived Bear Flag Republic and culminating with brilliant scouting service for General Stephen Watts Kearney at the Battle of San Pasqual, which essentially ceded California to the United States by force of arms. After carrying official dispatches to Washington, Carson was now famous enough to enjoy dinner with President and Mrs. Polk. Other than that he hated the capital, and nursed special dislikes for prying newspaper reporters and the “city” clothes that made him yearn for comfortable buckskins.
CARSON HAD MARRIED a young woman named Josefa Jaramillo in 1843. She was of a prominent Taos, New Mexico family, and brought him some local respectability, further enhanced by his reception into the Roman Catholic Church. The union produced eight children. The scout now pursued the life of a prosperous rancher, with interludes away as a much-in-demand guide as the surge of American Manifest Destiny got underway following the Mexican War, the discovery of gold in California, and the agrarian settlement of Oregon. And being an expert on Indians, Carson proved useful to the U.S. government in negotiations with certain Western tribes. Despite his illiteracy (was it dyslexia?), Carson was a well-spoken man with a talent for languages, eight in all. He spoke fluent Spanish, Navajo, Apache, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Paiute, Shoshone and Ute. Through the 1850s one of Carson’s sidelines was as a freelance U.S. government Indian agent for territorial New Mexico.
When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Carson supported the Union and was given a commission as a colonel in command of the First New Mexico Volunteers. Union forces there under Colonel Edward Canby were charged with defending the Southwest — including California — from Confederate incursions from Texas. In February 1862, Carson participated in the Battle of Valverde, America’s western-most Civil War engagement, which was a Confederate victory. But the Rebels, under Brigadier General Henry Sibley, lacked a supply line stretching back to Texas, and after some further skirmishes were literally starved into abandoning New Mexico.
In 1864, Carson was selected to campaign against the restive Navajos, and his ensuing conduct makes for the most controversial aspect of his career. On the orders of Brigadier General James Carleton, he was charged with the task of resettling the Indians on a reservation at Bosque Redondo, but they proved resistant, and the army responded with brutal force. Carson led 500 troops to attack the Navajos, conducting a scorched earth policy of fighting and burning villages, while the harried tribe fled. The Navajos had cultivated beautiful peach orchards at Canyon de Chelly, and these Carson ordered cut down. He eventually forced 8,000 of the Navajos onto “The Long Walk,” where over 300 died, and to this day is vilified by American Indians for these actions. He himself was home in Taos when the relocation actually occurred. His last military engagement was against hostile Indians (Kiowas, Comanches, Cheyennes) at the Battle of Adobe Walls in Texas in November, 1864. Ironically, near the end of his life, Carson told a reporter that he believed Indians should live on reservations in order to be better protected from the many-faceted depredations of whites.
Carson was decommissioned following the Civil War and retired to a new ranch in Colorado. He suffered ill health in the late 1860s, and died there in 1868 at the age of 58, a mere month after his wife Josefa’s own passing. Their side-by-side graves in Taos, New Mexico are a tourist draw.
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