Kit Carson

Kit Carson

Christopher "Kit" Carson was born on December 24, 1809, in Madison County, Kentucky, and as an infant was moved with his parents Lindsay and Rebecca Carson to the Missouri frontier. His father’s death forced him into early employment as an apprentice to a saddle maker and this limited his education.In 1826, he left home and followed the Santa Fe Trail to Taos, New Mexico. He soon developed skills as a hunter and guide, and accompanied the noted John C. Frémont on mapping expeditions in 1842 and 1843-1844. Unlike many in his line of work, Carson remained a quiet and temperate individual.In 1846, during the Mexican War, following the Battle of Los Angeles, Carson guided Stephen Kearny’s soldiers into California. This force was stopped by a Mexican army, but Carson and a few others made a harrowing escape through enemy lines and secured reinforcements from San Diego. Carson also served as a courier to the East during the war.Kit Carson later operated a ranch near Taos and in 1853 was made the U.S. In 1861, during the Civil War, Carson organized Union forces from New Mexico volunteers.Carson fought the Navajo with a special enthusiasm, conducting what amounted to total war against them. Such harshness stemmed from the Navajo refusal to accept assignment of a reservation.Eventually the traditional enemies of the Navajo (the Pueblo, Hopi, Zuni, and Utes) joined in the warfare. The result was the near-genocide of the Navajo, the remnants of whom were forced to make the “Long Walk” from Arizona to Fort Sumner, New Mexico.Kit Carson was a hero during his own lifetime and became the subject of the dime novel westerns of the 1860s and 1870s. Changing attitudes in more recent times have made Indian fighters less appealing figures.Towards the end of his life, Kit Carson served for a period as a brevet brigadier general in command of Fort Garland in Colorado. He died at Fort Lyon, Colorado, on May 23, 1868.


See Indian Wars Time Table.


Kit Carson: History and the Myth

In October 1849, a trader named James White, his wife Ann and their infant daughter were traveling on the Santa Fe Trail to New Mexico when they were attacked by a band of Apache. James was killed while Ann and the child were taken captive. Major William Grier and a company of Dragoons went in pursuit of the raiders. Their scout was Kit Carson whose sensational, bigger-than-life adventures were being chronicled in popular dime novels of the day.

On the twelfth day out they spotted a large camp and attacked. As the warriors were fleeing, one fired an arrow into the breast of Mrs. White. Her child was never found.

Mrs. White had been dead only a few minutes and her body was still warm. Among her possessions was a copy of the popular dime novel Kit Carson: Prince of the Gold Hunters, a story about Carson saving a beautiful woman from death at the hands of a band of Indians. Carson couldn’t read nor write and when the story was read to him, he muttered “Throw it in the fire!”

He was deeply shaken by the fact that this woman probably died hoping the famous scout would come to her rescue. Life doesn’t always imitate art. Unlike in the dime novels, he got there too late. It was said the incident haunted Carson for the rest of his life.

Related Posts

In 1849 Kit Carson rode as scout for a company of Dragoons in pursuit of&hellip

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November 17, 1849. Kit Carson led an army detachment to a Jicarilla Apache camp, trying&hellip


In this lesson, students learn about the life of Kit Carson, a famous frontiersman from the 1800s. They then sift through a series of statements about Kit Carson to untangle fact and myth.

Essential Question

How do we untangle myth from reality when studying the lives of popular historical figures?

Related Episode: Kit Carson Biography

While browsing through an estate sale, Charles Burns found what he thought could be a family heirloom - a first edition of The Life and Adventures of Kit Carson with a handwritten genealogy of the Carson family written on one of its pages. He asks host Tukufu Zuberi to find out if this book really did once sit on the bookshelf in frontiersman Kit Carson&rsquos home.

Suggested Grade Level

This lesson is written for grades 9-12, but can be adapted for grades 6-8. Suggestions for adapting the lesson for lower grades: limit the number of facts and myths assign students heterogeneous work groups introduce students to Kit Carson through video. Using these videos as factual examples and an excerpt from The Adventures of Kit Carson television show as a mythical example.

Suggested Unit of Study

This lesson is appropriate for an American History unit on westward expansion and the late 1800s.

Video:
The Real Kit Carson

Tukufu Zuberi meets with fellow detective Wes Cowan to discuss Kit Carson's background.

In this excerpt from the Kit Carson Biography investigation, History Detective Tukufu Zuberi meets with fellow detective Wes Cowan to discuss Kit Carson&rsquos background. They inspect a copy of Kit Carson&rsquos autobiography and confirm that it is a first edition of the book. Zuberi then meets with David Remly, a writer who has researched Kit Carson and his family extensively, who explains that it is very hard to tell the fact from the fiction in Carson&rsquos life due to his desire to keep his personal life private.

To download Facts and Myths of Kit Carson PowerPoint slideshow, click here.

To view The Two Sides of Kit Carson slideshow, click here.

Reproducibles:

Estimated Time Required

Hang the Facts and Myths of Kit Carson PowerPoint slideshow around the room, each slide on a separate sheet of paper.

Kit Carson was born in 1809 and left home when he was only a teenager to become a trapper in the West. He led expeditions throughout the West and became famous as a mountain man and fighter in the Indian Wars. Carson&rsquos relationship with Native Americans is complex. Though he lived with and married into the Arapaho and Cheyenne tribes, he was also responsible for forcing the Navajo off their land&mdasha transfer that led to many deaths. Carson was a hero in pulpy dime novels, both during his lifetime and after, making the truth of his personal life hard to separate from the mythic mountain ranger.

Discussion Questions

Have students watch the video The Real Kit Carson while taking notes on the following. Afterwards, use the following questions to assess comprehension and prompt discussion:

  • How did Kit Carson become famous?
  • What details does Kit Carson&rsquos Biography leave out?
  • How was he portrayed in popular fiction?
  • Why is it difficult to write a biography about Carson?
  • Think about what you already know about the Old West. What kinds of details in Carson&rsquos biography and the dime novels are likely to be exaggerated or made up?

After watching the excerpt from the History Detectives episode Kit Carson Biography, lead students in a discussion about The Wild West. Be sure to cover the settlers, the frontier, Native Americans, and cowboys.

  • What does &ldquoThe Wild West&rdquo means to you?
  • What is a &ldquomyth&rdquo? (a traditional story that explains a culture&rsquos origins)
  • Which elements of &ldquoThe Wild West&rdquo fall into the category of &ldquomyth&rdquo? Which elements represent reality? Which elements are both?
  • Why does the United States have mythology surrounding the Wild West at all? Why is it important to us that the West sound exciting and dangerous?

Tell students it is their job to separate the myth from the reality in Kit Carson&rsquos life. Begin by showing the students the two images that represent The Two Sides of Kit Carson

Lead a brief discussion about these images:

  • How are these images different?
  • Which image represents a mythical version of Carson? What details do you notice?
  • Which image represents a factual version of Carson? What details do you notice.

Then, direct students to classify the statements from the Facts and Myths of Kit Carson into &ldquoFact,&rdquo &ldquoMyth,&rdquo and &ldquoSome of Both.&rdquo (Note: slides 1-12 are facts, 13-21 are myth, and 22-27 are &ldquosome of both.&rdquo) Encourage students to consider the sources for each fact to help them make their decisions. You might print out the book cover and description from amazon.com or Google Books for each of the sources listed in the Powerpoint for students to consider when evaluating the facts and myths.

Students may take notes on the Who was the Real Kit Carson? reproducible.

  • Does this statement reflect any of the myths we just identified?
  • Does this statement sound exaggerated? Or is it a straightforward rendering of a situation?
  • What is the source for this statement? When was it written?
  • Is this a primary source? Is it trustworthy or exaggerated? Are all primary sources trustworthy?

After students have completed the activity, lead a whole-class discussion on the difficulty of separating fact and myth when it comes to the American West.

  • What did you record as a &ldquofact&rdquo? What as part of the &ldquomyth&rdquo? Why?
  • Which elements of Carson&rsquos character were &ldquoSome of Both&rdquo? What made them difficult to classify?
  • How did you figure out the difference between the facts and myth? Do you need any other information to confirm your thoughts?
  • Think about how you determined the difference between fact and fiction. How do you think historians determine &ldquofact&rdquo and &ldquomyth&rdquo when investigating figures like Kit Carson? Can a historian ever know if he is absolutely correct?


Going Further

Have students conduct further research into Kit Carson or another famous hero of the Wild West. Ask students to fill in the Wild West Dossier reproducible with information that represents what they believe to be the &ldquoreal&rdquo person. (See resources for possible research sources.) How did they separate fact from myth in their research?

More on History Detectives

Use the following episodes or lesson plans from History Detectives to support/enhance the teaching of this lesson in your classroom.

Suggestions

National History Standards

Historical Thinking

2. Historical Comprehension: The student comprehends a variety of historical sources

3. Historical Analysis and Interpretation: The student engages in historical analysis and interpretation

4. Historical Research Capabilities: The student conducts historical research

US History Content Standards for Grades 5-12

Era 4: Expansion and Reform (1801-1861))

  • Standard 1: United States territorial expansion between 1801 and 1861, and how it affected relations with external powers and Native Americans
  • Standard 2: How the industrial revolution, increasing immigration, the rapid expansion of slavery, and the westward movement changed the lives of Americans and led toward regional tensions

Era 6: the Development of the Industrial United States (1870-1900)

Common Core State Standards

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.6-8.1 Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.6-8.6 Identify aspects of a text that reveal an author&rsquos point of view or purpose (e.g., loaded language, inclusion or avoidance of particular facts).

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.6-8.8 Distinguish among fact, opinion, and reasoned judgment in a text.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.6-8.9 Analyze the relationship between a primary and secondary source on the same topic.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.9-10.1 Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, attending to such features as the date and origin of the information.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.9-10.6 Compare the point of view of two or more authors for how they treat the same or similar topics, including which details they include and emphasize in their respective accounts.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.9-10.9 Compare and contrast treatments of the same topic in several primary and secondary sources.

Grades 11-12

CCS.ELA-literacy.RH.11-12.1Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, connecting insights gained from specific details to an understanding of the text as a whole.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.3 Evaluate various explanations for actions or events and determine which explanation best accords with textual evidence, acknowledging where the text leaves matters uncertain.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.6 Evaluate authors&rsquo differing points of view on the same historical event or issue by assessing the authors&rsquo claims, reasoning, and evidence.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.8 Evaluate an author&rsquos premises, claims, and evidence by corroborating or challenging them with other information.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.9 Integrate information from diverse sources, both primary and secondary, into a coherent understanding of an idea or event, noting discrepancies among sources.


  • Lesson Plans
    • Abraham Lincoln: Man versus Legend
    • African American History: Activity Pack
    • African American History: Climbing the Wall
    • African American History: Honored as Heroes
    • African American History: Lunch Counter Closed
    • Baker's Gold
    • Cardboard History
    • Civil War: Activity Pack
    • Civil War: Before the War
    • Civil War: Blacks on the Battlefield
    • Civil War: Face Jug
    • Crack the Case: History's Toughest Mysteries
    • Cromwell Dixon
    • Evaluating Conflicting Evidence: Sultana
    • Family History: Activity Pack
    • Family History: On Your Honor
    • Family History: Those with Lofty Ideals
    • Family History: Treasure Troves
    • Home Sweet Home
    • Inventions
    • Myth of the West: Activity Pack
    • Myth of the West: Kit Carson to the Rescue
    • Myth of the West: Lonely But Free I’ll Be Found
    • Myth of the West: The Battle of the Washita
    • Primary Sources
    • The Sixties: Activity Pack
    • The Sixties: Dylan Plugs in and Sells Out
    • The Sixties: Hitsville USA
    • The Sixties: Notes from the Ho Chi Minh Trail
    • Think Like a Historian: A Viewing Guide
    • Using Primary Sources: Activity Pack
    • Using Primary Sources: Nazi Spy Ring Busted
    • Using Primary Sources: The Rogue's Gallery
    • Using Primary Sources: Wide Open Town
    • Women's History: Activity Pack
    • Women's History: Clara Barton
    • Women's History: Glass Windows & Glass Ceilings
    • Women's History: Parading Through History
    • WWII: Activity Pack
    • WWII: Detained
    • WWII: The Art of Persuasion
    • WWII: Up in the Air
    • 1000 Words
    • Before We Travel, We Research
    • Cemetery Information
    • Classification
    • Conceptualizing An Experiment
    • Document This
    • Going Back In Time
    • Interviewing A Parent
    • Observing
    • Online Resources
    • Predicting/Making a Hypothesis
    • Researching An Historical Site
    • Scavenger Hunt
    • Searching The Attic
    • Taking A Field Trip
    • Testing The Hypothesis
    • Who Knows Best
    • Writing An Historical Poem
    • Written In Stone

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    Kit Carson: ‘The most hated white guy in American history?’

    TAOS – Reaction to the Taos Town Council’s recent gesture aimed at making peace with the past by renaming Kit Carson Memorial Park shows that old wounds over Carson’s legacy are hardly cauterized.

    Native Americans and Taos activists have praised the move as long overdue, while historians and others see it as political correctness based on poor reading of history.

    “They are trying to put the values of the present day on what happened 150-160 years ago,” said John Carson, great-great-grandson of the trapper, Indian agent and Indian fighter. “It was a whole different world in the West when he was running around out there.”

    “Carson is often depicted as an Indian hater, and nothing could be further from the truth,” said best-selling author and Santa Fe resident Hampton Sides, who wrote the book “Blood and Thunder,” a warts-and-all depiction of Carson’s life.

    “He’s become the most hated white guy in American history. He has eclipsed Custer,” Sides said. “He has a memorable, catchy name. Kit Carson has become a bogey man for all tribes.”

    But five taoseños, including retired University of New Mexico anthropology professor Sylvia Rodriguez and former state District Judge Peggy Nelson, sent a letter thanking the council for its “courageous and unprecedented vote.”

    They wrote that for decades many locals have asked “why so many places in Taos and northern New Mexico were named for only one man, best known and celebrated for his role as a killer and subduer of Navajo and other Native people.”

    “The point is the act of naming the park, not to mention the entire national forest and so many other local venues for him, constituted an official proclamation that there is only one true version of history: that of the victors.”

    At a meeting Tuesday, the Taos council is expected to entertain pubic discussion on its decision about what’s now officially Red Willow Park, derived from the meaning of “Taos” in the Tiwa language of adjacent Taos Pueblo.

    Although the council published a legal notice that renaming the park was on its June 10 agenda, there was little public awareness that the issue was up for consideration until after the vote took place.

    The park has been named for Carson since before it was owned by the town. The 20-acre-site was Kit Carson State Park when the state turned it over to Taos in 1990.

    A U.S. soldier guards Navajos during The Long Walk of 1864. (Courtesy of newmexicohistory.org)

    Carson, who lived in Taos at a house that is now a museum, has become a lightning rod for criticism as the Old West portrayed in cowboys-and-Indians movies gave way to a more realistic view of the country’s 19th-century past. Carson’s role in The Long Walk, removing Navajos from their homeland to the Bosque Redondo in southeastern New Mexico, is his most infamous episode.

    As Sides’ “Blood and Thunder” recounts, Carson was the point man for carrying out a “scorched earth” plan devised by Brigadier General James Carleton under Abraham Lincoln’s Manifest Destiny policy, a response to repeated Navajo raids, including attacks on Spanish settlements and the Pueblo Indians.

    Excursions and treaties were unsuccessful so Carleton decided with Carson as his field commander to cut off Navajo food supplies and force them to relocate to Fort Sumner in New Mexico. The result was The Long Walk of 1864.

    Some 8,000 to 9,000 Navajos were marched 300 miles in winter to Bosque Redondo, where they spent four years struggling with food shortages and starvation, water problems, disease and Comanche raids before they were allowed to return to their ancestral lands. An estimated 3,000 or more Navajos died at the bosque or during the march some writers call this chapter in American history “the Navajo holocaust.”

    “History is messy and fraught with contradictions,” Sides said. “But one needs to remember that it was indeed a war. It was a war that had its genesis in centuries of brutal raiding and kidnapping between the Navajos and the Spanish, a cycle of violence that the U.S. Army was seeking, in its own flawed way, to end.”

    Carson actually tried to resign from the Navajo campaign but was turned down, Sides said. “He was definitely reluctant.”

    “If you are really looking for a villain, it’s further up the food chain,” Sides said, mentioning Lincoln and Carleton, the general running the military campaign.

    Kit Carson’s name will no longer be part of Taos’ downtown park. The Town Council has changed the name to Red Willow Park. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

    The Navajo Nation had no comment last week on the Taos council’s decision to drop Carson’s name from the park, a spokesman said.

    Navajo Adam Teller has a website about The Long Walk and lives in Chinle, Az. – just outside Canyon de Chelly, where Carson has never been forgiven for ordering the total obliteration of Navajo peach orchards consisting of thousands of trees (the orchards were “the pride of the Diné” and destroying them was “a final thumb in the eye” of the tribe, Sides writes in “Blood and Thunder”).

    Teller, a teacher who operates tours in Canyon de Chelly, said he was pleased by the Taos council’s decision. “That sounds like something very positive,” he said on Monday. “Not only does it make the healing process a lot easier, but just to know that people are sensitive.”

    Teller said his website has upset some. “I talk about how the real Kit Carson was responsible for a lot of lives taken at the time,” he said. “The public, they need to know the other (Navajo) side.”

    But Teller agrees that Carson was caught up in something bigger than he. “He was a man of his time. To me he was a soldier. He really didn’t have a choice in dealing with the Indians the way he wanted to,” Teller said. “He was a good man who wanted to trade and be friends with the Indians, but he had no choice as a blue coat.”

    Lyla June Johnston, a Taos native who now works for Verizon in Southern California as a liaison with Indian communities, started the Taos Peace and Reconciliation Council, which supported the name change. “When I was a little girl, I always asked myself why would we name our park after a symbol of armed conflict and oppression of indigenous people,” said Johnston, whose mother was Navajo and father was Cheyenne and Anglo.

    “I have forgiven the past in my heart as a Navajo woman, and I do not judge Kit Carson as a man,” she added. “But I do understand the symbol he has become.”

    Chris Pieper, who runs a Taos outdoor apparel and equipment store, was a leader in the push to take Carson’s name off the park. “It has nothing to do with Kit Carson,” he maintained. “It has to do with changing a symbol of war and oppression to a symbol of peace and unity.”

    “This is about extending a healing hand not to just the Pueblos but to Native people throughout the West.”

    Author Hampton Sides poses next to a showcase at the Kit Carson Home and Museum in Taos in 2006 after the release of his book about Carson, “Blood and Thunder.” Sides says Carson has unjustifiably “become the most hated white guy in American history.” (AP Photo/Jeff Geissler)

    History lesson needed?

    Paul Hutton, a University of New Mexico history professor, believes remedial lessons are in order for the Taos council. “Let’s just say I don’t believe their decision was well grounded in history,” he said.

    Sides and Hutton said Carson befriended and worked on behalf of many tribes, especially the Utes and Pueblo groups. “He was one of the best friends the Indians had,” Hutton said.

    When he died in 1868, Carson was married to Josefa Jaramillo, from a prominent Taos family. Although he couldn’t write his own name, he was fluent in Spanish and French and spoke several Indian languages. Carson had two Indian wives before Josefa.

    “He is sort of the poster boy for multiculturalism,” Hutton said. “He represents the blending of racial groups in the American West, especially here in New Mexico, where it gives us our unique culture.”

    Hutton said that, before he moved to the state, he didn’t “realize Kit Carson was so despised by groups in New Mexico.”

    “Here we celebrate so much Billy the Kid, who was an outlaw, yet we run away from Kit Carson,” he said.

    Sides believes the Taos council caved to pressure when a group of taoseños made their presentation to the council before the 3-1 vote declaring the park will now be Red Willow Park.

    “It’s kind of a shame when a political group succumbs to pressure to change a name,” Sides said. “I am not absolutely sure they know the history of Kit Carson.”

    As for the new Red Willow name, he said: “It’s bland, it’s safe” and that “to sidestep the messiness of the past, the town has picked … an eminently forgettable name for its gathering place.”

    The Kit Carson Home and Museum in Taos has many artifacts from the life of the famous and controversial Old West figure. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

    But the name does have local and cultural significance: Taos Pueblo refers to its people as the Red Willow People. “Red willow is a flexible plant that can be woven together,” Pieper said, “a plant that is both healing and represents working together.”

    Martin Jagers, president of the board of directors for the Kit Carson Home and Museum in Taos, thinks the council acted in haste.

    The board of the Carson home “had formalized an offer to serve as a resource to the town in this discussion,” Jagers said in an e-mail. “Unfortunately the action was made without asking for any input. It is disappointing that the Taos Town leaders did not make the effort to study and perhaps understand history before judging it.”

    On the other side, the group that includes anthropology professor Rodriguez and ex-judge Nelson applauded the council for not dilly-dallying. “Actually, this debate has been going on for decades, but until now, no one in power ever gave it a serious and respectful hearing,” they say in their letter to the council. “We suspect that if you had not acted quickly, the discussion would have devolved into endless bickering that could defer a decision indefinitely.”

    Most seem to agree that Carson was hard to pigeonhole. The Rodriguez group said their point is not “that Kit Carson was an evil man.”

    “He was a complex mix of contradictory qualities, who committed constructive as well as destructive acts during his lifetime,” their letter says.

    John Carson, great-great-grandson of Kit Carson, says what’s most important about his famous ancestor “is what people who actually knew him thought of him — all people, all races, all tribes — as opposed to what people today may think.” (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

    Does great-great-grandson John Carson – a park ranger at Bent’s Old Fort National Historic Site, a historic trading post in La Junta, Colo., that Kit Carson knew well – remain proud of the relative that gave him his surname?

    “Damn right, and that you can make a direct quote,” he answered.

    “Overall, I would love to sit down and talk to the guy. He’s human – it’s not like he was walking around in a halo or anything.”

    John Carson, who performs Chautauqua presentations as Kit, believes what’s most important “is what people who actually knew him thought of him – all people, all races, all tribes – as opposed to what people today may think.”

    He summed up the issue with a quote attributed to Kit Carson: “I don’t know if I did right, I don’t know if I did wrong, I did the best I could.”

    Sides sees a plus side to the debate over the name of the Taos park, which has gone national. “Any kind of exposure like this that gets people talking about history in a serious way is not all bad,” he said.

    “All the controversy would probably be lost on Carson,” Sides added.

    By all accounts he was a shy man who eschewed the limelight but could be moved to quick, definitive violence in certain circumstances.

    “Carson himself, whatever his faults, was not a glory hound,” Sides said. “He is not sitting, rolling in his grave bothered by this. He’s probably surprised they named a park after him at all.”


    Kit Carson: The Legendary Frontiersman Remains an American Hero

    On May 23, 1868, at 4:25 p.m. in the Fort Lyon quarters of Assistant U.S. Surgeon H.K. Tilden, an aneurysm ruptured into Kit Carson’s trachea. ‘Doctor, compadre, adios,’ Carson cried out. Blood gushed from his mouth. A few moments later, the flag at Fort Lyon, in southern Colorado Territory, was lowered to half-mast.

    Later that day, the wife of an officer used her wedding dress to make a lining for the plain, rough wood of Kit Carson’s casket. No flowers grew near the fort, which was located on the arid plain. Wives of other officers removed the silk flowers from their hats and placed them atop the casket.

    The following day, a military escort took Carson’s body across the Arkansas River to Boggsville and buried him beside his beloved Josefa, who had died in childbirth the previous month. Their remains would be brought to Taos, New Mexico Territory, a year later for final burial. To the men who had served under him, Kit Carson would always be known as ‘the General.’

    How did an illiterate backwoodsman and trapper become one of the most hallowed men on the frontier? What elusive qualities did he possess to make him an even greater celebrity in his era than John Frémont, Bill Bridger, Marcus Whitman, Father Pierre Jean De Smet and General James Carleton?

    Historian Edgar L. Hewett once wrote, ‘[Carson] fixed in my mind a pattern for heroes…of quiet, steel-nerved courage…an ideal of what a real man should be.’ Humble, unspoiled by the adoration of a young nation hungry for adventure and heroes, Kit Carson embodied the best qualities of the American frontier. He was reverent, polite, courageous to a fault, ingenious, resourceful, respectful of all cultures, and loyal to his country. He blazed a path of glory that made him the most legendary of the pre­Civil War Western frontiersmen.

    Colonel Edward W. Wynkoop described his friend: ‘Kit Carson was five feet five and one half-inches tall, weighed about 140 pounds, of nervy, iron temperament, squarely built, slightly bow-legged, and those members apparently too short for his body. But, his head and face made up for all the imperfections of the rest of his person. His head was large and well-shaped with yellow straight hair, worn long, falling on his shoulders. His face was fair and smooth as a woman’s with high cheekbones, straight nose, a mouth with a firm, but somewhat sad expression, a keen, deep-set but beautiful, mild blue eye, which could become terrible under some circumstances, and like the warning of the rattlesnake, gave notice of attack. Though quick-sighted, he was slow and soft of speech, and posed great natural modesty.’

    Christopher Houston Carson was born on Christmas Eve, 1809, in a little log cabin on Tate’s Creek in Madison County, Ky. His Scotch-Irish beginnings were humble. His father, Lindsey, was a veteran of the Revolutionary War who fought with Wade Hampton in the Carolinas. After the war, Lindsey had followed in the footsteps of frontiersman Daniel Boone and gone to Kentucky. When Christopher Houston was born, his father decided the nickname ‘Kit’ fit him better, and the name stuck.

    Kit was still a toddler when the family moved farther west, to Missouri, where they settled in Boone’s Lick, Howard County. Kit’s oldest brother, William, strengthened the ties with the Boone family by marrying Daniel’s great-niece. The couple’s daughter Adaline became Kit’s favorite childhood playmate.

    Indians were a constant problem on the Missouri frontier, and early on, Kit was taught the skills of a man. He hunted with his father and older brothers and learned the ways of the frontiersman. His ‘book learning’ was considered far less important than picking up basic survival skills.

    In his autobiography, Carson recalled those days: ‘I was a young boy in the school house when the cry came, Injuns! I jumped to my rifle and threw down my spelling book, and thar it lies.’ He never returned to school. As he grew in stature and reputation, Kit learned to compensate for his lack of a formal education by employing a series of good secretaries and adjutants.

    Carson’s inability to read and write did not make him an ‘unlearned’ man. He enjoyed having books read to him. He was fond of the poetry of Byron and thoroughly enjoyed a biography of William the Conqueror. When Carson discovered William’s favorite oath was ‘By the splendor of God,’ he embraced it as his own. That was the closest thing to profanity anyone ever heard Kit utter. Wynkoop, a lifelong friend, observed: ‘He was temperate, using little liquor and never to excess. But, he was a great smoker.’

    Carson was more at home in Spanish than in English. He adopted the dialect of his aristocratic third wife, Josefa, and Spanish was the language he and his friends spoke at their homes in Taos. Carson was also fluent in a third language, French. As a trapper and frontiersman, he could also converse in Navajo, Apache, Comanche, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Crow, Blackfoot, Shoshone, Piute and Ute, and he also knew the sign language used by mountain men throughout the West.

    Young Kit’s life changed forever in 1818 when his father was killed. Two weeks later his mother gave birth to her 10th child. When she remarried, Kit couldn’t get along with his stepfather and became a wild and headstrong youth. His stepfather apprenticed him to a saddlemaker, David Workman, in Franklin, Mo., in 1824.

    In those days, Franklin was the starting and stopping point for anyone traveling west. Kit heard many of the wild and romantic tales of the new land from trappers and explorers who patronized Workman’s shop. The lure of the West was too strong for the young man. He ran away in 1826, joining a trading party headed toward the Rocky Mountains.

    In 1827 Carson arrived in Taos, a northern outpost of Mexico. The town, which was popular with traders and trappers, would become his home. Carson worked as an interpreter down in Chihuahua and became a teamster at the Santa Rita copper mine. In Taos he met veteran mountain man Ewing Young, and in 1829 he joined Young’s trapping expedition.

    During the next five years, Carson had a series of extraordinary adventures and gained valuable knowledge about the Western wilderness and the native people and animals who occupied it. He traveled from Taos to California and as far north as present-day Idaho. He fought Indians, the elements and, occasionally, other trappers. He crossed the vast Mojave Desert, where he nearly died of thirst and starvation. In the high Rocky Mountains he experienced blizzards and frostbite. He learned to exist on any food he could find–horse, pregnant mule and sometimes dog.

    Kit Carson’s friends and associates from this part of his life read like a who’s who of the American frontier. Jim Bridger and Tom ‘Broken Hand’ Fitzpatrick were among his trapping partners. He knew the famous missionary Dr. Marcus Whitman. William Bent, who built what would become known as Bent’s Fort, became a close personal friend and brother-in-law. Lucian Maxwell, who married the niece of the Emperor Maximilian of Mexico, was Carson’s best friend.

    Trapping was a lucrative trade. In Taos in April 1831, Carson received several hundred dollars for his role in the Young expedition. It was the most money he had ever seen in his life. ‘Each of us, having received several hundred dollars, we passed the time gloriously, spending our money freely–never thinking that our lives were risked gaining it,’ Carson later recalled. ‘Our only idea was to get rid of the dross as soon as possible, but at the same time have as much pleasure and enjoyment as the country would afford.’

    The Reverend Samuel Parker traveled west (to present-day Idaho) to meet the mountain men and trappers. In his 1835 book A Journal of an Exploring Tour Beyond the Rocky Mountains, he told of Carson’s daring exploits. It marked the first of many times that Carson’s name would appear in print. That same year he was wounded in a fight with Blackfoot Indians.

    In the summer of 1836, Kit Carson and a French trapper became rivals for the affections of a pretty Arapaho girl named Waanibe. In a scene reminiscent of a medieval joust, the two men fought a duel. Carson won. He and Waanibe, also called Alice, were married. They had one daughter, Adaline, but in 1840, Alice died giving birth to a second child.

    Adaline needed a mother, and Kit soon married a Cheyenne woman, Making-Out-Road. But in short order, she divorced him Indian style. Kit came home one day to find his belongings and Adaline outside. Making-Out-Road went home to her family. At the 1840 rendezvous–which was the last one of those midsummer trapper/trader gatherings held during the heyday of the mountain man–Carson asked Father De Smet, a Catholic missionary, to baptize Adaline. Two years later, Father Antonio Jose Martinez baptized Carson, who left the Presbyterian Church to become Catholic.

    By then, the era of the fur trade was drawing to a close. Settlers were beginning to trickle into lands once known only to the buffalo and the Indians. Kit Carson realized he had to change with the times. There was another, more important reason to change careers. Kit Carson was smitten with Josefa Jaramillo, daughter of a wealthy and influential Taos family.

    The first time he saw Josefa, she was wearing a bright yellow dress. It was love at first sight. Her beauty was legendary. Although only in her early teens, she was well dressed and already quite refined. When she was 19, a visitor to Taos, Lewis H. Gerrard, described her as ‘beautiful…the haughty, heart-breaking kind…as would lead a man to risk his life for a smile.’

    Sometime during the spring or early summer of 1842 Carson reached an understanding with Josefa’s father. That summer, William Bent was traveling east on the Santa Fe Trail. Carson joined him, taking Adaline with him. He arranged to leave his daughter with his sister, Mary Ann Carson Rubey, who was now living in St. Louis.

    While in Missouri, Carson met John C. Frémont, a lieutenant with the Corps of Topographical Engineers, by chance on a Missouri River steamboat. When Frémont heard Carson was on board, he instantly retained the mountain man for $100 a month to lead an expedition across the Rockies. Carson needed the money to impress Josefa’s father. It was the first of three Frémont expeditions in which Carson served as guide.

    Kit and Josefa were married in Taos on February 6, 1843, which otherwise was a typical year for him. A few months after his marriage, he was off on the Santa Fe Trail with William Bent. He met up with Captain Philip St. George Cooke, who needed the now famous expeditionary scout to take a letter to the governor of New Mexico. Along the way he fought a little battle with the Utes. He went home to Josefa for a while, then headed back out with Frémont in July 1843.

    Carson and Fitzpatrick guided Frémont’s second expedition as far west as Fort Vancouver (Washington). The men wintered at Sutter’s Fort in California before heading home in 1844. While they were on the Mojave River a party of Indians stampeded the livestock. In his memoirs, Frémont wrote: ‘Carson may be considered among the boldest…so full of daring….Two men, in a savage desert, pursue day and night an unknown body of Indians into the defiles of an unknown mountain–attack them upon sight, without counting numbers, and defeat them in an instant.’

    Thanks to Frémont’s report–as well as various diaries, dime novels and newspaper accounts–Carson’s fame spread throughout the United States. His services as a scout, hunter and Indian fighter were in demand. Frémont and others realized that Carson’s quick thinking, frontier experience and knowledge of Indian culture could make the difference between life and death. Kit Carson was fast becoming a legend in his own time. Every schoolboy knew about his daring deeds.

    Frémont’s third expedition began in 1845, and Carson and the others were on the West Coast when they heard about, and became involved in, the trouble with Mexico. Frémont and Carson both participated in the armed movement known as the Bear Flag Revolt. They had a brush with Klamath Indians at Klamath Lake (Oregon) on May 13, 1846, the same day that the United States declared war on Mexico. Frémont contributed to the winning of California and was appointed its military governor. Carson continued to serve him loyally. On August 28, Carson was ordered to carry military correspondence and records to the secretary of war in Washington. Frémont later wrote: ‘It was a service of great trust and honor…of great danger also….Going off at the head of his own party with carte blanche for expenses and the prospect of novel pleasure and honor at the end was a culminating point in Carson’s life.’

    After a dangerous desert trek across the Mojave Desert and the Colorado River, Carson and his good friend Lucian Maxwell met Brig. Gen. Stephen Watts Kearny in Soccoro. Kearny had quickly conquered New Mexico and now needed a guide. Carson surrendered the dispatches (Fitzpatrick would continue with them on to Washington) and led the general to San Diego. In December, Carson took part in the Battle of San Pasqual, in which Californios nearly did in Kearny’s force. Carson, Lieutenant Edward F. Beale and an Indian guide walked barefoot nearly 30 miles from the battle site to San Diego to get reinforcements. By February 1847, Carson was again at Frémont’s side, in Los Angeles. Frémont was claiming the civil governorship of California, and Kearny was charging him with insubordination. Frémont soon sent Carson off to Washington with dispatches that pleaded his case.

    When Carson reached Santa Fe, he learned his beloved Josefa had barely escaped during the Taos Revolt, in which Taos Pueblo Indians and Mexicans had risen up against Governor Charles Bent and the other Americans. Bent had been killed, but his wife, Ignacia Jarmillo, and her sister Josefa had escaped injury by dressing as servants and fleeing to Santa Fe.

    After spending a short time with Josefa, Carson continued on to St. Louis, where he showed the dispatches to Senator Thomas Hart Benton, Frémont’s powerful father-in-law. Carson then went on to Washington, where he stayed at the Benton home. Jessie Frémont, the Pathfinder’s wife, allowed Kit to sleep outside on the verandah instead of upstairs in the stiflingly hot guestroom. She also introduced Carson to Washington society.

    Carson personally gave Frémont’s dispatches to President James K. Polk, who still was not sold on Frémont but was impressed with Carson, appointing him a second lieutenant in the Regular Army. The Senate would later deny Carson’s appointment on the basis of petty politics.

    Carson was ill at ease in Washington society. No matter where he went, people wanted to shake his hand. The Washington Union did a major interview, adding to his celebrity status. Fortunately for Carson, he did not have to stay in high society too long. In mid-June, on Polk’s orders, he began the long journey back to California. On the day of his departure, the Union reported: ‘Have you seen Kit Carson? He has this moment left my room and a singular and striking man he is! Modest as he is brave…with the bearing of an Indian, walking even with his toes turned in….’ Carson was bowlegged from so many years in the saddle.

    By October 1847 Carson was in Monterey. One of the first people to greet him was a young lieutenant who was somewhat taken aback by how this American hero looked: ‘His fame was then at its height, from the publication of Frémont’s books, and I was very anxious to see a man who had achieved such feats of daring among the wild animals of the Rocky Mountains, and still wilder Indians of the plains….I cannot express my surprise at beholding such a small, stoop-shouldered man, with reddish hair, freckled face, soft blue eyes, and nothing to indicate extraordinary courage of daring. He spoke but little and answered questions in monosyllables.’ The young officer was William Tecumseh Sherman.

    In May 1848, Kit Carson left Los Angeles to again carry dispatches to Washington. This time he also carried news that would change the West forever–gold had been discovered at Sutter’s Mill in January. One of the men traveling with Carson over the Old Spanish Trail was a young lieutenant, George D. Brewerton, who wrote that Kit had ‘a voice as soft and gentle as a woman’s’ and ‘was one of Dame Nature’s gentlemen.’ Brewerton’s ‘A Ride with Carson through the Great American Desert’ appeared in the popular Harper’s New Monthly Magazine in 1853.

    Carson, according to another account, would expose himself to the full light of the campfire only when he lit a pipe. When Carson slept, he used his saddle not only as a pillow but also as a shield for his head. His closest companions were his pistols, which he kept half-cocked at night, and a rifle that he kept under the blanket beside him. He was always the first one up in the morning. He was a well-disciplined man, completely responsible for himself, his animals and his equipment. He demanded the same of the men who traveled with him.

    Carson was dismayed at the scope of his growing fame. Settlers, traveling along the Santa Fe Trail, read dime novels about his exploits by the light of their campfires. One specific incident unnerved the man with nerves of steel. A white woman captured by the Apaches was found dead in their camp. At her side was a book that chronicled a fictional account of Kit Carson’s rescue of a woman in a similar situation. In his memoirs, which Carson dictated in 1856, he recalled: ‘In camp was found a book, the first of the kind I had ever seen, in which I was made a great hero, slaying Indians by the hundreds….I have often thought that Mrs. White [the slain white woman] read the same…would pray for my appearance that she might be saved.’

    By 1853, Kit Carson was serving as Indian agent to the Mohauche (or Moache) Utes, with his headquarters in Taos. For the first time in his married life, Carson was at home more than he was on the road. Despite his illiteracy, Carson was a very successful agent for the Utes. Unlike most Indian agents, he sincerely tried to work for the best interests of the tribe. He was constantly at odds with various governmental officials over the way the Indians were treated. He wanted to live on the reservation with his charges but was not allowed to do so. Almost on a daily basis, he and Josefa fed anywhere from 10 to 20 hungry tribesmen visiting Taos. The Indians of the region respected Carson. General Sherman commented: ‘These Red Skins think Kit twice as big a man as me. Why his integrity is simply perfect. They know it, and they would believe him and trust him any day before me.’

    The Carson household was large and busy, what with Kit and Josefa’s children (there would be seven in all) Terisina Bent (the daughter of the late Charles Bent) and some other Indian children who had been orphaned. By all accounts it was a big, happy family. Kit Carson adored children and was an indulgent and doting parent. Captain Rafael Chacon wrote: ‘He used to lie down on an Indian blanket…with his pockets full of candy and lumps of sugar. His children would then jump on top of him and take the candy from his pockets.’

    Family members say Kit Carson was shy. He was embarrassed and a bit humiliated by his fame, which was growing exponentially. Writers from the East incorporated his name and embellished his exploits, making him the hero of dozens of dime novels. Carson never received a cent from these books for the use of his name. VIPs traveling in the Santa Fe region would look for him. Strangers would come up to him on the street and want to shake his hand. Writers came to interview him.

    Jesse B. Turley was in charge of the autobiography Carson dictated in 1856. Carson apparently provided few details and failed to make his adventures sound dramatic. The manuscript was turned over to Dr. De Witt C. Peters, whose 535-page biography, The Life and Adventures of Kit Carson, the Nestor of the Rocky Mountains, from Facts Narrated by Himself, was published in 1858. Peters used portions of Carson’s autobiography as an outline for the book but greatly embellished the tale. Carson signed a certificate stating that Peters was his only authorized biographer.

    Carson continued as the Ute agent until 1861, when things changed dramatically for him and most other Americans. The United States was at war with itself. In April, Carson became a Union lieutenant colonel with the 1st New Mexico Volunteer Infantry. He moved his family to Albuquerque, where he was charged with training the New Mexico recruits. In October, he was promoted to colonel.

    Carson took part in the February 21, 1862, Battle of Valverde, the first major Civil War engagement on New Mexico soil, but he spent most of the war dealing with Indians. Major General James H. Carleton, who had been given command of the Department of New Mexico in September 1862, was intent on pacifying the Navajos and Mescalero Apaches. Carson was ordered to subdue both tribes as soon as possible and then take them to their new reservation at the Bosque Redondo in eastern New Mexico Territory.

    While Carson’s campaign of 1863-64 was considered a success, it took a tremendous toll on the Indians. In recent years he has been accused of actions that were not his own. Carleton masterminded the command, and any atrocities committed against the Navajo prisoners were done against Carson’s direct orders. Although he did his best to keep order within his ranks, the fact was that his best soldiers were back East fighting the war. Many of his volunteers drank heavily and were disreputable. It can be argued that he failed to maintain military discipline.

    Kit Carson’s most glorious moment came in late November 1864, in Texas, when he led some 325 soldiers and 75 Ute scouts against at least 1,500 Apaches, Comanches, Kiowas and Arapahos in the Battle of Adobe Walls. Lieutenant Colonel George A. Custer would face similar bad odds at the Battle of the Little Bighorn a decade later. Unlike Custer, however, Carson, with the help of 10 mountain howitzers, successfully fought off the enemy. Carson eventually headed back to New Mexico with most of his force intact. Carson’s performance at Adobe Walls particularly impressed General Carleton. ‘This brilliant affair adds another green leaf to the laurel wreath which you have so nobly won in the service of your country,’ Carleton wrote to Carson. Carleton also forwarded a copy of his letter to the adjutant general, who was constantly receiving glowing reports of Carson’s exploits.

    A few days after the Battle of Adobe Walls, Colonel John M. Chivington led the infamous massacre of Cheyennes at Sand Creek in Colorado Territory (see story in December 1998 Wild West). Chivington gloated, ‘I have eclipsed Carson and posterity will shortly speak of me as the great Indian killer.’ Carson was livid: ‘To think of that dog Chivington, and his hounds, up thar at Sand Creek! Whoever heerd of sich doins among christians! Them pore Injuns had our flag flyin’ over ’em….Well, here come along that durned Chivington and his cusses. They’d bin out huntin’ hostile Injuns, and couldn’t find non….So they just pitched into these friendlies, and massa-creed them…in cold blood….And ye call these civilized men Christians and the Injuns savages, du, ye?…I never yit draw a bead on a squaw or papoose, and I loath and hate the man who would. ‘Taint natural for brave men to kill women and little children.’

    In March 1866, Kit Carson was brevetted a brigadier general, but by then, his health was rapidly failing. He was pale, haggard and obviously in pain. He tried to leave the military, but wasn’t allowed to do so. On April 21 he was given command of Fort Garland, north of Taos in Colorado Territory. There was another Indian problem. Major General John Pope wrote General Sherman: ‘Carson is the best man in the country to control these Indians and prevent war….He is personally known and liked by every Indian…no man is so certain to insure it as Kit Carson.’

    Carson was mustered out of the army in November 1867. By then, it was apparent that he was quite ill. He moved his family to Boggsville (near present-day Las Animas, Colo.). In January 1868, General Kit Carson, frontiersman, was appointed superintendent of Indian Affairs for Colorado Territory, and he soon traveled to Washington with a group of Ute chiefs to negotiate a treaty. He also consulted with a number of doctors on the East Coast about chest pains and other health problems.

    Kit Carson returned home in time for the birth of his seventh child, Josefita, in April 1868. It was a difficult birth, however, and his beloved Josefa died within two weeks. The general lost the will to live. He made arrangements for his children, wrote his will and then died at Fort Lyon, Colorado Territory, on May 23, one month to the day after his wife’s death. Theirs had been one of the great love stories of the American frontier, and their final resting place was near their old home in Taos.

    Over the years, biographers have made a blanket statement that Carson could do little more than sign his name, but near the end of his life at Boggsville, he was observed both reading and writing. Captain Smith H. Simpson, who served under Carson during the Navajo campaign, had this to say: ‘Kit Carson before the war could but write his name, and read but a word or two. But from the time when he went out as an Army officer with other Army officers, by association and by application he learned more, so that when I last was with him he was a fair reader and writer.’

    Former Army officer Edward Wynkoop remembered his friend fondly in later years: ‘Kit was particular to himself. No such combination ever existed in a man before. With a heart as tender as the most sensitive woman, a loving and trusting disposition, the most child-like innocence, he united the courage of a Coeur de Leon, the utmost firmness, the strongest will, and the best of common sense. He could weep at the misfortunes or sufferings of a fellow creature, but could punish with strictest rigor a culprit who justly deserved it.’

    In the 1996 book Kit Carson: Indian Fighter or Indian Killer?, historian Marc Simmons argues that Carson truly rates as an American hero: ‘If Thomas Jefferson was right that a natural aristocracy existed among men, grounded in virtue, talents, and merit, then Kit Carson unquestionably qualified for membership.’


    Kit Carson: History and the Myth

    In October 1849, a trader named James White, his wife Ann and their infant daughter were traveling on the Santa Fe Trail to New Mexico when they were attacked by a band of Apache. James was killed while Ann and the child were taken captive. Major William Grier and a company of Dragoons went in pursuit of the raiders. Their scout was Kit Carson whose sensational, bigger-than-life adventures were being chronicled in popular dime novels of the day.

    On the twelfth day out they spotted a large camp and attacked. As the warriors were fleeing, one fired an arrow into the breast of Mrs. White. Her child was never found.

    Mrs. White had been dead only a few minutes and her body was still warm. Among her possessions was a copy of the popular dime novel Kit Carson: Prince of the Gold Hunters, a story about Carson saving a beautiful woman from death at the hands of a band of Indians. Carson couldn’t read nor write and when the story was read to him, he muttered “Throw it in the fire!”

    He was deeply shaken by the fact that this woman probably died hoping the famous scout would come to her rescue. Life doesn’t always imitate art. Unlike in the dime novels, he got there too late. It was said the incident haunted Carson for the rest of his life.

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    Kit Carson

    No one person in the history of the American west played so many important roles in the shaping of this vast American landscape than Kit Carson. Despite his modest upbringing and the modest attitude he would carry with him throughout his life, the epic adventures he would lead in his lifetime would make him a celebrity in his own time and a legend in history.

    Christopher “Kit” Carson was born on December 24, 1809 to Lindsey Carson and Rebecca Robinson in Madison County, Kentucky, but moved shortly thereafter to a rural area near the small town of Franklin, Missouri. His father was killed in 1818 when he was only fourteen, forcing him to drop out of school and begin working. He got a job as an apprentice to a saddlemaker in Franklin where he listened to tales of people returning from the west via the Sante Fe Trail. These tales invoked a longing in Carson to experience the west himself. At the age of sixteen, he broke his contract with the saddlemaker when he secretly signed up for a job as teamster and caretaker of horses, mules and oxen for a large trading company heading out to Sante Fe, Arizona. This was his first major trip to the west and he would never return to settle down again in the east.

    After Carson’s experience as a teamster, he began work in the trapping industry which at that time in the early nineteenth century was flourishing in the west. Soon he became a very well-known mountain man for his skills in trapping and navigation in the hostile, wild lands of the west. In 1829, he signed on to a team led by Ewing Young. The team wandered from Santa Fe to Sacramento and Los Angeles and then to Taos, New Mexico after trapping along the Colorado River. At various times during his career as a trapper, he work for Jim Bridger and the Hudson Bay Company and in the early 1840s, he worked for William Bent as a hunter at Bent’s Fort.

    As was the case with most trappers and mountain men of his time, he was quite integrated into the world of Native Americans. He not only spoke several Native American languages, but his first two wives were also an Arapaho woman named Singing Grass and a Cheyenne woman called Making-Our-Road. He had two daughters with Singing Grass and no children with Making-Our-Road who left him to follow her tribe’s migration. In 1843, at the age of 33, he married his third wife, Josefa Jaramillo, who was the daughter of a prominent Taos family. Together, they had a total of eight children.

    In 1842, Carson had a chance encounter with explorer John C. Frémont on a Missouri River steamboat while bringing his family back to Missouri. Frémont, who had been looking for a guide for his first expedition to the South Pass on the Continental Divide, soon hired Carson because of his experience with the area and knowledge of the landscape. It was through Frémont’s reports about the expedition in which he praised Carson for his outstanding work as a guide that Carson was propelled to national fame and became one of the most famous mountain men of his time.

    Carson went on to accompany Frémont on two more expeditions. The first of which was to survey the Great Salt Lake in Utah and then to Fort Vancouver in the Pacific Northwest. The second of which was the 1845-1846 expedition to California and Oregon. It was during this last expedition that Carson became involved in the Mexican-American War when Frémont’s mission was suddenly changed into a military operation. In 1846, Carson accompanied Frémont and his battalion when they helped support the short-lived Bear-Flag Rebellion in California. After securing victory, Frémont sent Carson to Washington D.C. to deliver the news. Later that year, he also guided General Stephen Kearney’s forces from New Mexico into California when the American occupation of Los Angeles came under threat.

    After the war, Carson returned to New Mexico to work as a rancher. He and his partner drove sheep to California where they earned a handsome profit from miners during the gold rush era. However, his roaming nature would not allow him to settle down to a life of ranching and in 1853, he became the Federal Indian Agent for northern New Mexico in which capacity he primarily worked with the Utes and the Jicarilla Apaches. He was unique among his peers in that he saw Indian attacks on white settlers as acts of desperation and was inclined to side with the Native American tribes. He was a big advocate for the reservation system as he thought it would solve the issue by creating clear boundaries for both parties.

    Carson held his post as Federal Indian Agent until the outbreak of the Civil War in in 1861 when he resigned to join the First New Mexico Volunteer Infantry Regiment organized by Ceran St. Vrain. He served as the regiment’s colonel and fought for the Union. Although he saw some military action at the Battle of Valverde in 1862, most of his time during the war was spent keeping the Navajo in their newly setup reservation located at Fort Sumner in New Mexico. Carson led a brutal economic war on the Navajo. Starvation and desperation finally caused the Navajo to surrender in 1864 and they were led 300 miles from Arizona to Fort Sumner on what became known as the “Long Walk”. It was a black period in Carson’s otherwise generally sympathetic reputation with the Native Americans.

    After the Civil War, Carson moved to Colorado where he hoped to pick up ranching again. This, once again, did not last long as he was named a brigadier general in 1865 and became the commander of Fort Garland in the middle of Ute territory the year after. In this capacity, he negotiated a peace treaty with the Utes, when he personally escorted Ute chiefs to Washington D.C. to meet President Andrew Johnson. Shortly after this trip, his wife, Josefa, died due to complications after giving birth to their eighth child. Carson returned to Colorado soon afterwards in terrible condition. He died a month later on May 23, 1868 at Fort Lyon in Colorado at the age of 58. His final words were, “Doctor, compadre, adios!”

    In the years since his death, Carson has become a larger-than-life legend in the history and mythology of the old American west. He has featured in many works of fiction about that time and much research has been done about him. Of all the men of the west, he has come to symbolize the old west of the earlier nineteenth century more prominently than almost all of his contemporaries. His legend lives on and, although the facts are often distorted, he still continues to capture the imaginations of Americans to this day.


    Crossing Wyoming: Kit Carson and a Changing West

    The trapper and mountain man Kit Carson traversed what’s now Wyoming dozens of times. Little is known of most of those trips. But of one year we have a close account—1842, when Carson guided a young Lt. John C. Frémont of the U.S. Army Corps of Topographical Engineers up the old fur-trade caravan route to South Pass, around to the west side of the Wind River Mountains and back east by the same route.

    Neither Carson nor Frémont was famous yet. Carson was in his early thirties, well known in the Rocky Mountains but unknown otherwise. Frémont, too, was little known, but already had big connections.

    He had recently married 18-year-old Jessie Benton, daughter of U.S. Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri. The senator was intent on seeing the United States expand across the continent. He saw the young, ambitious Frémont, historians agree, as a tool to realize his plans. And Frémont needed Carson’s wilderness skills to get him where he needed to go.

    Early life and the beaver trade

    Christopher “Kit” Carson was born in Kentucky in December 1809 and moved with his family about two years later to Cooper’s Fort, near Boone’s Lick, Mo. His father died when he was 8 years old. It was a frontier life: Nearly all white adult males belonged to local militias, violence between Euro- and Native Americans was well known and stories about it were told and retold.

    In 1824, Carson’s mother apprenticed him to a saddlemaker in Franklin, Missouri, near what then was the east end of the Santa Fe Trail. In August 1826, not yet 17 years old, Carson ran away from his apprenticeship and joined a trading caravan heading for Santa Fe, then still part of Mexico.

    From Santa Fe he soon went to Taos, 60 miles north in the mountains, a town of 3,500 with a mix of Indian, Hispanic and a smattering of Anglo culture. Taos was a center for the beaver trade and, as it was far from Mexican customs agents, for making illegal whiskey. After three years doing odd jobs Carson joined a California-bound trapping and trading expedition led by trapper Ewing Young of Taos. They took a southern route, and after two years were back in Taos by April 1831.

    Henry Inman, who knew Carson on this trip, described him in a memoir years later as “brave but not reckless . . . Under the average stature, and rather delicate-looking . . . nevertheless a quick, wiry man, with nerves of steel and possessing an indomitable will . . . full of caution, but show[ing] a coolness in the moment of supreme danger that was good to witness.”

    In the fall of 1831, Carson made his first beaver hunt to the northern Rockies with a Rocky Mountain Fur Company trapping brigade led by Tom Fitzpatrick. The trip marks the beginning of Carson’s life as a full-time trapper and mountain man.

    From the parks of Colorado to the headwaters of the Missouri, he worked sometimes with the big brigades and sometimes with small parties of so-called free trappers. An account of his life that Carson dictated in the mid-1850s—Carson himself could sign his name but was otherwise illiterate—is full of fights, scrapes, hard traveling and close calls from his beaver-trapping years. Around the edges, too—and unmentioned by him in the autobiography—there appears to have been a love story.

    The Rocky Mountain fur-trade rendezvous in 1835 was held near the confluence of Horse Creek and the Green River in today’s Sublette County, Wyo. Here, a dispute arose between Carson and a camp bully named Chouinard. Some biographers speculate that the affections of an Arapaho girl, Waa-nibe—Singing Grass—may have been behind the friction. After Chouinard had severely beaten two or three other men, Carson confronted him. Both men mounted horses and armed themselves, Carson with a pistol and Chouinard with a rifle. At close range both guns went off. Carson’s ball hit Chouinard in the arm Chouinard’s cut through Carson’s hair and the powder burned his eye.

    Carson the family man

    Carson married Waa-nibe about this time and their daughter, Adaline, was born about 1837. In the fall of 1838, Carson came down to winter in Brown’s Hole, on the Green River at the present Wyoming-Colorado-Utah border, and his biographers assume Waa-nibe and Adaline were with him.

    At least one biographer believes their second baby—no name has survived for that child—was born in 1839 while Carson was traveling north to the Salmon and Yellowstone Rivers. Waa-nibe died not long afterward, probably in Brown’s Hole, most likely from difficulty connected with the birth.

    On hand in 1840 at the last rendezvous, again at Horse Creek—a depressing affair as it was clear to everyone that beaver supply and prices were both collapsing—was Father Pierre-Jean De Smet, the Roman Catholic missionary. Carson recalled in his dictation that the priest baptized “forty odd children” at the event some biographers, again without confirmation from the trapper himself, have speculated that Carson’s two daughters were among them.

    In any case, Carson needed a mother for the girls. In 1841 he took a job for wages as a hunter at Bent’s Fort, on the Santa Fe Trail in present southeast Colorado, where he had long been acquainted with the proprietors and with the polyglot community there. Here he married a new wife, Making Out Road, a Cheyenne woman, on whom he appears to have depended to take care of Adaline and her sister.

    Around this time Carson was still making regular trips back to Taos, and he seems to have fallen there for Josefa Jaramillo, of a prominent family herself and sister-in-law of Charles Bent, governor of New Mexico, still at the time a part of Mexico. In January 1842, Carson was baptized a Catholic at Taos, almost certainly a sign of his intentions toward Josefa. That spring, at Bent’s Fort, Making Out Road divorced him in the Cheyenne fashion, by placing all his belongings outside her tipi. Leaving the younger child with friends in Taos, he took Adaline with him to Missouri to live with his sisters and go to school.

    In February 1843, he married Josefa at the parish church in Taos. She was not yet 15 he was 33. She was by some accounts taller than he, and quite beautiful. They eventually had eight children.

    Frémont’s first expedition

    Between the time of his trip to Missouri with Adaline and his wedding to Josefa, Carson made what he afterward regarded as the most important meeting of his life—on board the steamboat Rowena, heading back west across Missouri on the Missouri River. There he met Frémont, on the first of five exploring expeditions to the West. Frémont hired Carson on the spot to guide his expedition to the Rocky Mountains. Carson according to nearly all accounts was cautious, modest, competent and cool-headed, and in those traits quite different from the reckless, fame-seeking and erratic Frémont.

    The young lieutenant’s orders were to explore the familiar fur-trade route up the Platte, North Platte and Sweetwater rivers to South Pass, taking scientific observations with an eye toward making a good map. The party included Frémont, Carson, two dozen frontiersmen and voyageurs from St. Louis and a German-born cartographer, Charles Preuss.

    Near Chimney Rock on the North Platte, they met frontiersman Jim Bridger, who warned them that groups of Cheyenne and Oglala Sioux were out for retribution. These same warriors had been defeated the year before by a band of trappers and Shoshone led by Henry Fraeb, on the Little Snake River near present Baggs, Wyo. Fraeb had been killed, but the Sioux and Cheyenne had been driven off and some of them killed as well.

    Carson agreed with Bridger that the threat was serious, and, at Fort Laramie, dictated a will—an action that made the voyageurs nervous. Frémont, however, chose to ignore the warning and press onward. He made a speech to some Sioux at the fort, declaring that when U.S. Army officers were ordered to do a job, they did it.

    They continued up the North Platte and the Sweetwater to South Pass—a route that soon would become better known as the Oregon Trail. Ignoring his orders, Frémont continued west, across the Continental Divide—at this point he was leaving the United States and entering the Oregon country—and around to the west side of the Wind River Mountains.

    He decided to climb the highest peak they could see, convinced, incorrectly, that it was the highest in the Rockies. They set up a base camp near a lake. Carson led Frémont and a smaller party upward. Frémont was stricken with dizziness and headaches—probably altitude sickness—and they had to stop.

    Preuss, the cartographer, whose skeptical account always makes a useful alternative to Frémont’s romantic one, mentions a quarrel. Frémont thought Carson was walking too fast, and sent him back down to stay with the mules while naming another of the voyageurs as guide up the mountain. The rest of the party completed the climb though they had to go without food for a day or two to do so, Frémont and Carson patched up their differences and the expedition headed for home.

    At Independence Rock on the Sweetwater, they inflated and launched an India rubber boat they had carried the entire trip. The Sweetwater was too shallow they pushed, dragged and hauled the boat several miles before deflating it, loading it back onto the mules and carrying it several miles more down to the North Platte.

    They found more than enough current there. Frémont proposed to take Preuss and seven other men, the choicest food, the journals and all the scientific instruments with him in the boat, and send the rest of the party overland—with Carson. Beforehand, all camped where the Sweetwater joined the North Platte. Below, they could hear the roar of the rapids.

    In the canyon the next day—now called Fremont Canyon and much of it under Alcova Reservoir—the boat hit a rock and flipped fortunately no one drowned. Many of the notebooks and most of the instruments were lost the rock tore a hole in the boat and ruined it. The fact that Frémont sent Carson with the other party may show the quarrel had lingered—or it may show that Carson was the one he trusted best. The two parties joined up downstream from where Alcova Dam stands today, and continued down the trail.

    They reached Fort Laramie in safety on August 31. Frémont and the rest continued back to Missouri, and Frémont and Preuss to Washington, D.C. Carson turned south to Taos. Frémont wrote his report that winter with substantial help from his wife, Jessie, and, together with a map drawn by Preuss of the corridor the expedition had traveled, it was delivered to the Senate in March 1843. Soon, the Senate ordered 1,000 copies printed for sale to the public.

    Frémont’s exploits, combined with the vivid government reports he and Jessie wrote together, would within the next decade make him as famous as any man in America. The reports made Carson famous too, showing the scout as unfailingly heroic.

    At one point on the first expedition, along the Blue River in what’s now Nebraska, the party received a report of a large band of Pawnee nearby Carson rode off to see what was up. It turned out to be six elk, not the 27 warriors reported, but Frémont’s portrayal of the horseback Carson is a good example of the explorer’s attitude toward his friend. “Mounted on a fine horse,” Frémont wrote, “without a saddle, and scouring bareheaded over the prairies, Kit was one of the finest pictures of a horseman I have ever seen.”

    Frémont’s reports also showed Carson as a man who knew American Indians well and was unafraid, when he thought it necessary, to fight them.

    Descriptions like these, notes Carson biographer Tom Dunlay, “mark the real beginnings” of Carson’s fame as a frontier hero. With publication of Frémont’s reports, the scout’s fame spread quickly. Suddenly, he was more famous than any of his mountain-man peers—men like Jim Bridger and Tom Fitzpatrick, for example—who had been brigade leaders and company partners in the mountain fur trade, a status Carson never attained.

    Dime novel writers latched on to Carson’s fame, churning out titles like Kit Carson, The Prince of the Gold Hunters, or, the Adventures of the Sacramento and Kiowa Charley, the White Mustanger or Kit’s Last Scalp Hunt. These accounts aimed to thrill, and were entirely fictional. In 1856 the illiterate Carson, wanting to insert some fact and truth into the equation, dictated the story of his life to a clerk. The resulting 1858 book, Kit Carson, the Nestor of the Rockies, from Facts Narrated by Himself, also charges relentlessly from conflict to conflict.

    The second and third expeditions

    In 1843, Frémont started west again, this time on the Santa Fe Trail. Carson caught up with the expedition near present Pueblo, Colo. After exploring fruitlessly for a new pass up the Cache la Poudre River above present Fort Collins, Colo., they headed northwest, roughly following the route of modern U.S. Highway 287, through what are now Laramie and Rawlins, Wyo., and north to the Sweetwater.

    From South Pass they took the route to the Columbia River already beginning to be called the Oregon Trail. But instead of heading back east as he’d been ordered, Frémont turned south along the east front of the Sierras, crossing them in winter. He may have been under secret orders to spy on California, still at the time part of Mexico. Weak and starving, the party arrived at Sutter’s Fort in March. From here they continued south through California’ central valley and turned home near present Bakersfield. They traveled northeast across deserts and mountains to Brown’s Hole and were back at Bent’s Fort in July 1844. As before, Frémont continued east Carson returned to Taos.

    After this trip, Frémont and Preuss reported to the world the existence of the Great Basin, a vast stretch of the West covering most of what are now Utah and Nevada whose waters drain neither east nor west but disappear in sinks or evaporate from salty lakes. On this trip, Frémont had risked his men’s lives more dangerously and more often than he had even on the first expedition. Carson’s competence, knowledge of the country and steady temper were crucial to their survival.

    Carson met Frémont a third time in August 1845. From Bent’s Fort they headed up the Arkansas and crossed the Colorado and Green Rivers to Salt Lake—avoiding what’s now Wyoming entirely. War with Mexico was approaching Frémont’s orders were secret and it’s still unclear what they were, but once in California his actions became steadily more military. The men of the expedition clashed with Indians on the Sacramento River and later at Klamath Lake, killing scores of tribespeople. He took part in the so-called Bear Flag revolt of Anglo settlers against Mexican authorities and eventually linked up with Commodore Robert Stockton, in charge of U.S. forces in California.

    Dispatch carrier, guide, stockman

    In July 1846, Stockton proclaimed California a U.S. territory and Frémont its so-called military governor. They chose Carson to carry dispatches from San Diego to Washington, D.C. In the next few years, Carson crossed the continent twice more. In Washington in the spring of 1847, he stayed with Jessie Benton Frémont at the Benton household, and visited President Polk. He visited his daughter Adaline in Missouri on his way west again and was back in California by October, in time to learn Frémont had been arrested by Gen. Stephen Watts Kearny for insubordination. Spring 1848 saw Carson traveling east from Los Angeles via Taos, again with letters for Washington. In August he stood up with Jessie Frémont at her son’s baptism. By October he was back in Taos, this time for a longer visit.

    Meanwhile, the war with Mexico ended and California, New Mexico, what are now Arizona and Utah and parts of Wyoming and Colorado all were annexed by the United States. War continued, however, between New Mexican authorities and the region’s native people. In the winter of 1849, Carson guided a Taos-based detachment of dragoons against the Jicarilla Apache.

    By this time Carson had established a ranch at Rayado, east of Taos, where the plains meet the mountains. In the spring of 1850, he and an old trapping friend, Tim Goodale, drove three or four dozen mules and horses north to Fort Laramie to sell. The fort was then booming with the emigrant trade—mostly men without families traveling to the gold fields of California.

    Carson and Goodale drove and grazed the animals slowly along the Front Range in what’s now Colorado so they would be sleek and strong when they arrived. “We disposed of our animals to good advantage,” Carson told his interviewer in 1856.

    At the fort, an old-timer or perhaps only another of tens of thousands of men bound that year for California, walked up to him and asked Carson if he was, in fact, Kit Carson.

    “Well, sir. I reckon I am,” was the reply, as Carson biographer David Remley tells the story.

    The man looked him carefully up and down.

    “You cain’t come that over on me,” the traveler said. This plain-looking, bowlegged little man, stoop-shouldered and smaller than most, was too much of a disappointment, too different from the dime-novel hero that Carson had already become. “You ain’t the kind of Kit Carson I’m a-looking for,” the man said.

    A final trapping expedition

    In the spring of 1852, apparently as much for nostalgia as for profit, Carson and his longtime Taos friend Lucien Maxwell assembled a group of 18 trapper comrades from the old days for a long beaver hunt. The northern end of their route, at least, took them into what’s now Wyoming. Carson told his interviewer a few years later that they traveled and trapped north from Taos through the parks of Colorado, then down the South Platte to the plains, north to the Laramie Plains and back south to North Park, Colorado, to Middle and South parks, down the Arkansas and then turned further south, home to Rayado over Raton Pass. This was the only trapping expedition Carson ever led.

    Carson’s account gives no more detail than that, and none of the names of the other trappers. But decades later, the longtime mountain man Jim Baker told the Denver Republican in 1893 that he, too, had been on the trip, as had Jim Bridger. From the Laramie Plains or perhaps from North Park, they traveled down the North Platte, according to Baker, up the Sweetwater, over to the Wind River drainage and finally wintered on the Green River. Whether they wintered at the old rendezvous grounds at Horse Creek, at Brown’s Hole or somewhere else, Baker didn’t say. In the spring they trapped along the Yampa and Little Snake Rivers, according to Baker, before returning to Rayado.

    Trailing sheep

    In the spring of 1853, Carson, Maxwell and another partner borrowed money and traveled to the lower Rio Grande, where they bought 6,500 churro sheep—a breed descended from Spanish stock and bred in the Southwest by the Navajo and Hopi. They trailed them north to Rayado, then along the Front Range to Fort Laramie, where they turned west to South Pass and then over the California Trail to California. Moving slowly with the grazing animals, they took six months to make the trip.

    Supposedly they bought the sheep for 50 cents per head and sold them for $5.50 each—enough for Carson to buy a ranch in California for his daughter Adaline and her husband, and, once he got home, to buy Josefa a new, treadle-powered Singer sewing machine. By way of the southern route, he was back in Taos by Christmas ay, 1853.

    Ute agent and soldier

    He lived 15 more years, most of that time based in Taos, spending time when he could with his growing family. But his career took a modern turn: The beaver trapper and guide became a longtime government employee, first as the United States agent to the Moache Ute tribe, and then as a soldier—not an army scout, but a uniformed officer. He led Union troops against the Texas Confederate invasion of New Mexico in 1862. Later he led troops against the Navajo, and finally, in 1867, against the Kiowa and Comanche.

    Carson’s campaign against the Navajo has complicated his reputation ever since. He and his troops in 1864 began rounding the people up in their heartland around Canyon de Chelly and driving them east 400 miles to a reservation on the Bosque Redondo, in eastern New Mexico. The operation took years. It was called the Long Walk—a Navajo Trail of Tears. Around a quarter of the people died on the way or in captivity.

    Late in 1867, the Army asked one more task, that Carson accompany a Ute delegation to Washington, D.C. to sign a treaty taking away most of their lands in exchange for a reservation on Colorado’s western slope. By this time, his family was living at Fort Lyon, in southeastern Colorado territory. He traveled east via the new Kansas Pacific Railroad. From Washington, where he visited Frémont, the delegation continued on to New York, where Carson visited Jessie Frémont, and to Boston.

    Failing fast, he was back in Colorado in time for the birth of his and Josefa’s eighth child, a daughter they named Josefita, in April 1868. Forty-year-old Josefa died two weeks later. Carson died May 28, 1868, at Fort Lyon. He was 58.

    The trip with the sheep, however, appears to have been the last time Carson crossed what’s now Wyoming. Like many in his lines of work—beaver trappers, army scouts, guides, stockmen, soldiers and Indian agents—Carson was on the move in a constantly changing West.


    Christopher Houston "Kit" Carson is born

    Today in Masonic History Christopher Houston "Kit" Carson is born in 1809.

    Christopher Houston "Kit" Carson was an American explorer, adventurer and solider.

    Carson was born in Madison County, Missouri. Carson's father was a veteran of the American Revolution and the War of 1812. Caron was the 11th child of his fathers 16 children.

    When Carson was 1 year old the family moved to Missouri and settled on a tract of land owned by Daniel Boone's sons. The Boone and Carson families became very close and at times intermarried.

    At the time the family was living in Missouri it was essentially the frontier. The cabin the family lived in was forted to protect against Indian attack and as the men worked in the field others were stationed around the perimeter with guns to protect the workers.

    At the age of 8 Carson's father died when he was a working in the field. A branch fell on him and he was killed instantly. The family had no money yet Carson's mother continued to care for the children on her own. About 4 years later Carson's mother married a widower. Carson did not get along with his step father so it was decided that Carson would be apprenticed to a saddler in Franklin, Missouri at the Eastern End of the Sante Fe Trail.

    Although Carson did not care for the work of a saddler, his mentor, David Workman, he had great respect for and would speak of him fondly in his memoirs. That was not enough to keep Carson in Missouri though. Against his Mother's wishes Carson headed west with a group of trappers abandoning his apprenticeship. Shortly after his departure Workman took out an ad requesting his return and offered a reward of one cent, no one claimed the reward. The ad was a joke and let Carson know that he was free to pursue his new life.

    When Carson arrived in Sante Fe in 1826 he settled in Taos and lived with Matthew Kinkead a trapper and explorer who served with Carson's brother in the War of 1812. Kinkead taught Carson the skills of trapper as well as the language of trapping. In the end Carson would know Spanish, Navajo, Apache, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Paiute, Shoshone and Ute.

    Carson was married three times and had 10 children. His first wife an Arapaho named Waanibe (singing grass). The two had two children Waanibe died giving birth and the second child only survived until the age of two. Their first, Adaline, was too young to stay with Carson who was living the life of a mountain man. Carson married a second time shortly after Waanibe's death, perhaps in an attempt to keep his children close. Caron's second wife was not happy with the arrangement and agreeable to Cheyenne custom divorced Carson by placing his belongings and children outside her tent.

    In 1842 Carson returned to Missouri to leave Adaline in the care of his sister before returning to Taos. There he met his third wife, Josefa Jaramillo, the couple would have 8 children.

    On Caron's trip to Missouri he met by chance John C. Frémont. Frémont was preparing an expedition to map the Oregon trail. After getting to know each other on the Riverboat they were both riding on, Carson offered his services. The two men would join forces for a second expedition and a third. On the third expedition that Frémont claimed was to "map the source of the Arkansas river", Frémont ordered the expedition west to California. There the expedition began working for President Polk in the days leading up to the Mexican-American War. During Carson's service in the Mexican-American War Frémont ordered Carson to do some unspeakable things which Carson seemed to regret in later life.

    During the American Civil War Carson served in the New Mexico Territory for the Union Army and participated in the Battle of Valverde before redirecting his troops to the Navajo Wars.


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