When the frontiersman Kit Carson arrived in Washington, D.C., in the spring of 1847, he was already a legend and folk hero. Born in a log cabin in Kentucky on Christmas Eve 1809, he had spent his life trapping beaver in the Rockies, hunting buffalo on the Great Plains and fighting Indians in the Pacific Northwest.
In the early 1840s, Carson served as guide for John C. Frémont’s three federal expeditions to explore and map the American West. In 1846, during the Mexican War, he served with Frémont in California, then guided General Stephen Kearny’s troops through the desert from New Mexico to California. When the Americans captured Los Angeles, Frémont dispatched Carson to Washington carrying messages for the War Department and President James K. Polk.
Traveling by horseback, steamboat and railroad, Carson crossed the continent in about two months, and stepped off a train in Washington late one night in May 1847. Frémont’s wife, Jessie Benton Frémont, the daughter of powerful Missouri senator Thomas Hart Benton, was waiting for him. She’d never met Carson but she immediately recognized him from her husband’s description. He was short, about 5 feet 4 inches, and bowlegged from decades in the saddle. His bright eyes were blue and his left ear was scarred from a bullet that nearly killed him.
Jessie Frémont escorted Carson to her home on C Street. The next day, he delivered his dispatches to the War Department and created quite a commotion, with curious clerks lining the corridors to catch a glimpse of the famous mountain man as he walked past, wearing faded buckskins and moccasins and carrying a long rifle.
“Mr. Carson was embarrassed by the attention drawn to him, so great was his modesty,” Jessie wrote in a letter to her husband. “I ventured to suggest to him that he might appear less conspicuous if he wore the more conventional attire favored by others, but he was reluctant to change his manner of dress.”
In Washington, Carson was a celebrity. Strangers shook his hand. Children followed him down the street. Congressmen and foreign ambassadors begged to meet him and prominent hostesses invited him to formal dinners. A shy man, Carson told Jessie that he didn’t want to attend dinner parties, but he didn’t tell her why: He was afraid that the wives of Washington might learn about Singing Grass, his beloved but now deceased Arapaho wife, and cast aspersions on him for marrying an Indian.
Somehow, Jessie convinced Carson to accept an invitation to dinner at the home of William Marcy, the secretary of war. He arrived at Marcy’s house to find that the other guests included two generals and their wives. The formal dinner featured fancy continental cuisine, including fowl and fish dishes drenched in rich sauces, and served with fine French wines. Carson ignored the wine and barely touched the cuisine, although he did eat his vegetables and seemed to enjoy the dessert of ice cream and cake. During dinner he said almost nothing, but after the ladies were escorted from the room and the men ignited cigars, he loosened up and told stories about his adventures in battle in California.
He didn’t enjoy the evening and was unimpressed by the grandees of Washington. “They are princes here in their big houses,” he told Jessie, “but on the plains, we are the princes. What would their lives be without us there?”
He was eager to leave Washington but before he could escape, he received an offer he couldn’t refuse—an invitation to meet President Polk at the White House. Unfortunately, Polk was too busy to see Carson until June 14, which meant that the mountain man would have to hang around the swampy city for another week.
Jessie Frémont tried to make that week as pleasant as possible. She’d become fond of Carson, praising his “merry heart” and describing him as “a perfect Saxon, clear and fair.” She discovered that Carson, who was illiterate, enjoyed being read to, and she entertained him with dramatic recitations. He particularly enjoyed the rolling cadences and rollicking adventure of Byron’s poem “Mazeppa’s Ride,” the tale of a Polish nobleman punished by being strapped naked to a horse that gallops across the steppes. Carson said it reminded him of the Blackfoot Indians.
On June 14, she escorted him to the White House. He looked uncomfortable in his new suit and white shirt. President Polk looked uncomfortable, too, but that was not unusual. Polk was a dour, sour, misanthropic workaholic who suffered from what he called “derangement of the bowels.”
Carson handed the president a letter from John Frémont. Polk, ever the dutiful bureaucrat, stamped it and wrote “Received from Mr. Christopher Carson.” The letter detailed Frémont’s views on his dispute with Kearny over which of them ought to rule California now that it had been conquered. As Carson listened, Jessie Frémont lobbied the president on her husband’s behalf. Polk declined to reveal his views on the Frémont-Kearny squabble. “Frémont was greatly in the wrong,” he wrote in his diary. “It was unnecessary, however, that I should say so to Col. Frémont’s wife.”
Polk announced that he was commissioning Carson as a lieutenant in the Regiment of Mounted Rifleman, and then the president invited him to dine at the White House that night. Carson accepted, no doubt with trepidation.
First lady Sarah Polk had heard about the awkwardness at Marcy’s elegant dinner for Carson, so she decided to keep her dinner informal. She grew up in Tennessee and knew something about the culinary preferences of frontiersmen. Instead of French cuisine, she served a rare roast beef, which the president carved himself. Instead of French wines, she served whiskey and water, which Carson eagerly accepted.
After that, the first lady sat back and studied her famous guest. “He is courteous to a fault, slow-spoken, and with becoming modesty turns aside suggestions that his deeds have been more valiant than those of lesser men,” she wrote the next day in a letter to her mother.
Carson seemed at ease when talking to the men at the table, who included Marcy, Sen. Benton, Secretary of State James Buchanan and, of course, the president. But when women asked him a question, he became tongue-tied and uncomfortable.
“His manner at table I found to be faultless,” the first lady informed her mother. “I must confess I watched him to see how he handled his fork, which he used with dexterity. That he thinks highly of Major Frémont was made known to all of us, much to the satisfaction of Mrs. Frémont and Senator Benton, but when J. asked him to describe for our edification how he eluded the Mexicans when carrying dispatches to San Diego, he grew red in the face and would not speak.”
After an awkward evening at the White House, Carson fled Washington, wearing his new lieutenant’s uniform, carrying letters from the president to Kearny, and no doubt relieved to be heading west.
Originally published in the February 2012 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.