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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.'
This article originally appeared in the April 1999 issue of Wild West magazine. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Wild West magazine today!
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