The Mexican War was over. The Santa Fe Trail, that 909-mile road of commerce which had become the pathway for military invasion, was once again bustling with trade caravans. The necessity of supplying the new American military outposts in New Mexico added to this traffic. The 1848 discovery of gold in California also led to a brief flurry of emigrants attaching themselves to the caravans, even though the Gila and Old Spanish trails never became popular with the gold seekers. Still, by the summer of 1848, an army officer at Fort Mann on the Arkansas River counted 3,000 wagons, 12,000 people and 50,000 head of stock passing his little outpost during that season alone. In 1849 overland mail service began on the trail, still headquartered at Independence, Missouri, even though Kansas City was fast becoming the outfitting center for caravans heading westward.
Opportunity beckoned. The White brothers, of Warsaw, Mo., were among those who sought their fortune in postwar New Mexico. James and Charles White had arrived in Santa Fe in mid-July 1848 to open a mercantile business similar to the general store they had operated in Missouri. Their business plan was simple but effective: “Cheap Merchants—cheaper than the cheapest” ran their advertisement in the July 24, 1848, issue of the Santa Fe Republican. After a successful summer of trade, Charles headed south to explore business prospects between Santa Fe and Chihuahua, while James returned to St. Louis to bank $58,000 in gold and silver coins. He promptly made plans to return to Santa Fe with his wife, Ann, and their young daughter. New Mexico Territory would be their new home.
Postwar New Mexico held the promise of prosperity and a return to family life for another, far more famous individual, who had left Missouri back in 1826: Christopher “Kit” Carson. He was, by 1849, one of the most celebrated Americans in the world, and the inheritor of the buckskin mantle of Boone and Crockett as the nation’s preeminent frontiersman. Taciturn and unassuming, slight of frame and well below the average in height, Carson hardly met the blood-and-thunder image of a frontier demigod to match the wild tales that celebrated his very real adventures.
Born on Christmas Eve 1809 in Madison County, Ky., Carson was raised near Boon’s Lick, Mo., where his family resettled in 1811. Apprenticed to a saddler in Old Franklin in 1824, the boy soon ran away to join a caravan bound for Santa Fe. He fell in with the trappers at Taos and by 1831 was a mountain man of the first rank, friend to Jim Bridger, Thomas Fitzpatrick and Joe Meek. Those youthful years in the Rocky Mountains were always remembered by Carson as the happiest of his life, but the death of his Arapaho wife, Waanibe, ended his life as a trapper. For a while he worked as a contract hunter at Bent’s Fort on the Arkansas River in southeastern Colorado. A chance encounter with young Lieutenant John Charles Frémont led to a second career for Carson as a guide for that Army officer’s two expeditions of Western exploration. Frémont’s reports—ghostwritten by his beautiful and talented wife, Jessie, and printed at government expense thanks to her powerful father, Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton— made “the Pathfinder” and his intrepid scout Kit Carson into national celebrities. It was with little exaggeration that a later writer would say of Carson and Frémont that upon the ashes of their campfires the great cities of the American West would rise.
In August 1845, Carson joined Frémont at Bent’s Fort for a third “exploring expedition” westward. With 60 heavily armed men, Frémont entered California, supposedly to explore mountain passes over the Sierras, but actually to seize that most valuable of territorial prizes once an “expected” war erupted between Mexico and the United States. In that war, Kit Carson emerged as the hero of the Battle of San Pascual, near San Diego, in December 1846.
Everyone now sought him out, but they were invariably surprised to meet the great man himself. “His fame was then at its height, from the publication of Frémont’s book,” noted Lieutenant William Tecumseh Sherman upon being introduced to Carson at military headquarters in Monterey, Calif., in the fall of 1847, “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 a small stoop-shouldered man, with reddish hair, freckled face, soft blue eyes, and nothing to indicate extraordinary courage or daring.”
Sherman’s response was typical. Carson had once driven a mule herd from Taos to Fort Laramie to sell the animals to emigrants bound for California and Oregon. When folks heard that Kit Carson was at the post, they all wanted to meet him. His old trapper pals were always delighted to point out their shy compadre to the flatlanders. In one celebrated incident an emigrant approached Carson and asked, “I say, stranger, are you Kit Carson?” When Kit nodded in the affirmative, the emigrant studied him a moment and then replied: “Look’e here, stranger, you can’t come that over me. You ain’t the kind of Kit Carson I’m a’lookin’ for.”
By 1849 Carson did not much care about whatever kind of hero folks expected him to be. In February 1843 he had married Josefa Jaramillo in Taos. “Her style of beauty was of the naughty, heart-breaking kind,” noted a visitor to their home, “such as would lead a man with the glance of the eye, to risk his life for a smile.” Her family, while not wealthy, was well-connected in New Mexican social circles, with her sister married to New Mexico’s first territorial governor, Charles Bent. Carson, devoted to his young wife, was disturbed when his government service kept him away from Taos in April 1847 and his brother-in-law Governor Bent was murdered while protecting Josefa and her sister from a rebellious mob. That tragedy made Carson all the more anxious to stay home. “We had been leading a roving life long enough and now was the time, if ever, to make a home for ourselves and children,” Carson later recalled. “We were getting old and could not expect to remain any length of time able to gain a livelihood as we had.”
Determined to settle down, Carson invested much of the $2,000 he had earned over the years as a government scout, soldier and transcontinental courier (he carried the news to Washington, D.C., of the gold strike in California) in a ranching and farming enterprise with his old friend Lucien Maxwell. Through marriage, Maxwell had inherited an enormous Mexican land grant along the Cimarron River and was determined to develop it. They purchased stock and seeds and hired workers to erect buildings on Rayado Creek, some 50 miles southeast of Taos. Although south of the Sangre de Cristos and thus exposed to Plains Indian raiders, this new settlement was favorably located along the mountain branch of the Santa Fe Trail. Rayado quickly attracted settlers to build along the tributaries of the Canadian River. Maxwell moved his family there in the spring of 1849 and was soon joined by another old frontiersman, Robert Fisher. Carson hesitated to bring his family over the mountains since Josefa had just given birth to their first child that May. The boy, named Charles in memory of the slain Charles Bent, was premature and sickly, dying before reaching his first birthday. Carson was particularly worried about Indian raids on Rayado, for by the spring of 1849 no part of the Santa Fe Trail was safe.
Indian affairs in New Mexico had deteriorated rapidly following the American conquest. The Llaneros (Plains) band of the Jicarilla Apaches had reached a balance of power with the New Mexicans over the last generation, but it had quickly broken down once the American troops arrived. Roving east of the upper Rio Grande southeast to the Canadian River, the Jicarillas now made life miserable for settler and traveler alike. “They are not considered a numerous band,” declared John Calhoun from his Indian agency in Santa Fe, “but they are bold, daring and adventurous spirits; and they say, they have never encountered the face of a white foe, who did not quail, and attempt to fly from them.” Their hostility was fueled by their northern friends the Utes, who provided a ready market for their plunder, and by the rivalry between old Chacon and young Lobo Blanco for tribal supremacy.
Regular troops and New Mexico Volunteers repeatedly clashed with Lobo’s band, driving him southeast of Rayado toward favorite haunts along the canyon of the Canadian River. Captain Henry Judd, commanding a detachment posted at Las Vegas, reported in late summer 1849 that the Jicarillas had been well-supplied by whiskey traders from Mora and “that after leaving their families in a secure place, the Apaches will return to this frontier for plunder.”
To the east it was no better along the Santa Fe Trail. Throughout the summer of 1849 it was rare for a wagon train to reach Santa Fe without being attacked or having stock driven off. Indian agent Calhoun requested more troops on August 15, noting that “the Indians, generally, are in bad temper—the number of troops are not sufficient here to keep upon them a proper check.” By October matters had deteriorated even more, Calhoun noting that “Mr. [Ceran] St. Vrain, long a citizen here, every way reliable, and intelligent, says a worse state of things has not existed in this country since he has been an inhabitant of it.”
The Army, even if more troops could have been sent, offered little hope to the New Mexico settlers or protection to travelers on the trail, one Army officer complaining of “the ignorance, the laziness and the vicious character of the officers in the frontier depots.” The St. Louis Daily Union, under the bold headline “Indian Murders—Apathy of Our Government,” called for action to punish the Indian raiders. “It is almost useless to send regular forces against Indians,” the newspaper said. “The Indians will elude them, and disperse to their secret haunts. Not so, however with the Texan rangers, or the hunters of our own frontier. Acquainted with Indian life, they will follow the savage to the fastnesses of his own ravines or mountains, hunt him out, and, arm to arm, exact from him the penalty of his depredations.”
Despite the dangers, the great trade caravans still gathered. The most experienced of all the wagon train captains, the intrepid Francois X. Aubry, organized a large caravan at Kansas City in mid-September. No wagon train captain was more respected than this young French Canadian who had repeatedly set travel records with his caravans and as a mail carrier. Friend to both Carson and Frémont, Aubry had battled both hostile Indians and severe weather to take three trains to Santa Fe in 1848 alone. In February 1849 he accompanied Charles White to Chihuahua, which was becoming the real center of a trade network stretching from St. Louis to Santa Fe and then along the old Camino Real to Mexico City. Aubry’s return to Missouri was marked by attacks from both Apaches and Pawnees, but his little band reached Independence on August 23 with no losses. Undaunted, he immediately proceeded to purchase goods for a return to Santa Fe.
Attached to Aubry’s caravan were 10 wagons owned by Ceran St. Vrain and 13 wagons owned by James M. White. White planned to headquarter his new mercantile business in Santa Fe with yet another branch in El Paso established by his brother and Aubry the previous winter. All of his personal goods were with the wagon train, for he now planned to settle in Santa Fe. His wife, Ann Dunn, and daughter Virginia—along with a mulatto employee, Ben Bushman, and a black female servant—made up the White household. They departed Kansas City on September 15.
Despite all the dire warnings of Indian unrest, the journey proved uneventful, although the weather turned cold and blustery. Just east of Council Grove, Aubry decided to send his wagon master, William Calloway, ahead to Santa Fe for fresh mules. White decided to accompany Calloway in order to get his family to Santa Fe more quickly. Aubry argued against this action, but could not dissuade the merchant. Leaving his wagons with Aubry, White pushed ahead with his family in two carriages on October 18. White, his wife, daughter, black nursemaid and Bushman were accompanied by Calloway, a German traveler named Lawberger and two New Mexican employees of Aubry.
By October 24 the little party had hurried down the Santa Fe Trail’s Cimarron cutoff and across Palo Blanco Creek some 10 miles east of the Point of Rocks landmark. They were less than 100 miles from the relative safety of Las Vegas when Lobo Blanco’s Jicarillas sprang their ambush. The Indians later claimed that they had attempted to parley with White and were fired on, but the elaborate stone breastworks they had constructed beside the trail told a different story. It must have been over quickly. Calloway was shot through the chest and Lawberger through the neck. The two Mexicans fell nearby. White fought desperately in defense of his family, falling with several bullet and lance wounds. His loyal servant, Bushman, died not far from him.
The gun smoke had hardly cleared when a party of New Mexican buffalo hunters happened on the scene. They proceeded to ransack the carriages for plunder when Lobo Blanco struck again. One hunter was killed and his young son terribly wounded as the others beat a hasty retreat.
The wounded boy played possum until the Jicarillas left, and then crawled to Point of Rocks, where he encountered the party of Hugh Smith, the New Mexico territorial delegate to Congress, on his way to Washington, D.C. The boy’s tale horrified the men, who promptly returned to Las Vegas to alert the troops at Santa Fe and Taos.
Englishman Alexander Barclay, whose adobe fort was an important way station along Mora Creek, reached the murder scene on the evening of October 25. He and his companions did not linger, especially after finding White’s body with its lower half completely devoured by wolves, pushing on quickly to camp at Point of Rocks before reaching Barclay’s Fort the morning of the 27th. Smith was there with the wounded boy. The boy claimed that the Jicarillas had headed to the northwest after killing his father. Barclay, long the factor at Bent’s Fort, knew the Apaches well, and surmised that they must have headed southeast toward the broken country along the Canadian River. Barclay’s party had also encountered several Pueblo Indians who had seen Ann White and her daughter Virginia in the Apache camp. It was assumed that the Whites’ black nurse was with them as well, but the Pueblos had not seen her.
Indian agent Calhoun, receiving word in Santa Fe on October 29, immediately hired Indian trader Encarnacion Garcia to ransom Mrs. White and her daughter from the Apaches. Calhoun gave Garcia $1,000 for the ransom, at the same time confessing to his superiors, “I am left to lament the impotency of my arm, and if the two captives are not to be liberated, it is to be hoped they are dead.”
Aubry, upon reaching Santa Fe the next morning, was devastated by the news and promptly hired both Pueblo Indians and New Mexican friends to rescue the captives. He also offered $1,000 as reward or ransom.
At Las Vegas the wary Captain Judd ordered an escort of 20 men eastward under Sergeant Philip Swartwout to guard the mail wagon bound for “the states.” Judd also sent an Indian hostage taken prisoner by Lieutenant Ambrose Burnside the previous August along with the sergeant in case they should encounter the Apaches. The hostage, Lobo Blanco’s daughter, was to be traded for Mrs. White. The party camped a few miles east of Point of Rocks the first night out, not far from the White murder site. The Jicarilla woman was allowed to climb a nearby knoll, where she awakened the entire camp with her mournful wail. She cried all night. By dawn she appeared calm, sitting quietly next to the campfire when ordered into a wagon by one of the teamsters. In response she stabbed the man several times with a butcher knife before being knocked down by one of his companions. She then chased her assailant around the camp before, in frustration, stabbing several of the mules, killing one. Swartwout ordered her shot, which was promptly done, thus ending all hope of a hostage exchange.
Troops were also in motion from Taos, where Captain William Grier organized a joint force consisting of his own company of the 1st Dragoons, 42 men, as well as 40 mounted New Mexican Volunteers under Captain Jose M. Valdez and a battery of 6-pounders. Grier, an 1835 West Point graduate who had been brevetted major for gallantry during the Mexican War, had not been in New Mexico long. He wisely hired Antoine Leroux as his chief-of-scouts for the expedition. Leroux rivaled even Kit Carson as a mountain man and scout, and while the two men were lifelong friends, others constantly sought to build a rivalry between them. Leroux, born of French-Canadian parents in St. Louis in 1803, had gone west with William H. Ashley in 1822. An experienced trapper and mountain man, he had settled in New Mexico in 1833 and married into the prominent Vigil clan. During the Mexican War he had won further fame as a scout for Colonel Philip St. George Cooke’s Mormon Battalion, helping to blaze a wagon road to California.
Also attached to the command was 22-year-old German emigrant William Kronig, freshly minted orderly sergeant of Valdez’s company. Kronig had migrated to the United States from Westphalia in 1847. Lured westward by gold fever, he had made it only as far as Santa Fe before running out of cash. In hopes of making enough money to continue on to the gold fields, he enlisted for two months’ service in the New Mexico Volunteers and, since he was the only man in his company who could read or write English, was promptly promoted to sergeant. When the detachment was ordered out, he requested that Captain Grier provide him with a gun, but was dismissed with the statement that a saber was enough of a weapon for him. It was a telling comment on Grier.
On the third night out, Grier’s detachment reached Rayado. The captain wanted well-known Kit Carson to join his party, even though Leroux was to be chief scout and he already had noted mountain men Robert Fisher, Dick Wootton, Jesus Silva and Tom Tobin in his company. Carson listened to Grier’s plea. This was a familiar tale as old as the frontier. The rescue of his daughter from the Shawnees was one of the most famous stories from the life of Daniel Boone, and it in turn had provided the plotline for James Fenimore Cooper’s 1826 novel The Last of the Mohicans. These written manifestations of the tale were lost on Carson, who could not read or write, but the plight of the young mother certainly stirred him to action. Settling down with his own family would have to wait a while longer.
Carson was the first to reach the slaughter site on November 9, quickly finding the abandoned Apache camp as well. “The letters, papers etc. found strewed about this camp,” noted Grier, “were conclusive evidence that here had been the hiding place of those Indians who, two weeks previously, had murdered Mr. J.M. White and his party.” Even the rough mountain men were moved by the discovery of Virginia White’s little rocking chair.
“It was the most difficult trail that I ever followed,” Carson later declared. The Apaches would break into small parties every morning, rejoining at a designated campsite in the late afternoon. The trail, already cold, led Carson and the other scouts to many a dead end. Ann White was their great ally. “In nearly every camp we would find some of Mrs. White’s clothing,” Carson noted, “which was the cause of renewed energy on our part to continue the pursuit.”
From Point of Rocks Carson trailed the Jicarillas to the southeast, toward their favored haunts along the Canadian River and its tributaries. After 200 miles they crossed the river only to realize that their quarry had circled back some 15 miles below the point of their crossing.
“It was the flight of the ravens, which led me to believe that we were nearing the hostiles of whom we were in pursuit,” recalled frontiersman Dick Wootton. “The direction of their flight indicated the location of a camp, where they could find the carcasses of dead animals to feed on, and the time of their flight in the afternoon, indicated the distance of the camp from us.”
As the trail became fresh, Captain Grier ordered the men to supply themselves with bread for eight days for the final pursuit. They would make only cold camps at night after pushing hard every day. About two hours before sundown on November 16, the scouts found the abandoned Apache camp with cottonwood still smoldering in the ashes of the fires. Scouts were sent out, but it was too late in the day to find the Jicarillas. Having traveled a punishing 40 miles that day, Grier decided to encamp in a grove of nearby cottonwoods to rest his horses and men for the final push forward.
At dawn on November 17, Grier moved his command out at the gallop, the scouts in advance. He gambled that even though they had to travel across the exposed prairie to make speed, the Indians might not spy them until too late. “All former precautions had been eliminated,” recounted Sergeant Kronig. “The company started on a trot and kept up this pace until we were in sight of some Indian horses, grazing on the hills above their camp.” The Jicarillas, encamped on the Canadian River some 15 miles south of the landmark called Tucumcari Butte, were taken by surprise.
Carson, far in advance, could see that the Apaches had been alerted to the troops and were breaking camp. As he galloped forward, he called back to the men to follow him. Wootton and others rushed forward to join Carson in charging the camp when Grier suddenly ordered the men to halt. Wootton was stunned, calling Grier’s action “one of the strangest ideas that ever entered the head of a commanding officer, who was about to engage an Indian or any other enemy.”
Carson galloped back, cursing Grier and demanding an immediate charge, but Leroux had suggested a parley and the captain was adamant. One enraged volunteer sergeant rode up to Grier and threw down his gun and saber in disgust. By this time Indian warriors were rushing toward the troops, screening the escape of their families. Grier suddenly reeled in his saddle, shot in the chest by one of the Apaches. His gauntlets, stuffed into his coat pocket, saved him by stopping the spent ball. Gasping for breath, he ordered the charge. It was too late.
As the soldiers rushed the village, the last of the warriors melted away before them with their families now safely across the river. Fisher shot one warrior as he swam the river. He was the only Apache killed. The Indians, with their fresh horses, easily outdistanced the pursuing soldiers and quickly scattered.
In the camp Carson found the body of Ann White, “perfectly warm, had not been killed more than five minutes—shot through the heart with an arrow.” Carson was uncharacteristically bitter. “I am certain that if the Indians had been charged immediately on our arrival, she would have been saved,” he noted. Sergeant Kronig also came on the tragic scene: “She was running toward us when shot and the arrow that took her life, struck at her back, seemed to have passed through her heart. It was a pitiful sight to see an American woman so ruthlessly killed by these heartless savages. They still had her baby and the Negro nurse.”
With pursuit fruitless, the soldiers gathered up camp equipment, buffalo robes, saddles and food and tore down some 30 lodges. These were all gathered over Mrs. White’s grave and burned, so that the Apaches would not find the burial site. Seventy ponies were taken, which Grier gave to the volunteers. Two Apache children were found, and Grier turned them over to Jesus Silva to take back to Rayado (the taking of Indian children as slaves was still commonplace among New Mexicans).
While all the Indian property was gathered for destruction, Mrs. White’s baggage was also found, and there a remarkable discovery was made. Carson never forgot the moment: “In camp was found a book, the first of the kind I have ever seen, in which I was made a great hero, slaying Indians by the hundred, and I have often thought that as Mrs. White would read the same, and knowing that I lived near, she would pray for my appearance and that she would be saved. I did come, but had not the power to convince those that were in command over me to pursue my plan for her rescue.”
The book was most likely Charles Averill’s Kit Carson: Prince of the Gold Hunters, published earlier that year and the first of many novels to wildly exaggerate Carson’s heroics. Disgusted, Carson urged his companions to toss the book into the fire over Ann White’s grave.
On the return the column was struck by a sudden blizzard. In the ensuing whiteout most of the captured ponies were lost as the command drifted before the storm. Grier’s black servant was lost in the storm, and the men suffered terribly. It was even worse for Lobo Blanco’s people, caught on the open prairie to the east without any lodges or buffalo robes. A great many of them perished. Carson, Leroux and Grier, with some of the dragoons, staggered into Captain Judd’s camp at Las Vegas on November 24. From there Carson left the command for Rayado.
In 1850 Congress authorized $1,500 to be paid by Indian agent Calhoun for the return of the White girl, but neither she nor her nurse was ever found. The Apaches declared that they were dead. In response to the White murders, Calhoun got his request for more troops, and in 1851 Fort Union was built near where the Cimarron and mountain branches of the Santa Fe Trail came together just to the west of Point of Rocks. The army relentlessly pursued the Jicarrillas, and in 1854 dragoons under Lieutenant David Bell killed Lobo Blanco. Ironically, this was after a failed parley in which the chief attempted to kill the young officer.
Back in Taos, Sergeant Kronig was ordered to copy the official military report of Grier’s expedition. “I copied it and to my surprise I read of the wonders that we had performed,” he grumbled. As he worked, Major Benjamin Beall of the 1st Dragoons stepped into the office to inquire how Kronig was doing. When the young German remarked on his surprise on reading of such a brilliant campaign that he had not witnessed, the old soldier simply smiled and remarked that it was “paper talk.”
Kit Carson also now knew the strange power of paper talk. On the far reaches of the Canadian he had come face to face with his own legend in one of the most remarkable moments in all of frontier history. The discovery of Averill’s book made it seem as if life was imitating art, but with tragic consequences. The failure of his ride to save Ann White would haunt him all the rest of his days.
Paul Andrew Hutton is a University of New Mexico Distinguished Professor, executive director of Western Writers of America and author of Phil Sheridan and His Army. Suggested reading: Blood and Thunder: An Epic of the American West, by Hampton Sides; and Kit Carson & the Indians, by Tom Dunlay.
This article was written by Paul Andrew Hutton and originally published in the April 2007 issue of Wild West Magazine. For more great articles, subscribe to Wild West magazine today!