Kit Carson (1809–68)—fur trapper and trader, guide, scout, Indian agent, Army officer—achieved fame in his lifetime and was arguably the West’s best-known frontiersman until self-promoting Buffalo Bill Cody came along. Yes, Carson killed Indians, which has made him persona non grata among those presuming to make politically correct pronouncements about historical figures. Still, most Americans realize he lived in a violent frontier era when Indians were also trying to kill him. Kit Carson remains a household name, though perhaps not in as many households as it once did. Not so Carson’s younger colleague and relation by marriage Thomas Tate Tobin (1823–1904), who achieved many of the same benchmarks that made Kit a heroic American. Writes Daniel Sanchez-Leonetti in “The Man in Black,” in the June 2022 issue, “Some contemporaries considered him the only man who could surpass the legendary Kit Carson in shooting, scouting and tracking.” The unsung Tobin also turned a stint as something Carson never was—a bounty hunter.
Sanchez-Leonetti relates Tobin’s successful mission, the evidence of which—presented to Tappan in a gunnysack—caused the colonel to turn green and take a seat
In 1863 Tobin achieved renown by tracking down and killing the murderous Felipe Nerio Espinosa in what today is central Colorado. Felipe and brother Vivián Espinosa are considered by some students of murder and mayhem the first serial killers in the American West. The so-called “Bloody Espinosas” (Felipe recruited young nephew José Espinosa after a posse killed Vivián) committed their depredations a decade before the “Bloody Benders,” a homicidal family that disposed of unwary travelers at their roadside inn in southeastern Kansas. Exactly how many people John, Elvira and children John Jr. and Kate Bender killed between 1871 and ’73 is uncertain, but it ranged upward of a dozen. The Bloody Espinosas killed perhaps as many as 32. Anyway, that was Felipe’s claim. In personal papers recovered after his death he also described a dream in which the Virgin Mary ordered him to kill 600 gringos—a hundred for each of his relatives killed in the Mexican War.
Tobin, whose father was an Irish immigrant and mother was of mixed white and Indian blood, had survived many ordeals (including the 1847 Taos Revolt) before he got the call from Fort Garland commander Lt. Col. Samuel Tappan in October 1863 to track down the Espinosas. Sanchez-Leonetti relates Tobin’s successful mission, the evidence of which—presented to Tappan in a gunnysack—caused the colonel to turn green and take a seat.
In a related feature Sanchez-Leonetti presents the transcription of an interview brother Robert Leonetti conducted with Kit Carson III (1883–1974) regarding Tobin’s pursuit of the Espinosas. Tobin was 77 in 1900 when he first described the adventure to then 16-year-old Kit, the grandson of both Tobin and Kit Carson. In 1878 Tobin’s daughter María Pascualita had married William “Billy” Carson (1852–89), and young Kit was one of their six children. Leonetti interviewed the latter on Dec. 30, 1968, six years before Carson died at age 91.
“My brother was a graduate student at Adams State College [in Alamosa, Colo.] when he taped the interview with Kit Carson III,” says Sanchez-Leonetti. “The original transcript was not done well and was never published. The tape has reposed for 52 years in my brother’s shed. I looked for it for a long time, praying my brother hadn’t tossed it out. I transcribed it pretty much word for word. In parentheses I corrected some of Kit Carson III’s wrong facts. He was very old at the time of the interview, and Tobin was notorious for getting dates wrong. But Kit Carson III did clear up one date. In a deposition nine years before his death Tobin said he went after the Espinosas in September 1863, but in the 1968 interview Kit Carson III remembers it was in October 1863, the same month that his mother was born.”
In the interview Carson said Grandfather Tobin claimed to have been ignorant of any bounty when he rode in pursuit of the Espinosas—in which case the tracker wasn’t technically a bounty hunter. “And the reason he went was like all these old-timers done,” Carson explained. “He done it for humanity sake and to protect mankind that these fellas were killing all over the valley, all over the place.” Kit Carson III could look up to both of his grandfathers—and so can we. WW
Wild West editor Gregory Lalire’s historical novel The Call of McCall is due out in July 2022. His earlier novels include 2021’s Man From Montana, 2019’s Our Frontier Pastime: 1804–1815 and 2014’s Captured: From the Frontier Diary of Infant Danny Duly. His short story “Halfway to Hell” appears in the 2018 anthology The Trading Post and Other Frontier Stories.