Kit Carson

Kit Carson

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Christopher (Kit) Carson was born in Madison County, Kentucky, on 24th December, 1809. The family moved to Howard County, Missouri, when Carson was a child.

At the age of 14 Carson was apprenticed as a saddle maker in Franklin, Missouri. The following year he ran away and joined a group of people travelling to Sante Fe. Eventually he became a teamster for Robert McKnight at the Santa Rita copper mine in New Mexico.

He met Tom Fitzpatrick, the famous mountain man, and over the next few years he worked as a trapper in the Rocky Mountains. In 1835 Carson saved the life of Mark Head during a fight with a group of Blackfeet. The following year he joined the Hudson's Bay Company and in 1837 worked with James Bridger in the Yellowstone.

Carson's first wife died after giving birth to a couple of children. His second wife was a Native American. Later he married Marie Josefa Jaramillo. Carson took his eldest daughter to school in Missouri. On the journey he met John Fremont, who had just surveyed the Des Moines River. The two men got on well and Fremont hired him as a guide at £100 a month.

In 1843, with Carson and Tom Fitzpatrick as his guides, Fremont's party followed the Cache de la Poudre River into the Laramie Mountains. He then crossed the Rocky Mountains via the South Pass and Green River. He then followed the Bear River until it reached the Great Salt Lake.

After spending time at Fort Hall he followed the Snake River past Fort Boise to Fort Vancouver, where he met John McLoughlin. Fremont then turned south where he explored Klamath Lake and the Great Basin before making a midwinter crossing of the Sierra Nevada mountains and despite great hardships reached Sutter Fort. Fremont and Carson eventually reached St. Louis on 6th August, 1844.

In 1845 Carson joined John Fremont at Bent's Fort for his third expedition. While this trip was taking place the Mexican War started. Fremont was given the rank of major in the United States Army and General Stephen Kearny persuaded Carson to work as his guide in his attempts to capture California.

Carson developed a sympathy for the plight of Native Americans and in March, 1854, he became an Indian agent in Taos. On the outbreak of the American Civil War Carson joined the Union Army. He was given the rank of colonel and commanded the 1st New Mexico Volunteers.

In 1849 Carson began farming at Raydo, New Mexico. He often left the farm to guide military parties. Carson also went trapping in the mountains and took sheep to California.

Carson was appointed superintendent of Indian Affairs for Colorado Territory in 1853. He held the post until 1861 when he resigned to become a colonel in the New Mexico Volunteer Infantry. After taking part in the battle of Valverde, he was promoted to Brigadier General. He led an expedition to Adobe Walls and in November 1864 he fought about 3,000 Kiowas, Comanches, and Arapahoes.

Kit Carson resigned from the army in November, 1867. He settled at Boggsville, Colorado, where he died on 23rd May, 1868.

In the afternoon a war-whoop was heard, such as Indians make when returning from a victorious enterprise; and soon Carson and Godey appeared, driving before them a band of horses, recognized by Fuentes as part of those they had lost. Two bloody scalps, dangling from the end of Godey's gun, announced that they had overtaken the Indians as well as the horses... The time, place, object, and numbers considered, this expedition of Carson and Godey may be considered among the boldest and most disinterested which the annals of western adventure, so full of daring deeds, can present. Two men, in a savage desert, pursue day and night an unknown body of Indians into the denies of an unknown mountain - attack them on sight, without counting numbers - and defeat them in an instant - and for what? To punish the robbers of the desert, and to avenge the wrongs of Mexicans whom they did not know. I repeat: it was Carson and Godey who did this - the former an American, born in Boonslick County in Missouri; the latter a Frenchman, born in St. Louis - and both trained in western enterprise from early life.

He (Kit Carson) declared that all our Indian troubles were caused originally by bad white men... He pleaded for the Indians as "poor ignorant creatures" whom we were daily dispoiling of their hunting grounds and homes.

I have heard that of his character, which leads me to believe that the rough manner, the uncultivated speech, apparently peculiar to him, are in a degree assumed; that he in his youth received the benefits of a good education and good society, but that he ever loved the wild delights of a hunter's life, and with its freedoms and pleasures, determined to adopt its plain habits and plainer mode of speech.

Somewhat less garrulous and boastful than many of the frontiersmen; yet the difference between him and others of his class in character and skill was by no means so marked as has been represented in eulogistic biographical sketches. No one, however, begrudged Kit the fame his biographers have given him. It is their custom, ignoring faults, to concentrate in one trapper all the virtues of his class for dramatic effect.

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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Life on the western frontier

Carson's career in the West spanned the years from 1825 to 1868, a period of rapid national expansion, exploration, and settlement. From 1827 to 1829 young Carson spent time working as a cook, driving a wagon, interpreting Spanish, and mining copper. In August 1829 he gained invaluable experience after joining a trapping party

In 1831 Carson returned to New Mexico, where he immediately joined up with the experienced trapper, Thomas Fitzpatrick (c. 1799�). With Fitzpatrick's men, Carson headed north into the rugged central Rocky Mountains. For the next ten years, Carson worked as a trapper all over western America in what is today known as Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana. During this time spent in the wilderness of North America, Carson learned everything he needed to know in order to become a respected guide.

In 1836 Carson married an Arapaho Indian woman. The couple had two children, only one of whom𠅊 daughter—survived. After his first wife died, Carson married a Cheyenne woman. The marriage did not last, and Carson took his daughter to St. Louis, Missouri, to further her education. For the next eight years, Carson split his time between his daughter in St. Louis and his trapping duties in Taos, New Mexico.

Legends of America

Kit Carson in 1854, painting by William Ranney

“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”
–T. S. Elliot

American frontiersman, trapper, soldier and guide, Christopher Carson, better known as Kit Carson, is one of the great heroes of the Old West. During the early 1800s, Carson was a legendary mountain man and free trader in the American Southwest, having gained renown for his fur trade and trail-blazing efforts in New Mexico and westward to California. He served as a United States military guide, an American Indian agent, and a celebrated aide during the Mexican-American War. His extensive travels and experience tell a story of not just one man, but of many peoples and cultures throughout the area of what would become the Southwestern United States.

Christopher Houston Carson was born on December 24, 1809, in Madison County, Kentucky, to Lindsey Carson, a veteran of the American Revolution, and Rebecca Robinson Carson. He was a cousin to another famous frontiersman, Daniel Boone, through his mother. When he was just two years old, the family moved to Howard County, Missouri, where Carson spent most of his early childhood in Boone’s Lick. Also living there was William Becknell who would blaze the Santa Fe Trail in 1821. When Becknell returned, the news of his prosperous trip attracted wide attention and the new community of Franklin, Missouri, near Boone’s Lick, became the birthplace of the Santa Fe Trail.

As part of a large family, survival on the frontier was the priority and Carson never learned to read or write. His father died when he was only nine years old. Despite being penniless, his mother took care of her children alone for four years before remarrying. When Kit was 14, he went to work as an apprentice in Workman’s Saddleshop in nearby Franklin. By this time, the Santa Fe Trail was two years old and many of the customers were trappers and traders from whom Kit would hear stories about the frontier. Kit did not get along with his stepfather and didn’t like the saddle trade. When he was 16, he secretly signed on with a large merchant caravan heading to Santa Fe, arriving at their destination in November 1826.

From Santa Fe, Kit went north to Taos where he worked as a cook, errand boy, and harness repairer. At this time, he was just five feet, five inches tall, weighed 140 pounds, and was slightly bow-legged. He was described as softly spoken and posed a great natural modesty.

When he was 19, he was hired for a fur trapping expedition to California, where, in spite of his small stature he soon proved himself able and courageous.

Between 1828 and 1840, Carson used Taos as a base camp for many fur-trapping expeditions throughout the mountains of the West, from California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains to the Rocky Mountains. During this time he met other famous frontiersmen including Jim Bridger, Tom ‘Broken Hand’ Fitzpatrick, and Dr. Marcus Whitman. His best friend, Lucien Maxwell, who owned the largest land grant in New Mexico, would eventually become his brother-in-law.

As was the case with many white trappers, Carson became somewhat integrated into the Indian world traveling and living extensively among them. At one point he married an Arapaho woman named Singing Grass with whom he would have a daughter named Adaline Carson in 1837. Sometime later, Singing Grass died while giving birth to a second child. With Adaline needing a mother, Kit next married a Cheyenne woman called Making-Out-Road. She soon divorced him Indian style, in 1840.

Carson was evidently unusual among trappers, noted for his self-restraint and temperate lifestyle. “Clean as a hound’s tooth,” according to one acquaintance, and a man whose “word was as sure as the sun comin’ up,” he was noted for an unassuming manner and implacable courage.

Bents Fort, Colorado by Kathy Weiser

Around 1840 Carson was employed as a hunter for the garrison at Bent’s Fort, Colorado, soon becoming its chief hunter.

In 1842, while returning from Missouri, where he took his daughter to be educated in a convent, Carson happened to meet John C. Fremont on a Missouri Riverboat. Fremont hired Carson as a guide for his first expedition to map and describe Western trails to the Pacific Ocean. Over the next several years, Carson helped guide Fremont to Oregon and California, and through much of the Central Rocky Mountains and the Great Basin. His service with Fremont, celebrated in Fremont’s widely-read reports of his expeditions, quickly made Kit Carson a national hero, presented in popular fiction as a rugged mountain man capable of superhuman feats.

During the early 1840s, Carson established his permanent residence in Taos, New Mexico. After returning to Taos from California, Carson married his third wife, Maria Josefa Jaramillo, the daughter of a prominent Taos family in February 1843. Josefa was described by a visitor: “Her style of beauty was of the naughty, heart-breaking kind, such as would lead a man with the glance of the eye, to risk his life for a smile.” Together they would have eight children. Josefa’s sister, Maria Ignacia Jaramillo, was married to noted fur-trader Charles Bent, who would later become New Mexico’s first governor. The same year he purchased a home in Taos for his family. Except for its 1825 date of construction, little is known about the Spanish-Colonial style residence before the Carson purchased it. Today, the home is a National Historic Landmark and stands as one of the only remaining physical reminders of Carson’s life.

Carson’s notoriety grew as his name became associated with several key events in the United States’ westward expansion. He was still serving as Fremont’s guide when Fremont joined California’s short-lived Bear-Flag rebellion just before the outbreak of the Mexican-American War in 1846. Carson would serve in the war, playing an important part in the conquest of California.

Battle of San Pascual, California by Colonel Charles Woodhouse

Carson also led the forces of U.S. General Stephen Kearny from Socorro, New Mexico into California, when a Californio band led by Andrés Pico mounted a challenge to the American occupation of Los Angeles later that year. On December 6, 1846, these forces were attacked by Mexicans at San Pasqual, about 30 miles north of San Diego. On the third night of this battle, Carson and two others snuck through enemy lines and ran the entire distance to San Diego, where they brought help for Kearny’s pinned-down forces. Emerging as the hero of the Battle of San Pascual, many people soon 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 Fremont’s book 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.”

— Lieutenant William Tecumseh Sherman, upon being introduced to Carson at military headquarters in Monterey, California in the fall of 1847

In April 1847, Kit Carson was away from home when the deadly Taos Revolt erupted. In the rebellion, his brother-in-law, Governor Charles Bent, was murdered while protecting Josefa and her sister from a rebellious mob. Afterward, Carson, who was devoted to his young wife, began to be more anxious to stay home, stating:

“We had been leading a roving life long enough and now was the time, if ever, to make a home for ourselves and children.”

Determined to settle down, he invested $2,000 in a ranching and farming enterprise with his old friend Lucien Maxwell. Through marriage, Maxwell had inherited the largest land grant in U.S. history. Situated along the Cimarron River about 65 east of Taos, the two purchased stock and seeds and hired workers to erect buildings on Rayado Creek. Though the area was exposed to Plains Indian raiders, it was also located along the mountain branch of the Santa Fe Trail. While Maxwell moved his family there in 1849, Carson was reluctant, as Josefa had just given birth to a new baby. However, he did build a small house there.

That year, he was called on to guide soldiers on the trail of Jicarilla Apache and Ute Indians who had committed the White Massacre in northeastern New Mexico. After the battle, Mrs. Ann White, her servant, and her baby daughter were kidnapped. Mrs. White was later found dead, but the servant and her daughter were never found.

By 1853, he and his partner, Lucien Maxwell, were able to drive a large flock of sheep to California, where gold rush prices paid them a handsome profit. In 1854 he was appointed Indian agent for the Ute and Apache at Taos, New Mexico, a post he held until the Civil War imposed new duties on him in 1861. These years of serving as an Indian Agent were the longest period of time at home with his family. During the Civil War, he helped organize New Mexican infantry volunteers, which saw action at Valverde in 1862. Most of his military actions, however, were directed against the Navajo Indians, many of whom had refused to be confined upon a distant reservation set up by the government.

Navajo Prisoners taking the “Long Walk”

Beginning in 1863, under orders from his commanders in the U.S. Army, Carson waged a brutal economic war against the Navajo in an attempt to relocate them, marching through the heart of their territory to destroy their crops, and rounding up their livestock, some of which was later given to those that surrendered.

When the Ute, Pueblo, Hopi, and Zuni, who for centuries had been prey to Navajo raiders, took advantage of their traditional enemy’s weakness by following the Americans onto the warpath, the Navajo were unable to defend themselves. In 1864 most surrendered to Carson, who treated them well, but was ordered to force nearly 8,000 Navajo men, women, and children, to take what came to be called the “Long Walk” of almost 300 miles from Arizona to Fort Sumner, New Mexico. The US military was unprepared for the large number of Navajo, and in only a couple of years, with the ground depleted, the ill-planned site became disease-ridden. In 1868, the Navajo were allowed to return to land along the Arizona-New Mexico border.

Boggsville, Colorado by Kathy Weiser

During this time, in 1865 Carson was given a commission as Brigadier General and cited for gallantry and distinguished service. In the summer of 1866, he moved to Colorado to expand his ranching business and took command of Fort Garland. Ill health forced him to resign the following year, and in late, 1868 the family moved to Boggsville, near present-day Las Animas, Colorado. Early that same year, at the urging of Washington and the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Carson journeyed to Washington D.C. where he escorted several Ute Chiefs to meet with the President of the United States to plead for assistance to their tribe. Although his health suffered again after his travels, he awaited an appointment as an Indian Agent for the Cheyenne and Arapaho in Colorado. Soon after his return, his wife Josefa died on April 23, 1868, from complications after giving birth to their eighth child.

Her death was a crushing blow to Carson and he was soon taken to Fort Lyon, Colorado, where he would also die, just one month later on May 23, 1868. In the presence of Dr. Tilton and his friend Thomas Boggs, his last words were “Goodbye, friends. Adios, compadres“. Carson died from an abdominal aortic aneurysm. Carson was transported to Boggsville, and buried beside his third wife, Josefa. A year later, both bodies would be taken to Taos, New Mexico, for their final burial. The local cemetery soon became the Kit Carson Cemetery in honor of the famous frontiersman.

Carson is still remembered for his many roles — trapper, explorer, Indian agent, and soldier. With his tremendous life experiences, he has come to symbolize the American West.

After his death, the Kit Carson House changed ownership several times before Bent Lodge #42, a Masonic Order, purchased the home in 1910. Carson himself was the founder of the parent order in Taos, New Mexico during his lifetime. At the time the Lodge acquired the property, the house was in disrepair with broken windows, a collapsed roof, and much of the space in use as stables. The Lodge established the Kit Carson Memorial Foundation, Inc. in 1952 to raise awareness and money to restore and interpret the property.

Kit Carson House in Taos, New Mexico

Today, the house reflects the aesthetics of late 18th century Spanish influence combined with traditional American Indian building traditions and materials. The one-story adobe building is U-shaped and surrounds an open patio in the rear. Outwardly, it is relatively simple: the home’s most prominent architectural feature is a long, low wooden porch along its front façade. The Carsons did not alter the house’s Spanish appearance during their time there. While Kit Carson was often away, he, Josefa, and six or seven of their children called this house their home for most of the next 25 years. Today, the Kit Carson Memorial Foundation carefully preserves the home, which is open to the public as a historic house museum.

Visitors can take a guided tour of the house and explore exhibits on Carson’s life and accomplishments. The museum also has a bookstore and gift shop. Just around the corner in Kit Carson Memorial State Park is the local cemetery with the graves of Carson and his wife. Both of their tombstones are the originals: Kit Carson’s, installed in 1890 and Josefa’s, later, in 1908. An iron fence now rings the gravesite to protect the stones from souvenir hunters, who around the turn of the century had chipped away at Carson’s tombstone causing severe damage to the marker.

The Removal of Monuments: What about Kit Carson?

I n the pandemic summer of 2020, as Black Lives Matter protesters toppled statues honoring Confederates and colonialists, simultaneous calls to remove monuments honoring the frontiersman Christopher “Kit” Carson reverberated along the Rocky Mountain corridor that links Denver and Santa Fe. The oldest memorial is in Santa Fe, an obelisk dedicated in 1885 that sits outside the U.S. courthouse there. In Denver, Carson was commemorated in the Pioneer Monument, erected in 1911 near Civic Center Plaza. The base featured a white hunter, prospector, and pioneer mother, and Carson towered over them, brandishing a rifle. The Carson of these monuments is a pathfinder who paved the way for white civilization in the U.S. West. The Carson of history is more complicated. He participated not only in the dispossession of Indigenous peoples but also in two forms of slavery practiced in nineteenth-century North America. The West and the nation need worthier, more honest memorials.

Carson’s life illuminates the enslavement of both African Americans and American Indians. He was born in Kentucky to people of Scots Irish descent who enslaved African-descended people. The Carsons moved to Missouri in the early 1800s. The family wasn’t prosperous and at 16, Kit followed the Santa Fe Trail west in search of new opportunities. The trading trail tied the U.S. western frontier of Missouri to the northern Mexican frontier of New Mexico, passing through lands controlled by Indigenous peoples. The trail also connected two regimes of slavery: the enslavement of African Americans, mostly by Anglo Americans, in Missouri and points east, and the enslavement of American Indians, mostly by Spanish Mexicans and other American Indians, in New Mexico and the wider borderlands.

So Carson moved from one slave regime to another. During the years he spent traversing the West as a trapper, hunter, and U.S. government guide, he married two Indigenous women, a Northern Arapaho called Singing Grass, who died, and a Southern Cheyenne called Making Out Road, who divorced him. Then he wed a nuevomexicana. Carson and his wife Josefa Jaramillo purchased Navajo captives according to the custom of the country, by which Spanish Mexicans made servants of Indigenous people and masked the coercive nature of the practice by calling them criados, from the verb criar (to raise up), as if the captives were nurtured in hispano families just as hispano children were. Apologists argue that Carson acquired Native captives to save them from abuse by other captors, but the record to confirm such claims is spotty and the experiences of the Carson criados are unknown.

Carson’s other encounters with Indigenous peoples varied. After the U.S. conquest of the Southwest in the 1840s, during the Civil War, he served in the Union army and as federal agent for Muache Ute, Jicarilla Apache, and Taos Pueblo Indians. Once Confederate forces fell in New Mexico, Carson turned to the subjugation of Kiowas, Comanches, Mescalero Apaches, and Navajos. General James Carleton sent him in 1863-64 to round up Navajos from their homeland, destroy their crops and herds, and force many of them on what became known as the Long Walk to the Bosque Redondo, where they languished for years alongside Mescalero Apaches before those who survived were allowed to return home. By then Carson was dead. He passed at the age of 58, just after he accompanied Ute leaders to Washington DC to negotiate a treaty protecting what remained of their diminishing homeland.

Even before he died, Carson’s persona took on a life of its own. His fame derived less from his deeds than from their promotion, starting in the 1840s, by government explorer John C. Frémont and by his wife Jessie Benton Frémont, who helped write her husband’s reports and who also penned her own tributes to the guide. In the 1860s, dime novelists picked up the Carson tale, pulling it further away from an actual past. Veneration of Carson was part of a rising tide of white supremacy in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when monuments like those in Santa Fe and Denver were commissioned. When activists respond to such monuments, they’re reacting to a mix of history, myth, and white supremacist ideology.

Present-day protesters who want the monuments removed echo calls that arose in the 1970s, when their activist forebears brought matters to a head in the corridor between Denver and Santa Fe. At Colorado College in Colorado Springs, an Akwesasne Mohawk faculty member, anthropologist Shirley Hill Witt, protested an ROTC exhibit featuring a photograph of Carson. The college also employed Carson historian Harvey Carter, and the two professors locked horns in a war of words. The college removed the offending photo in 1972.

The next year, in Taos, New Mexico, demonstrators turned their ire on Kit Carson Memorial State Park, where Carson and Josefa Jaramillo are buried. Hispano and Indigenous activists, organized by the American G.I. Forum, a Mexican American civil rights group founded in Texas in 1948, demanded that the space be renamed for an Indigenous soldier from Taos Pueblo who died in a Japanese prison camp in World War II. Newspapers across the state covered the story, as did the New York Times, but the protest failed. Calls to replace the park’s name continue.

The controversy moved north in 1974 when restaurateur Sam Arnold hosted a debate about memorialization of Carson at The Fort, Arnold’s eatery near Denver built to resemble Bent’s Fort, the Santa Fe Trail trading post where Carson once worked and near where he died. Historian Harvey Carter and David Fernández of the Taos G.I. Forum chapter presented the opposing views. The Santa Fe New Mexican reported that the debate ended in an “amicable draw.” In all, the 1970s controversies brought only the removal of single photo on a small college campus.

No surprise, then, that opposition to Carson memorials has arisen again across the same geography and among the political descendants of those who protested in the 1970s. Activists today decry Carson’s role in Native dispossession, however complicated that role was by his advocacy on behalf of and intimacy with some Indigenous peoples. Activists haven’t noted how the Carson family benefitted from the two forms of bondage that pervaded North America in the nineteenth century, however complicated that embrace of slavery was by Carson’s choice as a southerner to fight for the Union in the Civil War and by limited evidence that he bought human beings to protect them from more ruthless slaveholders.

History is complicated. But there are good reasons why Santa Fe’s mayor, responding to the Indigenous advocacy group Three Sisters Collective, has expressed support for removing the Carson monument that fronts the federal courthouse in New Mexico’s capital city. Meanwhile, plywood protects the obelisk. Early in the summer of 2020, Homeland Security vehicles guarded it too. Likewise, there are good reasons why the American Indian Movement of Colorado has called for removal of the Pioneer Monument in Denver. City workers there hauled the Carson figure away so it won’t suffer the same fate as a nearby sculpture honoring Christopher Columbus that protestors toppled. The Denver memorial’s fate is undecided.

It is little known today that the original design of Denver’s Pioneer Monument featured an Indigenous man where Carson ultimately wielded his gun. Early twentieth-century white Denverites objected to a heroic portrayal of an American Indian, and Carson took the Native man’s place, in a telling case of art imitating life. Activists have focused on this sort of dispossession. But Carson and his family were also deeply enmeshed in the enslavement of both African Americans and American Indians, further justifying protestors’ demands. That Homeland Security vehicles have protected the Santa Fe Carson monument indicates that as a nation, we don’t yet fully understand whose homelands and whose freedom we’re bound by history to defend.

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About the Author

Susan Lee Johnson is author of Writing Kit Carson: Fallen Heroes in a Changing West and Roaring Camp: The Social World of the California Gold Rush. Johnson is President-Elect of the Western History Association and holds the inaugural Harry Reid Endowed Chair for the History of the Intermountain West at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

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.

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

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.’

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.

Watch the video: CALL OF THE ROCKIES 1944 - Sunset Carson (June 2022).


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