Carson, Christopher "Kit"

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Carson, Christopher "Kit"

Born December 24, 1809

Madison County, Kentucky

Died May 23, 1868


Frontiersman and guide

Kit Carson was "a symbol of the daring and intelligence by which the frontier was being extended."

Thelma S. Guild and Harvey L. Carter in Kit Carson: A Pattern for Heroes

The ultimate frontiersman, Kit Carson spent his career on the edge of the American frontier, exploring, taming, and conquering it. Guts and determination turned Carson from an illiterate runaway into a brigadier general. Fortunate to be friends with one of the greatest promoters of the American West, John C. Frémont (1813–1890; see entry), Carson was a humble man whose amazing exploits would become known to the world—in embellished form—and make him a national hero.

Growing up on the frontier

Christopher "Kit" Carson was born on December 24, 1809, in Madison County, Kentucky, the third son of Lindsay and Rebecca Carson. The family soon moved to Howard County, Missouri, which was considered the frontier at the time. Carson remembered in his autobiography that "for two or three years after our arrival, we had to remain forted and it was necessary to have men stationed at the extremities of the fields for the protection of those that were laboring." As a boy, Carson thrived on the frontier, learning to shoot, hunt, and protect himself. A quick learner, Carson seemed to have a bright future.

In 1818, when Carson was just nine years old, his father was killed when a tree branch fell on him. Although Carson's father had recognized his son's intelligence and hoped Kit would get a good education, Carson had to leave school to look after his family when his father died. Carson's mother remarried in 1822, and Joseph Martin became a second father to Kit. Because Carson could not read or write, his stepfather sent him off to learn a trade at age fifteen. While working as an apprentice saddle maker in Old Franklin—the westernmost outpost in Missouri—Carson heard prospectors, trappers, and scouts telling stories of trailblazing, hunting, and camping on the frontier and of fighting and trading with various Native American tribes in the untamed West. After two years of learning the saddler's trade, Carson decided that he could not spend his life as a saddler. Instead, he would join a party headed for the Rocky Mountains and see the world.

Makes his home in Taos

Finding an expedition to the Far West did not take long. Carson joined a scouting expedition headed for Santa Fe, New Mexico, in August 1826. Arriving in Santa Fe in November, Carson then traveled to Taos, New Mexico, to find more work. Carson enjoyed the diversity of the New Mexican inhabitants, quickly learning Spanish and some American Indian languages from the Spanish and Mexican settlers, and the Pueblo, Ute, and Apache Indians who were among Taos's 3,606 residents. The dusty, barren New Mexican landscape so appealed to Carson that he made it his home base for many years to come.

Falling in love with adventure

Carson worked for a few months as a cook and hunter for Colorado's first cattleman, David Kinkead, who had begun a ranch in Taos. He then joined American army colonel Philip Trammel's expedition to Chihuahua, Mexico, as an interpreter. After the expedition, he mined copper in Mexico for a while. But Carson's real love was of adventure, and he soon landed his first job as a guide, the career that would make him a popular American hero figure. In 1829 Carson accompanied Ewing Young's trapping party through the Rocky Mountains. Carson's easy ability with languages and his hunting and cooking skills quickly proved his value to the expedition. In addition, he soon became an able beaver trapper.

Although he stood only 5 feet 7 inches tall and weighed only about 160 pounds, Carson also established himself as an aggressive and effective Indian fighter. An example of his unrelenting drive occurred near San Rafael in northern California when some Navajo stole sixty head of cattle and horses from the expedition. Within a matter of days, Carson had tracked the Indians more than one hundred miles through territory unfamiliar to him in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. He recalled in his autobiography: "We surprised the Indians while they were feasting off some of our animals they had killed. We charged their camp ... and recovered all of our animals, with the exception of six that were eaten."

Establishing himself as a guide

Carson displayed such impressive abilities in the wilderness on his first expedition that his reputation as a skillful guide was established. He readily found more guide work over the next several years with fur trappers who were enjoying very profitable business in the 1830s. As a guide during this time, Carson's tracking abilities were continually tested. Indians would harass trappers, stealing their horses and mules or their animal skins. Although Carson showed a genuine appreciation for the customs and values of Native Americans, learning many Native American dialects, he would always protect those in his charge against Indian attacks or theft.

Carson's first wife was an Arapaho woman named Waanibe whom he married in 1835. The couple had two daughters. Waanibe died shortly after the second birth, sometime between 1839 and 1841. Carson then married a Cheyenne woman named Making-Out-Road, but she apparently did not enjoy being a stepmother, and she ended the marriage by placing Carson's belongings outside their home, which was the traditional Cheyenne method for divorcing a spouse. Carson's youngest daughter died unfortunately after falling into a pot of boiling soap in Taos in the early 1840s. Unable to care for his remaining daughter and pursue his work as an explorer, Carson made arrangements for his sister to raise his elder daughter, Adaline, in Missouri.

Carson meets Frémont

Carson found it increasingly difficult to find rivers with enough beaver for the trappers he guided throughout the West in the early 1840s. After settling his daughter with his sister in April 1842, Carson set off for St. Louis to look for new prospects as a guide. Uncomfortable in the city, Carson left St. Louis after only two days; he left on a riverboat headed up the Missouri River. On the same boat was John Charles Frémont, who Carson knew was looking for a guide. Approaching Frémont, Carson recalled saying "that I had been some time in the mountains and thought I could guide him to any point he wished to go," according to Kit Carson: A Pattern for Heroes. Frémont was in charge of an expedition to survey the Platte or Nebraska River to the headwaters of the Sweetwater River for the U.S. government, and he was intent on reaching the Rocky Mountains. After inquiring about Carson's abilities, Frémont hired him as a guide for one hundred dollars a month. As Frémont's guide, Carson validated his reputation as an invaluable member of any expedition, speaking with Indians in sign language, scaling snowy mountain peaks that others could not climb, and being what Frémont described as "one of the finest pictures of a horseman," according to Kit Carson: A Pattern for Heroes. Frémont immediately made plans for Carson to join his next expedition to California.

After the expedition, Carson returned to his home in Taos in 1843 and married Josefa Jaramilla, a beautiful fifteen-year-old girl from a prominent New Mexican family. Although Carson spent much of his married life in the wilderness, Josefa was a "magnet that always drew him back to Taos," according to Thelma S. Guild and Harvey L. Carter in Kit Carson: A Pattern for Heroes. Carson and Josefa saw each other only between his expeditions, but they had several children together.

Joins the Mexican-American War

Carson joined up with Frémont again and explored from the Great Basin across the Sierra Nevada Mountains to the Sacramento Valley of California between 1843 and 1844. During the journey, Carson protected the expedition from hostile Sioux who were warring against American trappers in the South Pass area of the Rocky Mountains. Carson prevented fights and facilitated trade with his knowledge of Spanish and Native American languages. His adventures on this expedition made Carson "a symbol of the daring and intelligence by which the frontier was being extended," according to Guild and Carter.

Carson returned and stayed near Taos until 1845. But by August 1845, Carson had once again joined Frémont, whose expedition was speeding toward California, which at the time was still Mexican territory. When Congress voted to annex Texas in 1845, many anticipated that war with Mexico would soon follow. Carson joined Frémont with the knowledge that the expedition might soon engage in a fight for American control of California.

Although first greeted warmly by Mexican officials in California, by 1846 Frémont's group was ordered to leave. The group headed toward Oregon but soon returned to California. Some sources indicate that they had received correspondence from Frémont's father-in-law, Senator Thomas Hart Benton, indicating that the United States wished to take California. Other historians insist that Frémont was acting without the consent of the U.S. government. Upon returning to California, Frémont and his group were instrumental in the success of the Bear Flag Revolt of 1846, in which Americans tried to take the territory from Mexico. Less than one month after these rebels raised the bear flag over California, the Mexican-American War began. This conflict started as a dispute over the southern border of Texas and became an opportunity for the United States to take much of Mexico's land in the Southwest. Carson worked as a guide, fought in some of the most significant battles, and by 1847 had become an official bearer of dispatches for the War Department, carrying some messages between California and Washington, D.C, until the Mexican-American War ended in 1848.

Staying near home

After the war, Carson returned to Josefa and their numerous children, including adopted Navajo children in addition to their own. To unite his entire family, Carson traveled to St. Louis to bring his daughter Adaline to Taos in 1851. For the longest stretch in his marriage, Carson stayed close to home, running a ranch on the Santa Fe Trail, forty miles south of Rayado, with some partners. Their enterprise proved quite profitable and increased trade in the region.

Works as an Indian agent

In 1853, Carson received news that he had been appointed Indian agent for the Mohuache Utes in New Mexico. As Indian agent, Carson was responsible for the lives of the Indians on the reservation and keeping the peace between the Indians and the surrounding white settlers. His compassion for the differences between Native American and white cultures proved valuable in maintaining relatively peaceful relations on the reservation. Though Carson believed "It would promote the advance of civilization among the Indians if ... I could live with them," note Guild and Carter, the reservation had no proper buildings for his residence. But Carson did not believe that Indians should assimilate into American society. Instead he maintained that Indian and white populations should live apart from each other. Quoted in Kit Carson: A Pattern for Heroes, he observed that the "one mode of saving them from annihilation" was to teach them to support themselves without the need for government aid. He added that "they will continue to sink deeper into degradation, so long as a generous government, or their habits of begging and stealing, afford them a means of subsistence."

Kit Carson in Fiction

Kit Carson gained fame first as John Frémont's scout during his expeditions into the Far West and then as Frémont's dispatch bearer during the Mexican-American War (1846–48; a war fought over the position of the southern border of Texas). In Frémont's reports of his expeditions into the Rocky Mountains, Oregon, and northern California, published in the 1840s, Carson appears as a brave but humble man of the wilderness. Frémont considered Carson a man who would always do more than was required of him. Carson became the subject of a number of biographies, novels, and other stories. Like such American heroes as Daniel Boone (1734–1820; see entry), Carson came to represent various interpretations of the West. In DeWitt C. Peter's The Life and Adventures of Kit Carson (1858), Carson is depicted as a virtuous man. Peter wrote that Carson "contracted no bad habits, but learned the usefulness and happiness of resisting temptation." Charles Burdett's 1862 biography of Carson supports this view of Carson as a moderate man who did not drink alcohol and did not gamble his money. Carson's reserved personal life contrasted greatly with his daring and bravery in the wilderness. In popular novels like Charles Averill's Kit Carson, The Prince of the Gold Hunters (1849), Carson's feats as a hunter and horseman are highlighted. Averill wrote that Carson had "a look of proud indifference to all, and the conscious confidence of ennobling self-reliance." But Averill exaggerated Carson's importance, even making the ludicrous claim that Carson was in fact the first to discover gold in California. Stories about Carson helped establish the model of a true Western hero that would be used again and again in popular books, films, and television programs depicting life in the American West.

Carson was also sympathetic to the plight of Indians on reservations. He urged the government to keep reservations far from white settlements because of the devastation that diseases carried by whites brought on Indian populations; to prohibit the sale of alcohol to Indians because of their particular difficulty with addiction to the substance; and to stop forcing unfriendly tribes to live on the same reservation. While becoming an advocate for Indian welfare, Carson developed a strong bond with the Indians. He gave them all the supplies the government sent for them (some Indian agents were known to keep the supplies or to sell them for a profit) and sometimes spent his own money to buy food and clothing for them. Without proper facilities on the reservation, Carson would meet and smoke with the Indians at his home in Taos. Carson served as Indian agent for eight years, until the beginning of the Civil War (1861–65; a war fought between the Northern and Southern United States over the issue of slavery).

Life as a soldier

With the outbreak of the Civil War, Carson resigned as Indian agent to serve as a soldier for the Union forces. In the Southwest, the greatest threat came from neighboring Indian tribes rather than hostile Texans supporting the Confederacy. Navajos and Apaches had begun raiding the territory so that the area was "virtually paralyzed with confusion and terror," according to Guild and Carter. Carson's vast experience with Indians made him an instrumental part of the army's campaign to subdue them. Carson could understand the various Native American languages; he knew how to negotiate with Indians by presenting gifts; he knew how to motivate Indians who helped the army; and he would relentlessly track Indians into desolate terrain.

Carson's skills were especially useful in the tragic Navajo campaign of 1863. Upset at being ordered to move from their homelands in present-day Arizona and New Mexico to the Bosque Redondo reservation in southern New Mexico, the Navajos determined to hold their ground near Fort Wingate in New Mexico. Carson was ordered by Colonel James Henry Carleton to round up the Indians who had refused to enter the reservation and to kill all Navajo men wherever they were found. Carson proved an excellent and relentless tracker of the Navajo. According to Robert Utley and Wilcomb Washburn in Indian Wars, "For six months, in summer and winter, [Carson's force] marched ceaselessly, burning hogans [Navajo houses], killing Navajo where they could but always keeping them on the run." The soldiers burned crops, slaughtered sheep and horses, and destroyed villages. Eventually Carson succeeded at trapping a huge number of Navajos in Canyon de Chelly, a steep-sided canyon in which the Navajo had traditionally taken refuge. The Indians were trapped with no food to eat. Carson's drastic method forced the surrender of nearly eight thousand Navajo early in 1864. The Navajo were marched to Fort Defiance, and though many escaped during the journey and hid in the isolated canyons of northern Arizona, many more learned that they would be sent to a reservation far from their home. The Navajo resistance was broken.

Carson proved a masterful commander of his troops in several more campaigns. His efforts won him an appointment as brevet brigadier general. As thanks for the honor, Carson wrote to the secretary of war that "Though unsolicited by me, I accept with grateful pleasure, as a memento that during the late rebellion, the exertions of the New Mexico Volunteers [his troops], though restricted in its influence to its own territory, have not been overlooked by the United States," as quoted in Kit Carson: A Pattern for Heroes.

After the Civil War, Carson was made superintendent of Indian Affairs of the Colorado Territory, taking charge of the relations between the whites and the Utes there. When he arrived, tensions were high because both Indian and white inhabitants were short of supplies. Although his health was failing, Carson established peace in the area between 1866 and 1867, strengthening Fort Garland with arms and provisions and making friends with the Utes. Having secured peace for the area, Carson resigned from the army in 1867.

Even as he grew weaker, Carson made a trip to Washington, D.C., in 1868. During the trip he fell so ill that he quickly made arrangements to return home, fearful that he might not see his beloved wife before he died. On April 11, 1868, Carson was present as Josefa gave birth to their daughter, Josefita. But two weeks later, Josefa died.

After his wife's death, Carson's health and will to live rapidly faded. He spent his last days with a close friend, Dr. H. R. Tilton, making arrangements for his children's care after his death. On May 23, he called to Tilton from his bed, saying, "Doctor, Compadre, Adios," and died, according to Guild and Carter. Carson received a military funeral, and he and Josefa were buried side by side in Taos.

For More Information

Brewerton, George Douglas. Overland with Kit Carson. 1930. Reprint. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1993.

Carson, Kit. Kit Carson's Autobiography. Edited by Milo Milton Quaife. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1966.

Guild, Thelma S., and Harvey L. Carter. Kit Carson: A Pattern for Heroes. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984.

Sanford, William R., and Carl R. Green. Kit Carson, Frontier Scout. Springfield, NJ: Enslow Publishers, 1996.

Utley, Robert M., and Wilcomb E. Washburn. Indian Wars. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987.

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Carson, Christopher "Kit"

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