Christopher Carson (1809-1868), commonly called Kit Carson, was an American hunter, Indian agent, and soldier. He was one of the best-known and most competent guides available to explorers of the western United States.
Kit Carson's career in the West spanned the years from 1825 to 1868, a period of rapid national expansion, exploration, and settlement. His most important Western contributions came as a guide to the expeditions of John C. Frémont, as a messenger and soldier under Gen. Stephen W. Kearny in California, and as an Indian agent just prior to the Civil War. His name is inseparably connected with American expansion into the Far West.
The sixth child of Lindsay and Rebecca Robinson Carson, Kit was born on Dec. 24, 1809, in Madison Country, Ky. He spent his childhood in frontier Missouri and apparently received little formal education, because he was illiterate most of his life. In 1824 he became apprentice to a saddlemaker in one of the largest of the early Missouri river towns. After less than 2 years he deserted the saddlemaker and joined traders headed for Santa Fe, N. Mex.
Descriptions of Carson vary, but most agree that he was small, probably about 5 feet 8 inches, had blue-gray eyes, and light brown or sandy-colored hair. To the wife of explorer Frémont, Kit looked "very short and unmistakably bandy-legged, long-bodied and short-limbed." A quiet man with a soft voice, Carson was considered modest, brave, and truthful by contemporaries—characteristics which helped him acquire a reputation as a heroic frontiersman.
Career as a Trapper
Young Carson worked for several years as a teamster, cook, and interpreter in the Southwest. In 1829 he joined Ewing Young's party of trappers and for the next year and a half trapped along the streams of Arizona and southern California. This jaunt into the mountains served Carson as a sort of training exercise, and for most of the next decade he continued in this occupation. Trapping most of the major streams in the West prepared Carson for his later work as a guide.
While living in the mountains, Carson married an Arapaho woman, who bore him a daughter, Alice. When his wife died a few years later, he took the child to Missouri. In 1841 or 1842 he married a second Native American woman but soon left her and acquired a mistress in Taos, N. Mex. A year later he wed again.
Career as a Guide
In the summer of 1842 Carson met Lt. Frémont on a river steamboat. Apparently Frémont had hoped to hire the well-known Andrew S. Drips to guide him on an expedition, but when he could not find Drips he hired Carson. From June until September, Kit guided Frémont's party west through South Pass to the Wind River Mountains and then back to Missouri. When Frémont published his report of the expedition, Carson gained widespread fame.
The following year Carson rejoined Frémont traveling west on a second expedition. This time Carson shared the guide duties with Thomas Fitzpatrick, his former associate. The two mountain men led the Frémont party to Salt Lake, up the Oregon Trail to the Dallas River, south to Klamath Lake, then west across the Sierra Nevadas over Carson Pass to Sutter's Fort, Calif. From there the explorers moved south to the Mojave River and then northeast to Colorado, where Carson left them at Bent's Fort.
In 1845 Carson guided Frémont's third expedition across the Rockies to Salt Lake, across the Nevada desert to the Humboldt River, and to Sutter's Fort. This ended Carson's significant work as a guide, although on at least five other occasions he led army units or explorers through the Far West.
Career as a Soldier
Carson participated in skirmishes with Mexican forces in California in 1846. Returning to Washington, D.C., with messages from Frémont, Carson met Gen. Kearny, who was leading a small army to California. The general demanded that Carson guide his party west. This he did, participating in the battle and siege near San Pasqual. Later Carson was appointed a lieutenant in the Mounted Riflemen, but the Senate rejected this and he returned to Taos.
At the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, Carson helped organize the First New Mexico Volunteer Infantry Regiment and became its colonel. He fought in the battle at Val Verde, participated in campaigns against the Mescalero Apaches and the Navahos, and led the campaign against the tribes of the southern plains. In 1865 he was breveted brigadier general of volunteers. For the next 2 years Carson held routine assignments in the West, and in 1867 he resigned from the army.
Career as an Indian Agent
Interspersed with this military activity, Carson also served the Office of Indian Affairs, first as agent and later as superintendent of Indian affairs for Colorado Territory. In 1854 he became the agent for the Jicarilla Apache, Moache Ute, and Pueblos. He worked to keep peace and to obtain just treatment for the Native Americans, but he also used his authority to punish those guilty of depredations and cooperated with military leaders to show the tribesmen that the U.S. Government meant business.
Carson often disagreed with his superior superintendent of Indian affairs, Territorial Governor David Meriwether, about polices. Carson suggested that the governor send the agents to live among the Native Americans, or at least within their area, so that tribesmen would not have to travel several hundred miles to talk with them. In fact, he went so far as to state that the Native Americans should not even enter the towns because every time one did he was hurt in some manner. However, Meriwether apparently liked to summon Native American leaders to councils, thus forcing the to travel long distances. Such continuing differences and Carson's Criticism of his superior caused Meriwether to arrest him in 1856. Meriwether suspended him and charged him with disobedience, insubordination, and cowardice. Carson soon apologized and was reinstated as agent, a position he held until 1861, when he resigned to enter the army. He was appointed superintendent of Indian affairs for Colorado Territory in 1868, but he never had a chance to assume the duties of that office for on May 23 he died at Fort Lyon, Colo.
Of the numerous "biographies" of Carson, those written before 1960 include half-truths and legendary materials. Somewhat more accurate are Bernice Blackwelder, Great Westerner (1962), and M. Morgan Esterngreen, Kit Carson: A Portrait in Courage (1962). A most useful addition is Harvey L. Carter, Dear Old Kit: The Historical Christopher Carson (1968). This includes a discussion of errors in earlier material and a newly edited and annotated version of Carson's memoirs.
Discussion of the Carson legends is found in Henry Nash Smith, Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth (1950), and in Kent L. Steckmesser, The Western Hero in History and Legend (1965). Carson's part in Western exploration is best discussed in Allan Nevins, Frémont: Pathmarker of the West (1939; new ed. 1955), and William H. Goetzmann, Army Exploration in the American West, 1803-1863 (1959). For an understanding of the fur trade see Robert G. Cleland, This Reckless Breed of Men: The Trappers and Fur Traders of the Southwest (1950); Dale L. Morgan, Jedediah Smith and the Opening of the West (1953); and David S. Lavender, Bent's Fort (1954). □