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Carson, Christopher (Kit)
by William H. Wroth
Christopher (Kit) Carson (1809-1868) was born December 24, 1809, in Madison County, Kentucky and moved with his family when he was one year old to Boon’s Lick, Howard County, Missouri. His father died when he was nine years old and by age 14 Carson was apprenticed to David Workman, a saddle-maker in Old Franklin, Missouri. Old Franklin was one of the outfitting points for caravans going west on the Santa Fe trail, and it wasn’t long before Carson tired of his work and joined a party heading for New Mexico in August 1826.
Carson arrived in Santa Fe in November of that year and immediately went on to Taos where he lived with an experienced mountain man, Matthew Kinkead. In 1827, after a trip to El Paso, young Carson took a job with the noted fur trader and trapper Ewing Young in Taos, serving as his cook. The next spring he was employed in Santa Fe by a merchant, Colonel Tramell or Campbell as an interpreter, demonstrating that he had already learned to speak Spanish. After a short stint in copper mines belonging to Robert McKnight on the Gila River in southern New Mexico, he returned to Taos in August 1828.
In 1829 he joined a party of 40 men led by Ewing Young to trap beaver in Arizona. Young had previously encountered and been repulsed by hostile Apache Indians who wanted to keep the trappers out of their territory. With a larger party this time, they met the Apaches again on the headwaters of the Salt River and defeated them in an ambush, the Apaches not realizing how large their party was. They continued trapping on the Verde River, then half the party returned to Taos and the other half, led by Young and including Carson, went on to California. After an arduous trip across the desert they finally met a party of Mojave Indians from whom they purchased food, and then proceeded on to the mission of San Gabriel in the San Fernando Valley, 20 miles north of Los Angeles. Here Carson had first-hand experience of California mission life in its prime, and in his memoirs he described it: “at the Mission there was one priest, fifteen soldiers, and about one thousand Indians. They had about eighty thousand head of stock, fine fields and vineyards – in fact it was paradise on earth.”
On the San Joaquin River they met a party of 60 men from the Hudson Bay Company led by another important trapper, Peter Skene Ogden. After several adventures with renegade Mission Indians and with the Mexican authorities, Ewing and Carson and their companions started for home, trapping again in Arizona along the Colorado and Gila Rivers. Not having a license to trap in New Mexico (which at this time included Arizona), they hid their large quantity of beaver pelts in one of the mines of Robert McKnight on the Gila and went on to Santa Fe where Ewing acquired a license and then brought some 2000 pounds of pelts to Santa Fe, where they sold them at prices between $4.00 and $5.00 a pound.
Returning to Taos in the spring of 1831, Carson soon joined another trapping expedition headed by Thomas Fitzpatrick and set out for the northern Rocky Mountains, to Jackson Hole and on to the Salmon River in today’s Idaho where they spent the winter. In the spring of 1832 Carson left Fitzpatrick and joined John Gantt and his party, trapping on the North Platte and other rivers in Wyoming and Colorado. With Gantt’s party he worked his way down to the Arkansas River, spending the winter near Pueblo, Colorado. Here Carson and his associates were soon involved in altercations with Indians. In January 1833 they attacked and killed many members of a party of Crow and Cheyenne who had stolen some of their horses. Gantt and Carson also had to deal with disorder within their own party. Two of their colleagues deserted in the spring of 1833, taking three of their best horses and 400 pounds of beaver pelts. They were never apprehended.
In the summer of 1833 Carson and two associates left Gantt, and for the first time he trapped on his own as a “free trapper,” rather than as a member of a party. Returning to Taos in October, Carson was employed by Captain Richard Bland Lee who was in partnership with the merchants Bent and St. Vrain to supply goods to the trappers. He and Lee traveled to Utah, trading first with Antoine Robidoux on the Uinta River where they spent the winter. Carson was asked to pursue a California Indian who had run off with six horses. He trailed him more than 130 miles, finally catching up with him and killing him in order to recover the horses. He soon went back to trapping, and after the summer rendezvous of 1834 on the Green River in which over 200 mountain men took part, Carson and a party of 50 men began their fall hunt in Blackfoot Indian country. There they encountered constant harassment from the Blackfoot who were intent on keeping out the intruders. In one battle early the next year Carson received a bullet through his shoulder. He spent most of the next two years on trapping expeditions on the upper Missouri, Snake and Madison Rivers.
By spring 1837 the Blackfoot had been devastated by a small pox epidemic brought up the Missouri by an American Fur Company boat and posed much less of a threat to the trappers. But in fall 1838 traveling with a party of 100 trappers, Carson encountered a large camp of Blackfoot which they attacked, killing at least a dozen Indians. Carson spent the winters of 1838 and 1839 employed as a hunter at Fort Davy Crockett in today’s Utah, to keep the men supplied with meat. Some time in 1836 he married an Arapaho woman named Waa-Nibe (Singing Grass) with whom he had two daughters before she died in 1838. After the death of Waa-Nibe, he had a brief union with a Cheyenne woman named Making-Out-Road which ended in separation after a few months.
In September 1841 Carson and five companions went to Bent’s Fort on the Arkansas River where he was employed as a hunter for the winter. In January he went to Taos and was baptized as a Catholic by Padre Antonio José Martinez, most likely a necessary preparation for a formal marriage in February 1843 to a young Hispanic woman in Taos, Josefa Jaramillo. Prior to this in 1842 Carson went back to St. Louis, traveling with a Bent and St. Vrain wagon train. He brought his six-year-old half-Arapaho daughter Adaline with him and left her in the care of his sister, Mary Anne Carson Rubey.
Quickly sated with civilization, Carson took passage on a steamship up the Missouri and on board had a fortuitous meeting with the explorer, John C. Fremont. Fremont hired him as a guide for his first expedition through the Rockies in Wyoming and Colorado. This was the beginning of a new phase in Carson’s life; through the patronage of Fremont and others he became a well-known guide and scout, for the most part giving up the trapper’s life. In July 1843 he again accompanied Fremont on his second expedition to Salt Lake, Oregon and California, returning through Utah and Colorado to Bent’s Fort a year later, July 1844.
After attempting to farm for a year near Cimarron, Carson joined Fremont on his third expedition in August 1845 to California, arriving at Sutter’s Fort in December. They soon came into conflict with Mexican officials due to the impending Mexican-American War and started north towards Oregon. At Lassen’s ranch in northern California they were asked to fight a large gathering of Indians whom the settlers feared were planning to attack the White settlements. The heavily-armed Americans killed more than 175 Indians in three hours. It was as Carson said: “a perfect butchery.” Even Harvey Carter, an admirer of Carson, admitted “it seems doubtful that such a preventive expedition was justified.” After war had been declared, Carson and Fremont and his men headed south again and, with aid from American settlers and the U. S. Navy, took control of the towns of Sonoma, Monterrey, San Diego and Los Angeles. In September 1846 Fremont sent Carson to Washington with dispatches, but on the way, near Socorro, New Mexico he encountered General Stephen Watts Kearny who asked Carson to guide him and his troops to California. Back in California, Carson took part in the battle of San Pasqual in December 1846. In 1847 and 1848 he made two trips back and forth from California to Washington bearing dispatches. He met twice with President Polk who recommended his appointment as Lieutenant in the Army; the Senate, however, did not confirm his appointment.
In the fall of 1848 Carson began a more-or-less settled life, farming at the settlement of Rayado east of Taos and occasionally acting as a guide on short expeditions in the region. In 1853 he made a final trip to California, driving a herd of 6500 sheep from New Mexico to sell in Los Angeles. In March 1854 he was appointed Indian agent for northern New Mexico, with primary responsibility for the Utes and Jicarilla Apaches, and he took an active part in bringing a fragile peace between these tribes and the U. S. government. His reports from this post demonstrate a better understanding of these tribes than do those of many other Indian agents who often had no real experience with Indians prior to their appointments. In 1861 he resigned as Indian agent and was appointed colonel of the New Mexico Volunteer Regiment. The next year he and his Volunteers took part in the Civil War battle at Valverde, and later he was put in charge of Fort Craig, south of Socorro.
In September 1862 General James H. Carleton ordered Carson with five companies of his Volunteers to Fort Stanton where he supervised a short campaign against the Mescalero Apaches who were rounded up and sent to Fort Sumner in the Bosque Redondo in eastern New Mexico. There Carleton was establishing what amounted to a concentration camp for these Apaches, which was justified as a plan to “civilize” them by trying to teach them to be farmers. In June 1863 he directed Carson with more than 700 men under him to round up the Navajos in western New Mexico and march them to Fort Sumner. Carson’s orders were to kill any Navajo men who resisted and take women and children into captivity. After six months of inconclusive raids, Carleton ordered Carson to strike at the Navajo homeland of Cañon de Chelly where, following a scorched-earth policy, his troops destroyed 1200 peach trees and all their crops, as well destroying or taking their livestock and food caches. This broke the spirit of the Navajos, and by February 1864 nearly 3000 of them had surrendered. They were incarcerated at Forts Canby and Wingate prior to the infamous forced march known as the “Long Walk” across New Mexico to Fort Sumner, in which many of them perished. Eventually, over 9000 Navajos were forced to surrender and make the long journey to Fort Sumner. The Bosque Redondo “experiment” was an utter disaster for the Mescaleros and the Navajos. The former left in 1865, and the 7000 Navajos still surviving there were finally released in 1868.
In November 1864 Carleton put Carson in charge of a campaign against the Kiowas in west Texas. The result was a standoff and very nearly a disastrous rout of the U. S. troops had Carson not retreated. In 1866 General William Tecumseh Sherman appointed Carson commander of Fort Garland in southern Colorado, a post he held for about a year before resigning due to ill health. He and his family then moved to a new settlement called Boggsville on the Purgatoire River in southern Colorado. In January 1868 he was appointed superintendent of Indian Affairs for Colorado Territory, but in April his wife Josefa died shortly after giving birth to their seventh child. Carson, now with a serious heart condition, died one month later at the age of 59.
Carter, Harvey Lewis. 'Dear Old Kit': The Historical Christopher Carson. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1968.
Sabin, Edwin L. Kit Carson Days. New York: Press of the Pioneers, 1935.
Simmons, Marc. Kit Carson and His Three Wives: A Family History. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2003.
Will of Christopher (Kit) Carson
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