Kit Carson: State historian Marshall Trimble debunks the lies surrounding one of America’s great explorers
State historian Marshall Trimble debunks the lies surrounding one of America’s great explorers.
In recent years, a few modern-day revisionists have done much to malign the great soldier, scout, and explorer, Christopher “Kit” Carson. Kit Carson was the real deal and it’s a travesty to the memory of a great American that lies, distortions, and misinformation has cast a dark shadow on his rightful place in American history.
Historian William Manchester called it, Generational Chauvinism: “The judging and condemning of events and figures from past eras by the standards of our own time. Each generation looks back at the past and re-interprets its history to suit their own values and needs.”
At the age of 16, Carson ran away from his job as an apprentice at a saddlery in Missouri and joined a party of traders heading down the Santa Fe Trail. By 1831, under the tutelage of the famed mountain man, Ewing Young, Carson was a first class free trapper with a reputation among his fellow trappers for trustworthiness, courage, and honesty.
Like many trappers he integrated easily into Indian life. At the age of 25 he married an Arapaho woman who bore him a daughter. She died at the birth of their second girl.
Carson found himself a widower with two young children. The fur trade was in steep decline and his days as a fur trapper were over. He hired out as a hunter at Bent’s Fort on the Arkansas River and soon took a pretty Cheyenne woman for a wife but she was restless and divorced him Cheyenne-style by dumping all his belongings outside their tipi. Then his youngest daughter died when she fell into a pot of boiling water.
In 1842, he went to St. Louis to place his surviving daughter, Adeline, in a school. He was returning on a Missouri river steamboat from St. Louis when he made the acquaintance of John C. Fremont, a young army lieutenant with the Army Corps of Topographical Engineers, who was about to leave on an expedition to map and explore the Rocky Mountain West. Fremont would eventually go down in American history as The Great Pathfinder, but at the moment he was just another ambitious soldier. He was also the son-in-law of the powerful U.S. Senator from Missouri, Thomas Hart Benton.
Fremont was looking for a guide and Carson modestly admitted he had, “been some time in the mountains.” After checking out his credentials, Fremont hired him and on that first expedition they would map what would become the storied Oregon Trail. It was a fortuitous chance meeting for both men. Had there been no John C. Fremont there might never have been a Kit Carson and visa-versa.
Carson worked as a guide and scout on all three of Fremont’s expeditions for the Corps of Topographical Engineers. In reality Carson was the Great Pathfinder’s pathfinder. Fremont’s glowing reports and lavish praise for his guide made Carson a national hero. The explorer, with the help of his wife, Jessie, wrote splendid reports about all his scouts including the legendary Joe Walker but it was Carson who captured the fancy of the American public.
Fremont’s stories about his heroic feats also brought national attention in the wrong places. Some 70 pulp novels featured Carson, without compensation nor his permission. Sensationalized stories portrayed him as a blood and guts, rip-snorting, giant of a man who slaughtered Indians by the dozen. There wasn’t a grain of truth in the action-packed thrillers but easterners devoured them.
Had they met the real Kit Carson they would surely have been disappointed. This so-called fire-eating giant of a man stood only 5’5 ½ inches, weighed just 140 pounds, and was illiterate. His quiet, unassuming manner, stoop shoulders, short stature, and gentle voice did nothing to reveal the dauntless courage he possessed.
Charles Averill’s pulp fiction, Kit Carson, Prince of the Gold Hunters, depicted him as a mass killer of Indians and credited him as “the man who discovered gold in California.” On another pulp he was shown on horseback holding a beautiful, scantly clad woman with one hand while fighting off Indians with the other. When it was shown to him he glanced at it and modestly replied, “That thar may be true but I hain’t got no have no recollection of it.”
In February 1843, he married the second love of his life, the beautiful Maria Josefa Jaramillo, the youngest daughter of a prominent Taos family and 18 years younger than him. He quickly embraced the Mexican culture, converted to the Catholic faith and Spanish was the language spoken in their home. He was settling into life with Josefa when his country came calling again.
While on the third expedition in 1846 with Fremont and with his urging Carson took part in the short-lived California Bear Flag Revolt. He guided General Stephen Watts Kearny’s Army of the West across Arizona and into California when they were attacked by Andres Pico’s Californio lancers mounted on fine horses at San Pasqual, near San Diego. That night the Army of the West found themselves surrounded and under siege. Carson, along with Ned Beale (the man who would lead the famous Camel survey across northern Arizona 10 years later) and an Indian whose name has been lost to history, slipped through the enemy lines and walking barefooted some 30 miles over rocks and cactus, reached San Diego and brought a relief force to rescue the Americans.
After the war, Carson returned again to his home and family in Taos. After all this action and adventure all he really wanted out of life now was to spend time with his beloved wife and family. By the end of 1848 they’d been married six years and he’d only been home some six months. It wouldn’t be long until he was called to action again.
In late October 1849, Carson was needed to scout for a company of dragoons in pursuit of Jicarilla Apache raiders along the Santa Fe Trail. A Missouri trader named James White and his wife Anna and their infant daughter were attacked by the raiders. White had been killed and his wife and child had been taken captive.
On the 12th day the dragoons spotted the Apache camp but the warriors scattered and when they reached the camp they found the body of Mrs. White. She’d only been dead a few minutes. Her child was never found. Among her possessions was the popular dime novel, Kit Carson Prince of the Gold Hunters, where Kit Carson saved a beautiful woman from death at the hand of a band of Indians. When the story was read to him, he muttered angrily, “Throw it in the fire!”
He was deeply troubled by the fact that this woman was hoping the legendary Kit Carson would come to her rescue but unlike the dime novels, he got there too late. The incident haunted him for the rest of his life.
In 1853, he became the Indian Agent to northern New Mexico, a position he held until the Civil War broke out in 1861. During his tenure he won respect as a staunch defender of Indian rights.
In 1862, Carson was called to duty again during the Civil War when New Mexico was invaded by a Confederate force from Texas. He was commissioned a Lt. Colonel in the Union Army and led the New Mexico Volunteers at the Battle of Valverde.
By now the years of hard campaigning had taken a toll on his health and in early 1863 Carson tried to resign from the Army. However his bravery and leadership skills had caught the attention of commanding General James Carleton. Carleton, renowned for his hatred and extermination policy towards Indians refused to accept it. Instead he was ordered to lead a campaign against the Navajo at Canyon de Chelly. His orders from Carleton were terse, “Kill all the men….”
Contrary to Carleton’s orders only 23 Navajo warriors died during the 1864 campaign at Canyon de Chelly. Carson’s scorched-earth sweep through the canyon broke the Navajo spirit and some 8,000 surrendered. Carson’s work finished and he returned to Taos.
After their surrender the Navajo were taken on the infamous Long Walk to a reservation Carleton had selected on the Pecos River in New Mexico, nearly 500 miles from Canyon de Chelly. During the trek they were subjected to brutal treatment by their longtime enemies, the New Mexicans. Several hundred died on the walk while others, mostly women and children, were abducted by slave hunters from neighboring tribes.
The million-acre reservation at Bosque Redondo turned out to be a disaster. Cut worms decimated their corn crops and the Army was forced to provide food at an annual cost of $1.5 million annually. In May 1868, General William Tecumseh Sherman visited the reservation to investigate mistreatment of the Navajo and found their conditions deplorable. He offered to move them to Oklahoma but they chose instead to return to their sacred lands in the Four Corners area. Their wishes were granted in the Treaty of 1868.
In November 1864, Carson, his health deteriorating, was called to duty to lead another campaign, this time in the Texas Panhandle against the Kiowa and Comanche at Adobe Walls. His small force found themselves facing some 3,000 Comanche and Kiowa warriors. After a fierce five-hour battle Carson’s forces, running low on ammunition, retreated. Despite the heavy fighting, his casualties were light. Now a brigadier general he returned to Taos having led his last campaign.
His wife, Josefa, died April 23, 1868, from complications after giving birth to their eighth child. Carson, his heart and health broken, died a month later at Fort Lyon, Colorado.
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