Kit Carson
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Kit Carson

Kit Carson
Kit Carson photograph restored.jpg
Carson on a visit to Washington, DC in early 1868
Born(1809-12-24)December 24, 1809
DiedMay 23, 1868(1868-05-23) (aged 58)
Fort Lyon, Colorado
Resting placeKit Carson Cemetery, Taos, New Mexico
OccupationMountain man, frontiersman, guide, Indian agent, United States Army officer
Known for
  • Waanibe
  • Making-Out-Road
  • Josefa Jaramillo
Military career
Allegiance United States of America
Service/branchUnion Army
RankBrevet Brigadier General
Commands held1st New Mexico Volunteer Cavalry Regiment
Battles/warsMexican-American War

Jicarilla War

American Civil War

Navajo Wars

Plains Indian Wars

Kit Carson signature.svg

Christopher Houston "Kit" Carson (December 24, 1809 - May 23, 1868), was an American frontiersman. He was a fur trapper, wilderness guide, Indian agent, and U.S. Army officer. He became a frontier legend in his own lifetime by biographies and news articles and exaggerated versions of his exploits were the subject of dime novels. His understated nature belied confirmed reports of his fearlessness, combat skills, tenacity, and profound effect on the westward expansion of the United States. Although very famous for much of his life, historians in later years have written that Kit Carson did not like, want, or even fully understand the celebrity that he experienced during his life.[1]

Carson left home in rural Missouri at 16 to become a mountain man and trapper in the West. In the 1830s, he accompanied Ewing Young on an expedition to Mexican California and joined fur-trapping expeditions into the Rocky Mountains. He lived among and married into the Arapaho and Cheyenne tribes.

In the 1840s, Carson was hired as a guide by John C. Frémont, whose expeditions covered much of California, Oregon, and the Great Basin area. Frémont mapped and wrote reports and commentaries on the Oregon Trail to assist and encourage westward-bound pioneers, and Carson achieved national fame through those accounts. Under Frémont's command, Carson participated in the conquest of California from Mexico at the beginning of the Mexican-American War. Later in the war, Carson was a scout and courier who was celebrated for his rescue mission after the Battle of San Pasqual and for his coast-to-coast journey from California to Washington, DC, to deliver news of the conflict in California to the government. In the 1850s, he was appointed as the Indian agent to the Ute Indians and the Jicarilla Apaches.

During the American Civil War, Carson led a regiment of mostly-Hispanic volunteers from New Mexico on the side of the Union at the Battle of Valverde in 1862. When the Confederate threat was eliminated in New Mexico, Carson led forces to suppress the Navajo, Mescalero Apache, Kiowa, and Comanche tribes by destroying their food sources. He was brevetted a Brigadier General and took command of Fort Garland, Colorado. He was there only briefly, as poor health forced him to retire from military life.

Carson was married three times and had ten children. He died at Fort Lyon, Colorado of an aortic aneurysm on May 23, 1868. He is buried in Taos, New Mexico, next to his third wife, Josefa.

Early life (1809-1829)

Kit Carson wearing a beaver hat
Early photograph (possibly the first) of Kit Carson wearing a beaver hat.

Christopher Houston Carson was born on Christmas Eve in 1809 at the Home of Captain Christopher Houston in Hunting Creek, North Carolina. His parents were Lindsay Carson and his second wife, Rebecca Robinson. Lindsay had five children by his first wife, Lucy Bradley, and ten more children by Rebecca. The Christmas Eve occasion of Christopher "Kit" Houston Carson birth was an interesting experience. Captain Christopher Houston and his family had an annual family tradition to celebrate Christmas by having a party at their fashionable home in Hunting Creek, Houstonville. In addition to their own family, the Houstons would always invite friends and close neighbors. It was to that occasion that Lindsay and Rebecca Carson were invited. Lindsay's wife, Rebecca, was expecting the imminent birth of their sixth child. Early in the evening, the hostess, Mrs. Sarah Houston noticed that Rebecca Carson seemed to be in some distress and knowing of her expectant child, she took Rebecca upstairs where she could be in a more comforting environment and attended by a helpful attendant, a woman who was an African-American slave. It was not long until the sound of a new pair of strong lungs sounded out the alarm that a new child had been born to Lindsay and Rebecca Carson. The new mother and father decided quickly their son should be named Christopher Houston Carson after Captain Christopher Houston, and because of his small size, to give him the nickname "Kit." Lindsay Carson had a Scots-Irish Presbyterian background.[2] He was a farmer, a cabin builder, and a veteran of the American Revolutionary War and the War of 1812.[3] He fought Indians on the American frontier and lost two fingers on his left hand in a battle with the Fox and Sauk Indians.[2]

The Carson family moved to Boone's Lick, Howard County, Missouri, when Kit was about one year old. The family settled on a tract of land owned by the sons of Daniel Boone, who had purchased the land from the Spanish. The Boone and Carson families became good friends and worked and socialized together and intermarried. Lindsay's oldest son, William, married Boone's grand-niece, Millie Boone, in 1810. Their daughter Adaline became Kit's favorite playmate.[4]

Missouri was then the frontier of American westward expansionism; cabins were "forted" with tall stockade fences to defend against Indian attacks. As men worked in the fields, sentries were posted with weapons to protect the farmers. The men were ready to kill any Indian who attacked. Carson wrote in his Memoirs, "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."

In 1818, Lindsay Carson died instantly when a tree limb fell on him while he was clearing a field. Kit was about eight years old. Despite being penniless, his mother took care of her children alone for four years. She then married Joseph Martin, a widower with several children.[5] Kit was a young teenager and did not get along with his stepfather. The decision was made to apprentice him to David Workman, a saddler in Franklin, Missouri. Kit wrote in his Memoirs that Workman was "a good man, and I often recall the kind treatment I received."[6]

Franklin was situated at the eastern end of the Santa Fe Trail, which had opened two years earlier. Many of the customers at the saddle shop were trappers and traders from whom Carson heard stirring tales of the West. Carson found work in the saddlery not to his taste: he once stated that "the business did not suit me, and I concluded to leave."[7]

Santa Fe Trail

In August 1826, against his mother's wishes, Kit ran away from his apprenticeship. He went west with a caravan of fur trappers and tended their livestock. They made their trek over the Santa Fe Trail to Santa Fe, the capital of Santa Fe de Nuevo México, reaching their destination in November 1826. He settled in Taos.[8][9]

Carson lived with Mathew Kinkead, a trapper and explorer who had served with Carson's older brothers during the War of 1812.[10] Carson was mentored by Kinkead in learning the skills of a trapper and learning the necessary languages for trade. Eventually, he became fluent in Spanish and several Indian languages.

Workman put an advertisement in a local newspaper back in Missouri. He wrote that he would give a one-cent reward to anyone who brought the boy back to Franklin. No one claimed the reward. It was a bit of a joke, but Carson was free.[9] The advertisement featured the first printed description of Carson: "Christopher Carson, a boy about 16 years old, small of his age, but thick set; light hair, ran away from the subscriber, living in Franklin, Howard county, Missouri, to whom he had been bound to learn the saddler's trade."[9]

Between 1827 and 1829, Carson worked as cook, translator, and wagon driver in the southwest. He also worked at a copper mine near the Gila River, in southwestern New Mexico.[11] In later life, Carson never mentioned any women from his youth. There are only three specific women mentioned in his writing: Josefa Jaramillo, his third and last wife; a comrade's mother in Washington, DC; and Mrs. Ann White, a victim of Indian atrocities.[12]

Mountain man (1829-1841)

Mountain man Kit Carson and his favorite horse
Mountain man Kit Carson and his favorite horse, Apache, from The Life and Adventures of Kit Carson, the Nestor of the Rocky Mountains by De Witt C. Peters. The book was Carson's first biography and was printed in 1858.

At the age of 19, Carson began his career as a mountain man. He traveled through many parts of the American West with famous mountain men like Jim Bridger and Old Bill Williams. He spent the winter of 1828-1829 as a cook for Ewing Young in Taos.[13] He joined Young's trapping expedition of 1829. The leadership of Young and the experience of the venture are credited with shaping Carson's early life in the mountains.

In August 1829, the party went into Apache territory along the Gila River. The expedition was attacked, which was Carson's first experience of combat. Young's party continued on to Alta California; trapped and traded in California from Sacramento in the north to Los Angeles in the south; and returned to Taos, New Mexico, in April 1830 after it had trapped along the Colorado River.[14]

Carson joined a wagon train rescue party after entering Taos, and although the perpetrators had fled the scene of atrocities, Young had the opportunity to witness Carson's horsemanship and courage. Carson joined another expedition, led by Thomas Fitzpatrick and William Levin, in 1831. Fitzpatrick, Levin, and his trappers went north to the central Rocky Mountains. Carson would hunt and trap in the West for about ten years. He was known as a reliable man and a good fighter.[15]

Life for Carson as a mountain man was not easy. After collecting beavers from traps, he had to hold onto them for months at a time until the annual Rocky Mountain Rendezvous,[16] held in remote areas of the West like the banks of the Green River in Wyoming. With the money received for the pelts, the necessities of an independent life, including fish hooks, flour and tobacco, were procured. As there was little or no medical access in the varied regions in which he worked, Carson had to dress his wounds and nurse himself.[17] Conflict with particular Indians sometimes occurred.[18] Carson's primary clothing was then in deer skins that had stiffened after being left outdoors for a time. The suit offered some protection against particular weapons used by the Indians.[19]

Grizzly bears were one of the mountain man's greatest enemies.[20] A particular incident involving the animals happened to Carson in 1834 as he was hunting an elk alone. Two bears crossed paths with him and quickly chased him up a tree. One of the bears tried to make him fall by shaking the tree but was unsuccessful and eventually went away. Carson returned to his camp as fast as he could. He wrote in his Memoirs: "[The bear] finally concluded to leave, of which I was heartily pleased, never having been so scared in my life."[21]

The last rendezvous was held in 1840.[22] At that time, the fur trade began to drop off. Fashionable men in London, Paris, and New York City wanted silk hats, instead of beaver hats. In addition, beaver populations across North America were declining rapidly from overexploitation. Carson knew that it was time to find other work. He wrote in his Memoirs, "Beaver was getting scarce, it became necessary to try our hand at something else."

In 1841, he was hired at Bent's Fort, in Colorado, at the largest building on the Santa Fe Trail. Hundreds of people worked or lived there. Carson hunted buffalo, antelope, deer, and other animals to feed the people. He was paid one dollar a day. He returned to Bent's Fort several times during his life to provide meat for the fort's residents again.[23]

Indian fighter

Carson was 19 when he set off with Ewing Young's expedition to the Rocky Mountains in 1829. In addition to furs and the company of free-spirited, rugged mountain men, Carson sought action and adventure. He found what he was looking for in killing and scalping Indians. Carson probably killed and took the scalp of his first Indian when he was 19, during Ewing Young's expedition.[24]

Jim Bridger
Jim Bridger.

Carson's Memoirs are replete with stories about hostile Indian encounters with the memoirist. In January 1833, for example, warriors of the Crow tribe stole nine horses from Carson's camp. Carson and two other men sprayed the Crow camp with gunfire, killing almost every Crow. Carson wrote in his Memoirs, "During our pursuit for the lost animals, we suffered considerably but, the success of having recovered our horses and sending many a redskin to his long home, our sufferings were soon forgotten."[25]

Carson viewed the Blackfoot nation as a hostile tribe and believed that it posed the greatest threat to his livelihood, safety, and life. He hated the Blackfeet and killed them at every opportunity. The historian David Roberts has written: "It was taken for granted that the Blackfeet were bad Indians; to shoot them whenever he could was a mountain man's instinct and duty."[26]

Carson had several encounters with the Blackfeet. His last battle with the Blackfeet took place in spring 1838. He was traveling with about one hundred mountain men led by Jim Bridger. In Montana Territory, the group found a teepee with three Indian corpses inside. The three had died of smallpox. Bridger wanted to move on, but Carson and the other young men wanted to kill the Blackfeet.[27]

They found the Blackfoot village and killed ten Blackfeet warriors. The Blackfeet found some safety in a pile of rocks but were driven away. It is not known how many Blackfeet died in this incident. The historian David Roberts wrote that "if anything like pity filled Carson's breast as, in his twenty-ninth year, he beheld the ravaged camp of the Blackfeet, he did not bother to remember it." Carson wrote in his Memoirs that it battle was "the prettiest fight I ever saw."[27]

Carson's notions about Indians softened over the years. He found himself more and more in their company as he grew older, and his attitude towards them became more respectful and humane. He urged the government to set aside lands called reservations for their use. As an Indian agent, he saw to it that those under his watch were treated with honesty and fairness and clothed and fed properly. The historian David Roberts believes his first marriage to an Arapaho woman named Singing Grass "softened the stern and pragmatic mountaineer's opportunism."[21]

Expeditions with Frémont (1842-1848)

John Charles Frémont
John Charles Frémont, photographer and date unknown.

In April 1842, Carson went back to his childhood home in Missouri to put his daughter Adaline in the care of relatives.[23] On the return trip, Carson met John C. Frémont aboard a steamboat on the Missouri River. Frémont was a US Army officer in the Corps of Topographical Engineers who was about to lead an expedition into the West. After a brief conversation, Frémont hired Carson as a guide at $100 a month. It was the best-paying job of Carson's life.[28] Frémont wrote, "I was pleased with him and his manner of address at this first meeting. He was a man of medium height, broad-shouldered, and deep-chested, with a clear steady blue eye and frank speech and address; quiet and unassuming."[29]

First expedition, 1842

In 1842, Carson guided Frémont across the Oregon Trail to South Pass, Wyoming. It was their first expedition into the West together. The purpose of this expedition was to map and describe the Oregon Trail as far as South Pass. A guidebook, maps, and other paraphernalia would be printed for westward-bound migrants and settlers. After the five-month trouble-free mission was accomplished, Frémont wrote his government reports, which made Carson's name known across the United States, and spurred a migration of settlers westward to Oregon via the Oregon Trail.[30]

Second expedition, 1843

In 1843, Carson agreed to join Frémont's second expedition. Carson guided Frémont across part of the Oregon Trail to the Columbia River in Oregon. The purpose of the expedition was to map and describe the Oregon Trail from South Pass, Wyoming, to the Columbia River. They also sidetripped to Great Salt Lake in Utah by using a rubber raft to navigate the waters.[31] On the way to California, the party suffered from bad weather in the Sierra Nevada Mountains but was saved by Carson's good judgement and his skills as a guide and found American settlers who fed them. The expedition then headed to California, which was illegal and dangerous because California was Mexican territory. The Mexican government ordered Frémont to leave. Frémont finally went back to Washington, DC. The government liked his reports but ignored his illegal trip into Mexico. Frémont was made a captain. The newspapers nicknamed him "The Pathfinder."[32]

During the expedition, Frémont trekked into the Mojave Desert. His party met a Mexican man and boy, who both told Carson that Native Americans had ambushed their party of travelers. The male travelers were killed; the women travelers were staked to the ground, sexually mutilated, and killed. The murderers then stole the Mexicans' 30 horses. Carson and a mountain man friend, Alexis Godey, went after the murderers. They took two days to find them. Both rushed into their camp and killed and scalped two of the murderers. The stolen horses were recovered and returned to the Mexican man and boy. That deed brought Carson even greater fame and confirmed his status as a western hero in the eyes of the American people.[33]

Third expedition, 1845

In 1845, Carson guided Frémont on their third and last expedition.[34] They went to California and Oregon. Frémont made scientific plans, but the expedition appeared to be political in nature. Frémont may have been working under secret government orders since US President Polk wanted Alta California for the United States. Once in California, Frémont started to rouse the American settlers into a patriotic fervor. The Mexican government ordered him to leave. Frémont went north to Oregon but not before instigating the Sacramento River massacre in which at least 150 Indians had been killed in an unprovoked attack. The party moved up along the Sacramento River, continued to kill Indians as they went, and camped near Klamath Lake. Messages from Washington, DC, made it clear that Polk wanted California.

At Klamath Lake, in southern Oregon, Frémont's party was hit in a revenge attack by 15-20 Indians on the night of May 9, 1846. Two or three men in camp were killed. The attackers fled after a brief struggle. Carson was angry that his friends had been killed. He took an ax and avenged the death of his friends by chopping away at a dead Indian's face. Frémont wrote, "He knocked his head to pieces."[35]

In retaliation for the attack, a few days later Frémont's party massacred a village of Klamath people along the Williamson River during the Klamath Lake massacre.[36] The entire village was razed and at least 14 people were killed. There was no evidence that the village in question had anything to do with the previous attack.

Bear Flag Revolt

In June 1846, Frémont and Carson participated in a California uprising against Mexico, the Bear Flag Revolt.[34] Mexico ordered all Americans to leave California. American settlers in California wanted to be free of the Mexican government and declared California an independent republic. The American rebels found the courage to oppose Mexico because they had Frémont, who had written an oath of allegiance, and his troops behind them. Frémont and his men were able to give some protection to the Americans. He ordered Carson to execute an old Mexican man, José de los Reyes Berreyesa, and his two adult nephews, who had been captured when they stepped ashore at San Francisco Bay to prevent them from notifying Mexico about the uprising.[37]

Frémont worked hard to win California for the United States, for a time fashioning himself as its military governor until he was replaced by General Kearney, who outranked him.[38] Carson took military records to the Secretary of War in Washington, DC. Frémont wrote, "This was a service of great trust and honor... and great danger also." In 1847 and 1848, Carson made two quick trips to Washington, DC, with messages and reports. In 1848, he took news of the California Gold Strike to the US capital.

Herding sheep (1853)

In July 1853, Carson was in northern Nevada with 7,000 sheep from Santa Fe. He was taking them to settlers in northern California and southern Oregon. Carson had with him six "Spaniards" (possibly Basques) to herd the sheep.[39]

Books and dime novels (1847-1859)

Carson's fame spread throughout the United States with government reports, dime novels, newspaper accounts, and word of mouth. The dime novels celebrated Carson's adventures but were usually colored with exaggeration. A factual biography was attempted by DeWitt C. Peters in 1859 but has been criticized for inaccuracies and exaggerations. Carson became the hero of children's literature in the United States, but it was also published in French, German, Portuguese, Gujarati, Hindi, Singhalese, Arabic, and Japanese.

Dime novels

dime novel with Carson's picture
An 1874 dime novel with Carson's picture on the cover.

The first story about Carson's adventures was printed in 1847, An Adventure of Kit Carson: A Tale of the Sacramento. It was printed in Holden's Dollar Magazine. Other stories were also printed, such as Kit Carson: The Prince of the Goldhunters and The Prairie Flower. Writers thought that Carson was the perfect mountain man and Indian fighter. His exciting adventures were printed in the story Kiowa Charley, The White Mustanger; or, Rocky Mountain Kit's Last Scalp Hunt in which an older Kit is said to have "ridden into Sioux camps unattended and alone, had ridden out again, but with the scalps of their greatest warriors at his belt."[40]

Indian captive Mrs. Ann White

In 1849, Carson guided soldiers on the trail of Mrs. Ann White, her baby daughter, and "negro servant," who had been captured by Jicarilla Apaches and Utes.[41] The commanding officer, Captain William Grier of the 1st Cavalry Regiment, ignored Carson's advice about an immediate rescue attempt after catching the Jicarillas unaware, but after a shot was fired, the order was given to attack, and the Jicarillas had started to flee. As Carson describes it in his autobiography, "In about 200 yards, pursuing the Indians, the body of Mrs. White was found, perfectly warm, had not been killed more than five minutes - shot through the heart by an arrow.... I am certain that if the Indians had been charged immediately on our arrival she would have been saved."[42] Her child and servant were taken away by the fleeing Jicarillas and killed shortly after the attack, according to a 1850 report by James S. Calhoun, the Superintendent of Indian Affairs in New Mexico.[43]

A soldier in the rescue party wrote: "Mrs. White was a frail, delicate, and very beautiful woman, but having undergone such usage as she suffered nothing but a wreck remained; it was literally covered with blows and scratches. Her countenance even after death indicated a hopeless creature. Over her corpse, we swore vengeance upon her persecutors."

Carson discovered a book about himself in the Apache camp. That was the first time that he found himself in print. He was the hero of adventure stories. He was sorry for the rest of his life that Mrs. White had been killed. He wrote in his Memoirs: "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 read the same... [and prayed] for my appearance that she might be saved."[44]


In 1856, Carson told his life story to someone who wrote it down. The book is called Memoirs. The manuscript was lost when it was taken East to find a professional writer who would work it into a book. Washington Irving was asked but declined. The lost manuscript was found in a trunk in Paris in 1905 and was later printed. The first biography of Carson was written by DeWitt C. Peters in 1859. The book was called Kit Carson, the Nestor of the Mountains, from Facts Narrated by Himself. When the book was read to Carson, he said, "Peters laid it on a leetle too thick."[45]

Mexican-American War (1846-1848)

Lasting from 1846 to 1848, the Mexican-American War was an armed conflict between the United States and Mexico. After the war, Mexico was forced to sell the territories of Alta California and New Mexico to the United States under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.

One of Carson's best-known adventures took place during this war. In December 1846, Carson was ordered by General Stephen W. Kearny to guide him and his troops from Socorro, New Mexico, to San Diego, California. Mexican soldiers attacked Kearny and his men near the village of San Pasqual, California.

Kearny was outnumbered. He knew that he could not win and so ordered his men to take cover on a small hill. On the night of December 8, Carson, a naval lieutenant, Edward Fitzgerald Beale, and an Indian scout left Kearny to bring reinforcements from San Diego, 25 miles (40 km) away. Carson and the lieutenant removed their shoes because they made too much noise and walked barefoot through the desert. Carson wrote in his Memoirs, "Finally got through, but had the misfortune to lose our shoes. Had to travel over a country covered with prickly pear and rocks, barefoot."[46]

By December 10, Kearny believed that reinforcements would not arrive. He planned to break through the Mexican lines the next morning, but 200 mounted American soldiers arrived in San Pasqual late that night. They swept the area driving the Mexicans away. Kearny was in San Diego on December 12.[47]

Military career (1861-1868)

In April 1861, the American Civil War broke out. Carson left his position as an Indian agent and joined the Union Army as a lieutenant. He led the 1st New Mexico Volunteer Infantry and trained the new men. In October 1861, he was made a colonel. The Volunteers fought the Confederate forces in the Battle of Valverde in New Mexico in February 1862. The Confederates won the battle but were later defeated in June and retreated to Texas.

Campaign against Apaches

General James Henry Carleton

Once the Confederates had been driven from New Mexico, Carson's commander, Major General James Henry Carleton, turned his attention to the Native Americans. The author and historian Edwin L. Sabin writes that the officer had a "psychopathic hatred of the Apaches."[48] Carleton led his forces deep into the Mescalero Apache territory. The Mescaleros were tired of fighting and put themselves under Carson's protection. Carleton put the Apaches on a remote and lonely reservation on the Pecos River.[49]

Carson disliked the Apaches as well. He wrote in a report that the Jicarilla Apaches "were truly the most degraded and troublesome Indians we have in our department... we daily witness them in a state of intoxication in our plaza."[50] Carson half-heartedly supported Carleton's plans. He was tired and had suffered an injury two years before that gave him great trouble. He resigned from the army in February 1863. Carleton refused to accept the resignation because he wanted Carson to lead a campaign against the Navajo.[50]

Campaign against Navajo

Carleton had chosen a bleak site on the Pecos River for his reservation, which was called Bosque Redondo (Round Grove). He chose the site for the Apaches and Navajos because it was far from white settlements. He also wanted the Apaches and Navajo to act as a buffer for any aggressive acts committed upon the white settlements from Kiowas and Comanches to the east of Bosque Redondo. He thought also that the remoteness and desolation of the reservation would discourage white settlement.[51]

Navajo at Fort Sumner
The Navajo at Fort Sumner, the end of The Long Walk.

The Mescalero Apaches walked 130 miles (210 km) to the reservation. By March 1863, 400 Apaches had settled around nearby Fort Sumner. Others had fled west to join fugitive bands of Apaches. By mid-summer, many of the people were planting crops and doing other farm work.

On July 7, Carson, with little heart for the Navajo roundup, started the campaign against the tribe. His orders were almost the same as those for the Apache roundup: he was to shoot all males on sight and to take the women and children captives. No peace treaties were to be made until all Navajo were on the reservation.[52]

Carson searched far and wide for the Navajo. He found their homes, fields, animals, and orchards, but the Navajo were experts at disappearing quickly and hiding in their vast lands. The roundup proved frustrating for Carson. He was in his fifties and tired and ill. By autumn 1863, Carson started to burn the Navajo homes and fields and remove their animals from the area. The Navajo would starve if the destruction continued, and 188 surrendered and were sent to Bosque Redondo. Life at the Bosque had turned grim, and murders took place. The Apaches and Navajos fought. The water in the Pecos contained minerals that gave people cramps and stomach aches. Residents had to walk 12 miles (19 km) to find firewood.[53]

Battle of Canyon de Chelly

Carson wanted to take a winter break from the campaign. Major General Carleton refused and ordered him to invade the Canyon de Chelly, where many Navajos had taken refuge. The historian David Roberts writes, "Carson's sweep through the Canyon de Chelly in the winter of 1863-1864 would prove to be the decisive action in the Campaign."[54]

The Canyon de Chelly was a sacred place for the Navajo. They believed that it would now be their strongest sanctuary, and 300 Navajo took refuge on the canyon rim, called Fortress Rock. They resisted Carson's invasion by building rope ladders and bridges, lowering water pots into a stream, and keeping quiet and out of sight. The 300 Navajo survived the invasion. In January 1864, Carson swept through the 35-mile (56 km) Canyon with his forces, including Captain Albert Pfeiffer.[55] The thousands of peach trees in the canyon were cut down. Few Navajo were killed or captured. Carson's invasion, however, proved to the Navajo that the United States could invade their territory at any time. Many Navajo surrendered at Fort Defiance, Arizona.[56]

By March 1864, there were 3,000 refugees at Fort Canby. An additional 5,000 arrived in the camp. They were suffering from the intense cold and hunger. Carson asked for supplies to feed and clothe them and forced the thousands of Navajo to walk to Bosque Redondo. Many died along the way. Stragglers in the rear were shot and killed. In Navajo history, the horrific trek is known as Long Walk of the Navajo. By 1866, reports indicated that Bosque Redondo was a complete failure, Major General Carleton was fired, and Congress started investigations. In 1868, a treaty was signed, and the Navajo were allowed to return to their homeland. Bosque Redondo was closed.[57]

First Battle of Adobe Walls

On November 25, 1864, Carson led his forces against the southwestern tribes at the First Battle of Adobe Walls in the Texas Panhandle. Adobe Walls was an abandoned trading post that had been blown up by its inhabitants to prevent a takeover by hostile Indians. Combatants at the First Battle were the US Army and Indian scouts against Kiowas, Comanches, and Plains Apaches. It was one of the largest engagements fought on the Great Plains.

The battle was the result of General Carleton's belief that Indians were responsible for the continuing attacks on settlers along the Santa Fe Trail. He wanted to punish them and brought in Carson to do the job. With most of the army engaged elsewhere during the American Civil War, the protection that the settlers sought was almost nonexistent. Carson led 260 cavalry, 75 infantry, and 72 Ute and Jicarilla Apache Army scouts. In addition, he had two mountain howitzers.[58]

Throw a few shells into that crowd over there.

--Kit Carson to artillery officer Lt. Pettis[59]

On the morning of November 25, Carson discovered and attacked a Kiowa village of 176 lodges. After destroying the village, he moved forward to Adobe Walls. Carson found other Comanche villages in the area and realized he would face a very large force of Native Americans. A Captain Pettis estimated that 1,200 to 1,400 Comanche and Kiowa began to assemble. That number would swell, according to some accounts, to an implausible 3,000.[60] Four to five hours of battle ensued. When Carson ran low on ammunition and howitzer shells, he ordered his men to retreat to a nearby Kiowa village, where they burned the village and many fine buffalo robes. His Indian scouts killed and mutilated four elderly and weak Kiowas.[58]

First Adobe Walls, northeast of Stinnett in Hutchinson County, Texas, was Carson'ss last military engagement and ended in victory for the Comanche-Kiowa alliance, which allowed them to dominate the Llano Estacado for another eight years. The encounter could have resulted in a massacre worse than Custer's Last Stand in Montana Territory 12 years later. Three of Carson's men died, and twenty-one were wounded. More than 100 warriors lost their lives, and 200 were wounded.[61]

The retreat to New Mexico then began with few deaths among Carson's men. General Carleton wrote to Carson: "This brilliant affair adds another green leaf to the laurel wreath which you have so nobly won in the service of your country."[58]

Personal life

In 1847, the future General William Tecumseh Sherman met Carson in Monterey, California. Sherman wrote: "His fame was then at its height,... 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 or daring. He spoke but little and answered questions in monosyllables."

Colonel Edward W. Wynkoop wrote: "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."

Lieutenant George Douglas Brewerton made one coast-to-coast dispatch-carrying trip to Washington, DC, with Carson. Brewerton wrote: "The Kit Carson of my imagination was over six feet high -- a sort of modern Hercules in his build -- with an enormous beard, and a voice like a roused lion.... The real Kit Carson I found to be a plain, simple... man; rather below the medium height, with brown, curling hair, little or no beard, and a voice as soft and gentle as a woman's. In fact, the hero of a hundred desperate encounters, whose life had been mostly spent amid wilderness, where the white man is almost unknown, was one of Dame Nature's gentleman...."[62]


Carson joined Freemasonry in the Santa Fe Territory of New Mexico, petitioning in Montezuma Lodge No. 101. He was initiated an Entered Apprentice on April 22, 1854, passed to the degree of Fellowcraft June 17, 1854, and raised to the sublime degree of Master Mason December 26, 1854,[63] just two days after his 42 birthday. Carson, together with several other Freemasons in Taos, petitioned to charter Bent Lodge No. 204 (now Bent Lodge # 42) from the Grand Lodge of Missouri AF&AM, a request that was granted on June 1, 1860, with Kit elected Junior Warden of the lodge.[64]

The Masonic fraternity continued to serve him and his family well after his death. In 1908, the Grand Lodge of New Mexico erected a wrought iron fence around his family burial plot.[65] The following year, the Grand Lodge challenged Bent Lodge to purchase and preserve Kit's home.[66] More than a century later, the Kit Carson Home and Museum is still managed by the lodge.[67]


Carson was married three times. His first two wives were Native American. His third wife was Mexican. Carson was the father of ten children. He never wrote about his first two marriages in his Memoirs. He may have thought he would be known as a "squaw man," which was not welcomed by polite society.[68]

In 1836, Carson met an Arapaho woman, Waanibe (Singing Grass, or Grass Singing), at a mountain man rendezvous held along the Green River in Wyoming. Singing Grass was a lovely young woman, and many mountain men were in love with her.[69] Carson was forced to fight a duel with a French trapper, Chouinard, for Waanibe's hand in marriage. Carson won but had a very narrow escape. The French trapper's bullet singed his hair. The duel was one of the best known stories about Carson in the 19th century.[70]

Carson married Singing Grass. She tended to his needs and went with him on his trapping trips. They had a daughter, Adaline (or Adeline). Singing Grass died after she had given birth to Carson's second daughter in around 1841. His second child did not live long. In 1843, in Taos, New Mexico, she fell into a boiling kettle of soap and subsequently died.[71]

Josefa Carson
Josefa Carson, Carson's third and last wife, holds Carson's son.

Carson's life as a mountain man was too hard for a little girl and so he took Adaline to live with his sister Mary Ann Carson Rubey in St. Louis, Missouri. Adaline was taught in a school for girls. Carson brought her West when she was a teenager. She married and divorced a George Stilts of St. Louis, Missouri. In 1858, she went to the California goldfields. Adaline died in 1860[72] or after 1862, probably in Mono County, California.[73]

In 1841, Carson married a Cheyenne woman, Making-Out-Road. They were together only a short time. Making-Out-Road divorced him in the way of her people by putting Adaline and all of Carson's property outside their tent. Making-Out-Road left Carson to travel with her people through the West.

About 1842, Carson met Josefa Jaramillo, the daughter of a wealthy and prominent Mexican couple living in Taos. To marry her, Carson left the Presbyterian Church for the Catholic Church. He married the 14-year-old Josefa on February 6, 1843. They had eight children.


Carson was illiterate. He was embarrassed by that and tried to hide it.[74] In 1856, he dictated his Memoirs to another and stated: "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."[75]

Carson enjoyed having other people read to him and preferred the poetry of George Gordon, Lord Byron. Carson thought that Sir Walter Scott's long poem, The Lady of the Lake was "the finest expression of outdoor life."[76] Carson eventually learned to write "C. Carson," but it was very difficult for him. He made his mark on official papers, and it was then witnessed by a clerk or other official.[77]

Final days

The last known photograph of Carson
The last known photograph of Carson was taken around March 20, 1868, during Carson's visit to Boston with Ouray and Ute chiefs two months before his death, by the photographer James Wallace Black and was signed by Carson. It is the largest extant photograph of him.

When the Civil War ended, and the Indian Wars campaigns were in a lull, Carson was appointed brevet brigadier general (dated March 13, 1865) and appointed commandant of Ft. Garland, Colorado, in the heart of Ute territory. Carson had many Ute friends in the area and assisted in government relations.[78]

After being mustered out of the army, Carson took up ranching, settling at Boggsville in Bent County. In 1868, at the urging of Washington and the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Carson journeyed to Washington, DC, where he escorted several Ute Chiefs to meet with the US President to plead for assistance to their tribe.[79]

Soon after his return, his wife, Josefa, died from complications after she gave birth to their eighth child. Her death was a crushing blow to Carson. He died a month later, age 58, on May 23, 1868, in the presence of Dr. Tilton and his friend Thomas Boggs in the surgeon's quarters at Fort Lyon, Colorado. His last words were "Goodbye, friends. Adios, compadres." The cause of his death was abdominal aortic aneurysm. His resting place is Taos, New Mexico.[80]


Kit Carson bronze statue
Kit Carson bronze statue by Frederick William MacMonnies, 1906.

Carson's home in Taos, New Mexico, is now the Kit Carson Home and Museum. A monument was raised in the plaza at Santa Fe by the New Mexico Grand Army. In Denver, a statue of a mounted Kit Carson can be found atop the Mac Monnies Pioneer Monument. Another equestrian statue can be seen in Trinidad, Colorado. Carson National Forest in New Mexico was named for him, as well as a county and a town in Colorado. A river in Nevada is named for Carson as well as the state's capital, Carson City. Fort Carson, Colorado, an army post near Colorado Springs, was named after him during World War II by the popular vote of the men training there.[81]Kit Carson Park in Escondido, California is named for him.

Carson has been widely depicted in film and television series. In 1966, the actor Phillip Pine played Carson with Michael Pate as fellow Fremont scout Frenchy Godey in the episode "Samaritans, Mountain Style" of the syndicated series, Death Valley Days, hosted by Robert Taylor. In the story line, Carson and Godey stop to help a settler in dire straits.

In the 1960s and the 1970s, Carson came under the scrutiny of contemporary historians, and ideas on his historical legacy began to change. Earlier accounts portrayed Carson as an American hero, but that period's scholarship, he became an archvillain in the military campaigns against the Indians. In 1992, for example, a young professor[who?] at Colorado College was successful in demanding that a period photograph of Carson be removed from the ROTC office. In 1992, a tourist told a journalist[who?] at the Carson home in Taos, "I will not go into the home of that racist, genocidal killer." In the 1970s, a Navajo at a trading post said, "No one here will talk about Kit Carson. He was a butcher." In 1993, a symposium was organized to air various views on Carson, but the Navajo refused to attend.[82]

Over time, historical analysis of Carson shifted again. David Roberts writes, "Carson's trajectory, over three and a half decades, from thoughtless killer of Apaches and Blackfeet to defender and champion of the Utes, marks him out as one of the few frontiersmen whose change of heart toward the Indians, born not of missionary theory but of first hand experience, can serve as an exemplar for the more enlightened policies that sporadically gained the day in the twentieth century."[83]

Media portrayals

Harry Carey played Carson in the 1936 film Sutter's Gold.

Jon Hall played Carson in the 1940 Western film Kit Carson.

Bill Williams played Carson in the TV mini-series 1951-1955 The Adventures of Kit Carson.

Rip Torn played Carson in the 1986 miniseries Dream West.

Carson was the inspiration for a same-named character in the popular Italian comic book series Tex Willer.

Carson is a supporting character in Willa Cather's novel, Death Comes for the Archbishop.

Carson is a vital supporting character in Flashman and the Redskins, an installment of the Flashman series, by George MacDonald Fraser.


Carson's contributions to western history have been reexamined by historians, journalists and Indian activists since the 1960s. In 1968, Carson biographer Harvey L. Carter stated:

In respect to his actual exploits and his actual character, however, Carson was not overrated. If history has to single out one person from among the Mountain Men to receive the admiration of later generations, Carson is the best choice. He had far more of the good qualities and fewer of the bad qualities than anyone else in that varied lot of individuals.[84]

Historian Hampton Sides said that Carson believed the Native Americans needed reservations as a way of physically separating and shielding them from white hostility and white culture. He is said to have viewed the raids on white settlements as driven by desperation, "committed from absolute necessity when in a starving condition." Indian hunting grounds were disappearing as waves of white settlers filled the region.[85]

In 2014 there was a petition to rename Kit Carson Park in Taos, NM Red Willow Park. Despite the support of the Taos Pueblo and the residents of Taos Valley the park was not renamed and still bears the Kit Carson moniker.[86]

See also


  1. ^ "Cowboys and Indians". New York Times.
  2. ^ a b Sides 8-9
  3. ^ Roberts 54-55
  4. ^ Guild and Carter 9
  5. ^ Guild and Carter 10
  6. ^ Guild and Carter 15
  7. ^ Carter 38-39
  8. ^ Guild and Carter 27
  9. ^ a b c Roberts 56-57
  10. ^ Carter 42-50.
  11. ^ Sides 14
  12. ^ Guild and Carter 26
  13. ^ Guild and Carter 32
  14. ^ Carter 42-50
  15. ^ Guild and Carter 48
  16. ^ Sides 15
  17. ^ Cleland 44
  18. ^ Cleland 40-41
  19. ^ Cleland 21
  20. ^ Cleland 43
  21. ^ a b Roberts 80
  22. ^ Sides 33-34
  23. ^ a b Roberts 99-101
  24. ^ Sides 16
  25. ^ Roberts 82
  26. ^ Roberts 85
  27. ^ a b Roberts 87-88
  28. ^ Roberts 123
  29. ^ Roberts 102-103
  30. ^ Sides 50-53
  31. ^ Roberts 130
  32. ^ Sides 59-61
  33. ^ Sides 62-64
  34. ^ a b Reidhead, S.J. (June 12, 2006). "Kit Carson: The Legendary Frontiersman Remains an American Hero". Retrieved 2017.
  35. ^ Sides 78-81
  36. ^ Amy Couture. Captain John C. Fremont Clashes With Klamath Indians, Jefferson Public Radio, 2011.
  37. ^ Camp, Charles L. (May 1, 2018). "Kit Carson in California: With Extracts from His Own Story". California Historical Society Quarterly. 1 (2): 111-151. doi:10.2307/25613577. hdl:2027/uc1.b4505284. JSTOR 25613577.
  38. ^ Sherman, W.T., Memoirs
  39. ^ Beeson, Welborn (1993). Webber, Bert (ed.). The Oregon & Applegate Trail Diary of Welborn Beeson in 1853 (Second ed.). Medford, Oregon: Webb Research Group. p. 80. ISBN 0-936738-21-9.
  40. ^ Roberts 52, 79
  41. ^ Duffus, R.L. The Santa Fe Trail University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, 1975, 1930, 1975 edition p. 231
  42. ^ Carson, Kit, edited by Milo Milton Quaife, University of Nebraska Press, 1966 reprint of 1935 edition pp. 132-133
  43. ^ Calhoun, James S., collected and edited by Annie Heloise Abel, "The Official Correspondence of James S Calhoun While Indian Agent at Santa Fé and Superintendent of Indian Affairs in New Mexico," 1915 Washington Government Printing Office, pp. 168-170
  44. ^ Sides 258-259
  45. ^ Roberts 253-254
  46. ^ Sides 163
  47. ^ Sides 164-165
  48. ^ Roberts 255
  49. ^ Roberts 257
  50. ^ a b Roberts 258
  51. ^ Roberts 259
  52. ^ Roberts 260
  53. ^ Roberts 262
  54. ^ Roberts 263
  55. ^ Tuesday; June 13; Thursday, 2017 9:59 AM Updated:; June 15; Pm, 2017 1:56. "A search for truth: Albert Pfeiffer, Kit Carson and the Long Walk". The Journal. Retrieved 2020.CS1 maint: extra punctuation (link) CS1 maint: numeric names: authors list (link)
  56. ^ Roberts 265-269
  57. ^ Roberts 270-281
  58. ^ a b c Guild 255
  59. ^ "Fort Tours - Adobe Walls".
  60. ^ Kavanagh, Thomas W. The Comanches Lincoln: U of NE Press, 1999, pp. 472-473. In 1869, five years later, the total population of the three tribes was estimated to be 6,565, of which not more that one fourth, or about 1,600, would be adult males. Also, it is unlikely that all potential fighters were present nearby or participated.
  61. ^ Chuck Lanehart (June 1, 2019). "Caprock Chronicles: Kit Carson, the Comanche and the Kiowa on the Caprock: The first battle of Adobe Walls". Lubbock Avalanche-Journal. Retrieved 2019.
  62. ^ Roberts 187
  63. ^ Brunton, Grover W., 33rd (April 11, 2004). "Christopher Houston "Kit" Carson" (PDF). Retrieved 2017.
  64. ^ "Meet Kit Carson: A guide for young people" (PDF). The Kit Carson Home and Museum. Retrieved 2017.
  65. ^ 199 Cemeteries to see before you die
  66. ^ "Acquisition". Kit Carson Home and Museum. Retrieved 2017.
  67. ^ "Bent Lodge No. 42 AF & AM Taos, New Mexico USA". Retrieved 2017.
  68. ^ Roberts 71
  69. ^ Sides pp. 29-30.
  70. ^ Roberts p. 70
  71. ^ Roberts p. 98
  72. ^ Roberts pp. 101-102
  73. ^ Simmons, Marc (2003). Kit Carson & His Three Wives: A family history. UNM Press. ISBN 978-0-8263-3296-7.
  74. ^ Sides 50-51
  75. ^ The Legendary Mountain Men of North America ISBN 978-1-312-92151-1 p.87
  76. ^ Roberts 186
  77. ^ Roberts 55
  78. ^ Sabin, 1914, pp. 468, 477-478
  79. ^ Sides, 2006, p. 487--488
  80. ^ Sides, 2006, p. 482-483
  81. ^ Guild 283-284
  82. ^ Roberts 292-295
  83. ^ Roberts 294
  84. ^ Carter 210
  85. ^ Sides 334
  86. ^ jrobertson (July 3, 2014). "Not So Fast: Kit Carson Park in Taos, NM, Might NOT Be Renamed". Indian Country Today Media Retrieved 2016.


Further reading

External links

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