by lyle e davis
Through the years, hearing of the various exploits of Kit Carson, one would imagine him to be at least 6’ tall, about 185 lbs, muscular, dashing, full of vinegar. In fact, Kit Carson only weighed 135 lbs, and was never taller than 5’ 6.” He was a very quiet person. Some say his voice was as quiet as that of a woman’s. It is also said that he was all but illiterate, barely able to write his own name. 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.
Colonel Edward W. Wynkoop described his friend: "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 eyes, 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."
The Kit Carson Statue in Kit Carson Park is considered one of the finest equestrian works in
North America. A unique feature of the statue is that August Luckeman sculpted Kit Carson's likeness,
whereas Frederick Roth sculpted the horse.
Carson's inability to read and write did not make him an "unlearned" man. He enjoyed having books read to him. He was fond of the poetry of Byron and thoroughly enjoyed a biography of William the Conqueror. When Carson discovered William's favorite oath was "By the splendor of God," he embraced it as his own. That was the closest thing to profanity anyone ever heard Kit utter. Wynkoop, a lifelong friend, observed: "He was temperate, using little liquor and never to excess. But, he was a great smoker."
In spite of this shy, quiet, almost effeminate demeanor, he blazed a career and a historical path that has seldom been equalled.
We in North San Diego County know the name Kit Carson quite well, seeing as how he played a rather prominent role in our area, militarily. We’ll address how Kit Carson played a role in our local history
Who was this character? This little fella who blazed such a mighty trail over our pioneer years?
Born on Christmas Eve in Madison County, Kentucky, in 1809, Christopher Houston ‘Kit’ Carson was the 9th of 14 children. When he was still an infant, the family moved to Howard County, Missouri ,where Carson spent most of his early childhood in Boone's Lick.
His father died when he was only nine years old, and the need to work prevented Kit from ever receiving an education. At the age of 14, Kit was working as an apprentice to a saddle and harness maker. That life didn't suit him and in 1826, at the age of 16, Kit ran away and joined a wagon train bound for Santa Fe. "Being anxious to travel for the purpose of seeing different countries, I concluded to join the first party for the Rocky Mountains." (The saddlemaker reported him as a runaway and offered one penny as a reward to anyone who returned Kit to his place of business in Franklin.)
From Santa Fe, Kit went north to Taos where he worked as a cook, errand boy and harness repairer.
When he was 19, he was hired for a fur trapping expedition to California, where, in spite of his small stature he soon proved himself able and courageous. While in California, he later dictated to his biographer: “We found signs of trappers on the San Joaquin. We followed their trail and, in a few days, overtook the party and found them to be of the Hudson Bay Company. They were sixty men strong, commanded by Peter Ogden. We trapped down the San Joaquin and its tributaries and found but little beaver, but game plenty, elk, deer, and antelope in thousands.”
After a bit of traveling around with the wagon trains, he showed up in Taos and took a job with a group of mountain men needing a helper. This led him into becoming a full-fledged fur trapper and for a dozen years he roamed all over the West, living by his traps, his rifle and his wits. In his later years he referred to this as the happiest time of his life.
During this period he married Grass Singing, an Arapaho girl. They lived blissfully in a teepee and had a daughter, Adaline, and a son, Robert. During the spring hunt of 1841, young Robert fell into a kettle of boiling soap and died. Not long after, his mother, Grass Singing, contracted a fever and died, too.
Between 1828 and 1840, Carson used Taos as a base camp for many fur-trapping expeditions throughout the mountains of the West, from California's Sierra Nevadas to the Colorado Rockies.
In the fall of 1841, Carson showed up at Bent's Fort on the Arkansas River and hired on as a hunter for $1 per day. While here he took another Indian wife, a Cheyenne named Making-Out-Road. This only lasted a few months before she divorced him in the accepted Indian way by tossing his saddle out the door of their buffalo-skin lodge (imagine the legal fees saved if this type of Common Law was practiced in modern America). In 1842 Kit traveled to Missouri and placed his daughter Adaline in a school there.
On his way back to Bent's Fort, Kit met up with Lt. John C. Fremont who was preparing to begin a mapping and exploration expedition for the Army to the Rockies, and he needed a guide. Fremont was instantly impressed with Carson. Carson, at 33, had not yet learned to read nor write. Carson was more at home in Spanish than in English. He adopted the dialect of his aristocratic third wife, Josefa, and Spanish was the language he and his friends spoke at their homes in Taos. Carson was also fluent in a third language, French. As a trapper and frontiersman, he could also converse in Navajo, Apache, Comanche, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Crow, Blackfoot, Shoshone, Piute and Ute, and he also knew the sign language used by mountain men throughout the West. He was hired on the spot.
As the Army paid much better than Bent, St. Vrain & Company, Carson jumped at the chance and, over the next several years, guided three of Fremont's expeditions throughout the West and was even with Fremont during the Bear Flag Revolt in California (1846).
In typical abbreviated fashion Carson packs a several month journey from (what is now) Utah to Wyoming to Washington into a single paragraph:
“We now took up Bear River till we got above the Lake. Then crossed to and took up Malade, thence to Fort Hall where we met Fitzpatrick and party. Fremont from here took his party and proceeded in advance. Fitzpatrick keeping in rear some eight days march and we struck for the mouth of the Columbia River. Arrived safe at the Dalles on the Columbia. Fremont took four men and proceeded to Vancouver's to purchase provisions. I remained in charge of camp.”
In his memoirs, Frémont wrote: "Carson may be considered among the boldest ... so full of daring ...Two men, in a savage desert, pursue day and night an unknown body of Indians into the defiles of an unknown mountain--attack them upon sight, without counting numbers, and defeat them in an instant."
Thanks to Frémont's report--as well as various diaries, dime novels and newspaper accounts--Carson's fame spread throughout the United States. His services as a scout, hunter and Indian fighter were in demand. Frémont and others realized that Carson's quick thinking, frontier experience and knowledge of Indian culture could make the difference between life and death. Kit Carson was fast becoming a legend in his own time. Every schoolboy knew about his daring deeds.
In 1854 the army was engaged in a campaign against the Jicarilla Apache in New Mexico, and Carson acted as the principle guide to Major Carleton:
“It was evident that the Indians were making for the Mosco Pass. The command marched through the Sangre de Cristo Pass...I discovered a trail of three Indians in the pass, followed it till I came to the main trail near the Huerfano...They had passed through the pass as predicted. The main trail was now taken and followed six days when the Indians were discovered. We marched over very rugged country, mountains, cañons, ravines had to be passed, but we overtook the Indians at last. The Indians were encamped in the east side of Fisher's Peak in the Raton Mountains. The troops charged in on the village. The Indians ran. Some were killed and about 40 head of horses were captured. They were followed until dark...”
Between the first and second Fremont expeditions, Kit drifted down to Taos where he meant to ask a fiery, bright-eyed young beauty named Josefa Jaramillo for her hand. Her family had problems with this.
Josefa Jaramillo Carson, at age 18,
3 years after marrying Kit Carson
Carson was a 34 year old Anglo foreigner and Josefa was only in her mid-teens. Slowly, the Jaramillos were won over and the couple was wed. As a wedding gift, Kit gave Josefa the rambling adobe home in Taos that they lived in for the next twenty-some years. Today this home houses the Kit Carson Museum. They brought seven children into the world in that house, even though there were some problems caused by Kit's irregular income and his long absences from home when he worked as a guide.
Carson also led the forces of U.S. General Stephen Kearney from Socorro, New Mexico, into California, when a Californio band led by Andrés Pico mounted a challenge to American occupation of Los Angeles later that year.
Kit Carson’s Home and
present day museum in Tao, N. M.
On December 6, 1846, these forces made an ill advised, poorly organized attack on about 200 Californians, commanded by Don Andres Pico, who were virtually unharmed, but the Kearny Column suffered 31 casualties, including 18 dead, and Kearny himself was painfully wounded. The Kearny Column limped to camp for the night on a hill immediately northwest of the battlefield. This engagement, known as the Battle of San Pasqual, was fought approximately five miles east of the present city of Escondido and several hundred yards southeast of the present San Pasqual Battlefield Marker. On 7 December the battered Column marched westward toward San Diego, constantly harrassed by the Californians as it moved. That night Kearny's troop camped on Mule Hill, an accessible and readily defended position located about five miles south of the present city The Californians easily held the Kearny Column on Mule Hill. While trapped there, Kearny's men burned the baggage they could no longer transport, and were reduced to eating what remained of their animal transport, thereby giving the camp site its name of "Mule Hill." Fortunately the Kearny Column was able to get water from the nearby San Dieguito River (sometimes called Santa Ysabel Creek).
On the third night of this battle, Kit Carson and Navy Lieutenant Edward F. Beal slipped through the Californian lines and made their way to San Diego to summon relief. On 11 December 1846 a force of 200 U.S. Marines and sailors from San Diego arrived to relieve the Kearny force on Mule Hill. The Californian force simply melted away. That same day the entire United States force marched to San Diego without further incident. At the end of the war, Carson returned to New Mexico and took up ranching.
By October 1847 Carson was in Monterey. One of the first people to greet him was a young lieutenant who was somewhat taken aback by how this American hero looked: "His fame was then at its height, from the publication of Frémont's books, 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 of daring. He spoke but little and answered questions in monosyllables." The young officer was William Tecumseh Sherman.
By 1853, he and his partner, Lucien Maxwell, were able to drive a large flock of sheep to California, where gold rush prices paid them a handsome profit.
In 1854 Carson got a federal appointment as Indian Agent for the Utes and Jicarilla Apaches, a job that gave him a regular salary and allowed him to stay home much more. However, he was still called out regularly on Indian business. Once when he was away, a party of Utes stopped by his agency office. Josefa went out to speak with the heavily armed warriors who said they had business with "Father Keet," the name they used to address him. After telling the warriors that her husband wasn't there, she noticed a small Navajo boy sobbing on the saddle behind one of the Utes. When she asked about him she was told that after they were out of sight of the settlement, they were going to kill him because of his constant crying. Horrified, Josefa quickly asked them what they would accept as ransom for the boy. The Utes had a quick conference and replied that they would trade him for a strong, young horse. The trade was made.
When Carson returned home a week later, one of the first things he noticed was the missing horse. When Josefa told him what had happened he accepted the boy gracefully and named him Juan Carson. Kit raised Juan as his own son and Juan remained with the Carson's until their deaths a decade later.
In the fall of 1860, Kit went hunting with some friends in the San Juan Mountains of southern Colorado. On a steep trail his horse took a spill and Kit suffered serious internal injuries. He recovered but was left with recurring pain and physical damage that would eventually cost him his life.
Carson, according to one account, would expose himself to the full light of the campfire only when he lit a pipe. When Carson slept, he used his saddle not only as a pillow but also as a shield for his head. His closest companions were his pistols, which he kept half-cocked at night, and a rifle that he kept under the blanket beside him. He was always the first one up in the morning. He was a well-disciplined man, completely responsible for himself, his animals and his equipment. He demanded the same of the men who traveled with him.
During the Civil War Kit resigned as Indian agent and took a commission as a Colonel in the New Mexico Volunteers at Fort Union. He was in the thick of the fighting in New Mexico until the Confederate army retreated in defeat back to Texas in 1862. Shortly after that, General James H. Carleton dispatched Kit on a campaign to defeat the Mescalero Apaches east of the Rio Grande. When he had accomplished that, Kit was then sent to subdue the Navajos of Arizona. This last assignment he tried to get out of but Carleton appealed to his strong sense of duty and patriotism and eventually talked Carson into it.
Carson recruited a company of Ute scouts and marched west with his regiment. Through vigorous campaigning during the second half of 1863 he forced some 8,000 Navajos to surrender. The Navajos suffered about 50 casualties, mostly at the hands of their bitter enemies, the Utes. This was considered a remarkable military achievement because if anyone else had been in command, the Indian losses would have been much greater.
Ironically, in recent years Kit Carson has been stigmatized as a wanton killer and brutal oppressor of Indians. In his day, he was regarded as an Indian lover. General Sherman once commented that the Indians trusted Kit Carson above all other white men, including the President.
After carrying out several other military assignments, Kit was given command of Fort Garland at the foot of Mt. Blanca in southern Colorado. With a permanent station, Kit was able to bring up the wife and kids from Taos and lodge them in the commandant's house, a primitive log structure in the center of officer's row at the fort. His kids loved it, using the whole fort as their playground. While at the fort, Kit began to suffer serious after-effects of his horse accident in 1860: primarily chronic chest pain. He began to be worried about the future of his family. He applied for the higher-paying job of Superintendent of Indian Affairs for the Colorado Territory.
While waiting for that to come through, Kit decommissioned his New Mexico Volunteers, resigned his Army commission and moved his wife and family to Boggsville, near Las Animas, Colorado, and close to Bent's Fort. He had friends there and hoped to get started in ranching.
In January 1868, the appointment as Indian Superintendent came through. A few weeks later he was asked to accompany a delegation of Utes to Washington for treaty negotiations. Josefa was pregnant with their last child and he was hurting but his sense of duty forced him to make the trip. Besides, he thought there might be a doctor in the East who could help him. After completing his Indian business in the capitol, Kit saw several doctors who all agreed that his case was incurable and that he actually might die at any moment.
Kit rushed back to Josefa: by train to Cheyenne, stagecoach to Denver, and then in an open buckboard down the Front Range to Pueblo. At Pueblo he went to see Dr. Michael Beshoar. The doctor gave him some cherry cough syrup with opium and quickly examined him. He found an aneurism of the carotid artery, a bulge in the weakened artery wall big enough to see. At any time it could burst and Kit would die.
In an even greater hurry, Kit descended 85 miles down the Arkansas River to Boggsville. Josefa heard he was coming, hitched up the wagon and rode out to meet him. Two days later she gave birth to Josefita (Josephine) and ten days later Josefa died from complications related to childbirth, a regular occurence in those days.
Kit executed papers making Tom Boggs, his in-law, guardian of his children and Executor of his will.
On May 14, Tom took Kit to Fort Lyon, north of Boggsville. There he was placed in the quarters of the post surgeon, Dr. H. R. Tilton. The doctor remained at his bedside until the afternoon of May 23, 1868 when Kit requested a buffalo steak. He ate the steak with relish and then called for his pipe. At 4:25 pm he uttered his last words: "Adios, compadre. Adios!" and died with blood gushing up his throat.
His wife preceded him only a few days, and their remains were buried side by side in the garden of C.R. Rite, at Boggsville. The following winter, their bodies were taken up and removed to Taos, N.M.
Carson was one of the few mountain men who would survive Indian fights, starvation, thirst and malevolent mules, to die in bed.
At his death, Carson was a comparatively young man. He was only 58, seven months shy of his fifty-ninth birthday. At his death, a description of him is consistent with earlier observations, with adjustments made for aging. In appearance, he was said to be under the medium height, rather stooping (probably from infirmity), his hair gray, eyes blue and small, with a merry twinkle about them. He was sociable and humorous in nature, though unassuming. He was by no means profane or rough, but was noted for gentlemanly demeanor. One of his favorite amusements was horse-racing, which he indulged in even as late as 1868.
The Indians of the region respected Carson. General Sherman commented: "These Red Skins think Kit twice as big a man as me. Why his integrity is simply perfect. They know it, and they would believe him and trust him any day before me."
Of the children born to Carson and Josephina there were: William, Kit, Charles, Estiphena, Rebecca and Josephita.
Thomas O. Boggs became guardian of the Carson children, and administrator of their father's estate. The Carson estate was appraised at about $9,000, and consisted principally of stock.
The following year, his remains were moved to a small cemetery near his old home in Taos, New Mexico.
In the 1996 book Kit Carson: Indian Fighter or Indian Killer?, historian Marc Simmons argues that Carson truly rates as an American hero: "If Thomas Jefferson was right that a natural aristocracy existed among men, grounded in virtue, talents, and merit, then Kit Carson unquestionably qualified for membership."
Colorado Historical Society