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Kit Carson

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Kit Carson

Kit Carson

Kit Carson
Birth name Christopher Houston Carson
Born (1809-12-24)December 24, 1809[1]
Madison County, Kentucky, US[1]
Died May 23, 1868(1868-05-23) (aged 58)
Fort Lyon, Colorado, US
Place of burial Taos, New Mexico, US
Allegiance  United States of America
Service/branch Union Army
Rank Brevet Brigadier General
Commands held 1st New Mexico Cavalry

Mexican-American War

Jicarilla War

American Civil War

Navajo Wars

Plains Indian Wars

Christopher Houston Carson (December 24, 1809[1] – May 23, 1868) — known as Kit Carson — was an American trailblazer and Indian fighter. Carson left home in rural present-day Missouri at age 16 and became a mountain man and trapper in the West.[1] Carson explored the west to Spanish California, and north through the Rocky Mountains. He lived among and married into the Arapaho and Cheyenne tribes. He was hired by John C. Fremont as a guide, and led 'the Pathfinder' through much of California, Oregon and the Great Basin area. He achieved national fame through Fremont's accounts of his expeditions and was featured as the hero of many dime novels.

During the Mexican-American war from 1846 to 1848, Carson was a courier and scout, 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 war to the U.S. government at the capital. In the 1850s, he was appointed as the Indian Agent to the Ute and Jicarilla Apaches. In the Civil War, he led a regiment of mostly Hispanic volunteers on the side of the Union at the Battle of Valverde in 1862. Later during the Indian Wars, Carson led armies to suppress the Navajo, Mescalero Apache, and the Kiowa and Comanche Indians. He is criticized for his conquest of the Navajo and their forced transfer to Bosque Redondo, where many died. Breveted a general, Carson is probably the only illiterate American to reach such a high military rank; he could not write more than his name.[2]

Kit Carson's life, full of many adventures and participation in numerous key events of the early republic, has attracted the attention of novelists, historians, and biographers.

Early life

Born in Madison County, Kentucky, near the city of Richmond in 1809, Carson moved at the age of one year with his family to a rural area near Franklin, Missouri after the United States had made the Louisiana Purchase.[3] His father Lindsey Carson, a farmer of Scots-Irish descent, had fought in the Revolutionary War[1] under General Wade Hampton.

His father had a total of fifteen children: five by Lucy Bradley, his first wife; and ten by Kit Carson's mother, Rebecca Robinson.[1] Kit Carson was the eleventh child in the family.[4] He was known from an early age as "Kit".[1] The Carson family settled on a tract of land owned by the sons of Daniel Boone, who had purchased the land from the Spanish prior to the Louisiana Purchase. The Boone and Carson families became good friends, working and socializing together, and intermarrying.

Carson was eight years old when his father was killed by a falling tree while clearing land.[1] Lindsey Carson's death reduced the Carson family to a desperate poverty, forcing young Kit Carson to drop out of school to work on the family farm, as well as to engage in hunting. At age 14 Carson was apprenticed to a saddlemaker (Workman's Saddleshop) in the settlement of Franklin, Missouri. Franklin was situated at the eastern end of the Santa Fe Trail, which had opened two years earlier. Many of the clientele at the saddleshop were trappers and traders, from whom Carson heard stirring tales of the Far West. Carson is reported to have found work in the saddle shop suffocating: he once stated "the business did not suit me, and I concluded to leave". His master may have agreed with his leaving, since he offered only 1 cent for his return and waited a month to post the notice in the local newspaper.[1]

At sixteen, Carson secretly signed on with a large merchant caravan heading to Santa Fe— with the job of tending the horses, mules, and oxen. During late 1826 and early 1827, he stayed with Matthew Kinkead, a trapper and explorer, in Taos, New Mexico, then known as the capital of the fur trade in the Southwest. Kinkead had served with Carson's older brothers during the War of 1812,[5] and he taught Carson the skills of a trapper. Carson also began learning the necessary languages for trade. Eventually he became fluent in Spanish, Navajo, Apache, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Paiute, Shoshone, and Ute.[6]

The trapper years (1829–1840)

After gaining experience Carson signed on with a party of forty men, led by Ewing Young which in August, 1829 went into Apache country along the Gila River. There, when the party was attacked, Carson first saw combat. Young's party continued on into California trapping and trading from Sacramento to Los Angeles, returning to Taos in April, 1830 after trapping along the Colorado River.[5] See Ewing Young for more detailed information.

Marriage to Singing Grass

At the age of 25, in mid-1835, Carson attended an annual mountain man rendezvous, which was held along the Green River in southwestern Wyoming. He became interested in an Arapaho woman whose name, Waa-Nibe, is approximated in English as "Grass Singing"[7] Her tribe was camped nearby the rendezvous.[8][9][10] Singing Grass is said to have been popular at the rendezvous and also to have caught the attention of a French-Canadian trapper, Joseph Chouinard. When Singing Grass chose Carson over Chouinard, the rejected suitor became belligerent. Chouinard is reported to have thrown a fit, disrupting the camp to the point where Carson could no longer tolerate the situation. Words were exchanged, and Carson and Chouinard charged each other on horses while brandishing their weapons. Using a pistol, Carson shot Chouinard in the forearm.[11] His opponent barely missed killing Carson with his rifle shot; it grazed Carson's head and neck, singeing his hair.[11] Carson said that the fact that Chouinard's horse shied probably saved him, as Chouinard was a splendid shooter.

Controversy regarding Chouinard's fate continues. The duel with Chouinard is said to have made Carson famous among the mountain men but was also considered uncharacteristic of him.[12]

Carson considered his years as a trapper to be "the happiest days of my life." Accompanied by Singing Grass, he worked with the Hudson's Bay Company, as well as the renowned frontiersman Jim Bridger, trapping beaver along the Yellowstone, Powder, and Big Horn rivers. They trapped throughout what is now Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana. Carson's first child, a daughter named Adeline, was born in 1837. Singing Grass gave birth to a second daughter but developed a fever shortly after the birth, and died sometime between 1838–1840.[8][9][10][13]

At this time, the nation was undergoing a severe depression (see Panic of 1837). In addition, the fur industry was undermined by changing fashion styles: a new demand for silk hats replaced the demand for beaver fur. Also, the trapping industry had devastated the beaver population. These factors ended the need for trappers. Carson said, "Beaver was getting scarce, it became necessary to try our hand at something else."[14]

Marriage to Making-Our-Road

He attended the last mountain man rendezvous, held in mid-1840 (again at Ft. Bridger near the Green River) and moved on to Bent's Fort, finding employment as a hunter. Carson married a Cheyenne woman, Making-Our-Road,[15] in 1841. She left him only a short time later to follow her tribe's migration.[8][9][10]

Marriage to Josefa Jaramillo

By 1842 Carson met and became engaged to the daughter of a prominent Taos family: Josefa Jaramillo. After receiving instruction from Padre Antonio José Martínez, he was baptized into the Catholic Church in 1842. At 33, Carson married his third wife, 14-year-old Josefa, on February 6, 1843. They had eight children together, the descendants of whom remain in the Arkansas Valley of Colorado.[10]

Guide with Frémont (1842–1846)

Carson decided early in 1842 to return to Missouri, taking his daughter Adeline to live with relatives near Carson's former home of Franklin, to provide her with an education. He met John C. Frémont on a Missouri River steamboat. Frémont was preparing to lead his first expedition and was looking for a guide to take him to South Pass on the Continental Divide. As the two men became acquainted, Carson offered his services, as he had spent much time in the area. The five-month journey, made with 25 men, was a success, and Fremont's report was published by Congress. His report "touched off a wave of wagon caravans filled with hopeful emigrants" heading West.

Second expedition

Frémont's success in the first expedition led to his second expedition, undertaken in mid-of 1843. He proposed to map and describe the second half of the Oregon Trail, from South Pass to the Columbia River. Due to Carson's proven skills as a guide, Fremont invited him to join the second expedition. They traveled along the Great Salt Lake into Oregon. They determined that all the land in the Great Basin (centered on modern-day Nevada) was land-locked, which contributed greatly to the understanding of North American geography at the time. Farther west, they came within sight of Mount Rainier, Mount Saint Helens, and Mount Hood.

One goal of the expedition had been to locate the Buenaventura River, which was believed to be a major east-west river connecting the Continental Divide with the Pacific Ocean. Though its existence was accepted as scientific fact at the time, it was not to be found. Frémont's second expedition established that the river was a fable.

When the expedition ventured into California, they crossed into Mexican territory. The second expedition became snowbound in the Sierra Nevadas. Carson's wilderness skills averted mass starvation. Food was so scarce that their mules "ate one another's tails and the leather of the pack saddles."[16]

The expedition moved south into the Mojave Desert, enduring attacks by Natives, who killed one man. The threat of military intervention by Mexico sent Fremont's expedition southeast, into Nevada, to a watering hole known as Las Vegas. Carson remembered their arrival as follows:

Our adventures in the desert were eventually terminated by our arrival at "Las Vegas de Santa Clara", and a pleasant thing it was to look once more upon green grass and sweet water, and to reflect that the dreariest part of our journey lay behind us, so that the sands and jornados of the Great Basin would weary our animals no more... The [n]oise of running water, the large grassy meadows, from which the spot takes its name, and the green hills which circle it round – all seem to captivate the eye and please the senses of the well-worn "voyageur".[17]

The party traveled on to Bent's Fort. By August 1844 they returned to Washington, over a year after their departure. Congress published Fremont's report on his expedition in 1845. It added to the national reputations of the two frontiersmen.

Along the route, Frémont and party came across a Mexican man and a boy who had survived an ambush by a band of Natives. They had killed two men, staked two women to the ground and mutilated them, and stolen 30 horses. Carson and fellow mountain man Alex Godey took pity on the two survivors. They tracked the Native band for two days, and upon locating them, rushed into their encampment. They killed two Native Americans, scattered the rest, and returned to the Mexicans with the horses.

More than any other single factor or incident, [the Mojave Desert incident] from Frémont's second expedition report is where the Kit Carson legend was born ...[18]

Third expedition

On June 1, 1845, John Frémont and 55 men left St. Louis, with Carson as guide, on the third expedition. The stated goal was to "map the source of the Arkansas River", on the east side of the Rocky Mountains. But upon reaching the Arkansas, Frémont suddenly made a hasty trail straight to California, without explanation. Arriving in the Sacramento Valley in early 1846, he sought to stir up patriotic enthusiasm among the United States immigrants there. He promised that if war with Mexico started, his military force would "be there to protect them." Frémont nearly provoked a battle with Mexican General José Castro near Monterey, California. Castro's troops so outnumbered the US expedition that they could likely have destroyed it. Frémont fled Mexican-controlled California, and went north to Oregon, making camp at Klamath Lake.

On the night of May 9, 1846, Frémont received a courier, Lieutenant Archibald Gillespie, bringing messages from President James Polk. Reviewing the messages, Frémont neglected the customary measure of posting a watchman for the camp. The neglect of this action is said to have been troubling to Carson, yet he had "apprehended no danger".[19] Later that night Carson was awakened by the sound of a thump. Jumping up, he saw his friend and fellow trapper Basil Lajeunesse sprawled in blood. He sounded an alarm and immediately the camp realized they were under attack by Native Americans, estimated to be several dozen in number. By the time the assailants were beaten off, two other members of Frémont's group were dead. The one dead attacker was judged to be a Klamath Lake native. Frémont's group fell into "an angry gloom." Carson was furious and smashed the dead warrior's face into a pulp.[20]

To avenge the deaths, Frémont attacked a Klamath Tribe fishing village named Dokdokwas, that most likely had nothing to do with the attack, at the junction of the Williamson River and Klamath Lake, on May 10, 1846. Accounts by scholars vary, but they agree that the attack completely destroyed the village structures; Sides reports the expedition killed women and children as well as warriors.[21] Later that day, Carson was nearly killed by a Klamath warrior when his gun misfired as the warrior drew a poison arrow. Frémont trampled the warrior with his horse and saved Carson's life.

The tragedy of Dokdokwas is deepened by the fact that most scholars now agree that Frémont and Carson, in their blind vindictiveness, probably chose the wrong tribe to lash out against: In all likelihood the band of native Americans that had killed [Frémont's three men] were from the neighboring Modoc... The Klamaths were culturally related to the Modocs, but the two tribes were bitter enemies.[22]

Turning south from Klamath Lake, Frémont led his expedition back down the Sacramento Valley, and promoted the Bear Flag Revolt, an insurrection of United States immigrant settlers. He took charge of it once it had adequately developed. When a group of Mexicans murdered two American rebels, Frémont imprisoned José de los Santos Berreyesa, the alcalde, or mayor of Sonoma, two other Berreyesa brothers, and others he believed were involved.

Berreyesa killings

On June 28, 1846, Berreyesa's father, José de los Reyes Berreyesa, an elderly man, crossed the San Francisco Bay and landed near the area known as San Quentin with two 19-years old nephews (twin sons of Francisco de Haro) to visit his own sons in jail. According to Frémont they were carrying Mexican military dispatches. The men were captured by Carson and his companions when they disembarked. Carson rode to where Frémont was and inquired as to what should be done with the prisoners. Frémont ordered their execution stating, "I want no prisoners, Mr. Carson, do your duty." The men were shot.[23] Afterwards the soldiers robbed them of their belongings and left their bodies naked along the shore. Later, Carson told Jasper O'Farrell that he regretted killing the men, but that the act was only one such that Frémont ordered him to commit.[24]

Mexican-American War service

Frémont's California Battalion next moved south to the Mexican provincial capital of Monterey, where they met US Commodore Robert Stockton in mid-July 1846. Stockton had sailed into harbor with two American warships and laid claim to Monterey for the United States. Learning that war with Mexico was underway, Stockton made plans to capture Los Angeles and San Diego and to proceed on to Mexico City. He joined forces with Frémont, and made Carson a lieutenant, thus initiating Carson's military career.

Frémont's unit arrived in San Diego on one of Stockton's ships on July 29, 1846, and took over the town without resistance. Stockton, on a separate warship, claimed Santa Barbara a few days later. (See Mission Santa Barbara and Presidio of Santa Barbara). Meeting up and joining forces in San Diego, the men marched to Los Angeles and claimed the town without any challenge. On August 17, 1846, Stockton declared California to be United States territory. The following day, August 18, Stephen W. Kearny rode into Santa Fe, New Mexico with his Army of the West and declared the New Mexican territory conquered.

Stockton and Frémont wanted to announce the conquest of California to President Polk. They asked Carson to carry their correspondence overland to the President. Carson accepted the mission, and pledged to cross the continent within 60 days. He left Los Angeles with 15 European-American men and six Delaware natives on September 5.

Service with Kearny

Thirty-one days later on October 6, Carson chanced to meet Kearny and his 300 dragoons at the deserted village of Valverde.[25] Kearny had orders from the Polk Administration to subdue both New Mexico and California, and to set up governments there. Learning that California was already conquered, he sent 200 of his men back to Santa Fe, and ordered Carson to guide him back to California to stabilize the situation there. Kearny sent the mail on to Washington by another courier.

For the next six weeks, Lt. Carson guided Kearny and the 100 dragoons west along the Gila River over rugged terrain, arriving at the Colorado River on November 25. On some parts of the trail, mules died at a rate of almost 12 a day. By December 5, three months after leaving Los Angeles, Carson had brought Kearny's men to within 25 miles (40 km) of their destination San Diego.

A Mexican courier was captured en route to Sonora, Mexico, carrying letters to General Jose Castro that reported a Mexican revolt that had retaken California from Commodore Stockton. All the coastal cities were back under Mexican control except San Diego, where the Mexicans had Stockton pinned down and under siege. Kearny and his forces were in danger, as his men were reduced in number and exhausted from the trek from New Mexico. They had to come out of the Gila River trail and confront the Mexican forces, or risk perishing in the desert.

The Battle of San Pasqual

Map showing the Battle of San Pascual

The Battle of San Pasqual was a military engagement during the Mexican-American War in current-day San Diego, California. While approaching San Diego, Kearny sent a rancher ahead to notify Commodore Stockton of his presence. The rancher, Edward Stokes, returned with 39 U.S. Marines under Archibald Gillespie, and information that several hundred Mexican dragoons under Capt. Andres Pico were camped at the indigenous village of San Pasqual, between Kearny and Stockton. Kearny decided to raid Pico to capture fresh horses, and sent out a scouting party on the night of December 5–6, 1846.

The scouting party set off a barking dog in San Pasqual, and Captain Pico's troops were aroused from their sleep. Having been detected, Kearny decided to attack, and organized his troops to advance on San Pasqual. A complex battle evolved. Twenty-one Americans were killed. By the end of the second day, December 7, the Americans were nearly out of food and water, low on ammunition and weak from the journey along the Gila River. They faced starvation and possible annihilation by the superior numbers of Mexican troops. Kearny ordered his men to dig in on top of a small hill.

Kearny sent Carson and two other men to slip through the siege and get reinforcements. Carson, Edward Beale, a naval lieutenant and a Kumeyaay scout, left on the night of December 8 for San Diego, 25 miles (40 km) away. They left their canteens to avoid noise. Their boots also made too much noise, therefore Carson and Beale removed them and tucked them under their belts. They lost their boots, and had to make the journey barefoot through desert, rock, and cactus.

By December 10, Kearny believed all hope was gone, and planned to attempt a breakout the next morning. That night 200 American troops on fresh horses arrived, and the Mexican army dispersed in the face of the superior American forces. Kearny arrived in San Diego by December 12. His arrival contributed to the prompt reconquest of California by the American forces.[26]

Indian activity

Following the recapture of Los Angeles in 1846, Stockton appointed Frémont as Governor of California. Frémont sent Carson to carry messages back to Washington, D.C. He stopped in St. Louis and met with Senator Thomas Benton, a prominent supporter of settling of the West and a proponent of Manifest Destiny. He had been instrumental in getting Frémont's expedition reports published by Congress. Once in Washington, Carson delivered his messages to Secretary of State James Buchanan, and had meetings with Secretary of War William Marcy and President James Polk. The president also proposed Carson as a lieutenant in the mounted rifle regiment, but the United States Senate rejected the appointment.[27]


By the end of the Frémont expeditions and California rebellion, Carson decided to settle down with Joséfa. In 1849 they moved to Taos to take up ranching and farming. However, a peaceful life at home was not to be.

Carson's public image as a hero had been sealed by the Frémont expedition reports of 1845. In 1849 the first of many Carson action novels appeared. Written by Charles Averill, it bore the name Kit Carson: The Prince of the Gold Hunters. This type of western pulp fiction was known as “blood and thunders”. In Averill's novel, Carson finds a kidnapped girl and rescues her, after having vowed to her distraught parents in Boston that he would scour the American West until she was found.

In November 1849, Carson and Major William Grier found the camp of the Jicarilla Apaches who had captured Mrs. Ann White and her daughter. The Jicarilla had attacked the White home and had killed her husband and others. Knowing the soldiers were near, the Jicarilla killed Mrs. White. While picking through the belongings that the Jicarilla had left in their camp, one of Major Grier's soldiers came across a book that the White family had carried with them from Missouri — the paperback novel starring Kit Carson. This was the first time that Carson had come in contact with his own myth.

The episode of the White family killings haunted Carson's memory for many years. He wrote in his autobiography:

I have much regretted the failure of the attempt to save the life of so esteemed and respected a lady. In the 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 hundred, and I have often thought that as Mrs. White would read the same and knowing that I lived near, she would pray for my appearance and that she might be saved.[28]

Later, when a friend offered Averill's book as a gift, Carson told the friend he would rather "burn the *** thing."[29] In fact, these extravagant novels set the public's view of Carson for a generation. Near the end of his life, Carson met a man from Arkansas. He recounted the incident later:

“I say, stranger, are you Kit Carson?” the man asked. Carson said yes. “Look ’ere,” the Arkansan replied, casting his eye over Carson’s diminutive frame. “You ain’t the kind of Kit Carson I’m looking for.”[29]

Following the March 30, 1854 Ojo Caliente.

Peace treaty efforts

On January 22, 1858, Kit Carson concluded a treaty of peace between the Muatche Utah, the Arapaho, and the Pueblo of Taos. They agreed to support the United States in the event of any issue between them and the people of any Territory, and to do what they could to suppress rebellion in Utah. At one time the US feared that the Muatche Utah were in alliance with the Mormons.[30]

Civil War

When the Ceran St. Vrain. Although New Mexico Territory officially allowed slavery, geography and economics made the institution so impractical that there were few slaves within its boundaries. The territorial government and the leaders of opinion all threw their support to the Union.

Overall command of Union forces in the Department of New Mexico fell to Colonel Edward R. S. Canby of the Regular Army’s 19th Infantry, headquartered at Ft. Marcy in Santa Fe. Carson, with the rank of Colonel of Volunteers, commanded the third of five columns in Canby’s force. Carson’s command was divided into two battalions, each made up of four companies of the First New Mexico Volunteers, in all some 500 men.

Early in 1862, Confederate forces in Texas under General Henry Hopkins Sibley invaded New Mexico Territory. They aimed to conquer the rich Colorado gold fields and to redirect the resource from the North to the South.

Battle of Valverde

Advancing up the Rio Grande, Sibley's command clashed with Canby's Union force at Valverde on February 21, 1862. The day-long Battle of Valverde ended when the Confederates captured a Union battery of six guns and forced the rest of Canby's troops across the river. The Union lost 68 killed and 160 wounded. Colonel Carson's column spent the morning on the west side of the river out of the action, but at 1 p.m., Canby ordered them to cross. Carson's battalions fought until ordered to retreat. Carson lost one man killed and one wounded. Colonel Canby had little or no confidence in the hastily recruited, untrained New Mexico volunteers, "who would not obey orders or obeyed them too late to be of any service." However, Canby did remark about Carson and his volunteers' "zeal and energy".[31]

After the battle at Valverde, Colonel Canby and most of the regular troops were ordered to the eastern front. Carson and his New Mexico Volunteers were fully occupied by "Indian troubles".

Navajo campaign


Outlaw Navajos (called ladrones, Spanish for thieves), as well as other Native Americans, and their neighboring New Mexicans, had raided, killed and enslaved each other since they had lived side by side during Spanish rule. Several treaties were made, such as the Bear Spring Treaty, but they were ineffectual at preventing violence between Americans and Navajos. A lull in the raiding had taken place in the 1850s under the jurisdiction of Captain Henry Kendrick, commandant of Fort Defiance in northeast Arizona, and Henry Dodge, the government agent. But after Dodge disappeared in late 1856, and Kendrick was transferred to another post, the raids resumed. With the withdrawal of many troops at the start of the Civil War, New Mexicans became more outspoken and demanded that something be done.[32]

Removal plan

Col. Canby devised a plan for the removal of the Navajo to a distant reservation and sent his plans to his superiors in Washington D.C. But he was promoted to general and recalled east for other duties.[33]

His replacement as commander of the Federal District of New Mexico was Brigadier General James H. Carleton. Carleton believed that the Navajo conflict was the reason for New Mexico's "depressing backwardness". He turned to Kit Carson to help him fulfill his plans of upgrading New Mexico and advancing his own career, as Carson's national reputation had boosted the careers of a series of military commanders who had employed him.

Carleton saw a way to harness the anxieties that had been stirred up [in New Mexico] by the Confederate invasion and the still-hovering fear that the Texans might return. If the territory was already on a war footing, the whole society alert and inflamed, then why not direct all this ramped up energy toward something useful? Carleton immediately declared a state of martial law, with curfews and mandatory passports for travel, and then brought all his newly streamlined authority to bear on cleaning up the Navajo mess. With a focus that bordered on obsession, he was determined finally to make good on Kearny's old promise that the United States would "correct all this".[34]

Carleton believed there was gold in the Navajo country, and that they should be driven out to allow its development.[35] The immediate prelude to Carleton's Navajo campaign was to force the Mescalero Apache to Bosque Redondo. Carleton ordered Carson to kill all the men of that tribe, and say that he (Carson) had been sent to "punish them for their treachery and crimes."

Carson was appalled by this brutal attitude and refused to obey it. He accepted the surrender of more than a hundred Mescalero warriors who sought refuge with him. Nonetheless, he completed his campaign in a month.

When Carson learned that Carleton intended him to pursue the Navajo, he sent Carleton a letter of resignation dated February 3, 1863.[36] Carleton refused to accept this and used the force of his personality to maintain Carson's cooperation. In language similar to his description of the Mescalero Apache, Carleton ordered Carson to lead an expedition against the Navajo, and to say to them, "You have deceived us too often, and robbed and murdered our people too long, to trust you again at large in your own country. This war shall be pursued against you if it takes years, now that we have begun, until you cease to exist or move. There can be no other talk on the subject."[37] However, it was largely Canby's proposed plan, written from a position of relative neutrality and created in hopes of defusing the situation, that Carleton and Carson ultimately carried out.[33]

The Long Walk

Under Carleton's direction, Carson instituted a scorched earth policy, which coerced the Navajo to surrender. Most corn fields were used to feed his horses, and some fields were destroyed. Carleton had insisted that livestock was not to be used for personal use. To carry out his orders, Carson asked that the government recruit Utes to assist him. He did not personally cut down the orchards; he was aided by other Native American tribes with long-standing enmity toward the Navajos. Carson was pleased with the work the Utes did for him, but they went home early in the campaign when told they could not confiscate Navajo booty.[38]

Carson had difficulty with New Mexico volunteers as well. Officers typically came from the ranks of Anglos in the territory, and were not of the best calibre. Carson urged Carleton to accept two resignations he was forwarding, “as I do not wish to have any officer in my command who is not contented or willing to put up with as much inconvenience and privations for the success of the expedition as I undergo myself”.[31]

Unlike the battles in the Civil War, the campaign did not consist of head-to-head battles. Instead, Carson fought when necessary, to round up and take prisoner all the Navajo he could find, to force them to go to Bosque Redondo, also called Fort Sumner.

Finally, in January 1864, after long resisting the plan, Carson sent a company into Canyon de Chelly to investigate the last Navajo stronghold, presuming them to be under the leadership of Manuelito. Carson had feared a trap. But Carleton's orders proved to be effective, and the Navajo realized they had only two choices: surrender and go to Bosque Redondo, or die. By early 1864, 8,000 Navajo men, women and children were forced to march or ride in wagons 300 miles (480 km) from Fort Canby to Fort Sumner, New Mexico. Navajos call this “The Long Walk”.[39]

Carson had left the Army and returned home before the march began, but some Navajo held him responsible for the events. He had promised that those who surrendered would not be harmed, and indeed, they were not attacked directly, but the journey was hard on the people, as they were already starving and poorly clothed, and the provisions were scanty. The death toll was reported at 336, though roughly 2,000 Navajo remained unaccounted for.[39] Many more died during the next four years on the encampment at Fort Sumner. Carleton had underestimated the number of Navajo that would arrive at Sumner, and also had ordered insufficient provisions, a factor that Carson deplored.[39]

In 1868, after signing a treaty with the US government, the Navajo were allowed to return to their homeland. Since then the Navajo Reservation has been enlarged several times to its current size. Thousands of other Navajo who had been living in the wilderness returned to the Navajo homeland centered around Canyon de Chelly.

Southern Plains campaign

In November 1864, Carson was sent by General Carleton to deal with the Indians in western Texas. Carson and his 400 troopers and Indian scouts met a combined force of Kiowa, Comanche, and Plains Apache numbering as much as 1,500 at the ruins of Adobe Walls, Texas. In the Battle of Adobe Walls, the Indian force led by Dohäsan made several assaults on Carson's forces which were supported by two mountain howitzers. Carson retreated after burning a Kiowa village. Carson lost the battle, but most authorities give him credit for a skillful defense and a wise decision to withdraw when confronted by numerically superior Indian army.[40]

A few days later, Colonel John M. Chivington led US troops in a massacre at Sand Creek. Chivington boasted that he had surpassed Carson and would soon be known as the great Indian killer. Carson expressed outrage at the massacre and openly denounced Chivington's actions.

The Southern Plains campaign led the Comanches to sign the Little Rock Treaty of 1865. In October 1865, General Carleton recommended that Carson be awarded the brevet rank of brigadier general, "for gallantry in the battle of Valverde, and for distinguished conduct and gallantry in the wars against the Mescalero Apaches and against the Navajo natives of New Mexico".


When the Civil War ended, and the Indian Wars campaigns were in a lull, Carson was breveted a General and appointed commandant of Ft. Garland, Colorado, the heart of Ute country. Carson had many Ute friends in the area and assisted in government relations. He was interviewed there by William Tecumseh Sherman. A description of that meeting is included in the Charles Burdett book Life of Kit Carson. After being mustered out of the Army, Carson took up ranching, settling at Boggsville in Bent County.[41] In late 1867 he personally escorted four Ute chiefs to Washington DC to visit the President and seek additional government assistance. Soon after his return, his wife Josefa ("Josephine") died from complications after giving birth to their eighth child.

Carson died a month later at age 58 on May 23, 1868, in the presence of Dr. Tilton. Dr. Tilton's description of Carson's last days are included in J. S. C. Abbott's Life of Kit Carson. He died from an abdominal aortic aneurysm in the surgeon's quarters in Fort Lyon, Colorado, located east of Las Animas.[42] He was buried in Taos, New Mexico, next to his wife. His headstone inscription reads: "Kit Carson / Died May 23, 1868 / Aged 59 Years."[43]

His last words were: "Adios Compadres" (Spanish for "Goodbye friends").[44]


Many general accounts of Kit Carson describe him as an outstanding honorable person. Albert Richardson, who knew him personally in the 1850s, wrote that Kit Carson was "a gentleman by instinct, upright, pure, and simple-hearted, beloved alike by Indians, Mexicans, and Americans".[45]

Oscar Lipps also presented a positive image of Carson in 1909: "The name of Kit Carson is to this day held in reverence by all the old members of the Navajo tribe. They say he knew how to be just and considerate as well as how to fight the Indians".[46]

Carson's contributions to western history have been reexamined by historians, journalists and Native American 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.[47] Some journalists and authors during the last 25 years presented an alternative view of Kit Carson. For instance, Virginia Hopkins stated in 1988 that "Kit Carson was directly or indirectly responsible for the deaths of thousands of Indians".[48] Tom Dunlay wrote in 2000 that Carson was directly responsible for the deaths of at least fifty indigenous people.[49]

Dunlay portrays Carson as a man with divided loyalties whose beliefs and prejudices were shaped by his times.

In 1970, Lawrence Kelly noted that Carson had warned 18 Navajo chiefs that all Navajo peoples "must come in and go to the 'Bosque Redondo' where they would be fed and protected until the war was over. That unless they were willing to do this they would be considered hostile."[50]

On January 19, 2006, Marley Shebala, senior news reporter and photographer for Navajo Times, quoted the Fort Defiance Chapter of the Navajo Nation as saying, "Carson ordered his soldiers to shoot any Navajo, including women and children, on sight." This view of Carson's actions may be taken from General James Carleton’s orders to Carson on October 12, 1862, concerning the Mescalero Apaches: "All Indian men of that tribe are to be killed whenever and wherever you can find them: the women and children will not be harmed, but you will take them prisoners and feed them at Ft. Stanton until you receive other instructions".[51]

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. Carson believed most of the Indian troubles in the West were caused by "aggressions on the part of whites." He is said to have viewed the raids on white settlements as driven by desperation, "committed from absolute necessity when in a starving condition." Native American hunting grounds were disappearing as waves of white settlers filled the region.[52]

In 1868, at the urging of Washington and the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Carson journeyed to Washington D.C. where he escorted several Ute Chiefs to meet with the President of the United States to plead for assistance to their tribe.[53]

In popular culture

Kit Carson quickly became a subject of literature, with Eastern writers embellishing the account of Fremont. Charles Averill's Kit Carson: Prince of the Gold Hunters (1849) presented him as one who hates Native Americans. This view of Carson, repeated in more than fifty novels of the 1850s and 1860s, came to dominate his popular image.[54] The fictional Carson was made to display the qualities commonly assigned to all mountain men, including courage, exceptional combat skills and a belief in American destiny.[55]

By 1851 Carson's public image was such that Herman Melville could compare him to Hercules in Moby Dick. Carson became the hero of juvenile fiction not just in the United States, but also published in French, German, Portuguese, Gujarati, Hindi, Singhalese, Arabic and Japanese.[56]

In the 1950s Carson was a popular character in British comics, appearing in The Comet[57] and Cowboy Picture Library.[58]

Museums and honors

The Kit Carson Home and Museum in downtown Taos, New Mexico

The Kit Carson House in Taos, New Mexico, is a U.S.-designated National Historic Landmark. It is operated as a museum.

The Kit Carson Museum in Las Animas, Colorado, is located in an adobe building that was built in 1940 to hold German prisoners of war captured in North Africa during World War II. The museum houses artifacts relating to Bent County, Colorado covering the period from the days of Kit Carson, through World War II. It is scheduled to move into a new facility, once completed.

Fort Garland, located within the city of the same name in Colorado, was the location where Kit Carson briefly re-located his family while he served as commandant of a company of roughly 100 New Mexico Volunteers in 1866-1867. It includes original adobe buildings that house a reconstruction of Carson's commandant quarters. The site is a U.S.-designated National Historic Landmark, and is operated as the "Fort Garland Museum".

The Kit Carson Chapel, located in Fort Lyon, Colorado, was constructed from the stones of the surgeons' quarters where he died. It is open to the public.

In Rayado, NM, the Kit Carson Museum is operated as a living museum, staffed by nearby Philmont Scout Ranch interpreters.

San Pasqual Battlefield State Historic Park, located near Escondido, California, is a California State Park which honors the memory of the participants from both the United States and Mexico, including Kit Carson, who contested the Battle of San Pasqual on December 5–6, 1846 during the Mexican-American War. The State Park includes a visitor's center that in addition to housing exhibits and a film about the battle, also includes information about the cultural history of the San Pasqual Valley. The State Park also hosts living history presentations, which once a year in December includes a recreation of the battle itself.

Kit Carson's grave

A partial list of places named after Carson:

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i Carter, Harvey Lewis. "Dear Old Kit": The Historical Christopher Carson, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press (August 1990), pp. 38-39 ISBN 978-0-8061-2253-3
  2. ^ Carter, Harvey Lewis (1968). Dear Old Kit: The Historical Christopher Carson. University of Oklahoma Press. p. 188. 
  3. ^ "In the spring of 1811, Lindsey Carson, with his wife and nine children [moved by ox team and wagon] from Madison County, Kentucky, to the new Boone's Lick District of the even newer American Territory of Louisiana... The Carsons and their company of other southerners settled in what is now Howard County, along the Missouri River about 170 miles west of St. Louis. [In this frontier arose the stockades of Fort Hempstead, Fort Cooper, and Fort Kincaid. The name of Lindsey Carson appears upon the roll of old Fort Hempstead and the annals of old Fort Cooper"], Sabin, E., Kit Carson Days, p. 6
  4. ^ There is controversy about how many children were in the Carson family, and what Kit Carson's birth order was: "In 1793 his first wife died, leaving him with 5 children and in 1796 he married Rebecca Robinson, who bore him ten more, including Christopher, the sixth". T. Dunlay Kit Carson and the Indians, pp. 26–27. Compare that statement with the following: "The elder Carson had an enormous family—five children by his first wife and ten by Kit's mother, Rebecca Robinson. Of those fifteen children, Kit was the eleventh in line." Sides, p. 8. This article has used Hampton Sides version, as there is no decisive reasoning to resolve the conflict, and his was the original version used for this article. There remains some controversy about which version is correct.
  5. ^ a b Carter, pp. 42-50
  6. ^ Brooke Cleary, "Kit Carson: A Hero in Fact and Fiction", adapted from David Fridtjof Halaas, "Kit Carson, Likely Hero", Colorado History NOW, May 1999, Colorado Historical Society, accessed 24 January 2010
  7. ^ Sides, p. 30.
  8. ^ a b c Whitlock, Douglas. "Kit Carson's wives & kids". Retrieved 2007-11-30. 
  9. ^ a b c "The Life & Times of: Kit Carson". Kids-n-Cowboys. Retrieved 2007-11-30. 
  10. ^ a b c d Chinn, Stephen. "Kit Carson Family History". Retrieved 2007-11-30. 
  11. ^ a b Mountain Men and Fur Traders of the Far West by Hafen and Carter
  12. ^ One version has it that Chouinard survived; another that Carson killed him with a second shot; and a third that Chouinard may have died of an infection caused by his wounds. M. Simmons, P. 7–17; T. Dunlay 69-73; Sides, pp. 29–31.
  13. ^ A Carson family history website gives the year of the death of Singing Grass as 1838. H. Sides gives the year as 1839, and Dunlay gives the year as sometime between 1839-40, and possibly occurring at Bent's Fort.
  14. ^ Sides, H., Blood and Thunder, p. 33
  15. ^ M. Simmons, Kit Carson and His Three Wives, pp. 35–36: After Carson, Making Our Road married three other times: twice to Native Americans and the third to Charles Rath, with whom she had a daughter. Her daughter told interviewers that the name Making-Our-Road in Cheyenne meant "laying down the law", a phrase much in keeping with her stern personality.
  16. ^ "Kit Carson: Biography and Much More",
  17. ^ Hafen, LeRoy R.; Weber, Ann W. Hafen; introduction to the Bison book edition by David J. (1993). Old Spanish trail: Santa Fé to Los Angeles: with extracts from contemporary records and including diaries of Antonio Armijo and Orville Pratt. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. p. 326.  
  18. ^ Sides, op cit, p. 61
  19. ^ This account is described in Dunlay p. 115, and Sides p. 78.
  20. ^ Fremont, Memoirs, p. 492.
  21. ^ H. Sides reports the massacre included women and children. Dunlay reports that Carson said, "I directed their houses to be set on fire" and "We gave them something to remember...the women and children we did not interfere with." (Dunlay, p.117)
  22. ^ Sides, Blood and Thunder, p. 87
  23. ^ Sides, p. 329 Guild, Thelma S.; Carter, Harvey L. (1988). Kit Carson: A Pattern for Heroes. University of Nebraska Press. p. 154.  
  24. ^ Eldredge, Zoeth Skinner. The Beginnings of San Francisco, 1912. "Appendix D: The Murder of Berreyesa and the De Haros." Hosted at SFGenealogy. Retrieved on August 17, 2009.
  25. ^ Valverde had once been an important Spanish village, but was deserted by the Spaniards due to frequent Navajo and Apache raids. Located about 150 miles (240 km) south of Santa Fe, on the Rio Grande, it was to be the later site of Carson's battle against Confederate Texas forces in February 1862.
  26. ^ Sides, Hampton, ‘’Blood and Thunder: An Epic of the American West’’, Doubleday, 2006, pp 148-163
  27. ^ "Kit Carson Biography". Encyclopedia of World Biography. Retrieved 5 June 2011. 
  28. ^ Carson, Kit; Blanche C. Grant (2006). Blanche C. Grant, ed. Kit Carson's Own Story of His Life (illustrated, annotated ed.). Sunstone Press. p. 95.  
  29. ^ a b LePore, Jill (October 9, 2006). "Westward Ho!". The New Yorker. 
  30. ^ New York Tribune, March 23, 1858, p. 1, column 6
  31. ^ a b "The Latin Library". Retrieved 5 June 2011. 
  32. ^ Dunlay, p. 257
  33. ^ a b Dunlay, p. 261
  34. ^ Sides, pp. 325–326.
  35. ^ Sides, pp. 329–331.
  36. ^ Dunlay, op cit, p. 247
  37. ^ Sides, p. 344.
  38. ^ Dunlay, p. 281
  39. ^ a b c Dunlay, p. 301-305
  40. ^ Sides, Hampton. Blood and Thunder. New York: Doubleday, 2006, p. 377
  41. ^ McKenzie, William H. (February 7, 1986). "National Register of Historic Places Inventoryu - Nomination Form: Boggsville". National Park Service. Retrieved 26 July 2012. 
  42. ^ Abernathy Jr, C. M.; Baumgartner, R.; Butler, H. G.; Collins, J.; Dickinson, T. C.; Hildebrand, J.; Yajko, R. D.; Harken, A. H. (1986). "The management of ruptured abdominal aortic aneurysms in rural Colorado. With a historical note on Kit Carson's death". JAMA: the Journal of the American Medical Association 256 (5): 597–600.  
  43. ^ The gravestone reads "59 years". Carson's date of birth was December 24, 1809. Calculating forward from this makes his age as 58.
  44. ^ Ward, Laura; Allen, Robert (2004). Famous Last Words: The Ultimate Collection of Finales and Farewells (2nd ed.). 387 Park Ave. South, New York, NY 10016: Sterling Publishing Company, Inc. p. 120.  
  45. ^ Richardson, p. 261
  46. ^ Lipps, p. 59
  47. ^ Carter, p. 210
  48. ^ Hopkins, p. 40
  49. ^ Dunlay, chapter 8
  50. ^ Kelly, pp. 20–21
  51. ^ Kelly, p. 11
  52. ^ Sides, Blood and Thunder, p. 334
  53. ^ Legrand Sabin, Edwin (June 1914). "37". Kit Carson Days (1809-1868) 1. Chicago: A.C. McClurg & Co. p. 488.  
  54. ^ Watts, Edward (2011). "Exploration, trading, trapping and early fiction, 1780-1850". In Witschi, Nicolas S. A Companion to the Literature and Culture of the American West. John Wiley & Sons. pp. 18–19.  
  55. ^ Sundquist, Eric J. (1995). Empire and Slavery in American Literature, 1820-1865. Univ. Press of Mississippi. p. 28.  
  56. ^ Dunlay, Thomas W. (2005). Kit Carson and the Indians. U of Nebraska Press. pp. 1–3.  
  57. ^ Denis Gifford, Encyclopedia of Comic Characters, Longman, 1987, p. 124
  58. ^ David Ashford and Steve Holland, The Fleetway Picture Library Index Vol 2: The Thriller Libraries, Book Palace Books, 2010, p. 2-5


  • Dunlay, Tom, Kit Carson and the Indians, University of Nebraska Press, 2000.
  • Gordon-McCutchan, R. C. (Editor) Kit Carson: Indian Fighter or Indian Killer?, University Press of Colorado, 1996. ISBN 0-87081-393-5.
  • Hopkins, Virginia, Pioneers of the Old West, New York, NY: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1988. ISBN 0-517-64930-6.
  • Kelly, Lawrence, Navajo Roundup, Pruett Publications, 1970. ISBN 0-87108-042-7
  • Lipps, Oscar. A Little History of the Navajo, Cedar Rapids, Iowa: The Torch Press, 1909.
  • Locke, Raymond, The Book of the Navajo, Mankind Publishing Company, 2001. ISBN 0-87687-500-2.
  • Richardson, Albert, Beyond the Mississippi, Hartford, Conn.; American Publishing Co., 1867.
  • Roberts, David (2001), A newer world: Kit Carson, John C. Fremont and the claiming of the American west, New York: Touchstone ISBN 0-684-83482-0.
  • Sabin, Edwin L., Kit Carson Days, vol. 1 & 2, University of Nebraska Press, 1995.
  • Sides, Hampton, Blood and Thunder, Doubleday, 2006. ISBN 0-385-50777-1.
  • Simmons, Marc, Kit Carson & His Three Wives, University of New Mexico Press, 2003.
  • (anon., Introduction by Martin A. Link) The Navajo Treaty – 1868., KC Publications, Las Vegas, Nevada, 1968.
  • Valkenburgh, Richard Van Long Walk by Very Slim Man, Desert Magazine, April, 1946

Further reading

  • Story of the Wild West and Camp-Fire Chats by Buffalo Bill (Hon. W.F. Cody.) "A Full and Complete History of the Renowned Pioneer Quartette, Boone, Crockett, Carson and Buffalo Bill.", c1888 by HS Smith, published 1889 by Standard Publishing Co., Philadelphia, PA.

External links

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