Article abstract: As trapper, guide, Indian agent, and soldier, Carson helped open the American West to settlement. His frontier adventures continue to impress those fascinated by the West’s romantic era.
Christopher “Kit” Carson was born into a large Kentucky family on the day before Christmas, 1809. Of Scotch-Irish heritage, Lindsey Carson fought in the American Revolution and fathered five children before his first wife died in 1793. Three years later, he married Kit’s mother, Rebecca Robinson. The second marriage yielded ten more children, Christopher being the sixth. Before he was two years old, the family moved to Missouri, settling in Howard County. A falling tree limb killed his father when Kit was only nine years old. At fourteen, he was apprenticed to a saddler in Franklin. Kit received little formal schooling and remained illiterate most of his life (many years later, he did learn to write his name). Instead, he earned an education in the American wilderness from men tutored in frontier ways.
Before long, the young apprentice found the saddle trade “distasteful” and vowed to flee his fate at the first chance. Longing to visit new lands, he decided to join the first party headed for the Rocky Mountains. With his master’s apparent connivance, Carson ran away in August, 1826, following a wagon train bound for Santa Fe, New Mexico. Taos then became Carson’s adopted home, where he always returned after his long journeys.
From 1827 to 1829, Carson served as a cook, drove a wagon to El Paso, Texas, interpreted Spanish, and worked for a copper mine near the Gila River. In August, 1829, he joined Ewing Young’s trapping party bound for California. Although not the first trapping venture to cross the continent, the Young expedition provided Carson with invaluable experience and helped shape his life. After trapping beaver along several Arizona streams, the party moved on to California, trapped in the San Joaquin and Sacramento valleys, and finally returned to Taos in April, 1831. Carson once again joined an experienced trapper’s expedition, this time that of Thomas Fitzpatrick, known to Indians as “Broken Hand.” Fitzpatrick’s men headed north to trap in the central Rockies. For the next ten years, Carson roamed the American interior, hunting and trapping in much of present-day Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Idaho, and Montana.
Carson immediately established a reputation as a reliable trapper and a man useful in a fight. Although later known for his wise counsel, at this point in his life he craved action and adventure. Experience taught him the value of caution; though excitable, he remained firm and determined in dangerous situations. Carson admitted that his most fearful moment came when two angry grizzly bears forced him up a tree. In 1835, an insufferable French trapper goaded him into a celebrated duel at point-blank range—so close, in fact, that Carson’s face received powder burns. Wounded in the arm, the Frenchman gave Carson no more trouble.
Carson and his fellow trappers often fought Indians, particularly the Blackfeet, who struggled with the whites over hunting grounds and supplies of valuable horses. In 1835, a Blackfoot warrior wounded Carson in the shoulder, his most serious injury. Early in life, Carson decided that Indians could not be trusted; subsequent clashes confirmed his view that wayward Indians must be severely chastised. Still, he had no special hatred for Native Americans; he respected and understood them well enough to take two native women as his wives (although the second union ended in divorce).
In the Rockies, Carson traveled with many noted mountain men, including Jim Bridger, “Old Bill” Williams, Richard Owens, and Alexis Godey. Trappers lived a rigorous yet unrestrained life, no sooner trading their beaver pelts than setting off again for the mountains. By 1840, overtrapping brought their days to an end, but not before they began to pacify the frontier. Just over thirty years of age, Carson was left with an uncertain future.
In 1836, Carson acquired an Arapaho wife, Waanibe (or Singing Grass). She bore him two daughters but died sometime in 1840-1841. For a wandering trapper, Carson was considerate of his Indian wife; her death meant that he had to care for two young daughters. In 1842, he decided to leave one daughter with Missouri relatives. Returning westward, he met John C. Frémont on a Missouri River steamer. This chance meeting proved a turning point in Carson’s life.
Despite his fame as a mountain man and Indian fighter, Carson was barely average in height and spoke in a soft, nearly feminine voice. He nevertheless immediately impressed army explorer John C. Frémont, who described the frontiersman in his memoirs as “broad-shouldered and deep-chested, with a clear steady blue eye and frank speech and address; quiet and unassuming.” Others agreed that Carson was a man of rare character: honest, dependable, fierce under fire, and modest. Younger than many experienced trappers, he became their equal and then won greater fame as Frémont’s guide.
In 1842, John C. Frémont was directed by the United States Army to survey the Oregon route as far as South Pass in Wyoming. Known to be reliable, Carson had traveled the mountains extensively, and thus Frémont hired him as guide and hunter at one hundred dollars a month. Eventually, the two men developed great respect for each other, and their friendship proved of lasting benefit to both. Frémont later swore that “Carson and truth are one.”
Beginning in June, 1842, Carson guided the main party along the Platte River to Fort Laramie. There rumors of Indian reprisals against white travelers compelled Carson to make an oral last will, a trapper custom. Frémont persisted, and the party safely crossed the Rockies. Carson assisted the explorer in planting the American flag atop one of the Wind River peaks, then accompanied him in a rubber raft down the Platte on the return trip. The party escaped injury in an otherwise costly accident; then Carson took his leave at Fort Laramie. In January, 1843, he returned to Taos to marry his third wife, Josefa Jaramillo, who eventually bore him seven children.
Carson again served as guide (along with Thomas Fitzpatrick) for Frémont’s second expedition of 1843-1844 to Oregon and California. Crossing the Rockies, Frémont and Carson examined the Great Salt Lake in a rubber boat, then continued to the British posts in the Oregon country. Frémont next struck southward to explore the Great Basin, finally deciding to enter California across the high Sierra Nevada in the dead of winter. From a Sierra pass, Carson caught a glimpse of the California Coast Range which he had first seen as a member of the Young party fifteen years earlier. After much hardship, he helped guide Frémont to the familiar Sacramento Valley.
The party encountered further trouble returning on the old Spanish Trail. A band of Indians robbed a Mexican family of their horses and then killed most of the family. Carson and Alexis Godey volunteered to pursue the marauders, expecting others to do the same. When none did, the two guides tracked the offenders for fifty miles and alone attacked the camp of thirty braves. The Indians were caught off guard and fled. Carson and Godey returned with two scalps and most of the horses, earning Frémont’s everlasting praise. Later, another man was killed by Indians, but the addition of famed trapper and guide Joseph R. Walker helped the party to reach Bent’s Fort on the Arkansas River without further injury in July, 1844.
The publication of Frémont’s reports of his first two expeditions in 1843 and 1845...
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