Kit Carson

(History of the World: The 19th Century)

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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.

Early Life

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...

(The entire section is 3,467 words.)