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Christopher Houston "Kit" Carson (December 24, 1809 – May 23, 1868) was an American frontiersman who converted to Roman Catholicism in 1842. Carson left home at an early age and became a trapper. He gained notoriety for his role as John C. Fremont's guide in the American West. Carson also played a minor role in California during the 1846-48 Mexican-American War, and later became a rancher in New Mexico. During the American Civil War, he helped organize the New Mexico volunteer infantry, and fought against Navajo natives, against his will, but by order of the U.S. Army. By 1864, about eight thousand Navajo had surrendered to the U.S. Army, while another eight thousand hid in the back country. Kit Carson finally went home to his family. After the Civil War, Carson moved to Colorado, where he died.[1][2]

Early life

Born in Madison County, Kentucky, near the city of Richmond, Carson was raised in a rural area near Franklin, Missouri, where his family moved in 1811, when Kit was about one year old.[3] Carson's father, Lindsey Carson, was a farmer of Scots-Irish descent, who had fought in the Revolutionary War under General Wade Hampton. There were a total of fifteen Carson children: five by Lindsey Carson's first wife, and ten by Kit Carson's mother, Rebecca Robinson. Kit Carson was the eleventh child in the family.[4] 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, socializing, and intermarrying.

Carson was eight years old when his father was killed by a falling tree while clearing land. Lindsey Carson's death reduced the Carson family to a desperate poverty, forcing young Carson to drop out of school to work on the family farm, as well as 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 Kit 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 the odd amount of 1 cent for his return and waited a month to post the notice in the local newspaper.

At sixteen, Carson secretly signed on with a large merchant caravan heading to Santa Fe. His job was to tend the horses, mules, and oxen. During the winter of 1826-1827 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 been a friend of Carson's father in Missouri, and he taught Carson the skills of a trapper. Carson also began learning the necessary languages and became fluent in Spanish, Navajo, Apache, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Paiute, Shoshone, and Ute.[5]

The trapper years (1829-40)

After gaining experience along the Santa Fe Trail and in Mexico, Carson signed on with a trapping party of forty men, led by Ewing Young in the Spring of 1829. This was Carson's first official expedition as a trapper. The journey took the band into unexplored Apache country along the Gila River. Ewing's group was approached and attacked by Apache natives. It was during this encounter that Carson shot and killed one of the attacking Apache, the first time he killed a man.

At the age of 25, in the summer of 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 "Singing Grass"[6] Her tribe was camped nearby the rendezvous.[7][8][9] 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 disrupted the camp, so that Carson could no longer tolerate the situation. Words were exchanged, and Carson and Chouinard charged each other on horses, brandishing their weapons. Carson blew off the thumb of his opponent with his pistol, while Chouinard's rifle shot barely missed, grazing Carson below his left ear and scorching his eye and hair. Carson stated that had his opponent's horse not shied as he fired, Chouinard might have finished him off, as Chouinard was a splendid shot.

Controversy regarding Chouinard's fate continues, with no certainty achieved. The duel with Chouinard is said to have made Carson famous among the mountain men but was also considered uncharacteristic of him.[10]

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, and was found throughout what is now Colorado, Utah, 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 1838-40.[7][8][9][11]

At this time, the nation was undergoing a severe depression. 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. This combination of facts ended the need for trappers. Carson stated, "Beaver was getting scarce, it became necessary to try our hand at something else."[12]

He attended the last mountain man rendezvous, held in the summer of 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,[13] in 1841 but Making-Our-Road left him only a short time later to follow her tribe's migration.[7][8][9] By 1842 he 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. When he was 34, he married 14-year-old Josefa, his third wife, on February 6, 1843. They raised eight children, the descendants of whom remain in the Arkansas Valley of Colorado.[9]

Guide with Fremont (1842-1846)

Carson decided early in 1842 to return east taking his daughter Adeline to live with relatives near Carson's former home of Franklin, for the purpose of providing her with an education. That summer he met John C. Frémont on a Missouri River steamboat in Missouri. Frémont was preparing to lead his first expedition and was looking for a guide to take him to South Pass on the Continental Divide. The two men became acquainted and 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.

Frémont's success in the first expedition led to his second expedition, undertaken in the summer of 1843, which proposed to map and describe the second half of the Oregon Trail, from South Pass to the Columbia River. Due to his proven skill as a guide in the first expedition, Carson's services were again requested. This journey took them along the Great Salt Lake into Oregon, establishing all the land in the Great Basin (centered on modern-day Nevada) to be land-locked, which contributed greatly to the understanding of North American geography at the time. Farther west, their trip brought them into sight of Mount Rainier, Mount Saint Helens, and Mount Hood.

One purpose of this expedition had been to locate the Buenaventura River, a major east-west river that was believed to connect the Great Lakes 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 this mystical river was a fable.

The second expedition became snowbound in the Sierra Nevadas that winter. Carson's wilderness skills averted mass starvation. Food was scarce enough that their mules "ate one another's tails and the leather of the pack saddles."[14]

The expedition moved south into the Mojave Desert, enduring attacks by Natives, which killed one man. Also, when the expedition crossed into California, they had officially invaded Mexico. The threat of military intervention by that country sent Fremont's expedition further southeast, into Nevada, to a watering hole known as Las Vegas. The party traveled on to Bent's Fort, and by August 1844 returned to Washington, over a year after their departure. Another Congressional report on Fremont's expedition was published in 1845, and Frémont and Carson were becoming nationally famous.

Somewhere along the route, Frémont and party came across a Mexican man and a boy who were survivors of an ambush by a band of Natives, who 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 2 days, and upon locating them, rushed into their encampment. They killed two Native Americans, scattered the rest, and returned 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....."[15]

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 winter 1846, he promptly sought to stir up patriotic enthusiasm among the American settlers there. He promised that if war with Mexico started, his military force would "be there to protect them." Frémont nearly provoked a battle with General José Castro near Monterey, which would have likely resulted in the annihilation of Frémont's group, due to the superior numbers of the Mexican troops. Frémont then fled Mexican-controlled California, and went north to Oregon, finding camp at Klamath Lake.

On the night of May 9, 1846, Frémont received a courier, Lieutenant Archibald Gillespie, bringing messages from President James Polk. Frémont stayed up late reviewing these messages and neglected to post a watchman for the camp, as was customary for security measures. The neglect of this action is said to have been troubling to Carson, yet he had "apprehended no danger".[16] 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 beside himself, and Frémont reports Carson smashed the dead warrior's face into a pulp.[17]

To avenge the deaths of his expedition members, Frémont chose to attack a Klamath Tribe fishing village named Dokdokwas, at the junction of the Williamson River and Klamath Lake, which took place May 10, 1846. Accounts by scholars vary, but it is certain that the attack completely destroyed the village.[18] Carson was nearly killed by a Klamath warrior later that day: his gun misfired, and the warrior drew a poison arrow, but Frémont, seeing Carson's predicament, trampled the warrior with his horse. Carson stated he felt that he owed Frémont his life due to this incident.

"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 Modocs....The Klamaths were culturally related to the Modocs, but the two tribes were bitter enemies."[19]

Turning south from Klamath Lake, Frémont led his expedition back down the Sacramento Valley, and slyly promoted an insurrection of American settlers, known as the Bear Flag Revolt, which he then took charge of once circumstances had adequately developed. Events escalated 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 felt were involved. On June 28, 1846, Berreyesa's father, José de los Reyes Berreyesa, crossed the San Francisco Bay and landed near San Quentin with two cousins, twin sons of Francisco de Haro, intending to visit his sons in jail. Frémont ordered Carson and two others to execute the three Californios.[20] 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.[21]

Mexican American War service

Frémont's California Battalion next moved south to the provincial capital of Monterey, California, and met Commodore Robert Stockton there in mid-July 1846. Stockton had sailed into harbor with two American warships and taken claim to Monterey for the United States. Learning that the war with Mexico was underway, Stockton made plans to capture Los Angeles and San Diego and 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, traveling on a separate warship, claimed Santa Barbara a few days later. Meeting up and joining forces in San Diego, they marched to Los Angeles and claimed this town without any challenge, and Stockton declared California to be United States territory on August 17, 1846. 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 were eager to announce the conquest of California to President Polk, and wished for 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 fifteen 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.[22] Kearny was under orders from the Polk Administration to subdue both New Mexico and California, and set up governments there. Learning that California was already conquered, he sent two hundred of his men back to Santa Fe, and ordered Carson to guide him back to California so he could 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 one hundred dragoons west along the Gila River over very rugged terrain, arriving at the Colorado River on November 25. On some parts of the trail mules died at a rate of almost twelve 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 which had recaptured California from Commodore Stockton. All the coastal cities now were back under Mexican control, except San Diego, where the Mexicans had Stockton pinned down and under siege. Kearny was himself in perilous danger, as his force was reduced both in numbers and in a state of physical exhaustion. 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

While approaching San Diego, Kearny sent a rancher ahead to notify Commodore Stockton of his presence. The rancher, Edward Stokes, returned with thirty-nine American troops and information that several hundred Mexican dragoons under Captain Andres Pico were camped at the indigenous village of San Pasqual, lying on the route between him and Stockton. Kearny decided to raid Pico in order to capture fresh horses, and sent out a scouting party on the night of December 5–6.

The scouting party encountered 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, where twenty-one Americans were killed and many more wounded: many from the long lances of the Mexican caballeros, who also displayed expert horsemanship. 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 Mexican troops who vastly outnumbered them, and Kearny ordered his men to dig in on top of a small hill.

Kearny then sent Carson and two other men to slip through the siege and get reinforcements. Carson, Edward Beale, and a native American left on the night of December 8 for San Diego which was 25 miles (40 km) away. Their canteens made too much noise, so they were left along the path. Their boots also made too much noise, so Carson and Beale removed them and tucked them under their belts. Their boots were lost, and Carson and Beale traveled the distance to San Diego barefoot through desert, rock, and cactus.

By December 10, Kearny had decided all hope was gone, and planned to attempt a breakout the next morning: but that night, two hundred American troops on fresh horses arrived, the Mexican army dispersed with the new show of strength. Kearny was able to arrive in San Diego by December 12. This action contributed to the prompt reconquest of California by the American forces.

Civil War and Indian Activity

Following the recapture of Los Angeles in 1846, Frémont was appointed Governor of California by Commodore Stockton. Frémont sent Carson to carry messages back to Washington City. He stopped in St. Louis and met with Senator Thomas Benton, who was a prominent supporter of the settling of the West and a proponent of Manifest Destiny, and had been prominent in getting Frémont's expedition reports published by Congress. Once in Washington, Carson delivered his messages to Secretary of State James Buchanan, as well as had meetings with Secretary of War William Marcy and President James Polk.

Having completed this mission, Carson received orders to do it all again: return to California with messages, receive further messages there, and bring those back yet again to Washington. By the end of the Frémont expeditions and these courier missions, Carson felt he wanted to settle down with Joséfa, and decided in 1849 to go into farming in Taos. Carson's public image as an action hero had been sealed by the Frémont expedition reports of 1845. In 1849, the first of many Carson action novels appeared. The first, written by Charles Averill, 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.

This book was among the possessions Carson and Major William Grier found when they recovered the body of Mrs. Ann White in November, 1849. Mrs. White and her daughter had been taken captive by Jicarilla Apaches several weeks earlier. She had been traveling with her husband James White, a trader, to Santa Fe, when a group of Native Americans approached them as they camped along the Santa Fe trail. Mr. White tried to disperse the natives with his rifle, but they attacked, killing everyone except Mrs. White, her daughter, and a servant.

Carson and Grier tracked the natives for twelve days to their camp on the Canadian River. Carson wanted an immediate attack, while Grier wanted to parlay with the Jicarillas. The disagreement in tactics caused delay, which gave the natives time to disperse from camp and escape. In the process, Mrs. White appears to have attempted to flee and was killed by an arrow through the heart.

While picking through the belongings that the Jicarillas 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 book must have been shown to him, for he was to comment on it later. This was the first time that the real Kit Carson came in contact with his own myth.

The episode of the White massacre haunted Carson's memory for many years. He once stated, "I have often thought that, as Mrs. White read the book, she prayed for my appearance, knowing that I lived nearby." His fear was that the book had given her a false hope. He wrote later, "I have much regretted the failure to save the life of so esteemed a lady." He was troubled by the implications and false image that developed around his celebrity status.

Following the March 30, 1854 battle of Cieneguilla Lieutenant Colonel Philip St. George Cooke of the Second Regiment of Dragoons at once organized an expedition to pursue the Jicarilla. With the help of scouts led by Kit Carson he caught and defeated them April 4, at the canyon of Ojo Caliente.

On the 22nd January (1858), Kit Carson concluded a treaty of peace between the Muatche Utahs, the Arapahoes, and the Pueblos of Taos. They agree to take side with the United States in the event of any issue between them and the people of any Territory, and do what they can for the suppression of rebellion in Utah. Fears were entertained at one time that the Muatche Utahs were in alliance with the Mormons. -New York Tribune, March 23, 1858, p. 1, column 6.

When the American Civil War began in April 1861, Kit Carson resigned his post as federal Indian agent for northern New Mexico and joined the New Mexico volunteer infantry which was being organized by Ceran St. Vrain. Although New Mexico Territory officially allowed slavery, geography and economics made the institution so impractical that there were only a handful of 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 undertook an invasion of New Mexico Territory. The goal of this expedition was to conquer the rich Colorado gold fields and redirect this valuable resource from the North to the South.

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 back across the river with losses of 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, and 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." In his battle report, however, he did commend Carson, among other volunteer officers, for his "zeal and energy."

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

Prelude to the Navajo campaign

Contact between the Navajo and the U.S. Army was prompted by a Navajo raid on Socorro, New Mexico near the end of September, 1846. General Kearny, passing nearby on his way to California after his recent conquest of Santa Fe, learned of the raid and sent a note to Col. William Doniphan, his second in command in Santa Fe. He asked Doniphan to send a regiment of soldiers into Navajo country and secure a peace treaty with them.

A detachment of thirty men made contact with the Navajo and spoke to the Navajo Chief Narbona in mid-October, about the same time that Carson met Gen. Kearny on the trail to California. A second meeting with Chief Narbona and Col. Doniphan occurred several weeks later. Doniphan informed the Navajo that all their land now belonged to the United States, and the Navajo and New Mexicans were now the "children of the United States." In spite of this, the Navajo signed a treaty, known as the Bear Spring treaty, on November 21, 1846. The treaty forbade the Navajo to raid or make war on the New Mexicans, but allowed the New Mexicans the privilege of making war on the Navajo if they saw fit.[23][24]

Despite the treaty, raiding continued in New Mexico by the Navajo, as well as the Jicarilla Apache, Mescalero Apache, Ute, Comanche, and Kiowa. On August 16, 1849 the U.S. Army began an expedition into the heart of Navajo country on an organized reconnaissance for the purpose of impressing the Navajo with the might of the U.S. military, and to map the terrain for further operations and to plan forts. The expedition was led by Col. John Washington, the military governor of New Mexico at the time. The expedition included nearly a thousand infantry (U.S. and New Mexican volunteers), hundreds of horses and mules, a supply train, 55 native Pueblo scouts, and four artillery guns.

On August 29–30, 1849, Washington's expedition was in need of water, and began pillaging Navajo cornfields. It became clear the Navajo intended to resist further pillaging, with mounted warriors darting back and forth around Washington's troops. It is further documented that Washington's reasoning was that the pillaging of Navajo crops was justified because the Navajo would have to reimburse the U.S. government for the cost of the expedition.

In this setting, Washington was still able to communicate to the Navajo that in spite of the hostile situation, they and the whites could "still be friends if the Navajo came with their chiefs the next day and signed a treaty." This is in fact exactly what the Navajo did.

The next day Chief Narbona came once again to "talk peace," along with several other headmen. An accord was reached on nearly every matter. When a New Mexican thought he saw his stolen horse and the Navajo protested its return, a scuffle broke out. (The Navajo position was that the horse had passed through several owners by this time, and now rightfully belonged to its Navajo owner). Col. Washington sided with the New Mexican. Since the Navajo owner now took his horse and fled the scene, Washington told the New Mexican to go pick out any Navajo horse he wanted. The rest of the Navajo present figured out what was happening, and turned and fled. At this, Col. Washington ordered his soldiers to fire.

Seven Navajo were killed in the volleys; the rest ran and could not be caught. One of the dying was Chief Narbona, who was scalped as he lay dying by a New Mexican souvenir hunter. This massacre prompted the warlike Navajo leaders such as Manuelito to gain influence over those who were advocates of peace.

Carson's Navajo campaign

Raiding by Native Americans had been rather constant up through 1862, and New Mexicans were becoming more outspoken in their demand that something be done. 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 that year, Canby was promoted to general and recalled back east for other duties. 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 naturally turned to Kit Carson to help him fulfill his plans of upgrading New Mexico and his own career: Carson was nationally known and had helped boost 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."[25]

Furthermore, Carleton believed there was gold in the Navajo's country, and felt they should be driven out in order to allow the development of this possibility.[26] 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 for him to pursue the Navajo he sent Carleton a letter of resignation dated February 3, 1863. Carleton refused to accept this and used the force of his personality to maintain Carson's cooperation. In language that was 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."

Under Carleton's direction, Carson instituted a scorched earth policy, which eventually 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. Carson did not cut down any orchard trees. He was aided by other native American tribes with long-standing enmity toward the Navajos, chiefly the Utes. 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.

Carson also had difficulty with his New Mexico volunteers. Troopers deserted and officers resigned. 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."

There were no pitched battles and only a few skirmishes in the Navajo campaign. Carson rounded up and took prisoner every Navajo he could find. In January 1864, Carson sent a company into Canyon de Chelly to investigate the last Navajo stronghold, presuming them to be under the leadership of Manuelito. The Navajo surrendered because of the confiscation of their livestock and food supplies. In the spring of 1864, 8,000 Navajo men, women and children were forced to march or ride in wagons 300 miles (480 km) to Fort Sumner, New Mexico. Navajos call this "The Long Walk." Although Carson had ridden home before the march began, he is held responsible by some Navajo for breaking his word that those who surrendered would not be harmed. Perhaps 300 died along the way,[27] and many more during the next four years on the reservation. In 1868, after signing a treaty with the U.S. government, these Navajos were allowed to return to their homeland, where the greatly enlarged Navajo Reservation exists today. 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 Natives in western Texas. Carson and his troopers met a combined force of Kiowa, Comanche, and Cheyenne numbering over 1,500 at the ruins of Adobe Walls. In what is known as the Battle of Adobe Walls, the Native force led by Dohäsan made several assaults on Carson's forces which were supported by two mountain howitzers. Carson inflicted heavy losses on the attacking warriors before burning the natives' camp and lodges and returning to Fort Bascom.

A few days later, Colonel John M. Chivington led U.S. 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 was outraged 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 native American campaigns 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 Wm. T. Sherman. A description of that meeting is included in the Charles Burdett book Life of Kit Carson. Carson was finally mustered the army and took up ranching. In late 1867 he personally escorted four Ute chiefs to Washington DC to visit the President and seek additional government assistance. He returned by train to Denver, by wagon to Boggsville where his pregnant wife gave birth their 8th child and died. Carson died a few days later, May 23, 1868, reclining on a Buffalo Robe and in the presence of Dr. Tilton. Dr. Tiltons description of Carson's last days are included in J. S. C. Abbott's Life of Kit carson.

Carson died at age 58 from an abdominal aortic aneurysm in the surgeon's quarters in Fort Lyon, Colorado, located east of Las Animas.[28] He is buried in Taos, New Mexico, alongside his wife, Josefa ("Josephine"), who died a month earlier of complications following child birth. His headstone inscription reads: "Kit Carson / Died May 23, 1868 / Aged 59 Years."[29]

His last words were: "Adios Compadres."[30]


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".[31]

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".[32]

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.[33]

Some journalists and authors during the last twenty-five years presented alternate views 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".[34] Her viewpoint is contested by Tom Dunlay, who wrote in 2000 that Carson was directly responsible for less than fifty deaths of indigenous people and that, as Carson was not there at the time, Indian deaths on the Long Walk or at Ft. Sumner were the responsibility of the United States Army and General James Carleton.[35]

Ed Quillen, publisher of Colorado Central magazine and columnist for The Denver Post, wrote that "Carson...betrayed [the Navajo], starved them by destroying their farms and livestock in Canyon de Chelly and then brutally marched them to the Bosque Redondo concentration camp".[36] In historical fact, not only was Kit Carson not involved with 'the Long Walk', a few of the natives who made that journey were riding in wagons or riding behind U. S. Soldiers on horseback.[37] In 1970, Lawrence Kelly noted that Carleton had warned eighteen 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".[38] Quillen's contention that Bosque Redondo was a concentration camp has been challenged. For instance, it had a hospital and a school, and several warriors went off the reservation and stole 1,000 horses from the native Comanche people to the east.[39]

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 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".[40]

Hampton Sides stated that Carson felt 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.[41]

In 1868, at the urging of Washington and the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Carson journeyed to Washington D.C. where he personally escorted several Ute Chiefs to meet with the President of the United States to plead for assistance to their tribe.[42]

In 2010, Camille Cazedessus, a noted Kit Carson historian, found 32 errors about Kit Carson on 5 internet sites, mostly about his involvement in the Navajo War of 1863-68, primarily reporting that he, Kit Carson individually, "marched" the Navajo on their "Long Walk", a claim unsupported by historical documents.[43]

Popular culture

The legend of Kit Carson began before he died, and has continued to grow through the years through dime novels, poems, music, movies, television, and comic books. These fictional tales tend to portray Carson as a heroic figure slaughtering two bears and a dozen Native Americans before breakfast, and when mixed with a few real historic events, the result is that Kit Carson becomes larger than life.


There are at least twenty-five titles that have been recorded, from Kit Carson, Prince of the Gold Hunters (1849) through Kit Carson, King of Scouts (1923).

There is also a children's novel, Adaline Falling Star (2000), by Mary Pope Osborne. a fictional story based on Adaline, his daughter from his first marriage, who he left with his family in Missouri during the Fremont expeditions. Carson appears at the beginning and end of the book.

Kit Carson is included in a number of 20th century novels and pulp magazine stories: Comanche Chaser by Dane Coolidge, On Sweet Water Trail by Sabra Conner, On to Oregon by H. W. Morrow, The Pioneers by C. R. Cooper, The Long Trail by J. Allan Dunn and Peltry by H. D. H. Smith.

Kit Carson also appears in historical fiction novel Flashman and the Redskins by George MacDonald Fraser, where he rescues Flashman from pursuing Apaches.

A character by the Name of Kit Carson also appears in the Time Scout novels by Robert Asprin. While not identical in origin or time period to the original, the character bears several similarities, most notably the scouting profession.

There is a Welsh novel, I Ble Aeth Haul Y Bore by Eirug Wyn, which focuses on the Great Walk, and Kit Carson is one of the main characters. He first helps the Blue Coats to persuade the Navajos to move from De Chelley, but then he realizes his mistake and then helps them to overcome a particularly evil sergeant called Dicks.

In Willa Cather's novel Death Comes for the Archbishop, Kit Carson's multifaceted legend is explored, first as compassionate friend to the natives, later as "misguided" soldier.

Carson appears as a supporting character in the four Berrybender Narratives novels by Larry McMurtry.

William Saroyan's Pulitzer winning play The Time of Your Life includes a colorful character, an old man, based on the image and reputation of Kit Carson.


There were four silent films made with Kit Carson as the "star" from 1903 to 1928. Hollywood produced three talking films: Fighting with Kit Carson, a serial (1933), revised as a single movie: The Return of Kit Carson (1947); Overland with Kit Carson (1939); and Kit Carson (1940), starring Jon Hall in the title role. Disney released Kit Carson and the Mountain Men in 1977, Dream West was a TV 1986 docudrama that includes Kit Carson and John C. Fremont as characters, and the History Channel produced Carson and Cody, the Hunter Heroes in 2003. Several other motion pictures include Kit Carson as a minor character.


A fictional western television series, The Adventures of Kit Carson, starring Bill Williams and Don Diamond, ran in syndication from 1951-1955. A total of 103 half-hour episodes were filmed over four seasons. Some are available on DVD. In 2008 PBS/American Experience produced Kit Carson, a film biography.


The Canadian singer-songwriter, Bruce Cockburn, has a track entitled "Kit Carson" on his 1991 album "Nothing But a Burning Light", although its factual content is inaccurate.[44] In a 1990 radio interview, Mr. Cockburn stated, "When you actually look at what he did, he was a genocidal maniac..."[45]

Radio personality Kid Carson (real name is unknown) of CFBT-FM is partially named after Kit Carson.


In 1931 Kit Carson was the subject of J. Carrol Mansfield's daily comic strip High Lights of History and those strips were reprinted as a Big Little Book, Kit Carson (1933). Avon began a series of Kit Carson comic books that lasted nine issues (1950–1955). Classics Illustrated No 112, titled The Adventures of Kit Carson (1953), is based on John C. Abbott's 1873 book, and Blazing the Trails West, another Classics Illustrated publication, includes a chapter on Kit Carson. Six Gun Heroes had two Kit Carson titles (1957 and 1958) and there was a Kit Carson No. 10 in 1963. Boy's Life includes a continuing strip story Old Timer Tales of Kit Carson from March 1951 to May, 1953. There was a 1970 Walt Disney Comics Digest that included Kit Carson, and Carson strips are in several issues of Frontier Fighters and Indian Fighter. In England and France, there was a Kit Carson comic that lasted at least 350 issues (1950s), and seven Kit Carson annuals (1954–1960)

In the Italian comic Tex Willer, Kit Carson appears as Tex's sidekick.

Museum and honors

  • The Kit Carson House in Taos, New Mexico, is a U.S.-designated National Historic Landmark. It is operated as a museum.
  • 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. The fort is located in the San Luis Valley, and 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," which counts among its various historical features a permanent exhibit examining Carson's life.
  • 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 acts as a living museum and is staffed by nearby Philmont Scout Ranch interpreters.

A partial list of places named after Carson:

  • Carson City, the capital of Nevada
  • Carson National Forest, in northern New Mexico
  • Carson Pass, in the Sierra Nevada Mountains
  • Carson River, flowing from California to Nevada, ending in the Carson Sink
  • Carson Trail, a branch of the California Trail
  • Carson Valley, Nevada
  • Kit Carson, Colorado (on US 287 about 200 miles (320 km) south and east of Denver)
  • Kit Carson County, located in eastern Colorado
  • Kit Carson Memorial State Park, Taos, New Mexico
  • Kit Carson Park, Escondido, California
  • Kit Carson Peak in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of southern Colorado
  • Kit Carson Road, Monterey, California
  • Kit Carson Way (Oregon Route 39) is a major expressway in Klamath Falls, Oregon
  • Kit Carson Way, Vallejo, California
  • Fort Carson, an Army post in Colorado Springs, Colorado
  • Mount Kit Carson, Spokane County, Washington
  • Kit Carson Elementary School, Richmond, Kentucky
  • Kit Carson Elementary School, Albuquerque, New Mexico
  • Kit Carson Elementary School, Las Vegas, Nevada
  • Kit Carson Middle School, Sacramento, California
  • Kit Carson Union School District, Hanford, California
  • Kit Carson, California (on the east shore of Silver Lake)
  • Kit Carson Parking Lot, Eastern Kentucky University, Richmond, Kentucky
  • Kit Carson Elementary School, Blount County, TN (no longer used) Lat 35d50'59.72"N, Long 83d59'7.30"W
  • Kit Carson Park, Albuquerque, NM (Alongside the Rio Grande)


  2. Carter,Dunlay,Sides,Simmons,Sabin
  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’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, p. 26-7. 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." H. Sides Blood and Thunder, 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. It is acknowledged that there still remains some controversy about which version is correct.
  6. H. Sides, Blood and Thunder, p. 30.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 Whitlock, Douglas. "Kit Carson's wives & kids". Retrieved 2007-11-30. 
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 "The Life & Times of: Kit Carson". Kids-n-Cowboys. Retrieved 2007-11-30. 
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 Chinn, Stephen. "Kit Carson Family History". Retrieved 2007-11-30. 
  10. 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; H. Sides, p. 29-31.
  11. 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.
  12. Sides, H. , Blood and Thunder, p. 33
  13. 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. M. Simmons, Kit Carson and His Three Wives, p. 35-6
  14. Kit Carson: Biography and Much More from
  15. Sides, Blood and Thunder, pp. 61-4
  16. This account is described in Dunlay p. 115, and Sides p. 78.
  17. Fremont, Memoirs, p. 492.
  18. 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)
  19. Sides, Blood and Thunder, p. 87
  20. Carson at first asked Fremont if he should take the men prisoner. Frémont's plan was otherwise: "I have no use for prisoners, do your duty," was the response. When Carson hesitated Frémont yelled, "Mr. Carson, your duty," to which Carson then complied. (Hampton Sides. "Blood And Thunder." New York; Anchor Books. 2007.)
  21. 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.
  22. 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 River, it was to be the later site of Carson's battle against the Confederate Texas forces in February, 1862.
  23. Locke, R., The Book of the Navajo, pp. 204-212
  24. Blood and Thunder, pp. 152-54
  25. H. Sides, Blood and Thunder, p. 325-6.
  26. H. Sides, p. 329-31.
  27. Valkenburgh, p26
  28. Abernathy CM Jr, Baumgartner R, Butler HG, Collins J, Dickinson TC, Hildebrand J, Yajko RD, Harken AH. (1986) The management of ruptured abdominal aortic aneurysms in rural Colorado. With a historical note on Kit Carson's death. JAMA. 256(5):597-600.
  29. The gravestone reads "59 years"; this would seem to be an error, however. Carson's date of birth was December 24, 1809. Calculating forward from this will give his age as 58.
  30. 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.. pp. 120. ISBN 9781856487085.,M1. Retrieved 2/10/2009. 
  31. Richardson, p. 261
  32. Lipps, p. 59
  33. Carter, p. 210
  34. Hopkins, p. 40
  35. Dunlay, chapter 8
  36. Denver Post, April 27, 1993
  37. Valkenberg, p. 26
  38. Kelly, p. 20-21
  39. The Navajo Treaty, p. 14.
  40. Kelly, p. 11
  41. Blood and Thunder, p. 334
  42. Legrand Sabin, Edwin (June, 1914). "37". Kit Carson Days (1809-1868). 1. Chicago: A.C. McClurg & Co.. pp. 488. ISBN 9780803292383.,M1. Retrieved 2/10/2009. 
  43. Cazedessus
  44. Cockburn
  45. Radio Interview, BBC Radio 1, 1990, Interviewer is Johnny Walker.


  • Carter, Harvey L. Dear Old Kit, University of Oklahoma Press, 1968.
  • Cockburn, Bruce Kit Carson song/poem on 1991 album. "(Carson) made the grade, he learned to trade in famine, pestilence and war" (3rd verse), and "Kit Carson was a hero to some with the poison at hhis place (4th verse)
  • 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.
  • 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
  • Cazedessus, Camille "Lies About Kit Carson", Rendezvous Books, Jan. 2010.

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

This page uses content from the English Wikipedia. The original article was at Kit Carson. The list of authors can be seen in the page history.