By Bill Federer
Fur trapper, Indian agent, and soldier was Kit Carson. His exploits west of the Mississippi were as famous as Daniel Boone’s east.
Kit Caron’s father fought in the Revolutionary War, then moved with his family from Kentucky to a tract of land in Missouri owned by Daniel Boone’s sons.
At age 16, Kit Carson followed the Santa Fe Trail to Taos, New Mexico-capital of the fur trade in the Southwest. He stayed with a friend who had served with his brothers in the War of 1812.
Learning the skills of a fur trapper, Kit Carson became fluent in speaking: Spanish, Navajo, Apache, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Paiute, Shoshone, and Ute.
Francis Parkman, Jr., wrote in The Oregon Trail:
“The buffalo are strange animals…in order to approach them the utmost skill, experience, and judgment are necessary. Kit Carson, I believe, stands pre-eminent in running buffalo.”
In 1835, at the age of 25, he went to the annual mountain man rendezvous in Wyoming, where he met an Arapaho girl named Waa-Nibe or “Singing Grass.” After winning a gun fight over her with a French-Canadian trapper, he married her.
Kit and Singing Grass worked with the Hudson’s Bay Company, and renowned frontiersman Jim Bridger, trapping beaver along the Yellowstone, Powder, and Big Horn rivers, throughout Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana. Carson considered these years as “the happiest days of my life.” Singing Grass died of a fever after giving birth to their second daughter.
Beaver trapping, which drove the exploration of the west, was fueled by demand for beaver top hats popular in eastern America and Europe. Around 1840, when silk from China allowed hats to be made less expensively, demand for beaver ended.
Carson married a Cheyenne woman, in 1841, but she left him to follow her tribes migration. In 1842, Carson met the daughter of a prominent Taos family: Josefa Jaramillo. He received religious instruction from Padre Antonio José Martínez, was baptized, married Josefa and together they had eight children.
Kit Carson led John C. Frémont on expeditions across the South Pass on the Continental Divide, which “touched off a wave of wagon caravans filled with hopeful emigrants.”
Carson led Frémont to map the second half of the Oregon Trail, from South Pass to the Columbia River, traveling along the Great Salt Lake into Oregon.
They came within sight of Mt. Rainier, Mt. Saint Helens, Mt. Hood, and ventured into crossed into the Mexican territory, where Carson’s wilderness skills averted mass starvation in the Sierra Nevadas. Traveling across the Mojave Desert, they arrived at a watering hole called Las Vegas.
When Congress published Frémont’s reports in 1845, Carson’s reputation as a frontiersman Indian fighter inspired writers to use him as the hero in dime novels.
In 1846, Carson accompanied Frémont to California, where he courageously participated in several battles resulting in the State being brought into the Union, even slipping through a siege at night and running 25 miles barefoot through the desert to San Diego for reinforcements.
General Sherman wrote of meeting Kit Carson in The Memoirs of General William T. Sherman:
“As the spring and summer of 1848 advanced, the reports came faster and faster from the gold-mines at Sutter’s saw-mill…It was our duty to go up and see with our own eyes, that we might report the truth to our Government.
As yet we had no regular mail to any part of the United States, but mails had come to us at long intervals, around Cape Horn…”
“I well remember the first overland mail. It was brought by Kit Carson in saddle-bags from Taos in New Mexico.
We heard of his arrival at Los Angeles, and waited patiently for his arrival at headquarters.
His fame then was at its height, from the publication of Frémont’s books, and I was very anxious to see a man who had achieved such feats of daring among the wild animals of the Rocky Mountains, and still wilder Indians of the Plains.
At last his arrival was reported at the tavern at Monterey, and I hurried to hunt him up. I cannot express my surprise at beholding a small, stoop-shouldered man, with reddish hair, freckled face, soft blue eyes, and nothing to indicate extraordinary courage or daring. He spoke but little, and answered questions in monosyllables…”
“He spent some days in Monterey, during which time we extracted with difficulty some items of his personal history.
He was then by commission a lieutenant in the regiment of Mounted Rifles serving in Mexico under Colonel Sumner, and, as he could not reach his regiment from California, Colonel Mason ordered that for a time he should be assigned to duty with A.J. Smith’s company, First Dragoons, at Los Angeles.
He remained at Los Angeles some months, and was then sent back to the United Staten with dispatches, traveling two thousand miles almost alone, in preference to being encumbered by a large party.”
After the Civil War, Kit Carson was a scout for the military, which was carrying out a Federal mandate to subdue the west. He objected to tactics used against the Indians by General James Carleton and Colonel Chivington.
Kit Carson’s fame was such that “Buffalo Bill” Cody named his son after him, as his sister, Helen Cody Wetmore, wrote in Last of the Great Scouts-The Life Story of Col. William F. Cody ‘Buffalo Bill’:
“The first boy of the family was the object of the undivided interest of the outpost for a time, and names by the dozen were suggested. Major North offered ‘Kit Carson’ as an appropriate name for the son of a great scout and buffalo-hunter, and this was finally settled on.”
Helen Cody Wetmore described “Buffalo Bill”:
“He may fitly be named the ‘Last of the Great Scouts.’ He has had great predecessors. The mantle of Kit Carson has fallen upon his shoulders, and he wears it worthily.”
In January of 1868, Kit Carson was appointed superintendent of Indian Affairs in Colorado. Though breathing with difficulty, he brought Ute Indian Chiefs to Washington, DC., to arrange a treaty.
Traveling through northern cities, they met crowds and posed for pictures with western military notables James Carleton and John C. Frémont.
While staying with the Indian Chiefs at New York City’s Metropolitan Hotel, Kit Carson almost died. He wrote:
“I felt my head swell and my breath leaving me. Then, I woke…my face and head all wet. I was on the floor and the chief was holding my head on his arm and putting water on me. He was crying. He said, ‘I thought you were dead. You called on your Lord Jesus, then shut your eyes and couldn’t speak.’
I did not know that I spoke…I do not know that I called on the Lord Jesus, but I might – it’s only Him that can help me where I now stand…”
Kit Carson ended:
“My wife must see me. If I was to write about this, or died out here, it would kill her. I must get home.”
Carson successfully arranged the treaty, as President Andrew Johnson wrote:
“I herewith lay before the Senate…a treaty made on the 2d day of March, 1868, by and between Nathaniel G. Taylor, Commissioner of Indian Affairs; Alexander C. Hunt, governor and ex officio superintendent of Indian affairs of Colorado Territory, and Kit Carson, on the part of the United States, and the representatives of the Tabeguache, Muaehe, Capote, Weeminuche, Yampa, Grand River, and Uintah bands of Ute Indians.”
Carson returned to Taos, New Mexio, but unfortunately, his wife Josefa died shortly after from complications giving birth to their eighth child.
A month later, Kit Carson died of an abdominal aortic aneurysm on MAY 23, 1868, at the age of 58. He was buried next to his wife.
His last words were: “Adios Compadres” (Spanish for “Goodbye friends”).
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