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Kit Carson became a brevetted general without knowing how to read or write

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A favorite subject of historians, biographers and novelists, Christopher Houston “Kit” Carson was born on December 24, 1809, and grew up to be one of America’s most famous frontiersmen. The son of Scots-Irish farmer Lindsey Carson and Rebecca Robinson, Christopher began life in Madison County, Kentucky. The eleventh of fifteen children born to Lindsey, he was dubbed “Kit” at an early age and the name stayed with him the rest of his life.

Kit was a year old when the Carson family moved to Franklin, Missouri. The tract of land on which they settled was at that time owned by the sons of frontiersman Daniel Boone. Over time, the Carson and Boone families became good friends and intermarried as they worked and socialized together.

When Kit was eight years old, Lindsey was in the process of clearing land when he was killed by a falling tree. The death of Lindsey placed his family in the grips of poverty and forced Kit out of school. He now went to work on the family farm and learned to hunt in an effort to help support the family.

At the age of 14, Kit became an apprentice in Workman’s Saddleshop. Many of the clientele Carson served were trappers and traders who brought with them not only the results of their hunts, but also stirring tales of the West. As he listened to these stories, Carson began to hear in his mind the call, “Go west, young man!” Before long, he began to feel decidedly straight-jacketed within the confines of the saddle shop and left. Kit’s disappearance apparently was of little concern to the store’s proprietor; due to the fact he waited a month, then posted a 1¢ reward for the return of his AWOL apprentice.

Carson’s trek west began at the age of 16. He secretly signed on to work with a large merchant caravan headed for Santa Fe and was given the responsibility of tending the livestock. Once he reached Taos, he spent the winter of 1826 with a trapper by the name of Matthew Kinkead. At that time, Taos, New Mexico was the fur trade capital of the Southwest. Kinkead had served in the War of 1812 with some of Kit’s older brothers and taught him the skills of a trapper. Kit also learned the area’s languages and became fluent in Spanish, Navajo, Apache, Ute, Cheyenne, Shoshone, Arapaho and Piute.

Carson was 19 when he signed on with Ewing Young and thirty nine other men to journey into Apache country. Traveling along the Gila River, Carson experienced his first taste of combat when the group came under attack. Successfully making their way to California, Young’s team trapped and traded from Sacramento to Los Angeles. They were back in Taos the following April.

In the summer of 1835, love found 25-year-old Carson. Attending a mountain man rendezvous held along the Green River in southwestern Wyoming, Kit crossed paths with a young Arapaho woman named Waa-Nibe (“Grass Singing”). The interest kindled in the heart of Carson for the Indian maiden also found a home in that of French trapper Joseph Chouinard, another of the mountain men. Singing Grass chose Carson over Chouinard, which served to agitate the trapper a great deal and resulted in a duel being fought between the two men. It began with Chouinard throwing a fit and disrupting camp, making it impossible for Carson to tolerate the situation. Following a war of words, the two men faced off on horses, brandishing their weapons at each other; Carson armed with a pistol and Chouinard a rifle. Carson fired first and struck Chouinard in the arm. When Chouinard fired, he barely missed killing Carson as his shot grazed Carson’s head and singed his hair. Carson owed his life to the fact Chouinard’s horse shied slightly; otherwise, the shoot fired by his opponent, an excellent marksman, would likely have found its target. The duel would serve to make Carson famous with the mountain men, even though the behavior was uncharacteristic of him.

Carson considered the years he spent as a trapper to be “the happiest of my life.” Singing Grass accompanied him as he traveled with renowned frontiersman, Jim Bridger. They trapped along the Powder, Big Horn and Yellowstone Rivers in the territory which later became the states of Montana, Idaho, Wyoming and Colorado. In 1837, Singing Grass gave birth to the first of two daughters. Following the birth of their second, she developed a fever and died.

At this time, the United States was inundated by the Panic of 1837. The fashion scene was also changing as fur hats were being replaced by silk. Coupling that with the fact the trappers had severely damaged the beaver population, the need for trappers began to go by the wayside.

Following the last mountain man rendezvous during the summer of 1840, Carson moved his family to Bent’s Fort and became a hunter. Here he met a Cheyenne woman who became his second wife. The marriage, however, did not last long. She soon left to join her tribe in their migration.

Carson journeyed to Missouri in 1842, accompanied by his daughter, Adeline. When he arrived in Franklin, he left Adeline with relatives in an effort to provide her a good education. While there, he met John C. Frémont on a Missouri River steamboat. During a conversation with Frémont, Carson learned he was preparing to lead an expedition and needed a guide to direct him to the South Pass on the Continental Divide. Carson developed an interest in Frémont’s plans because he knew the area well. The journey would require five months to complete, with 25 men participating. Upon successful completion of the journey, Frémont wrote a report which Congress published. The report was later credited for the start of a major “Westward ho!” emigration.

1842 was also the year wife #3 entered the picture. Josefa Jaramillo was the daughter of a prominent Taos family. The practicing Catholics would not accept Carson until he was baptized, so Padre Antonio José Martínez instructed Carson on what was expected of him. He was then baptized into the Catholic Church in 1842. On February 6, 1843, Carson married 14-year-old Josefa. In time, the couple became parents of eight children. The descendants of these children continue to make their home in Colorado’s Arkansas Valley.

Following Frémont’s successful expedition in 1842, he planned a second one for the summer of 1843. His plan this time was to map and describe the second half of the Oregon Trail, stretching from South Pass to the Columbia River. While working out the details for the expedition, Frémont immediately asked Carson to again be the guide.

Along the journey, they learned the land area comprising the Great Basin (centered in today’s state of Nevada) was land-locked. Moving north they traveled along the Great Salt Lake and then headed west into Oregon, eventually beholding Mt. Rainier, Mt. St. Helens and Mt. Hood. Notes and maps made throughout the journey would prove very beneficial in understanding North American geography.

Near the top of the expedition’s to-do list was locating the Buenaventura River. At this time, it was believe the Buenaventura was a major east-west river which served as a connecting artery between the Continental Divide and the Pacific Ocean. At the time the expedition began, the river was considered a scientific fact; however, it would later prove to be a myth.

The expedition now turned southward and journeyed into California, crossing into Mexican territory when they did. During the winter, they were snowbound in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Thankfully, Carson’s survival skills kept them alive. Moving south into the Mojave Desert, one of the expedition members died during an Indian attack. Military intervention from Mexico forced the group to move southeast into Nevada where they now found the watering hole known as Las Vegas.

Arriving at this scenic location, Carson stated, “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 noise 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’.”

During their journey through the Mojave Desert, the travelers met up with two members of a Mexican family which had been attacked by a band of Natives who killed two men and staked two women to the ground, then mutilated them. Afterwards, the Natives made off with 30 horses. Carson and fellow traveler Alex Godey took pity on the man and his son and set out to track this band of marauders. Two days later, the pair found the camp. Rushing the Natives, they killed two, scattered the rest and returned with the horses.

The expedition returned to Washington, D.C. in August 1844, approximately a year after their departure. Frémont’s report on the second journey was published by Congress the following year and served to enhance the national reputation he and Carson had developed. Frémont’s report also included the information about Carson and Godey. This gave birth to the legend of Kit Carson.

Expedition #3 began on June 1, 1845. This time, Frémont and Carson left St. Louis with 55 men, intent on mapping the source of the Arkansas River. Shortly after the group reached the river, Frémont suddenly decided to beat a swift path to California, but gave no explanation for his decision. The group arrived in the Sacramento Valley during the early winter months of 1846.

Frémont now endeavored to enhance a level of patriotic enthusiasm among the individuals who had emigrated there from the United States, stating if war with Mexico began, his military troops would protect them. In doing so, Frémont came close to provoking a war near Monterey with Mexican General José Castro. The number of Mexican troops under Castro’s command significantly dwarfed Frémont’s expedition and could have easily snuffed it out with little effort.

Seeing the writing on the wall, Frémont made a hasty departure north into Oregon and broke camp at Klamath Lake on May 9, 1846. In the process, he failed to post a watchman for the camp. Carson was troubled by this neglect and his concern would prove to be valid. Awakened later in the night by the sound of a thump, Carson found his friend, Basil Lajeunesse, sprawled on the ground covered in blood. The camp was under attack by approximately two dozen Native Americans as Carson sounded the alarm. One attacker died in the skirmish, as did two of Frémont’s men.

As an “angry gloom” engulfed the group, Carson was filled with rage over the death of his friend. He quickly began to act out his anger with vengeance on the body of the dead attacker. In the process, he beat the man’s face to a pulp.

Following this encounter, the reputations of Frémont and Carson were stained when they sought retaliation for the deaths of their friends. In an act of retribution, Frémont attacked a fishing village named Dokdokwas, inhabited by the Klamath Tribe. The village structures were completely destroyed and some scholars report women and children were killed as well as the men. During the attack, Carson narrowly escaped death. His gun misfired as the Native warrior drew a poison arrow. Frémont quickly trampled the warrior with his horse, thereby saving Carson’s life.

The tragedy in all this is the fact the village they attacked was most likely not part of the tribe responsible for the assault on their camp. Instead, rather than the Klamaths, historians believe the instigators to be the Modocs, whose village was located in close proximity. Though culturally related, the two tribes were bitter enemies.

Once the Frémont expeditions and California rebellion came to a close, Carson attempted to settle down to a life of ranching and farming with Joséfa. In 1849, they established their home in Taos, New Mexico; however, Carson would soon discover a peaceful home life would not be found in the cards he had been dealt.

Reports from the Frémont expedition of 1845 served to seal Carson’s public hero image. In 1849, author Charles Averill began releasing a number of novels with Kit as the main character. Known as “blood and thunders”, Averill’s novel Kit Carson: The Prince of the Gold Hunters told the tale of Carson promising a couple in Boston he would find their kidnapped daughter by scouring the American West until he succeeded. Carson would discover his unknown celebrity in November of that year in the company of Major William Grier. The revelation took place as the pair entered the abandoned camp of the Jicarilla Apaches. Among the belongings the Apaches had confiscated during a raid and then left behind was a paperback novel in which Kit Carson was the main character.

In addition to finding the novel, the pair also discovered the body of a woman by the name of Mrs. White. The Jicarilla had previously killed her husband and others in the family home, then carried off Mrs. White and her daughter. Knowing soldiers were closing in on them, the Jicarilla killed Mrs. White prior to departure. After Carson discovered her body, his memory was haunted for many years. When he wrote his autobiography, Carson referred back to the event and stated, “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.” Carson was later offered a copy of Averill’s book as a gift, to which he replied he wanted the book burned.

Near the end of his life, he would meet a man from Arkansas who had read about the legendary Kit Carson. The man asked him, “I say, stranger, are you Kit Carson?” Carson acknowledged the fact. This individual then gave Carson a visual once-over. After comparing the Carson he examined to the one he read about, the individual replied, “You ain’t the kind of Kit Carson I’m looking for.

The American Civil War began in April 1861. Carson now resigned his position as a federal Indian agent in northern New Mexico and joined the state’s volunteer infantry. Though slavery was allowed in the New Mexico Territory, the economics and topography of the area made the idea relatively impractical; consequently few if any slaves were found in New Mexico. As a result, the territorial leaders aligned their support with the Union.

Carson received the rank of Colonel of the Volunteers and was put in command of the third of five columns under the direction of Colonel Edward R. S. Canby with the 19th Infantry. The group’s headquarters were located at Ft. Marcy in Santa Fe. Carson’s group totaled 500 men.

During early 1862, General Henry Hopkins Sibley led his Confederate forces through Texas and invaded New Mexico. Their destination was Colorado and the state’s gold fields in an effort to redirect the valuable mineral to the South and away from the North.

As he led his troops up the Rio Grande River, they crossed paths with the Union forces led by Canby on February 21, 1862. The Battle of Valverde ensued, lasting the better part of the day. It ended with the Confederates capturing a Union battery and Canby’s troops in retreat across the river. Carson’s troops remained on the far side of the river during the early part of the battle; then were ordered to cross that afternoon. Though Canby placed little confidence in what he considered to be a group of untrained New Mexico volunteers, he later remarked about the “zeal and energy” Carson’s band of misfits displayed. Now ordered to the eastern front, Canby and his troops left Carson’s volunteers to handle “Indian troubles”.

During his time in New Mexico, Colonel Canby had devised a plan to deal with the Navajo ladrones (“thieves”). He shared his ideas with superiors in Washington, D.C., but then received a promotion to general and his thoughts were directed elsewhere.

The Federal District of New Mexico was now placed under the command of Brigadier General James H. Carleton. Believing the district’s problems to be the fault of a “depressing backwardness,” General Carleton looked to Carson to accomplish his goal of upgrading New Mexico and in the process, boost the general’s career dreams. Carson’s national reputation had previously played a role in helping a number of other military commanders, so Carleton saw no reason he too should not also benefit.

Eventually the Civil War ended, and the Indian Wars began to lull. Carson was now brevetted a General and appointed as the commandant of Ft. Garland, Colorado, located in the heart of Ute country. Carson was known as a friend to the Utes and had helped to assist with government relations.

After Carson was mustered out of the Army, he settled near Boggsville in Bent County and became a rancher. During 1867, he personally escorted four Ute chiefs to Washington, D.C. to visit the president and seek additional government assistance. Shortly after he returned home, Josefa gave birth to their eighth child, then died a short time later from complications.

Carson died one later at the age of 58 on May 23, 1868 from an aortic aneurysm. Kit’s last words were, “Adios Compadres!” (“Goodbye friends!”) He was buried in Taos, New Mexico, next to his wife.

With respect to the Navajo, Carson felt the Native Americans needed reservations in an effort to physically separate and shield them from white culture and hostility. He blamed the majority of problems with Indians on the "aggressions on the part of whites." Carson viewed the raids conducted by Indians on white settlements as acts of desperation, "committed from absolute necessity when in a starving condition." This was a result of the mass migration of white settlers which filled the region and resulted in the disappearance of the Native American hunting grounds.

Over the years, the contributions made by Kit Carson to western history have been examined on numerous occasions by a multitude of historians and journalists. In 1968, Harvey L. Carter, noted Carson biographer, 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.”

Colorado's Fort Carson is named for Kit Carson

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