Kit Carson: A Man of Many Facets
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So oft in history we are swept away by penned images of what we in modern times shall never experience within our lifetimes. Throughout the captured pages images like those of the Old West, buzzing with fur traders, wagon trains and of course Indians, are alight in the hearts of children and adults alike. Synonymous with such adventure is the Legendary Kit Carson. A man of many facets and the subject of heated debate, Carson has been immortalized in both fiction and truth. So who was the real Kit Carson and what role did he play in American History? Was Carson “hero” or “villain”? Throughout the following pages we will seek to answer these questions and examine the nature of his career, military status and Native American affiliations.
It is at times an astounding realization as to who among us will be honored throughout the years to such an exasperating extent in which adoration and controversy seemingly are joined hand in hand. Born Christmas Eve, 1809, to a modest frontier family, Christopher Houston ‘Kit’ Carson would one day emerge as an American Legend of the 19th Century. Though adventurous, the Carson Family was certainly cautious in their movements and found security in areas of great population. In 1811, on the coattails of the Boone Family, the Carson’s settled in Missouri. By the age of 17, Kit Carson, discontent with his saddle maker apprenticeship, escaped the confines of his Missouri home and made his way along the Sante Fe Trail to New Mexico.2
From there, Carson supplemented his journey by engaging in lesser tasks under the direction of Wagoner’s and hunters. Stock tender, cook, interpreter and teamster, Carson was eventually invited to join an expedition in 1829, not as the domestic help he had once been, but as mountain man and fur trapper. Along with his newly acquired responsibilities, Carson proved himself a worthy opponent of hostile Indian warriors.3 For the family and acquaintances of the young Christopher Carson, the idea of such dramatic interludes that would soon follow, were surely at the furthest recesses of their minds.
Those who would deem themselves to be friends, historians and creative entrepreneurs found Carson to be a great asset in furthering their own attainment of historical notoriety. As such, for more than a century, a slew of creative endeavors have been presented to the public with the majority proclaiming to be the absolute account of the life and times of Christopher Carson. As Harvey Lewis Carter (1968, 18-21) points out, while Carson’s image was portrayed to the masses as a great hero of his time, Indian fighter (sometimes murderer) and confidant, which may or may not have been true, often these accounts were not based on the writers first hand knowledge, but were meanderings of their largely prejudicial imagination and second hand interpretations.4 As many of these tales were spun many years before his death, it must have been mind boggling for Carson himself to hear of numerous excursions he was to have embarked upon with people he more than likely only met in passing if at all.
Obviously, it was of no mind to the likes of storytellers such as Burdett Ellis, Emerson Bennett and Oliver Perry Wiggins who were intent on glamorizing Carson’s experiences by substituting their own beliefs for truth. This is especially true for Wiggins who consistently miscalculated dates that contradicted the whereabouts of Carson in their entirety. One example of Wiggins inaccuracy is that he was adamant on recounting his time spent the Mountain Man in 1839 at Soda Springs. In fact, a more detailed and authenticated scenario puts Carson, during that time period, trapped in the Laramie Mountains before attending the Green River Rendezvous and then forging ahead to Browns Hole.5 Perhaps it was mere human nature, as stories of Carson’s accomplishments trickled down from the trails, that one would aspire to be an avid cohort of such a man.
In reality, it was Kit Carson who gave us the greatest insight in his life. Through his dictated memoirs (1809-1856), Carson detailed the events of his life. It is via these memoirs we as the reader are able to catch a more accurate glimpse of the life experiences encountered by Kit Carson. Throughout his testimony, Carson’s employment as Mountain Man/Trapper in the fur trading industry is well outlined. He oft discusses dangerous encounters with Indians and hazardous environmental conditions, which were primary concerns associated with such a career. At one point, Carson recounts days as many as four where water went unfound and Indians preyed upon their camps nightly.6
During his tenure as trapper, Carson was many times sent ahead of the group to track deserters, scout Indian camps and procure the return of stolen pack animals and game.7 It can be said here that Carson was generally of well standing with group leaders, as they seemingly believed him trustworthy enough to return, while valuing his observational and physical skills. Dunlay notes that Carson’s character was seen clearly by his fellow trappers when he adamantly faced a belligerent and abusive Frenchman who had joined their party in 1835. The Frenchman, Shunar was overbearing and made a point of beating anyone who was to annoy him. Inevitably, Carson not only threatened Shunar but also made good on that threat by shooting him in the arm.8
Between the years of 1829-1831, Carson had already trapped along the San Joaquin Valley, Sacramento Valley, Colorado River, Arizona streams and the Salmon River in Idaho. For the remainder of the 1830’s up until 1842, Carson followed trade routes that included but were not limited to the Black Hills and Green River as well as the Colorado and Laramie Mountains. Equally, Carson and his fellow trappers engaged in combat with various tribes like those of the Blackfoot, Jicarella Apaches and Sioux Indians. As a result of these battles fatalities on both sides were left in their wake.9
As it pertains to Indian warfare and retaliation along the trade routes, one must into account the time period in which these events occurred. While Carson was dually seen as a killer of Indians, the tribes themselves had also inflicted great harm upon Carson and his respective party. Additionally, as trappers traveling along rural pathways they would indeed been motivated towards protection of their captured goods, rationed food, and if for nothing else their own safety. Just as Indians must have felt threatened by the approach of strangers from the white world, so too would they be compelled to protect their keepings. In all honesty, Carson may not have had a choice. This was in reality his job combined with that of his pride, I cannot imagine Kit Carson would have turned his back on either. In fact, had he done just that, it would have to be assumed Carson would have been left to fen for himself in the wilderness, left alone to face the Indian tribes in wait.
The scarcity of food alone, on both sides would be, more than likely, enough to incite theft and subsequent warfare. Not to mention, the Indians who in all likelihood had families within the vicinity of the oncoming Mountain Men. We must also look at the fact that unlike today, there was no formal policing of the pathways, nor were there Sheriffs down the road to record statements. Both Mountain Men and Indians did what they needed to do in order to survive. It was at that point the way of the land where neither side was willing to budge. A similar theory was analyzed and recorded by Roger Barker where in the mind of the trappers, whatever tasks needed to be achieved for success took precedence over all other thoughts.10
Carson ultimately changed roles to that of Guide and Scout and fell into the good graces of Lieutenant John Charles Frémont, an Officer in the Corps of Topographical Engineers. As a result his popularity grew further. It was aboard a steamboat out of St. Louis in 1842 that Carson and Frémont would begin to become acquainted. The son in law to Missouri Senator Thomas Hart
Benton, Frémont was known for his exploration and mapping of the Northeastern Great Plains. Upon meeting Carson, Frémont sought to employ the use of Kit’s knowledge of the Western trails as he planned his next expedition. Paying $100 per month, Carson welcomingly accepted Fremont’s offer and their business agreement would quickly become, as Frémont puts it, “an enduring friendship”.11
Carson’s scouting tasks would at times turn violent much like the tribulations of his Mountain Man period. This is primarily due to the fact that the expedition followed the same route as the fur traders along Indian saturated lands. Though fearful of their limited party and future encounters with such tribes as the Cheyenne, Carson pressed surged ahead as his pride could not be diminished. Accordingly, Dunlay quotes Frémont’s Official Report of the expedition as saying, “mounted on a fine horse, without a saddle, and scouring bareheaded over the prairies, Kit was one of the finest horsemen I have ever seen”.12
Along with Carson’s new assignment came the re-emergence of old wounds and the questioning of Carson’s ethical treatment of the Indians. While Frémont may have been quite fond of Carson, there was at least one person among the expeditions party who held no love for Kit or Frémont. Prussian born, Charles Preuss was second in command to Frémont and kept a detailed record of the expedition exploits and the actions of both Kit and his superior. Preuss believed Kit to be wholly prejudiced against the Indians and saw him as little than a Buffalo Hunter. Ironically, Carson and Frémont thought differently of their comrade and had on occasion complimented Preuss on his “cheerful” philosophy, valuable service and the respect he had gained of the party’s men.13
Over the years, those of like mind have agreed with Preuss’s view of a bigoted Kit Carson. This is primarily due the overwhelming number of recounted battles of Mountain Men and Indian tribes, which as stated earlier, may not necessarily have been examined within the proper context. Some saw Kit Carson as a murderer of Indians, who despised the mass of its population, regardless of tribe affiliation. According to Gordon-McCutchan, Civil Rights movements of the late 1960’s and 70’s began to discredit Kit Carson as an American Hero and depicted him as an inhumane monster that had a great hatred for Indians. That being said, Carson’s battles against the Indians have been likened to the war in Vietnam. McCutchan equates such depictions to that of “presentism”, that is to say judgment of the past is rendered by means of present day societal values.14 The word “Genocide” has also been mentioned in direct correlation to Carson. Dunlay adds to the ideology of “presentism”, however indirectly, that such comparisons between Vietnam and the White-American and Indian Wars is largely due to the “authors generation” where war in itself was of virtual trauma to the writer.15 In one instance, it was frightfully set forth that “Carson’s Long Knives were forerunners of the Burning Fifth Marines”. As it turns out, these marines were believed to have burnt fifty percent of the Vietnam villages in which they entered.16
In truth, Kit Carson encounters with the Indians were not always negative. In fact, Carson had often lived and wintered among the tribes. In one account, Carson was known to have camped with the Flatheads and Nez Perces. There was no recorded bloodshed only time spent gambling and trading adventure stories between the men. It was not uncommon at this time for Mountain Men to be closely associated with certain tribes while disregarding others. It was in actuality that many Mountain Men and Indians fought side by side while socially mingling within and around each other’s camps.17 Even in Carson’s own admission, while being stalked by a group of Cheyenne Indians he inevitably invited them to join him to sit, smoke and talk for he felt that their bitterness was not a product of his doing.18 Moreover, it was Carson who deemed the Iroquois as “good hunters, good shots, and brave warriors.”19
Also noteworthy to mention was the relationships between Native American woman and the Mountain Men. Though at times the trappers were likened to sailors in their sexual exploits. However, these encounters more so than not were more than that of the casual passing. This scenario of Mountain Men and Indian Woman was significant, especially in the setting of the Rocky Mountain frontier. Marriage and children between the two groups also played a key role. This was perhaps related male issues of ego and feeling of greater security in associations with woman who they felt were inferior.20 Kit
Carson in his own right, out of 3 wives, was married two Indian women, an Arapaho named Waanibe and then a Cheyenne named Making-Out-Road. Whilst Carson seemingly omits any recollection of Waanibe from his memoirs, it was she who would conceive two children with him.21 Additionally, it was Carson who in stated in passing that his Indian treated him well, always awaiting him with warm water for his feet upon his return home.22
Surely, it was Carson’s years of experience dealing with Indian Tribes and the extent of his comprehension in their ways that allowed him to escalate from Mountain Man, to Scout, to appointed Indian Agent by the year 1853. During this time period, Indians were forced into confinement, on Reservations by the United States Government. Carson’s role as Agent came with little power in a time of transition and covered the tribes of the Muache Utes, Jicarilla Apaches and Taos Pueblo. Typically, Indian Agents were chief administrators, law enforcement officers and judges over the “nations” with which they were delegated. This included the removing of children to attend school and religious ceremony. However, Carson’s appointment lessened these responsibilities. Though it was stated by Governor and Superintendent of Indian Affairs David Meriwether that the Utes and Jicarillas were the most difficult to manage. For some, the appointment of Indian Agents has been viewed as a means of mere profit for the white man with no real duty attached.23 It was not until the start of the Civil War controversy again reared its ugly head in the treatment of the Utes and Navajo’s by none other than Kit Carson.
In 1861, at the onset of the Civil War, Indian campaigns were numerous. For the Indian, opportunity was found in the killing of white men by white men. Amid the chaos Indians employed their own agenda’s by further ridding their land of intruders.24 With the escalation of raids enacted by the Apache and Navaho “nations”, Carson had resigned his post as Indian Agent and headed for the war. Originating from a divided state between slavery and freedom, Carson vowed himself to the commission of the Union Army. Interestingly enough, Kit’s brother also fought in the war but on the side of the Confederacy.
A volunteer officer, Kit was promoted to Colonel and headed the first New Mexican Volunteer Infantry after the resignation of Charles Bent. Unlike the days of the backcountry, Carson was in a way out of place, as he was not accustomed to the disciplines of conventional warfare. None-the-less, Carson would eventually be made General.25 Carson as would be the case, was seen as mild mannered officer with a fierce temper. A force to be reckoned with, Carson was likened to a rattlesnake with unscrupulous punishment for those who would deserve such. In a story illustrated by Edward Wynkoop, Kit, after calmly instructing a Mexican Ranchero as to his wrong doing to no avail, violently struck the man upon the head with his saber before dragging him onto the bank of the Rio Grande.26
Towards the goal of success in his military endeavors, Carson enlisted the help of the Ute Indian Tribe immediately upon realization that crisis within the army was imminent. Carson’s goal was to employ the Utes as a means to overcome other “nations” as well as the Confederate troops.27 Carson utilized the Utes as Scouts who in return were given rations, clothing, firearms and blankets. In November 1864, 75 Ute and Jicarella Scouts located camps of Comanche and Kiowa’s. The first Battle of the Adobe Walls, Carson’s troops along with the aid of the Utes burned the Villages. Events such as this in reality backfired on the both Carson and the Government. Ute aggression grew whereupon they would begin to attack settlements, outlying farms and ranches. Again, as in the days of the backcountry food sources became scarce and to some extent they began to feel abandoned. In addition, the Utes themselves did not agree with the maneuvers of the military and began ambushing troops who were making their way towards the frontline of the war.28
The Utes also played a large role in subduing of the Navajo’s. Known for their notoriously violent behavior, the extinction of the Navajo was called for by Colonel Edward Canby in 1861. Carson soon followed this ideology and requested employment of one hundred Ute Scouts to further the military campaign. The Utes, while not in complete with Carson or the Army, had even less trust for the Navajo who had consistently attacked rivaling Indian tribes along with their regular ambushes of New Mexican citizens and troops. Being the case, the Utes absolutely refused to make peace with the Navajo and agreed to aid Carson in his endeavor. As such, Carson was deemed “the distinguished commander of the expedition.”29
On July 7, 1863 the impending assault began as Carson led his troops and scouts to Fort Defiance. Upon his arrival on July 20th, the Navajo deadline for compliance had commenced. The Ute showed no mercy for the Navajo as they frequently killed the Navajo men they encountered while capturing their woman and using crops to feed their animals. In fact, it was the Ute who caused the greatest damage to the Navajo, which resulted in the greatest amount of casualties. However, Carson with the heart of a true Mountain Man would often join the Ute in their scouting responsibilities. Rising early each morning, Carson more than anyone understood the great importance of Scouting. The deprivation of food, animals and security towards the Navajo “Nation” did not end until the following spring.30 Carson’s official report on this campaign stated, “Killed, 23; captured, 34; voluntarily surrendered, 200; captured 200 head of sheep.”31
In the end, regardless of their apparent usage as bait to further the Union’s battles, the Utes had great respect for Carson. They would eventually sign a treaty with the U.S. Government confining their own to a Reservation in Western Colorado beyond the Continental Divide. These negotiations were direct communications between the Commission of Indian Affairs in Washington D.C and the Ute representatives. Carson was also in attendance as a special commissioner.32 Carson’s subsequent illness and death would soon follow.
As to whether or not Carson could have forged greater alliances between the United States and the Indians, I do not believe it would have been likely. While Carson was held in high esteem for his knowledge of the countryside, the obvious political relinquishment of the majority of responsibilities normally undertaken by those appointed Agent to the Indians was a clear sign that Carson was with limited power of influence. Additionally, just as Carson had been employed so proudly as scout, guide, hunter and warrior, he too employed the skills of the Indians. Perhaps he believed they should not expect more or more likely that those in control were not willing to offer anymore. On that note, the U.S sought to rid themselves of the Indians unless complete conformity was achieved. This fact alone left little room for bargaining.
In summary, by all accounts was a seemingly modest man who fought for man and country with unlimited drive. While the debate as to Carson’s true intentions in regards to the Indians will undoubtedly continue, there can be no disagreement that Christopher ‘Kit’ Carson, whether for good or ill, remains a legend of his time.
Carter, Harvey Lewis. ‘Dear Old Kit’: The Historical Christopher Carson. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1968.
Colton, Ray Charles. The Civil War in Western Territories: Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1959
Dunlay, Thomas. Kit Carson and the Indians. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2000.
Estergreen, M. Morgan. Kit Carson: A Portrait in Courage. Norman, University of Oklahoma Press, 1962.
Simmons, Marc S. Kit Carson: Indian Fighter or Killer? R.C. Gordon-McCutchan, ed. Niwot: University Press of Colorado, 1996.
Simmons, Virginia McConnell. The Ute Indians of Utah, Colorado and New Mexico. Niwot: Colorado University Press, 2000.
Steckmesser, Kent Ladd. The Western Hero in History and Legend. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1997.
1. M. Morgan Estergreen, Kit Carson: A Portrait in Courage (Norman, University of Oklahoma Press, 1962), 15-16.
2. Thomas Dunlay, Kit Carson and the Indians (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2000), 11.
3. Kent Ladd Steckmesser, The Western Hero in History and Legend (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1997), 14.
4. Harvey Lewis Carter, ‘Dear Old Kit’: The Historical Christopher Carson (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1968), 18-21.
5. DOK, 20.
6. DOK, 37-151; Christopher Carson, Kit Carson’s Autobiography, edited with an introduction by Milo M. Quaife (Lincoln, 1965), xviii.
7. DOK, 55, 112; Carson, Autobiography.
8. KCI, 70; Thelma S. Guild and Harvey L. Carter, Kit Carson: A Pattern for Heroes (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984), 305n.
9. DOK, 75, 134, 139; Carson, Autobiography.
10. KCI, 58; Roger G. Barker, “The Influence of Frontier Environments on Behavior”, in Jerome O. Steffen, ed., The American West: New Perspectives, New Dimensions (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1979), 61-91.
11. KCI, 87-89
12. KCI, 91; John C. Frémont, The Exploring Expedition of the Rocky Mountains (Washington DC: Smithsonian Institute Press, 1988), 15 (a reprint of Fremont’s Official Report of 1845).
13. KCI, 90.
14. Marc S. Simmons, Kit Carson: Indian Fighter or Killer? R.C. Gordon-McCutchan, ed., (Niwot: University Press of Colorado, 1996), 73, 91.
15. KCI, 19.
16. KCI, 20; Richard Drinnon, Facing West: The Metaphysics of Indian-Hating and Empire Building (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1980), 458-59.
17. KCI, 49.
18. DOK, 130; Carson, Memoirs.
19. KCI, 57; Theodore Karamanski, “The Iroquois and the Fur Trade of the Far West,” The Beaver62 (Spring 1982): 5-13.
20. KCI, 55; William Swagerty, “Marriage and Settlement Patterns of the Rocky Mountain Trappers and Traders, Western Historical Quarterly 11:2 (April 1980).
21. KCI, 60.
22. KCI, 60; John C. Frémont, Memoirs of My Life (Chicago: Belford, Clarke and Company, 1887), 1:74.
23. KCI, 149, 157.
24. Ray Charles Colton, The Civil War in Western Territories: Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1959), 121
25. KCI, 230-31; James F. Meline, Two Thousand Miles on Horseback (New York: Hurd and Houghton, 1867), 250; Official Army Register of the Volunteer Force of the United States Army for the Years 1861,’62, ’63, ’64, ’65. Part 8: Territories of Washington, New Mexico… (Washington DC: Adjutant General’s Office, 1867), 7.
26. KCI, 233; Edward S. Wynkoop, Manuscript 2, Colorado State Historical Society Library, Denver, 19-20
27. KCI, 230; Chris Emmett, Fort Union and the Winning of the Southwest (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1965), 228-44; Donald S. Frazier, Blood and Treasure: Confederate Empire in the Southwest (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1995), 48-72.
28. Virginia McConnell Simmons, The Ute Indians of Utah, Colorado and New Mexico (Niwot: Colorado University Press, 2000), 113, 120.
29. KCI, 267-276; Carleton to Lorenzo Thomas, June 17, 1863, RCIT, 114.
30. KCI, 276-277.
31. DOK, 161; Jacob Piatt Dunn, Massacre of the Mountains (New York, 1886), 447-76.
32. DOK, 174; Edwin L. Sabin, Kit Carson Days, Vol 1 (Chicago, University of Nebraska Press, 1914), 488-89.