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Christopher Houston "Kit" Carson
Kit Carson, about 1860.jpg
Kit Carson in the 1860s, judging by the uniform
Born December 24, 1809
Tate's Creek, Madison County, Kentucky
Died May 23, 1868(1868-05-23) (aged 58)
Fort Lyon, Colorado
Cause of death Aortic aneurysm
Resting place Kit Carson Cemetery
Taos, New Mexico
Nationality American
Citizenship American
Occupation Mountain man
Indian agent
United States Army officer
Known for Opening the American West to white settlement
Spouse(s) Waanibe
Josefa Jaramillo
Children With Waanibe:
Daughter, died young
With Jaramillo:
Charles Carson, died young
William Julian Carson
Teresina Carson
Christobal Charles Carson
Charles Christopher Carson
Rebecca Carson
Estifanita "Stella" Carson
Josefita Carson
Parent(s) Lindsay Carson
Rebecca Robinson
Kit Carson signature.svg

Christopher Houston "Kit" Carson, (December 24, 1809 – May 23, 1868) was an American frontiersman. His career as a frontiersman involved four chief occupations: mountain man, guide, Indian agent, and officer in the United States Army. He helped to open the American West to settlement. In his day, he was a celebrity known far and wide in the United States. In modern America, he is remembered as a folk hero.

Carson began his adult life in 1829 as a mountain man. He trapped beaver about ten years for the fur trade. During these years, Carson became an "Injun killer" — he was forced to kill many Native Americans to protect himself from attack, theft, and murder. Carson became known as one of the greatest of "Injun killers" through novels, newspaper accounts, and other media. When the fur trade died out in the 1840s, Carson looked for other work.

In 1842, Army officer John Charles Frémont hired Carson to guide him on three separate expeditions into the West. All three expeditions involved mapping and describing remote and uncharted areas of the West. These expeditions were hugely successful. Frémont's reports to the government made Carson a frontier hero, and were read by many Americans. Carson became a celebrity throughout the United States. His adventures were turned into stories that were published in paper-covered books called dime novels. These cheap, popular books made him more famous than ever.

In 1853, Carson became an Indian agent in northern New Mexico. His job was to keep the Utes and Apaches at peace. He saw to it that they were treated with honesty and fairness, and that they got the food and clothing they needed. In 1861, the American Civil War broke out. Carson resigned his position as Indian agent, and joined the Union Army. As a lieutenant, he led the New Mexico Volunteer Infantry. His forces fought Confederates at Valverde, New Mexico. The Confederates won this battle, but were later defeated. Most of Carson's time in the Army was passed training recruits.

Carson served in several wars and battles with the southwestern tribes during this time. He rounded-up and moved Apaches and Navajos from their homelands to government lands called reservations. Carson was promoted to the rank of colonel. Late in life, he was promoted to brigadier general, and given command of Fort Garland in Colorado. After about two years. Carson left the military because of illness.

Carson was married three times. His first two wives were Native Americans. His third wife was Mexican. He was the father of ten children. He died in 1868 at Fort Lyon, Colorado. He is buried in Taos, New Mexico, next to his third and last wife Josefa Jaramillo.

Carson's illiteracy

Early photo of Kit Carson
Early photograph (possibly the first) of Kit Carson, wearing a beaver hat

Carson was illiterate (he could not read or write). He was embarrassed by this, and tried to hide it. He was impressed by gentlemen who could read and write however. In 1856, he told his life story to an Army officer who wrote it down. Carson told the officer that he left school at an early age.

Carson enjoyed having other people read to him. He liked the poetry of Lord Byron. He also liked a book about William the Conqueror.The Conqueror's favorite oath was "By the splendor of God", Carson used this oath as his own, and was known to never have used anything stronger.

Carson learned to write "C. Carson" late in life. It was very difficult for him. He made his mark on official papers, and this mark was then witnessed by a clerk. Carson easily spoke English, Spanish, and French.

He could speak many Native American languages, including Navajo, Apache, and Comanche. He also knew the sign language used by mountain men. Very late in life, he learned to read to a certain extent, and to recognize his name when it appeared in print.

Early life

NSRW Lincoln Abraham - log cabin
Drawing of Abraham Lincoln's log cabin birthplace in Kentucky. Kit Carson and Lincoln were both born in log cabins in 1809

Carson was born in a log cabin at Tate's Creek, Madison County, Kentucky on Christmas Eve 1809. His parents were Lindsay Carson and his second wife, Rebecca Robinson. Lindsay had had five children by his first wife Lucy Bradley, and ten more children by Rebecca. Kit was their sixth.

His family moved to Missouri when he was a baby. In Missouri, the family was in danger from Native American attacks, and they were forced to find ways to protect themselves. After his father's death in 1818, Kit's mother remarried. The boy became a wild teenager. His stepfather put him to work in a saddle-making shop in Franklin, Missouri. They knew the Daniel Boone family. Lindsay's oldest son William married Boone's grand-niece, Millie Boone, in 1810. Their daughter Adaline became Kit's favorite playmate.

The Carson family was always in danger of Native American attacks in Missouri. They had to be alert. Cabins were "forted". This means that they had tall fences built around them called stockades. These stockades made the people inside safe from attack. During the day, men worked in the fields near the cabins. Some men had weapons, and protected the workers. These men were ready to kill any Native American who attacked.

Runaway turned mountain man

Carson and his horse Apache
Mountain man Kit Carson and his favorite horse, Apache, from The Life and Adventures of Kit Carson, the Nestor of the Rocky Mountains. The book was Carson's first biography, and was printed in 1858

Franklin, Missouri was at the eastern end of the Santa Fe Trail. This was a starting point for many settlers heading west. Kit heard wonderful stories about the west from the mountain men returning to the East. Kit did not like making saddles. In August 1826, he ran away from home, and went west with the mountain men. They traveled over the Santa Fe Trail to Santa Fe, New Mexico. They reached their destination in November 1826. Kit passed the winter in Taos, New Mexico with Mathew Kinkead, a mountain man and neighbor from Missouri. Taos would become Carson's home.

Between 1827 and 1829, Carson worked as cook, translator, and wagon driver in the southwest. He also worked at a copper mine near the Gila River in southwestern New Mexico.

In August 1829, the nineteen year old Carson joined trapper Ewing Young and his mountain men on a fur-hunting expedition to Arizona and California. This was Carson's first professional job as a mountain man. Carson received much experience as a trapper on this expedition. Young is credited with shaping Carson's early life in the mountains.

Carson returned to Taos in 1829. Kit passed the winter of 1827-1828 as Young's cook in Taos. Carson joined another expedition led by Thomas Fitzpatrick in 1831. Fitzpatrick and his trappers went north to the central Rocky Mountains. Carson would hunt and trap in the West for about ten years. He was known as a reliable man and a good fighter.

Carson traveled through many parts of the American West gathering furs. Men at this time wore hats made of beaver fur. Carson trapped beaver for the fur trade. He sometimes worked with famous mountain men like Jim Bridger and Old Bill Williams.

Alfred Jacob Miller - Trappers - Walters 37194029
Two Trappers 1858

The mountain men faced many hazards including biting insects, bad weather, and diseases of all kinds. There were no doctors in the lands where mountain men worked. These men had to set their own broken bones, tend their wounds, and nurse themselves. Native Americans were an ever-present danger. Even a friendly Native American could turn at once into an enemy.

The mountain man's main food was buffalo. They dressed in deer skins that had stiffened after being left outdoors for a time. This suit of stiffened deer skin gave them some protection against the weapons of their enemies.

About 1840, the fur trade began to drop off. Well-dressed men in London, Paris, and New York City wanted silk hats instead of beaver hats. In addition, the mountain men had very nearly killed almost every beaver in North America. Trappers were no longer wanted or needed. Carson knew it was time to find other work.

In 1841, he was hired at Bent's Fort in Colorado. This fort was one of the greatest buildings in the West. Hundreds of people worked or lived there. Carson hunted buffalo, antelope, deer, and other animals. He was paid one dollar a day. He returned to Bent's Fort several times during his life to again provide meat for the fort's residents. In April 1842, Carson went back to his childhood home in Missouri. He made this trip to put his daughter Adaline in the care of relatives.

Travels with John Charles Frémont

In 1842, Carson was returning from Missouri after depositing his daughter Adaline with relatives when met John C. Frémont aboard a steamboat on the Missouri River. Frémont was a United States Army officer in the Corps of Topographical Engineers. Carson had very little money at this time. Frémont hired Carson at $100 a month as a guide.

In 1842, Carson guided Frémont across the Oregon Trail to Wyoming. This was their first expedition into the West. The purpose of this expedition was to map and describe the Oregon Trail as far as South Pass, Wyoming. A guidebook and maps would be printed for settlers. Frémont praised Carson in his government reports. Because of that, Carson became well known across the United States. He became the hero of many cheap, popular books called dime novels.

Mojave Desert scene in Joshua Tree National Park, California

In 1843, Frémont asked Carson to join his second expedition. Carson did. He guided Frémont across part of the Oregon Trail to the Columbia River in Oregon. The trip's purpose was to map and describe the Oregon Trail from South Pass, Wyoming to the Columbia River. They also traveled to Great Salt Lake in Utah. The men then headed to California. They suffered from bad weather in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The men were saved by Carson's good judgement and his guiding skills.

The expedition then went into California. This was illegal and dangerous. California was Mexican territory. The Mexican government ordered Frémont to leave. Frémont finally went back to Washington, DC. The government liked his reports, but ignored his illegal trip into Mexico. Frémont was made a captain. The newspapers called him "The Pathfinder".

Upper Klamath Lake (Klamath County, Oregon scenic images) (klaDA0093)
Upper Klamath Lake in Oregon

In 1845, Carson guided Frémont on their third and last expedition. They went to California and Oregon. Frémont made scientific plans, but the expedition appeared political in nature. Frémont may have been working under secret government orders. President Polk wanted the province of Alta California for the United States. Once in California, Frémont started to rouse the American settlers into a patriotic fever. The Mexican government ordered him to leave. Frémont went north to Oregon. He camped near Klamath Lake. Messages from Washington, DC made it clear that President Polk wanted California.

Bear Flag Revolt

Bear Flag Revolt Monument, Sonoma Plaza
Bear Flag Revolt Monument, Sonoma Plaza

In June 1846, Frémont and Carson both participated in a California uprising against Mexico called the Bear Flag Revolt. Mexico ordered all Americans to leave California. They did not want to go, and declared California an independent republic.

American settlers in California wanted to be free of the Mexican government. The Americans found courage to oppose Mexico because they had Frémont and his troops on board.

Frémont wrote an oath of allegiance. He and his men were able to give some protection to the Americans.

Frémont worked hard to the win California for the United States. He became its military governor. In 1847 and 1848, Carson made two quick trips to Washington, DC with messages and reports. In 1848, he took news of the California Gold Strike to the nation's capital.

Mexican-American War

Stephen W. Kearny
General Stephen W. Kearny

The Mexican–American War was an armed conflict between the United States and Mexico from 1846 to 1848. America won this war. Under The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, Mexico was forced to sell the territories of Alta California and New Mexico to the United States.

While Carson was not a member of the United States Army, one of his best known adventures took place during this war. In December 1846, Carson was ordered by General Stephen W. Kearny to guide him and his troops from Socorro, New Mexico to San Diego, California. Mexicans soldiers attacked Kearny and his men near the village of San Pasqual, California.

There were too many Mexican soldiers. Kearny knew he would could not win; he ordered his men to take cover on a small hill. Kearny then sent Carson, a naval lieutenant named Beale, and a Native American scout to get help. The three left on the night of December 8 for San Diego. San Diego was 25 miles (40 km) away.

By December 10, Kearny believed help would not arrive. He planned to break through the Mexican lines the next morning. That night, 200 mounted American soldiers arrived in San Pasqual. They swept the area and drove the Mexicans away. Kearny was in San Diego on December 12. Carson went back to Taos after the Mexican–American War to start a ranch.

Fighting Trapper, or Kit Carson to the Rescue
An 1874 dime novel with Carson's picture on the cover

Books and dime novels

Carson's fame spread throughout the United States with government reports, dime novels, newspaper accounts, and word of mouth. The dime novels celebrated Carson's adventures, but were usually colored with exaggeration.

In 1847, the first story about Carson's adventures was printed. It was called An Adventure of Kit Carson: A Tale of the Sacramento. It was printed in Holden's Dollar Magazine. Other stories were also printed such as Kit Carson: The Prince of the Goldhunters and The Prairie Flower.

In 1856, Carson told his life story to someone who wrote it down. This book is called Memoirs. Some say Carson forgot dates or got them wrong. The manuscript was lost when taken East to find a professional writer who would work it into a book. Washington Irving was asked, but declined. The lost manuscript was found in a trunk in Paris in 1905. It was later printed.

Indian agent

Carson's home in Taos, New Mexico, he often met with the Native Americans under his supervision here 1900.

In 1853, Carson became the United States Indian agent to the Utes. These people lived across northern New Mexico. The Jacarilla Apaches and the Puebloans at the Rio Grande would also come under Carson's watch. Carson's job was to keep the peace between the southwestern tribes, and to hunt down and punish any who committed crimes. Carson was honest and fair as an Indian agent.

Carson wanted the government to put aside large areas of land far from white settlements. The lands would be called reservations, and were intended for the use of Native Americans only. He thought the Native Americans should be taught agriculture, but it would prove almost impossible to teach nomadic hunters to settle on one piece of land and farm it. He thought his plans would keep these peoples from becoming extinct.

Carson resigned as Indian agent with the outbreak of the American Civil War in April 1861. He joined the Union Army to lead the 1st New Mexico Volunteer Infantry.

Military life

Kit Carson Statue Carson City NV - panoramio
Kit Carson Statue - Carson City NV

In April 1861, the American Civil War broke out. Carson left his job as an Indian agent, and joined the Union Army. He was made a lieutenant. He led the 1st New Mexico Volunteer Infantry. He trained the new men. In October 1861, he was made a colonel. The Volunteers fought the Confederate forces at Valverde, New Mexico in February 1862. The Confederates won this battle, but were later defeated.

Once the Confederates were driven from New Mexico, Carson's commander Major James Henry Carleton, turned his attention to the Native Americans. Carleton led his forces deep into the Mescalero Apache territory. The Mescaleros were tired of fighting, and put themselves under Carson's protection.

Carleton put these Apaches on a remote and lonely reservation east on the Pecos River. He resigned from the Army in February 1863. Carleton refused to accept the resignation because he wanted Carson to lead a campaign against the Navajo.

Campaign against the Navajos

The Navajo at Fort Sumner, the end of The Long Walk

Carleton had chosen a bleak site on the Pecos River for his reservation. This reservation was called Bosque Redondo (Round Grove). He chose this site for the Apaches and Navajos because it was far from white settlements. He thought as well that the remoteness and desolation of the reservation would discourage white settlement.

The Mescalero Apaches walked 130 miles to the reservation. By March 1863, four hundred Apaches had settled around nearby Fort Sumner. Others had fled west to join fugitive bands of Apaches. By middle summer, many of these people were planting crops and doing other farm work.

On July 7, Carson, with little heart for the Navajo roundup, started the campaign against the tribe. His orders were almost the same as those for the Apache roundup: he was to shoot all males on site, and take the women and children captives. No peace treaties were to be made until all the Navajo were on the reservation.

Carson searched far and wide for the Navajo. He found their homes, fields, animals, and orchards, but the Navajo were experts at disappearing quickly and hiding in their vast lands. The roundup was a great frustration for Carson. He was in his 50s, tired, and ill.

By autumn 1863, Carson started to burn the Navajo homes and fields, and remove their animals from the area. The Navaho would starve if this destruction continued. One hundred eighty-eight Navajo surrendered. They were sent to Bosque Redondo. Life at the Bosque had was grim, the Apaches and Navajos fought and the water in the Pecos contained minerals that gave people cramps and stomach aches. Residents had to walk about twelve miles to find firewood.

Carson wanted to take a winter break from the campaign. Major Carleton refused. Kit was ordered to invade the Canyon de Chelly. It was here that many Navajos had taken refuge.

Canyon de Chelly 7-27-09 (2)
Part of the Canyon de Chelly, a sacred place for the Navajo

The Canyon de Chelly was a sacred place for the Navajo. They believed it would now be their strongest sanctuary. Three hundred Navajo took refuge on the canyon rim at a place called Fortress Rock. They resisted Carson's invasion by building rope ladders, bridges, lowering water pots into a stream, and keeping out of sight.

In January 1864, Carson swept through the 35-mile Canyon with his forces. He cut down the thousands of peach trees in the Canyon. Few Navajo were killed or captured. Carson's invasion however proved to the Navajo that the white man could invade their country at any time. Many Navajo surrendered at Fort Canby.

By March 1864, there were 3,000 refuges at Fort Canby. An additional 5,000 arrived in the camp. They were suffering from the intense cold and hunger. Carson asked for supplies to feed and clothe them. The thousands of Navajo were led to Bosque Redondo.

In Navajo history, this horrific trek is known as The Long Walk. By 1866, reports indicated that Bosque Redondo was a complete failure. Major Carleton was fired. Congress started investigations. In 1868, a treaty was signed, and the Navajo were allowed to return to their homeland. Bosque Redondo was closed.

The Battles of Adobe Walls

James Henry Carleton
Photograph of 19th century American Army officer General James Henry Carleton

On November 25, 1864, Carson led his forces against the southwestern tribes at the First Battle of Adobe Walls in the Texas panhandle. Adobe Walls was an abandoned trading post blown up by its inhabitants to prevent a take-over by hostile Native Americans. Combatants at the First Battle were the United States Army and masses of Kiowas, Comanches, and Plains Apaches. It was one of the largest engagements fought on the Great Plains.

The result of Adobe Walls was a crushing spiritual defeat for the Indians. It also prompted the U.S. military to take its final actions to crush the Indians once and for all. Within the year, the long war between whites and Indians in Texas would reach its conclusion.

The battle was the result of General Carleton's belief that the Native Americans were responsible for the continuing attacks on white settlers along the Santa Fe Trail. He wanted to punish these thieves and murderers, and brought in Carson to do the job. With most of the Army engaged elsewhere during the American Civil War, the protection the settlers sought was almost nonexistent. They were begging for help. Carson led 260 cavalry, 75 infantry, and 72 Ute and Jicarilla Apache Army scouts. In addition, he had two mountain howitzer cannons.

On the morning of November 25, Carson discovered and attacked a Kiowa village of 176 lodges. After the destruction, he moved forward to Adobe Walls. Carson found other Comanche villages in the area, and realized he would face a very large force of Native Americans. Four to five hours of battle ensued. When Carson ran low on ammunition and howitzer shells, he ordered his men to retreat to a nearby Kiowa village. There they burned the village and many fine buffalo robes.

The battle is considered by some to be Carson's finest moment, and is thought one of the factors that made the Kiowas and Comanches sue for peace in 1865. The First Battle at Adobe Walls would be the last time the Comanche and Kiowa forced American troops to retreat from battle. Adobe Walls marked the beginning of the end of the plains tribes and their way of life.

A decade later, the Second Battle of Adobe Walls was fought on June 27, 1874, between 250 to 700 Comanche and a group of 28 hunters defending Adobe Walls. After a four-day siege, the hundreds of Native Americans withdrew. The Second Battle led to the Red River War of 1874-1875, a war that resulted in the final relocation of the Southern Plains Indians to reservations in Oklahoma.

Death and Legacy

Carson's last photograph was snapped in Boston about March 20, 1868, the photograph is signed, and sold for a record $48,000 at auction in 2010

Carson left the Army on November 22, 1867. He moved his family to a small settlement on the Purgatoire River called Boggsville, Colorado. He had no money. He sold his house in Taos. He wanted to build a ranch. In January 1868, he was made superintendent of Indian Affairs in the Colorado Territory. He was called to Washington, D. C. in February 1868 with Ute chiefs and other men to make a treaty.

Carson was seriously ill, and doubted he could make the journey, but he felt a responsibility to the chiefs and made the journey. He asked doctors on the East Coast about his health (they gave him little hope of recovery), and toured New York City, Philadelphia, and Boston. His last photograph was snapped in Boston.

Kit Carson bronze statue 1906

He returned home in April 1868. Josefa had given birth to their last child, Josefita. It was not an easy birth. Josefa died within two weeks. Carson missed her greatly. His health grew worse. He needed chloroform to ease the pain. Carson made his will on May 15, 1868 at Fort Lyon, and named Thomas Boggs his administrator. Any monies realized from his estate would be used to support his children.

Carson had been diagnosed with an aortic aneurysm. He died on May 23, 1868 at Fort Lyon, Colorado. He was 58 years old. The wife of an officer offered her wedding dress to line Carson's casket while the women of the fort took the cloth flowers from their hats to decorate his coffin. Carson and Josefa were first buried in Boggsville. The two were disinterred in 1869, and buried in Taos, New Mexico.

Carson's home in Taos is today a museum maintained by the Kit Carson Foundation. A monument was raised in the plaza at Santa Fe by the New Mexico Grand Army. In Denver, a statue of a mounted Kit Carson can be found atop the Mac Monnies Pioneer Monument. Another equestrian statue can be seen in Trindad. A national forest in New Mexico was named for Carson as well as a county in Colorado. A river in Nevada is named for Carson as well as the state's capital, Carson City. Fort Carson, an army training post near Colorado Springs, was named for him during World War II by popular vote of the men training there.

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