The Biography of Kit Carson


Little Big Man

The sixth of ten children in a family of large folks, he was definitely the runt of the litter.

Meeting this legend in later years, one man wrote, "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".

Yet, he was truly a hero of the American West. Despite all the exceptional stories written about him, despite he was quiet, unassuming demeanor, his was likely a more important figure in our history than what modern readers believe.

Christopher Houston Carson was born on Christmas eve, 1809, near Boonesborough, KY. Two years later, the family moved to Missouri, and in 1818, Kit's father died.

He was apprenticed to a saddlemaker in 1825, but he hated the work. Within a year, he ran away, joining a wagon train headed for Santa Fe. (His master offered a one cent reward for his return.)

He moved to Taos; two years later, while returning to Missouri when he happened on and joined with a wagon train headed to El Paso. From there, it was back to Taos. The next year, the same thing happened, but the new train was going to Mexico, where Kit served as an interpreter.

In 1828, he was back in Taos, uniting the next year with a group of fur trappers headed to California. The ensuing two years saw him learn the geography of the West and how to survive the harsh country.

With Thomas Fitzpatrick he headed out in 1831 to trap more beaver. Their quest took them through Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, and Utah.

Carson's troubles with Indians began in 1833. With five others, he found himself surrounded by 200 Comanche. When the Indians attacked, the trappers slit their mules' necks, using the carcasses as a fortification. Three men kept shooting while three kept reloading. A score of attacks, 42 Comanche dead, and Kit's group escaped in the dark.

Spotting four Indians one day, he headed after them, believing them to be horse thieves. The four turned out to be with 60 others, and a hasty retreat was called.

Another time, he chased an Indian horse thief for 115 miles, killing the offender and returning the horses.

Claiming it his worst difficulty ever, he shot an elk in 1834, approached his bounty, and found himself attacked by two grizzlies. While climbing a tree, he lost his rifle and had to spend several hours waiting for the bears to become disinterested.

As a man among men, he boosted his reputation in 1835. Both Kit and a hulking French trapper had eyes for the same Arapaho woman. In the ensuing duel, Carson was shot in the neck and head, but his bullet shattered the forearm of the Frenchman. In the end, Kit showed mercy and won the maiden.

The Hudson's Bay Company ( a British organization) had convinced the ferocious Blackfoot Indians to side against American trappers. Kit's party found itself surrounded once by over 1,000 Blackfoot warriors, but they were scared away at night by the appearance of the aurora borealis.

Always sympathetic to the Indians' plight, even when fighting them, Carson was known to recapture and return ponies taken unfairly from some tribes.

The beaver pelt business began to peak. Kit's group of 29 men set some sort of record in 1840, when they trapped 84 beavers in 10 days.

By the following year, pickings were slim, and the price of pelts had fallen drastically. His wife had died, leaving him with two children, so he moved to Bent's Fort, where he was an official hunter at $1 a day. He also took a new Indian wife.

He tried going back to Missouri the next year, but he felt out of place in such "civilized" surroundings. So he headed up the Missouri River and ran into John Fremont who hired him as a guide for $100 a month. Carson was an able teacher, hunter, and guide, earning total respect from Fremont.

Somewhere along the line, his second wife "divorced" him by throwing his belongings out of their tent. In 1843, he married Charles Bent's 15-year old sister.

Fremont needed him again, and from summer 1843 to summer 1844, he led the explorer through South Park, over Hoosier Pass, past the Great Salt Lake, along the Oregon Trail, into Nevada, and to Sutter's Fort in California.

Feeling it time to settle down, Kit returned to Taos to try farming, but by the end of the summer, he was back at Bent's Fort to rejoin Fremont. They were off to California, where the Mexican War was brewing.

Carson signed up with the troops and was sent east to Washington, D.C. with dispatches. Along the way, he ran into Kearney and his army in New Mexico. Another man took the communications eastward, while Kit led Kearney to California.

The following year, he was able to make the round trip, California to Washington to California, in eight months.

Again, Kit returned to ranching and farming near Taos. Following Fremont's disaster in the San Juan Mountains during the winter of 1848-49 (without Kit), the survivors recouped at the Carson homestead.

Dabbling in the mercantile industry, Kit took off for St. Louis in 1851 to get trade goods.

He was snatched by hostile Indians and about to be put to death when an Army detachment intervened.

An Indian held a hatchet to Carson's throat, an Army officer held a gun to the Indian's head, and another Indian held a drawn arrow to the soldier's head.

Fortunately for all, an aged Cheyenne chief showed up, recognized Kit, and ordered him freed out of respect for his bravery and fairness.

He never tired of trapping, so in '52, he again worked the streams through South Park, to the plains, to Wyoming, back down to the Rockies, to the Arkansas River, and again to the plains. The next year, with a partner, he bought sheep in New Mexico for 50 cents each, driving them to California, where they brought $5.50 per head.

That year, he was appointed Indian Agent. He dealt strictly, yet very sympathetically, with his charges. Despite his illiteracy, he was very helpful to the Indians and highly respected by all factions.

He took time to dictate his autobiography to a friend, but he felt the result made him look a little too good, compared to reality.

A horse fell on Kit during a hunting trip in San Juans in 1860, and he sustained a serious chest injury.

The next year, he retired as Indian Agent and joined the Army as colonel. Despite the brutal battle he waged and won against the Navajo, he was the first to speak up to authorities requesting aid for displaced Indians.

Carson led the vastly outnumbered troops at the battle of Adobe Walls in Texas in November, 1864. Accounts vary sharply of manpower; the defenders had from 30 to 400 men, and the Indians brought in 700 to 3,000 warriors.

The fighting ended with the withdrawal of stunned Indians after a sharpshooter killed one of them with a shot estimated at 1,500 yards.

He was appointed commander of Ft. Garland in July of 1866, and formally retired from the military in November, 1867.

During a trip east to plead for assistance for the Utes in '68, Carson visited with doctors in New York and Boston, seeking relief from chest and neck pains.

He returned west in April of 1868. Then, his wife died in April, shortly after giving birth to their seventh child. A month later, feeling the end nigh, he returned to Ft. Lyon (just east of Bent's Fort), polished off a steak dinner, and gently smoked his pipe while he hemorrhaged to death.

Those who knew him best spoke best of him. Fremont who held him in highest regard, called him the finest horseman he had ever seen.

From others among his acquaintances:

"Quiet and assuming... perserverant... unflinching courage. "Wasn't afraid of hell or high water...(morally) clean as a hound's tooth...(his) word as sure as the sun coming up... never cursed more than necessary."

Larger than life, despite his diminutive stature; pathfinder, guide, and warrior; hero of his time; a hero for all time was Kit Carson.