The remarkable life of Christopher “Kit” Carson (1809–68) represents a broad sweep of Western American history in the early-to-mid nineteenth century. Carson was a Rocky Mountain fur trapper, a guide and scout for the US Army Corps of Topographical Engineers, rancher, Indian agent in New Mexico and Colorado, and finally an officer in the US Army.
Carson was also a man of contradictions. He was a career Indian fighter who nonetheless married two Indian women and was regarded as a capable, compassionate Indian agent; he was an illiterate person who mastered Spanish, French, and numerous Native American languages; and he was a man of unassuming appearance, short in stature with a quiet voice, who earned a reputation as a worthy and at times ruthless adversary. He was, in the words of Western historian Bernard DeVoto, “five-foot-four only but cougar all the way.”
Kit Carson’s geographical namesakes are widespread in the West and reflect his historical prominence as well as his wide-ranging travels. In Colorado, Kit Carson town and county, as well as Fort Carson Military Reservation, are named for him, as are Carson County, Texas, and Carson National Forest in New Mexico. In Nevada, the Carson River flows into Carson Sink, an enclosed basin east of Reno, and Carson City, the capital of Nevada, is also named for Kit. And in 1855, the clipper ship Kit Carson was launched in Boston.
Christopher Carson was born in 1809 in Kentucky (in the same year and state as Abraham Lincoln) and early in life acquired the nickname “Kit.” His family moved to the Boone’s Lick country of central Missouri when Kit was one year old. The large Carson family lived a true backwoods existence, and they were often “forted” against unfriendly Native Americans. Educational opportunities were minimal. As Carson explained years later, when his school came under threat of Indian attack, he threw down his speller “and thar it lies.”
The Boone’s Lick country straddled the Missouri River, and the town of Franklin, founded in 1816, became the jumping-off point for the Santa Fé Trail. At fourteen, Kit was apprenticed to a saddlemaker in Franklin but detested the tedious work. Two years later, in 1826, he ran off and joined a caravan on the Santa Fé Trail bound for New Mexico. There he worked various jobs for traders and trappers, even serving as interpreter for a trading expedition to Mexico after having learned Spanish. Not yet twenty years old, he first found work as a trapper in 1829, operating out of Taos, New Mexico, the town he would eventually call home.
Trapper and Trader
The fur trade was in full swing when Kit Carson signed on with a beaver-trapping party headed north into the Rocky Mountains. In subsequent years he was engaged with various parties between the Southwest and Montana and from the plains of Colorado to the Pacific Northwest. At different times he trapped for the two great competing operators in the region: the Rocky Mountain Fur Company and American Fur Company. He also trapped for the Hudson’s Bay Company. When the fur trade era closed he found work as a hunter at Bent’s Fort for Bent, St. Vrain and Company, the principal American trading operation on the Santa Fé Trail. He associated with legendary figures of the era such as Jim Bridger, Joe Meek, William Sublette, and Thomas Fitzpatrick.
Carson established himself among the fur trade fraternity as a man of competence, intelligence, and toughness. Still in his twenties, he led trapping parties of up to sixty men and attended numerous mountain man rendezvous, or annual gatherings. Life in the West was dangerous, and Carson had his share of confrontations with Native Americans. Before his life was over, he would be involved in conflicts ranging from skirmishes to pitched battles with the Crow, Blackfeet, Comanche, Apache, Klamath, Paiute, and Navajo.
But Carson’s relationships with Indians were not entirely confrontational. Frequent trade was conducted between whites and Indians, and to a great extent the trappers adapted themselves to the Rocky Mountains by assuming aspects of Native American life. There was also a considerable amount of intermarriage. Around 1836 Carson married an Arapaho woman named Waanibe, who bore him two children before her death in 1839. Only the older child, a daughter named Adaline, survived early childhood. Adaline was raised by Carson’s family in Missouri. In 1841 Carson married a Cheyenne woman named Making-Out-Road. This marriage lasted a few months and produced no children.
Carson met Captain John C. Frémont of the Corps of Topographical Engineers during a chance encounter in 1842 and was immediately hired as guide and scout for Fremont’s first expedition into the Rocky Mountains. Carson would ultimately serve in that role through the second and third expeditions, until 1846. He successfully guided Frémont across what became the Oregon Trail route, as well as through the Pacific Northwest and California. In his widely circulated reports of the first two expeditions, Frémont heaped praise on Carson, who soon became a household name to Americans.
Frémont’s third expedition, ostensibly another exploratory venture, became a cover for the conquest of California, and was incorporated into the Mexican-American War (1846–48). Commissioned an army lieutenant in 1846, Carson fought in that conflict in the Battle of San Pasqual, leading a daring escape when US forces were trapped by Mexican Californians near San Diego. He later made several cross-country journeys carrying dispatches between California and Washington, DC. Regarded as a celebrity in Washington, he twice had audiences with President James Polk.
Indian Agent and Soldier
Carson had married Josefa Jaramillo, sister-in-law of Charles Bent, in 1843, and the couple settled in Taos even though Kit was away from home for long periods of time. They had eight children, seven of whom survived childhood. In 1849, with Lucien Maxwell, Carson began developing an old land grant east of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in northeastern New Mexico, and there ranched for a few years while also serving as an army scout. In 1854 he was appointed US Indian agent to the Muache Utes, Taos Pueblos, and Jicarilla Apaches. He moved back to Taos, where he served until 1861.
Carson reenlisted in the Union Army in 1861 at the start of the Civil War, and as a colonel he led the 1st New Mexico Volunteers in the Battle of Valverde (1862) in southern New Mexico. Indian raids on Hispanic and Anglo-American settlements intensified as army personnel departed the territory for the war in the East. General James Carleton, Commander of the Department of New Mexico, enlisted Carson to end the “Indian problem” for good. Carson refused at first and tried to resign, saying he had rejoined the army to fight Confederates, not Indians, but he finally accepted the job. A fast and successful drive against the Jicarilla Apache in 1862 was followed by a major campaign against the Navajo in subsequent years.
Despite his initial reluctance to become involved, Carson carried out his responsibilities with deadly effect, essentially starving the Navajos into submission during a scorched-earth campaign in the winter of 1863–64. In the end, about 9,000 Navajos would make “The Long Walk” from their homeland in the Four Corners region to a newly established reservation at Fort Sumner in eastern New Mexico, where they joined several hundred resettled Apaches. Hundreds, and possibly thousands, of Native Americans died during the campaign and afterward on the reservation. The Fort Sumner experiment failed miserably, and by 1868 the reservation had been abandoned.
Carson served briefly as military supervisor at Fort Sumner, then as Carleton’s field representative to the Plains Indians. In this capacity he led a campaign against the Comanche that culminated in the Battle of Adobe Walls in north Texas in 1865. Carson served as commander of Fort Garland in the San Luis Valley in 1866 but resigned from the army the following year due to failing health. In May 1868, at the age of fifty-eight, Carson died at Fort Lyon, Colorado, from a ruptured aortic aneurism. His wife, Josefa, had died the previous month, shortly after giving birth to their daughter.
Kit Carson’s Colorado associations were many. He trapped throughout Colorado as a young man and later traversed the state during the Frémont expeditions. He had direct connections to Bent’s Fort as well as Forts Davy Crockett, St. Vrain, and El Pueblo. As Indian agent his area of responsibility included southern Colorado, where he later took charge at Fort Garland. He regarded South Park (then called Bayou Salado) as the finest hunting ground in the Rockies. It was an injury from a hunting accident in the San Juan Mountains that, years later, led to his fatal aneurism. He lived the final year of his life in Boggsville near present-day Las Animas, and it was near there that he died.