Home News Vision Historically Speaking: Kit Carson — hero and hunter

Historically Speaking: Kit Carson — hero and hunter

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Photo Courtesy of the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico Archives The caption reads, "Kit Carson" — date and location unknown.

Copyright © 2021 Roswell Daily Record

By Janice Dunnahoo

Special to the Daily Record

In doing research for last week’s mountain men story, of course I pulled up New Mexico’s most famous mountain man, trader, trapper and guide — the list is long for the description of this man, that being Kit Carson. The date of this article is March 13, 1911, published in the Las Vegas Daily Optic, Las Vegas, New Mexico. There is something about older articles, letters, diaries, etc., that were written closer to the time of an event or person that is a drawing card for me, in that, hopefully, the thoughts and opinions have not been polluted too many other times, by too many other people. So, with that being said, there is one small disclaimer I would like to add to this article.

There is one statement which claims that “Kit Carson was the grandson of Daniel Boone.” Though Daniel Boone is known for his exploits of Kentucky, and Kit Carson was born many years later in Kentucky, I could not find any blood relationship between the two. So I contacted my friend Roy Young, who is the editor for Wild West Magazine. His reply follows: “There was no relationship between Boone and Carson until some descendants in Missouri started intermarrying. The Carson family did settle on land in Missouri that was owned by the Boones. These are really the only two relationships I know of. But, definitely, Carson was not a grandson of Boone.”

So, with that said, following is the story of one of New Mexico’s own, Kit Carson.

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Vision Editor’s comment: While the article was written 25 years after the death of Carson, it was written in the typical hero-worship style that was over the top and still saw Native Americans as “child-like” in the best scenario. According to the descendants of Carson and documentations at the Kit Carson Home & Museum in Taos, Carson himself was illiterate and condemned any exaggerated stories about him. A rare fact is that Carson dictated his memoirs in 1856 to Jesse B. Turley, providing few details. The first book was published in 1858 by De Witt C. Peters, who had a signed certificate stating that he was Carson’s only authorized biographer. Peters embellished the stories and used the autobiography only as an outline. In the newsletter of August 2020, the museum addresses alleged stories about Kit Carson and the background and reasons behind his actions. For more information, visit kitcarsonmuseum.org.

“Las Vegas Daily Optic

“Las Vegas, New Mexico

“March 13, 1911

“KIT CARSON — HERO, HUNTER

“GLIMPSE INTO THE LIFE OF WEST’S MOST INTREPID FRONTIERSMAN AND TRAPPER

“The fame of Kit Carson is growing. As an equestrian statue, representing him as a Rocky Mountain guide, surmounts the Pioneers Monument in Denver. Lasting memorials are to be erected in Kentucky, his native state; in Missouri where he spent his boyhood, and in Colorado, where he first won fame by his exploits as a trapper and hunter, says Eugene Parsons in Outdoor Life. The taller statue will be a magnificent bronze monument costing $40,000. It will show the rugged frontiersman, rifle in hand, beside his trusted horse. It will be placed in the Kit Carson Park, Trinidad, Colorado.

Among the men who pushed into the western wilderness in the ‘20s, there is one who holds a place of distinction among all others. Christopher Carson, the centenary of whose birth, (Dec. 24, 1809) was celebrated with fitting exercises and eulogies. The opinion of all who knew this renowned westerner was: ‘Here was a man!’ The Indians who feared and admired him, called him ‘The Monarch of the Prairies.’ Rivers, lakes, counties, towns and parks of the Rocky Mountain country have been named after him, and appropriate memorials keeps his memory green.

“So it may be said that the name of Kit Carson will be perpetuated for all time. His fame is immortal.

“Knight of the Border

“No other plainsman or Mountaineer ever inspired hero worship like Kit Carson — his name is always cut short. All who became acquainted with this man delighted to do him honor, for his worth was exceptional. Carson stands apart and alone in his glory while the deeds of his contemporaries — Jim Bridger, Thomas Fitzpatrick, and Bill Williams are fading from men’s memories.

“Kit Carson was one of nature’s noblemen. He was a border knight, like Chevalier Bayard, ‘without fear and without reproach,’ and like the Lancelot of old, he was a ‘knight peerless.’ The life of this mighty hunter, trapper, guide, scout and soldier was stained by no unmanly act. Others were as daring and venturesome, and some of his early associates knew the West as well as he did, yet his was a unique personality. While mingling with French voyagers and American bordermen, Kit Carson was unlike them. He was not addicted to their vices. He did not drink or gamble. He never swore or blustered. He never used foul language. As a rule, mountain men were untrustworthy. Not of such could it be said, ‘he was as honest as any honest man in the world,’ as an argonaut observed of Carson. It was not by chance that this frontiersman was singled out and exalted above the rest. He earned the place of supremacy that is rightfully his.

“His Life Well Known

“Only the salient facts of Carson’s extraordinary career need be recorded in this brief sketch and appreciation. The chief incidents of his life are now well-known to all Americans who were boys when he was still living. It was in the ’50s and the ’60s, his was the name to conjure with, for his exploits seemed to belong to the realm of romance rather than reality. His nobility of character, as well as his achievements, is something to be proud of.

“Christopher Carson was born in Kentucky, Dec. 24, 1809. The following year his father immigrated to the wilds of Missouri and built a lonely log cabin in what is now Howard County, north of the Missouri River. The boy grew up with no school privileges to mention. Of books and learning, he had little, but he was versed in woodcraft and could handle a gun like his famous grandfather the redoubtable Daniel Boone.

“When he was entering his teens, the neighbors remarked that Kit was ‘old’ for a lad of his age; those discerning backwoodsmen believed he had a future, although he could scarcely write his name and sadly blundered at figures.

“The father was a harnessmaker and he thought his son should learn a trade; so at the age of 15, Kit was apprenticed to a saddler in the little village of Boonesborough. That was in 1925, and already adventurous traders were making trips back-and-forth between St. Louis and Santa Fe. The shop where the lad worked stood by the road traversed by expeditions, and naturally the freighters (as they were called) stopped to have mending done by the saddler. The boy heard them tell of their adventures, and his fancy teemed with pictures of the plains and mountains where roamed savages and bison in uncounted numbers. The monotony of the saddler’s life was too much for him, and in 1826, he ran away. Joining a company of traders bound for the capital of New Mexico, the youth turned his face toward the setting sun.

“Curious to see the West

“Having reached the quaint old city, he may have yearned for home, but curiosity to see the western wilderness was a stronger passion. Instead of returning with the wagon train, he fared with a mountaineer he met in the beautiful valley of Taos, which was destined to be his home, if such a word could be applied to the habitation of a man of so many wanderings.

“In the house of his newfound comrade, named Cade, Carson put in the winter of 1826-27, studying Spanish. The next summer he engaged as a teamster for parties crossing the plains eastward and southward. In the course of the season, he traveled as far as Chihuahua in Mexico, which then comprised all of the Southwest now included in the commonwealths of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California, and portions of Nevada, Utah and Colorado.

“For three years, Kit remained with the traders of the eastern slope, journeying hither and thither on the plains and in the Rockies. Then he accompanied a trapping expedition in the Pacific returning from California, in 1830, he joined a large band of frontiersmen who trapped the rivers of the Rocky Mountain country from New Mexico to Montana. For four years, Carson now a young man led the wild life of a hunter and trapper in the mountains.

“Hardy Class of Men

“A rough lot of rovers were the men who caught beaver and otter when the West was young. The best that can be said in praise of the old trappers is that they were a brave, hard class of men. The Canadians and Americans in the Rockies were rather lowdown, morally and intellectually. They were generally shiftless and without ambition, content to live in a rude cabin or fort, away from civilization. They hunted and fished and trapped and loafed in many cases at least, they took to themselves (American) Indian wives and were about as wild as the (American) Indians themselves. The employees of the fur companies penetrated the wilds of what is now Colorado before 1818, yet the face of the country was the same in 1858, when the gold seeker arrived on the scene. It was still a waste.

“Although Kit Carson played an important role in the opening of the West to civilization, he was not the first to explore the Trans-Missouri country. Others of the trappers (were) there before him and they knew as much of the Rocky Mountain region as he, but only one out of a hundred ever developed into a leader. Carson rose by sheer ability and native force of character. He possessed qualities that the mountain men lacked. He proved the mettle that was in him while with Fremont’s expeditions, and later in the Mexican and Civil wars.

“To the (American) Indians, it seemed that he bore a charmed life. He was involved in a hundred desperate encounters, yet he received no fatal wound. This was not all luck — he looked out for himself; his tact and vigilance brought him through many an adventure where a careless man would have lost his life. Like Ulysses of old, he was in perils oft, and he was as cautious and wily as the resourceful Ithacan. To his credit it must be said that he would not take a mean advantage of a foe.

“Calm But Serious

“What sort of man was this hero of the plains and mountains? A comrade of Kit Carson in the ’40s has left this faithful description of him:

“‘A man pure, very pure in his nature, calm, serious and sweet of temper; a man of very modest stature, but broad chested and elastic, yet by no means robust of frame, though gifted with immense endurance and nerves of steel. He was quiet, thoughtful, with blue eyes and yellow hair, a very noble forehead, with a firm, strong jaw, and a face somewhat dished, like an Arabian horse, that made a man who had never seen him before look at him again. This was the outward shape which enclosed his spirit, as high and daring and as noble as ever tenanted the body of man.’

“Old timers who knew Kit Carson remember in particular one feature — his eyes. He could see as far as a plains warrior. ‘When he was not excited, his eyes looked like that of any other man, but when he was stirred up they blazed like a rattlesnake’s.’ So says a pioneer who met him in 1839. Without this keenness of vision, Carson never would have been the expert marksman he was, or so successful as a scout and guide.

“As was the habit of plainsmen and mountaineers in the mid-century, Kit Carson let his hair grow long reaching to his shoulders. Only in his later years did he wear a mustache. Dignity was written all over his manly countenance.

“In 1851, Carson was appointed (American) Indian agent for the Utes, with headquarters at Taos. He was often called upon to serve on commissions dealing with Indian problems, especially in making treaties: His intimate knowledge of the tribesmen and his familiarity with their languages made him an invaluable advisor. They thoroughly trusted him and admired him for his prowess and his sterling traits of character. If other Indian agents had been of his stamp, Uncle Sam would not have had so much trouble with the untutored children of the West.

“In the rebellion, Carson was at the head of a regiment of volunteers known as the New Mexico battalion. In 1865-66 he was in command of the POAT (point of aim target) at Fort Garland, Colorado, with the rank of brevet brigadier general. He then retired from active service, his health being broken after roughing it for 40 years.

“In 1868, Colonel Carson was called to Washington to give counsel in a dispute between the government and the Apaches. On his way back, he stopped at Fort Lyon, Colorado, to see his son and to consult with the surgeon there. On the morning of May 22, while mounting his horse for a ride, he burst a blood vessel. He knew the end had come and exclaimed: ‘Goodbye comrades and son!’ His body was taken to Taos and buried in this picturesque nook of the Rockies, 5,000 feet above the level of the sea.

“Kit Carson was one of the most interesting figures of his time. He represented the frontier spirit at its best, and left a lasting mark on humanity as precious as that of the men who blazed trails in science and literature.

“Some men are not known for the honors they receive in academia, some achieve greatness by being trustworthy, honest, upright, and against all odds, prove their worth and greatness in many other ways! Such can be said of Kit Carson!”

Janice Dunnahoo of the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico Archives can be reached at 575-622-1176 or at jdunna@hotmail.com.