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Kit Carson: the Mountain and the Man

Article by Allen Best

History and Geography – October 2000 – Colorado Central Magazine

“Blasted kids,” I gasped to myself as we cornered from the broad ledge called Kit Carson Avenue and headed up the couloir toward the 14,165-foot summit. The 30-year-old in our bunch was strolling up the jumbled rocks like they were the stairs at the county courthouse. I was panting furiously after every flight.

Just a few years ago I had also bounced up mountains such as this, and I was a smoker then. I no longer smoke, yet this beautiful mountain, among the finest profiles seen in the Sangre de Cristo Range, was thumping my butt. Is there justice in this world?

And was it appropriate to name this tail-thumping mountain after Christopher “Kit” Carson? I had posed that fundamental question to my companions in the weeks before our July 4th expedition.

“Because it’s there,” Mallory said in exasperation when asked why he climbed mountains. “Because it’s interesting,” I told my companions when they questioned this mind game.

[Kit Carson peak from nearby Crestone Peak (Allen Best)]
[Kit Carson peak from nearby Crestone Peak (Allen Best)]

The geography of the West is titled liberally with Carsons. We have both a town and a county on Colorado’s high plains, a national forest headquartered in Taos, N.M., and the capital of Nevada, plus a river and an Army base. He was, as one historian puts it, “like horse apples, everywhere in the West.” Of the fur trappers, only Jim Bridger’s name competes with that of Kit Carson.

However, what we know about Kit Carson is, to borrow a phrase from a Kris Kristopherson song, partly fact and partly fiction. The facts are interesting enough. Born on Christmas Eve in 1809, hence his name, Carson was reared in Missouri but by age 15 was bound for Santa Fe and adventure. The market for beaver pelts was peaking then, and for several years Carson worked the streams and rivers northward in the Rockies and west to California.

Later biographers, looking to those times, tell very different stories about Carson. Fur trappers were renowned for their exuberance at the annual rendezvous, which were week-long drinking binges with attendant mischief. Carson availed himself of every excess once, but thereafter moderated his celebration, a restraint that led one acquaintance, Tom Tobin, to describe him as being “clean as a hound’s tooth.”

Tobin also recalled, “Kit never cussed more’n was necessary.” Another biographical sketch characterizes Carson as having “an unassuming manner and implacable courage.” Clean living only goes so far, though. Carson’s prominence — represented symbolically in the mesmerizing backdrop to the town of Crestone — has largely to do with an apparently chance encounter with that one-man publicity machine of the 19th century called John Charles Frémont.

FRÉMONT (he pronounced it “Free-moan,” with a flicker of the tongue on the first syllable), had been born illegitimately in Florida but courted the daughter of Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton, the premiere proponent of Manifest Destiny. Benton engineered federal appropriations to have his son-in-law explore the West for conquest and settlement.

In 1842, Frémont met Kit Carson on a riverboat in Missouri and promptly hired him as a guide. For three of the next four years, Kit Carson led Frémont across the Rockies, one of those trips being up the Arkansas River and across Tennessee Pass. That work on behalf of Frémont made Carson, a formerly obscure fur-trapper, into a national legend.

With the help of his wife Jesse, Frémont chronicled his expeditions for a public that avidly sopped up details of Western adventure the way we might today devour Jon Kraukauer’s account of Everest mountaineering. Jesse Benton Frémont, a writer who sold popular magazine stories which were later collected into three books, edited her husband’s memoirs — by some accounts even finishing them — with a romantic flare and a gift for embellishment. Whereas Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman once described Carson as a “small stoop-shouldered man, with reddish hair, freckled face, soft blue eyes, and nothing to indicate extraordinary courage or daring,” Jesse called him “perfectly Saxon… and fair.”

The repercussions from Frémont’s memoirs were enormous. For example, many people think Brigham Young didn’t really know where he was going until he got there in 1848. In fact, based upon reading Frémont’s journals, Young knew precisely where he wanted his Church of Latter Day Saints to colonize. The Great Salt lake was the address he had been looking for and hence his statement, “This is the place.”

These same accounts by Frémont that drew Mormons to Utah, farmers to the Willamette Valley of Oregon, and perhaps even gold seekers to California made Kit Carson out as a rugged mountain man capable of superhuman feats. Other writers eager to satisfy a national hunger for a “hero of heroes,” to use the phrase of one dime-store paperback of the 19th century, quickly seized upon Kit Carson as their man.

The Kit Carson they invented had a passing resemblance to the real man.

They portrayed him as tall, bearded, and Herculean. In fact, he was a bandy-legged five-foot-six and weighed 135 pounds. Telling one story of an encounter with an intemperate French trapper, the myth-makers had him speaking in prose of Shakespearean elegance. More likely, he told the ruffian, “I’ll rip your guts out,” which is what he proceeded to do. He was a product of the frontier, and as best we know, talked in the frontier dialect, a mixture of several languages, none of them the King’s English.

CARSON’S RELATIONS with the Indians are more complicated. He rarely avoided a fight, and in fact, welcomed some battles. Like many of the Indians, he seems to have made sport out of fighting.

As for loving, he had two Indian wives, the first an Arapaho woman who died of “mountain sickness” and was the mother of his daughter Adaline. The second was a Cheyenne woman whose violent temper prematurely ended the marriage. The hero-makers rarely mentioned either of those alliances. They more often spoke about his third marriage, to Josefa Jaramillo, the 15-year-old daughter of a prominent Mexican family in Taos, a union that lasted to her death, just before his own, and which produced many children.

Was Carson a hero, as our geographic nomenclature insists, or a scoundrel, as many Indians and some Anglos believe?

[The rather pure-looking Kit Carson in the dime novels of his time]

In December of 1853, Carson received his appointment as an Indian agent for the tribes of northern New Mexico, a position he would serve until 1861.

THE EVENTS OF 1854 and 1855 in Central Colorado bear some of the complexities of the frontier and of Kit Carson’s role in them. Colorado in 1854 was still outside the main routes of Western settlement, and still several years away from its own gold rush.

California’s 49ers favored the lower elevations to the north across Wyoming, as did the Mormons and Oregon settlers. Occasionally a tourist happened by, as was the case that summer with “Lord” Gore, an Irish baronet with a fixed income of roughly $2 million annually who shot and skewered deer and antelope, bison and bear as far south as today’s Kremmling, Colorado.

From Taos and Santa Fé, Mexican settlement had finally edged north, with establishment in 1851 of San Luis, the first town in Colorado. Fort Massachusetts was built in 1852 at the foot of Blanca Peak at the south end of the San Luis Valley to protect the New Mexicans from Ute and Apache attacks. Settlements elsewhere in Colorado were scattered and few, but they included Fort Pueblo, a dusty trader’s fort established in 1842 with an itinerant population.

On Christmas Day in 1854, a party of what a temporary survivor reported were 100 Mouache Utes and Jicarilla Apache descended on Pueblo, led by Mouache band leader Tierra Blanca. Supposedly he asked residents about the presence of nearby Cheyenne and Arapahoes, traditional enemies of the Utes. Possibly the Utes had too much Taos-distilled whiskey. Possibly they had planned retribution for what they considered a dastardly deed. Whatever the cause, the Indians killed 17 traders and their Mexican wives; only the lives of three children were spared.

THE U.S. ARMY in New Mexico decided the Indians had to be punished. Volunteers were solicited from New Mexico to supplement the enlisted cavalry, and Kit Carson, then the Indian agent in Taos, was recruited to be the chief guide. The campaign was delegated to Colonel Thomas T. Fauntleroy, a veteran of 20 years on the frontier.

Guided by Carson, Fauntleroy led his 500 soldiers up the Rio Grande to Del Norte, then northward toward today’s Saguache and then Cochetopa Pass (then called Saguache Pass). Tierra Blanca, wearing a red woolen shirt, and his Mouache Utes underestimated the soldiers and yelled insults in Spanish until they realized their distinctly minority status. Then, they scuttled away with minimal losses. Fauntleroy and Carson led troops across Poncha Pass and down to the Wet Mountain Valley, and then back to Fort Massachusetts in the uncommonly cold and snowy March weather.

After three weeks back at Fort Massachusetts, Kit Carson accompanied Lt. Col. Ceran St. Vrain, of fur-trading fame (a nuclear reactor near Greeley later bore his name), to scour the country east of the Sangre de Cristo range for Jicarilla Apache.

While Carson was searching for Jicarilla, Fauntleroy returned north, crossed the San Luis Valley to Poncha Pass (often spelled Puncha, in accounts then), where his scouts picked up the trail of what they estimated were 150 Ute warriors. Continuing north (from Fauntleroy’s description probably to the confluence of Chalk Creek with the Arkansas River), Fauntleroy’s soldiers on May 1, 1855, surprised Utes who had been dancing all night in either a war dance or scalp dance. This time, the outcome was decisive. In less than a half-hour, according to Fauntleroy’s report, the soldiers had killed 40 Utes, wounded many others, taken prisoners as well as horses, sheep and goats.

[Challenger Peak on right, Kit Carson on left above snowfield, ‘Kat’ Carson farther left (Ann Eason)]

There was minor bloodshed in following months, both of Utes and settlers, but the punitive action near Mt. Princeton Hot Springs sent Tierra Blanca and his Mouache Utes to the negotiating table in New Mexico.

Kit Carson was there. The Utes agreed to cede the land to the Americans with the exception of 1,000 square miles west of the Rio Grande and north of La Jara Creek. They were to get $66,000. At that point, Carson predicted that the Utes and Apaches were both ready for peace with the whites, and history proved him right.

Carson also revealed himself critical of some aspects of U.S. policy toward the Indians. He felt the Utes had been victimized by a policy that demanded that they go to Taos or other settlements for triflings of food, beads, or sugar.

What few accounts of this campaign discuss is why there was a Ute massacre at Fort Pueblo in 1854. Carson’s account, contained in the 1926 book, Kit Carson’s own Story of His Life as Dictated to Col. and Mrs. D.C. Peters about 1856-67 and Never Before Published, was that the massacre was an outgrowth of a belief held by the Mouache Utes that the smallpox which struck them in the summer of 1854 was caused from disease-ridden blankets given to them knowingly by the territorial superintendent of Indian affairs.

NO RECORD SEEMS TO EXIST of the severity of the epidemic other than observations by soldiers from Fort Massachusetts. Riding up the San Luis Valley, they came across the skeleton-riddled camp where the Mouache band had been the summer before.

In 1856, New Mexico Territorial Governor and Superintendent of Indian affairs David Meriwether suspended Carson and charged him with disobedience, insubordination and cowardice after dissatisfied Utes threatened to kill the governor, and Carson hid until cooler Ute heads prevailed.

Disobedience was probably a fair accusation, but cowardice was unlikely. Although the governor thought Carson’s act was cowardice, one historian deemed it simple prudence. By most accounts, Carson was virtually fearless, and certainly his exploits as a scout and his apparent fondness for fighting would require ample courage. But nonetheless, Carson acknowledged his misconduct and was quickly reinstated.

During the Civil War, Kit Carson organized the volunteer infantry in New Mexico, which saw action against Confederate forces in one battle, Valverde. For his service in that battle he was brevetted brigadier general.

For most of the war, however, Carson directed his energy against the Navajos, who had refused confinement to a reservation. Carson’s strategy was a brutal economic one, some say savage. Marching through the heart of Navajo territory, he commanded their wheat crops be burned, their peach trees cut down, their livestock shot, and that any Navajo who resisted would also be shot.

Finally, aided by Utes, Hopis and Zunis, who had all been victimized by the Navajos, Carson’s forces in 1864 forced surrender of nearly 8,000 Navajos.

Was this bloody rout necessary? The Navajos, seeing the Americans at war with themselves, had struck back. Few historians dispute that the U.S. Army had to respond, and some go on to argue that Carson’s strategy was humane, given the circumstances. Others argue that he was unnecessarily heavy-handed. “Kit Carson claimed to always be a friend of the Indians, but there was nobody with bloodier hands than his during the Navajo campaign,” says Dr. Floyd O’Neil, a professor (emeritus) of history at the University of Utah. “It was a bit more bloody than was justified.”

Some of the distaste for Carson has to do with the forced march of nearly 8,000 Navajos from Canyon de Chelly, in Arizona, 300 miles to the Bosque Redondo, in New Mexico. Many died on this journey, that the Navajos remember as the Long Walk. They still condemn Carson, as do some history books and professors such as O’Neil.

But that blame is at least partly misplaced. Carson led only a portion of this march of misery. He had returned to New Mexico on his own, as his wife was giving birth again. The march was led by somebody else.

Still, in Phoenix just this summer, a muralist of Navajo descent created a picture showing a Kit Carson on horseback skewering a human heart with his sword.

[Carson memorial in Santa Fé]
[Carson memorial in Santa Fé]

Carson’s time after the Navajo expedition was short. His wife died in 1867. He was named superintendent of Indian affairs for Colorado Territory on January 1868, but he was suffering from ill health. On May 23, 1868, he died at the Army hospital at Fort Lyon, Colo. He was 58.

So, once again, is Kit Carson an appropriate name for this mountain?

The easy argument, of comparison, resoundingly says yes. The continent’s highest peak is, by proclamation of the U.S. government, called McKinley after William McKinley, then a congressman from Ohio, merely because a surveyor liked McKinley’s stand on the gold standard. Carson at least got grubby in the shadow of the mountain that bears his name.

But was Carson a respectable role model for the West? He was an agent of Manifest Destiny, and as much as we all are products of that notion, the grim details make us squeamish. Ultimately, the premise was that might makes right. California’s gold strike couldn’t happen until we stole California fairly and squarely, in our eyes, from the Mexicans.

That’s what Frémont’s explorations were partly about, and that’s what Kit Carson was scouting for. At one point on an expedition, three Mexicans were captured. Frémont ordered them killed, Carson passed along the orders and the trio were perfunctorily executed.

On the other hand, Kit Carson understood some of the nuances of the tribes because of his tenure as an Indian agent.

And then, there’s the question of the smallpox epidemic. From the time of the Puritans onward, Indians died in waves when encountering new settlers from Europe, because they had insufficient immunity to European diseases. Smallpox killed one in five whites, but four of five Indians. The Arikaree tribe of the plains almost became extinct mid-way through the 19th century. Some of this transmission of diseases in North America was known to be deliberate — an easier way of vanquishing opposition than using bullets or knives.

Documentation of smallpox, measles, and other diseases among the Utes is sparse, at best, although few question that those diseases ravaged the Utes as they had other tribes. O’Neil, the historian, doubts the spread of smallpox in Ute territory was deliberate, as the Mouache apparently believed and which may have provoked the Christmas Day massacre at Fort Pueblo.

Finally wheezing my way onto the summit of Kit Carson on July 4th, I could see from Pikes Peak to the San Juans, tracing in my oxygen-starved brain the route of Frémont and Carson, of Tierra Blanca and Colonel Fauntleroy across his Puncha Pass.

So did Kit Carson deserve this mountain? Like most of us, he was more gray than the black-and-white portraits have shown. Like me, with just one step at a time to the summit, he hung on, doing what he needed to get along. Yeah, I concede him the mountain.

Allen Best has been climbing 14ers since 1979 in no particular order. A former editor of newspapers in Kremmling, Winter Park, and Vail, he’s now free-lancing full-time and trying to sell a book about Interstate 70 and its effects on Colorado.