The American frontier gave birth to thousands of stories, perhaps none greater than that of Kit Carson. Born on Christmas Eve in 1809, in Madison County, Kentucky, Christopher Houston Carson was a famed mountain man, war hero, trapper, and guide. In modern times Carson is revered as a folk hero, but there are many interesting facts about his life that often get overlooked. Here are five of the more compelling, lesser-known stories from the life of one of the United States’ most celebrated frontiersmen.
1. No Thanks, First Career: Carson and his family moved from Kentucky to Missouri when he was one year old. Originally, Carson was to attend school, but when his father died in a tragic logging accident, nine-year-old Kit was forced to quit school in order to work. He was apprenticed to David Workman, a saddle maker, but he ended up hating the work. Carson longed for the freedom that a life of traveling could offer him. So at the age of 16, he found a caravan headed for the Rocky Mountains and snuck away from his first career to head west.
2. Fearless Youth: Soon after reaching Taos, New Mexico, Carson met up with Ewing Young, a trapper and trader with a base of operations in Colorado. Earlier in the year, Young had sent men from Taos to Colorado, but natives defeated them in battle. Kit Carson joined Ewing’s expedition to Colorado, and two days after reaching their base, found it breached by 500 natives. The natives pretended friendship, but Carson saw past their ruse and realized they meant to kill the trappers and steal their supplies. One of the natives spoke Spanish, and Carson told him that he “must leave our camp inside of ten minutes. If one should be found after the expiration of that time, he would be shot.” The natives feared Carson and left the camp. Kit Carson, before the age of twenty, had saved the lives of forty men.
3. Near Death Experience: As Kit Carson’s reputation as a trapper and fighter improved, he was tasked with more dangerous missions. On a trapping tour with Thomas Fitzpatrick, he split from the group with three other hunters. Carson had the three set up camp for the night, while he went to find dinner. After shooting an elk, he heard a roar and found himself being chased by two grizzly bears. Carson hastily climbed a tree, where he was forced to wait hours. The bears mauled the bottom of the tree, nearly uprooting it. Luckily, Carson survived the night. Years later he said he had never been so scared in his whole life.
4. Native Love: Despite being known as one of the most fearless and ruthless killers of natives in the American West, Kit Carson sympathized with their cause. As a youth he fell in love with an Arapaho woman, Singing Grass, and even defended his love for her in a duel against a belligerent Frenchmen named Shunar. Later in his life, he married a Cheyenne woman called Making-Our-Road. In 1867 he was made Superintendent of Indian Affairs for Colorado and traveled to Washington D.C. to meet with the president in support of the Ute people.
5. Master of Languages: Although he remained illiterate throughout his life, Kit Carson was arguably a master of languages. When Carson moved out west, he noticed the diversity among the local populations. Not only did he want to understand their customs, but he desired to be able to communicate as well. He set to learning many languages, and by the time his career as a guide was finished, he had attained mastery of Spanish, Navajo, Apache, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Paiute, Shoshone, Ute, and several native sign languages. The additional languages helped enhance his abilities as a trapper and guide. He became so accustomed to speaking in other languages that he spoke his last words, “Adios, Compadres,” (Goodbye, friends) in Spanish.