A chance encounter in 1842 with the explorer John C. Frémont made Kit Carson an active participant in extending the boundaries of the United States to its present size. From 1846 until the end of the war with Mexico, he alternated fighting and guiding. In 1854 he became an Indian agent at Taos for the Ute. But by 1861 he was back in the field to serve the cause of the Union in the U.S. Civil War.
Born on Christmas Eve, 1809, Christopher "Kit" Carson became one of the most famous figures in the American West. He grew up on the Missouri frontier on lands bought from the sons of Western hero Daniel Boone. From an early age, Carson knew both the beauty and the danger that this area possessed. He and his family often feared attacks on their cabin from Native Americans.
When Carson's father, a farmer, died in 1818, Carson did his best to help out his mother, who had 10 children to raise on her own. He gave up on his education and worked the family's lands. Carson never learned to read—a fact he later tried to hide and was ashamed of.
At the age of 14, Carson moved to Franklin, Missouri, where he served as an apprentice to a saddlemaker. But the young man longed for freedom and adventure. In 1826, Carson fled Franklin, breaking his contract with the saddlemaker. He headed west on the Santa Fe Trail, working as a laborer in a caravan of merchants.
Western Trapper and Guide
Carson eventually learned the ins and outs of trapping in the sometimes hostile lands of the West. He became one of the famed mountain men, who lived and worked in the wilderness. In 1829, Carson joined with Ewing Young to trap in Arizona and California. He also worked for Jim Bridger and the Hudson Bay Company at different times as well. Along the way, Carson learned to speak Spanish, French and several Native American languages.
In 1842, Carson met explorer John C. Frémont, an officer with the United States Topographical Corps, while traveling on a steamboat. Frémont soon hired Carson to join him as a guide on his first expedition. With his many years living rough in the woods, Carson was the ideal candidate to help the group make their way to the South Pass in the Rocky Mountains. Frémont's reports from the expedition, which praised Carson, helped make him one of the most famous mountain men. Carson also later became a popular hero in many Western novels.
Carson accompanied Frémont on two more journeys. In 1843, he accompanied Frémont to survey the Great Salt Lake in Utah and further west to Fort Vancouver in the Pacific Northwest. Carson also guided the 1845-1846 expedition to California and Oregon. During this time, he found himself caught in the Mexican War. While in California, Frémont's mission changed into a military operation. Carson and Frémont helped support an uprising by American settlers in the area, and Carson was then sent to Washington, D.C., by Frémont to deliver the news of their victory.
Making it as far as New Mexico, Carson was asked to guide General Stephen W. Kearny and his troops to California. Kearny's men clashed with Mexican forces near San Pasqual, California, but they were outmatched in the fight. Carson slipped past the enemy to secure aid from American troops in San Diego. After the war, Carson returned to New Mexico, where he lived as a rancher.
Indian Agent and Soldier
In 1853, Carson took on a new role, agreeing to serve as federal Indian agent for northern New Mexico, primarily working with the Utes and the Jicarilla Apaches. He saw the impact of Western migration of the white settlers on the Native Americans, and he believed that attacks on whites by Native Americans were committed in desperation. To prevent these peoples from becoming extinct, Carson advocated for the creation of reservations.
With the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, Carson joined for the First New Mexico Volunteer Infantry Regiment. He served as its colonel and fought in support of the Union cause. In 1862, Carson and his men clashed with Confederate soldiers at the Battle of Valverde. He also led campaigns against some of the Native American tribes in the region. Part of his work was to relocate the Navajos to Bosque Redondo, a reservation located at Fort Sumner in New Mexico, by any means necessary. Starving and exhausted, the Navajo finally surrendered and were forced to march about 300 miles to the reservation. The journey, known as the Long Walk, proved to be brutal, costing the lives of hundreds of Navajos.
Named a brigadier general in 1865, Carson moved to Colorado after the war. There he became the commander of Fort Garland the following year. One of his accomplishments during this time was negotiating a peace treaty with the Utes in the area. Carson's tenure proved to be short-lived, however. He resigned in 1867 because of his declining health. After a trip to the East Coast in early 1868, he returned to his Colorado home in terrible condition. Carson died on May 23, 1868, at Colorado's Fort Lyon. His final words were, "Doctor, compadre, adios!"
Carson is still remembered for his many roles—trapper, explorer, Indian agent and soldier. With his tremendous life experiences, he has come to symbolize the American West.
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