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Christopher Houston "Kit" Carson (December 24, 1809 – May 23, 1868) was an American mountain man, wilderness guide, Indian agent, and American Army officer. He was a widely respected celebrity during his early years as a mountain man, and was made famous through his deeds of selfless heroism and gallantry described in newspapers, dime novels, and other published materials.
Carson left home in rural present-day Missouri at age 16 and became a mountain man and trapper in the West. He journeyed to Spanish California, and north through the Rocky Mountains. He lived among and married into the Arapaho and Cheyenne tribes. He was hired by John C. Fremont as a guide through much of California, Oregon, and the Great Basin area. They mapped and wrote a commentary on the Oregon Trail for the convenience of westward-bound settlers. Carson achieved national fame through Fremont's accounts of his expeditions and through dime novels and newspaper articles.
During the Mexican-American war from 1846 to 1848, Carson was a courier and scout, celebrated for his rescue mission after the Battle of San Pasqual and for his coast-to-coast journey from California to Washington, DC to deliver news of the war to the U.S. government at the capital. In the 1850s, he was appointed as the Indian Agent to the Ute and Jicarilla Apaches. In the Civil War, he led a regiment of mostly Hispanic volunteers on the side of the Union at the Battle of Valverde in 1862. Later during the Indian Wars, Carson led armies to suppress the Navajo, Mescalero Apache, and the Kiowa and Comanche Indians. He is criticized today for his conquest of the Navajo and their forced transfer to Bosque Redondo, a reservation where many died. He was breveted a Brigadier General and took command of ]. Poor health forced him to retire from military life. Carson was thrice married and sired ten children. He died at Fort Lyon, Colorado, of an aortic aneurysm on May 23, 1868. He is buried in Taos, New Mexico, next to his third wife Josefa Jaramillo.
Carson was born in a log cabin at Tate's Creek, Madison County, Kentucky on Christmas Eve 1809. His parents were Lindsay (or Lindsey) Carson and his second wife, Rebecca Robinson. Lindsay had had five children by his first wife Lucy Bradley, and ten more children by Rebecca. Kit was their sixth, making him the eleventh of Linsay's offspring. Lindsay Carson had a Scots-Irish Presbyterian background. He was a farmer, a cabin builder, and a veteran of the American Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. He fought Indians on the American frontier, losing two fingers on his left hand to gunfire in a battle with the Fox and Sauk Indians.
The Carson family moved to Boone's Lick, Howard County, Missouri when Kit was about one year old. The family settled on a tract of land owned by the sons of Daniel Boone, who had purchased the land from the Spanish prior to the Louisiana Purchase. The Boone and Carson families became good friends, working and socializing together, and intermarrying. Lindsay's oldest son William married Boone's grand-niece, Millie Boone, in 1810. Their daughter Adaline became Kit's favorite playmate.
Missouri was then the frontier of American expansionism west; cabins were "forted" with tall stockade fences to defend against Native attacks. As men worked in the fields, sentries were posted with weapons, to protect the farmers. These men were ready to kill any Indian who attacked. Carson wrote in his Memoirs: "For two or three years after our arrival, we had to remain forted and it was necessary to have men stationed at the extremities of the fields for the protection of those that were laboring."
In 1818 Lindsay Carson died instantly as a tree limb fell on him while clearing a field. Kit was about 8 years old. Despite being destitute, his mother took care of her children alone for four years. She then married Joseph Martin, a widower with several children. Kit was a young teenager at the time and did not get along with his stepfather, so the decision was made to apprentice him to David Workman, a saddler in Franklin, Missouri. Kit wrote in his Memoirs that Workman was "a good man, and I often recall the kind treatment I received." Franklin was situated at the eastern end of the Santa Fe Trail, which had opened two years earlier. Many of the clientele at the saddleshop were trappers and traders, from whom Carson heard stirring tales of the Far West. Carson found work in the saddlery not to his taste: he once stated "the business did not suit me, and I concluded to leave".
Sante Fe Trail
In August 1826 Kit ran away from his apprenticeship, against his mother's wishes. He went west with a caravan of fur trappers, tending their livestock. They made their trek over the Santa Fe Trail to Santa Fe, the capital of Santa Fe de Nuevo México, reaching their destination in November 1826. Kit settled in Taos, then known as the capital of the fur trade in the Southwest. Carson lived with Mathew Kinkead, a trapper and explorer who had served with Carson's older brothers during the War of 1812. Carson was mentored by Kinkead in learning the skills of a trapper, while learning the necessary languages for trade. Eventually he became fluent in Spanish, Navajo, Apache, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Paiute, Shoshone, and Ute.
Workman put an advertisement in a local newspaper back in Missouri. He wrote that he would give a one cent reward to anyone who brought the boy back to Franklin. No one claimed the reward. It was a bit of a joke, but Carson was free. The advertisement featured the first printed description of Carson: "Christopher Carson, a boy about 16 years old, small of his age, but thick set; light hair, ran away from the subscriber, living in Franklin, Howard county, Missouri, to whom he had been bound to learn the saddler's trade."
Between 1827 and 1829, Carson worked as cook, translator, and wagon driver in the southwest. He also worked at a copper mine near the Gila River in southwestern New Mexico. In later life, Carson never mentioned any women from his youth. There are only three specific women mentioned in his writing: Josefa Jaramillo, his third and last wife; a comrade's mother in Washington, DC; and Mrs. Ann White, a victim of Indian atrocities.
The trapper years (1829–1842)
At the age of nineteen, Carson began a career as a fur trapper, traveling through many parts of the American West with famous mountain men like Jim Bridger and Old Bill Williams. He spent the winter of 1828-1829 as a cook for Ewing Young in Taos. He joined Young's trapping expedition of forty men formed in 1829. The leadership of Young and the experience of the venture are credited with shaping Carson's early life in the mountains. During August 1829 the party went into Apache country along the Gila River. The expedition was attacked, being Carson's first experience of combat.
Young's party continued on into Alta California trapping and trading from Sacramento to Los Angeles, returning to Taos in April 1830 after trapping along the Colorado River. He joined a wagon train rescue party after entering Taos, and although the perpetrators had fled the scene of atrocities Young had the opportunity to witness Carson's horsemanship and courage. Carson joined another expedition led by Thomas Fitzpatrick in 1831. Fitzpatrick and his trappers went north to the central Rocky Mountains. Carson would hunt and trap in the West for about ten years. He was known as a reliable man and a good fighter.
Life for Carson as a mountain man was not easy. After collecting beavers from traps, he had to hold onto them for months at a time until the annual Rocky Mountain Rendezvous, held in remote areas of the West like the banks of the Green River in Wyoming. With the money received for the pelts, necessities of an independent life including fish hooks, flour and tobacco were procured. As there was little to no medical access in the varied regions he worked in, Carson had to dress his wounds and nurse himself. Conflict with particular Native American individuals sometimes occurred. Carson's primary clothing at the time was in deer skins that had stiffened after being left outdoors for a time. This suit offered some protection against particular weapons employed by Natives.
Grizzly bears were one of the mountain man's greatest enemies. A particular incident involving the animals happened to Carson in 1834 as he was hunting an elk alone. Two bears crossed paths with him and quickly chased him up a tree. One of the bears tried to make him fall by shaking the tree, but was not successful and eventually went away. Carson returned to his camp as fast as he could. He wrote in his Memoirs that: " finally concluded to leave, of which I was heartily pleased, never having been so scared in my life."
The last rendezvous was held in 1840, when the fur trade began to drop off. Well-dressed men in London, Paris, and New York City wanted silk hats instead of beaver hats. In addition, beaver populations across North America were declining rapidly from over-exploitation. Carson knew it was time to find other work. He wrote in his Memoirs that "Beaver was getting scarce, it became necessary to try our hand at something else." In 1841, he was hired at Bent's Fort in Colorado. This fort was one of the greatest buildings in the West. Hundreds of people worked or lived there. Carson hunted buffalo, antelope, deer, and other animals to feed these people. He was paid one dollar a day. He returned to Bent's Fort several times during his life to again provide meat for the fort's residents. In April 1842, Carson went back to his childhood home in Missouri. He made this trip to put his daughter Adaline in the care of relatives.
Indian fighter/"Injun killer"
Carson did not respect American Indians, and thought those who committed outrages like murder, theft, and rape deserved the worst punishment possible. Carson's thoughts about Indians softened over the years, as he found himself in their company more often. He became an Indian agent and a spokesman for some western tribes.
First years as an "Injun killer"
Carson was nineteen when he set off with Ewing Young's expedition to the Rocky Mountains in 1829. In addition to furs and the company of free-spirited, rugged mountain men, he sought action and adventure. He found what he was looking for in killing and scalping Indians. Carson probably killed and took the scalp of his first Indian when he was nineteen years old, during Ewing Young's expedition. Carson was known to most 19th century Americans as an "Injun killer", chiefly through newspaper accounts and dime novels. Many of these works gave Carson's deeds and life a romantic cast. Excitement and thrills were heightened through exaggeration.
Carson believed Indians could not be trusted, and should be punished. Mountain men often had to kill Indians to save their own lives. The young Carson's brutal and vicious notions about Indians is sometimes considered his greatest moral failing. Although he bought and sold orphaned Indian children, Carson never killed Indian women and children. He believed a brave man would never do this, and he scorned those men who did.
Carson's Memoirs are replete with stories about Indian encounters with the memoirist. In January 1833, for example, warriors of the Crow tribe stole nine horses from Carson's camp. Carson and eleven other men found the Crow camp after dark, and quietly retrieved the horses. Those men who owned the horses wanted to return to their camp at once. Although Carson and two other men had not lost any horses, these three wanted to punish the Crows. Carson and his men sprayed the Crow camp with gunfire, killing almost every Crow. Carson wrote in his Memoirs: "During our pursuit for the lost animals, we suffered considerably but, the success of having recovered our horses and sending many a redskin to his long home, our sufferings were soon forgotten."
Blackfoot warrior, (Karl Bodmer, between 1840 and 1843)
The Blackfoot nation was a hostile tribe, and posed the greatest threat to Carson's livelihood, safety, and life. A Blackfoot warrior once injured Carson in the shoulder. This was the worst injury he received in his life. He hated the Blackfeet, and killed them at every opportunity. Historian David Roberts has written: "It was taken for granted that the Blackfeet were bad Indians; to shoot them whenever he could was a mountain man's instinct and duty." The Blackfeet did not like whites. They were convinced whites were trying to take over their hunting grounds. In addition, the Blackfeet wanted the valuable horses owned by the whites.
Carson had several encounters with the Blackfeet, but his last battle with the Blackfeet took place in spring 1838. He was traveling with about one hundred mountain men led by Jim Bridger. In Montana territory, the group found a teepee with three Indian corpses inside. These three had died of smallpox. Bridger wanted to move on, but Carson and the other young men wanted to kill the Blackfeet.
They found the Blackfoot village, and killed ten Blackfeet warriors. The Blackfeet found some safety in a pile of rocks, but were driven away. It is not known how many Blackfeet died in this incident. Historian David Roberts writes: "f anything like pity filled Carson's breast as, in his twenty-ninth year, he beheld the ravaged camp of the Blackfeet, he did not bother to remember it." Carson wrote in his Memoirs that this battle was "the prettiest fight I ever saw."
Carson modifies his beliefs
Carson's notions about Indians softened over the years. He found himself more and more in their company as he grew older. His thoughts about In dians became more understanding and more humane. He urged the government to set aside lands called reservations for their use. As an Indian agent, he saw to it that those under his watch were treated with honesty, fairness, and clothed and fed properly. Historian David Roberts believes his first marriage to an Arapaho women named Singing Grass, "softened the stern and pragmatic mountaineer's opportunism."
In killing Indians, Carson was making America safe for settlers heading west to build their homes, farms, and villages. He had the approval of the United States government and its citizens. In addition, Senator Thomas Hart Benton, the United States Congress, and President James K. Polk had developed and were working with a concept called Manifest Destiny. This concept stated that it was the will of God that the United States push America's western boundary to the Pacific Ocean at all costs. Manifest Destiny spurred the movement of American settlers to the West.
Exepeditions with John Charles Frémont
In 1842, Carson was returning from Missouri after depositing his daughter Adaline with relatives when met John C. Frémont aboard a steamboat on the Missouri River. Frémont was a United States Army officer in the Corps of Topographical Engineers. He was about to lead an expedition into the West. After a brief conversation, Frémont hired Carson as a guide. Frémont wrote, "I was pleased with him and his manner of address at this first meeting. He was a man of medium height, broad-shouldered, and deep-chested, with a clear steady blue eye and frank speech and address; quiet and unassuming."
First expedition, 1842
In 1842, Carson guided Frémont across the Oregon Trail to South Pass, Wyoming. This was their first expedition into the West together. The purpose of this expedition was to map and describe the Oregon Trail as far as South Pass. A guidebook, maps, and other paraphernalia would be printed for westward-bound settlers. After the five-month, trouble-free mission was accomplished, Frémont wrote his government reports. These reports made Carson's name known across the United States, and spurred a mass of settlers westward to Oregon via the Oregon Trail.
Second expedition, 1843
In 1843, Frémont asked Carson to join his second expedition. Carson did. He guided Frémont across part of the Oregon Trail to the Columbia River in Oregon. The trip's purpose was to map and describe the Oregon Trail from South Pass, Wyoming to the Columbia River. They also traveled to Great Salt Lake in Utah, using rubber rafts to navigate the waters. The men then headed to California. They suffered from bad weather in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, but were saved by Carson's good judgement and his skills as a guide. They found American settlers who fed them. The expedition then went into California. This was illegal and dangerous. California was Mexican territory. The Mexican government ordered Frémont to leave. Frémont finally went back to Washington, DC. The government liked his reports, but ignored his illegal trip into Mexico. Frémont was made a captain. The newspapers nicknamed him "The Pathfinder".
During this expedition, Frémont journeyed into the Mojave Desert. Frémont's party met a Mexican man and boy. The two told Carson that Native Americans had ambushed their party of travelers. The male travelers were killed; the women travelers were staked to the ground, sexually mutilated, and killed. The murderers then stole the Mexicans' thirty horses. Carson and a mountain man friend named Alexis Godey went after the murderers. They took two days to find them. They rushed into their camp, killing and scalping two of the murderers. The stolen horses were recovered and returned to the Mexican man and boy. This selfless, disinterested, generous deed brought Carson even greater fame. It confirmed his status as a western hero in the eyes of the American people.
Third expedition, 1845
In 1845, Carson guided Frémont on their third and last expedition. They went to California and Oregon. Frémont made scientific plans, but the expedition appeared to be political in nature. Frémont may have been working under secret government orders. President Polk wanted the province of Alta California for the United States. Once in California, Frémont started to rouse the American settlers into a patriotic fever. The Mexican government ordered him to leave. Frémont went north to Oregon. He camped near Klamath Lake. Messages from Washington, DC made it clear that President Polk wanted California.
At Klamath Lake in southern Oregon, Frémont's party was attacked by about twenty Indians on the night of March 6, 1846. Three men in camp were killed. The attackers fled after a brief struggle. Carson was angry that his friends had been killed. He took an axe and avenged the death of his friends by chopping away at a dead Klamath's face. Fremont wrote, "He knocked his head to pieces."
Bear Flag Revolt
In June 1846, Frémont and Carson both participated in a California uprising against Mexico called the Bear Flag Revolt. Mexico ordered all Americans to leave California. They did not want to go, and declared California an independent republic. American settlers in California wanted to be free of the Mexican government. The Americans found courage to oppose Mexico because they had Frémont and his troops behind them. Frémont wrote an oath of allegiance. He and his men were able to give some protection to the Americans. He ordered Carson to execute an old Mexican man named Berresaya and his two adult nephews. These three were captured when they stepped ashore at San Francisco Bay. They were executed to keep them from taking reports to Mexico about the uprising.
Mexico ordered Frémont and Carson to leave the area. They left for Oregon. Along the way, Carson and most of the group attacked an Indian village. They killed about 100 villagers. Carson thought that this massacre would discourage Indians from attacking white settlers. Frémont heard that the Klamath tribe had killed three of his men. Carson was sorry to have lost his friends. He attacked another Native American village, wrecking it.
Frémont worked hard to the win California for the United States. He became its military governor. Carson took military records to the Secretary of War in Washington, DC. Frémont wrote, "This was a service of great trust and honor ... and great danger also." In 1847 and 1848, Carson made two quick trips to Washington, DC with messages and reports. In 1848, he took news of the California Gold Strike to the nation's capital.
Lasting from 1846 to 1848, the Mexican–American War was an armed conflict between the United States and Mexico. At war's end, Mexico was forced to sell the territories of Alta California and New Mexico to the United States under The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.
One of Carson's best known adventures took place during this war. In December 1846, Carson was ordered by General Stephen W. Kearny to guide him and his troops from Socorro, New Mexico to San Diego, California. Mexicans soldiers attacked Kearny and his men near the village of San Pasqual, California.
Kearny was outnumbered. He knew he could not win; he ordered his men to take cover on a small hill. On the night of December 8, Carson, a naval lieutenant named Beale, and an Indian scout left Kearny to bring reinforcements from San Diego, 25 miles (40 km) away. Carson and the lieutenant removed their shoes because they made too much noise, and walked barefoot through the desert. Carson wrote in his Memoirs: "Finally got through, but had the misfortune to lose our shoes. Had to travel over a country covered with prickly pear and rocks, barefoot."
By December 10, Kearny believed reinforcements would not arrive. He planned to break through the Mexican lines the next morning, but 200 mounted American soldiers arrived in San Pasqual late that night. They swept the area, driving the Mexicans away. Kearny was in San Diego on December 12.
In April 1861, the American Civil War broke out. Carson left his job as an Indian agent, and joined the Union Army as a lieutenant. He led the 1st New Mexico Volunteer Infantry and trained the new men. In October 1861, he was made a colonel. The Volunteers fought the Confederate forces at Valverde, New Mexico in February 1862. The Confederates won this battle, but were later defeated.
Campaign against the Apaches
Once the Confederates were driven from New Mexico, Carson's commander Major James Henry Carleton, turned his attention to the Native Americans. The historian Edwin Sabin writes that this officer had a "psychopathic hatred of the Apaches". Carleton led his forces deep into the Mescalero Apache territory. The Mescaleros were tired of fighting, and put themselves under Carson's protection. Carleton put these Apaches on a remote and lonely reservation on the Pecos River.
Carson disliked the Apaches. He wrote in a report that the Jicarilla Apaches "were truly the most degraded and troublesome Indians we have in our department ... e daily witness them in a state of intoxication in our plaza." Carson half-heartedly supported Carleton's plans. He was tired. He had suffered an injury two years before that gave him great trouble. He resigned from the Army in February 1863. Carleton refused to accept the resignation because he wanted Carson to lead a campaign against the Navajo.
Campaign against the Navajo
Carleton had chosen a bleak site on the Pecos River for his reservation. This reservation was called Bosque Redondo (Round Grove). He chose this site for the Apaches and Navajos because it was far from white settlements. He also wanted these Apaches and Navajo to act as a buffer for any aggressive acts committed upon the white settlements from Kiowas and Comanches to the east of Bosque Redondo. He thought as well that the remoteness and desolation of the reservation would discourage white settlement.
The Mescalero Apaches walked 130 miles to the reservation. By March 1863, four hundred Apaches had settled around nearby Fort Sumner. Others had fled west to join fugitive bands of Apaches. By middle summer, many of these people were planting crops and doing other farm work.
On July 7, Carson, with little heart for the Navajo roundup, started the campaign against the tribe. His orders were almost the same as those for the Apache roundup: he was to shoot all males on site, and take the women and children captives. No peace treaties were to be made until all the Navajo were on the reservation.
Carson searched far and wide for the Navajo. He found their homes, fields, animals, and orchards, but the Navajo were experts at disappearing quickly and hiding in their vast lands. The roundup proved frustrating for Carson. He was in his 50s, tired, and ill. By autumn 1863, Carson started to burn the Navajo homes and fields, and remove their animals from the area. The Navaho would starve if this destruction continued. One hundred eighty-eight Navajo surrendered. They were sent to Bosque Redondo. Life at the Bosque had turned grim. Murders occurred. The Apaches and Navajos fought. The water in the Pecos contained minerals that gave people cramps and stomach aches. Residents had to walk twelve miles to find firewood.
Canyon de Chelly
Carson wanted to take a winter break from the campaign. Major Carleton refused. Kit was ordered to invade the Canyon de Chelly. It was here that many Navajos had taken refuge. Historian David Roberts writes, "Carson's sweep through the Canyon de Chelly in the winter of 1863-1864 would prove to be the decisive action in the Campaign."
The Canyon de Chelly was a sacred place for the Navajo. They believed it would now be their strongest sanctuary. Three hundred Navajo took refuge on the canyon rim at a place called Fortress Rock. They resisted Carson's invasion by building rope ladders, bridges, lowering water pots into a stream, and keeping out of sight. These three hundred Navajo survived the invasion. In January 1864, Carson swept through the 35-mile Canyon with his forces. The thousands of peach trees in the canyon were cut down. Few Navajo were killed or captured. Carson's invasion however proved to the Navajo that the white man could invade their country at any time. Many Navajo surrendered at Fort Canby.
By March 1864, there were 3,000 refuges at Fort Canby. An additional 5,000 arrived in the camp. They were suffering from the intense cold and hunger. Carson asked for supplies to feed and clothe them. The thousands of Navajo were led to Bosque Redondo. Many died along the way. Stragglers in the rear were shot and killed. In Navajo history, this horrific trek is known as The Long Walk. By 1866, reports indicated that Bosque Redondo was a complete failure. Major Carleton was fired. Congress started investigations. In 1868, a treaty was signed, and the Navajo were allowed to return to their homeland. Bosque Redondo was closed.
First Battle of Adobe Walls
On November 25, 1864, Carson led his forces against the southwestern tribes at the First Battle of Adobe Walls in the Texas panhandle. Adobe Walls was an abandoned trading post blown up by its inhabitants to prevent a take-over by hostile Native Americans. Combatants at the First Battle were the United States Army and masses of Kiowas, Comanches, and Plains Apaches. It was one of the largest engagements fought on the Great Plains. The Texas State Library and Archives Commission writes: "The result of Adobe Walls was a crushing spiritual defeat for the Indians. It also prompted the U.S. military to take its final actions to crush the Indians once and for all. Within the year, the long war between whites and Indians in Texas would reach its conclusion."
The battle was the result of General Carleton's belief that the Native Americans were responsible for the continuing attacks on white settlers along the Santa Fe Trail. He wanted to punish these thieves and murderers, and brought in Carson to do the job. With most of the Army engaged elsewhere during the American Civil War, the protection the settlers sought was almost nonexistent. They were begging for help. Carson led 260 cavalry, 75 infantry, and 72 Ute and Jicarilla Apache Army scouts. In addition, he had two mountain howitzer cannons.
On the morning of November 25, Carson discovered and attacked a Kiowa village of 176 lodges. After the destruction, he moved forward to Adobe Walls. Carson found other Comanche villages in the area, and realized he would face a very large force of Native Americans. A Captain Pettis estimated that 1,200 to 1,400 Comanche and Kiowa began to assemble. The number would swell to possibly 3,000. Four to five hours of battle ensued. When Carson ran low on ammunition and howitzer shells, he ordered his men to retreat to a nearby Kiowa village. There they burned the village and many fine buffalo robes. His Native American scouts killed and mutilated four elderly and weak Kiowas. The retreat to New Mexico was then begun. There were few deaths among Carson's men. General Carleton wrote to Carson: "This brilliant affair adds another green leaf to the laurel wreath which you have so nobly won in the service of your country." The battle is considered by some to be Carson's finest moment, and is thought one of the factors that made the Kiowas and Comanches sue for peace in 1865.
"Throw a few shells into that crowd over there."
Kit Carson to artillery officer Lt. Pettis
Some of those who have studied the battle believe Carson was correct in ordering his troops to retreat. Only one Comanche scalp was reported taken by Carson's soldiers. The First Battle at Adobe Walls would be the last time the Comanche and Kiowa forced American troops to retreat from battle. Adobe Walls marked the beginning of the end of the plains tribes and their way of life.
A decade later, the Second Battle of Adobe Walls was fought on June 27, 1874, between 250 to 700 Comanche and a group of 28 hunters defending Adobe Walls. After a four-day siege, the hundreds of Native Americans withdrew. The Second Battle led to the Red River War of 1874-1875, a war that resulted in the final relocation of the Southern Plains Indians to reservations in Oklahoma.
This is the last picture of Carson, which was taken by photographer James Wallace Black two months before his death. The portrait was made around March 20, 1868 during Carson's visit to Boston with Ouray and Ute chiefs. The print is signed by Carson and is the largest extant photograph of him.
When the Civil War ended, and the Indian Wars campaigns were in a lull, Carson was breveted a General and appointed commandant of Ft. Garland, Colorado, in the heart of Ute country. Carson had many Ute friends in the area and assisted in government relations.
After being mustered out of the Army, Carson took up ranching, settling at Boggsville in Bent County. In late 1867, he personally escorted four Ute chiefs to Washington DC to visit the President and seek additional government assistance.
Soon after his return, his wife Josefa died from complications after giving birth to their eighth child. Her death was a crushing blow to Carson. He died a month later at age 58 on May 23, 1868, in the presence of Dr. Tilton and his friend Thomas Boggs. His last words were "Goodbye, friends. Adios, compadres". Carson died from an abdominal aortic aneurysm in the surgeon's quarters in Fort Lyon, Colorado, located east of Las Animas. He was buried in Taos, next to his last wife Josefa.
Carson's home in Taos is today a museum maintained by the Kit Carson Foundation. A monument was raised in the plaza at Santa Fe by the New Mexico Grand Army. In Denver, a statue of a mounted Kit Carson can be found atop the Mac Monnies Pioneer Monument. Another equestrian statue can be seen in Trindad. A national forest in New Mexico was named for Carson as well as a county in Colorado. A river in Nevada is named for Carson as well as the state's capital, Carson City. Fort Carson, an army training post near Colorado Springs, was named for him during World War II by popular vote of the men training there.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Carson came under the scrutiny of revisionist historians. Hitherto he had been regarded as an American hero, but the tide turned and he became an arch-villain in the genocidal campaign against the Indians. Clifford Trafzer's 1982 Kit Carson Campaign: The Last Great Navajo War found fault with both Carleton and Carson, but Trafzer completely ignored Carson's many acts and deeds that humanized The Long Walk.
In 1992, a young professor at Colorado College was successful in abruptly demanding that a period photograph of Carson be removed from the R.O.T.C. office. In 1992, a tourist told a journalist at the Carson home in Taos, "I will not go into the home of that racist, genocidal killer." In 1973, militants in Taos tried to change the name of Kit Carson State Park. Six years later, Kit Carson Cave near Gallup, New Mexico was the target of vandals, and, in 1990, protestors spray-painted Kit and Josefa's tombstones with the word "NAZI". In the 1970s, a Navajo at a trading post said, "No one here will talk about Kit Carson. He was a butcher." In 1993, a symposium was organized to air various views on Carson, but the Navajo spokespeople refused to attend.
In time, views of Carson returned to their former glory. David Roberts writes, "Carson's trajectory, over three and a half decades, from thoughtless killer of Apaches and Blackfeet to defender and champion of the Utes, marks him out as one of the few frontiersmen whose change of heart toward the Indians, born not of missionary theory but of first hand experience, can serve as an exemplar for the more enlightened policies that sporadically gained the day in the twentieth century."
Many general accounts of Kit Carson describe him as an outstanding honorable person. Albert Richardson, who knew him personally in the 1850s, wrote that Kit Carson was "a gentleman by instinct, upright, pure, and simple-hearted, beloved alike by Indians, Mexicans, and Americans".
Oscar Lipps also presented a positive image of Carson in 1909: "The name of Kit Carson is to this day held in reverence by all the old members of the Navajo tribe. They say he knew how to be just and considerate as well as how to fight the Indians".
Carson's contributions to western history have been reexamined by historians, journalists and Native American activists since the 1960s. In 1968, Carson biographer Harvey L. Carter stated:
In respect to his actual exploits and his actual character, however, Carson was not overrated. If history has to single out one person from among the Mountain Men to receive the admiration of later generations, Carson is the best choice. He had far more of the good qualities and fewer of the bad qualities than anyone else in that varied lot of individuals.
Some journalists and authors during the last 25 years presented an alternative view of Kit Carson. For instance, Virginia Hopkins stated in 1988 that "Kit Carson was directly or indirectly responsible for the deaths of thousands of Indians". Tom Dunlay wrote in 2000 that Carson was directly responsible for the deaths of at least fifty indigenous people.
Dunlay portrays Carson as a man with divided loyalties whose beliefs and prejudices were shaped by his times.
In 1970, Lawrence Kelly noted that Carson had warned 18 Navajo chiefs that all Navajo peoples "must come in and go to the 'Bosque Redondo' where they would be fed and protected until the war was over. That unless they were willing to do this they would be considered hostile."
On January 19, 2006, Marley Shebala, senior news reporter and photographer for Navajo Times, quoted the Fort Defiance Chapter of the Navajo Nation as saying, "Carson ordered his soldiers to shoot any Navajo, including women and children, on sight." This view of Carson's actions may be taken from General James Carleton’s orders to Carson on October 12, 1862, concerning the Mescalero Apaches: "All Indian men of that tribe are to be killed whenever and wherever you can find them: the women and children will not be harmed, but you will take them prisoners and feed them at Ft. Stanton until you receive other instructions".
Sides said that Carson believed the Native Americans needed reservations as a way of physically separating and shielding them from white hostility and white culture. Carson believed most of the Indian troubles in the West were caused by "aggressions on the part of whites." He is said to have viewed the raids on white settlements as driven by desperation, "committed from absolute necessity when in a starving condition." Native American hunting grounds were disappearing as waves of white settlers filled the region.
In 1868, at the urging of Washington and the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Carson journeyed to Washington D.C. where he escorted several Ute Chiefs to meet with the President of the United States to plead for assistance to their tribe.
In 1847, General William Tecumseh Sherman met Kit Carson in Monterey, California. Sherman wrote: "His fame was then at its height, ... and I was very anxious to see a man who had achieved such feats of daring among the wild animals of the Rocky Mountains, and still wilder Indians of the plains ... I cannot express my surprise at beholding such a small, stoop-shouldered man, with reddish hair, freckled face, soft blue eyes, and nothing to indicate extraordinary courage of daring. He spoke but little and answered questions in monosyllables."
Colonel Edward W. Wynkoop wrote: "Kit Carson was five feet five and one half-inches tall, weighed about 140 pounds, of nervy, iron temperament, squarely built, slightly bow-legged, and those members apparently too short for his body. But, his head and face made up for all the imperfections of the rest of his person. His head was large and well-shaped with yellow straight hair, worn long, falling on his shoulders. His face was fair and smooth as a woman's with high cheekbones, straight nose, a mouth with a firm, but somewhat sad expression, a keen, deep-set but beautiful, mild blue eye, which could become terrible under some circumstances, and like the warning of the rattlesnake, gave notice of attack. Though quick-sighted, he was slow and soft of speech, and posed great natural modesty."
Lieutenant George Douglas Brewerton made one coast-to-coast dispatch-carrying trip to Washington, D.C. with Carson. Brewerton wrote: "The Kit Carson of my imagination was over six feet high — a sort of modern Hercules in his build — with an enormous beard, and a voice like a roused lion ... The real Kit Carson I found to be a plain, simple ... man; rather below the medium height, with brown, curling hair, little or no beard, and a voice as soft and gentle as a woman's. In fact, the hero of a hundred desperate encounters, whose life had been mostly spent amid wilderness, where the white man is almost unknown, was one of Dame Nature's gentleman ..."
Carson was married three times. His first two wives were Native Americans. His third wife was Mexican. He was the father of ten children. Carson never wrote about his first two marriages in his Memoirs. He may have thought he would be known as a "squaw man". Such men were not welcomed by polite society.
In 1836, Carson met an Arapaho woman named Waanibe (Singing Grass, or Grass Singing) at a mountain man rendezvous held along the Green River in Wyoming. Singing Grass was a lovely young woman. Many mountain men were in love with her. Carson was forced to fight a duel with a French trapper named Chouinard for Waanibe's hand in marriage. Carson won, but he had a very narrow escape. The French trapper's bullet singed his hair. The duel was one of the best known stories about Carson in the 19th century.
Carson married Singing Grass. She was a good wife. She tended to his needs, and went with him on his trapping trips. They had a daughter named Adaline (or Adeline). Singing Grass died after giving birth to Carson's second daughter. This child did not live long. In 1843, she fell into a kettle of boiling soap in Taos. Waanibe died about 1841.
Carson's life as a mountain man was too hard for a little girl. In 1852, he took Adaline to live with his sister Mary Ann Carson Rubey in Saint Louis, Missouri. Adaline was taught in a school for girls called a seminary. Carson brought her West when she was a teenager. She married and divorced. In 1858, she went to the California goldfields. Adaline died in 1860.
In 1841, Carson married a Cheyenne woman named Making-Out-Road. They were together only a short time. Making-Out-Road divorced him in the way of her people. She put Adaline and all of Carson's property outside their tent. Making-Out-Road left Carson to travel with her people through the west. Historian David Lavender writes: " was spoiled. She had put most of the Cheyenne bachelors and half the white men at the fort in a slow burn, and they had showered her with gifts. Now that they were married she expected Kit to keep her in expensive foofaraw (finery). She ignored her household chores and neglected little Adaline ..."
About 1842, Carson met Josefa Jaramillo. She was the beautiful daughter of a wealthy and prominent Mexican couple living in Taos. Lewis Garrard wrote: "Her style of beauty was of the haunting, heartbreaking kind ... such as would lead a man with a glance in his eye, to risk his life for one smile." Carson wanted to marry her. He left the Presbyterian Church for the Catholic Church, and married 14-year old Josefa on February 6, 1843. They had eight children.
Carson was illiterate. He was embarrassed by this, and tried to hide it. In 1856, he composed his Memoirs and told the Army officer taking dictation that he left school at an early age: "I was a young boy in the school house when the cry came, Injuns! I jumped to my rifle and threw down my spelling book, and thar it lies."
Carson enjoyed having other people read to him, and preferred the poetry of Byron. Carson thought Sir Walter Scott's long poem, The Lady of the Lake was "the finest expression of outdoor life." He also enjoyed a biography about William the Conqueror, whose favorite oath "By the splendor of God", the frontiersman used as his own. He was never known to have used anything stronger.
Carson learned to write "C. Carson" late in life, but it was very difficult for him. He made his mark on official papers, and this mark was then witnessed by a clerk or other official. Carson easily spoke English, Spanish, and French. He could speak many Native American languages, including Navajo, Apache, and Comanche, and he also knew the sign language used by mountain men. Very late in life, Carson learned to read to a certain extent, and to recognize his name when it appeared in print.
In popular culture
Kit Carson quickly became a subject of literature, with Eastern writers embellishing the account of Fremont. Charles Averill's Kit Carson: Prince of the Gold Hunters (1849) presented him as one who hates Native Americans. This view of Carson, repeated in more than fifty novels of the 1850s and 1860s, came to dominate his popular image. The fictional Carson was made to display the qualities commonly assigned to all mountain men, including courage, exceptional combat skills and a belief in American destiny.
By 1851 Carson's public image was such that Herman Melville could compare him to Hercules in Moby Dick. Carson became the hero of juvenile fiction not just in the United States, but also published in French, German, Portuguese, Gujarati, Hindi, Singhalese, Arabic and Japanese.
In the 1950s Carson was a popular character in British comics, appearing in The Comet and Cowboy Picture Library.