“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”
–T. S. Elliot
American frontiersman, trapper, soldier and guide, Christopher Carson, better known as Kit Carson, is one of the great heroes of the Old West. During the early 1800s, Carson was a legendary mountain man and free trader in the American Southwest, having gained renown for his fur trade and trail-blazing efforts in New Mexico and westward to California. He served as a United States military guide, an American Indian agent, and a celebrated aide during the Mexican-American War. His extensive travels and experience tell a story of not just one man, but of many peoples and cultures throughout the area of what would become the Southwestern United States.
Born on Christmas Eve in Madison County, Kentucky, in 1809, Kit was the 9th of 14 children. When he was still an infant, the family moved to Howard County, Missouri, where Carson spent most of his early childhood in Boone’s Lick.
His father died when he was only nine years old, and the need to work prevented Kit from ever receiving an education. At the age of 14, Kit was working as an apprentice to a saddle and harness maker. However, the young man soon became restless and after about a year he joined a wagon train heading west on the Santa Fe Trail in 1826.
From Santa Fe, Kit went north to Taos where he worked as a cook, errand boy and harness repairer. When he was 19, he was hired for a fur trapping expedition to California, where, in spite of his small stature (he never exceeded 5 and a half feet) he soon proved himself able and courageous.
Between 1828 and 1840, Carson used Taos as a base camp for many fur-trapping expeditions throughout the mountains of the West, from California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains to the Rocky Mountains.
As was the case with many white trappers, Carson became somewhat integrated into the Indian world; traveling and living extensively among Indians. His first two wives were Arapaho and Cheyenne women, one of whom bore a daughter in 1836 and died shortly thereafter. Carson was evidently unusual among trappers, however, for his self-restraint and temperate lifestyle. “Clean as a hound’s tooth,” according to one acquaintance, and a man whose “word was as sure as the sun comin’ up,” he was noted for an unassuming manner and implacable courage.
In 1842, while returning from Missouri, where he took his daughter to be educated in a convent, Carson happened to meet John C. Fremont on a Missouri Riverboat. Fremont hired Carson as guide for his first expedition to map and describe Western trails to the Pacific Ocean. Over the next several years, Carson helped guide Fremont to Oregon and California, and through much of the Central Rocky Mountains and the Great Basin. His service with Fremont, celebrated in Fremont’s widely-read reports of his expeditions, quickly made Kit Carson a national hero, presented in popular fiction as a rugged mountain man capable of superhuman feats.
During the early 1840s, Carson established his permanent residence in Taos, New Mexico. After returning to Taos from California in 1843, Carson married his third wife, Maria Josefa Jaramillo, the daughter of a prominent Taos family. The same year he purchased a home in Taos for his family. Except for its 1825 date of construction, little is known about the Spanish-Colonial style residence before the Carson purchased it. Today, the home is a National Historic Landmark and stands as one of the only remaining physical reminders of Carson’s life. The house reflects the aesthetics of late 18th century Spanish influence combined with traditional American Indian building traditions and materials. The one-story adobe building is U-shaped and surrounds an open patio in the rear. Outwardly, it is relatively simple: the home’s most prominent architectural feature is a long, low wooden porch along its front façade. The Carsons did not alter the house’s Spanish appearance during their time there. While Kit Carson was often away, he, Josefa, and six or seven of their children called this house their home for most of the next 25 years. Today, the Kit Carson Memorial Foundation carefully preserves the home, which is open to the public as a historic house museum.
Carson’s notoriety grew as his name became associated with several key events in the United States’ westward expansion. He was still serving as Fremont’s guide when Fremont joined California’s short-lived Bear-Flag rebellion just before the outbreak of the Mexican-American War in 1846. Carson would serve in the war, playing an important part in the conquest of California.
Carson also led the forces of U.S. General Stephen Kearney from Socorro, New Mexico into California, when a Californio band led by Andrés Pico mounted a challenge to American occupation of Los Angeles later that year.
On December 6, 1846, these forces were attacked by Mexicans at San Pasqual, about 30 miles north of San Diego. On the third night of this battle, Carson and two others snuck through enemy lines and ran the entire distance to San Diego, where they brought help for Kearny’s pinned-down forces. At the end of the war, Carson returned to New Mexico and took up ranching.
By 1853, he and his partner, Lucien Maxwell, were able to drive a large flock of sheep to California, where gold rush prices paid them a handsome profit. In 1854 he was appointed Indian agent for the Ute and Apache at Taos, New Mexico, a post he held until the Civil War imposed new duties on him in 1861. These years of serving as an Indian Agent were the longest period of time at home with his family. During the American Civil War he helped organize New Mexican infantry volunteers, which saw action at Valverde in 1862. Most of his military actions, however, were directed against the Navajo Indians, many of whom had refused to be confined upon a distant reservation set up by the government.
Beginning in 1863, under orders from his commanders in the U.S. Army, Carson waged a brutal economic war against the Navajo in an attempt to relocate them, marching through the heart of their territory to destroy their crops, and rounding up their livestock, some of which was later given to those that surrendered.
When the Ute, Pueblo, Hopi, and Zuni, who for centuries had been prey to Navajo raiders, took advantage of their traditional enemy’s weakness by following the Americans onto the warpath, the Navajo were unable to defend themselves. In 1864 most surrendered to Carson, who treated them well, but was ordered to force nearly 8,000 Navajo men, women and children to take what came to be called the “Long Walk” of almost 300 miles from Arizona to Fort Sumner, New Mexico. The US military was unprepared for the large number of Navajo, and in only a couple of years, with the ground depleted, the ill-planned site became disease-ridden. In 1868, the Navajo were allowed to return to land along the Arizona-New Mexico border.