“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.
Christopher Houston Carson was born on December 24, 1809, in Madison County, Kentucky, to Lindsey Carson, a veteran of the American Revolution and Rebecca Robinson Carson. He was a cousin to another famous frontiersman, Daniel Boone, through his mother. When he just two-years-old, the family moved to Howard County, Missouri, where Carson spent most of his early childhood in Boone’s Lick. Also living there was William Becknell who would blaze the Santa Fe Trail in 1821. When Becknell returned, the news of his prosperous trip attracted wide attention and the new community of Franklin, Missouri, near Boone’s Lick, became the birthplace of the Santa Fe Trail.
As part of a large family, survival on the frontier was the priority and Carson never learned to read or write. His father died when he was only nine years old. Despite being penniless, his mother took care of her children alone for four years before remarrying. When Kit was 14, he went to work as an apprentice in Workman’s Saddleshop in nearby Franklin. By this time, the Santa Fe Trail was two years old and many of the customers were trappers and traders from whom Kit would hear stories about the frontier. Kit did not get along with his stepfather and didn’t like the saddle trade. When he was 16, he secretly signed on with a large merchant caravan heading to Santa Fe, arriving at their destination in November 1826.
From Santa Fe, Kit went north to Taos where he worked as a cook, errand boy, and harness repairer. At this time, he was just five feet, five inches tall, weighed 140 pounds, and was slightly bow-legged. He was described as softly spoken and posed a great natural modesty.
When he was 19, he was hired for a fur trapping expedition to California, where, in spite of his small stature 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. During this time he met other famous frontiersmen including Jim Bridger, Tom ‘Broken Hand’ Fitzpatrick, and Dr. Marcus Whitman. His best friend, Lucien Maxwell, who owned the largest land grant in New Mexico, would eventually become his brother-in-law.
As was the case with many white trappers, Carson became somewhat integrated into the Indian world; traveling and living extensively among Indians. At one point he married an Arapaho woman named Singing Grass with whom he would have a daughter named Adaline Carson in 1837. Sometime later, Singing Grass died while giving birth to a second child. With Adaline needing a mother, Kit next married a Cheyenne woman called Making-Out-Road. She soon divorced him Indian style, in 1840.
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 a 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, Carson married his third wife, Maria Josefa Jaramillo, the daughter of a prominent Taos family in February 1843. Josefa was described by a visitor: “Her style of beauty was of the naughty, heart-breaking kind, such as would lead a man with the glance of the eye, to risk his life for a smile.” Together they would have eight children. Josefa’s sister, Maria Ignacia Jaramillo, was married to noted fur-trader Charles Bent, who would later become New Mexico’s first governor. 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.
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 Kearny from Socorro, New Mexico into California, when a Californio band led by Andrés Pico mounted a challenge to the 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. Emerging as the hero of the Battle of San Pascual, many people soon sought him out, but they were invariably surprised to meet the great man himself.
“His fame was then at its height, from the publication of Fremont’s book 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 a small stoop-shouldered man, with reddish hair, freckled face, soft blue eyes, and nothing to indicate extraordinary courage or daring.”
— Lieutenant William Tecumseh Sherman, upon being introduced to Carson at military headquarters in Monterey, California in the fall of 1847
In April 1847, Kit Carson was away from home when the deadly Taos Revolt erupted. In the rebellion, his brother-in-law, Governor Charles Bent, was murdered while protecting Josefa and her sister from a rebellious mob. Afterward, Carson, who was devoted to his young wife, began to be more anxious to stay home, stating:
“We had been leading a roving life long enough and now was the time, if ever, to make a home for ourselves and children.”