Kit Carson – The Nestor of the Rocky Mountains


By Charles Haven Ladd Johnston in 1910


The Great West by Gaylord Watson, 1881

The Great West by Gaylord Watson, 1881

The expedition led by Lewis and Clark opened the great West to the knowledge of the more adventurous whites and soon, numerous settlers pressed into the northern section of country west of the Mississippi River and into the southern portion of the arid plateau and tableland. From Fort Leavenworth, Kansas to Santa Fe, New Mexico, a wagon route was made, known as the Santa Fe Trail. The Indians hung along the borders of this rutted way and had many a fierce battle with the whites as they journeyed to and fro in wagons and by pack train.

The great hero of this highway to the southwest was Kit Carson, the Nestor of the Rocky Mountains. Decidedly under the average stature; quick, wiry, with nerves of steel and an indomitable will; such was the great hunter, scout and man of the plains.

Kit Carson’s youth was similar to that of any boy born upon the frontier, whose parents were extremely poor, — he existed and worked. Frequently there was not enough to eat in the Carson home in Howard County, Missouri and young Kit would be called upon to assist the meager store of meat by hunting. Thus, he early came to be a good shot and an expert with the rifle, which was fired with a percussion cap and loaded with a ramrod. The repeating rifle was then not manufactured.

Kit Carson

Kit Carson

When 17 years-old, a caravan of traders passed through his little village, bound for the quaint old Spanish-American town of Santa Fe in the far Southwest, and, although apprenticed to a saddler at the time, young Kit could not stand the call of the West. He threw up his position, joined the adventurers, and was soon footing it over the prairie in wake of the long, lean men with the white-topped wagons and sleek-fed mules. This was in 1826, a time when the greatest interest was taken in the far West, for the people of the United States were restlessly pressing towards the Pacific Coast, having successfully occupied all of the territory east of the broad Mississippi River.

On the Arkansas River in southwestern Colorado, was Bent’s Fort, a frontier trading place and refuge for white emigrants, traders and settlers. Young Kit was soon engaged as a hunter here, and remained at this occupation for eight years. Forty men were employed at the fort, and it was Carson’s business to supply them with meat from the mountains; an easy task, at times, but, at others, very difficult, for the buffalo, deer and antelope would migrate with the weather, and would often leave this section almost entirely. The hunter became an unerring shot and was soon well known to the  Plains Indians — the Comanche, Arapaho and  Kiowa  —  while the  Ute in the Rockies soon knew him so well that he visited their camps, sat in their lodges, smoked the peace pipe, and dangled their children upon his knee. The Indians liked him exceedingly, so that they often would listen to his counsel and advice.

Here is a story that well illustrates his ability to sway the feelings and actions of the Indians.

One summer the Sioux, the most numerous and warlike of the Plains Indians of the north, came far south upon a hunt, until they reached the edge of the Arkansas River. The Comanche sent a runner to Bent’s Fort for their friend Kit Carson, to aid them in driving the invaders back upon their own soil. The Arapaho had united with the Comanche to assist them in repelling the huntsmen, and when Carson rode to meet the southern Indians he found a vast number of allied braves, furious with anger at the Sioux, and painted and armed for immediate battle.

Tribal Leaders by Edward S. Curtis, about 1900

Tribal Leaders by Edward S. Curtis, about 1900

“We know that the Sioux have one thousand warriors and many rifles,” said a Comanche chieftain to the well-known scout. “With your assistance we can overcome them and drive them back into their own hunting grounds. The buffalo are scarce enough. We need them for ourselves and not for the Sioux. Our hearts are now strong. We will teach them not to invade the soil of our fathers.”

“I will go to the Sioux and talk with them,” said Carson. “Leave it to me, my red brothers, and I will use big medicine with the Sioux, so that they will go away and will not fight. Leave it to me and all will be well.”

So saying, he rode unaccompanied to the Sioux, holding up his hand as a token of peace. He was received by them with no ill will, and soon was in counsel with the head men of this powerful hunting party. He used his best powers of persuasion to avert a clash at arms, and after two days of “big talk” the Sioux agreed to go north as soon as the buffalo season was over; “for,” said they, “the buffalo have grown very scarce in the northern country. We must have skins for our tepees, and meat for the long winter. Hence we had to come into the country of the Comanche for food as our little children were crying for it.”

The Comanche agreed to withdraw also and, as each side kept to their agreements, the bloody battle was thus averted.

In the spring of 1830 Carson had some daring adventures with the Crow tribe. With four other men he went to the head waters of the Arkansas River, where he joined twenty men under Captain John Yount. While in the winter camp a band of 60 Crow Indians robbed the little band of skin hunters of several horses, to recapture which Kit Carson was dispatched with 15 men. He eagerly took up the trail of the marauders.

It was not hard to track the Indians and, after a day spent in following them, they were found entrenched behind a rude fortification of logs, with the stolen horses tied within ten feet of their shelter. Carson gave his men no time to think what they were doing, but cried out, “Charge!” With a wild yell his men galloped furiously after the trapper, who had started well in advance and, although three of them dropped from Indian bullets, the frontiersmen were soon in among the horses, which they cut loose and carried off with them. Most of the Indians got away, although five fell before the rifles of Carson’s trappers. It had been a stiff, nervy fight.

As the little band of white frontiersmen turned their heads towards Bent’s Fort, someone said, “Boys! We ain’t seed th’ last redskin, by any means. Th’ varmints will be after us, sure, before many days are out, and we’d better hurry along afore too many uv ’em get on our trail.”

Absaroka (Crow) Warriors

Absaroka (Crow) Warriors

What the old plainsman said was only too true. Before two days had gone a force of 200 Crow warriors surprised the men under Carson and Captain Yount and did everything in their power to capture them. The white men stood them off from behind boulders, trees and stumps and, as only a few of the Indians had rifles, it was soon apparent that Kit Carson and his party would escape. The plainsmen slowly retreated, keeping up a constant battle with the Indians, and for fifty miles this fighting went on. Carson was wounded in the leg by an arrow. Several of his friends were killed. In spite of this the little band held together, got out into open country, and were soon in the hunting ground of the Comanche, where the Crow were afraid to follow them, because of the danger of running into a hostile war party of Indians who were friendly to Carson and unfriendly to them.

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