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 the 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 so much 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 headmen 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 headwaters of the Arkansas River, where he joined 20 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.

This was but one of many thrilling escapes. Not long afterward, while Kit was camped on a tributary to the Green River in Colorado, a young Indian caught six of the best horses belonging to the 25 men who were with the bold and daring trapper, now engaged in capturing beaver and other fur-bearing animals. The theft was soon found out, and Carson, who had a great reputation as a “thief catcher,” was asked to trace the fugitive and regain the stolen animals. Although the thieving Indian had the start by several hours, Kit galloped after him with enthusiasm, for he wanted to make another capture.

The intrepid scout knew little of this country, so he employed a friendly Ute Indian to assist him in tracking the fugitive. It is hard to realize it, but it speaks well for the persistence of Carson when it is known that he pushed after the runaway for one hundred miles before the thief was caught up with. It also shows that few Indians were in this country, for none were either seen or met.

Just before the thief was seen, the friendly Indian’s horse gave out, so that he could go no further and, being unwilling to accompany Kit on foot, he returned to the camps of his own people. Carson wasted no time and pressed on alone, determined to catch the thief or to kill his own horse in the attempt.

Suddenly, as the plainsman rounded a high hill, he saw the retreating Indian, down below in a valley, leading the stolen horses. The fugitive looked around at this moment and saw his pursuer, so he leaped from his horse, rifle in hand, and ran to a clump of cottonwood trees. Kit saw that the Indian would soon be in a place of concealment, so determined to take a chance at him as he ran. The distance was three hundred yards. As the thief made for a tree, the keen-eyed plainsman fired, and so perfect had been his aim that the Indian fell forward, stone dead. It was a remarkable shot, for the Indian was on a brisk run, and as Carson was on his horse his arm was naturally jolted by the movements of his mount.

The six horses were soon caught, tied together by deer thongs, and started for camp, where Carson, the indefatigable thief chaser, arrived after an absence of six days only. So delighted were the leaders of the trappers that the famous plainsman was presented with a large number of peltries, which he subsequently sold at a good profit and invested the proceeds in a new rifle, some better blankets than those he carried, and a few spare horses with which to transport his packs. For a trapper, young Kit was now in prosperous circumstances.

Grizzly bears were plentiful in the country which Carson was accustomed to setting his traps in, and while he was acting as a hunter, not long after his capture of the horse thief, he had an adventure that was both startling and desperate. While camped near the headwaters of a tiny stream where the game was abundant, he killed a large elk within a mile of his camp and, as he leaned over the dead animal to cut its throat, suddenly there appeared, coming towards him, a species of game for which he certainly had not been hunting. It was a large and powerful grizzly bear.

Moved by hunger, the animal apparently wished to make a victim of the frontiersman. He made a lunge toward him, and Kit, having a sudden desire to climb a tree, made all possible use of his limbs to run to a neighboring pine, leaving his gun unloaded and lying beside the animal which he had just killed. The bear did not take the slightest notice of the dead elk, and started after the trapper as if man meat was all that he was looking for, while Kit just managed to swing himself upon a limb as the monster’s jaws closed beneath his left foot. Grabbing about for something with which to defend himself, he twisted off a branch from the tree, and with this, he struck the nose of the bear whenever he came uncomfortably near him. The bear was greatly enraged, and began to gnaw the body of the tree but, tiring of this after a while, he began to growl and snarl with great fierceness.

Santa Fe Plaza

Santa Fe Plaza

Carson was kept up the tree until nearly midnight. Then the big grizzly began to walk around the trunk in circles, and in the course of his ramblings came upon the body of the dead elk. He fell upon this with a will; gorged himself, and then lumbered away into the deep forest. When sure that he was gone, Carson speedily dropped to the ground, and seizing his rifle, he made excellent speed towards his camp, where he was greeted with much joy. Alarmed over his long absence, his comrades intended to soon go in search of their best huntsman and scout.

It was scarcely strange that a man who lived the life that he did would come through without a scratch, or a wound of some sort. Soon after the adventure with the big grizzly, Kit went to Santa Fe, New Mexico, and here disposed of his season’s furs at an excellent figure. He had hardly been in this place for a week, before another party of 50 trappers set out for the Blackfoot country, on the upper Missouri River. The trip was long and tedious, and the band of adventurers soon found themselves in a country which was held by a treacherous and cruel tribe.

Although good watch was kept upon the Indians, one evening a band of Blackfoot stampeded the horses of the white invaders, and stole 18 of the best animals. Carson, who was called the great “thief catcher,” was at once asked to go after the marauders, and, taking 20 of the most lithe and active men in the expedition, he set out after the thieves in a snow storm. The tracks of the Indians were at first very plain, but after a while, they became obliterated, so that Kit had to dismount and feel for the print of the fleeing horses with his hands. For 75 miles the chase was kept up in spite of all difficulties, and at length, the Indians were sighted.

Instead of stampeding when the whites came in view, the Blackfoot rode towards them, one chief holding up his hand in token of friendship. “Ugh! Ugh!” said the warrior. “We will not fight. We wish to speak with our white brothers.”

“We want our horses,” said Carson. “We wish to have no fight with our red brothers, but if our red brothers will not give up our horses, then there will be one big battle.”

“How,” grunted a chief. “We took the horses because we thought that the animals belonged to the Snake Indians, our enemies. We are your friends. We do not wish to fight.”

But, in spite of these protestations of friendship, the Indians still refused to give up the animals. Whereupon some of the trappers seized the horses and began to walk them away towards their own outfit. In a moment the Indians prepared for a fight and, although armed chiefly with bows and arrows, some had rifles which they had obtained at various trading posts.

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