By Colonel Henry Inman, 1897
There are a number of famous men whose lives are so interwoven with the history of the Old Santa Fe Trail that the story of the great highway is largely made up of their individual exploits and acts of bravery. It has been my fortune to have known nearly all intimately, during more than a third of a century passed on the Great Plains and in the Rocky Mountains.
First of all, Christopher, or Kit, Carson, as he is familiarly known to the world, stands at the head and front of celebrated frontiersmen, trappers, scouts, guides, and Indian fighters. I knew him well through a series of years, to his death in 1868, but I shall confine myself to the events of his remarkable career along the line of the Trail and its immediate environs. In 1826 a party of Santa Fe traders passed near his father’s home in Howard County, Missouri. Young Kit, who was then but 17 years old, joined the caravan as a hunter. He was already an expert with the rifle and thus commenced his life of adventure on the Great Plains and in the Rocky Mountains.
His first exhibition of that nerve and coolness in the presence of danger that marked his whole life was in this initial trip across the plains. When the caravan had arrived at the Arkansas River, somewhere in the vicinity of the great bend of that stream, one of the teamsters, while carelessly pulling his rifle toward him by the barrel, discharged the weapon and received the ball in his arm, thoroughly crushing the bones. The blood from the wound flowed so copiously that he nearly lost his life before it could be arrested. However, he was fixed up, and the caravan proceeded on its journey, the man thinking no more seriously of his injured arm. In a few days, however, the wound began to indicate that gangrene had set in, and it was determined that only by an amputation was it possible for him to live beyond a few days. Every one of the caravan’s older men positively declined to attempt the operation, as there were no instruments of any kind. At this juncture, Kit, realizing the extreme necessity of prompt action, stepped forward and offered to do the job. He told the unfortunate sufferer that he had had no experience in such matters but that as no one else would do it, he would take the chances. All the tools that Kit could find were a razor, a saw, and the kingbolt of a wagon. He cut the flesh with the razor, sawed through the bone as if it had been a piece of the joist, and seared the horrible wound with the kingbolt, which he had heated to a white glow, to stop the flow of blood that naturally followed such rude surgery. The operation was a complete success; the man lived many years afterward and was with his surgeon in many an expedition.
In the early days of prairie commerce, Kit Carson was the hunter at Bent’s Fort, Colorado, for a period of eight years. There were about 40 men employed at the place; and when the game was found in abundance in the mountains, it was a relatively easy task and just suited to his love of sport, but when it grew scarce, as it often did, his prowess was tasked to its utmost to keep the 40 mouths from crying for food. He became such an unerring shot with the rifle during that time that he was called the “Nestor of the Rocky Mountains.” His favorite game was the buffalo, although he killed countless other animals.
All of the Plains Tribes of Indians, as did the powerful Ute of the mountains, knew him well, for he had often visited their camps, sat in their lodges, smoked the pipe, and played with their little boys. The latter fact may not appear of much consequence, but no people on earth have a greater love for their boy children than America’s Indians. The Indians all feared him, too, at the same time that they respected his excellent judgment and frequently were governed by his wise counsel. The following story will show his power in this direction.
The Sioux, one of the most numerous and warlike tribes at that time, had encroached upon the hunting grounds of the southern Indians, and the latter had many a skirmish with them on the banks of the Arkansas River along the line of the Santa Fe Trail. In the upper valley of the river, Carson was sent to come down and help them drive the obnoxious Sioux back to their stamping ground. He left Fort Bent and went with the party of Comanche messengers to the main camp of that tribe and the Arapaho, with whom they had united. Upon his arrival, he was told that the Sioux had a thousand warriors and many rifles, and the Comanche and Arapaho were afraid of them on account of the significant disparity of numbers, but that if he would go with them on the warpath, they felt assured they could overcome their enemies. Carson, however, instead of encouraging the Comanche and Arapaho to fight, induced them to negotiate with the Sioux. He was sent as a mediator and so successfully accomplished his mission that the intruding tribe consented to leave the hunting grounds of the Comanche as soon as the buffalo season was over, which they did, and there was no more trouble.
After many adventures in California with General John C. Fremont, Carson, with his inseparable friend, Lucien B. Maxwell, embarked in the wool-raising industry. Shortly after they had established themselves on their ranch, the Apache made one of their frequent murderings and plundering raids through Northern New Mexico, killing defenseless women and children, running off the stock of all kinds, and laying waste every little ranch they came across in their wild foray. Not very far from the city of Santa Fe, New Mexico, they ruthlessly butchered a Mr. White and his son, though three of their number were slain by the brave gentlemen before they were overpowered. Other blood-thirsty Indians carried away the women and children of the desolated home and took them to their mountain retreat in the vicinity of Las Vegas, New Mexico. Mr. White was a highly respected merchant, and news of this outrage spread rapidly through the settlements. It was determined that the Indians should not go without punishment this time, at least. Carson’s reputation as an Indian fighter was at its height, so the natives of the country sent for him and declined to move until he came. For some unexplained reason, after he arrived at Las Vegas, he was not placed in charge of the posse, that position having already been given to a Frenchman. As was usual with him, Carson never murmured because he was assigned to a subordinate position but took his place, ready to do his part in whatever capacity.
The party set out for the stronghold of the Indians and rode night and day on the trail of the murderers, hoping to surprise them and recapture the women and children. However, so much time had been wasted in delays that Carson feared they would only find the mutilated bodies of the poor captives. In a few days after leaving Las Vegas, the retreat of the Indians was discovered in the fastness of the mountains, where they had fortified themselves in such a manner that they could resist ten times the number of their pursuers. As soon as he saw them, Carson, without hesitation and giving a characteristic yell, dashed in, expecting the men to follow him. However, they only stood in gaping wonderment at his bravery, not daring to venture after him. He did not discover his dilemma until he had advanced so far alone that escape seemed impossible. But here, his coolness, which always served him in the moment of supreme danger, saved his scalp. As the Indians turned on him, he threw himself on the offside of his horse, Indian fashion, for he was an expert in a trick of that kind as the Indians themselves and rode back to the little command. He had six arrows in his horse and a bullet through his coat!
The Indians in those days were poorly armed and did not long follow up the pursuit after Carson, for, observing the squad of mounted Mexicans, they retreated to the top of a rocky prominence. From that point, they could watch every movement of the whites. Carson was raging at the apathy, not to say cowardice, of the men who had sent for him to join them, but he kept his counsel to himself, for he was anxious to save the captured women and children. However, he talked to the men very earnestly, exhorting them not to flinch in the duty they had come so far to perform and for which he had come at their call. This had the desired effect, for he induced them to make a charge, which was gallantly performed, and in such a brave manner that the Indians fled, scarcely making an effort to defend themselves. Five of their number were killed at the furious onset of the Mexicans. Unfortunately, as he anticipated, only the murdered corpses of the women and children resulted from the victory.
President Polk appointed Carson to a second lieutenancy, and his first official duty was conducting 50 soldiers under his command through the country of the Comanche, who were then at war with the whites. (For some reason, the Senate refused to confirm the appointment, and he had consequently no connection with the regular army.) A fight occurred at a place known as Point of Rocks, where on arriving, Carson found a company of volunteers for the Mexican-American War and camped near them. About dawn the next morning, all the volunteers’ animals were captured by a band of Indians while the herders conducted them to the river bottom to graze. Luckily, the herders ran into Carson’s camp in the confusion attending the bold theft and having no weapons. As he with his men were ready with their rifles, they recaptured the oxen, but their captors successfully drove off the horses.
Several Indians were mortally wounded by Carson’s prompt charge, as signs after they had cleared out proved, but the Indian custom of tying the wounded on their ponies precluded the chance of taking any scalps. The wily Comanche were generally successful in his sudden assaults, but Carson, who was never surprised, was always equal to his tactics.
One of the two soldiers whose turn it had been to stand guard that morning was discovered to have been asleep when the alarm of Indians was given. Carson at once administered the Indian method of punishment, making the man wear a woman’s dress for that day. Then, he arrived at Santa Fe, where he turned over his little command.
While there, he heard that a gang of those desperadoes so frequently the nuisance of a new country had formed a conspiracy to murder and rob two wealthy citizens they had volunteered to accompany over the Santa Fe Trail to the States. The caravan was already many miles on its way when Carson was informed of the plot. In less than an hour, he had hired 16 men and was on his march to intercept them. He took a shortcut across the mountains, taking special care to keep out of the way of the Indians, who were on the warpath, but as to whose movements he was always posted. In two days, he came upon a camp of United States recruits en route to the military posts in New Mexico, whose commander offered to accompany him with 20 men. Carson accepted the generous proposal, by forced marches soon overtook the caravan of traders, and at once placed one man named Fox, the leader of the gang, in irons, after which he informed the owners of the caravan of the escape they had made from the wretches whom they were treated so kindly. At first, the gentlemen were astounded at the disclosures made to them but soon admitted that they had noticed many things that convinced them that the plot existed. But it would shortly have been carried out for the opportune arrival of the brave frontiersman.
The trustworthy caravan members were then ordered to corral the rest of the conspirators, 35 in number. They were driven out of camp, except for Fox, the leader, whom Carson conveyed to Taos, New Mexico. He was imprisoned for several months, but as a crime in intent only could be proved against him. As the adobe walls of the house where he was confined were not secure enough to retain a man who desired to release himself, he was finally liberated and cleared out.
The traders were profuse in their thanks to Carson for his timely interference, but he refused every remuneration offer. On their return to Santa Fe from St. Louis, Missouri, they presented him with a magnificent pair of pistols upon whose silver mounting commemorated his brave deed and the donors’ gratitude.
The following summer was spent on a visit to St. Louis. Early in the fall, he returned over the Trail, arriving at the Cheyenne village on the Upper Arkansas River without meeting with any incident worthy of note. On reaching that point, he learned that the Indians had received a terrible affront from an officer commanding a detachment of United States troops, who had whipped one of their chiefs. Consequently, the whole tribe was enraged, burning for revenge upon the whites. Carson was the first white man to approach the place since the insult. So many years had elapsed since he was the hunter at Bent’s Fort, and so grievously had the Indians been offended that his name no longer guaranteed safety to the party with whom he was traveling nor even insured respect to himself in the state of excitement existing in the village. However, Carson deliberately pushed himself into the presence of a war council, which was just then in session to consider the question of attacking the caravan, giving orders to his men to keep close together and guard against a surprise.
The Indians, supposing he could not understand their language, talked without restraint and unfolded their plans to capture his party and kill them all, particularly the leader. After reaching this decision, Carson coolly rose and addressed the council in the Cheyenne language, informing the Indians who he was, of his former associations with and kindness to their tribe and that now he was ready to render them any assistance they might require. Still, as to their taking his scalp, he claimed the right to say a word.
The Indians departed, and Carson went on his way; but there were hundreds of Indians in sight on the sandhills, and though they made no attack, he was well aware that he was in their power, nor had they abandoned the idea of capturing his train. His coolness and deliberation kept his men in spirit, and yet out of the whole 15, which was the total number of his force, there were only two or three on whom he could place any reliance in case of an emergency.