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 the date of 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 passing 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 which 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, completely crushing the bones. The blood from the wound flowed so copiously that he nearly lost his life before it could be arrested. He was fixed up, however, 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 older men of the caravan 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 king-bolt 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 king-bolt, which he had heated to a white glow, for the purpose of stopping 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 the commerce of the prairies, 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 numbers of 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 in 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 there are no people on earth who have a greater love for their boy children than the Indians of America. 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. Carson, who was in the upper valley of the river, was sent for to come down and help them drive the obnoxious Sioux back to their own 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 great disparity of numbers, but that if he would go with them on the war-path, 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 murdering 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. Carson, as was usual with him, never murmured because he was assigned to a subordinate position, but took his place, ready to do his part in whatever capacity.