Famous Men of the Santa Fe Trail

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; but 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. Carson, as soon as he saw them, without a second’s hesitation, and giving a characteristic yell, dashed in, expecting, of course, that the men would follow him; but 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 off side 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 which 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. He talked to the men very earnestly, however, 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, but unfortunately, as he anticipated, only the murdered corpses of the women and children were the result of the victory.

Comanche Camp, 1873

Comanche Camp, 1873

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 War and camped near them. About dawn the next morning, all the animals of the volunteers were captured by a band of Indians, while the herders were conducting them to the river bottom to graze. The herders had no weapons, and luckily, in the confusion attending the bold theft, ran into Carson’s camp; and as he, with his men, were ready with their rifles, they recaptured the oxen, but the horses were successfully driven off by their captors.

Several of the 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, and Carson at once administered the Indian method of punishment, making the man wear the dress of a woman for that day. Then going on, 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 whom 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 treating so kindly. At first, the gentlemen were astounded at the disclosures made to them, but soon admitted that they had noticed many things which convinced them that the plot really existed, and but for the opportune arrival of the brave frontiersman it would shortly have been carried out.

The members of the caravan who were perfectly trustworthy were then ordered to corral the rest of the conspirators, 35 in number, and they were driven out of camp, with the exception of 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, and 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 offer of remuneration. On their return to Santa Fe from St. Louis, Missouri; however, they presented him with a magnificent pair of pistols, upon whose silver mounting was an inscription commemorating his brave deed and the gratitude of the donors.

Cheyenne Warriors by Edward S. Curtis

Cheyenne Warriors by Edward S. Curtis

The following summer was spent in a visit to St. Louis, and 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; and that consequently the whole tribe was enraged, and burning for revenge upon the whites. Carson was the first white man to approach the place since the insult, and 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. Carson, however, 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.

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