Heroes of the Old Santa Fe Trail

By William Eleroy Curtis, 1883

Army Train on the Santa Fe Trail

Army Train on the Santa Fe Trail

Danger always develops heroes, as it develops recklessness and ruffianism, and a disregard for the value of human life that is almost incredible. But in the countless numbers of hunters, trappers, guides, and scouts whose adventures are a part of the history of the Santa Fe Trail, there were some characters who deserve more than a passing glance from the eyes of the denizens of the civilized world. For courage, nerve, endurance, intelligence and manliness, Kit Carson stands at the head of the class he so honorably represented. His biography has been repeatedly written, and his public services have been extensively extolled, but too much cannot be said in praise of his virtues as a man, and his abilities as a frontiersman. If he had been permitted to enjoy the ordinary advantages and associations of civilized life he would have stood among the world’s leaders, but he made the most of his privileges and was the greatest among men of his type and occupation.

Kit Carson Drawing

Kit Carson Drawing

The Kit Carson of the imagination was a sort of Wild Bill, a frontier Hercules with a dozen revolvers at his belt, an enormous beard, the swagger of a Pirate King, and a voice like that of a roused lion. The actual Kit Carson was a plain, simple, quiet, silent, unobtrusive man, below medium height, slender in physique, of fair complexion, with a small hand and foot, a pleasant face, curly brown hair, clear hazel eyes, little or no beard, a soft voice, and manners as gentle as a woman’s. He was the hero of a hundred desperate adventures, killed more Indians than he could possibly remember, guided more important expeditions than any other man ever did, rescued many people from a captivity that was worse than slavery, and had a better knowledge of plainscraft than any of his contemporaries or successors; but for all this, he was no boaster, was indifferent to popularity, avoided notoriety, blushed when praised and wept at the sight of human suffering. It is truly said of him that he never had a quarrel on his own account, and never took the life of a man except in self-defense or as a measure of justice. He was not a profane man, and was strictly temperate, nor had he the loose habits that characterize the ordinary frontiersman. The word fear had no meaning for him, and his composure and self-confidence under difficulties were phenomenal. He was a splendid horseman and an unerring shot; his knowledge of Indian character was never surpassed, and everyone who had to do with him commended Kit Carson as the ideal scout and the best guide ever upon the plains.

General John C. Fremont said of him: “Carson while traveling scarcely ever spoke, but his keen eye was continually examining the country, and his whole manner was that of a man deeply impressed with a sense of responsibility. He never laughed or joked, even by the campfire, but was always watchful for the comfort of other people. He ate but twice a day, at morning and night, and was strictly temperate. In an Indian country, the mule is the best sentry, and Carson always slept with his mule tied to his saddle. A braver man than Carson perhaps-never lived; in fact, I doubt if he ever knew what fear was, but with all this, he exercised great caution. While arranging his bed for the night, his saddle, which he always used as a pillow, and to which the lariat of his mule was always tied, was disposed of in such a way as to form a barricade for his head. His pistols, half-cocked, were laid above it, and his trusty rifle reposed beneath the blanket by his side, where it was not only ready for instant service but perfectly protected from the damp.”

Kit Carson was born in Kentucky but went to Missouri with his parents when a child when that State was the extreme frontier, and only two or three years after it had been ceded by the French to the United States as a part of Louisiana. His father was a saddler, and Kit learned that trade. When he was about 16 years old, a party of traders for Santa Fe came along and he joined them, crossing the plains with a score of men, leading a pack mule heavily laden with goods for the Santa Fe market. He did not return with them, however, but went to Taos, New Mexico with a hunter and trapper by the name of Kin Kade, a Spaniard who was very highly educated, and from whom Kit learned the Spanish language, and much other valuable knowledge. His association with Kin Kade was practically all the education he ever received. A few years afterward he joined a party of traders and returned with them to Missouri, and from that time on until he joined General John Fremont in 1842, his life was spent as a guide on the plains, and as a hunter and trapper in the mountains under the direction of the Hudson Bay Company, which had its headquarters in the Rocky Mountains.

In their employ, he went in charge of parties of men, during each winter, through all the hunting and trapping regions between the Missouri River and the Pacific Ocean, and during the summer he guided trains of traders and emigrants over the plains. He came to know every valley and mountain stream, every spring upon the prairies, and his natural instincts as a scout gave him great value. His adventures have filled volumes, and his name and the incidents of his life are more familiar to schoolboys than those of some of the Presidents of the United States. He guided Fremont on both of his expeditions, and the two men became fast friends.

Lucien B. Maxwell

Lucien B. Maxwell

During the Mexican-American War, Fremont made Carson Lieutenant of his battalion of Mountaineers, and in 1846, when it became necessary for the “Path-finder” to send dispatches from California to Washington, he entrusted them to Carson, who carried them through the lands of hostile Indians, and more hostile Mexicans, reaching Washington in good time, where he remained for several weeks, the guest of Senator Thomas H. Benton, the father-in-law of General Fremont. This feat of Carson’s was unprecedented, and although his fame was already great, it made him a hero, and he received marked attention from all the distinguished men of the Capitol. Mrs. Jessie Benton Fremont, who was then the leading belle of Washington, met him at the depot and escorted the blushing trapper, who had scarcely ever seen the inside of a civilized house, to her own magnificent residence. He was a lion in society during his stay in Washington, under the patronage of Mrs. Fremont, and is said to have won the admiration of all by his native manliness and inborn gentility. President Polk made him a lieutenant in the United States Regular Army and sent him back across the plains with an escort of cavalry. The jealousy of the army officers at Washington was such that the Senate refused to confirm his appointment, and when Carson learned of it, he dismissed his escort and retired to his home in Taos, where he joined his old chum, Lucien B. Maxwell, and established a ranch on what was known as the Maxwell Land Grant.

He afterward kept a store at Taos, New Mexico under the firm name of Maxwell & Carson, but was not adapted to mercantile life, and did not succeed very well, so he returned to sheep raising, and remained on his ranch until the rebellion, when he volunteered as a private, and rose to the command of a Colorado regiment, performing gallant and valuable service for the Union.

After the war, “General” Carson, as he was then called, was appointed agent for the New Mexican Indians, and served in that capacity until his death, making a journey to Washington with a party of Apache chiefs in 1867.

He died in 1868, at Fort Lyon, Colorado, near where Bent’s old fort used to be, and across the river from the town of Las Animas, in the 60th year of his age. The cause of his death was traced back to a fall he received eight years before when his mule slipped and threw him upon a pile of rocks. He was originally buried at Fort Lyon, but his body was afterward removed to the old cemetery near Taos, New Mexico.

San Francisco Street in Santa Fe, New Mexico

San Francisco Street in Santa Fe, New Mexico

The story of the Santa Fe Trail that has been told more often than any other is about the famous ride of François (Frank) Aubry from Santa Fe, New Mexico to Independence, Missouri, 780 miles, in five days and 16 hours, his own beautiful mare, “Nellie,” having carried him the first 150 miles without a stop, except for food and water. Aubry was a French Canadian, first a guide, then a trader. Like Kit Carson, he was a man of medium stature and slender proportions, but he had iron nerves, great resolution, and indomitable persistence. As a pioneer, guide, and trader, he did much that is worthy of mention, but the great feat for which he is remembered was his famous ride. The circumstances were as follows:

Aubry had gone out early in the spring of 1848, with a large amount of goods to Santa Fe. As the American troops were then in possession of the country, our merchants, relieved from the interference of those unscrupulous plunderers, the Mexican customhouse officers, found increased competition, but greater facilities for their trade. The business was, therefore, “booming,” and Aubry found no difficulty in getting rid of his stock at an advance of over 100 percent upon his original investment. ‘Knowing the favorable state of the market, and the description of merchandise best suited to its wants, he determined to attempt a hitherto unheard-of enterprise, by making a second trip to St. Louis, and bringing out another stock before cold weather should cease the communications between Santa Fe and the settlements. To accomplish this, Aubry allowed himself but eight days to traverse the whole Santa Fe Trail, most of which was dangerous on account of the Indians. Having laid his plans and announced his scheme, he, with four companions, and a small but carefully selected herd of horses, set out upon their trip. They rode hard, but the leader outstripped his men, and by the time Aubry had reached the “crossing of the Arkansas River,” which is generally considered about half-way, he found himself, with his last horse given out, alone, and on foot. Undaunted, however, he pushed on, and reached Mann’s Fort, some 15-20 miles from the ford. Here, he procured a remount, and then, without waiting to rest, or scarcely to eat, he once more took the trail. Near Pawnee Fork he was pursued and had a narrow escape from a party of Indians, who followed him to the Creek; but finally, he entered the city of Independence, Missouri within less than the time he himself had specified. It is said that upon being assisted from the saddle, it was found to be stained with his blood. The entire ride was made without sleep, and it was the most remarkable instance of human endurance on record. He made the trip once before in 13 days, which was considered wonderful, but on this trial surpassed even his own expectations. Aubry was killed in a saloon fight at Santa Fe in 1854.

One of the prominent hunters and guides along the old Santa Fe Trail in the early days was Colonel A. G. Boone, a grandson of the famous pioneer of Kentucky. He was one of the most accomplished plainsmen in the country, could speak all the Indian languages, and always enjoyed the confidence of the tribes. He could go among them in the midst of a war dance, without fearing the slightest injury, and was very useful from time to time in aiding in the rescue of captives.

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