Enshrined in popular mythology even in his
own lifetime, Kit Carson was a trapper, scout, Indian agent, soldier and
authentic legend of the West.
Born on Christmas eve in 1809, Carson spent
most of his early childhood in Boone's Lick, Missouri. His father died when he
was only nine years old, and the need to work prevented Kit from ever
receiving an education. He was apprenticed to a saddle-maker when he turned
fourteen, but left home for the
Santa Fe, New Mexico area in 1826.
From about 1828 to 1831, Carson used
Taos, New Mexico, as a base camp for repeated fur-trapping expeditions
that often took him as far West as California. Later in the 1830's his
trapping took him up the Rocky Mountains and throughout the West. For a time
in the early 1840's, he was employed by
as a hunter at Bent's Fort.
As was the case with many white trappers,
Carson became somewhat integrated into the Indian world; he travelled and
lived extensively among Indians, and his first two wives were Arapahoe and
Cheyenne women. Carson was evidently unusual among trappers, however, for his
self-restraint and temperate lifestyle. "Clean as a hound's tooth," according
to one acquaintance, and a man whose "word was as sure as the sun comin' up,"
he was noted for an unassuming manner and implacable courage.
while returning to Missouri to visit his family, Carson happened to meet John
C. Fremont, who soon hired him as a guide. Over the next several years, Carson
helped guide Fremont to Oregon and California, and through much of the Central
Rocky Mountains and the Great Basin. His service with Fremont, celebrated in
Fremont's widely-read reports of his expeditions, quickly made Kit Carson a
national hero, presented in popular fiction as a rugged mountain man capable
of superhuman feats.
Carson's notoriety grew as his name became
associated with several key events in the United States' westward expansion.
He was still serving as Fremont's guide when Fremont joined California's
short-lived Bear-Flag rebellion just before the outbreak of the
Mexican-American War in
and it was Carson who led the forces of U.S. General Stephen Kearney from New
Mexico into California when a Californio band led by Andrés Pico mounted a
challenge to American occupation of Los Angeles later that year.
At the end of the war, Carson returned to
New Mexico and took up ranching. By 1853, he and his partner were able to
drive a large flock of sheep to California, where gold rush prices paid them a
handsome profit. This same year Carson was appointed federal Indian agent for
Northern New Mexico, a post he held until the Civil War imposed new duties on
him in 1861.
After the Civil War, Carson moved to Colorado in the hope of
expanding his ranching business. He died there in 1868, and the following year
his remains were moved to a small cemetery near his old home in Taos.