By the mid-sixties, Kit Carson was one of the most famous men in America. During a 30-year career, his heroic acts as a mountain man, expedition guide, Indian hunter and military man were unrivaled. Newspaper reporters chased him for interviews as he traveled through their cities. Novelists lionized him. Children wanted to grow up and follow him.
Yet his physical appearance was underwhelming. He had a physique that nobody found intimidating. He was short – some said only 5-foot-6. He didn't have any handsome qualities that anyone noticed. And he was silent and silent, spoke only when needed.
The future Civil War general, William Tecumseh Sherman, who had heard of Carson's fraud, came to meet him in 1847, no doubt expecting to see a Herculian man. But on seeing Carson, Sherman & # 39; s impression was anything but Hercules: "I can't express my surprise at the sight of a little man with bent shoulders, with reddish hair, freckled face, soft blue eyes, and nothing about extraordinary courage or He spoke very little and answered questions in monosyllables. & # 39;
As if those deficits were not enough – Carson was also illiterate. Signing his name as "C. Carson" was the extent of his ability to write.
Photo: Library of Congress
But Carson's courage and courage were not to blame. Born in 1809 in Kentucky, his family moved to Missouri shortly thereafter, and at the age of 16 while apprenticed to a saddler, he ran away from home in search of his own way in life, and ended up in New Mexico. There he became friends with some trappers and began the tough life of beavers, which was a dangerous but lucrative activity. He soon began to turn too far – not just to catch, but also to explore a vast area that stretched from New Mexico to Idaho. (In honor of his groundbreaking, many places are named after him, notably the capital of Nevada, Carson City.)
Vulnerable to attacks by Indians and mostly working alone, an independent trapper must not only be brave but also resourceful. For example, many of a trapper often set up his traps at night and kept themselves hidden during the day. He had to be a jack of all trades – gunsmith (in case his gun needed to be repaired), blacksmith (if traps needed to be repaired), cook, guide and hospik. He was a minimalist when it came to luggage and usually wore a blanket, a cooking kettle, a butcher knife, an ax and items that are essential for the use and maintenance of his gun, ie balls (balls), powder, patchbox, loading stick , flint, cleaning rod, etc. Trapping meant that you would be in the forest for weeks or months in succession – and often in unknown forests. Men who ventured into the forest with shaved faces usually emerged months later as the missing link in human evolution.
And that's when they came up at all. In addition to Indian attacks, trappers risked hunger if their food ran out or if they could not put animals in custody (although the main asset was the skin, a beaver food provided food if there were no deer or elk nearby). Finally, they often flirted with hypothermia as a result of placing and removing traps in cold streams during the winter months (the months that yielded the best returns since the beavers became thicker, better fur).
Carson was illiterate, dictating his memoirs years later. There he reminded himself of the hardships of falling: "Perhaps I would have a meal once a year consisting of bread, meat, sugar and coffee; would consider it a luxury."
The daily dangers of a mountain man even gave him little time to even think of luxury. One day, hunting alone, Carson shot a moose. When he heard a sound, he turned around and saw & # 39; two very large grizzly bears & # 39; come to him. Because he didn't have time to reload, he dropped his gun and climbed a tree. Fortunately, the bears finally left, with Carson & # 39; never been so scared in my life & # 39 ;.
In 1833, during a robbery with a group of other men, they discovered that their horses were being stolen and the thieves followed to a Crow Indian camp. Waiting until after dark, Carson and five men crawled into the camp and reached the horses and released them. Then a dog started barking and waking the Indians. All hell broke loose. Carson said: & # 39; We have opened a deadly fire where every ball is the victim. We have killed almost every Indian. & # 39; Carson, the short, silent man, was no less capable of violence than his taller, harder countrymen.
But he was also the recipient of violence. In one incident, he and another trapper saw two Blackfoot Indian fighters sitting among trees waiting for an ambush. Then a warrior turned to Carson & # 39; s companion – and Carson shot him. That gave the other Indian the chance to shoot at Carson, who had no time to reload. The ball shot at Carson's neck but penetrated his shoulder. It was bitterly cold that night, but for fear of revealing their presence, the hunters did not build fire and slept in the snow. "I came through a miserable night with the pain of the wound," Carson said.
It was such trials that he experienced during his years of travels in the traps (1829-1841) that prepared him for the job that would eventually bring him national fame. That job was the result of a chance encounter. In 1842, during a trip to Missouri, he met a fellow passenger on a steamboat. John C. Fremont, an explorer of the American army, was looking for a guide for an expedition through the West. Carson was hired.
In the end, Carson Fremont led three expeditions in the 1840s over the Rocky Mountain region; these expeditions mapped the Oregon Trail and promoted it, which eventually followed some 500,000 Americans, in search of a better life in the west. Fremont & # 39; s reports on the expeditions became the bestsellers of the day and references to Carson's courage made him nationally famous. (Parts of the Oregon Trail existed before Carson and Fremont, but until their expeditions made it popular, the trail was considered a crapshoot in treacherous terrain.)
The tracks created by wagons on the Oregon Trail are still present in the sandstone near Guernsey, Wyo. The benches with a height of 2 to 5 meters were cut by the wheels of thousands of cars that took the same road. Without Kit Carson's knowledge of the area, those who take the famous Oregon Trail would have gone through much more difficult journeys.
During the Mexican War (1846-48) Carson fought in the battle for San Pasqual, California, enclosed by Mexicans, the American soldiers had a hard time and needed reinforcements. At nightfall, Carson and a soldier explored 2 miles through three rows of Mexican sentries and walked barefoot for about 25 miles until they reached the closest US forces in San Diego – their feet touched by cactus figs and rocks where they stepped on. Thanks to Carson, the controversial Americans received reinforcements, preventing a catastrophic failure.
His ability to find his polls and read the signs of nature – abandoned by animals or humans – was unrivaled among his peers. A major from the army who knew him said Carson & # 39; the best follower of white men in the world & # 39; used to be.
Of all his activities, the most controversial was his involvement, in 1863-64, in the removal of Navajo Indians from northeastern Arizona to a reservation called Bosque Redondo, near Fort Sumner in New Mexico-so & # 39; n 400 miles away. It became known as the long walk because Navajos was forced to walk that unscrupulous distance, and several hundred Navajos died en route. Historians who have studied it fairly, however, believe that Carson only reluctantly followed orders from his army superiors, and possibly even quietly bypassed some orders that forced outright brutality. After all, it was his superiors who had built the reservation in the first place – not him.
Nevertheless, given the liberal anti-traditional nature of historical debates, some commentators today found it too easy to denigrate him as a racist frontier. But that is a ridiculous indictment. Carson & # 39; s first wife was an Arapaho-Indian woman, with whom he had two children. His second wife was a Cheyenne-Indian wife. His third wife was a Spanish woman, with whom he had eight children. A racist would not enter into interracial marriages, let alone children of mixed races. Enough said.
For firearm lovers, a regrettable legacy of many frontiersmen is that no firearm that they demonstrably own has survived (which, for example, the Daniel Boone fans have learned soberly in recent decades). But Carson & # 39; s legacy of firearms is better. It seems that at least two shotguns with a verifiable ownership history (which collectors call origin) are traceable to Carson.
Of these, the most commonly cited is a .54-caliber Hawken rifle with a 31-inch octagonal barrel currently at Montezuma Masonic Lodge in Santa Fe, NM. It is a production from the late 1850s and was acquired by the Lodge in 1868. when Carson died. It is not known how often or where he used it, but the date of the gun excludes its use during its fall years (1830) or on the expeditions of Fremont (1840). The other rifle is also a Hawken from 1850, but has a caliber of 56 with a 36-inch barrel and is in private hands. Hawken rifles were among the best-crafted American guns in the Carson era and they had a dedicated clientele, especially among mountain people.
Carson died in May 1868, probably as a result of sustained internal injuries he suffered after a horse fell in 1860. He is buried in Taos, N.M., where he had lived for many years. His house is now a museum, a small memorial for a man who played a major role in the establishment of the American West.
Kit Carson & # 39; s house in Taos, N.M., is a registered national historical monument, making it one of the 46 in the state.
Today, perhaps the most visible – and to be visited – reminder of his rugged outdoor legacy is a site near Guysey, Wyo. It is a well-preserved sandstone section of the 2100-kilometer Oregon Trail; this section still shows the rut made by the cars of men and women who led West for a better life, following the route followed by the expeditions led by Carson. To walk here is to follow in the footsteps of Carson.
John Colter: America & # 39; s First Mountain Man
About 25 miles east of Billings, Mont., Along Interstate 94 you see a huge rock called Pompey's Pillar (National Monument), located on the Yellowstone River. Historically, this 150-foot-high rock was a striking landmark for trappers who crossed deep into the beaver habitat. The most important of these was John Colter, whose journeys by foot and canoe brought him to this rock many times.
As a respected member of the Lewis & Clark expedition, Colter became a trapper and explorer who traveled hundreds of miles on foot in the Rocky Mountain region and was the first American to discover what is now Yellowstone National Park. Simply put, he is considered the first mountain man in America.
Yet almost nothing is known about his early life. He was probably born in the beginning of 1770, but nobody knows the date. It is said that he was born in Stuarts Draft, Va. (At Staunton).
Fortunately, a few people who knew him, including the two famous captains, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, wrote about his actions in different situations. So we know at least a few things about him.
There are no portraits of John Colter; the illustration on the far left is called "Frontiersman Head Study". These and others here are made by David Wright (davidwrightart.com).
His hunting qualities were clear during the expedition. For example, in September 1804, at current Yankton, S.D., Colter was sent to find a crew member who had been missing for days. While he spent a week looking for him, Colter had a stunning Midwestern buffet play to help feed the crew – a bison, a moose, three deer, a wolf, five turkeys, a goose and a beaver. This while the missing crew member, although he had a gun while lost and hungry for days, had killed only one rabbit.
By the time the expedition reached the Pacific Ocean in November 1805 – one and a half after leaving St. Louis – the two captains had developed a deep admiration for Colter's skills. That admiration led them to a unique decision about the return journey. In August 1806, in North Dakota, the expedition met two trappers who crossed the Missouri in search of beavers. Colter wanted to go with them. The two captains gave him permission – and made it clear to the remaining crew that no one else would get that privilege.
So Colter returned upstream with his two new companions, toward the Yellowstone River, and finally to his tributaries, where beavers had enough food. The following year he started working for a fur trader and, hoping to promote trade with Indian tribes, undertook a lonely, groundbreaking journey of several hundred kilometers through southern Montana and northwestern Wyoming, becoming the first of European descent affecting the timeless landscape of the Yellowstone region. During this months long journey in the Rockies, he continued to exist in a local game, locked up and fighting for himself.
Colter died in 1812, perhaps 40 years old, and left many unanswered questions. One is his firearms.
The "official" rifles of the expedition were 15 special-order guns. It was previously thought that they were model 1803. Today, it is believed that they were "1792 contract" rifles (.49-caliber flint made under government contract in 1792-94) specially adapted, perhaps up to .54 caliber, with barrels shorter than 42 inches more manageable in a tight keel boat.
Given Colter's excellent skills, the captains almost certainly let him use one of these special guns. And it is possible that he carried that gun when he left the expedition to pursue the fall.
Pompey's & pillar, left, still stands on the Yellowstone to inspire travelers, as it has for centuries.
Colter's most exciting adventure was an escape – just like escaping. In 1808, when he and a companion were detained near the current Three Forks, Mont., They were captured by the notorious Blackfoot Indians. They killed his companion and stripped naked Bald.
Then, surrounded by young fighters, Indian leader Colter beckoned to continue. He had to run for his life while he was being chased by the warriors. The captain allowed Colter a head start of a hundred meters, after which they launched a war hull and the warriors went hunting. Colter jumped and ran so fast that he was bleeding through his nose. Then a warrior who penetrated Colter tried to pump him, but fell into the process – and Colter grabbed the spear and stabbed the warrior.
After running for several miles while other warriors chased him, Colter reached the Madison River and, still naked, jumped into the cold water and swam under a pile of driftwood lying on the river bank. He breathed through a small opening between the rubble and lay completely still. The Indians walked all around him but did not see him. Over the next 10 days, he walked more than 200 miles to reach safety in a trading post about 30 miles east of the Pillar of Pompey. In Western history this amazing escape is called "Colter & # 39; s Run".