Kit Carson is a name that anybody who is remotely familiar with the American West has heard many times. His exploits have been chronicled for well over 100 years. His name still lives on in many ways. If you have the opportunity to visit Taos, New Mexico you will see his name everywhere.
A Taos vacation is a treat in itself. There is the nearby Taos Indian Pueblo which attracts visitors from all over the world. Taos is an art community and the galleries are plentiful. Northern New Mexico is also home to the Carson National Forest. And there is the Kit Carson Home and the Kit Carson Museum as well as his final resting place. The Kit Carson Home and Museum rank at the top of Taos New Mexico attractions. If your travels take you to Santa Fe, a two hour drive to Taos is highly recommended. It's a beautiful car trip and you won't be disappointed.
The Legendary Kit Carson of Taos New Mexico
Kit Carson, pictured to the right, was a man with many careers. Fur trapper, mountain man, scout, soldier, Indian agent...his amazing adventures spanned all over the western U.S.
Kit Carson facts would fill a book and they have. We are planning to have further posts on the many adventurous exploits of Kit Carson, but in this post I wanted to focus on something that hasn't received the same exposure that his exploits have. It's interesting to take a look at the type of man Kit Carson was. What was he like to scout with? What was his personality like? What were his fears? I think it's an interesting story.
Kit Carson Turns Frontierman
Kit Carson was born Christopher Houston Carson on December 24, 1809 in Madison County, Kentucky, one of ten children.
The family then moved to rural Missouri. When he was 16 years old he left his Missouri home and became a frontier trapper. When he was 18 years old he met trapper Tom "Broken Hand" Fitzpatrick who was a partner with the legendary trapper Jedediah Smith ( shown below left) in the Rocky Mountain Fur Company. Jedediah Smith was credited with making the first overland journey to California while trapping.
The first time Smith was met warmly by the Spanish authorities but in his second expedition there he was not and didn't go back. Jedediah Smith was also the first person to enter the Oregon area overland. Jedediah Smith is also credited with the discovery of the South Pass Wyoming route through the Rocky Mountains along with Thomas Fitzpatrick. He was an amazing frontiersman and trapper and much more probably should have been written about Jedediah Smith. Possibly one of the reasons is that he died at the early age of 32.
What we do know is that leaving home at a relatively young age Kit Carson didn't receive a proper education and as a result was not able to read or write until his later years. That being said, what he lacked in formal education he was able to acquire a good amount as we say "street smarts". He learned the trapping trade as well as anyone and had very good instincts. Not a bad thing to have when you're trying to survive in a hostile wilderness.
So, how was Kit Carson described by some of his contemporaries?
Of Kit Carson's appearance...Mrs. Fremont, wife of the legendary explorer, noted " clear and fair, with light and thin baby hair, blue eyes, light eyebrows and lashes and a fair skin. He was very short and bandy-legged, long bodied and short- limbed". Kit Carson's official biographer, Dr. DeWitt Peters, wrote, "small in stature, but of compact framework. He had a large and finely developed head, a twinkling gray eye, and hair of a sandy color, which he combed back a la Franklin mode". "About as ready an appearing man as I ever saw. He looked as if he would know exactly what to do, if awakened suddenly in the night , ready for anything that might turn up at any moment" (J.H Wilber MS.,Bancroft Library).
How about Kit Carson's habits? The novelist Emerson Hough wrote, "Carson was not a drinking man, and did not approve of drinking".
Robert C. Lowry, who was with Carson at Fort Union New Mexico, said that he was " not a drinker, nor yet was he a teetotaler".
Biographer Dr. Peter's said, " Quick to act, and never known to boast". Robert C. Lowry wrote about Carson, " A man of the most kindly and gentle spirit; unassuming,quiet, and the last person one would supposed to be possessed of qualities that made him famous".
Captain Smith H. Simpson of the army who became acquainted with Kit Carson in Taos New Mexico when he visited there on army business said that when in Taos Carson liked to shed his uniform and dress in civilian clothes. He also said that Carson was irritated when addressed with a title. He just wanted to be called Kit.
During his early years, because of his lack of education, in regards to writing, the best Carson could do was scrawl his name. His ability to read and write came after middle-age. Even with this handicap, reportedly Carson would join in at storytelling particularly after a few sips of punch. Like many frontiersmen of his era, Carson enjoyed sitting around the campfire smoking his ever present pipe.
Another interesting facet of Kit Carson's personality was that he possessed superstitions of both the white man and Native American.
As an example, it has been reported that when Carson took a shot at a game animal and missed he thought it was "bad medicine". Also it's been written that for whatever reason, Kit Carson would not start a venture on a Friday.
In regards to fear...it seems that all mountain men like Carson had to learn how to handle fear just in order to survive. There's a story told that Kit Carson was chased by a grizzly bear through the woods. He found a tree to climb and he climbed it. His first fear was that the bear would climb the tree after him. What happened was that the bear started to dig at the tree's roots to topple it and thus capturing it's prey. Kit Carson supposedly just stayed up in the tree for a very, very long time at which after many hours the bear gave up and left. It's these type of situations that build courage and if not courage at least the instinct to act quickly. You would have to conclude that instinct replaced fear. The photo below left is of modern day Taos New Mexico, considered the true home of Kit Carson.
Kit Carson appears to have been a very friendly fellow who was always ready, willing and able to perform his duties. Whether he was leading a scouting expedition or simply a part of a band of trappers, he was willing to lend a hand and not pull rank.
While not big in stature, he made up for any physical disadvantages with sheer common sense and good instincts. He appears to have been an easy person to get along with whether that person was white, Native American or Mexican. Rather than a braggart, Carson was a modest man as shown for his dislike of formalities and titles preferring to be called just Kit rather than Lieutenant, his military commission given to him by President Polk. Every description I have seen put in writing describes Kit Carson as a pure gentleman.
The esteem he earned among his contemporaries assured that his name would live on indefinitely.
Today, while the Kit Carson Home and the Kit Carson Museum are located in Taos New Mexico, there are many places named after him. The town of Kit Carson Colorado, The Carson National Forest, the Kit Carson Park in Escondido California and there is a Kit Carson County in Colorado. Let's not forget that the capitol of Nevada is Carson City.
Kit Carson died much before his time on May 23, 1868 at the age of 58 in Fort Lyon, Colorado. The cause of death was listed a an abdominal aortic aneurysm. He was buried in Taos New Mexico next to his wife. His burial site is just a short walk northeast of his old home.
Hopefully this short description gives you a better idea of the real Kit Carson,. He was truly a legend in his own lifetime. We will be publishing more posts about the many frontier exploits of Kit Carson so please stay tuned. Below are website for the Kit Carson Home and Museum which will give you information to plan your Taos New Mexico trip.
(Article copyright Western Trips. Photos and images from the public domain)