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 William Bent 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.
In 1842, 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 1846, 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.
Carson played a prominent and memorable role in the Civil War in New Mexico. He helped organize the New Mexico volunteer infantry, which saw action at Valverde in 1862. Most of his military actions, however, were directed against the Navajo Indians, many of whom had refused to be confined upon a distant reservation set up by the government. Beginning in 1863 Carson waged a brutal economic war against the Navajo, marching through the heart of their territory to destroy their crops, orchards and livestock. When Utes, Pueblos, Hopis and Zunis, who for centuries had been prey to Navajo raiders, took advantage of their traditional enemy's weakness by following the Americans onto the warpath, the Navajo were unable to defend themselves. In 1864 most surrendered to Carson, who forced nearly 8,000 Navajo men, women and children to take what came to be called the "Long Walk" of 300 miles from Arizona to Fort Sumner, New Mexico, where they remained in disease-ridden confinement until 1868.
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.
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