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The Nestor of the Rockies

Kit Carson, who died in 1868, comes midway in the list of American Indian– fighting frontier heroes that begins with Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett and ends with Buffalo Bill Cody. Cody was the genuine article in his youth but was soon seduced by the stage. His Wild West show with its Congress of Rough Riders of the World was hugely popular for a time, but he was not a man to balance income and outgo and he squandered or gave away several modest fortunes. Always strapped for funds and sometimes plain broke at the end of his life, Cody made one “final tour” or “last appearance” after another well into the twentieth century, before he died at last in 1917.

All of the frontier heroes killed Indians but none as conspicuously as Cody in July 1876, when he shot and scalped the Cheyenne warrior Yellow Hair in plain view of Colonel Wesley Merritt’s Fifth Cavalry and five hundred Cheyenne warriors at a place then called War Bonnet Creek. (It has since been demoted to Hat Creek.) Cody lifted the bloody mess above his head and shouted, “First scalp for Custer!”—referring to the one-time boy general killed with all his men on the Little Big Horn three weeks earlier. Within a week Cody had forwarded the Indian’s scalp, headdress, and other paraphernalia to Rochester, New York, where a friend put them on display in his clothing store window. Within a year Cody was reenacting the duel on the New York stage—so vigorously, in one performance, that he cut the actor playing Yellow Hair. Cody went on killing and scalping Yellow Hair for many years.

Killing Indians and taking scalps, glorious in Cody’s day, are generally condemned as barbarous now, but what people say changes more quickly than what they do. The body count of Vietnamese killed by Americans in any fiscal quarter of the war in Vietnam probably would have finished off the whole Sioux nation, with maybe a smaller tribe or two thrown in, and more than one American soldier kept personal score by taking the ears of his victims. Not long ago a museum curator, when the subject of Yellow Hair’s scalp came up, asked me if I had ever seen one. I had not. He pulled open the wide, shallow drawer of a case I had just been leaning against, and there, on a white cloth, were several scalps prepared in the Indian way—a palm-sized piece of hard dry skin, hair-side down, stretched with rawhide thongs on a round wooden hoop decorated with porcupine quills. The hair was long and black; these scalps had come from Indians. But the curator said he knew the whereabouts of plenty of others, and among them some blond, some red, some short, some silky suggesting they had been taken from children or infants. (The name of Cody’s Cheyenne victim, Hay- o-Wei [Yellow Hair], referred to the blond scalp he had taken from a white woman.)

It’s my guess a lot of Americans would react to those scalps hidden away in museum cases exactly as they would to a drawer full of Vietnamese ears: with horror and revulsion and a desire to get both under the ground as quickly as possible. What would be gained by that is hard to say but the feeling is easy to understand; and it is that feeling that has stopped people from celebrating frontier heroes like Cody and Carson.

Cody arrived late on the scene, when the West had already begun to fill up after the Civil War, and he departed early, giving up the hardships and dangers of scouting for the easier (as he found it) life of the stage and the circus arena. Kit Carson would have wilted in the flare of the limelight; public speaking, grand gestures, extravagant personal display before gawking multitudes would have made him tremble as no grizzly in the underbrush or band of Indians painted for war could have done.

Nothing in Carson’s early life prepared him to be a public figure. He had been born in Kentucky in 1809, one of an eventual fifteen children, and before he was two moved with his family to a frontier area of Missouri called Boon’s Lick at a time when the white population of the state was under 20,000. Indian raids were common and in October 1814, Carson’s father, Lindsey, one of a small surveying party, lost two fingers of his left hand when an Indian bullet shattered the stock of his gun. Another member of the party was killed by Indians who cut out his heart, “so it is said,” and ate it. His father’s gory wound, the memory of men guarding farmers in their fields, and the frequent reports of settlers killed, homes burned, and livestock run off all marked Carson as a typical child of the frontier, according to Tom Dunlay’s careful history of Carson’s reputation as an Indian fighter.

Just as typical was Carson’s spotty education—he could sign his name in shaky script but never learned to read—and an apprenticeship to a saddlemaker. The man he liked well enough but the work he loathed. Carson stuck it out until he was sixteen and then ran away to join a party heading for Santa Fe, where he found work as a teamster and eventually attached himself to a company of trappers. Over the next dozen years he pursued beaver all over the mountain West, fought Indians, twice married Indian wives, and earned a reputation as a good man in tight situations. By the time Carson was thirty he was a man of the wilderness, of few words, of plain grub and a bed on the ground.

It was Colonel John C. Frémont who made Carson famous with his account, published in 1845, of his early overland trips through the Rocky Mountains to California with Carson as guide. They had met three years earlier, on a steamboat on the Missouri. Carson, who was thirty-three, was returning home from a rare trip east to place his daughter Adaline in a convent school in St. Louis following the death of her mother, an Arapaho named Wannibe (Singing Grass). As the steamboat made its way up the Missouri Carson fell into conversation with Frémont, an officer in the corps of topographical engineers, who said he was planning an expedition to California. Sometime in the later 1850s Carson described the exchange in a memoir, probably dictated to one of his clerks while he was serving as agent for the Ute Indians in Taos:

I spoke to Colonel Frémont, informed him that I had been some time in the mountains and thought I could guide him to any point he would wish to go. He replied that he would make inquiries regarding my capabilities of performing that which I promised. He done so. I presume he received reports favorable of me, for he told me I would be employed.

The spareness of these remarks is characteristic of Carson speaking of himself; it has flavor but falls well short of Frémont’s stirring report of their adventures together, which went through numerous editions and secured Carson’s fame for the remainder of his life. Midway between the heroic frontiersman of Frémont’s account and Carson’s own laconic record is a convincing and in the main appealing version of the man to be found in a memoir by George Douglas Brewerton, a young army lieutenant who started east on horseback with Carson from California in May 1848. Carson was already a legendary figure among Americans living in California and Brewerton, only twenty years old, imagined before he met him that Carson must be “over six feet high—a sort of modern Hercules in his build—with an enormous beard and a voice like a roused lion….” But the man who joined the officers’ mess at army headquarters in Los Angeles was nothing like that:

The real Kit Carson I found to be a plain, simple, unostentatious man; rather below the medium height, with brown, curling hair, little or no beard, and a voice as soft and gentle as a woman’s. In fact, the hero of a hundred desperate encounters…was one of Dame Nature’s gentlemen—a sort of article which she gets up occasionally, but nowhere in better style than among the backwoods of America.

Carson and Brewerton and a party of twenty were not quite two months on the trail together, following the Old Spanish Trail 1,200 miles from Los Angeles to Taos, New Mexico, where Carson lingered for a few days with his Hispanic wife Josefa, while Brewerton pushed on to Santa Fe. But those weeks were enough to etch Carson indelibly in Brewerton’s mind. “I often watched with great curiosity Carson’s preparations for the night,” he wrote:

A braver man than Kit perhaps never lived…but with all this he exercised great caution. While arranging his bed, his saddle, which he always used as a pillow, was disposed in such a manner 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 use, but perfectly protected from the damp. Except now and then to light his pipe, you never caught Kit exposing himself to full glare of the camp fire. He knew too well the treacherous character of the tribes among whom we were travelling; he had seen men killed at night…clearly seen by the fire-light. “No, no, boys,” Kit would say, “hang around the fire if you will, it may do for you if you like, but I don’t want to have a Digger slip an arrow into me, when I can’t see him.”

But nature’s gentleman could go after an Indian as if he meant it and Brewerton tells one story of the sort that draws American readers up short. Not long after making camp one evening moccasin tracks were discovered near the horses; whether this would now constitute probable cause is doubtful, but in 1848 an Indian in the vicinity of horses was assumed to have theft in mind. Carson, Brewerton, and two others immediately snatched up their rifles and set out in pursuit. On reaching the crest of a bluff Brewerton heard Carson shouting,

There he goes”; and looking in the direction to which he pointed, I saw a Digger with his bow and arrows at his back, evidently badly frightened, and running for his life. Such travelling through deep sand I never saw before. The fellow bounded like a deer, swinging himself from side to side, so as to furnish a very uncertain mark for our rifles… Kit fired first, and, for a wonder, missed him; but it was a long shot, and on the wing to boot. I tried him next with a musket, sending two balls and six buck-shot after him, with like success. Auchambeau followed me, with no better fortune; and we had begun to think the savage bore a charmed life, when Lewis, who carried a long Missouri rifle, dropped upon one knee, exclaiming, “I’ll bring him, boys.” By this time the Indian was nearly two hundred yards distant, and approaching the edge of a steep canyon…. The thing was now getting exciting, and we watched the man with almost breathless care, as Lewis fired; at the crack of his rifle the Digger bounded forward, and his arm, which had been raised in the air, fell suddenly to his side. He had evidently been hit through or near the shoulder; yet, strange to say, such is their knowledge of the country, and so great the power of endurance, that he succeeded in making his escape…. From this time forward we had no more trouble with the Diggers.

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