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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.

No modern reader can fail to be troubled by the casual sporting mood of this passage, or to hope that the Indian got clean away, recovered from his wound, and maybe even succeeded in stealing an American horse or two before retiring from the strenuous life. Times change; the target practice of one era is the attempted homicide of another. Brewerton or Carson, discovered alone in the desert by a band of “Pau-Eutaw” Indians, doubtless would have expected to be treated the same way, but while that may legitimately be placed on the scale it doesn’t alter our judgment in the end.

In his dictated memoirs Carson never tells a story with Brewerton’s garnish of vivid detail; it’s just one spare episode after another, and a lot of them. But Carson’s own version of his life was a long time in reaching the public. It passed first into the hands of a Carson friend, an army surgeon named DeWitt Clinton Peters, who pumped it up into a fat biography written in the moralizing, overheated, dime-novel style expected at the time. Published in 1858, The Life and Adventures of Kit Carson, the Nestor of the Rocky Mountains from Facts Narrated by Himself set the dominant tone of Carson life-writing for nearly seventy years. But then, finally, in 1926, the actual facts as narrated by himself made their way into print, and another forty-odd years after that, in 1968, Harvey Lewis Carter published an edited and annotated version which does all that painstaking scholarship can do to separate fact and fiction.1

There was plenty of fiction to separate. In the decades after his death a number of aged frontiersmen told tall tales about Carson, but most of the fictions about Carson were labeled, sold, and read as fiction—dime novels, comic books, and eventually movies and a television series of the 1950s, The Adventures of Kit Carson. In all of these stories and films (several dozen of the latter, beginning in 1903 and ending in 1974) Carson wore the white hat. Rustlers, horse thieves, and stagecoach robbers were sometimes his quarry, but most of his feats were in defense of settlers from marauding red men. His territory was staked out by The Fighting Trapper, or, Kit Carson to the Rescue, a dime novel published by the firm of Beadle in 1879, which claimed he was “the most renowned Indian fighter the world ever produced.” Fighting fictional Indians was what Carson mainly did for a hundred years. But somewhere along in there, probably about the time American boys began referring to the boondocks of Vietnam as “Indian Country,” Carson’s public image was turned on its head and the Indian fighter of generations of schoolboys became the Indian killer of scholars who thought the US military’s search-and-destroy strategy in Vietnam reminded them of what used to be called “the winning of the West.” The indictment was drawn most clearly by the historian Clifford Trafzer in The Kit Carson Campaign: The Last Great Navajo War.2 “Many of the ‘infamous’ people of the West,” Trafzer wrote, lumping Carson with Davy Crockett, Wyatt Earp, and Billy the Kid, “had something in common—they were killers.”

Trafzer and other critics were not thinking primarily about the routine skirmishes with Indians bent on stealing horses, the sort of encounter described by Brewerton. Nor did the revisionists focus on Carson’s numerous fights with Indians during his years trapping beaver in the 1820s and 1830s, when as many as three thousand trappers spent the winter in ones and twos alone in the wilderness, worrying about thin ice and what was that noise in the brush? Something like a state of war existed between the trappers and the Blackfeet, who killed as many as fifty beavermen annually during the boom years of the fur trade. In one pitched battle Carson was among forty men who attacked a Blackfoot camp in the spring of 1838, “determined to try our strength to discover who had right to the country….” “It was the prettiest fight I ever saw,” Carson dictated to the scribe of his memoirs. Ten Indians were killed and “several” of them scalped.

What the revisionists had in mind was Indian-killing on the industrial scale, and in particular the episode in Navajo history sometimes called the nahondzod—the “fearing time,” when a relentless military campaign beginning in 1862 broke the military spirit of the Navajo and forced most of the tribe to leave their ancestral homeland around the Canyon de Chelly, in present-day northeastern Arizona, and move hundreds of miles to a hot, dry, dusty lowland at the edge of the Staked Plains known to the Navajo as Bosque Redondo, in what is now eastern New Mexico. There is no easy candidate for blame for the war, which came at the end of decades of persistent raiding, horse-stealing, kidnapping, and killing among the Navajo, the Mexicans, the whites, the Pueblo, and the Ute Indians.

Making peace among these born scrappers was like trying to make peace between dogs snarling over a bone, and quiet was no sooner established in one part of the country than fighting renewed in another. What changed the equation was not a sudden new burst of white land hunger or Navajo raiding, but the American Civil War. After defeating a Confederate force from Texas in June of 1862 the federal authorities decided to end Indian raiding once and for all by confining Indians to reservations. In June 1863 the new commander of the Department of New Mexico, General James Carlton, issued an ultimatum to the Navajo—surrender at Fort Sumner (Bosque Redondo) by July 20 or be considered hostile. This was unreasonable; the distance was long and the time short. When the vast majority of the Navajo predictably balked, Carlton began organizing for war, and he gave the job to Carson, a man he had known since 1851 and a colonel in the New Mexico volunteers since the beginning of the Civil War. How Carlton and Carson fought their war has been a prime target of the revisionists, and the episode was argued in detail in a 1996 collection of essays, edited by R.C. Gordon-McCutchan, which claimed that Carson the man and his war against the Navajo had both been caricatured by the revisionists. Now the dispute has been thoroughly considered anew by Tom Dunlay, author of a deeply researched previous book on the military use of Indian scouts, Wolves for the Blue Soldiers,3 and one of the editors of the complete edition of the Lewis and Clark journals recently published by the University of Nebraska Press.

There is no denying that Carlton was full of angry determination in 1863, and the revisionists do no violence to the facts when they describe the war against the Navajo as the kind of ordeal no people can forget. But the Carson who emerges from Dunlay’s impressively detailed account is a man engaged in an inherently cruel task—driving a people to abandon their ancestral home—not a man obsessed with body count. For Carson the campaign began in July 1863 when he set off into Navajo country at the head of some 850 men, including one hundred Ute scouts recruited by Carson himself. From beginning to end no set-piece battles occurred during the campaign; the Navajos were not like the Sioux, and limited themselves to lightning forays when the odds favored them, and flight when the odds did not. Carson’s “men”—the soldiers—were usually in the rear, trying to keep up, while Carson went out ahead in the Indian way with the Utes. His frequent reports cited Navajos killed in twos and threes, and occasionally eights or tens, the great majority of them by the Ute scouts. As the campaign continued, Carson criss-crossed the country, captured sheep and horses, and occasionally even caught a few Indians. His force, white and Ute alike, largely lived off the land, which meant plundering Indian fields for grain for the horses and beans, pumpkins, and melons for the men.

But as fall progressed the campaign ran aground; the horses and mules were played out, the men were exhausted, and the Navajo camps were usually empty when the troops rode in. Carson wanted to take the winter off to spend with his family in Taos but this request General Carlton flatly refused. He wanted Carson to sweep through the traditional Navajo stronghold, which Carson had so far avoided, insisting few Indians would be found there. But after vigorous prodding by the general Carson set out at last in January 1864 to invade the Canyon de Chelly and there he found the Navajo half starved, suffering from the cold of winter, and ready at last to give up the fight and move to Bosque Redondo. Weariness with running and fighting was part of the explanation, but just as important was trust in Carson’s assurance of safety if they surrendered. “They would have come in long since,” Carson reported at the end of January, “but that they believed it was a War of Extermination….” The toll of the war while Carson was in the field: seventy-eight Navajo killed in 1863, and another twenty-three killed in the Canyon de Chelly in January 1864.

The war ended for Carson in the Canyon de Chelly, but for the Navajo the nahondzod continued another four years with a far higher casualty count from hardship, hunger, and disease. Over the winter and spring of 1864 thousands of Navajo made the “long walk” to Bosque Redondo with the army as escort. Many died along the way and others succumbed at their new reservation. Energetic farmers in the Canyon de Chelly, with cornfields, irrigation ditches, and fruit orchards, the Navajo found it hard to resume planting in the hot, dry climate and sandy soil at the edge of the Staked Plains.

In 1868, after frequent entreaty, the Navajo were finally allowed to go home, reduced in number and cured of the raiding urge once and for all. Hardworking farmers and sheep-herders, the Navajo soon recovered in numbers and they are now the country’s largest American Indian tribe and occupy the country’s largest reservation in the Four Corners area of Utah, Arizona, Colorado, and New Mexico. Dunlay concludes his book with a long, careful weighing of the evidence and a verdict harsh against circumstance and time; the long history of conflict and raiding between whites and Indians was bound to lead to all-out war in the end, he believes; and that war was bound to be cruel in effect if not in intent, and it was bound to end in complete victory by the whites. But the military halted the violence once Navajo resistance ended, Dunlay argues, and Carson himself, a hard fighter, stuck to operations military in nature; he carried out no massacres and permitted none, and the worst of the Navajo ordeal took place after he had retired from the field.

The history of white–Indian conflict in the West includes numerous outrages, probably none more notorious than the Sand Creek massacre of November 1864, when Colonel John C. Chivington, in command of Colorado volunteers, attacked a peaceful camp of Cheyennes and killed as many as two hundred people, most of them women and children. Chivington, citing the two most famous Indian fighters of his day, boasted of his grisly triumph, “I have eclipsed [General William] Harney and Kit Carson, and posterity will speak of me as the great Indian fighter.” Two years later a traveler passing through Fort Garland, Colorado, heard Carson condemn the Sand Creek massacre and in a memoir tried to capture the voice of the man:

To think of that dog Chivington, and his hounds… And ye call these civilized men—Christians; and the Injuns savages, du ye? I tell ye what; I don’t like a hostile Red Skin any better than you du. And when they are hostile, I’ve fit em—fout em—as hard as any man. But I never yit drew a bead on a squaw or papoose, and I loathe and hate the man who would. ‘Taint natural for brave men to kill women and little children, and no one but a coward or a dog would do it.

There are plenty of Indian killers to condemn in the history of the West without dragging in Kit Carson and William F. Cody, but Carson and Cody have the virtue of being still at least dimly remembered, and how better to announce revision than to make villains of the heroes of yesteryear? But what’s gained in drama is lost in caricatures of the men themselves, from whom there is much to be learned. It is likely that most of the whites who flooded across the Missouri after the Civil War knew little about Indians, rarely saw them, and wished them simply to disappear. The history of official United States Indian policy is mainly a succession of schemes not to kill them, but to break tribal ties, end the speaking of Indian languages, and turn them into Christian farmers.

Carson and Cody both spent large parts of their lives in Indian country, getting along when they could and fighting when they must, and both were trusted and liked by Indians. Carson had two Indian wives before marrying Josefa and Cody infuriated reformers and bureaucrats by paying Indians to remain Indians—to paint their faces, wear feathers, perform traditional dances, and gallop bareback into circus arenas scaring small boys with eaglebone whistles and bloodcurdling war cries at a time when official policy was “to kill the Indian and save the man.”

Carson, as field commander in the Navajo campaign and agent for the Utes, played the larger conventional role in the history of white–Indian relations, but Cody is the more significant figure. His life has been often told but an important book remains to be written about the unique place he holds in American cultural history, marking the moment when the source of real fame in America shifted from the field of action to the imaginary world of stage and screen. Cody’s genuine exploits as hunter and scout won him a reputation in the West, but his reenactment of his adventures in his Wild West show—especially the shamelessly dramatized duel to the death with the Cheyenne chief Yellow Hair—made him famous the world over for a hundred years.

Carson and Cody shared courage, a love of the western landscape, and young manhoods in a time and place where game abounded and the Indians were wild. The game went first. Carson quit trapping and became a guide in the 1840s largely because “beaver was getting scarce.” In 1865 he and his friend William Bent told a congressional committee in a letter that the government would soon be required to feed all the Indians on reservations because “we know by personal experience…in a few years the last herds of buffalo will have disappeared.” Cody, of course, had earned his name as a meat hunter who often killed scores or even hundreds of buffalo in a day to feed railroad crews. The buffalo herds and the wild Indians survived Carson, but both were gone by the time Cody’s hair was white, and while the two men certainly didn’t accomplish these things by themselves, they both played a part, and they both knew it.

But in their character as men Carson and Cody could not be less alike—Cody outgoing, expansive, a man who loved talk, women, and drink; Carson quiet, sober with responsibility, a man with ever-stronger ties to home and family as he aged. You can see their histories in their faces—Cody, right up until the end, a man supremely confident of his own gorgeous splendor, with his long hair, his buckskins, his actor’s pose and generous wave of the hat. There is nothing on Cody’s mind in his photos. But in Carson’s, from middle age right up until his death in 1868, only a month after his wife, the whole history of the man seems to bleed through. Dunlay in his book makes a wonderful observation about Carson’s expression facing a camera; it reminds him of a passage in a travel narrative of the 1840s describing the mountain men who were Carson’s companions:

Habitual watchfulness destroys every frivolity of mind and action. They seldom smile: the expression of their countenance is watchful, solemn, and determined. They ride and walk like men whose breasts have so long been exposed to the bullet and the arrow, that fear finds in them no resting place.

To that list—“watchful, solemn, and determined”—I would add one thing more, the pang of sorrow and regret so often expressed by the old scouts, hunters, and Indian fighters. “I can’t help but pity ‘em,” Carson said of the Indians two years before he died. “They’ll all be soon gone, anyhow.” He was wrong about that, and he would have been glad to know it.

  1. 1

    Dear Old Kit’: The Historical Christopher Carson (University of Oklahoma Press, 1968).

  2. 2

    University of Oklahoma Press, 1990.

  3. 3

    Wolves for the Blue Soldiers: Indian Scouts and Auxiliaries with the United States Army, 1860–1899 (University of Nebraska Press, 1982).

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