Monthly Archives: July 2015

Kit Carson, Indian Fighter

Kit Carson

c 2015 by Jan MacKell Collins

As historical enigmas go, Kit Carson remains a most controversial figure. Wagon driver, interpreter, trapper, Indian fighter, commander and scout, Carson lived more in his 59 years than most of us can expect to live in our lifetimes. His numerous escapades gave Carson his place in history, making some love him and others hate him.

Christopher Houston “Kit” Carson was born on Christmas Eve, 1809 in Kentucky to a large family. In 1811 the Carson family moved to Missouri, where Carson was taught at an early age that Indians were different and therefore dangerous. Carson had no use for the little schooling he received. But his life became more complicated after the death of his father in 1818. Young Kit became a hard-to-manage teenager, especially after his mother remarried four years after her husband died. After bouncing between the homes of his mother and a brother, Carson found himself a ward of the court.

Carson learned his first trade in 1824 as a saddle maker. By 1826, however, the 16-year-old could no longer resist the idea of going West and joined a caravan headed for Santa Fe, New Mexico. In accordance with Missouri law, local newspapers published a wanted poster for the young boy’s return. But those who knew Kit knew what he wanted; the reward for his return was a mere penny, and no one took up the hunt.

On the trail to Santa Fe, Kit experienced first hand encounters with various Native American tribes, who mostly turned out to be mischievous thieves. Raised to believe that such savages were not trustworthy, Carson set about learning all he could about the Indian way of life. He soon discovered it was easy to trick or frighten most tribes into retreat or submission, but he also made many friends among the Indians.

Upon reaching Santa Fe, Carson took up quarters with Mathew Kinkead, a well-known settler in the area. Within a few short years, Carson learned various trades as a camp scout, wagon driver, cook, and Spanish interpreter. Three years after his arrival in New Mexico, Kit finally took an apprenticeship as a mountain man and explorer with Ewing Young. The two traveled with a party to California. Kit’s uncanny sense of direction helped the men overcome many a dangerous moment on the trip. Carson was duly paid a considerable amount of money for the expedition.

In 1831, Carson returned to the Rocky Mountains. His skills enabled him to work as an independent trapper for Rocky Mountain Fur Company. Such a job led to extensive travel all over what is now New Mexico and Colorado. Carson spent the winter of 1832 at the present day town of Fountain south of Colorado Springs, where his party built several log cabins.

Kit Carson’s escapades and adventures grew steadily. But it was not until 1833 that he earned the title of Indian Fighter, after winning his first apparent battle with some Indians who had stolen horses from his camp. The trappers in Carson’s party tracked them down, reclaimed their horses and fought the Indians, killing most of them.

Carson’s gruff new reputation as an Indian fighter was countered by his marriage to an Arapahoe girl called Waa-nibe in 1835. Carson coincidentally killed the girl’s rival before marrying her. Waa-nibe meant “Singing Grass” or “Singing Wind”, but Carson affectionately called his first wife “Alice.” Within two years, the couple had a daughter and named her Adaline. When Waa-nibe died after giving birth to a second child, Carson took Adaline to Missouri and left her with relatives. Eventually Adaline moved to California and married twice before dying in 1860.

Following Waa-nibe’s death, Kit remarried to a Cheyenne woman named Making Out Road. The two lived at Bent’s Fort, but the union was short lived. One day Making Out Road placed all of Kit’s belongings outside their lodge—the Cheyenne version of divorce. Undaunted, Carson worked as a guide and topographical explorer for the John C. Fremont Expedition from 1842 to 1844. Carson’s travels took him all over New Mexico, but also up Ute Pass between what is now Colorado Springs and Cripple Creek.

Between expeditions Kit Carson married an influential Spanish woman named Maria Josefa Jaramillo in 1843. He purchased an adobe home in Taos as a gift for his new wife, of whom he was very fond. Carson often called Josefa “Chapete”, his pet name for her. The couple would have several children together. Josefa’s sister, Maria Ignacia, was married to Charles Bent of Bent=s Fort. Bent was also Territorial Governor of New Mexico. Bent and Carson, along with Ceran St. Vrain, were destined to have many business dealings throughout the rest of their lives.

Kit Carson’s dedication to children extended far beyond his immediate family that now included the Bents. Several periods of his life indicate he took in the children of friends who died, including Indians. When Charles Bent was killed during an Indian uprising at Taos in 1848, Carson took charge of three of his children, Estefana, Teresina and Alfredo Bent. For the rest of his life Carson maintained a fatherly relationship with the children, even overseeing Estefana’s marriage to rancher Alexander Hicklin when she turned 15 years old. Until his death, Carson visited the couple often at their ranch at the base of Greenhorn Mountain, located south of Pueblo.

Carson was eventually hired as commander of Fort Garland. During the Civil War, he served as Brigadier General of the New Mexico Volunteers. Following the war, Carson returned to Fort Garland and met with Ute Chief Ouray to discuss the white man’s invasion of Indian lands. By this time, however, Kit Carson’s adventurous years in the Rocky Mountains were taking their toll. In 1867 he moved with Josefa to Boggsville, and the couple settled into retirement. Just a year later, Carson died from an aneurism caused by an accident years before. He died at Fort Lyon, just weeks after his beloved Josefa also died, during childbirth.

Going by his memoirs, it is obvious that Kit Carson preferred the treeless prairies and colorful canyons of southern Colorado. Although there is little to mark his presence here, one landmark does remain near Wetmore, south of Florence. Supposedly, a sizable rock still rests near the side of the road where Kit carved his initials with those of Josefa Jaramillo. It was his own romantic tribute to the woman who saw him as more than just an Indian fighter.

Little Sure Shot Aimed to Please

Annie Oakley

c 2015 by Jan MacKell Collins

Ironically, one of the West’s best known celebrities never crossed the Mississippi until she was well into her career. Yet for Annie Oakley, stories of her incredible shooting talents spread far beyond the west like wildfire. In a time when women were mostly confined to their homes and families, Annie dared to hone her skills in a man’s world – and win. Her achievements earned her a permanent place in history.

Born on August 13, 1860 in Ohio, Phoebe Ann Moses suffered an intolerably poor childhood. Her father died when she was very young, leaving Annie’s mother with eight children to feed. Susan Moses was forced to “farm out” her children, a popular term and mode of the day. Poorer families often farmed out their children to other families, who in turn employed them as farm hands around the ranch.

Annie spent much of her uneducated childhood living with such foster families, as well as in the occasional orphanage. One family was especially abusive; punishment was meted out in the form of a coatless and shoeless night spent in the snow. Annie never forgot the severe beatings she received, vowing never to recall the names of those who abused her. In her reflections of her life with the farmer and his wife, she referred to them only as “he-wolf” and “she-wolf”.

Eventually, Annie found her way back to her mother, who had remarried. Having already experienced starvation, Annie became a major source for the family’s food. A missed mark meant a missed meal, but as Annie’s shooting skills improved, she missed less and less. By the time she was twelve, she was shooting game birds for both food and profit. Whatever her family didn’t eat was sold to local eateries. Soon, Annie was earning a reputation for her fine shooting abilities.

Annie’s fame as a markswoman grew when she was invited to participate in a contest at the tender age of fifteen. Her opponent was Frank E. Butler, a professional sharpshooter some ten years her senior. Butler had made a public wager against all shooters who might come up against him. A restaurateur to whom Annie had sold top game encouraged her to go for it. Annie took the bet and met Butler at Cincinnati in November of 1875.  “I almost dropped dead when a little slim girl in short dresses stepped out to the mark with me.” Butler later recalled.

It was a match destined to change both their careers and their lives, forever. For Annie, used to shooting live fast-flying birds, the clay pigeons were a cinch. In spite of her victory over Butler, by just one shot, the older man fell in love with his petite successor. Within a year the two were married and on the road in theatrical productions. Annie, glad to cast off her haunted maiden name, took on the stage name of Annie Oakley as she progressed quickly from stage hand to star. Butler served as a sometime partner and more than apt manager.

In about 1885, Annie and Frank were employed by Buffalo Bill Cody to star in his traveling show. Then called Buffalo Bill’s Rocky Mountain and Prairie Exhibition, the show was on the brink of bankruptcy when Annie and Frank joined. Soon, however, Annie rose easily to the top of the playbill. Her incredible feats were unlike anything any other sharp shooting woman in the United States had ever come up with.

Before amazed crowds, Annie could shoot dimes from a man’s hand and cigarettes from his lips. She could also shoot the flame off of a moving candle. Another of her special feats was to shoot the middle of the Ace of Spades over her shoulder, relying on the reflection of a bowie knife. Perhaps her most exciting performance was the shooting of glass balls. As four balls were catapulted into the air, Annie would bolt 20 feet, vault over a table, retrieve her gun and blast each ball before it hit the ground. She could accomplish the same deed while standing on the back of a galloping steed. Chief Sitting Bull is credited with giving Annie her nickname, Little Sure Shot.

With Buffalo Bill’s show, Annie continued to scale the ladder of fame while liberating American women in a clandestine way. The wholesome little figure performed wearing knee-length costumes as her chestnut hair flowed down her backCtwo no-no’s for feminine dress of the day. Little argument was made, due to her honest, simple and private life outside the arena. On the road, Annie was the picture of a gentlelady, engaging in reading the Bible and embroidering. She and Frank lived comfortably in an amply furnished tent on the road. In fact, when Annie and Frank later built a home in New Jersey, closets were left out because Annie preferred to live out of a trunk.

The Buffalo Bill show once traveled to Britain, where the Grand Duke Michael of Russia challenged Annie to a match. Annie easily beat the Duke, 47-36. Her accomplishment amazed even Queen Victoria, who called her “a very, very clever little girl.” For the next fifteen years, Annie and Frank continued with the show, netting $1000 or more per week.

In October of 1901, Buffalo Bill’s renamed Wild West Show suffered its first real tragedy. The show train collided with another, badly injuring Annie Oakley. It took five operations and two years of therapy before she was able to walk again. With determination and grace, Annie also worked to shoot again and resumed performing and giving shooting lessons for another twenty years.

Tragically, a car accident in 1922 resulted in a broken hip, leaving Annie incapable of walking forever more. Gone were the days of the Wild West Show; Annie Oakley was never to fire a gun again. Ever practical, she had her gold shooting medals melted down and sold the lumps for charity. In 1926, Annie Oakley died in her sleep after arranging her own funeral, including a tailored gown for the affair. Frank, her husband of 50 years, followed her just three weeks later. During her lifetime, Annie had taken over $100,000 in prizes for her shooting. It was a fitting reward for the lady who aimed to please.