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.