Tag Archives: Colorado explorers

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.

The Two Lives of John C. Fremont

C 2014 by Jan MacKell Collins

Portions of this article originally appeared in the Frontier Gazette.

In Arizona, John C. Fremont is remembered for serving as Territorial Governor from 1878 to 1881. Prior to taking office, however, he made history for decades as one of the premier explorers of the American West. Born in 1813, Fremont aspired to do great things. At the age of 25 he was appointed to the Corps of Topographical Engineers and began his career as a surveyor.

Following his 1841 marriage Jessie Benton, daughter of a Missouri senator, Fremont began planning his first expedition. In 1842 he led 22 men to explore the Platte River between Missouri and the Rocky Mountains. His guide was fellow explorer Kit Carson, whom he had met in St. Louis. Carson knew the way to South Pass, Wyoming as well as Colorado to the south. The endeavor was a success.

Fremont spent much time in Colorado the next year, planning a second expedition to California in 1843. Finding supplies lacking due to Indian uprisings in New Mexico, Fremont finally found assistance at an American farming community just south of Colorado Springs. “They had a fine stock of cattle,” he later reported, “and furnished us with an abundance of excellent milk.” The group successfully made it to California.

The adventurer undertook a third expedition in 1845. This time he led a group of 62 men from St. Louis to locate the source of the Arkansas River in Colorado. Rather than complete the project, however, Fremont decided to return to California and made a brazen attempt to overtake the territory on behalf of the United States. He was promptly arrested for defying orders and court marshaled.

By late 1848 Fremont had returned to Colorado to organize yet another expedition—this time to see if a railroad could pass through the Rocky Mountains. The trip was financed by Senator Benton, but Fremont could only gather about 30 men after seasoned settlers warned of an especially harsh winter. Carson was also unavailable, so Fremont stubbornly hired a mountain man to guide the group. The party soon became lost. The men were forced to eat their mules, belts and mocassins. Ten died. The survivors used pots to shovel through 30-foot drifts before making their way to Taos.

Fremont eventually returned to California and was elected Senator in 1850. The appointment only lasted for six months. By 1853 he was back in Colorado where he organized one last expedition to Utah, overcoming another harsh winter to complete the trip. In 1856 he next ran for president against James Buchanan. But his image was marred by his previous behavior, the failed third expedition and his position as an abolitionist. After losing the election, Fremont boldly attempted to abolish slavery on his own without seeking President Lincoln’s blessing. Once again he was court marshaled.

Fremont eventually received a presidential pardon, but his downward spiral continued. A railroad investment failed. By 1870 the family was broke, relying on wife Jessie’s writing career. Then in 1878, Fremont was appointed 5th Territorial Governor of Arizona. The family moved into a roomy home at Gurley and Marina Streets in Prescott. The rent was $90, but it gave Jessie a pleasant place to receive guests.
Unfortunately, the new governor was frequently absent while trying to regain his wealth. In 1881 Fremont was asked to either resume his duties as governor or resign. He chose the latter, moving to California a final time in 1887 and dying during a trip to New York in 1890, just months after receiving a pension from the government.
Today there are counties, towns, schools and festivals all over the West named for Fremont, the “Great Pathfinder”. His home in Prescott was relocated to Sharlot Hall Museum in 1971, where it remains a testament to a determined man whose epitaph should probably read, “He meant well.”