Tag Archives: Kit Carson

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 Towns We Love to Love

c 2014 by Jan MacKell Collins

There’s nothing quite so good as waking up on a sunny morning and hearing, “Wanna go 4-wheeling?” For me and my companion, whoever says it first, it’s nearly the same as hearing we just won a cruise. Except the only cruise we ever seem inclined to go on is the cruise we take over hundreds of miles of back roads. Yup, there’s nothing better than roaming a countryside without the luxury of pavement, eating out of a cooler, finding ghost towns, and collapsing at the end of the day either at a remote campsite or an historic motor court with plenty of cold drinks on hand.

These days, that last part is definitely a hit or miss situation. In the 30+ years we have spent—together and separately—bumping over faded pathways and careening around rock slide corners, we’ve seen a lot of old towns come and go, but mostly go. There are places where as recently as 20 years ago, lots of buildings were standing but now there are none. Places where vandalism, theft or new development has reared its ugly head with no respect for our past. Places that make us sad, but also places that make us happy because they are still standing and well-preserved. But having watched some of our favorite towns fade away, we’ve become a little more secretive about where they are, a little more vague about where we’ve been, and a little more hopeful that our beloved towns might last a little longer.

Prior to moving back to my native state of Arizona from Colorado, I spent decades rambling over precarious mountain passes, barely passable roads and overgrown trails in search of Colorado’s past. Unfortunately, with each passing year more fences appeared. Roads were gated. New homes were built right next to, and sometimes even on, cemeteries where the graves of the very pioneers who got us here lay forgotten. In the last five years I was there, aghast at no longer being able to access a place or encountering some new property owner who was too greedy to even recognize the true treasure they had, I heard myself muttering, “This is not the Colorado I fell in love with.” Now, in Arizona, I am quickly learning that the state has been too slow in preserving what they have left. Lots of ghost towns are still highly accessible, but the search and the trip to find them often yields nothing more than an empty field.

Fortunately, there are several alternatives to fighting against our places of the past facing imminent destruction. Evidence of this is becoming clear and more common in Colorado. One idea is to have a caretaker on-site during the months the town is accessible. They do this at Ashcroft, located near Aspen. The caretaker lives in what looks to be an original one-room cabin with no more than a bed, some furniture, water and some pegs to hang clothes on. For the right person, it’s the dream job of a lifetime, waking up each morning to the succulent scent of wild flowers, which are protected by law, and looking out the window at the magnificent old two-story hotel with its false front, which is also protected by law. Both laws would likely be violated on a regular basis if it weren’t for the caretaker.

Sometimes the best of both worlds are reached when an old ghost town is revived by residents. Such is the case with places like Bonanza and Crestone, north of Alamosa. Both have been occupied in recent years by summer dwellers, but now even a few die-hards are known to stick it out the year through. In some cases, towns are also protected by private owners who are often descendants of historic figures. Take Greenhorn, an 1840’s circa rest stop that later blossomed into a fur trading center and, even later, a small resort complete with a restaurant and zoo. The Fossceco family, residents since 1916, still own the land and have done their best to save the community’s buildings from falling apart.

St. Elmo is another classic example, albeit also a reason why historic preservation laws should be more stringent. Property owners obviously love their little town, with gracious signs asking visitors to stay in the street and avoid trespassing. But although more of the town remains than most other ghost towns, fires in the last two decades have destroyed some of the historic buildings. To make matters worse, newcomers in recent years have threatened the town’s historic fabric by expressing a desire to build modern homes amongst the old ones.

A lesson could easily be learned by observing what they are doing at Turret, another classic ghost town nestled up north of Salida. At Turret, the old town plat has been utilized to sell lots to new owners—with the agreement, however, that all new construction will follow the town’s historic aesthetics . That means no modern architecture, no electricity, and plenty of respect for what made this town what it was.

One place in particular that seems to have stood the test of time is Animas Forks, despite having no caretaker. Located between Lake City and Silverton, Animas Forks has managed to keep many of its buildings, including a landmark two-story home with a beautiful bay window. Although the town is located a good long way from civilization and lies in the path of some favorite off-road trails, and although hundreds of people walk into the house and to have their photo taken from the bay window, somehow it has prevailed.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is Ludlow, home of heart-wrenching, emotional strikes in 1914 that took the lives of several men, two women and eleven children. Situated on a remote county road between Walsenburg and Trinidad, the abandoned buildings of Ludlow are largely overshadowed by a beautiful granite monument depicting a miner, his wife and their child. In 2003, the monument was severely damaged when vandals chopped off the heads of the adult statues, including the woman’s arm. To the descendants of strike victims who still live in the area, the act was like vandalizing a veteran’s memorial wall. Supporters of the monument worked hard to raise funding to restore the statue, and a memorial event commemorated their efforts in 2005.

Thankfully, History Colorado (aka the Colorado Historical Society) continues to play a bigger part in preservation and stabilization efforts these days. Seems one can’t access any of the better known ghosts without seeing a sign regarding preservation efforts by the CHS. Sometimes the signs have obviously been there awhile, but they illustrate two wonderful ideas: the state is working diligently to save historic buildings, and the signs serve to deter vandals no matter how deserted the area appears.

Boggsville, Empire and Iron City are just some of the places receiving funding from the state. Founded in 1866, Boggsville served as the last home of explorer Kit Carson, as well as the county seat of Bent County. Since 1993, the state has been working to slowly but surely renovate the buildings at Boggsville, and the project is nearly complete. At Empire, located north of I-70 on the way to Blackhawk and Central City, four buildings that include Colorado’s oldest hotel, the Peck House, have been added to state and national registers. A rough and rocky road just before St. Elmo leads to the only remaining building at Iron City, a power plant that went under in about 1917 and was recently restored. A sign explaining the structure’s history ends with a most appropriate statement: “The historical heritage of the state of Colorado can only be preserved by the citizens themselves.”

So what to do? You can start by remembering the old adage about visiting ghost towns: Take only pictures, leave only footprints—unless the place is slated for demolition with no archeological digs or documentation planned. In that case, photograph what you find, carefully remove what artifacts you can with permission, document and photograph where you found them, and donate them to the nearest museum. There are indeed those wrapped in government bureaucracy who insist this last idea is wrong, and further submit that historic structures should never be moved in order to protect them from destruction. Better to know exactly where their history occurred, they say, than to move a building and confuse people as to the site of its original footprint. Let it fall. I disagree. After years of leaving something in place only to see it up for sale in a local shop or on EBay, I prefer being the rogue historian who saves a piece of history and assures it is preserved for all future generations to enjoy.

Better yet, joining local historical societies, History Colorado and Colorado Preservation Inc., the state’s leading preservation organization, will help keep you up to date and get you involved not only in finding ghost towns, but assisting in their preservation. Using a five-point criteria (significant events, significant persons, unique architectural points, geographic importance, and/or important discoveries related to prehistory or history), the History Colorado accepts nominations every year for everything from Indian campsites to trails to bridges and mountains to structures and even whole cities. To contact Colorado Preservation Inc., access their website at http://www.coloradopreservation.org. History Colorado can be accessed at http://www.coloradohistory.org.

In 2012 Anaconda, the last of over 20 abandoned towns in the famed Cripple Creek District of Colorado, was bulldozed and molded into the latest pit for a gold mine.

DSC02760