This Famous Person Game - January 2015
by Mike McLeod
It is difficult to live up to your own legend—particularly if the dime novels exaggerate your true adventures with fictional stories of fighting off dozens of Indians all by yourself—but Kit Carson came pretty close. Born in Kentucky, Carson’s family moved to Missouri when he was very young. His father was killed by a falling tree branch, leaving his mother and 14 children to fend for themselves. Being needed to farm and feed the family with no time for school, Carson grew up illiterate. Even so, during his lifetime he learned to speak Spanish, French, Navajo, Hopi, Ute, Arapaho, Paiute, Apache, and Cheyenne and communicate the sign language of the Plains Indians. He often served as a translator.
Kit Carson was a mountain man. While a teenage, he moved on his own to New Mexico, and from there he explored, trapped and hunted into California and north into the Rocky Mountains. I imagine his life as a mountain man was much like the movie Jeremiah Johnson, except during his life, Carson married two Indian women, one Cheyenne and one Arapaho, to Johnson’s one. Also, Carson chose to marry them (the second after the first died) and was not forced into marriage like Johnson.
A side note, the Jeremiah Johnson in the movie was based on a real person, Liver-Eating Johnston, who was a mountain man. His Indian wife really was killed by Crow Indians, but not for Johnston’s crossing sacred land, as portrayed in the movie. Liver-Eating Johnson did track down the Crow Indians who killed his wife, and that resulted in a blood feud between him and the Crow Tribe. However, Liver-Eating did not always fight alone; he enlisted help sometimes from other characters portrayed in the movie who were also based on real people.
Carson did not have a vendetta against Indians, but he did lead the military campaign against the Navajos who were waging war against white settlers and the other Indian Tribes in their area. He employed a scorched earth policy against them, and the Navajos surrendered. Carson left military service before 8,000 Navajos were forced on the Long Walk of 300 miles to Fort Sumner, N.M. in 1864. Many died on the way, and more died after arriving there because the military was not prepared to feed the number that arrived. The Navajos were allowed to return home in 1868.
Kit Carson in 1868.
Kit Carson when a young man.
Carson served as an Indian agent in New Mexico and Colorado and as the Colorado Territory’s superintendent for Indian Affairs. He once traveled to Washington, D.C., with leaders from the Ute Tribe to petition the government for better treatment for their people.
Carson’s national fame occurred after he acted as guide for John C. Fremont in 1843-1844 on his expedition through the Rocky Mountains to Oregon and California. Fremont’s reports to Washington, which extolled Carson’s skills, were published, and the public was enthralled. Carson went on two more expeditions with Fremont, and those reports also heightened his notoriety.
To his credit, Kit Carson was known as an honest man who was as good as his word. A quiet man, Carson’s actions did most of the talking. Standing just about 5 ½ feet tall, he was an expert horseman, crack shot, skilled tracker (he once tracked Indians who had stolen horses 40 miles and got them back), hunter, trapper, rancher, a Mason and co-founder of a Masonic order, and a father of ten children, most with his third and beloved wife, Maria Josefa Jaramillothen. They also ransomed and raised three Navajo children.
Christopher Houston Carson was born on Dec. 24, 1809 and died of an aortic aneurysm on May 23, 1868 in Fort Lyon, Co. He is buried in Taos, N.M. Just 58 years old at his death—which is probably miraculous considering the hardships he endured—Kit Carson’s exploits were legendary, even if he did not live up to the legend that was created for him.
Sherron Lawson of Roswell, Ga., correctly identified him.
Sides, Hampton, Blood and Thunder: The Epic Story of Kit Carson.
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