In the two decades he had lived and wandered in the West, Christopher Carson had led an unaccountably full life. He was only thirty-six years old, but it seemed he had done everything there was to do in the Western wilds—had been everywhere, met everyone. As a fur trapper, scout, and explorer, he had traveled untold thousands of miles in the Rockies, in the Great Basin, in the Sierra Nevada, in the Wind River Range, in the Tetons, in the coastal ranges of Oregon. As a hunter he had crisscrossed the Great Plains any number of times following the buffalo herds. He had seen the Pacific, been deep into Mexico, pushed far into British-held territories of the Northwest. He had traversed the Sonoran, Chihuahuan, and Mojave Deserts, gazed upon the Grand Canyon, stood at the life-leached margins of the Great Salt Lake. He had never seen the Hudson or the Potomac, but he had traced all the important rivers of the West—the Colorado, Platte, Sacramento, San Joaquin, Columbia, Green, Arkansas, Gila, Missouri, Powder, Big Horn, Snake, Salmon, Yellowstone, Rio Grande.
Carson was present at the creation, it seemed. He had witnessed the dawn of the American West in all its vividness and brutality. In his constant travels he had caromed off of or intersected with nearly every major tribal group and person of consequence. He had lived the sweep of the Western experience with a directness few other men could rival.
At first glance, Kit Carson was not much to look at, but that was a curious part of his charm. His bantam physique and modest bumpkin demeanor seemed interestingly at odds with the grandeur of the landscapes he had roamed. He stood only five-feet four-inches, with stringy brown hair grazing his shoulders. His jaw was clenched and squarish, his eyes a penetrating gray-blue, his mouth set in a tight little downturned construction that looked like a frown of mild disgust. The skin between his eyebrows was pinched in a furrow, as though permanently creased from constant squinting. His forehead rose high and craggy to a swept-back hairline. He had a scar along his left ear, another one on his right shoulder—both left by bullets. He appeared bowlegged from his years in the saddle, and he walked roundly, with a certain ungainliness, as though he were not entirely comfortable as a terrestrial creature, his sense of ease and familiarity of movement tied to his mule.
He was a man of odd habits and superstitions. He never would take a second shot at standing game if his initial shot missed—this, he believed, was "bad medicine." He never began a project on a Friday. He was fastidious about the way he dressed and cleaned any animal he killed. He believed in signs and omens. When he got a bad feeling about something or someone, he was quick to heed his instincts. A life of hard experience on the trail had taught him to be cautious at all times, tuned to danger. A magazine writer who rode with Carson observed with great curiosity the scout's unfailing ritual as he prepared to bed down for the night: "His saddle, which he always used as a pillow, form[ed] a barricade for his head; his pistols half cocked were laid above it, and his trusty rifle reposed beneath the blanket by his side, ready for instant use. You never caught Kit exposing himself to the full glare of the camp fire." When traveling, the writer noticed, Carson "scarcely spoke," and his eye "was continually examining the country, his manner that of a man deeply impressed with a sense of responsibility."
When he did speak, Carson talked in the twangy cadences of backwoods Missouri—thar and har, ain't and yonder, thataway and crick and I reckon so. It seemed right that this ultimate Westerner should be from Missouri, the Ur-country of the trans-Mississippi frontier, the mother state.
Out west, Carson had learned to speak Spanish and French fluently, and he knew healthy smatterings of Navajo, Ute, Comanche, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Crow, Blackfoot, Shoshone, and Paiute, among other native tongues. He also knew Indian sign language and, one way or another, could communicate with most any tribe in the West. And yet for all his facility with language, Kit Carson was illiterate.
Although he was a mountain man, a fraternity legendary for swilling and creative profanity, Carson was a straight arrow—"as clean as a hound's tooth" as one friend put it. He liked poker and often smoked a pipe, but he drank very little and was not given to womanizing. He was now married to a Hispanic girl from Taos, Josefa Jaramillo. Slender, olive-skinned, and eighteen years his junior, Josefa possessed "a beauty of the haughty, heart-breaking kind" according to one smitten writer from Ohio who got to know her, "a beauty such as would lead a man with the glance of the eye to risk his life for one smile." Only fifteen years old when she married Carson, Josefa was a bit taller than her husband. She was a dark-complected, bright-eyed woman whom one family member described as "very well-built, and graceful in every way." Cristobal, as Josefa called him, was utterly devoted to her, and to please her family, he had converted to Catholicism.
Especially now that he was a married man, Carson gave off none of the mountain man's swagger. "There was nothing like the fire-eater in his manner," wrote one admirer, "but, to the contrary, in all his actions he was unassuming." An army officer once introduced himself to Carson, saying, "So this is the distinguished Kit Carson who has made so many Indians run." To which Carson replied, "Yes, but most of the time they were running after me." His sense of humor was understated and dry, usually delivered with a faint grin and a glint of mischief in his eyes. When amused, he was prone to "sharp little barks of laughter." He spoke quietly, in short, deliberate sentences, using language that was, according to one account, "forcible, slow, and pointed, with the fewest words possible." A friend said Carson "never swore more'n was necessary."
Yes, Christopher Carson was a lovable man. Nearly everyone said so. He was loyal, honest, and kind. In many pinpointable incidents, he acted bravely and with much physical grace. More than once, he saved people's lives without seeking recognition or pay. He was a dashing good Samaritan—a hero, even.
He was also a natural born killer. It is hard to reconcile the much-described sweetness of his disposition with his frenzies of violence. Carson could be brutal even for the West of his day (a West so wild it lacked outlaws, for no law yet existed to be outside of). His ferocious temper could be triggered in an instant. If you crossed him, he would find you. He pursued vengeance as though it were something sacred, with a kind of dogged focus that might be called tribal—his tribe being the famously grudge-happy Scotch-Irish.
When called upon to narrate his exploits, which he did reluctantly, he spoke with a clinical lack of emotion, and with a hit man's sense of aesthetics. He liked to call his skirmishes pretty—as in "that was the prettiest fight I ever saw." He spoke of chasing down his enemies as "sport." After participating in a preemptive attack—others called it a massacre—on an Indian village along California's Sacramento River, Carson pronounced the action "a perfect butchery."
By the macabre distinctions of his day, he was regarded not as an Indian killer but as an Indian-fighter—which was, if not a noble American profession, at least a venerable one. But Carson did not hate Indians, certainly not in any sort of abstract racial sense. He was no Custer, no Sheridan, no Andrew Jackson. If he had killed Native Americans, he had also befriended them, loved them, buried them, even married them. Through much of his life, he lived more like an Indian than a white man. Most of his Indian victims had died in what he judged to be fair fights, or at least fights that could have gone the other way. It was miraculous he was still alive: He'd had more close calls than he could count.
Because Carson's direct words were rarely written, it's hard to know what he really thought about Indians, or the violence of his times, or anything else. His autobiography, dictated in the mid-1850s (and turned into a biography by a tin-eared writer who has charitably been described as an "ass"), is a bone-dry recitation of his life and leaves us few clues. It was said that Carson told a pretty good story around a campfire, but his book carefully eschews anything approaching an insight. His refusal to pontificate was refreshing in a way—he lived in a golden age of windbags—but at the same time, his reticence in the face of the few big subjects of his life was remarkable. He was, and remains, a sort of Sphinx of the American West: His eyes had seen things, his mind held secrets, but he kept his mouth shut.
Christopher Houston Carson was born in a log cabin in Madison County, Kentucky, on Christmas Eve of 1809, the same year and the same state in which Lincoln was born. A year later the Carson family pulled up stakes and trekked west from Kentucky to the Missouri frontier, with little Christopher, whom they nicknamed "Kit," facing forward in the saddle, swaddled in his mother's arms. The Carsons chose a spot in the wilderness near the Missouri River and hacked their farm from a large tract that had been part of a Spanish land grant bought by the sons of Daniel Boone, prior to the Louisiana Purchase. It was known indelicately as "Boone's Lick," for the salt deposits that attracted wild game and which the Boone family successfully mined. The Boones and the Carsons would become close family friends—working, socializing, and intermarrying with one another.
Kit was a quiet, stubborn, reliable kid with bright blue eyes. Although he had a small frame—a consequence, perhaps, of his having been born two months premature—he was tough and strong, with large, agile hands. His first toy was a wooden gun whittled by one of his brothers. Kit showed enough intellectual promise at an early age that his father, Lindsey Carson, dreamed he would be a lawyer.
Lindsey Carson was a farmer of Scotch-Irish Presbyterian stock who had lived most of his young life in North Carolina and fought in the Revolutionary War under Gen. Wade Hampton. The elder Carson had an enormous family—five children by his first wife and ten by Kit's mother, Rebecca Robinson. Of those fifteen children, Kit was the eleventh in line.
The Boone's Lick country, though uncultivated, was by no means uninhabited. Winnebago, Potawatomi, and Kickapoo Indians, among other tribes, had lived around the Missouri River Valley for many generations, and they were often aggressively hostile to white encroachment. For their own safety the pioneers in the Boone's Lick country had to live huddled together in cabins built near forts, and the men tended the fields with armed sentries constantly patrolling the forest clearings. All able-bodied men were members of the local militia. Most cabins were designed with rifle loopholes so settlers, barricaded within, could defend themselves against Indian attacks. Kit and his siblings grew up with a constant fear of being kidnapped. "When we would go to school or any distance away from our house," Kit's sister Mary Carson Rubey recalled years later, "we would carry bits of red cloth with us to drop if we were captured by Indians, so our people could trace us." Rubey remembered that, even as a little boy, Kit was an especially keen night watchman. "When we were asleep at night and there was the slightest noise outside the house, Kit's little brown head would be the first to bob up. I always felt completely safe when Kit was on guard duty."
One day when Kit was four, Lindsey Carson went out with a small group of men to survey a piece of land when they were ambushed by Sac and Fox Indians. In the attack, Kit's father was nearly killed. The stock of his rifle was shot apart and two fingers on his left hand were blown off. Another man in the party, William McLane, fell in the fight and, according to one vivid account, his Indian attackers cut out his heart and ate it.
Despite many incidents like this, some Missouri tribes were friendly with the settlers, or at least found it pragmatic to strike alliances and keep the peace. As a boy, Carson played with Indian children. The Sac and Fox tribes frequently came into the Boone's Lick settlements and carried on a robust trade. From an early age, Carson learned an important practical truth of frontier life—that there was no such thing as "Indians," that tribes could be substantially and sometimes violently different from one another, and that each group must be dealt with separately, on its own terms.
Before settlers like the Boones and the Carsons arrived, the country along the Missouri River, like so much of North America, was heavily forested. To clear land for planting, pioneers would sometimes "girdle" trees—cutting deep rings around the trunks—to deaden them. But the most expeditious way for farmers to remove dense thickets of timber was to set them afire. One day in 1818, Lindsey Carson was burning the woods nearby when a large limb broke off from a burning tree, killing him instantly.
Kit was only seven at the time, and his life would be profoundly changed. Although some of Lindsey Carson's children had grown up and moved out of the house, Rebecca Carson still had ten children to raise on her own. The Carsons were reduced to a desperate poverty. Kit's schooling ceased altogether, and he spent his time working the fields, doing chores around the cabin, and hunting meat for his family. As Carson put it years later, "I jumped to my rifle and threw down my spelling book—and there it lies."
Briefly, Kit became a ward of a neighbor. Then in 1822, Kit's mother remarried, and the obstreperous boy soon rebelled against his new stepfather. At age fourteen, Kit was apprenticed to a well-known saddler named David Workman in the small settlement of Franklin, Missouri. The boy hated this close and tedious shopwork. For nearly two years he sat at his bench each day, repairing harnesses and shaping scraps of hide with leatherworking tools. Because Franklin was situated on the eastern end of the newly cleared Santa Fe Trail, Workman's clientele largely consisted of trappers and traders, and the shop was often filled with stirring tales from the Far West. This bedraggled tribe of men in their musky animal skins and peltries must have impressed the young boy mightily, and one senses how the worm of his imagination began to turn. Sitting miserably at his station with his shears and his awls and his crimping tools, transfixed by the bold stories of these feral men, Kit began to dream of Santa Fe—the name signifying not so much a specific place as a new kind of existence, a life of expanse and possibility in fresh precincts of the continent.