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Kit Carson

Authentic Legend of the Desert Southwest

Christopher Houston, aka Kit Carson, was born the 9th of 14 children on Christmas Eve, 1809, in Madison County, Kentucky. During his long and illustrious career ranging throughout the desert Southwest, he was a trapper, a guide, a military scout, an Indian agent, a soldier, a rancher and an authentic legend.

Kit spent most of his boyhood in the Boone's Lick district of Missouri (then part of the Louisiana Territory), which later became Howard County. His father was killed by a falling tree limb when Kit was only 9 years old, and the need to work prevented him from receiving an education. He was apprenticed to a saddle and harness maker when he turned 14, but grew restless after a year and left home in 1826 with a wagon train heading west to Santa Fe.

From Santa Fe, Kit went north to Taos where he worked as a cook, errand boy and harness repairer. When he was 19, he was hired for a fur trapping expedition to California, where, in spite of his small stature (he never exceeded 5 and a half feet) he soon proved himself able and courageous. Between 1828 and 1840, Carson used Taos as a base camp for many fur-trapping expeditions throughout the mountains of the West, from California's Sierra Nevadas to the Colorado Rockies.

Like other white trappers, Carson traveled and lived extensively among Indians. His first two wives were Arapaho and Cheyenne, one of whom bore a daughter in 1836 and died shortly thereafter. But unlike other trappers, he gained renown for his honesty, courage and unassuming manner. According to one acquaintance, his "word was as sure as the sun comin' up."

In about 1840, he became employed by William Bent as chief hunter for Bent's Fort in Colorado, where his job was to keep the fort supplied with meat. In 1842, while returning from Missouri, where he took his daughter to be educated in a convent, Carson happened to meet John C. Fremont on a Missouri Riverboat. Fremont hired Carson as a guide for his first expedition, setting out to map and describe western trails to the Pacific Ocean. After returning to Taos from California in 1843, Carson married his third wife, Maria Josefa Jaramillothen.

Over the next few years, Carson's service guiding Fremont across the deserts and mountains of the American West, documented in Fremont's widely-read reports of his expeditions, made Kit Carson a national hero.

Carson was still serving as Fremont's guide when Fremont joined California's short-lived Bear-Flag Rebellion, just before the outbreak of the Mexican-American War in 1846. Carson also led the forces of U.S. General Stephen Kearney from Socorro, New Mexico into California, when a Californio band led by Andrés Pico mounted a challenge to American occupation of Los Angeles later that year.

On Dec. 6, 1846, these forces were attacked by Mexicans at San Pasqual, about 30 miles north of San Diego. On the third night of this battle, Carson and two others snuck through enemy lines and ran the entire distance to San Diego, where they brought help for Kearney's pinned-down forces.

Carson spent the next few years carrying dispatches to President James Polk in Washington, DC. At the end of the war, he returned to Taos and took up ranching. In 1853, he and his Mexican herders drove 6,500 sheep to Sacramento, fetching high prices because of the California Gold Rush.

In 1854 he was appointed Indian agent at Taos for two tribes of Utes -- a post he held with distinction until 1861 -- and occasionally served the Army as a scout in clashes with warring Apaches.

When the Civil War broke out, Carson resigned as Indian agent and helped organize the 1st New Mexican Volunteer Infantry of the Union Army, which saw action at Valverde in 1862. He was elected a lieutenant colonel and later rose to colonel. During his Civil War service he finally learned to read and write.

Most of Carson's military actions were directed against the Navajo, who had refused to be confined on a distant reservation. In 1863, Carson initiated a brutal economic campaign, marching through Navajo territory destroying crops, orchards and livestock. Other tribes, who for centuries had suffered at the hands of the Navajo, took up arms and joined Carson. After surrendering in 1864, 8,000 Navajo men, women and children were forced to take what came to be called the "Long Walk" of 300 miles from Arizona to Fort Sumner, New Mexico, where they suffered in confinement until 1868.

In 1865 Carson was given a commission as brigadier general and cited for gallantry and distinguished service. In the summer of 1866, he moved to Colorado to expand his ranching business and took command of Fort Garland. Ill health forced him to resign the following year, and in 1868 the family moved to Boggsville, near present-day La Junta, Colorado. He died in nearby Fort Lyons on May 23, 1868. The following year, his remains were moved to a small cemetery near his old home in Taos.

-- Bob Katz


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