Kit Carson: The Life of an American Border Man

Kit Carson: The Life of an American Border Man

by David Remley

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History has portrayed Christopher "Kit" Carson in black and white. Best known as a nineteenth-century frontier hero, he has been represented more recently as an Indian killer responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Navajos. Biographer David Remley counters these polarized views, finding Carson to be less than a mythical hero, but more than a


History has portrayed Christopher "Kit" Carson in black and white. Best known as a nineteenth-century frontier hero, he has been represented more recently as an Indian killer responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Navajos. Biographer David Remley counters these polarized views, finding Carson to be less than a mythical hero, but more than a simpleminded rascal with a rifle.

Kit Carson: The Life of an American Border Man strikes a balance between prevailing notions about this quintessential western figure. Whereas the dime novelists exploited Carson's popular reputation, Remley reveals that the real man was dependable, ethical, and—for his day—relatively open-minded. Sifting through the extensive scholarship about Kit, the author illuminates the key dimensions of Carson's life, including his often neglected Scots-Irish heritage. His people's dire poverty and restlessness, their clannish rural life and sternly Protestant character, committed Carson, like his Scots-Irish ancestors, to loyalty and duty and to following his leader into battle without question.

Remley also places Carson in the context of his times by exploring his controversial relations with American Indians. Although despised for the merciless warfare he led on General James H. Carleton's behalf against the Navajos, Carson lived amicably among many Indian people, including the Utes, whom he served as U.S. government agent. Happily married to Waa-Nibe, an Arapaho woman, until her death, he formed a lasting friendship with their daughter, Adaline.

Remley sees Carson as a complicated man struggling to master life on America's borders, those highly unstable areas where people of different races, cultures, and languages met, mixed, and fought, sometimes against each other, sometimes together, for the possession of home, hunting rights, and honor.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Remley (Crooked Road: The Story of the Alaska Highway) separates the myth from the man in this engrossing portrait of frontiersman Carson (1809–1868), Dime novels about Carson began to appear well before his death, ruthlessly exploiting his name in fanciful fictions. In the unheroic reality, as Remley tells it, Carson left Missouri at age 16 for a life as a trapper and mountain man, "traveling the Rockies and the Far West, fighting with and living among Indians, getting revenge, killing while being shot at, recovering stolen horses, wading freezing rivers, hunting game, and surviving short days and long nights in snowbound winter camps." Marrying his third wife in 1843, he survived an Indian attack while a guide and adviser on John Frémont's 1840s Oregon-California expeditions; published reports of those expeditions brought Carson unwanted fame. Contrasting dangerous days and rip-roaring action with poignant moments of Carson's family life, Remley challenges recent revisionist representations of Carson as a "trigger-happy" outlaw and scoundrel. Instead, the nomadic Carson emerges as an aggressive, helpful, and caring man, who "matured intellectually and ethically as he grew older." Remley's Old West overview permeates this rich and rewarding work of scholarship. 25 b&w illus. (May)
Library Journal
Kit Carson (1809–68), a genuine American frontier hero in his own time, received much critical reinterpretation in the late 20th century as a glorified Indian killer. Remley (Adios Nuevo Mexico: The Santa Fe Journal of John Watts in 1859) follows the lead of Tom Dunlay's Kit Carson & the Indians to reject generational chauvinism to portray Carson according to the mores of his own frontier border culture and to emphasize the influence of his Scotch-Irish devotion to duty. The result is a biography showing Carson as a full participant in a deeply multicultural frontier society. Carson's early unquestioned embrace of frontier justice for immediate and fierce retribution is contrasted to his later rejection of punishing entire nations for the violent actions of a few, such as his public condemnation of the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre of Cheyenne and Arapaho despite his own role as an officer under General Carleton in the brutal subjugation of the Navajo in 1863–64. VERDICT This is highly recommended as a useful and balanced academic study, but the colorful writing of Hampton Sides's Blood and Thunder: The Epic Story of Kit Carson and the Conquest of the American West may have more appeal to general readers.—Nathan E. Bender, Laramie, WY
Kirkus Reviews

A fair-minded, sympathetic reappraisal of the Kentucky-born mountain man who was more of a guide and trapper than killer of Indians.

Legends of wild frontiersman Christopher Houston "Kit" Carson (1809–1868) sprang up by the mid-1850s. Remley demonstrates (Bell Ranch: Cattle Ranching in the Southwest, 1824–1947, 1993, etc.) that most of these legends had little grounding in fact. From the time he ran off from his apprenticeship at a saddle shop in Franklin, Mo., to his death at his last home in Fort Lyon, Colo., Carson was a man of action, making his livelihood as a trapper, guide, government scout and Indian agent. He was also illiterate, and dictated his early exploits in 1856 while living in Taos, N.M., with his third wife and numerous children. Later, his tales were imaginatively exploited in dime-store potboilers feeding Eastern readers' taste for the lurid. Remley attempts to shade in a more complex portrait of this anti-hero, less as a "simpleminded rascal with a rifle" who had helped lead the Navajo removal in Arizona and New Mexico, and more as a conduit between the whites and Indians, a man who learned Indian languages and had Indian wives. The author depicts Carson as very much a product of his Scots-Irish upbringing—from a large family of hardscrabble migrant farmers, clannish, fierce under attack, loyal to strong leaders. Having moved with his family from Kentucky to Missouri, Carson lost his father when the boy was eight, and he grew rebellious and independent. Traders to the saddle shop at Franklin, located at the end of the Santa Fe Trail, fueled his imagination, and he soon ran away to join a scouting party headed into the Rocky Mountains. Trading beaver skins was more profitable than gold, and his sure-shot survival skills attracted the likes of Lt. John C. Frémont, and later Gen. James H. Carleton, on government expeditions out West. Remley is a skillful narrator of this true-grit life.

With a biographical essay and index, this proves a solid, clear-eyed history lesson in the making of the Wild West.

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University of Oklahoma Press
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Oklahoma Western Biographies
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5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.00(d)

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Kit Carson

The Life of an American Border Man

By David Remley


Copyright © 2011 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-8327-5


A Young Boy in the Schoolhouse

Born in Kentucky in December 1809, Kit spent his boyhood at Cooper's Fort on the Missouri River. In later years he joked about his days in the log schoolroom Captain Cooper had set aside for the children of the fort. John Savage was their teacher. Legend is that Daniel Boone himself had brought Savage and a box of books out to Cooper's on the way home from a trip to St. Louis to sell deerskins. No one knows how long Kit went to school, or what he learned. Probably he could "figger" with numbers using a stub of pencil on a board. Everybody could do that. As for reading and writing, however, he learned nothing. "I was a young boy in the schoolhouse when the cry came 'Indians!'" he said years later, smiling. "I jumped to my rifle and threw down my spelling book and there it lies!"

Instead of learning to read, Kit mastered the rifle and other simple tools required to survive on America's borders where he would live out his life. His illiteracy would become a severe handicap later, after he joined government service as a guide, courier, Indian agent, and soldier. Curiously, he had a knack for picking up spoken languages besides the backwoods English he learned as a child on the Missouri border. Within a year of running away from home to Santa Fe in 1826, he spoke Spanish just by having lived among Spanish-speaking people. Later he learned the languages of the mountain and plains tribes he would live among. With the universal sign language of these diverse Native people, he became a speaker, negotiator, and diplomat of great skill. He never forgot features of the landscape or the detail of things he could see or hear or put to use with his hands. But he could never write down any of his vast, thoroughly practical knowledge on paper or fathom anything on the written or printed page.

The daily realities of life in western Missouri, where men cleared land with broadaxes, plowed around stumps to plant corn, stood guard against American Indians, and hunted deer with long rifles, did not encourage growing boys to learn their books. Besides, Kit had a hard childhood. And he was a rebellious teenage boy. At age sixteen he broke contract with the saddlemaker his mother had apprenticed him to and ran away from home. One story has it that his father, Lindsey, wanted him to become a lawyer. The law was a good profession for getting rich in a time when land was cheap, border settlement was booming, and shifty speculators bought and sold vast acreages, sometimes at great profit. But Kit showed no interest in books, and Lindsey was killed in a terrible accident. Soon Kit's mother married again. Kit and his brothers quickly went head-to-head with their stepfather, and then moved out, or may have been kicked out. Kit went off to live for a time with an older brother who was farming nearby. But that arrangement soon ended too.

Trying to bring the boy up as best she could, his mother apprenticed him to a local saddlemaker in a line of work always in demand in Kit's time, especially in Franklin, Missouri, where his family lived. The Santa Fe Trail started in Franklin. Horses and mules passed through here by the hundreds, probably thousands, heading for or returning from Santa Fe, where manufactured goods from the East were easily traded for Spanish mules and silver coin. A saddlemaker spent most of his hours repairing saddles, stacks of broken harness, and busted pack equipment, all of it made of leather, hand-stitched over wooden saddle and pack trees. He also made bridles and halters, and harness and reins. There was always plenty of work for a saddlemaker and his apprentice around busy town centers like Franklin.

But Kit soon got bored stitching leather. He was unhappy over the contract his mother and a local judge had drawn up for him. Of course he had had no say in the matter. By the summer of 1826 he decided to run off with a caravan bound for Santa Fe. One late night, as the story goes, he "borrowed" a mule from a neighbor and lit out. Although it appears that he struggled with himself for a year or two afterward, feeling guilty about having run off or just being homesick, he did not return to Franklin until after his mother had died and after his sisters had married and had children of their own.

In 1856, thirty years after he ran away, Kit decided to tell the story of his life. Long before then, however, he was known locally in the West as an experienced hunter and trapper. His real prominence outside the West, however, began when John Charles Frémont employed him in the 1840s as a general hand, hunter, and guide to his first three western exploring expeditions. Frémont's colorfully written government reports of the expeditions went through several commercial printings, which circulated in the East and in Europe as best sellers of their day. They turned a plain and capable Christopher Carson into an early-day celebrity, the famous "Kit Carson." The reports pictured him in colorful scenes as the master horseman, always-fearless defender, and ever-reliable friend.

In one such scene, Frémont described Carson horseback, protecting the men of the expedition from hostile Native warriors. In Frémont's words, when a terrified member of the expedition of 1842 came "spurring up in great haste, shouting Indians! Indians," Carson leaped up bareback and rode off alone to look for the enemy. "Kit Carson," Frémont wrote, sprang "upon one of the hunting horses, crossed the river, and galloped off into the opposite prairies to obtain some certain intelligence of [the Indians'] movements. Mounted on a fine horse, without a saddle, and scouring bareheaded over the prairies, Kit was one of the finest pictures of a horseman I have ever seen." By reading such prose, thousands of readers got the picture of Carson as the heroic horseman and fearless hunter of Indians. It hardly mattered that the report was false. The band of Indians turned out to be only a herd of elk. John Wayne himself could not have done more with less.

As early as 1847, when Kit traveled to Washington carrying official letters, Frémont's reports had made him famous, a fame multiplied by his connection (through Frémont) with Frémont's lovely wife, Jessie, and her powerful father, Senator Thomas Hart Benton. An article that appeared in the Washington Union of June 16, 1847, and in the Supplement to the Connecticut Courant of July 3 described Kit as "one of the best of those noble and original characters" produced by the American West, a man of "genuine simplicity and truthfulness of disposition ... generosity, bravery, and single-heartedness to a degree rarely found in society." Thus journalists placed Carson in the company of "the best" of westerners: capable, courageous, generous, humble, a true "original." He was Cooper's Natty Bumppo all over again, and more.

Soon the dime novelists began pumping out their fanciful Carsons. As early as 1848 one such invention appeared in Holden's Dollar Magazine. In 1849 came Emerson Bennett's The Prairie Flower, and in 1850 a sequel, Leni Leoti, or, Adventures in the Far West. Bennett's Carson kills two charging Indians at the same time. He buries "his knife in the breast of one, and at the same moment, his tomahawk in the brain of the other." A moment later, "like an imbodied [sic] spirit of battle," Kit "thundered past ... on his powerful charger," and seizing the scalp lock of a warrior "in one hand," with "the other [he] completely severed his head from his body, which he bore triumphantly away." Also in 1849—just in time to feed the gold rush fever—appeared Charles A. Averill's Kit Carson, the Prince of the Gold Hunters, or, The Adventures of the Sacramento. Now the pasteboard Indian killer became the pasteboard gold hunter, a line of work that Kit never seriously followed. But that didn't matter. Averill, like Bennett and the other fictioneers, never let truth block the way to book sales. They pictured Kit as an Indian fighter who killed "the red varmints" and slaughtered "the savage critters" left and right as if that were his mission in life. This was the flimflam Carson created for people with pocket change and the inclination to read.

Then in 1858 the first biography appeared. It was titled The Life and Adventures of Kit Carson, the Nestor of the Rocky Mountains, from Facts Narrated by Himself. The name DeWitt C. Peters appears on the spine and title page as author, although just who actually wrote the book remained a mystery for years, and there are still elements of mystery about its circumstances. Dr. Peters became acquainted with Carson during 1854–56 while both men lived in Taos. Peters was stationed there as an army surgeon, Carson as the Ute Indian agent. A handwritten manuscript of Carson's life story, which Kit dictated (it is now known) to his clerk, John Mostin, turned up many years after the publication of the 1858 biography in, of all places, Paris, France, inside a trunk that held papers left by one of Dr. Peters's sons, William, after William's death. This autobiographical manuscript, today located at the Newberry Library in Chicago, contains various changes, corrections, and suggestions in Dr. Peters's handwriting. It is supposed now that Peters used this autobiographical dictation as a basis for the 1858 Life and Adventures of Kit Carson. However that may be, the great Carson scholar Harvey L. Carter characterized this heavily padded biography as filled with "excessive panegyrics and tiresome moralizing." When someone showed Carson the book in 1858 or 1859, without doubt reading him a passage or two from it, he remarked that Peters had "laid it on a leetle too thick."

Long before that, however, people had told Kit about the Carson exaggerations circulating in print. He was embarrassed by these exaggerations because he was generally a soft-spoken man who did not want to be the center of attention. Probably wishing to clear the record, he sat down with John Mostin in 1856 in Taos and began to dictate his own story as he remembered it. He said all that he had to say of his first year and a half in one sentence: "I was born on the 24 Decr. 1809 in Madison County, Kentucky."

Kit said nothing more of Kentucky or of his family's origins. Like Joe Walker, however, and a great many other border people of his time and place, he was of Scots-Irish ancestry. He was also a straight product of his ancestors' culture. The shared customs, beliefs, and practices of his forebears prepared him and his kind for life on America's borders. "The movement of people [westward] was more than simply the migration of individuals," wrote historian Malcolm Rohrbough. "It involved partly the transference of an old society, partly the creation of a new one." By "old society" Rohrbough meant the sum total of "the ways in which people related to one another, [their] common experiences, present circumstances, future hopes, and ... shared values and priorities." Daniel Walker Howe put this matter even more simply and clearly. "Participants in the Great Migration [from the British Isles]," he wrote, "remained loyal, often fiercely loyal, to their cultural heritages and resolved to recreate them on the frontier."

Forced out of Britain by greedy landlords and English meanness of every sort, Kit's people had first migrated with masses of other "lowlanders" from the lowlands of Scotland and England to Northern Ireland (also called Ulster) during the seventeenth century. The lowlands lie along the border between the Scots highlands to the north and England to the south. Americans gave the name "Scotch-Irish" or "Scots-Irish" to these lowland Scots who came to America by way of Northern Ireland in the eighteenth century. The name was a way to distinguish them from the Scots and English immigrants who were also arriving in wave upon wave from elsewhere in the British Isles during the same years. The term set the "Scots-Irish" apart from the "Irish" proper, people largely of southern Ireland, mostly Roman Catholic, many of them urban. Most of these Catholic Irish arrived later. The Scots-Irish like the Carsons were Protestant, mostly Presbyterian, of very strong opinion and combative as hell about it, to put the matter mildly. They hated not only the English with their "Anglican" Church and their voracious landlords but also the Scots highlanders and the native Irish, both of whom were largely Celtic and Roman Catholic.

Kit's mother's name was Rebecca Robinson. His grandmother's was Eleanor McDuff. His father's first wife's name was Lucy Bradley. All of these were common Scots, Scots-Irish, and English names. The Robinsons, McDuffs, and Bradleys were probably from the lowlands and from Ulster, although it is possible they came from elsewhere in the British Isles. A rural people, the Scots-Irish were farmers, stockmen, and small tradesmen whose parents and grandparents had been forced to rent, or to steal, a piece of land on which to scratch out a living in the lowlands. Mostly refugees of warring tribes and clans, they had drifted onto the poorest and thinnest of soils. There they lived on a shifting borderland between testy Catholic Celtic Scots to the north and mean-spirited Anglicans to the south. Arriving in Ulster later, they survived on grit in a bind between their stingy English landlords and the embattled native Celtic Irish.

When not fighting the Scots, the English, or, later, in Ulster, the native Irish, they fought among themselves. Generation after generation of them in the lowlands had mastered few skills other than how to use their weapons. Violence rose quickly in their hearts. They made good soldiers, and still do. If they learned much more than how to fight, it was about handling bony livestock and scraping cabbages and onions out of a stony garden on poor land. As for "the arts" and "learning," they had none. Scotland had its Edinburgh, England its Oxford and Cambridge, but the lowlands had no university where borderland people might study the arts and sciences. In Westering Man: The Life of Joseph Walker, Bil Gilbert wrote of these people: "For centuries ... as both participants and sullen bystanders whose welfare was inconsequential to either [the Scots or the English] they were regularly plundered, imprisoned, raped and massacred." Gilbert called the lowland Scots "the disposable people." These were Kit Carson's forebears.

Their rich English betters, considering them no more than a dangerous nuisance, had thought of resettling these disposable people somewhere else. Since titled Englishmen held the land in Northern Ireland, they decided to rent it to the scrappy lowlanders. If the poor could be resettled in Ulster, they might outfight the native Celtic Irish, born fighters themselves, and force them off the land. There was no one better suited to this nasty job than these ignorant, quarrelsome lowland Scots. Besides, these undesirable people were Presbyterians, born enemies of the Anglican Church, which harassed them continually. Kit's people, starting at least with his great-grandfather Alexander Carson, were resolute Presbyterians. Alexander Carson himself was a minister of that faith. Reverend Carson had served his church in Dumfries, a border county in the lowlands.

These Presbyterians were tough-minded Christians, not only because of the poverty and hardship they had endured, but also from the nature of their faith. They were followers of John Knox, the fervently ideological Calvinist thinker and leader, whose faction in the Scots Parliament had outlawed the saying of the Catholic Mass and abolished the pope's authority in Scotland. Parliament had also approved the so-called Scots Confession (1559) and the Westminster Confession (1644), which declared the "true Church," by which of course they meant their church, to be "invisible, known only to God, who alone knows whom He has chosen." The Calvinistic God these Presbyterians imagined was omnipotent, judgmental, and unbending without fail. He had from eternity "predestined" each one of his flock to hell or to heaven. All the "good works" performed in this life could avail a man or a woman nothing toward salvation in the afterlife. No one could ever know, until judgment day, to which group he had been assigned. Such a demanding faith in an inscrutable God coupled with their everlasting poverty kept believers in a perpetual state of anxiety. Dirt-poor followers of this strong faith, fighters to the core, the lowlanders and Scots-Irish were truly a hardscrabble people.

To add to their anxiety, the Church of England punished them for their nonconformist attitude, their stiff-necked refusal to give in. Nearly as powerful as the king himself, Anglican bishops saw to it that Presbyterians were denied the privileges of other citizens. They could not serve in the king's army and could not hold political or religious offices. Their ministers were forbidden to conduct public services, including marriage. Thus they were driven to be the most independent and resilient Britons of their day. It was first-rate training for a people who would soon be fighting the Indians for possession of land and scratching out a living in the cold forests of North America.


Excerpted from Kit Carson by David Remley. Copyright © 2011 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

David Remley is the author of Crooked Road: The Story of the Alaska Highway; Adios Nuevo Mexico: The Santa Fe Journal of John Watts in 1859; and Bell Ranch: Cattle Ranching in the Southwest, 1824–1946.

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