Kit Carson - John S. C. Abbott

Encampments and Battles


There was now a brief lull in the battle. The Indians had not left the field and by no means acknowledged a defeat. With very considerable military skill they selected a new position for the renewal of the fight, on broken ground among a chaos of rocks, about one hundred and fifty yards from the line of their opponents. They were evidently aware of the strong reserve approaching to join the trappers. With this reserve it was necessary that the trappers should make the attack, for they could not venture to move on their way leaving so powerful a hostile army behind them.

The Indians manifested very considerable powers of reasoning, and no little strategic skill. They took the defensive, and chose a position from which it would be almost impossible to dislodge them. The trappers awaited the arrival of their comrades, and obtained a fresh supply of ammunition. The whole united band prepared for a renewal of the battle. Thus far not one of the trappers had been wounded, excepting Cotton, who was severely bruised by the fall of his horse.

About an half hour elapsed while these movements were taking place with each party. The trappers all dismounted and then, in a long line, with cheers advanced in Indian fashion, from tree to tree, from rock to rock, every moment drawing nearer to their determined foes. The great battle, the Waterloo conflict, now commenced. Small as were the numbers engaged, limited as was the field of action, there was perhaps never a battle in which more personal courage was displayed, or in which more skill and endurance was called into requisition. Not unfrequently a trapper would occupy one side of a large boulder and an Indian warrior the other, each watching for the life of his adversary, while every fibre of mental and muscular power were roused to activity. Neither could leave his covert without certain death, and one or the other must inevitably fall.

For an hour or two this dreadful conflict continued. Gradually the superiority of the white man, and the vast advantage which the rifle gave, began to be manifest. The Indians were slowly driven back, from tree to rock, from rock to tree. Many of their warriors had fallen in death. The ground was crimsoned with their blood. The disheartened Indians began to waver, then to retreat; and then as the trappers made a simultaneous charge, and the rifle bullets whistled around them, to run in complete rout, scattering in all directions. It was in vain to attempt any pursuit. The women and children of the Blackfeet village were on an eminence, about a mile from their homes, awaiting the issue of the conflict. They also instantly disappeared, seeking refuge no one knew where.

In this battle a large number of the Indians were killed or wounded, we know not how many. But three of the trappers were killed, though many others received wounds more or less severe. The Indian village was located on very fine camping-ground. They left nothing behind them. An Indian woman needs no Saratoga trunk for her wardrobe. Their comfortable wigwams were left standing. Here Fontenelle allowed his party to rest for several days. The dead were to be buried, the wounded to be nursed, damages to be repaired, and a new supply of provisions to be obtained. Free from all fear of molestation, the trappers explored the region for miles around, and were very successful in taking beavers.

It is estimated that the various parties of trappers, then wandering among the mountains, numbered at least six hundred men. While our trappers were thus encamped, elated with their victory over the Indians, and still more exultant over their daily success in trapping and hunting, one day an express rode into the camp, and informed them that the rendezvous was to be held, that year, upon the Mud river, a small stream flowing circuitously from the south into Green river. The party, having a large stock of beaver on hand, set out to cross the main ridge of the Rocky mountains, to dispose of their furs at the rendezvous. It required a journey of eight days. As the trapping party, nearly a hundred in number, all mounted on gayly caparisoned steeds, and leading one or two hundred pack horses, entered the valley over the distant eminences, there were two scenes presented to the eye, each peculiar in many aspects of sublimity and beauty.

It was midsummer. The smooth meadow upon which the encampment was held was rich, verdant and blooming, a beautiful stream flowing along its western border. A fine grove fringed the stream as far as the eye could reach up and down. Not a tree, stump, or stone was to be seen upon the smooth, lawn-like expanse. Its edge, near the grove, was lined with a great variety of lodges, constructed of skins or bark, or of forest boughs. Horses and mules in great numbers were feeding on the rich herbage, while groups of trappers, Canadians, Frenchmen, Americans and Indians, were scattered around, some cooking at their fires, some engaged in eager traffic, and some amusing themselves in athletic sports. It was a peaceful scene, where, so far as the eye could discern, man's fraternity was combined with nature's loveliness to make this a happy world. Such was the spectacle presented to the trappers as they descended into the valley.

On the other hand, the trappers themselves contributed a very important addition to the picturesqueness of the view. Half a mile from the encampment, in the northeast, the land rose in a gentle, gradual swell, smooth, verdant and treeless, perhaps to the height of a hundred and fifty feet. Down this declivity they were descending, with their horses and their pack mules, in a long line of single file. They were way-worn pilgrims, and the grotesqueness of their attire, and their unshaven, uncut, and almost uncombed locks, added to their weird-like aspect.

Here the party met with two gentlemen, such as were rarely, perhaps never before, seen on such an occasion. One was a Christian missionary, Father De Smidt, who, in obedience to the Saviour's commission, "Go ye into all the world and preach my Gospel to every creature," had abandoned the comforts of civilization, to cast in his lot with the savages, that he might teach them that religion of the Bible which would redeem the world by leading all men to repentance, to faith in an atoning Saviour, and to endeavor "to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God."

The other stranger was an English nobleman, a gentleman of high character, of refinement and culture. In his ancestral home he had heard of the sublimities of the wilderness; the wide-spread prairies; the gloomy forests; the solitary lakes. He had heard of savage men, numbering tens of thousands in their tribes, almost as wild, as devoid of human traits as were the buffaloes whom they pursued with whoop and halloo over the plains. Curiosity, a very rational and praiseworthy curiosity, had lured him into these remote realms, that he might behold the wondrous works of God, and that he might study the condition of his brother man without the Gospel.

Kit Carson was, by a natural instinct, drawn into association with this refined English gentleman. They could each appreciate the other. They soon became acquainted, and a warm friendship sprang up between them. Mr. Carson subsequently wrote, in reference to Sir William Stuart:

"For the goodness of his heart and numerous rare qualities of his mind, he will always be remembered by those of the mountaineers who had the honor of his acquaintance."

The terms of the commendation show the virtues which Mr. Carson could appreciate, and which he was accustomed to practice. Of the missionary, Rev. Mr. De Smidt, it has been very truly written:

"Perhaps there never was a person, in the wilds of America, who became so universally beloved, both by the white and red man. While in the mountains he acted with untiring zeal for the good of all with whom he came into contact. Wherever duty called him, there he was sure to be found, no matter what the obstacles or dangers spread upon his path. He worked during a long series of years in these dangerous localities, and when he at length returned to civilization he left an indelible name behind him."

The Rendezvous continued for twenty days. It was a constant festival, like the Olympic games of the Greeks, or the renowned Tournaments of more modern days, with the exception that business was intimately blended with pleasures. It at length broke up into small parties. Kit Carson, with seven companions, followed down the Green river, to Brown's Hole; a narrow but sunny and fertile valley about sixteen miles long. Here he found a party of traders, who were on an excursion to a numerous and quite wealthy band of Indians, called the Navajoes. They seemed to have attained a degree of civilization considerably above that of any of the other tribes. They had fixed abodes; had immense herds of sheep, horses and mules. They had also attained, the art by a slow and tedious process, of weaving admirable woolen blankets; thick, warm and strong. These blankets were quite renowned throughout all that region, and brought a high price. Kit Carson joined the traders in their expedition to the country of the Navajoes.

Here they purchased many of these blankets, and a large drove of strong, fat mules. With these they crossed the mountains, to a distance of three or four hundred miles, to a fort on the south fork of the Platte river. At this place they disposed of their blankets and cattle to great advantage, and Mr. Carson promptly returned to the companions he had left at Brown's Hole. The traders undoubtedly received in payment the only currency of the country, beaver skins. These they probably took with them to St. Louis for ultimate sale. We know not how Mr. Carson invested his earnings. It is very certain that he did not squander them in riotous living. Subsequent events indicate that they were sent through the hands of the traders, Messrs. Thompson and Sinclair, to the States, there to be deposited to his credit.

The autumnal months had now passed away, and the blasts of approaching winter warned the hunters that they must seek a refuge from its storms.

Mr. Carson had produced so favorable an impression upon the men at the fort on the Platte river, that they sent him a very urgent invitation to return, and take the very responsible position of steward or purveyor for the garrison during the winter. They offered him such ample emolument that he accepted their proposition, though many other parties were eager to obtain his services. I cannot help remarking, in this connection, in special reference to any of my young readers, that this is the true secret of success in life. In whatever position you are, in whatever business you are engaged, be as faithful and perfect as possible. Promotion and prosperity are then almost sure.

The task which now devolved upon Mr. Carson was, with his rifle and such aid as he might need, to supply all the animal food which twenty men might require. He performed this duty, not only to the satisfaction of all, but such was his energy, his skill, his spirit of self-sacrifice, his entire devotion to his work, and the wonderful success which attended his exertions, that he secured universal affection and esteem.

With the returning sun of spring, Mr. Carson, having well performed his task, joined Mr. Bridger and four other trappers, to go to what were called the Black Hills. This was a limited mountainous range, far away in the north, extending a distance of about a hundred miles between the Laramie and Sweetwater rivers. These streams were tributaries of the north fork of the Platte. This region had perhaps never before been visited by either trapper, or hunter. They found beavers in plenty, and their success was excellent.

With well laden mules they again crossed the Rocky mountains to reunite themselves with the main camp of the trappers on Green river. They trapped on their way and continued success attended them. Thus enriched, they accompanied the main party to a tributary of the Wind river, where the annual Rendezvous was that year to be held. Here were renewed the usual scenes of the trapper's great Fair which we have already described.

As the Rendezvous broke up, Mr. Carson joined a large party, and recrossed the mountains to the Yellowstone, where they had already had so many bloody encounters with the Blackfeet Indians. They trapped successfully until the inclement weather forced them into winter quarters. Nothing occurred of any moment, until mid-winter. Daily parties went out for game and they always returned with an ample supply. In their snug lodges, gathered around their blazing fires, telling stories of past adventures, preparing clothing for the summer, feasting upon fat turkeys, and the choicest cuts of buffalo-meat and venison, a few weeks passed very pleasantly away. Being free from that most terrible of all earthly curses, intoxicating drinks, there was no discord, and this little community of mountaineers, in the solitudes of a Rocky mountain valley, were perhaps as happy as any other equal community amidst the highest conveniences of civilization.

One winter's day a little band of hunters, in their pursuit of game, were lured to a greater distance than usual from the camp. Their attention was arrested by certain signs which indicated that a band of Indians had passed by, and had endeavored carefully to conceal their trail. A close scrutiny so confirmed this opinion that they hastily returned to the camp with the declaration that savages were certainly prowling around watching for an opportunity to attack them. They knew full well that the wary Indians would never think of approaching their camp unless in overpowering numbers. It was deemed expedient not to allow the foe any time to mature their plans. A party of forty men was immediately fitted out, under the command of Kit Carson, to go to the hidden trail and follow it till the haunts of the Indians were discovered. The reputation of Mr. Carson was such that unanimously he was invested with dictatorial powers. Everything was left to the decision of his own good judgment.

With silent, moccasined tread the adventurers threaded their way over the broken country, and through a dense forest, when suddenly they came upon a band of Indians, manifestly on the war-path; painted, plumed and armed in the highest style of their barbaric art. The savages, on catching sight of the trappers, turned and fled with the utmost speed, without scattering. The trappers pursued with equal swiftness of foot. They had no doubt that there was a stronger band at some little distance, which the Indians were retreating to join.

The supposition proved correct. A large number of warriors had assembled, in a very good military position, and it was at once evident that they intended to give battle. Though the majority of them had only arrows and lances, many were armed with rifles. They were on a hill-side which was quite steep, rugged with boulders, and with a heavy growth of gloomy firs and pines. The field was admirably adapted for the Indian mode of warfare, and the desperate warriors of the Blackfeet were foes not to be despised.

Kit Carson possessed the qualities essential to a military leader. He was cautious as he was bold. He was very careful never unnecessarily to expose the lives of his men. Very deliberately he reconnoitred the position, and prepared for the battle. He had no doubt that, with what would be called a gallant rush, he might drive the Indians from him and gain a brilliant victory. But it would be attended with loss. By a slower process he was sure of the result, while his men would be protected from death and wounds. All of his men were armed with the best of rifles. They had a good supply of ammunition. They could afford to load with heavy charges which would throw the balls to the greatest possible distance. It was very difficult for the Indians to obtain ammunition. They therefore found it necessary to husband the little they had with great care. Consequently the Indian's rifle, but lightly charged, would seldom throw a bullet more than two-thirds the distance thrown by the rifle of the trapper.

Mr. Carson gave every man his position. They were all veterans in every exigence of Indian warfare. Each man was capable of independent action. They all knew the folly of throwing away a single shot. There was no random firing. Each man was trained to seek sure protection behind rock, stump or tree, and then to keep a vigilant watch, not only to guard himself but his immediate comrades from the missiles of the foe. Slowly the line of trappers was to advance upon the enemy, from point to point of protection, making sure that every bullet should kill or wound. The tactics of the battle secured the victory. The Indians fought with their accustomed bravery. But one after another their warriors fell killed or disabled.

As the gloom of a winter's night settled down over this awful scene of war, the savages retired in good order, across the ice of an arm of the Yellowstone, to an island in the middle of the river. They had adopted the precaution, unusual with them, of erecting here quite a strong fortress, to which they could retreat in case of disaster. Thus situated, both parties, wearied with the long conflict of the day, sought such repose as night could give to men sleeping upon their arms.

The trappers knew not what scenes were transpiring in the Indian camp on the island. As for themselves, they could only venture, with the utmost caution, to kindle small fires to cook their supper. They then carefully extinguished the embers, lest the flames should guide several hundred warriors in a midnight attack.

Mr. Carson was not aware of the strength of the Indian fortifications on the island. Not wishing to give them any time to strengthen their works, with the earliest dawn he put his men in motion. They crossed the ice to the island, where they found only silence and desolation. Not an Indian was to be seen. In the night the savages had retreated, and were then probably at a distance of leagues, no one could tell where. There were, however, many indications left of the results of the battle. The interior of the fort was quite crimsoned with fresh blood. A bloody trail led to a hole which they had cut through the ice in the middle of the river, and into which they had thrust the bodies of the slain. It was not their intention that the trappers should know how many of their number had been wounded or slain. Mr. Carson with his victorious associates returned to the camp.

A council of war was held. It was generally supposed that the powerful Blackfeet could bring five thousand warriors into the field. They were very resolute men; having been abundantly successful heretofore, it was not doubted they would strain every nerve to wipe out the disgrace of this defeat. The trappers were confident that the savages would soon appear again, with numbers which they would deem sufficient to annihilate the white men. Guided by the wisdom of Kit Carson, the whole camp immediately resolved itself into a military garrison. Intrenchments were thrown up to guard every approach. Everything was cleared away, around the camp within rifle range, behind which an Indian could secrete himself. The most trusty men were appointed as sentinels.

About a mile from the camp there was an eminence, several hundred feet high, whose summit commanded a fine view of the whole surrounding country. Every day some one was sent to that hill to keep a constant lookout.

The wisdom of Mr. Carson's measures was soon apparent. One morning the watch on the hill discerned, far away in the distance, a warlike band of Indians approaching. He had no doubt that it was, as it proved to be, but the advanced guard of the Indian army. He waved his signal to communicate the intelligence to the camp, and immediately hastened down to join his comrades. Every man sprang to arms and was at his post. Kit Carson had anticipated everything and had attended to the most minute details.

With firm self-confident tread the savages came on, a thousand in number, to crush by the weight of their onset, and to trample beneath their feet sixty trappers. It was an appalling sight even for brave men to look upon. They were all arrayed in their fantastic war costume, some on horseback splendidly mounted, some on foot, many armed with rifles, and others with bows, arrows, and lances which were very formidable weapons in the hands of such stalwart and sinewy men.

They came in separate bands, of two or three hundred each, and took position about a mile from the fort. As band after band came up, the prairie and the adjacent hills resounded with their yells of defiance. In the evening they held their war-dance, which the trappers well understood to be the sure precursor of the battle on the next day. Their songs could be distinctly heard in the camp, and as they danced, with hideous contortions, in the gathering shades of night around their fires, it seemed as though a band of demons had broken loose from Pandemonium.

With the first dawn of the morning, a large party of these warriors approached the fort to reconnoitre. They were evidently astonished in beholding the preparations which had been made to receive them. They could not, from any direction, approach within an eighth of a mile, without presenting their bodies a perfect target for the rifles of men who never missed their aim. These cautious warriors did not venture within half a mile of the fortress. But they were keen-eyed and sagacious men. They saw that the trappers were effectually protected by their breastworks, and that the fort could by no possibility be taken without enormous slaughter on their own side. Indeed it was doubtful whether, armed as the white men were, with rifles, revolvers and knives, the fort could be taken at any expense.

In their impotent rage a few random shots were fired at the fort, but the bullets did not reach their mark. The trappers threw away no lead. They quietly awaited the attack, and were so confident of their ability to defeat the Indians, that they were disappointed when they saw the reconnoitring party commencing to retire. They shouted to them in terms of derision, hoping to exasperate them into an attack. But the wary savages were not thus to be drawn to certain death. They retired to their camp, which as we have said was distant about a mile from the fort, but which was in perfect view.

Here they evidently held a general council of war. There probably was some diversity of opinion, as many speeches were made and the council was protracted for several hours. There was manifestly no enthusiasm on the occasion, and no exultant shouts were heard. At the conclusion of the council, the whole band divided into two parties and, in divergent directions, disappeared from view. After this the trappers were not again disturbed by the Indians. Indeed they feared no molestation. No Indian band would think of attacking a fortress which a thousand warriors had declared impregnable.

As soon as the returning spring would permit, the trappers broke up their encampment on the Yellowstone, and passing directly west through the very heart of the Blackfeet country, planted their traps on the head waters of the Missouri river. For three months they traversed many of the tributaries of this most majestic of streams. They were moderately successful, and in the early summer turned their steps south, crossing the mountains to dispose of their furs at the Rendezvous, which was again held on Green river. Here they remained in such social enjoyment as the great festival could afford them, until the month of August, when the Rendezvous was dissolved.