Kit Carson - John S. C. Abbott

War with the Blackfeet Indians


At the close of the summer months the rendezvous was broken up, and all parties scattered; the traders to their homes, within the precincts of civilization, and the trappers to the savage wilderness. Kit Carson joined a party bound to the upper waters of the Yellowstone river. This is a large stream with many tributaries, all of which take their rise amidst the eastern ravines of the Rocky mountains, pouring their united flood into the Missouri at Fort William. From the head waters of the river, to the point where it enters the Missouri, there is a distance of five or six hundred miles, of perhaps as wild a country as can be found on this continent.

Here, amidst these rugged defiles, the mountaineers set their traps. But they caught no beaver. They then struck across the country, in a southeast direction, a distance of one or two hundred miles, to the Big Horn river, another large tributary of the Yellowstone. Here again they were unsuccessful. They then journeyed westward, several hundred miles, to what are called the Three Forks of the Missouri river. Here again they set their traps in vain. Our disappointed but persistent trappers turned their footsteps south, and having travelled about two hundred miles, passing through one of the defiles of the Rocky mountains, they reached the head waters of the Big Snake river. This is a large stream, some six hundred miles in length, which pours its flood through the Columbia river into the Pacific Ocean.

Here Kit Carson met a Mr. McCoy, formerly a trader in the employment of the Hudson Bay Company, but who was now out on a trapping excursion. With the consent of his companions, Kit Carson and five others withdrew from the larger party to join their fortunes with Mr. McCoy. A rumor had reached them that abundance of beaver were to be found at a distance of about one hundred and fifty miles, on Mary's river, since called the Humboldt. Here again they were doomed to disappointment. They followed down this stream, trapping in vain, for a hundred miles, till its waters were lost in what is called the Great Basin.

These hardy adventurers now directed their steps north, and after traversing a country, most of it wild and barren, about two hundred miles in extent, again reached the banks of the Snake river, midway between its source and its mouth. Here the company divided. Mr. McCoy set out to trap down the stream, about one hundred and fifty miles, to Fort Walla Walla, which was near the junction of this river with the Columbia.

Kit Carson and his band followed up the stream about the same distance, trapping most of the way. They, however, encountered continued disappointments. The region they traversed was dreary and barren in the extreme. Often there was no game to be found. They were brought to the very verge of starvation. For some time they subsisted upon nutritious roots, which they had adopted the precaution to take with them. When these were exhausted they were reduced to the greatest straits, and could be only saved from starving by bleeding the mules and drinking the warm blood. This is a resource which could not be repeated. The animals were also very poor, though enough of dry and scanty grass was found to keep them alive.

The whole party became frightfully emaciated, and they began to fear that they should be compelled to kill some of their mules. But the men themselves had become so weak it was with difficulty they could carry their rifles. The loss of any of these useful beasts of burden would terribly enhance their peril. It might compel them to abandon, not only their traps, but also their rifles and their ammunition. In this dreadful emergency they came across a band of Indians who proved to be friendly. But the savages were also in an extremely destitute condition.

Fortunately for both parties there was water at hand, and the withered herbage furnished the animals with sustenance. The Indians had a young horse which was respectably fat. It required all of Kit Carson's diplomatic skill and knowledge of the Indian character to induce the Indians to part with the animal. It was not until after much maneuvering that they succeeded in obtaining him. He was immediately killed and eaten. To the hungry men, the horse flesh afforded as delicious a feast as epicure ever found in the most costly viands.

At last Kit Carson and his men reached Fort Hall. Here they were, of course, kindly received by their countrymen, and all their wants were immediately and abundantly supplied. This fort was then mainly occupied as a trading post. As the men were neither sick nor wounded, but only half starved, they found themselves in a few days quite recruited, and ready again for any adventure of enterprise and hardship. During their sojourn at the fort the men were not idle. They had their saddles, clothing and moccasins to repair. All their outfit was in the condition of a ship which has just weathered a storm with loss of anchor, sails, spars, and leaking badly.

Having finished their repairs the party, in good condition, with their mules, set out on a hunting expedition. They were told that in a fertile region, about fifty miles south of them, large herds of buffaloes had recently been seen. The weather was delightful. They were all in good spirits. It was trapper philosophy never to anticipate evil,—never to borrow any trouble. At a rapid pace they marched through a pleasant, luxuriant well watered region, entirely forgetful of past sufferings.

On the evening of the second day, as they were emerging from a forest, there was opened before them a scene of remarkable beauty and grandeur. Far as the eye could extend towards the south, east and west an undulating prairie spread, with its wilderness of flowers of every gorgeous hue, waving in the evening breeze like the gently heaving ocean. The sun was just setting in a cloudless sky, illuminating with extraordinary brilliance the enchanting scene. Here and there in the distance of the boundless plain, a few clumps of trees were scattered, as if nature had arranged them with the special purpose of decorating the Eden-like landscape. But that which cheered the hunters more than all the other aspects of sublimity and loveliness, were the immense herds, grazing on the apparently limitless prairie. Many of these herds numbered thousands and yet they appeared but like little spots scattered over the vast expanse. The hunter had found his paradise; for there were other varieties of game in that luxuriant pasture, elk, deer, antelopes and there was room enough for them all.

Our adventurers immediately selected a spot for their camp on the edge of the forest, near a bubbling spring. With great alacrity they reared their hut, and arranged all the apparatus for camping, with which they were abundantly supplied. Poles were cut from the forest, and planted in the open sunny prairie, with ropes of hide stretched upon them. Upon these ropes they were to suspend strips of buffalo meat to be cured by drying in the sun. Every thing was prepared over night for the commencement of operations in the early dawn. The best marksmen were selected for hunters. They were to go into the prairie, shoot the game and bring it in. The rest were detailed to cut up the meat and hang it on the ropes to dry. After it was sufficiently dried, they were to take it down, and pack it closely in bundles for transportation.

These were halcyon days, and abundant was the harvest of game which these bold reapers were gathering. During the days thus spent, in shooting the game and curing the meat, the hunters lived upon the fat of the land. The tongue and liver of the buffalo, and the peculiar fat, found along the spine are deemed great delicacies.

In a few days a sufficient supply had been obtained to load all their pack animals. So heavily were they laden that their homeward journey was very slow. They were followed by a foe, of whom they had not the slightest conception. A band of Blackfeet Indians had discerned them from the far distance with their keen eyes. Keeping carefully concealed, they watched every movement of the unconscious hunters. When the party commenced its return they dogged their steps; in the darkness creeping near their encampment at night, watching for an opportunity to stampede their animals and to rob them of their treasure. Though Kit Carson had no suspicion that any savages were on his trail, his constitutional caution baffled all their cunning.

The fort was reached in safety, and the abundance which they brought was hailed with rejoicing. The party of hunters encamped just outside the pickets of the fort, where there was good pasturage for their animals, and where they could watch them. The inmates of the fort had fenced in a large field or barnyard which they called a corral. Into this yard at night they drove their animals, from the prairie, and placed a guard over them. At any time a band of savages might, like an apparition, come shrieking down upon the animals to bear them away in the terrors of a stampede, or might silently, in midnight gloom, steal towards them and lead them noiselessly away one by one.

Two or three nights after the arrival of the hunters at the fort, all the horses and mules were driven, as usual, into the enclosure; the bars were put up and a sentinel was placed on duty. It so happened that the sentinel, that night, was an inexperienced hand; a new comer, not familiar with the customs of the fort. He was stationed, at a slight distance from the enclosure, where he could watch all its approaches, and give the alarm should any band of Indians appear. He supposed that a large, well mounted band alone would attempt the hazardous enterprise of capturing the animals.

The latter part of the night, just before the dawn of the morning, he saw two men advance, without any disguise, deliberately let down the bars and drive out the horses and mules. He supposed them to be two of the inmates of the fort or some of his own companions, who were authorized to take out the herd to graze upon the prairie. Concluding therefore that he was relieved from duty, he returned to his camp and was soon fast asleep.

In the morning the horses and mules had all disappeared. They were nowhere to be seen. There was hurrying to and fro, for a solution of the mystery, when a short investigation revealed the true state of affairs. The cunning Indians had come in a strong party, well mounted, and were concealed at a short distance. Two of their number had gone forward and driven out the animals. The horses and mules are always ready to rush along with any herd leading them.

Placing the stolen animals between the van and the rear guards of their steeds, the Indians moved cautiously until they had gained some little distance from the fort. Then giving the rein to their powerful charges, with the fleetness of the wind they fled, over the hills and through the valleys, to their wild and distant fastnesses.

Not a single animal was left for the garrison or the trappers upon which to give chase. The Indians, who have but little sense of right and wrong, might well exult in their achievement. Without the loss of a single man, and even without receiving a wound, they had taken from beneath the very walls of the fort, its whole herd, leaving the garrison powerless to pursue. The loss was very severe to the trappers. Without their horses and mules, they could do nothing. It only remained for them to wait for the return of Mr. McCoy and his party, who had promised, after visiting Fort Walla Walla, to rendezvous at Fort Hall.

The Blackfeet Indians were at that time, forty years ago, the terror of the whole region. It is said that the warlike tribe numbered thirty thousand souls. Of course there could not have been any very accurate estimate of the population. Not long after this the small-pox prevailed, with awful fatality. One half of the tribe perished. The dead were left unburied, as the savages endeavored to flee in all directions from the fearful pestilence.

A month passed slowly away before Mr. McCoy with his party reached the fort. Very opportunely he brought a fresh supply of animals; having purchased a number at Fort Walla Walla. The united band returned to the Green river. Here Mr. Carson joined a party of one hundred trappers who, in their strength, were to plunge into the very heart of the Blackfeet country, on the Yellowstone river.

Arriving at the region where they were to set their traps, they divided into two companies of fifty men each. It was necessary to be always armed and on the alert, ready to repel any sudden attack. The duty of one company was to explore the streams in search of beavers and game for food. The other party guarded the camp, dressed, rudely tanned, and packed the skins, and cooked the food. The trappers were so strong, that they not only went where they pleased, but they were eager to come in contact with the savages, that they might pay off old scores. They were, however, not molested. Not an Indian crossed their path. They subsequently learned, as a solution of the mystery, that at that time the small-pox was making dreadful ravages. Thousands were dying and it was feared the whole tribe would perish. The Indians in their terror, had secluded themselves in the remotest solitudes.

Winter was now approaching, with its freezing gales, its drifting snows, its icy streams. It was necessary to find winter quarters for two or three months. The region, drained by the Yellowstone and its tributaries, extends over thousands of square miles. In one portion of the territory there was a mountainous region inhabited by the Crow Indians. As they were the deadly foe of the Blackfeet tribe, they were disposed to cultivate friendly relations with the whites, and to enter into an alliance with them.

Quite a large band of the Crow Indians joined the trappers, and conducted them to one of their most sheltered valleys. Here they reared their huts and lodges. The mountain ridges broke the force of the cold north wind. They had water and fuel in abundance. Game was not scarce and they had also an ample supply of dried meat in store. But as the season advanced, the cold became increasingly severe, until at last it was more intense than the trappers had ever before experienced. Still the trappers, with their rousing fires and abundant clothing, found no difficulty in keeping warm.

But the animals suffered terribly. Snow covered the valleys to such a depth, that they could obtain no food by grazing. It was with the utmost difficulty they kept the animals alive. They cut down cottonwood trees and thawed the bark and small branches by their fires. This bark was then torn into shreds, sufficiently small for the animal to chew. The rough outside bark was thrown aside, and the tender inner bark, which comes next the body of the tree, was carefully peeled off for food. There is sufficient nutrition in this barely to keep the animals alive for a time, but they can by no means thrive under it.

Quite a company of Indians reared their lodges in the same valley with the trappers. In the pleasant days they vied with each other, in various athletic games, and particularly in their skill in hunting. Both parties were very happy in this truly paternal intercourse. There were no quarrels, for there was no whiskey there. One barrel of intoxicating drink would have changed kindly greetings into hateful brawls, and would have crimsoned many knives. Independently of the anxiety, the trappers felt for their suffering animals, the six or eight weeks of wintry cold passed away very pleasantly. The returning sun of spring poured its warmth into the sheltered valley, melting the snows and releasing the streams. With wonderful rapidity the swelling bud gave place to leaves and blossoms. The green grass sprang up on the mounds, the animals rejoiced and began even to prance in their new-found vigor. The winter had gone and the time for the singing of birds had come.

The trappers were in need of certain supplies, before they could advantageously set out on their spring hunting tour. They therefore sent two of their party to obtain these supplies at Fort Laramie, which was one or two hundred miles south of them, on the Platte river. They did not return. They were never heard from. It is probable that they fell into the hands of hostile Indians, who killed them and took possession of all their effects. This was another of those innumerable tragedies, ever occurring in this wicked world, which are only recorded in God's book of remembrance.

The trappers, after waiting for their companions for some time, were compelled to enter upon their spring hunt without them. They continued for some time setting their traps on the Yellowstone river, and then struck over to what is called the Twenty five yard river. After spending a few weeks there, they pushed on to the upper waters of the Missouri, where those waters flow through the most rugged ravines of the Rocky mountains. Here again they were in the vicinity of their Blackfeet foes. And they learned, through some wanderer in the wilderness, that the main village of that tribe was at the distance of but a few miles from them.

In the previous collisions between the Blackfeet and the trappers, the Indians had gained decidedly the advantage. They had at one time driven the trappers entirely out of their country, having stolen their traps, and effectually prevented them from taking furs. In the conflict, in which Kit Carson was wounded, the Indians had retired, though with loss, still victorious, carrying with them all their booty of stolen horses. Most humiliating of all, they had, without firing a shot, captured all the animals of the garrison and the trappers at Fort Hall. And it was most probable that they had robbed and murdered the two men who had been sent to fort Laramie.

The trappers were all burning to avenge these wrongs. The thievish Blackfeet had made these assaults upon them entirely unprovoked. The savages were greatly elated with their victories, and it was deemed essential that they should be so thoroughly chastised, that they would no longer molest those who were hunting and trapping within those wild solitudes. The whole party of trappers struck the trail which led to the Indian encampment, and cautiously followed it, until they were within ten or fifteen miles of their foes.

The company, numbering a hundred men, with one or two hundred horses and mules, presented a very imposing cavalcade. A council of war was held, and Kit Carson, with five picked men was sent forward to reconnoitre the position of the village, and to decide upon the best points of attack. The rest of the company retired to some little distance from the trail, where they concealed themselves, obliterating, as far as possible, their tracks. It was deemed necessary to proceed with the utmost caution. The Blackfeet composed one of the most numerous and ferocious of all the Indian tribes. Their warriors were numbered by thousands. It was certain that they would fight, and that a high degree of intelligence would guide them in the battle.

After the lapse of a few hours, Kit Carson returned from his perilous adventure. He had attained an eminence from which he could look down upon the valleys of the foe, which was in one part of an extended plain in the midst of hills. He reported that there was some great agitation in the camp. There were runnings to and fro, driving in the animals from their pasturage, saddling and packing them, and sundry other preparations indicative of a general alarm. It might be that their braves were entering on the war-path. It might be that they were preparing for flight. It was not improbable that, through their scouts, they had gained intimation of the approach of the trappers. A council of war was held. Promptly it was decided to send out forty-three men, under the leadership of Kit Carson to give the Blackfeet battle. The remaining men, fifty-five in number, were left, under Mr. Fontenelle, to discharge the responsible duty of guarding the animals and the equipage. They were also to move slowly on, as a reserve force, who could rush to the aid of the advanced force, or upon which those men could fall back in case of disaster.

They soon reached the village. It was pretty evident that they were expected. But the savages had only bows and arrows. This gave the assailants an immense advantage. They had both rifles and pistols. Taking a circuitous route, they approached the village from an unexpected quarter. They were scarcely seen before a discharge of their guns struck down ten of the bravest warriors. But at that time it was an encampment rather than a village, occupied mainly by fighting men, who greatly outnumbered their assailants. The Indians fought heroically. Each man instantly sprang behind some tree where, protected, he could watch his opportunity and keep his foe at a distance. When a rifle was once discharged, it took some time to reload; but the Indians could throw a dozen arrows in a minute, with sinewy arms, with sure aim and with deadly power.

The battle was mainly in the forest, neither party being willing to encounter the exposure of the open plain. The Indians, behind the trees, watched their opportunity. As there were several Indians to one white man, and the trappers were necessarily dispersed, seeking the protection of the trees, the Indians, as soon as a rifle was discharged, would dodge from tree to tree, ever drawing nearer to their assailants. For three hours this battle continued. The ammunition of the trappers was nearly exhausted, and they remitted the energy of their fire, awaiting the arrival of their companions. The Indians comprehended the state of things and sagaciously resolved to make a simultaneous charge, before the trappers should have opportunity to replenish their powder-horns and bullet-pouches.

There was a distance of many rods between the two contending parties. The ground was mainly level, and there was no underbrush to intercept the view. The trappers saw and understood the movement for the charge. Every man was prepared, with his loaded rifle and revolver. On came the Indians, dodging, as they could, from tree to tree, but with an impetuosity of onset which excited the admiration of their opponents. The forest resounded with their shrill war-whoop. Carson requested every man to withhold his fire until sure of his aim. "Let not a single shot," said he, "be lost." It was a fearful moment, for upon that moment depended the life of every man in the party. Should the outnumbering Indians succeed in passing the narrow intervening space, the trappers would inevitably be overpowered and from the spear-heads of the savages, forty-three scalps would be waved as the banners of their victory.

There was no simultaneous discharge but a rattling fire, occupying perhaps sixty seconds. Forty-three Indian warriors were struck by the bullets. Eleven fell instantly dead; the others were more or less crippled by their wounds. Still the brave Indians rushed on, when suddenly there was opened upon them another deadly fire from the revolvers. This was a reinforcement of the strength of their foes which the savages had not anticipated. They hesitated, staggered as if smitten by a heavy blow, and then slowly and sullenly retreated, until they were far beyond pistol range. Some of the mountaineers were on horseback to carry swift aid to any imperilled comrade. Kit Carson was also mounted and with his eagle eye was watching every act of his little army.

One of his aids, a mountaineer by the name of Cotton, was thrown from his horse, which slipped upon some smooth stones, and fell upon his rider, fastening him helpless to the ground. Six Indians near by rushed, with exultant yells and gleaming tomahawks, for his scalp. Kit Carson, calling on two or three to follow him, sprang from his horse and with the speed of an antelope was by the side of his fallen comrade. The crack of his rifle was instantly heard; the foremost of the savages gave one convulsive bound, uttered a death cry and fell weltering in his blood. The rest immediately fled, but before they could reach a place of safety three more were struck down by the balls of those who had followed Carson. Two only of the six savages escaped.