Kit Carson - John S. C. Abbott

The Chivalry of the Wilderness


On this second excursion of Mr. Carson to Washington as bearer of dispatches, he learned at Santa Fe, that the Senate of the United States had refused to confirm his appointment as lieutenant. It was a great wrong. Party spirit then ran high at Washington. His friends at Santa Fe advised him to resent the wrong, by delivering his dispatches to the officer in command there, saying he could no longer serve a government which refused to recognize him. His heroic reply was:

"I have been entrusted with these dispatches. I shall try to fulfill the duty thus devolving upon me, if it cost me my life. This is service for my country. It matters little, whether I perform it as lieutenant in the army, or as a mountaineer. I certainly shall not shrink from duty because the Senate does not confirm an appointment which I never sought."

In the then state of the country, there was perhaps not another man who could have conveyed those dispatches over the almost boundless plains, swarming with hostile Indians. It was well known at Santa Fe that the Comanche savages, in bands of two or three hundred, were watching the old Santa Fe road, for two or three hundred miles, that they might murder and rob all who fell into their hands.

Carson resolved to make a trail of his own. He selected but ten men. Pushing directly north, he reached a region which the Comanches seldom visited. Then changing his route, he struck the Bijoux river, and followed it down until within about twenty-five miles of its entrance into the Platte. He then traversed the plains to Fort Kearney, and thence proceeded to Fort Leavenworth without any molestation. His men and animals were in fine condition. His trail, though very circuitous, had led him through a country abounding in game, well watered and with a succession of rich pastures. Here he dismissed his escort, and proceeded to Washington alone.

Having delivered his dispatches, he immediately set out on his return, and reached his home in Taos in October, 1848. He had not been long at home, before the Apache Indians in the vicinity were committing terrible outrages. Colonel Beale, who was in command at Taos, learned that a large party of the savages were upon the upper waters of the Arkansas, with quite a number of white prisoners. He took two companies of dragoons, and Kit Carson as a guide. Upon reaching the river, he found two hundred Indians who had met there in grand council. The force of armed warriors was so strong, and their passions so aroused, that Col. Beale deemed it impossible to liberate the captives, who were Mexicans, by force. He therefore returned to Taos, to resort to the more peaceful operations of diplomacy.

There was at that time residing at Taos, an old mountaineer friend of Kit Carson, by the name of Maxwell, who had become quite rich. Fifty miles east from Taos, there is one of the most lovely valleys in the world called Razado. Fringed with lofty hills of luxuriant foliage, with a mountain stream meandering through the heart of the valley, and with the fertile prairie extending on either side, waving with grass and flowers, a scene is presented which is quite enchanting.

This valley Maxwell and Carson selected for their vast farms, or ranches, as they were called, containing thousands of acres. Maxwell erected a mansion which would be an ornament to any country town. Mr. Carson's dwelling, though more modest, was tasteful, and abounding with comforts. While earnestly engaged in developing and cultivating his farm, he heard that an American merchant by the name of White, while approaching Santa Fe in his private carriage, had been killed by the Apaches, and his wife and only child were carried off by the savages.

A command was immediately organized to pursue the murderers, and rescue the lady if possible. Kit Carson proffered his services for the expedition. The first object was to find the trail. They soon reached the place where the crime had been committed. The ground was strewn with boxes, trunks and pieces of harness, etc., which the savages had not thought it worth while to carry away. They struck the trail and followed it for twelve days without overtaking the fugitives. At last their camp was seen far away in the distance. Kit Carson was the first who caught a glimpse of it. He urged that they should draw unseen as near the camp as possible, and then make a sudden rush upon the Indians, with constant and unerring discharges from their rifles. He said that the savages in their consternation would run, each one to save his own life, without thinking of their captives. If there were a few moments allowed them for thought, they would certainly kill them before effecting their escape.

Unfortunately his counsel was not followed. There was hesitation, delay, and talk of parley. At length they made the attack. The Indians fled before them like deer. The body of Mrs. White was found in the camp, still warm, with an arrow piercing her heart. The savages, on their fresh horses, could not be overtaken by the wearied steeds of the dragoons. They were pursued for six miles. One warrior was killed, and several wounded. Sadly they returned. The little child of Mrs. White had annoyed the Indians by its cries, and with one blow of a tomahawk, its skull had been split open.

Mr. Carson speaking of this adventure modestly writes:

"I am certain that if the Indians had been charged immediately on our arrival, Mrs. White would have been saved. Yet I cannot blame the commanding officer, or the guide, for the action they took in the affair. They evidently did as they thought best; but I have no doubt that they now can see that if my advice had been taken, the life of Mrs. White might have been spared."

The expedition however was not a failure. The Indians were severely punished. Many of them fled with nothing but the scanty clothing they had on. Mr. Carson returned to Razado. The winter passed peacefully away.

In the spring, a band of Apaches entered the valley, shot the two herdsmen, and drove off a large number of animals. Kit Carson, at the head of ten dragoons, set out in sharp pursuit. After a ride of twenty-five miles, they came in sight of them, far away on the prairie. It was an open chase. Soon four of the horses of the dragoons gave out. The remainder of the party, consisting of Carson, six dragoons, and three settlers, pressed on. They soon got near enough to count the numbers of the Indians. There were twenty. Five of them were soon struck by rifle balls, and dropped from their horses. The heroic band returned with the stolen property.

Mr. Carson was now a farmer. In May, 1856, accompanied by an old mountaineer, he took fifty horses and mules to Fort Laramie, a distance of five hundred miles, and sold them to advantage. He then set out for home accompanied only by a Mexican boy. He remained at his farm through the following summer, a peaceful, industrious, busy man, loving his home and enjoying it. He had quite a number of Mexicans employed upon his large farm, whose labors he superintended. Much of his time he employed in hunting, thus abundantly supplying his large family with game. It is written of him, at this time:

"Mounted on a fine horse, with his faithful dog and gun, early each day he would start out on the prairies, to engage in the chase. In a few hours he would return on foot with his noble hunter loaded down with choice game. Sometimes it would be an antelope or elk. On another occasion it would consist of black-tailed deer, which are celebrated as being the largest and finest specimens of venison that roam the forests of any country, and are only to be found in the Rocky mountains; on another, wild turkeys, and then mountain grouse and prairie chickens, helped to complete the load. When thus provided for, it is no wonder that Kit's workmen loved their employment, and labored with good will.

"In his mountain home he was often visited by Indian friends who came to smoke the pipe of peace with him, and to enjoy his hospitality. He saw himself in possession of fine lands, well watered and well timbered. The soil, unsurpassed in richness and fertility, was a safe and sure depository for his seeds, telling him in its silent but unmistakable language, of the harvest in store for him. His stock was the best which heart could wish. And last, but not least, he was within a stone's throw of splendid hunting-grounds."

During the summer two gentlemen, Messrs. Brevoort and Weatherhead, were going to the United States from Santa Fe, with a large sum of money to purchase goods. One of the worst of frontier vagabonds, a fellow by the name of Fox, offered his services as guide, and to organize a company to escort them over the plains. He was a shrewd and plausible scoundrel, and his services were accepted. He enlisted a small but very energetic band of desperadoes, and conspired with them to murder and rob the gentlemen on the way. The deed was to be perpetrated when they should have got nearly across the plains. The murderers could then divide the rich booty among themselves, and scatter throughout the States.

One wretch who had been applied to to join the gang, but who for some unknown reason had declined, divulged the plot when he thought that his friend Fox was so far on his way that there was no danger of his being overtaken and arrested. The rumors of the diabolical plot reached the ears of Kit Carson. He knew Fox and his depraved associates well. The murder was to be perpetrated when the party should reach Cimaron river, about three hundred miles from Santa Fe.

In an hour the energetic man was mounted with a small band of his employes, all upon the fleetest and most powerful steeds. Most of the workmen on Mr. Carson's extended ranche were veteran pioneers. Every man was well armed, and led a horse in addition to the one upon which he rode. It was possible, and that was all, that by the most expeditious riding the travellers might be overtaken before the bloody deed had been performed.

Their path was over the open prairie. Onward they went as fast as their steeds could be safely urged. The second night out, they came upon a detachment of United States troops bound for California as recruits. The officer in command, Captain Ewell, knowing that the plains were infested with powerful bands of Indians, by whom the small party of Mr. Carson might be cut off, generously joined him with twenty men, leaving the rest of his party to proceed on their journey by slow marches.

They overtook the merchants just before they had reached the spot where their lives were to be taken. Fox was at once arrested. Messrs. Weatherhead and Brevoort were astounded when informed of the peril from which they had been rescued. Fox was carried back to Santa Fe and placed in jail. The merchants were entrusted to the care of fifteen men who could be relied upon. The rest of the gang were ordered immediately to leave the camp. Though their guilty designs were unquestioned, they would be difficult of proof. The grateful merchants offered Kit Carson a large sum of money for his heroic and successful efforts to save their lives. He replied:

"It is a sufficient reward for me to have been instrumental in saving the lives of two worthy citizens. I can not think of receiving one cent of money."

They all met that night gratefully and joyously, around their camp fires. With the exception of the guilty wretches who had been plotting murder, all were very happy. The emotions excited were too deep to allow of jollity. Indeed Kit Carson was never a jolly man. He had no taste for revelry. As in every man of deep reflection and true greatness, the pensive element predominated in his character.

It was a brilliant night, calm, serene and starlight. As Carson lay awake at midnight, thanking God for what he had been enabled to accomplish, it must have been an hour of sublimity to him, such as is rarely experienced on earth. While most of the numerous party were sleeping soundly around him, nothing could be heard but the howling of packs of prairie wolves, and the heavy tread of the guards, as they walked their beats.

We can not doubt that Mr. Carson was in heart thoroughly a religious man. It is the element of religion alone, which, in the midst of such temptations, could form a character of such remarkable purity. He was too reticent to speak of his own feelings and there were but few, if any, of the thoughtless men around him who could appreciate his Christian emotions.

Messrs. Brevoort and Weatherhead made a graceful acknowledgment of their obligations to Mr. Carson for the invaluable service which he had rendered them. In the following spring they presented him with a pair of magnificent revolvers. Upon the silver mountings there was engraved a brief narrative of his heroic achievement. Mr. Carson on his return to Razado, found pleasant and constant employment in carrying on his farm and providing many hungry mouths with game. His hospitable home was ever crowded with guests.

Early in the summer he set out with Mr. Maxwell and a large train of wagons, for the States. Leaving his animals and wagons on the Kansas frontier, he descended the river to St. Louis in a steamboat. Here he purchased a large stock of goods, and reascending the river, transferred them to his caravan. He then started with his long train to return to New Mexico. His route was through the rich pasturage to be found on the way to Bent's Fort. Just before reaching the ford of the Arkansas, he fell in with an encampment of Cheyenne warriors. They were greatly and justly exasperated by an outrage inflicted upon them by a preceding party of United States recruits. Kit Carson, though unconscious of this, perceived at once that something was wrong. These Indians had been very friendly.

With his customary caution, he ordered the caravan to press forward as rapidly as possible, through the country of the Cheyennes, while every man was ordered to be constantly on guard. Having advanced about twenty miles, he saw that the savage warriors were rapidly gathering around him, in ever increasing numbers. Throwing up an intrenched camp, he rode out to within hailing distance of an advanced party of the warriors, and proposed a council. His friendly words in some degree conciliated them. They were soon seated in a circle, and they smoked the pipe of peace. Carson had addressed them through an interpreter. They did not suppose that the pale face could understand their language. But he did understand it perfectly.

The savages began to talk very loudly among themselves. Carson, understanding every word they said, listened eagerly, hoping to ascertain the cause of their unexpected hostility. Openly, but as they thought secretly, they discussed their plot, treacherously to disarm the whites of their suspicion, and then to arise and massacre them all. With true Indian cunning, they had arranged matters so that it would appear that the Sioux Indians, had perpetrated the massacre, and that the white man's vengeance might fall upon them.

Suddenly Carson sprang to his feet, ordered every man who attended him, to be ready for immediate action. Then to the astonishment of the savages, in pure Cheyenne, he said to them:

"You see that I understand all that you have said. Why do you wish for my scalp? I have ever been the friend of your tribe. No one of you has ever been injured by me. There are some here whom I have met in past years. If they will turn to their memories, they will recall the former hunter of Bent's Fort. I have eaten and drank with them. And now without any provocation from me, you treacherously seek my life. If you do not instantly leave this place, I will order you to be shot."

The warriors disappeared on swift feet. Kit Carson's change of dress had so altered his appearance, that they did not at first recognize him. But they had not forgotten his reputation. Though they had counted his armed teamsters, and saw that they numbered fifteen, the Indian warriors held a grand council, and probably the decision was to withdraw without an attack. Perhaps they remembered their former friendship for Carson; perhaps they were intimidated by his military prowess. At all events, he was not again molested. The remainder of the journey to Razado was accomplished in safety, though the vigilance of this distinguished leader was not intermitted in the slightest degree for a single mile of the way.