Kit Carson - John S. C. Abbott

The Dispatch Bearer


Our explorers now pressed on for twenty-four hours without encountering any molestation, though they saw many indications that the Indians were hovering about their track. Hungry and weary, they reached Fort Lawson, on the Sacramento river, where they tarried for a week to recruit. They then followed down the river some distance, to the well-known camping-grounds, "The Buttes."

War between the United States and Mexico was in active operation. Colonel Fremont took the responsibility of capturing a weak Mexican post near by, at Sonoma, where he obtained several cannon and some small arms. His explorers being thus virtually resolved into an army, he marched, with Kit Carson as nominal Lieutenant, for the capture of Monterey. Before he reached there, the city was taken by an American squadron under Commodore Sloat. Colonel Fremont obtained a ship to convey him, with his fast friend Kit Carson, and one hundred and fifty bold mountaineers, who had attached themselves to his fortunes, a few hundred miles down the coast, to San Diego. Thence he marched upon Los Angelos.

It was becoming important to have some communication with Washington. To send dispatches around by the cape, required a voyage of weary months. To reach the capital by land, it was necessary to traverse an almost pathless wilderness four thousand miles in extent. Whoever should undertake such an enterprise, must not only live upon such food as he could pick up by the way, but also be exposed to attack from innumerable bands of hostile savages, urged on by still more hostile Mexicans.

On the fifteenth of September, 1846, Kit Carson undertook this hazardous enterprise. He was placed in command of fifteen picked men. The utmost vigilance was necessary every step of the way. He was instructed to make the journey in sixty days. For two days, he pressed on his way without molestation. The third day, he came suddenly in view of a large encampment of Apache Indians. Each party discovered the other at the same moment. There was instantly great commotion in the Indian camp; the warriors running to and fro in preparation for a fight.

Mr. Carson, acquainted with their language, and also familiar with all their customs, saw at once that his only safety consisted in reckless courage. He halted his little band, and assuming an air of entire unconcern, rode forward till he came within speaking distance, and of course within arrow distance of hundreds of plumed and painted warriors. He was entirely at their mercy. They might instantly pierce him, and almost bury him beneath a shower of arrows. The chief of the white men being thus killed, the rest of the party would fall easily a prey to their overpowering numbers. Carson shouted out to them:

"I come to you as a friend, and I ask for a parley."

Two or three warriors then came forward and with the usual preliminaries, held a brief conference. They could without any difficulty have seized upon Carson and held him as a hostage. But he knew that his only possible safety was in this apparent act of desperation. Having smoked the pipe of peace, he said to them:

"We come to you as friendly travellers, seeking only a passage through your country. We come to you as brothers, presenting the olive branch of peace. We do not wish to harm you. We ask only for your friendship. Our animals are weary. We would exchange them for those that are fresh. We will pay you well for the exchange."

If that be eloquence which moves the heart, this was eloquence. It changed the hearts of the Indians. Friendly demonstrations immediately took the place of preparations for a bloody fight. Carson pitched his camp at a short distance from the Apaches. His prudence, as well as his courage, was developed. He selected a site where in case of treachery, he could make a vigorous defence. Every man had rifle, revolver, and knife. Every man was instructed, while assuming an air of entire trust in the Indians, to be constantly on the watch. There was to be no surrender. In case of attack, every man was to sell his life as dearly as possible. The calm, self-possessed, invincible spirit of this wonderful man was infused into all his followers. Fifteen such men with rifles, revolvers, and knives, would make terrible havoc among a crowd of Indian warriors, before they could all be cold in death.

As soon as the camp was arranged, the Indians were allowed to come in. They smoked and feasted, and traded together, in the most friendly manner. Carson remounted all his men on fresh and vigorous steeds. The next morning he went on his way rejoicing.

Nearly a month passed away, as this heroic little band, with tireless diligence, pressed along their pathless route towards the rising sun. With the utmost caution, Mr. Carson avoided the Indian trails, making a path for himself. He would often make a wide circuit, that he might not cross hunting grounds where his experience taught him that Indian hunting bands would probably be encountered.

It was a bright and beautiful morning, the sixth of October, that they entered upon the western edge of a smooth, treeless prairie extending to the east as far as the eye could reach. Soon after the morning sun began to flood that ocean of waving flowers with its rays, the keen eye of Carson discerned in the extreme east, a small speck, like the sail of a ship at sea. He watched it, it moved. Slowly it increased in size. It soon developed itself into the front of a numerous band of warriors. His anxiety was great. It was not wise to attempt flight over the boundless prairie.

As the column drew nearer, he discovered to his great joy that it was a detachment of United States troops. The expedition had been sent out by the government, to operate under General Kearney, in California. As the two parties met, General Kearney sent for Mr. Carson, and after a little conversation with him, decided to entrust his dispatches to Mr. Fitzpatrick, to convey them to Washington, while he should attach Mr. Carson to his staff as a guide, of which he stood greatly in need. Upon informing Mr. Carson of this his decision, the modest reply of the pioneer was, "As the General thinks best."

Mr. Carson now was invested with the responsible office of guiding the footsteps of this army over these almost boundless plains. This duty he so performed as to receive the highest commendation of General Kearney. And his dignified character was such as to win the confidence and respect of every man in the army. The worst of men can often appreciate high moral excellence.

Early in December the army had reached California, and were approaching San Diego. On the sixth, the scouts brought the news that a numerous party of Mexicans were strongly intrenched a few miles before them, to dispute their passage. Fifteen men were sent forward as an advanced guard, under the guidance of Kit Carson, to drive in the outposts, and capture any loose animals which might be found. A very fierce battle ensued. These Californian Mexicans developed a degree of bravery and determination totally unexpected, and which could not have been exceeded.

Quite a number of troops had come up to assist in carrying an important post. In addition to the fifteen men with Carson, there were two companies of United States dragoons, and twenty-five California volunteers. These determined men, all well mounted, formed a very imposing column for the charge. Mr. Carson was in the front rank of the column. As the horses were plunging forward upon the foe, Mr. Carson's horse, from some inequality in the ground, fell, throwing his rider over his head with such violence as to break his gun-stock in several pieces. Carson was slightly stunned by the fall, and the whole troop of horse galloped over him. It seems a miracle that he was not trampled to death. Though severely bruised, no bones were broken.

Upon recovering, and finding his own gun useless, he looked around and saw a dead dragoon. Seizing his gun, he rushed forward into the thickest of the fight. It is probable that the fall of his horse saved his life. Nearly the whole of the head of the charging column was cut off by the bullets of the foe. The Mexicans were soon driven from their post, and fled on swift horses. But the Americans suffered terribly. Large numbers were killed.

The Mexicans soon rallied with reinforcements and resumed the battle. The advanced guard of the Americans was driven back and compelled to act upon the defensive. We have not space here to give, in detail, the victories and defeats of these fierce conflicts. Most of these California Mexicans were of the bravest blood of Spain. And they fought as if determined to perpetuate their ancestral renown.

When near San Diego, Kearney's force was surrounded by three or four times its number, and were starving. The men were feeding upon the mules. Even that resource seemed almost exhausted. The utter ruin of the army seemed inevitable. A council of war was held. Carson was present. He was a man of few words. When he spoke, all listened. In his soft, feminine voice he said:

"I think I may be able to creep in the night, through the Mexican lines. I can hasten then to San Diego, and inform Commodore Stockton of our peril. He will hasten to the rescue. I am willing to try."

Immediately Lieutenant Beale, of the United States Navy, one of the most heroic of men, added, "I will go with him." General Kearney accepted the noble offer. In its desperation was his only hope.

The camp was encircled by three concentric rows of sentinels. They were mounted, and rode incessantly to and fro, through their short patrols. Night came. It was dark. Carson and Beale crept out from the camp, on their hands and feet, feeling for the tall grass, the slight depressions in the ground, the shade of the thickets. They had shoes instead of moccasins. As they crept along foot by foot in breathless silence, the stiff soles of the shoes would sometimes hit a stone or a stick, and make a slight noise. They drew off their shoes and pushed them under their belts. Occasionally they were within a few feet of the sentinels, whom they could dimly discern.

They had passed the first line of sentinels, and the second, and were just beginning to breathe a little more freely when a sentinel rode up to within a few feet of the spot where they were lying still as death, and but slightly concealed in the tall grass. By daylight they would have been instantly seen. To their terror the sentinel was mounted, and alighting with flint and steel began to strike a light to indulge in the comfort of his pipe. The flame of a piece of paper would reveal them. The suspense was terrible. So still did they lie and so intense were their inward throbbings that Mr. Carson afterwards affirmed that he could actually hear Lieutenant Beale's heart pulsate.

Providentially the Mexican lighted his pipe, and remounting rode in the other direction. For a distance of nearly two miles Carson and Beale thus crept along, working their way through the Mexican lines. Having left the last sentinel behind them, they regained their feet and felt for their shoes. They were gone. Thus far they had not interchanged even a whisper. Though the worst peril was now over, they had still many dangers to encounter, and fearful suffering. It would not do to advance upon San Diego by any of the well-trodden trails, all of which were closely watched by the enemy's scouts. Carson chose a circuitous route over rocks and hills, where their feet were dreadfully lacerated by the prickly pear.

All the next day, with feet torn and bleeding, they toiled along, feeding upon whatever they could find, which would in the slightest degree appease the gnawings of hunger. Another night spread its gloom around them. Still onward was the march of our heroes. About midnight, Carson discovered, from a slight eminence, the dim outline of the houses in San Diego. They approached the American sentinels, announced themselves as friends, and were conducted to Commodore Stockton. He immediately dispatched one hundred and seventy men with a heavy piece of ordnance, and with directions to march day and night, for the relief of Kearney.

The Mexicans hearing of their approach, knowing that they would be attacked both in front and rear, fled. Kearney and his army were saved. Carson and Beale had rescued them.

The main army of the Mexicans was now at Los Angelos, about a hundred and twenty miles north from San Diego. They had a strongly intrenched camp there; garrisoned by about seven hundred men. Kearney and Fremont united their forces to attack them. Carson was again with his friend Fremont. The Mexicans were driven away, and the American army took up its winter quarters during two or three cold and dreary months.

In the month of March, 1847, Mr. Carson was directed to carry important dispatches to Washington. Lieutenant Beale, who never recovered from the hardships he encountered in his flight to San Diego, was permitted to accompany him. As we have mentioned, it was a journey of four thousand miles. It was accomplished in three months. In reference to this adventure Mr. Carson writes:

"Lieutenant Beale went with me as bearer of dispatches, intended for the Navy Department. During the first twenty days of our journey he was so weak that I had to lift him on and off his riding animal. I did not think for some time that he could live, but I bestowed as much care and attention on him as any one could have done, under the circumstances. Before the fatiguing and dangerous part of our route was passed over, he had so far recovered as to be able to take care of himself.

"For my attention, which was only my duty to my friend, I was doubly repaid, by the kindness shown to me by his family while I staid in Washington, which was more than I had any reason for expecting, and which will never be forgotten by me."

On this expedition, Kit Carson was provided with a guard of ten or twelve picked men, veteran mountaineers. They took an extremely southern route. Having journeyed about four hundred miles without meeting any hostile encounter, they reached the Gila, a tributary of the lower Colorado. Here Mr. Carson had evidence that a band of hostile Indians, keeping always out of sight, were dogging his path, watching for an opportunity to attack him by surprise. Their route led over a vast prairie, where there were no natural defences. They cooked their supper early in the evening, and wrapped in their blankets, threw themselves on the grass for sleep. Mr. Carson, aware that the cunning Indians might be, watching all his movements, as soon as it was dark, ordered his men to rise, march forward in the darkness more than a mile, again to picket their animals, and then to arrange their pack-saddles so as to protect them from the arrows of the Indians. In case of an attack they were to lie perfectly still, and not speak a word. It would be of no use to fire, for no savage would be within sight. If the Indians ventured into the camp, they were then, with rifle, and revolver and knife, to assail them with the utmost desperation.

At midnight the yell of the savage was heard, and a shower of arrows fell around. They had not ascertained with accuracy the position of the travellers. They dared not approach near enough to see, for in that case they could be seen, and the bullet would certainly strike them. After many random shots, and many unearthly yells, the discomfited savages fled. They dared not await the dawn of the day, when upon the open prairie, their arrows would be powerless weapons against rifles. In all these journeyings, Mr. Carson was so cautious that one not acquainted with his well balanced character, might deem him wanting in courage. Not a tree, a rock, a bush, or any other place where an Indian might hide, escaped his notice. His eye was ever scanning the horizon to see if there were any smoke indicating an Indian's fire, or any flight of crows hovering over a spot where Indians had recently encamped. The ground he was ever watching in search of the pressure of the horse's unshod foot, or of the Indian's moccasin.

Colonel Fremont had married the daughter of Missouri's illustrious Senator, Hon. Thomas H. Benton. Mr. Carson, upon his arrival at St. Louis, was taken immediately to Mr. Benton's home, where he was treated with every attention, and where he enjoyed the pleasure of an introduction to the most distinguished men of the city. As in the continuance of his journey he stepped upon the platform of the depot in Washington, Mrs. Fremont was there, with her carriage, to convey him as a guest to her residence.

In the crowd landing from the cars, Mrs. Fremont recognized him at once, from the description which her husband had given. Mr. Carson remained in Washington for several weeks, greatly interested in the entirely new world which was open to him there. His reputation had gone before him, and the very best men in our land honored themselves in honoring Christopher Carson. President Polk appointed him Lieutenant in the United States Rifle Corps. He was then directed to return immediately across the continent as bearer of important dispatches.

Arriving at Fort Leavenworth, in Kansas, he was there furnished with an escort of fifty soldiers to accompany him across the plain. He reached the eastern declivity of the Rocky mountains without important adventure. Here, at a place called Point of Rocks, he overtook a party of United States Volunteers, under command of Lieutenant Mulony. They were escorting a large train of wagons to New Mexico. They encamped not far from each other. Just before the break of day a band of Comanche Indians made an attack upon the cattle of Mulony's party, and got possession of all the oxen and of twenty-six horses.

Mr. Carson, ever on the alert, heard the tumult, and made a sudden and impetuous charge upon the savages. He recovered all the oxen, but the horses were effectually stampeded and lost. But for Mr. Carson, the cattle also would have fallen into the hands of the Indians, which would have been a great calamity. The next day Mr. Carson resumed his rapid march and reached Santa Fe in safety. Here he left his escort in accordance with orders, and hiring sixteen mountaineers, he proceeded on his journey.

Travelling rapidly, he came to Muddy Creek, a tributary of Virgin river. Here he suddenly encountered a camp of three hundred Indians. He knew their reputation as treacherous in the extreme. He threw up a little rampart, forbidding the Indians to draw too near, and then held a parley under the protection of his men. Thoroughly acquainted with the Indian character, he seemed always to know the tone which it was best to assume. Sternly addressing the chiefs, he said:

"I know your treachery. Your words of friendship cannot be believed. Not long ago, you massacred seven Americans. You wish to gain admission to my camp that you may kill us also. I will now allow you till midday to be off. If any of you, after that, are within reach of our rifles you will die."

Most of the Indians were overawed by this bold talk, and disappeared. A few of the more desperate of the warriors lounged about, apparently doubting his words. At the designated hour he ordered his men to take good aim and fire. Though the Indians were at quite a distance, one of the warriors fell instantly dead. Four others were severely wounded. Soon not a savage was to be seen. Thus fifteen men under Carson, vanquished three hundred Indians. "Better," said Napoleon, "is an army of deer led by a lion, than an army of lions led by a deer."

Mr. Carson now pressed on to Monterey, and delivered his dispatches to Colonel Mason. As acting lieutenant in the U.S. army he was placed at the head of a company of dragoons, to guard Tajon Pass, the main outlet through which robber Indian bands conveyed their booty from California to the plains. After spending the winter very successfully in the discharge of this duty, he was again ordered to proceed to Washington with dispatches. Fifteen men were detailed to escort him on the way.