Kit Carson - John S. C. Abbott

The Trapper's Elysium


Upon the breaking up of the rendezvous at Green river, Kit Carson, with five companions, directed his steps in a northwest course, about two hundred miles to Fort Hall, on Snake river. He spent the autumnal months trapping along the various streams in this region. They were very successful on this tour, and at the close of the season returned to the fort with a rich supply of furs. These forts were generally trading-houses, well fortified and garrisoned, but not governmental military posts.

Here Carson disposed of his furs to good advantage, and after remaining there about a month he crossed the mountains with a large party of trappers to the head waters of the Missouri, thus again entering the country of the Blackfeet. They struck the Missouri river itself far up among the mountains. They commenced setting their traps on this stream. Slowly they followed up the banks, gathering in the morning what they had taken through the night.

One morning a party of half a dozen trappers, who had gone about two miles from the camp to examine their traps, encountered a band of Blackfeet Indians, who fired upon them. The trappers immediately retreated with the greatest rapidity. Though closely pursued by their swift-footed foes they reached the camp in safety. It so happened, that near their camp there was quite an extensive thicket of tall trees and dense underbrush. Kit Carson, not knowing how numerous the Indians might be who were coming upon him, directed the men as quickly as possible to conceal themselves and animals in the thicket.

Scarcely had the order been executed when the Indians with hideous yells came rushing towards the camp. But not a trapper or a horse was visible. Nothing was found there but silence and solitude. Still they came rushing on, shouting and brandishing their weapons, when suddenly and to their great consternation, the reports of the rifles were heard and fourteen bullets struck fourteen warriors. Several were killed outright, others were seriously wounded. Before the savages had recovered from their consternation the rifles were reloaded and every man was ready for another discharge.

The brave Blackfeet wavered for a moment, and then with unearthly yells, made a simultaneous charge upon the thicket. Carson was in the midst of his little band. His calm, soft voice was heard reassuring his men, as he said:

"Keep cool and fire as deliberately as if you were shooting at game."

There was another almost simultaneous discharge and every bullet struck a warrior. The Indians, thus mercilessly handled, recoiled, and every one sought refuge behind some trunk, rock or tree. They could see no foe, while the trappers could find peep-holes through which they could watch all the movements of the Indians. A shower of arrows was thrown into the thicket, but none of the trappers were struck. The intermittent battle continued the whole day. Several times the savages attempted to renew the charge, but as often the same deadly volley was poured in upon them with never-failing aim.

At length they attempted to set the thicket on fire, hoping thus to burn out their foes. There was another and still larger body of trappers about six miles below the point where this battle was raging. But the direction of the wind was such, together with the dense forest and the broken ground, that the report of the fire-arms was not heard.

It is probable that the Indians had knowledge of this band, and feared that the larger party might come to the aid of their friends. Whatever may have been the reason which influenced them, they suddenly abandoned the contest and departed. As soon as Mr. Carson had satisfied himself that they were effectually out of the way, he emerged from his retreat and joined his friends down the river. His coolness and prudence had saved the party. They lost not a man nor an animal.

But the Indians still hovered around in such energetic and persevering hostility, that not a trapper could leave the camp without danger of falling into an ambuscade. The Indians avoided any decisive conflict, but their war-whoops and yells of defiance, like the howlings of wolves, could be heard, by day and by night, in the forests all around them. Unless the traps were carefully guarded, they were sure to be stolen. Under these circumstances there was no possibility of trapping with any hope of success. Once before the indomitable Indians had driven the trappers from their country. And now again it was deemed necessary to withdraw from their haunts.

To the trappers this was a very humiliating necessity. A council was held and it was decided to abandon the region and to direct their steps about two hundred miles, in a northeasterly direction, to the north fork of the Missouri river. The journey was soon accomplished without adventure. The trappers, far removed from their inveterate foes, vigorously commenced operations. They had their central camp. In small parties they followed up and down the majestic stream, and pursued the windings of the brooks flowing into it. They generally went in parties of two or three.

Wherever night found them, whether with cloudless skies or raging storm, it mattered not, the work of an hour with their hatchets, reared for them a sheltering camp. Before it blazed the ever-cheerful, illuminating fire. Rich viands of the choicest game smoked upon the embers, and the hunters, reclining upon their couches of blankets or furs, exulted in the luxurious indulgence of a hunter's life. With all the hardships to which one is exposed in such adventures, there is a charm accompanying them which words cannot easily describe. It warms the blood of one sitting upon the carpeted floor in his well-furnished parlor to send his imagination back to those scenes.

Men of little book culture, and with but slight acquaintance with the elegancies of polished life, have often a high appreciation of the beauties and the sublimities of nature. Think of such a man as Kit Carson, with his native delicacy of mind; a delicacy which never allowed him to use a profane word, to indulge in intoxicating drinks, to be guilty of an impure action; a man who enjoyed, above all things else, the communings of his own spirit with the silence, the solitude, the grandeur, with which God has invested the illimitable wilderness; think of such a man in the midst of such scenes as we are now describing.

It is the hour of midnight. His camp is in one of the wildest ravines of the Rocky mountains. A dense and gloomy forest covers the hillsides. A mountain torrent, with its voice of many waters, flows on its way but a few yards beyond the open front of his camp. A brilliant fire illumines the wild scene for a few rods around, while all beyond is impenetrable darkness. His hardy mule, accustomed to all weathers, is browsing near by. The floor of his camp, spread with buffalo robes, looks warm and inviting. His two comrades are soundly asleep with their rifles on their arms, ready at the slightest alarm to spring to their feet prepared for battle.

There is a raging storm wailing through the tree-tops. The howling of the wolves is heard as, in fierce and hungry packs, they roam through these uninhabited wilds. Carson, reclining upon his couch, in perfect health and unfatigued, caresses the faithful dog, which clings to his side, as he looks out upon the scene and listens to the storm. What is there which the chambers of the Metropolitan hotel can afford, which the hardy mountaineer would accept in exchange?

Slowly our party of trappers ascended the river, gathering many furs on their way. It was an unexplored region, and they could never tell what scene the next mile would open before them. One morning as they were turning the majestic bend of a ravine, they came upon a beautiful little meadow, where the mountains retired for nearly a quarter of a mile from the stream, and where the waters of the river flowed gently in a smooth, untroubled current. They were ascending the river which flowed down from the south. A beautiful vista was opened before them of green valleys and gentle treeless eminences, while far away in the distance rose towering mountains.

Upon this lovely meadow there was a large village of Flathead Indians. Their conical lodges, constructed of skins, were scattered thickly around, while the smoke of their fires curled gently through an opening in the top of each lodge. Children were playing upon the greensward, shooting their arrows, throwing their javelins, and engaged in sundry other barbaric sports. A party of the Indians had just returned from a hunting expedition laden with game. Warriors and women were scattered around in small groups, discussing the events of the day and preparing for a great feast. Young Indian girls, of graceful form, looked very attractive in their picturesque attire of fringed buskined leggins and glittering beads.

Kit Carson at once recognized these Indians as his friends, the Flatheads. They knew him and gave him and his comrades a cordial greeting. O, the blessings of peace! How many are the woes of this world which are caused by man's inhumanity to man. The trappers were led by their Indian friends, with smiling faces and kind words, into their lodges, and shared with them in a thanksgiving feast.

Mr. Carson was endowed with unusual facility in the acquisition of languages. He could converse fluently in Spanish and French, and it was stated that he also understood some ten Indian dialects. With the Flatheads he was quite at home. After a few days, spent in this hospitable village, it was deemed expedient to seek winter quarters. Several of the chiefs accompanied them. They accordingly left the head waters of the Missouri, and crossed the Rocky mountains in a southerly direction, about two hundred miles, till they reached the Big Snake river. It will be remembered that this stream, flowing from the western declivities of the mountains, is the most important tributary of the Columbia river. Here the winter passed very pleasantly away without any incident which calls for record. Rather an unusual quantity of snow fell. But the trappers were warmly housed, with ample clothing and abundant fuel.

Every pleasant day hunters left the camp, and usually returned well laden with game. Thus the larder of the trappers was well provided for. An anonymous writer speaking of these winter encampments, says:

"The winter seasons in the Rocky mountains are usually fearful and severe. There snow-storms form mountains for themselves, filling up the passes for weeks and rendering them impracticable either for man or beast.

"The scenery is indescribably grand, provided the beholder is well housed. If the case be otherwise, and he is doomed to encounter these terrible storms, his situation is dreadful in the extreme. Even during the summer months the lofty peaks of this mighty chain of mountains are covered with white caps of snow. It affords a contrast to the elements, of the grandest conception, to stand in the shade of some verdant valley wiping the perspiration from the brow, and at the same time to look upon a darkly threatening storm-cloud powdering the heads of the hoary monster mountains from its freight of flaky snow.

"So far these American giant mountains are unsurpassed by their Alpine brothers of Europe. Not so in the glaciers. Throughout the great range there are no glaciers to be found which can compare with those among the Alps."

In the spring the trappers scattered in small bands throughout that region. They were in the territory of the Utah Indians, just north of the Great Salt Lake. Kit Carson was well acquainted with them and they were all his friends. The trappers, therefore, wandered at pleasure without fear of molestation. Mr. Carson took but one trapper with him, with two or three pack mules. They were very successful, and in a few weeks obtained as many furs as their animals could carry.

With these they went to a trading post, not very far distant from them called Fort Robidoux. Here their furs were disposed of to good advantage. Mr. Carson, having judiciously invested his gains, organized another party of five trappers, and traversed an unpeopled wilderness for a distance of about two hundred miles until he reached the wild ravines and pathless solitudes of Grand river. This stream, whose junction with the Green river forms the Colorado, takes its rise on the western declivity of the Rocky mountains, amidst its most wild and savage glens. Trapping down this river with satisfactory success, late in the autumn he reached Green river. Falling snows and piercing winds admonished him that the time had come again to retire to winter quarters.

He repaired to Brown's Hole, the well known and beautiful valley which he had often visited before. Here he passed an uneventful but pleasant winter. With the earliest spring he again directed his footsteps to the country of the Utahs in the remote north. He was successful in trapping, and as the heat of summer came, he again turned his steps, with well laden mules, to Fort Robidoux. Here he found, to his disappointment, that beaver fur had greatly deteriorated in value. His skins would scarcely bring him enough to pay for the trouble of taking them. This was caused mainly by the use of silk instead of fur, throughout Europe and America, in the manufacture of hats.

Kit Carson saw at a glance, that his favorite occupation was gone; that he and the other trappers would be compelled to seek some other employment. In company with five men of a decidedly higher order than the common run of trappers, he struck for the head waters of Arkansas river. Following this stream down along the immense defile which nature seems to have opened for it through the Rocky mountains, they approached Fort Bent, which is about one hundred and fifty miles east of that gigantic barrier.

Mr. Carson's companions on this trip, were some of them at least, very peculiar characters,—very interesting specimens of the kind of men who are drawn from the haunts of civilization to the wilderness. One was a man, probably partially insane, who was known through all the Rocky mountain region as "old Bill Williams." He had been a Methodist preacher in Missouri. For some unknown reason he left the States and joined the Indians, adopting their dress and manners. He was very familiar with the Bible and had marvellous skill in the acquisition of languages. He would spend but a short time with any tribe before he became quite familiar with their speech. Though his conduct was often in strange contrast with the teachings of that sacred book, he took much pleasure in telling the Indians Bible stories. He was subsequently killed in some feud with the savages.

Another of his companions, whose real or assumed name was Mitchel, had abandoned his friends and joined the Comanche Indians. It is a much easier step from the civilized man to the savage than from the savage to the civilized. Mitchel, with his Indian costume, his plumed head-gear, his Indian weapons, and his fluent Indian speech, could not be distinguished from the savages around him. The Comanches adopted him into their tribe and accepted him as one of the most prominent of their braves. Mitchel said that his object was to discover a gold mine through their guidance, which they reported was to be found amid the mountains of Northern Texas. Disappointed in this endeavor, he joined the trappers and was cordially welcomed by them as an experienced mountaineer, a man full of humor and one who could tell a capital story.

When Kit Carson and his companions had arrived within a few days' journey of the fort, Mitchel and a man by the name of New, contrary to the advice of Carson, decided to remain behind, to enjoy themselves in a beautiful country where they found abundance of game. A week after the safe arrival of Mr. Carson and his party, these two men made their appearance in a truly pitiable plight. They had encountered a party of Indian hunters who, while sparing their lives, had robbed them of their arms, their ammunition and even of every particle of their clothing. Of course they were kindly received at the fort and all their wants supplied.

Fort Bent was a trading post; belonged to a company of merchants of whom Messrs. Bent and Vrain, residing at the fort, were partners. Immediately upon Mr. Carson's arrival there, he was so well known and his capabilities so well understood, that he received an earnest application to take the position of hunter for the fort. He accepted the office and filled it for eight years with such skill and fidelity that never did one word of disagreement pass between him and his employers. His duties were to supply a camp of about forty men with all the animal food they needed.

When game was plenty, this was an easy task, but often wandering bands of Indian hunters would sweep that whole region around rendering the labors of Mr. Carson extremely difficult. For unfrequently he would wander from sunrise to sunset over prairie and mountain, in pursuit of game; but rarely did he return without a mule load. At times he extended his hunting trips to a distance of fifty miles from the fort. During these eight years thousands of buffalo, elk, antelope and deer, fell before his rifle, besides a vast amount of smaller game.

The skill which he displayed, and the success which that skill secured, excited the admiration alike of the red men and the white men. He was universally known by the Indians, and was respected and beloved by them. Fearless and alone he wandered over mountain and prairie, frequently meeting bands of hunters, and warriors, and entering the lodges of the savages, and sleeping in them without encountering any harm. They admired his boldness, and an instinctive sense of honor led them not to maltreat one who had ever proved their friend, and who trusted himself so unreservedly in their power.

His familiarity with the Indian language enabled him to converse familiarly with them. He was as much at home in the wilderness as the most veteran hunters of their tribes. In the huts of the Arapahoes, Cheyennes, Kiowas and Comanches he was always a welcome guest. They appreciated the vast superiority of his intellect. Often groups of men, women and children would linger around the central fire of the lodge till after midnight, listening to his entertaining stories of adventure and peril.

One incident which occurred at this time, speaks volumes in reference to Mr. Carson's character as a lover of peace, and is deserving of perpetual remembrance.

The Sioux tribe of Indians who could bring a thousand warriors into the field had invaded the hunting-grounds of the Comanches. Several skirmishes had already taken place, in which the Comanches had been worsted. The chiefs sent a deputation to Kit Carson, whom they regarded as a host in himself, to come to their aid, and to take the leadership of one of their bands. Carson promptly responded to their call. He met the Comanche chiefs in council, and so represented to them the blessings of peace and the horrors of war, that they consented to send a deputation, to effect if possible, an amicable settlement of the difficulty.

We infer from the brief narrative that is given that Kit Carson was the bearer of this Indian flag of truce. He was the friend of both parties. He was alike regarded by both as eminent for his wisdom and his sense of justice. He met the Sioux chiefs in council. After long deliberation, they consented to retire from the Comanches' hunting-ground at the close of the then season, and never to molest them more.

Carson returned to the Comanches with this announcement, and persuaded them to accede to the terms. Thus a dreadful Indian war was averted.

Among some of these tribes Kit Carson found a beautiful and unusually intelligent Indian girl, whom he married, and took to his home in the fort.

It is the undisputed testimony of all who knew him, that he was a man of unspotted purity of character in his domestic relations. By this wife, Mr. Carson had one child; a daughter. Not long after the birth of this child, the mother died. The father watched over the motherless infant with the utmost tenderness. As she emerged from infancy to childhood he removed her to St. Louis. Here he found the funds he had so carefully invested very valuable to him. He was able liberally to provide for all her wants, to give her as good an education as St. Louis could afford, and to introduce her to the refining influences of polished society. She was subsequently married and removed with her husband to California.

Sixteen years had now elapsed since Kit Carson left the log cabin of his father, in the then wilds of Missouri, for the still wilder regions of mountaineer life. Referring to this period, he says:

"During sixteen years my rifle furnished almost every particle of food upon which I lived. For many consecutive years, I never slept under the roof of a house, or gazed upon the face of a white woman."

He now, very naturally, began to long to visit the home of his childhood, and to witness some of the scenes of progressive civilization, rumors of which often reached him in the forest. Messrs. Bent and Vrain were in the habit of sending once a year a train of wagons to St. Louis, to transport their skins and to obtain fresh supplies. It was a journey of about six hundred miles. There was a wagon trail, if we may so call it, leading circuitously over the vast and almost treeless intervening plains. The route led along the river valleys, following the windings of streams, and conducting to fords near their head waters. Sometimes they came to swampy regions, sometimes to deep gulleys, sometimes to desert plains. But throughout all this wide expanse there were no mountain ranges to obstruct their path.

It was in the spring of the year 1842, that Mr. Carson, as a gentleman passenger, joined one of these caravans. The little daughter, of whom we have spoken, was then six or seven years of age. It was one object of his journey to place her at school, at St. Louis, where she could enjoy the advantages of a refined and Christian education. We have no record of the incidents of this journey, which was probably uneventful. The old Indian trail had become quite a passable road for wagons.