Kit Carson - John S. C. Abbott

Fremont's Expedition


When the caravan, with which Kit Carson travelled as a passenger from Fort Bent, arrived within the boundaries of Missouri, he left his companions and, with his little daughter, turned aside to visit the home of his childhood. He had, as we have mentioned, been absent from that home for sixteen years. Time, death, and the progress of civilization had wrought, in that region, what seemed to him fearful ravages. One of his biographers writes:

"The scenes of his boyhood days he found to be magically changed. New faces met him on all sides. The old log cabin where his father and mother had resided, was deserted and its dilapidated walls were crumbling with decay. The once happy inmates were scattered over the face of the earth, while many of their voices were hushed in death. Kit Carson felt himself a stranger in a strange land. The strong man wept. His soul could not brook either the change or the ways of the people. While he failed not to receive kindness and hospitality from the noble hearted Missourians, nevertheless he had fully allayed his curiosity and, as soon as possible, he bade adieu to these unpleasant recollections.

"He bent his steps towards St. Louis. In this city he remained ten days. As it was the first time, since he had reached manhood, that he had viewed a town of any magnitude, he was greatly interested. But ten days of sight-seeing wearied him. He resolved to return to his mountain home, where he could breathe the pure air of Heaven and where manners and customs conformed to his wild life and were more congenial to his tastes. He engaged a passage on the first steamboat which was bound up the Missouri river."

Kit Carson was instinctively a student. In whatever situation he was placed he was ever endeavoring to learn something new. He was also always drawn, by constitutional taste and preference towards men of culture, and high moral worth. On board the steamer, he found himself almost a perfect stranger. Though a small man in frame, modest and unobtrusive, there was something in his kindly handsome face and winning manners, which invariably attracted attention. As he quietly wandered over the boat, studying its machinery, the discipline of the crew and the faces of his fellow passengers, he found himself irresistibly drawn towards one whose countenance and dignified bearing indicated that he was decidedly above most of those on board.

It is said that "the eagle eye, the forehead, the form, the movements, the general features, the smile, the quiet dignity of the man, each and all these attributes of his manhood had been carefully noted by the wary and hardy mountaineer, and had not failed to awaken in his breast a feeling of admiration and respect."

Kit Carson entered into conversation with this man. Immediately an attachment sprang up between them, which grew increasingly strong through many subsequent years. The new friend whom Carson had thus found was Lieutenant John C. Fremont, of the United States corps of Topographical Engineers. He had been commissioned by the Government to explore and report upon the country between the frontiers of Missouri and the South Pass in the Rocky mountains, on the line of the Kansas and Great Platte rivers.

Lieutenant Fremont had left Washington, and arrived at St. Louis on the twenty-second of May 1842. Here he engaged a party of twenty-one men, principally Creole and Canadian boatmen, who were familiar with Indian life, having been long engaged in the service of the various fur companies. In addition to these boatmen, Lieutenant Fremont had under his charge, Henry Brandt, nineteen years of age, son of Colonel J.B. Brant, of St. Louis, and Randolph Benton, a lively boy of twelve years, son of the distinguished U.S. Senator from Missouri. These young men accompanied the expedition for that development of mind and body which their parents hoped the tour would give them.

With this party, Lieutenant Fremont was ascending the river four hundred miles, to the mouth of the Kansas, from which point he was to take his departure through the unexplored wilderness. We say unexplored, though many portions of it had been visited by wandering bands of unlettered trappers and hunters. Lieutenant Fremont had been disappointed in obtaining the guide he had expected. Upon learning this fact, Mr. Carson retired to a secluded part of the boat, sat down, and for some time seemed lost in reverie. Then rising and approaching Lieutenant Fremont he modestly said to him,

"Sir, I have been for some time in the mountains, and think I can guide you to any point there you may wish to reach."

The office of a guide, through thousands of miles of untroden wilderness, was a very responsible position. Mr. Carson was an entire stranger to Lieutenant Fremont. But there was something in his bearing which inspired confidence. After making a few inquiries of others, Mr. Carson was engaged to act as guide with a salary of one hundred dollars a month.

The expedition commenced its march from near the mouth of the Kansas on the 10th of June 1842. It followed along the banks of that stream, in a westerly direction. The whole party consisted of twenty-eight souls. They were well armed and were well mounted with the exception of eight men, who drove as many carts. These carts were each drawn by two mules and were packed with the stores of the party, their baggage and their instruments. There were a number of loose horses in the train to supply the place of any, which might be disabled by the way. There were also four oxen, which were added as a contribution to their stock of provisions, one may well imagine that so numerous a cavalcade, winding its way over the undulating and treeless prairie, would present a very imposing aspect.

An Indian guide conducted them for the first forty miles, along the river banks, with which Mr. Carson was not familiar. He then left them and they entered upon that vast ocean of prairie which extended, with scarcely any interruption, to the base of the Rocky mountains.

The borders of nearly all these western streams are fringed with a narrow belt of forest. Here where there was abundance of water, the richest of soil, which needed but to be "tickled with a hoe to laugh with a harvest," and where there was an ample supply of timber for building and for fuel, they found many good-looking Indian farms with Indians riding about in their picturesque costumes.

At an early hour in the afternoon they encamped in a smooth and luxuriant meadow, upon the banks of a small stream flowing into the Kansas. Nearly all the party were experienced backwoodsmen. Speedily, and with almost military precision, the camp was formed in the following manner: The eight carts were so arranged as to present a sort of barricade, encircling an area about eighty yards in diameter. The cloth tents, such as are used in the army, were pitched inside the enclosure. The animals were all hobbled and turned out to feed in the meadow. The company was divided into four messes of seven men each. Each mess had its cook. They quickly prepared the evening meal.

At nightfall all the animals, having been well fed on the abundant grass, were driven within the enclosure for the night and picketed. A small steel-shod picket was driven firmly into the ground, to which the animal was fastened by a rope about twenty feet long. The carts were regularly arranged for defending the camp. A guard was mounted at eight o'clock, consisting of three men, who were relieved every two or three hours. At daybreak the camp was roused. The hobbled animals were again turned loose upon the meadow or prairie to obtain their breakfast. The breakfast of the men was generally over between six and seven o'clock. The march was then resumed. There was a halt at noon for about two hours. Such was the usual order of the march day after day.

The second night, just as they were about to encamp, one of the loose horses started upon the full gallop, on his return, and was followed by several others. Several men were sent in pursuit. They did not return with the fugitives until midnight. One man lost his way and passed the whole night upon the open prairie. At midnight it began to rain violently. By some strange oversight, the tents were of such thin cloth that the rain soaked through, and those within them were thoroughly drenched. The discomfort of the night, however, was forgotten as the dawn of the morning ushered in another lovely summer day.

The journey through the beautiful and picturesque scenery was a delight. In the serene close of the afternoon they encamped on one of the Kansas bluffs. From this spot they had an enchanting view of the valley, about four miles broad, interspersed with beautiful groves and prairies of the richest verdure. This evening they killed one of their oxen for food. Thus far their route had been along the southern bank of the Kansas. The next day they reached what was called the ford of that river, a hundred miles from its entrance into the Missouri.

But the recent rains had so swollen the stream that it was rushing by, a swift and rapid torrent two hundred and thirty yards wide. The river could not be forded. Several mounted men entered it to swim their horses across, and thus to act as guides or leaders for the rest. The remaining animals were driven in, and all got safely across excepting the three oxen, who being more clumsy swimmers, were borne down by the current and again landed on the right side. The next morning, however, they were got over in safety.

Lieutenant Fremont had adopted the precaution of taking with him a portable India rubber boat. It was twenty feet long and five feet broad. It was placed in the water, and the carts and the baggage were carried over piecemeal. Three men paddled the boat. Still the current was so strong that one of the best swimmers took in his teeth the end of a rope attached to the boat and swam ahead, that, reaching the shore, he might assist in drawing her over. Six passages were successfully made and six carts with most of their contents were transported across. Night was approaching, and it was very desirable that everything should be upon the other side before the darkness closed in.

"I put," says Lieutenant Fremont, "upon the boat the two remaining carts. The man at the helm was timid on the water and, in his alarm, capsized the boat. Carts, barrels, boxes and bales were, in a moment, floating down the current. But all the men who were on the shore jumped into the water without stopping to think if they could swim, and almost everything, even heavy articles, was recovered. Two men came very near being drowned. All the sugar belonging to one of the messes was dissolved in the water and lost."

But the heaviest calamity of all was the loss of a bag containing the coffee for the whole company. There is nothing so refreshing to a weary mountaineer, as a cup of hot coffee. Often afterwards these travellers, overcome with toil, mourned the loss of their favorite beverage.

Kit Carson had made such efforts in the water, that in the morning he was found quite sick. Another of the party also was disabled. Lieutenant Fremont, on their account, and also to repair damages, decided to remain in camp for the day. Quite a number of the Kansas tribe of Indians visited them in the most friendly manner. One of them had received quite a thorough education at St. Louis, and could speak French as fluently and correctly as any Frenchman. They brought vegetables of various kinds, and butter. They seemed very glad to find a market for their productions.

The camping-ground of the party was on the open, sunny prairie, some twenty feet above the water, where the animals enjoyed luxuriant pasturage. The party was now fairly in the Indian country, and the chances of the wilderness were opening before them.

About three weeks in advance of this party, there was a company of emigrants bound to Oregon. There were sixteen or seventeen families, men, women and children. Sixty-four of these were men. They had suffered severely from illness, and there had been many deaths among them. One of these emigrants, who had buried his child, and whose wife was very ill, left the company under the guidance of a hunter, and returned to the States. The hunter visited the Fremont camp, and took letters from them to their friends.

Day after day the party thus journeyed on, without encountering anything worthy of special notice. They had reached the Pawnee country. These savages were noted horse-thieves. The route of the surveyors led along the banks of a placid stream, about fifty feet wide and four or five feet deep. The view up the valley, which was bordered by gracefully undulating hills, was remarkably beautiful. The stream, as usual with these western rivers, was fringed with willows, cottonwood, and oak. Large flocks of wild turkeys tenanted these trees. Game, also, of a larger kind made its appearance. Elk, antelope and deer bounded over the hills.

A heavy bank of black clouds in the west admonished them, at an early hour in the afternoon, to prepare for a stormy night. Scarcely had they pitched their tents ere a violent wind came down upon them, the rain fell in torrents and incessant peals of thunder seemed to shake the very hills. It so happened that the three who were to stand guard on that tempestuous night, were Carson and the two young gentlemen Brandt and Benton.

"This was their first night on guard," writes Lieutenant Fremont "and such an introduction did not augur very auspiciously of the pleasures of the expedition. Many things conspired to render their situation uncomfortable. Stories of desperate and bloody Indian fights were rife in the camp. Our position was badly chosen, surrounded on all sides by timbered hollows, and occupying an area of several hundred feet, so that necessarily the guards were far apart. Now and then I could hear Randolph, as if relieved by the sound of a voice in the darkness, calling out to the sergeant of the guard, to direct his attention to some imaginary alarm. But they stood it out, and took their turn regularly afterwards."

The next morning, as they were proceeding up the valley, several moving objects were dimly discerned, far away upon the opposite hills; which objects disappeared before a glass could be brought to bear upon them. One of the company, who was in the rear, came spurring up, in great haste, shouting "Indians." He affirmed that he had seen them distinctly, and had counted twenty-seven. The party immediately halted. All examined their arms, and prepared for battle, in case they should be attacked. Kit Carson sprang upon one of the most fleet of the hunting horses, crossed the river, and galloped off, over the prairie, towards the hills where the objects had been seen.

"Mounted on a fine horse, without a saddle," writes Lieutenant Fremont, "and scouring, bareheaded, over the prairies, Kit was one of the finest pictures of a horseman I had ever seen. He soon returned quite leisurely, and informed them that the party of twenty-seven Indians had resolved itself into a herd of six elk who, having discovered us, had scampered off at full speed."

The next day they reached a fork of the Blue river, where the road leaves that tributary of the Kansas, and passes over to the great valley of the Platte river. In their march, across the level prairie of this high table-land, they encountered a squall of rain, with vivid lightning and heavy peals of thunder. One blinding flash was accompanied by a bolt, which struck the prairie but a few hundred feet from their line, sending up a column of sand.

A march of about twenty-three miles brought them to the waters of the majestic Platte river. Here they found a very delightful place of encampment near Grand Island. They had now travelled three hundred and twenty-eight miles from the mouth of the Kansas river. They had fixed the latitude and longitude of all the important spots they had passed, and had carefully examined the geological formation of the country.

They were working their way slowly up this beautiful valley, to a point where it was only four miles wide. Here they halted to "noon." As they were seated on the grass, quietly taking their dinner, they were alarmed by the startling cry from the guard, of "All hands." In an instant everybody was up, with his rifle in hand. The horses were immediately both hobbled and picketed, while all eyes were directed to a wild-looking band approaching in the distance. As they drew near they proved to be a party of fourteen white men, returning on foot to the States. Their baggage was strapped to their backs. It was indeed a forlorn and way-worn band. They had, on a trapping excursion, encountered but a constant scene of disasters and were now returning to St. Louis, utterly impoverished.

They brought the welcome intelligence that buffaloes were in abundance two days' journey in advance. After a social hour, in which the two parties feasted together, the surveyors mounted their horses, and the trappers shouldered their packs, and the two parties separated in different directions. Lieutenant Fremont mentions an incident illustrative of the homeless life which many of these wanderers of the wilderness live:

"Among them," he writes, "I had found an old companion on a northern prairie, a hardened and hardly-served veteran of the mountains, who had been as much hacked and scarred as an old moustache of Napoleon's Old Guard. He flourished in the soubriquet of La Tulipe. His real name I never knew. Finding that he was going to the States, only because his company was bound in that direction, and that he was rather more than willing to return with me, I took him again into my service."

The company made but seventeen miles that day. Just as they had gone into camp, in the evening, three Indians were discovered approaching, two men and a boy of thirteen. They belonged to the Cheyenne tribe, and had been off, with quite a numerous band, on an unsuccessful horse-stealing raid among the Pawnees. Upon a summit, they had caught a glimpse of the white men, and had left their companions, confident of finding kind treatment at the camp-fires of the pale faces.

They were invited to supper with Lieutenant Fremont's mess. Young Randolph Benton, and the young Cheyenne, after eying each other suspiciously for some time, soon became quite intimate friends. After supper one of the Cheyennes drew, upon a sheet of paper, very rudely, but, as it afterwards appeared, quite correctly, a map of the general character of the country between the encampment and their villages, which were about three hundred miles further west.

The two next days the party made about forty miles. "The air was keen," writes Lieutenant Fremont, "the next morning at sunrise, the thermometer standing at 44 degrees. It was sufficiently cold to make overcoats very comfortable. A few miles brought us into the midst of the buffalo, swarming in immense numbers over the plains, where they had left scarcely a blade of grass standing. Mr. Preuss, who was sketching at a little distance in the rear, had at first noticed them as large groves of timber. In the sight of such a mass of life, the traveller feels a strange emotion of grandeur. We had heard, from a distance, a dull and confused murmuring, and when we came in view of their dark masses, there was not one among us who did not feel his heart beat quicker. It was the early part of the day when the herds are feeding, and every where they are in motion. Here and there a huge old bull was rolling in the grass, and clouds of dust rose in the air from various parts of the bands.

"Shouts and songs resounded from every part of the line, and our evening camp was always the commencement of a feast which terminated only with our departure on the following morning. At any time of the night might be seen pieces of the most delicate and choicest meat, roasting on sticks around the fire. With pleasant weather, and no enemy to fear, an abundance of the most excellent meat and no scarcity of bread or tobacco, they were enjoying an oasis of a voyageur's life."

Three buffalo cows were killed to-day. Kit Carson had shot one, and was continuing the chase in the midst of another herd, when his horse fell headlong, but sprang up and joined the flying band. Though considerably hurt, he had the good fortune to break no bones. Maxwell, who was mounted on a fleet hunter, captured the runaway after a hard chase. He was on the point of shooting him, to avoid the loss of his bridle, a handsomely mounted Spanish one, when he found that his horse was able to come up with him.

The next day was the first of July.

As our adventurers were riding joyfully along, over a beautiful prairie country, on the right side of the river, a magnificent herd of buffalo came up from the water over the bank, not less then seven or eight hundred in number, and commenced slowly crossing the plain, grazing as they went. The prairie was here about three miles broad. This gave the hunters a fine opportunity to charge upon them before they could escape among the distant hills. The fleet horses for hunting, were brought up and saddled. Lieutenant Fremont, Kit Carson and L. Maxwell mounted for the chase. Maxwell was a veteran pioneer, who had been engaged as hunter for the expedition.

The herd were about half a mile distant from the company. The three hunters rode quietly along, till within about three hundred yards of the herd, before they seemed to be noticed by the buffaloes. Then a sudden agitation and wavering of the herd was followed by precipitate and thundering flight. The fleet horse can outstrip the buffalo in the race. The three hunters plunged after them at a hard gallop. A crowd of bulls, gallantly defending the cows, brought up the rear. Every now and then they would stop, for an instant, and look back as if half disposed to show fight.

"In a few moments," writes Lieutenant Fremont, "during which we had been quickening our pace, we were going over the ground like a hurricane. When at about thirty yards we gave the usual shout and broke into the herd. We entered on the side, the mass giving away in every direction in their heedless course. Many of the bulls, less fleet than the cows, paying no heed to the ground, and occupied solely with the hunters, were precipitated to the earth with great force, rolling over and over with the violence of the shock, and hardly distinguishable in the dust. We separated, on entering, each singling out his game.

"My horse was a trained hunter, famous in the west under the name of Proveau, and with his eyes flashing and the foam flying from his mouth, he sprang on after the cow, like a tiger. In a few moments he brought me along side of her. Rising in the stirrups, I fired, at the distance of a yard, the ball entering at the termination of the long hair, passing near the heart. She fell headlong at the report of the gun. Checking my horse, I looked around for my companions.

"At a little distance Kit was on the ground, engaged in tying his horse to the horns of a cow, which he was preparing to cut up. Among the scattered band, at some distance, I caught a glimpse of Maxwell. While I was looking, a light wreath of white smoke curled away from his gun, from which I was too far to hear the report. Nearer, and between me and the hills, towards which they were directing their course, was the body of the herd. Giving my horse the rein, we dashed after them. A thick cloud of dust hung upon their rear, which filled my mouth and eyes and nearly smothered me. In the midst of this I could see nothing, and the buffalo were not distinguishable until within thirty feet. They crowded together more densely still, as I came upon them, and rushed along in such a compact body that I could not obtain an entrance, the horse almost leaping upon them.

"In a few moments the mass divided to the right and left, the horns clattering with a noise heard above everything else, and my horse darted into the opening. Five or six bulls charged on us, as we dashed along the line, but were left far behind. Singling out a cow I gave her my fire, but struck too high. She gave a tremendous leap and scoured on swifter than before. I reined up my horse, and the band swept on like a torrent, and left the place quiet and clear. Our chase had led us into dangerous ground. A prairie-dog village, so thickly settled that there were three or four holes in twenty yards square, occupied the whole bottom for nearly two miles in length."