Kit Carson - John S. C. Abbott

Life in the Wilderness


The company of traders which Kit had joined enjoyed, on the whole, a prosperous expedition. They met with no hostile Indians and, with one exception, encountered nothing which they could deem a hardship. There was one exception, which most persons would deem a terrible one. The accidental discharge of a gun, incautiously handled, shattered a man's arm, shivering the bone to splinters. The arm rapidly grew inflamed, became terribly painful, and must be amputated or the life lost. There was no one in the party who knew anything of surgery. But they had a razor, a handsaw and a bar of iron.

It shows the estimation in which the firm, gentle, and yet almost womanly Kit Carson was held, that he was chosen to perform the operation. Two others were to assist him. The sufferer took his seat, and was held firmly, that in his anguish his struggles might not interfere with the progress of the knife. This boy of but eighteen years then, with great apparent coolness, undertook this formidable act of surgery.

He bound a ligature around the arm very tightly, to arrest, as far as possible the flow of blood. With the razor he cut through the quivering muscles, tendons and nerves. With the handsaw he severed the bone. With the bar of iron, at almost a white heat, he cauterized the wound. The cruel operation was successful. And the patient, under the influence of the pure mountain air, found his wound almost healed before he reached Santa Fe.

Having arrived at his journey's end, Kit's love of adventure led him not to return with the traders, by the route over which he had just passed, but to push on still further in his explorations. About eighty miles northeast of Santa Fe there was another Spanish settlement, weird-like in its semi-barbarous, semi-civilized aspects, with its huts of sun-baked clay, its Catholic priests, its Mexican Indians and its half-breeds. It was a small, lonely settlement, whose population lived mainly, like the Indians, upon corn-meal and the chase. Kit ever kept his trusty rifle with him. His gun and hatchet constituted his purse, furnishing him with food and lodging.

It was a mountainous region; here in one of the dells, Kit came across the solitary hut of a mountaineer by the name of Kin Cade. They took a mutual liking to each other. As Kit could at any day, with his rifle bring in food enough to last a week, the question of board did not come into consideration. It was in the latter part of November that Kit first entered the cabin of this hunter. Here he spent the winter. His bed consisted probably of husks of corn covered with a buffalo robe, a luxurious couch for a healthy and weary man. Pitch pine knots brilliantly illumined the hut in the evening. Traps were set to catch animals for their furs. Deer skins were softly tanned and colored for clothing, with ornamental fringes for coats and leggins and moccasins. Kit and his companion Kin were their own tailors.

Thus passed the winter of 1826. Both of the men were very good-natured, and of congenial tastes. They wanted for nothing. When the wind howled amid the crags of the mountains and the storm beat upon their lonely habitation, with fuel in abundance and a well filled larder, and with no intoxicating drinks or desire for them, they worked upon their garments and other conveniences in the warmth of their cheerful fireside. It is not hazarding too much to say that these two gentle men, in their solitary cabin, passed a far more happy winter than many families who were occupying, in splendid misery, the palatial residences of London, Paris and New York.

Kin Cade was perhaps a Spaniard. He certainly spoke the Spanish language with correctness and fluency. The intelligence of Kit is manifest from the fact that he devoted himself assiduously during the winter to the acquisition of the Spanish language. And his strong natural abilities are evidenced in his having attained, in that short time, quite the mastery of the Spanish tongue. It is often said that Kit Carson was entirely an uneducated man. This is, in one respect, a mistake. The cabin of Kin Cade was his academy, where he pursued his studies vigorously and successfully for a whole winter, graduating in the spring with the highest honors that academy could confer.

We ought not to forget that, in addition to the study of the languages, he also devoted much attention to the study of geography. They had no books, no maps. It is doubtful indeed, whether either Kit or his teacher could read or write. But Kin had been a renowned explorer. He had traversed the prairies, climbed the mountains, followed the courses of the rivers, and paddled over the lakes. With his stick he could draw upon the smoothly trodden floor of his hut, everything that was needful of a chart. There were probably many idle students in Harvard and Yale, who during those winter months did not make as much intellectual progress as Kit Carson made.

In the spring of 1827, Kit again went forth from his winter's retreat into the wilderness world, which has its active life and engrossing excitements, often even far greater than are to be found on the city's crowded pavements. Not finding in these remote regions any congenial employment, Kit decided to retrace his steps to Missouri. Most persons would have thought that the journey of some thousand miles on foot, through a trackless wilderness where he was exposed every step of the way, to howling wolves and merciless savages, a pretty serious undertaking. Kit appears to have regarded it but as an every-day occurrence.

He joined a party of returning traders. Much of the region they traversed may be aptly described in the language which Irving applies to Spain. "It is a stern melancholy country, with rugged mountains and long sweeping plains, indescribably lonesome, solitary, savage." After travelling nearly five hundred miles, about half the distance back to Missouri, they reached a ford of the Arkansas river. Here they met another party of traders bound to Santa Fe. Kit, who with great reluctance had decided to return home, eagerly joined them. His services were deemed very valuable, and they offered him a rich reward. His knowledge of the Spanish language became now a valuable investment to him, and as he had already twice traversed the route, he was at once invested with the dignity of guide as well as interpreter.

The following incident, related by a traveller who was passing over this same plain under the guidance of Kit Carson, shows that there are other dangers to be encountered besides the prowling savage and the wolf:

"It was a bright moonlight night. I had, as was my custom, spread my saddle leathers for a bed, and had drawn my blanket closely around me. Weary with the day's march, I had been sleeping soundly for several hours, when about midnight I awoke suddenly with an unaccountable feeling of dread. It must have been a sort of instinct which prompted me, for in a moment I was upon my feet, and then, upon removing my blanket, I found a rattlesnake, swollen with rage and poison, coiled and ready to strike.

"I drew away the blanket which served as a mattress, intending to kill the reptile, when to my astonishment it glided away making its escape into a small opening in the ground directly beneath my bed. The whole matter was explained at once. The snake had probably been out to see a neighbor; and getting home after I was asleep, felt a gentlemanly unwillingness to disturb me. And, as I had taken possession of his dwelling he took part of my sleeping place, crawling under the blanket where he must have lain quietly by my side until I rolled over and disturbed him. I can scarcely say that I slept much more that night, and even Carson admitted that it made him a little nervous."

Kit Carson was not a garrulous man. He was much more given to reflection than to talk, and he was never known to speak boastfully of any of his achievements. It is the invariable testimony of all who knew him, that he was mild, gentle and unassuming, one of Nature's noblemen. While travelling he scarcely ever spoke. Nothing escaped his keen eye. His whole appearance was that of a man deeply impressed with a sense of the responsibility of his office. He knew full well the treacherous character of the Indians, and that "the better part of valor is discretion."

He had often seen men killed at night by an invisible foe. From the impenetrable darkness which surrounded the camp fire, an arrow would come winged with death, piercing the heart of some mountaineer whose body was clearly revealed by the firelight. Kit Carson would never thus expose himself. He would always spread his blanket where the firelight would not reveal him.

"No, no boys," he would say to his often reckless comrades, "you may hang around the fire if you will. It may do for you, if you like it. But I do not wish to have a Digger Indian slip an arrow into me when I cannot see him."

A gentleman, who was guided over the plains by Kit, writes, "During this journey I have often watched Carson's preparation for the night. A braver man than Kit perhaps never lived. In fact, I doubt if he ever knew what fear was. But with all this he exercised great caution. While arranging his bed, his saddle, which he always used as a pillow, was disposed in such a manner as to form a barricade for his head. His pistols half cocked were placed above it, and his trusty rifle reposed beneath the blanket by his side, where it was not only ready for instant use but perfectly protected from the damp. Except now and then to light his pipe, you never caught Kit, at night, exposing himself to the full glare of the camp fire."

When on the march everything was conducted with military precision. At the early dawn as Kit gave the signal to prepare to start, all were instantly in motion. The mules were brought up; their packs were fastened firmly upon their backs, an operation which required much labor and skill. The mules have a strange instinct which leads them to follow with a sort of fascination a white horse. Thus generally a white horse or mare leads the cavalcade.

At times it was necessary to march long distances without meeting water. One of these dreary stretches was eighty miles long. It was necessary to pass over it as rapidly as possible, day and night almost without resting. In accomplishing one of these arduous journeys across a desert almost as bare as that of Sahara, the party set out one afternoon at three o'clock. One of the travellers writes:

"I shall never forget the impression which that night's journey left upon my mind. Sometimes the trail led us over large basins of deep sand, where the trampling of the mules' feet gave forth no sound. This, added to the almost terrible silence which ever reigns in the solitude of the desert, rendered our transit more like the passage of some airy spectacle where the actors were shadows instead of men. Nor is this comparison a strained one, for our way-worn voyagers, with their tangled locks and unshorn beards, rendered white as snow by the fine sand with which the air in these regions is often filled, had a weird and ghost-like look, which the gloomy scene around, with its frowning rocks and moonlit sands, tended to enhance and heighten."

It is said, as illustrative of Kit's promptness of action, that one night an inexperienced guard shouted "Indians." In an instant Kit was on his feet, pistol in hand. A dark object was approaching him. The loss of a second of time might enable a savage to bury his arrow-head deep in his side and to disappear in the darkness. Like a flash of lightning Kit fired and shot his mule. It was a false alarm.

The traders arrived safely in Santa Fe. Kit Carson, having faithfully performed his contract, began to look around for new adventures. Three hundred and fifty miles south of Santa Fe, there was the Mexican province of Chihuahua. It was a very rich mining district, and many adventurers had flocked to it from Spain. There was here a narrow valley of the Rio Grande about ten miles in extent, and quite well filled with the rude settlements of the miners. It is said that at one time there were nearly seventy thousand Spaniards and Indians scattered along the river banks in search of the precious metals.

A trading party was bound from Santa Fe to this region. Colonel Trammel was the leader of this party, and he eagerly secured the services of Kit Carson, who, in addition to his experience as a traveller, could also perform the functions of an interpreter. We have no record of the incidents which occurred on this journey. As the route was well known, and there were no hostile Indians to be encountered, it was probably uneventful.

In this valley of El Paso, as it was called, Carson found about five thousand people, mostly on the right bank of the river. The rudeness of the style in which they lived painfully impressed him. There was far more comfort in the cabins he had left in Missouri.

The houses were of clay baked in the sun, with earthen floors. Window glass was a luxury unknown. It seems almost incredible that they should have had neither chairs, tables, knives nor forks. These Mexicans were scarcely one remove from the untamed savages of the wilderness. Young Carson found nothing to interest him or to invite his stay. He returned to Santa Fe. The summer had now passed and another winter come.

About a hundred and fifty miles north of Santa Fe there was a small collection of huts called Taos, inhabited by trappers and hunters. This pursuit of game for food and fur was the employment which was congenial to him above all others. He directed his steps to Taos and at once entered into an engagement with Mr. Ewing Young, making his cabin headquarters.

Hunting and trapping were somewhat different employments, though perhaps equally exciting. The hunter depended upon his rifle, and was mainly in search of food. Still the robe of the buffalo and the coat of the grizzly bear were very useful in various ways, in the cabin of the hunter, and the softly tanned skin of the deer was invaluable, furnishing every article of clothing, shirt, leggins and moccasins. The skins of these animals had also a market value.

But the trapper was in pursuit of furs only. Though the men engaged in this pursuit were occasionally exposed to great hardship and suffering, still, in general they probably had, in the gratification of congenial tastes, a full share of such happiness as this world can furnish.

Young Carson, at the age of nineteen, had no taste for the scholarly seclusion of Yale or Harvard, no desire to stand all day behind the counter of the dry-goods store, or to work amid the crowd and the hum of the factory; he had no wish for what is called society, or to saunter down Broadway with his cigar and his cane, to exhibit his tightly-fitting garments; but he did love to set out on a hunting and trapping expedition. Let us follow him in one of these adventures.

It is a bright morning of the Indian summer, far along in November. There is a small log cabin on a mound of the wilderness. A dense forest breaks the northern winds. A rippling stream runs by the door. Beyond lies the prairie rich in verdure and enamelled with gorgeous autumnal flowers. Herds of buffalo are grazing in groups of hundreds, sometimes of thousands, on the broad expanse. Gangs of deer are seen, graceful, beautiful, following in the train of the antlered bucks, and with scent so keen and eyes so piercing that it requires the utmost skill of the hunter to approach them within rifle shot. Clouds of prairie chickens and quails are floating here and there in their short flight. It is the paradise of the hunter. Let no one think this description overdrawn. It would be difficult to exaggerate the loveliness of the flower-spangled prairie on a bright autumnal day. Eden could scarcely have presented scenes more attractive.

Young Carson stands at the door of the cabin with a stout mule before him. The animal is strong and plump, having been feasting upon the wild oats growing luxuriantly around. Carson is packing his mule. His outfit consists of a Mexican blanket, rough, thick and warm; a supply of ammunition; a kettle; possibly a coffee-pot and some coffee, which have been obtained at Santa Fe; several iron traps; some dressed deerskin for replacing clothing and moccasins, a hatchet and a few other similar articles. In addition to his mule he may also take a pony to bear him on the way. Thus, if by accident, one give out, he has another animal to rely upon. And if very successful he may have furs enough to load them both on his return.

His costume consists of a hunting shirt of the soft and pliable deerskin, ornamented with long fringes and often dyed with bright vermilion. Pantaloons of the same material are also ornamented with fringes and porcupine's quills of various colors. Many a tranquil hour has been beguiled, in the long evenings and when the storm has beaten upon the hut, in fashioning these garments with artistic taste, learned of the Indians. A flexible cap, often of rich fur, covers his head, and moccasins, upon which all the resources of barbaric embroidery have been expended, cover his feet.

His rifle is borne on his left shoulder. His powder horn and bullet pouch hang under his right arm. In his bullet pouch he also carries spare flints, steel and various odds and ends. Beneath the broad belt which encircles his waist there is a large butcher knife in a sheath of buffalo hide. There is a whetstone in a buckskin case made fast to the belt, and also a small hatchet or tomahawk.

Thus accoutred, our young hunter and trapper sets out in search of the most lonely ravine which he can find among the mountains. He would reach if possible, some solitary stream which no white man's eye had ever beheld. He has no road, no trail to guide him. He rides his pony and leads his mule. Over the prairie, through the forest, across the streams, in silence and in a solitude which to him is not lonely, he passes on his way.

Night comes. If pleasant, he unburdens his horse and mule; drives his iron pickets into the ground, to which his animals are attached by ropes about thirty feet long, generally in pastures of rich grass or wild oats; builds a fire, cooks his supper, rolls himself in his blanket and sleeps soundly till morning. If the weather is unpleasant it makes but little difference. He knows exactly what to do. In a short time he constructs a frail but ample shelter; and then, with his feet towards the fire, sleeps sweetly regardless of the storm. His animals have no more need of shelter than have the bears and the buffaloes.

This is the ordinary life of the hunter. There are, of course, exceptions when calamity and woe come. A joint may be sprained, a limb broken. Fire may burn, or Indians may come, bringing captivity and torture. But the ordinary life of the hunter, gratifying his natural taste, has many fascinations. This is evidenced by the eagerness with which our annual tourists leave their ceiled chambers, in the luxurious cities, to encamp in the wilderness of the Adirondacks or the Rocky mountains. There is not a restaurant in the Palais Royal, or on the Boulevards which can furnish such a repast as these men often find, from trout which they have taken from the brook, and game which their own rifles shot, have cooked at the fires which their own hands have kindled. A gentleman who spent a winter in this way, in the green and sheltered valleys of the Rocky mountains, writes:

"There was something inexpressibly exhilarating in the sensation of positive freedom from all worldly care, and a consequent expansion of the sinews, as it were, of mind and body, which made me feel as elastic as a ball of India rubber, and in such a state of perfect ease that no more dread of scalping Indians entered my mind, than if I had been sitting in Broadway, in one of the windows of the Astor House. The very happiest moments of my life have been spent in the wilderness of the Far West, with no friend near me more faithful than my rifle, and no companion more sociable than my horse and mules.

"With a plentiful supply of pine logs on the fire, and its cheerful blaze streaming far up into the sky, illuminating the valley far and near, and exhibiting the animals, with well filled bellies, standing contentedly over their picket-pins, I would sit enjoying the genial warmth, building castles in the air. Scarcely ever did I wish to exchange such hours of freedom for all the luxuries of civilized life. Such are the fascinations of the life of the mountain hunter that I believe that not one instance could be adduced of even the most polished and civilized of men, who had once tasted the sweets of its attendant liberty and freedom from every worldly care, not sighing once more to partake of its pleasures and allurements.

"A hunter's camp in the Rocky mountains is quite a picture. It is invariably made in a picturesque locality. Nothing can be more social and cheering than the welcome blaze of the camp fire on a cold winter's night."

Young Carson, alone with his horse and mule, would journey from fifty to a hundred miles, examining every creek and stream, keeping a sharp lookout for signs of beaver. Having selected his location, generally in some valley eight or ten miles in extent, with a winding stream circling through the centre, which he had reason to believe was well stocked with beaver, he would choose a position for his camp. This would be more or less elaborate in its construction, according to the time he intended to spend there. But he would always find some sunny nook, with a southern exposure and a pleasing prospect, near the brook or some spring of sweet water, and, if possible, with forest or rock sheltering from the north winds.

In a few hours young Carson would construct his half-faced cabin, as the hunting-camp was called. A large log generally furnished the foundation of the back part of the hut. Four stout stakes were then planted in the ground so as to inclose a space about eight feet square. These stakes were crotched at the ends, so as to support others for the roof. The front was about five feet high, the back not more than four. The whole slope of the roof was from the front to the back. The covering was made of bark or slabs and sometimes of skins. The sides were covered in a similar way. The whole of the front was open. The smooth ground floor was strewed with fragrant hemlock branches, over which were spread blankets or buffalo robes. In front of the opening the camp fire could be built, or on the one side or the other, in accordance with the wind.

Thus in a few hours young Carson would erect him a home, so cosey and cheerful in its aspect as to be attractive to every eye. Reclining upon mattresses really luxurious in their softness, he could bask in the beams of the sun, circling low in its winter revolutions, or gaze at night upon the brilliant stars, and not unfrequently have spread out before him an extended prospect of as rich natural scenery as ever cheered the eye. He had no anxiety about food. His hook or his rifle supplied him abundantly with what he deemed the richest viands. He knew where were the tender cuts. He knew how to cook them deliciously. And he had an appetite to relish them.

Having thus provided himself with a habitation, he took his traps and, either on foot or on horseback, as the character of the region or the distance to be traversed might render best, followed along the windings of the stream till he came to a beaver dam. He would examine the water carefully to find some shallow which the beavers must pass in crossing from shoal to deep water. Here he would plant his trap, always under water, and carefully adjust the bait. He would then follow on to another dam, and thus proceed till six traps were set, which was the usual number taken on such an expedition.

Early every morning he would mount his horse or mule and take the round of his traps, which generally required a journey of several miles. The captured animals were skinned on the spot, and the skins only, with the tails which the hunters deemed a great luxury as an article of food, were taken to the camp. Then the skin was stretched over a framework to dry. When dry it was folded into a square sheet, the fur turned inward and a bundle made containing from ten to twenty skins tightly pressed and corded, which was ready for transportation. These skins were then worth about eight dollars per pound.

After an absence of three or four weeks, young Carson would return with his treasures, often several hundred dollars in value, to the rendezvous of Mr. Ewing Young at Taos. Soon again he would set out on another similar expedition. Thus Carson passed the winter of 1827.