Kit Carson - John S. C. Abbott

Marches and Battles


The morning of the ninth of September dawned upon our voyagers remarkably serene and beautiful. They hurried through breakfast to make an early start. The water was found so shallow, at the mouth of the river, that it would not float the boat. They were compelled to take off their clothes and wade through the soft mud for the distance of a mile, dragging the boat, when they came to deep water. The whole wide marshy expanse seemed to be covered with waterfowl of every description, filling the air with their discordant voices. Though it was calm, there was quite a heavy swell upon the ocean-like lake. The waters were of crystal clearness, though so thoroughly saturated with salt that the spray left a saline crust upon the clothing.

They reached the island and ascended its loftiest peak, which was about eight hundred feet high. It is almost certain that never since the creation had a white man's foot trod that summit.

"As we looked," writes Colonel Fremont, "over the vast expanse of water spread out beneath us, and strained our eyes along the silent shore, over which hung so much doubt and uncertainty, I could hardly repress the desire to continue our exploration. But the lengthening snow on the mountains, spreading farther and farther, was a plain indication of the advancing season, and our frail linen boat appeared so insecure that I was unwilling to trust our lives to the uncertainties of the lake. I therefore unwillingly resolved to terminate our survey here and to remain satisfied for the present with what we had been able to add to the unknown geography of the region. We felt also pleasure in remembering that we were the first who, in the traditionary annals of the country, had visited the island and broken with the cheerful sound of human voices, the long solitude of the place.

"Out of the drift-wood on the beach, we made ourselves pleasant little lodges, open to the water, and, after having kindled large fires, to excite the wonder of any straggling savage on the lake shores, lay down, for the first time in a long journey, in perfect security, no one thinking about his arms. The evening was extremely bright and pleasant. But the wind rose during the night, and the waves began to break heavily, making our island tremble. I had not expected, in our inland journey, to hear the roar of an ocean surf. The strangeness of our situation, and the excitement we felt, in the associated interests of the place, made this one of the most interesting nights I remember during our long expedition."

The next morning they set out at an early hour, on their return to the main land, about nine miles distant. When they had rowed about three miles the clouds gathered, menacing a storm, and a strong wind rose, blowing directly against them. The heavy sea which they encountered caused a leakage in the air chambers of the boat, and they were in imminent danger of finding a grave in the bottom of the lake. It was with much difficulty that a man, stationed at the bellows, supplied the chamber with air as fast as it escaped.

At length they effected a landing on marshy ground, about nine miles from the encampment. Two men were immediately dispatched to the camp to bring horses to take back the boat and baggage.

"The rude looking shelter," writes Colonel Fremont, "we raised on the shore, our scattered baggage and boat lying on the beach made quite a picture. We called this the fisherman's camp."

The horses arrived in the afternoon. It was then blowing such a gale that a man could hardly stand against it. The water of the lake was rapidly rising, forced in by the wind. Very hurriedly they packed their baggage and had scarcely left the spot ere it was entirely submerged. They reached the camp in the edge of the evening, just in time to escape a thunder storm, which blackened the sky and deluged the earth with rain. The next day they remained at the camp, and boiled down five gallons of lake water which yielded fourteen pints of very fine white salt. The ensuing morning was calm and beautiful, as is almost invariably the case during the summer and autumnal months, throughout all that region.

They now commenced their return by the same route they had already traversed, ascending the valley of the Bear river towards the north. Day after day they journeyed on, without meeting much game, and their supply of food was nearly exhausted. All the party seemed low-spirited, and trudged along in silence. Scarcely a word was spoken. On the night of the fourteenth they encamped on the bank of a crystal stream. It was a lovely evening, serene and mild. But the company seemed very forlorn from hunger. Colonel Fremont therefore consented that a fat young horse, which he had purchased of the Indians, should be killed for food. As the company gathered around their brilliant camp-fires, feasted on the savory horse steak, the customary good-humor and gayety were restored.

The next day, as they were still ascending the valley, they came upon two families of Snake Indians who were gathering herbs and roots. The berries they were drying on buffalo robes. These two families had twelve or fifteen horses grazing around their encampment. Soon after this they encountered a solitary Indian, who had an antelope which he had killed. They purchased the antelope and encamped early to enjoy the rich feast. While they were protracting the pleasures of their repast, a messenger came galloping into their camp saying that Mr. Fitzpatrick was within a few miles of them, with an ample supply of provisions. They could scarcely sleep that night for joy. The next morning before sunrise they were on the move and soon rejoined their friends. Together they continued their journey to the northward, encountering several lodges of Snake Indians; of whom they purchased about a bushel of dried berries.

Leaving the valley of the Bear river they crossed over to Snake river, or as it is sometimes called, Lewis's Fork of the Columbia river. On their way they met an Indian family on horseback, who had been gathering what are called service berries. At night fires were seen burning all along the mountainsides, indicating numerous encampments of the Indians. But they were all friendly, and the weary voyagers slept with a very happy and grateful sense of security. On the eighteenth they entered the spacious valley of the Snake river, near its upper waters. The next morning the snow began to fall and it continued snowing all day.

They were now very near Fort Hall. They therefore encamped, and Colonel Fremont rode up to the fort and purchased several horses, and five fat oxen. The arrival of the oxen, giving promise of such good cheer, was received with shouts of joy. Though night came down upon the wanderers, cold and stormy, rousing fires and smoking steaks made all happy.

For several days the party remained in their encampment. They had journeyed from the frontier of Missouri, thirteen hundred and twenty-three miles. Though winter had come on thus early, and both game and forage were known to be scarce along the route they were about to travel, Colonel Fremont decided to continue his explorations, regardless of ice and cold. He thought it, however, expedient to diminish the number of his party. Accordingly he assembled the men, informed them of his intention, and of the great hardships to which they would doubtless be exposed. Thus he persuaded eleven men to withdraw from the expedition, and return to the States.

With the lessened party, about twenty in number, Colonel Fremont recommenced his journey, on the twenty-second of September, down the valley of the river towards the mouth of the Columbia. We have not space here to record the many interesting events of this journey. The Colonel bears constant and affectionate testimony to the services rendered by Kit Carson. After travelling six or seven hundred miles, they reached Fort Dalles, then passing directly south, through the very heart of the Oregon territory, they made a thorough exploration of Klamath Lake, to its extreme southern border.

Thence they started for California. It was necessary to cross a ridge of the Sierra Nevada mountains. The snow was six feet deep on a level. The toils and sufferings of the men were dreadful. There was neither game nor forage to be found. Many of the mules died of starvation. One incident, which occurred during this dreadful march, we give in the words of Colonel Fremont. Under date of February 23rd he writes:

"This was our most difficult day. We were forced off the ridges, by the quantity of snow among the timber, and obliged to take to the mountain sides, where occasionally rocks and a southern exposure afforded us a chance to scramble along. But these were steep, and slippery with snow and ice, and the tough evergreens of the mountain impeded our way, tore our skins, and exhausted our patience. Some of us had the misfortune to wear moccasins, with soles of buffalo hide, so slippery that we could not keep our feet, and generally we crawled along the snow beds. Axes and mauls were necessary to make a road through the snow.

"Going ahead with Carson, to reconnoitre the road, we reached, this afternoon, the river which made the outlet of the lake. Carson sprang over, clear across a place where the stream was compressed among the rocks. But the sole of my moccasin glanced from the icy rock, and precipitated me into the river. It was some few seconds before I could recover myself in the current, and Carson thinking me hurt, jumped in after me, and we both had an icy bath. We tried to search a while for my gun, which had been lost in the fall, but the cold drove us out. Making a large fire on the bank, after we had partially dried ourselves, we went back to meet the camp. We afterwards found that the gun had been slung under the ice which lined the shores of the creek."

Upon reaching the southern declivity of the mountains, Fremont and Carson, with six others, pushed ahead to Fort Sutter where, it will be remembered, the gold of California was first discovered. The whole party reached the fort on the sixth of March, 1844. These extraordinary men, in the depths of winter, had travelled from Fort Hall about two thousand miles. They remained at the Fort recruiting but a fortnight. A braver enterprise history does not record. Its successful accomplishment sent the name of John C. Fremont, its leader, on the wings of fame, throughout the civilized world. We have no space to record the vastly important results accomplished by this exploration.

Upon leaving the fort, on their return towards the States, they met a Mexican and a little boy, who were in great destitution and grief. They had been left with a band of six, among whom were the boy's father and mother, to watch their animals grazing in a fertile meadow. They were suddenly attacked by a party of thirty Indians, who either captured or killed all of the party except the man and the boy, who fortunately escaped. The Indians fled with their booty. The poor boy was overwhelmed with grief. He had every reason to fear that both of his parents were dead.

Kit Carson's heart was touched. He proposed to Richard Godoy, an experienced and noble-hearted mountaineer, that they two should pursue the thirty Indian warriors, rescue the captives, and regain the animals. They soon struck the Indian trail and followed it nearly all the night. The Indians, not apprehensive of pursuit, were travelling leisurely. Towards morning, Carson and his companion halted for an hour or two, to allow their horses to graze and to get a little sleep. At daybreak they were again in the saddle, and just at sunrise discovered the Indians in a snug little valley, feasting luxuriously upon horse-steaks. They had already killed five of the stolen animals.

These two men immediately charged, with a loud shout, upon the thirty warriors. The savages were taken utterly by surprise, and thrown into a panic. Carson's practiced eye selected the chief, who instantly fell pierced through the heart by a bullet from Carson's rifle. Godoy missed his aim, but instantly reloading, another warrior dropped in his blood. The Indians, not doubting that the two were but the advance party of a strong force, fled with precipitation, abandoning everything. Deliberately Carson collected the horses, counted them and found that they had them all, excepting the five the thieves had killed.

They then followed the trail back to the spot where the savages had attacked the Mexicans. The captives had all been killed and their bodies had been shockingly mangled. Carson and his heroic companion, with fifteen horses, rejoined the camp. The property was at once restored to the Mexicans without any remuneration whatever being received by either of these men for their exploit. They had been absent from the camp thirty hours, and had ridden over a hundred miles.

The march was now resumed and, after a tedious journey of many leagues, they reached Fort Bent on the second of July, where the exploring party was disbanded. Colonel Fremont proceeded to Washington. Kit Carson returned to Taos. Thinking that he had had enough of wandering, he decided to become a farmer, that he might reside at home with his family. He purchased quite a large tract of land a little out from the straggling village of Taos, and commenced farming upon a pretty large scale.

As he was very busy erecting his buildings and breaking up the soil, an express arrived from Colonel Fremont, stating that he was about to set out on a third exploring tour and that he should depend upon Mr. Carson's accompanying him. He also reminded him of a promise once given that he would be ever ready to heed such a call.

Mr. Carson had made large investments in buildings, stock, farming utensils, etc. With Mr. Owens, who had been his companion on a former trip, Mr. Carson set out for Fort Bent, where he met with a very cordial welcome from Colonel Fremont. We cannot follow the party, in its long and adventurous wanderings, along the ravines, across the prairies, and over the mountains, until they reached the lower extremity of the Great Salt Lake. Before them towards the west spread out a vast desert, of unknown extent. No white man had ever crossed it. Colonel Fremont decided that it was his duty to explore it. His men were always ready to follow their bold chieftain.

Kit Carson and three others were sent forward to mark out the road by their trail. Should they find grass and water, they were to build a fire, the smoke of which would convey the joyful intelligence to Colonel Fremont, who was watching, spy-glass in hand, from a neighboring eminence. For sixty miles they travelled without finding a drop of water, or a blade of grass. Then suddenly they came upon both in abundance; an oasis in the desert.

Carson built a rousing fire, piling on the green wood to make as much smoke as possible. Notwithstanding the great distance, the glass of Fremont discerned the billowy signal, ascending through the serene skies. His party was at once put in motion, and after a weary march reached their companions. They thence pressed on to Sutter's Fort, where they could only obtain moderate supplies. On the trip they had divided into two parties and one of them had wandered and got lost. Mr. Carson was sent to hunt them up. With his usual skill and promptitude, he accomplished his mission, and brought the lost party safely to the fort. They then directed their course to Monterey, on the sea coast, where they could obtain all they needed. When within thirty miles of the place, an express arrived from General Castro, the Mexican commander of the territory, ordering Colonel Fremont and his party to leave the country or he would compel them to do so.

Instead of obeying this order, Colonel Fremont, with but forty men under his command, immediately selected a good military position, and prepared for a defence. General Castro soon appeared with several hundred troops, infantry, cavalry and artillery, and established himself within a few hundred yards of the Fremont camp. The two parties watched each other for three days. Colonel Fremont then, satisfied that the Mexicans would not assume the offensive, and that it would be rash to attempt to force his way against so powerful a foe, turned his steps north to the Sacramento river, and thence to the mouth of the Columbia.

On the route they met a thousand Indian warriors. They were armed only with arrows and javelins. A fierce battle ensued. The Indians were repelled with heavy loss. Mr. Carson thinks that in that conflict, they became convinced that with their weapons, they could never hope to vanquish the rifle-armed white men. Upon this trip they also learned that war had broken out between the United States and Mexico. The express which brought this intelligence informed Fremont that a United States officer was in the rear, with a few men in imminent peril.

Colonel Fremont took Carson and ten other picked men, and hastened to the rescue. Mr. Carson himself gives the following account of a tragic scene which soon took place. The narrative was given in a letter published in the Washington Union of June, 1847:

"Mr. Gillespie had brought the Colonel letters from home and he was up, and kept a large fire burning until after midnight. This was the only night, in all our travels, except the one night on the island in Salt Lake, that we failed to keep guard. As the men were so tired and we expected no attack now that we had sixty in the party, the Colonel did not like to ask it of them, but sat up late himself. Owens and I were sleeping together, and we were waked at the same time by the licks of the axe that killed our men. At first I did not know it was that, but I called to Basil who was on that side:

"'What's the matter there? What's that fuss about?'

"He never answered for he was dead then, poor fellow, and he never knew what killed him. His head had been cut in, in his sleep. The Delawares, we had four with us, were sleeping at that fire, and they sprang up as the Klamaths charged them. One of them caught up a gun which was unloaded, but although he could do no execution he kept them at bay like a soldier, and did not give up till he was shot full of arrows, three entering his heart.

"As soon as I had called out I saw it was Indians in the camp, and I and Owens cried out together, 'Indians.' There were no orders given, things went on too fast, and the Colonel had men with him that did not need to be told their duty. The Colonel and I, Maxwell, Owens, Godey and Stepp jumped together and went to the assistance of our Delawares.

"I don't know who fired first and who didn't; but I think it was Stepp's shot that killed the Klamath chief; for it was at the crack of Stepp's gun that he fell. He had an English half-axe slung to his wrist by a cord, and there were forty arrows left in his quiver; the most beautiful and warlike arrows I ever saw. He must have been the bravest man among them, from the way he was armed, and judging from his cap.

"When the Klamaths saw him fall, they ran; but we lay, every man with his rifle cocked, until daylight, expecting another attack. In the morning we found, by the tracks, that from fifteen to twenty of the Klamaths had attacked us. They had killed three of our men and wounded one of the Delawares, who scalped the chief, whom they left where he fell.

"Our dead men we carried on mules; but after going about ten miles we found it impossible to get them any farther through the thick timber. And finding a secret place we buried them under logs and chunks, having no way to dig a grave. It was only a few days before this, that some of these same Indians had come into our camp; and although we had only meat for two days and felt sure that we should have to eat mules for ten or fifteen days to come, the Colonel divided with them, and even had a mule unpacked to give them some tobacco and knives."

In consequence of the war declared between the United States and Mexico, Colonel Fremont thought it expedient to return to California. He judged it, however, to be necessary first, as a lesson to the savages, to punish them severely for their wanton murder of his men. Kit Carson, at the head of ten chosen mountaineers, was sent forward in search of their strongholds. If he discovered them without being seen himself he was to return for reinforcements. If seen he was to act as he thought best.

He soon discovered an Indian trail, and followed it to an Indian encampment of fifty lodges, containing one hundred and fifty warriors. The agitation in the camp evidenced that the Indians had obtained warning of danger. Carson decided to attack them instantly, in the midst of their confusion. The Indians for a moment made a bold stand. But as bullet after bullet pierced them, from the invisible missiles of their foe, whom they could not reach with arrows, they turned in a panic and fled. Mr. Carson wishing to inflict chastisement which would not soon be forgotten, ordered all their valuables to be collected in their lodges and then applied the torch. The flames leaped high in the air and in an hour nothing remained of the Indian village, but glowing embers and the bodies of their dead warriors.

Colonel Fremont saw the smoke of the conflagration and understood its significance. He hastened forward and joined Carson. But it was thought that the Indians had not yet received the punishment which their crime deserved. The whole party then moved on together for several miles, to a secluded encampment.

Mr. Carson said that the warriors would certainly return to view the ruins of their village and to bury their dead. Twenty men were consequently sent back to lie in ambush. At midnight fifty savages were seen in the bright moonlight, approaching their ruined homes. Some alarm caused them precipitately to retreat. Carson was a little in advance with Colonel Fremont. He saw one solitary warrior separate from the rest. Spurring upon the savage at the distance of not ten paces he endeavored to shoot him, when his gun missed fire. He was now apparently at the mercy of the Indian, who had already with sinewy arm, drawn an arrow to the feather to pierce the body of his foe.

Fremont was mounted on a very powerful and spirited charger. He plunged the rowels of his spurs into the animal, when the noble horse made one or two frantic leaps, knocked down the Indian and trampled over him. The arrow of the savage flew wide of its mark. The next moment a rifle ball pierced his heart, and he lay quivering in death.

The party now pressed on to the Sacramento river. The Klamath warriors dogged their path, watching for an opportunity to take them at advantage. One day Carson and Godey, who were a little separated from the rest of the company, came quite unexpectedly upon a band of these warriors and instantly charged upon them. One Indian only was too proud to fly. He took his position behind a rock and as soon as the two white men came within shooting distance, he let fly his arrows with great force and rapidity.

After dodging these arrows for some time, Carson mounted and crept through concealment, till he obtained good aim at the savage. There was a sharp report of the rifle, and the Indian was dead. Carson took from him a beautifully wrought bow and a quiver still containing a number of arrows. But the savages still continued to hover around their trail without venturing upon any attack.