Kit Carson - John S. C. Abbott

Recollections of Mountain Life (cont.)


Mr. Goodyear in his interesting narrative continues: Here let me speak a word or two about water. The springs, as a general thing, are found near the summit of the mountains. In some cases I have had to pack the water a distance of forty miles, for months at a time. From a lake where it bubbled up from the bottom as warm as you would like to hold your hand in, the process of evaporation in the leather bottles rendered it soon, almost as cool as ice water.

Let us now return to our first camping ground on the Mohave river. Here I cached or buried for concealment, some of my provisions, to relieve the animals of their heavy load. If Mr. Indian does not find the cache, it will be all right on our return. I will explain how we do it. First, then, we send out two or three men as scouts, to see if they can discover any signs of Indians, such as footprints or trail, or smoke, or anything of that kind. Men that are used to it, can distinguish between the footprints of an Indian and a white man. They can also, at a long distance off, tell an Indian fire from a white man's.

Any mountaineer can tell by the trail, how long since persons have passed, the number of the party, as well as the number of animals. An Indian, when he makes a fire, uses half a dozen little sticks as big as your thumb, and very dry, and all the smoke the fire makes, will ascend straight up in one steady column. The white man will use, if he is a novice, the dry to kindle with, and then he will chuck on the wet wood, which will cause a great smoke.

But to return to my cache. I keep out my scouts all the time we are to work. "Boys, get your shovels, and dig a hole about four or five feet deep, by ten feet in length. Put a lot of wood or branches in the bottom. In with the provisions, canvas over the top, or more bushes. Cover over all with earth. Then take ashes from previous fires, and scatter over the top; then build fires over them, so as to dry the sand."

It was here in this camp that I first met Christopher Carson, or Kit Carson, as he was called. From his wide acquaintance with the Indians on both sides of the Rocky mountains; from his personal knowledge of the many tribes of the red men; from his bravery under all circumstances in which he has been placed, Kit Carson stands at the head of all the hardy pioneers of the Great West. It is now more than twenty years, since I first met him on the Mohave river, about eighty miles from San Bernardino.

He was accompanied by an American and half a dozen Mexicans or half breeds, who were assisting him to drive some sheep. As he rode up, he saluted me with Buenos dias Senor, which means 'good day sir.' I answered the salutation in the same language, at the same time clasping his hand as he dismounted, and introduced himself as Kit Carson. He is about five feet eight or nine inches high, and weighs about one hundred and sixty pounds. He had a round, jolly looking face, a dark piercing eye, that looked right through you, and seemed to read your every thought. His long brown hair hung around his shoulders. His dress consisted of buckskin coat and pants, with leggins coming up to his knees, and in which he carried, in true Mexican style, his Machete or long two-edged knife.

His coat and pants were heavily fringed, in which the quills of the porcupine bore a conspicuous part. A cap of fox-skin surmounted his head, with four coon's tails sticking out around the edges of the cap. On his feet were moccasins. His never-failing rifle was strapped to his back, as also a powder-horn and bullet-pouch, which latter contained bullets, lead and moulds. Around his waist there was a heavy belt, which was fastened by a large, highly polished silver buckle. Attached to the belt, were a pair of revolvers and a hunting knife.

The noble steed by which he stood, was gayly caparisoned, in true Mexican style. In many places his trappings were covered with gold and silver. His bridle also glittered with silver ornaments and buckles.

Thus Kit Carson stands before you, the beau ideal of a mountain man, or trapper, always ready to help every one in distress, or to avenge an injury, and no matter what the odds, would fight to the death, believing that if he went under, fighting for his friends, it was all right.

Kit Carson was a host in himself. It is my belief that he was feared, singly and alone, more than any other trapper in the Indian country. For my own part, in an Indian fight, many a one of which I have been in, I would rather have Carson than twenty common men. His name struck terror to an Indian. And if it were known that Kit, with a companion or two, was on their trail, they would flee faster than they would from a whole regiment of Uncle Sam's men. If Kit was after them, they might as well commence their death song at once, and prepare for their happy hunting grounds, for he would surely catch them any where this side of that.

But I must not forget the names of other brave trappers, with whom I became acquainted, and who often shared with me my camp in the Indian country, such as Peg Leg Smith, Joseph Walker, and a host of other brave men. I will here tell you how Smith got his name of Peg Leg.

Thirty years ago, he and some of his companions were trapping in the Indian country. They had made a hut in a ravine. For a camping place, it was so well concealed, that for a long time they were undisturbed. One day, however, Smith and three or four of his party were discovered by Indians, about two miles from camp. A fight took place, in which Smith was struck by a rifle ball, that shattered the bone below the knee. He fell, and during the melee managed to crawl into a thicket, unobserved either by the Indians or his own men. Here, after tying up his own leg with buckskin thongs which he cut from his hunting shirt, he very coolly and deliberately went to work with his own knife, and cut his own leg off. After this he crawled to his camp, where he found his companions who supposed he was dead, and who were expecting the next morning to go and find his body.

This is said to be a true story, and who of those who were in California twenty years ago, do not remember Peg Leg Smith and his horse John. He would come into San Francisco, or Benicia, riding like the wind, his long grey hair floating about his shoulders, and then that never-to-be-forgotten war-whoop! And now here in Benicia, he dashes up to the Vallejos hotel.

"John," he says to his horse, "down sir, quick. I'm mighty dry." Down goes the horse; old Peg gets off. "Boys, how are you. I say there," addressing the bar tender, "make me a whiskey toddy."

This is done at once. No pay is expected. No one expects Peg Leg Smith to pay for any thing, where he is known.

Most of these men possessed many noble impulses, and would prove true to the death for their friends. But they considered the killing of an Indian as justifiable, whenever they met with one.

I was at this time at work under Colonel Jack Hayes, of Texas. Every one familiar with the history of that State in its infancy, will remember him as an old Indian fighter. He was one who never turned his back on friend or foe. At this time, he was United States Surveyor-General of California.

Some may like to know how we camp in an Indian country. I will give a brief description of our camp. First our pack saddles are placed in a circle, enclosing a pretty large space. Our provisions and goods are then stored inside of the circle. Our animals are picketed at our heads, the pack saddles serving as pillows, and our feet being towards the centre of the circle. When there is danger to be apprehended, the animals are placed within the circle. But ordinarily, they graze to the extent of their picket ropes upon the rich grass outside. Generally inside the circle there is a rousing fire. Those of us who are not on guard, lie down in our blankets, feet towards the fire. Our rifles are placed in the hollow of the left arm; our revolvers at our back, ready for instant use. The sky is our covering, the earth our support. The guard patrols on the outside the circle, outside the horses. We go to sleep to dream of home and friends, and often to be awakened by the quick sharp bark of the cayote, the howling of the grey wolf, or what is far worse, the almost infernal war-whoop of the Indian.

My orders to each man, in case of an attack, were not to rise. The guard also, as they came inside the circle of pack saddles, were to throw themselves flat on the ground. Those that were in their blankets were to roll over on their stomachs, and then when they saw an Indian to 'blaze away.' When we were on the line and expected trouble, we would build a fire and at dark, after supper, move away slowly for one or two miles, and lie down without any fires, and in this way cheat Mr. Indian.

Sometimes after working all day we were obliged to fight for our lives all the latter part of the night; for this is the time which the Indian chooses for his fighting, as a general rule. Notwithstanding these apparent drawbacks, I must say that the life of a mountain man or trapper, had ever indescribable charms for me.

And now in conclusion, let me give you an account of my last Indian fight, which happened in the year 1859, on the Colorado river, near what is now called Fort Mohave. At that time the Indians in that region had seen but few white men, and they had obtained but about half a dozen old guns. I, having surveyed a large portion of the country previously, was chosen to act as guide to Colonel Hoffman, who was to be escorted by fifty dragoons from Fort Tejou, near Los Angelos, to Fort Yuma. I, not then being acquainted with the country upon the Colorado river down to the fort, the celebrated scout and trapper Joe Walker, was to go with us, to act as guide after we had passed through that portion of the country with which I was acquainted.

Joe was a tall, large man, six feet high and weighing over two hundred pounds. We slept together in the same blankets, and many a night have I laid awake, listening to his stories of fights with the Indians and his hair-breadth escapes.

I shall pass rapidly over our journey across the mountains and along the valley of the Mohave river. Away we go across Soda Lake, which is dry, and the surface of which as far northward as the eye can extend, is covered with saleratus, white as the driven snow. If you should see at a distance anything coming towards you, it would seem to approach bottom upwards; if an animal, the feet would be in the air.

But on we go to the Granite springs, thence we pass on to Piyute Creek. Slowly we ascend the mountains from which we are to descend to the Colorado river. Colonel Hoffman orders a halt, for the smoke of Indian fires is seen ascending for miles along the banks of the majestic river. Having got all things prepared for either peace or war, we march down into the valley. The Indians have undoubtedly caught sight of us, for suddenly the smoke disappears, all the fires apparently being extinguished. We press on and soon reach the banks of the river.

Following down the stream a mile or two, the colonel searches for a good spot for a camping-ground. As we are on the move, all mounted, well armed and in military array, about thirty Indians showed themselves. Moving cautiously at first, they gradually became emboldened and ran along our lines asking sundry questions. But we returned no answers. Having selected the spot for camping-ground, we lay out our camp in the form of a triangle. On the one side is a bluff from six to ten feet high, on the opposite side is a lake called Beaver Lake, about five hundred yards wide. Here, upon the rich grass which borders the lake, we tether our animals, each one having the range of a rope about thirty feet long. Here we considered them safe, as the Indians would hardly attempt to attack them. It was early in the month of January, 1859.

The third side of our triangle was a dry swamp, covered with a dense growth of willow bushes. By order of the colonel, these bushes were cut down for a distance of sixty or eighty yards, so that no foe could approach unseen. By four o'clock in the afternoon, the labor of establishing our camp was completed. At some distance from us there was a large and constantly increasing band of Indians, curiously watching our proceedings. They were all well armed with their native weapons of lances, bows and arrows.

As I was talking in one part of the camp with Joe Walker, Colonel Hoffman approached us and said,

"I want one of you to go and have a talk with the Indians."

"Very well sir," I replied, and turning to Joe, added, "will you go, or shall I?"

"You had better go, I guess," Joe replied.

I at once set out towards the Indians, and when I arrived within speaking distance, hailed them in Spanish, saying that I wished to see their chief and to have a talk. I had left my rifle in the camp, but still had my revolvers, and my knife. A young fellow, tall, of splendid proportions, and one of the fiercest looking Indians I ever saw, stepped out towards me, with his bows and arrows. He was entirely naked except his breach clout and a small plaid shawl thrown over his shoulders. The ends were fastened down by a piece of black tape. On this tape was strung a pair of common shears, apparently as an ornament.

His color was like a new piece of copper, clear, brilliant and exceedingly beautiful, like one of the most majestic statues in shining bronze. "How do you do?" said he, in Spanish, as he approached me and held out his hand. I took his hand, returning the salutation in the same language.

"Why do you come here?" he then promptly said. "This is our country. We have nothing to give you, for yourselves or your horses."

I gave him some tobacco in token of good will, and then replied: "We have come to look at the country. We do not wish you to give us anything. If you are friendly, we shall give you presents. If you attack us, we shall kill you." I then added: "Some of the Indians of this country massacred a party only a year ago. We shall have no more killed by them. We shall build a fort here, to protect our emigrants."

He replied a little angrily, "I am a Mohave. My people own this country. I shall kill whoever I please." I had not any doubt that the shawl and the shears came from the party they had massacred. I pointed to the shawl and said:

"Where did you get that?"

"I bought them," he replied, evidently annoyed. "I bought them from the Piute Indians."

"My brother," I replied, "does not talk with a straight tongue. It is forked, and his words are crooked." He now added, with considerable warmth:

"Go to your own camp, and prepare for war. I will not kill you. Your guns are short. I will take your horses, and my men shall have a big feast. Your horses are fat and good. I have many men many braves. You have but few. Go to your camp and prepare for war."

"Indian," said I, "I go, but remember that our short guns kill an Indian every time. We never stop to load them."

I turned to go back to the camp. It is not etiquette on such an occasion to back out, watching your opponent, as though you were a coward and feared an attack. I turned squarely round, with my back to the Indian, when I saw the boys at the fort suddenly raise their rifles with their muzzles directed towards us. At that moment, an arrow whizzed through my buckskin shirt, just making a flesh wound on the shoulder. I had slightly turned as the arrow left the bow, otherwise I should probably have received my death-wound. Instantly, with my revolver already in my hand, I discharged in quick succession, two shots at the savage, who was distant but a few feet from me. The first bullet broke his arm; the second passed through his heart. I instantly seized the shawl and shears and taking a little of his hair to remember him by, started on a jump towards our men, who were rushing towards me as fast as possible. The arrows flew so thick and fast, that you would have thought it was hailing. Night soon came on, and the Indians retired, probably to get recruits and to renew the battle in the morning with the certainty of our destruction. We doubled our guard for the night, during which I was awakened but once. Joe Walker and I slept together. So much used were we both to such little affairs, that I do not believe we should have awakened at all, had we not been called.

Medicine Bags, etc.


About twelve o'clock, a sentry came to where we were sleeping, and touching me, said:

"Guide, I believe there is an Indian creeping up behind a bush." Joe says, "Bill, get up and see what it is. My eyes are not as good in the night as yours."

So out of my blanket I got, grabbed my revolver and went towards the bluff. The sentinel accompanying me, pointed out the bush. I did not like to fire into it, lest I should give a false alarm. I watched it about ten minutes, and there was not the least movement. "I guess," I said, "it is nothing but a bush." But at that moment, I perceived a very slight agitation of the branches. It proved that there must be somebody there.

"Oho! Mr. Indian," I exclaimed, "at your old tricks." I raised my revolver, took deliberate aim at the very heart of the bush, and fired. Mr. Indian gave a hideous yell, and he had gone to his happy hunting grounds. In the morning, we prepared to leave. The Indians, as we afterwards learned, had fifteen hundred warriors within a radius of five miles. We numbered but about fifty men. But we had rifles, they had only bows and arrows. The superiority of our arms raised us above all fear.

It was manifest however, with the earliest dawn, from the large number of warriors assembled, and the menacing cries they raised, that we must have a fight. Colonel Hoffman detached every fourth man, each one to hold four horses. The rest of the dragoons were marshalled on the bluff, which as I have mentioned, lined one side of our encampment. As our rifles could throw a bullet more than twice as far as any arrow could be thrown, the battle was rather a source of amusement to us, than of terror. No Indian could approach within arrow shot of our ranks, without meeting certain death. It must be confessed that we had no more compunctions in shooting an Indian than in shooting a bear or a wolf. As they dodged from tree to tree, assailing us with their impotent arrows, our keen marksmen watched their opportunity to strike them down with the invisible death-dealing bullet.

Old Joe Walker practiced with our Hawkins' rifles and revolvers, as he said, "just to keep his hand in." After an hour or two of this strange battle, in which the Indians suffered fearful carnage, and we encountered no loss, our foe in rage and despair retired. They left sixty of their number dead, besides taking with them many wounded. We continued our march without further molestation.

And now my friend, if you shall find anything interesting to you in this short sketch, I shall be satisfied. I have written a great deal more than I expected to write, when I began. And yet you have but a very brief narrative of my adventures in California.

Yours truly,
(signed) William E. Goodyear.