Kit Carson - John S. C. Abbott

The Rendezvous


In the morning the party fortunately found, in one of their traps, a beaver, upon whose not very palatable flesh they breakfasted. The tail of a beaver when well cooked, is esteemed quite a delicacy. But one tail would not furnish sufficient food for three men. Fifteen days passed away before Kit Carson's little band was reunited with the larger company of Messrs. Fitzpatrick and Bridger. A rendezvous had been appointed at a spot on Green river, which afforded great attractions for an encampment.

In some unexplained way intelligence had been conveyed, through the wilderness, to the widely dispersed trappers, that a Fair for trading, would be held at a very commodious and well-known spot on the above-mentioned stream. There was here a green, smooth, expanded meadow; the pasturage was rich; a clear mountain stream rippled through it, fringed by noble forest trees. The vicinity afforded an abundance of game. Here they reared their camps and built their roaring fires. Band after band of trappers and traders came in with loud huzzas. Within a few days between two and three hundred men were assembled there, with five or six hundred horses or mules.

On one of the gorgeous days of the Indian summer, the encampment presented a spectacle of beauty which even to these rude men was enchanting. There was the distant, encircling outline of the Rocky mountains, many of the snow-capped peaks piercing the clouds. Scattered through the groves, which were free from underbrush, and whose surface was carpeted with the tufted grass, were seen the huts of the mountaineers in every variety of the picturesque, and even of the grotesque. Some were formed of the well tanned robes of the buffalo; some of boughs, twigs and bark; some of massive logs. Before all these huts, fires were burning at all times of the day, and food was being cooked and devoured by these ever-hungry men. Haunches of venison, prairie chickens, and trout from the stream, were emitting their savory odors, as they were turned on their spits before the glowing embers.

The cattle, not even tethered, were grazing over the fertile plain. It was indeed a wild, weird-like, semi-barbaric Fair which was thus held in the very heart of the wilderness. Men of many nationalities were present, in every variety of grotesque costume; and not a few Indians were there, with scarcely any costume at all. For nearly two months the Fair continued, with comings and goings, while hill and plain often resounded with revelry.

At length the festival was dissolved, and the mountaineers, breaking up into smaller bands, separated. The traders, with their horses loaded down with the furs, returned to the marts of civilization. The trappers again directed their steps to the solitudes of the remoter streams.

Kit Carson joined a party of fifty men, to explore the highest tributaries of the Missouri river. The region was occupied by a numerous band of warlike Indians, called Blackfeet. Many of the warriors had obtained rifles. The itinerant trader could not refrain from furnishing the Indians with guns and ammunition, at the exorbitant prices which the savages were ready to pay. It shows the superiority of the white men, that fifty of them ventured to enter upon these plains and into these defiles, where thousands of these well-armed warriors were watching for their destruction.

The enterprise proved more bold than successful. The trappers found the Indians so vigilant and hostile, that it was necessary to protect themselves by an intrenched camp. They had to adopt the most wearisome precautions to protect their animals, never allowing them to graze beyond rifle distance from the camp, unless under a strong guard. Matters grew daily more and more desperate. The Indians seemed to be gathering from great distances, so as almost to surround the encampment. If any small party wandered a mile, to examine their traps, they were pretty sure to find the traps stolen, and to be fired upon from ambush. This state of affairs at length constrained them to quit the country. Like an army, exposed hourly to an attack from its foes, this heroic band of fifty men commenced its march in military array, watching with an eagle eye, knowing not but that at any moment hundreds of strongly mounted, well-armed savages might come rushing down upon them. They could indulge in no rest, till they got beyond the territory of the Blackfeet.

A march of one or two hundred miles brought them to the banks of the Big Snake river. It was the month of November. In those northern latitudes winter was setting in with much severity. The hill-tops were covered with snow; the streams were coated with ice; freezing blasts from the mountains swept the bleak plains and the narrow defiles. It was necessary to go into winter quarters for a couple of months. But there was no discomfort in this.

They selected a snug valley having a southern exposure, with a northern barrier of hills, and in the midst of a wide-spread grove which fringed a pure mountain stream. There were fifty men. Every man belonged to the working class. Every man was skilled in the trades of hunting, trapping, wigwam-building, cooking, and tailoring. A few hours' work reared their cosey huts. Fuel was cheap and abundant. The broadcloth for their clothing was already woven on the backs of buffaloes, bears, deer and wolves. Their own nimble hands speedily formed them into garments impervious to wind and cold. They had laid in quite a store of game, which the cold weather preserved, and there was enough more within their reach. And fortunately for them all, nature's law of prohibition, had effectually banished from the whole region all intoxicating drinks. Where there is no whiskey there is rarely any quarrel. The pure mountain stream supplied them with their health-giving beverage.

In a few days everything was cosey and comfortable around them. During the months of December and January, and until the middle of February, while wintry blasts swept the hills, warmth, abundance and friendliness reigned in these sheltered, cheerful huts in a Rocky Mountain valley. There was one exciting event which disturbed the serenity of this winter encampment.

A band of Blackfeet Indians had cautiously dogged their footsteps, watching for an opportunity to stampede their horses. One very dark night, a number of these savages, supported by quite a numerous band of warriors, crept, like wolves, into the grazing ground of the horses, and succeeded in seizing eighteen of them, with which they made off rapidly towards their own country. The loss was not discovered until morning. After a few moments' deliberation it was decided that the valuable property must be recovered if possible, and the Indians chastised for such insolence.

The unanimous voice called upon Kit Carson to lead the enterprise, and to select his men. He took eleven. In a few minutes they were all mounted; a blanket their only baggage; their rifles and ammunition their only stores. The ground was covered with snow. These veteran mountaineers knew well when and how to spare their horses for a continuous pursuit.

Indian Warriors


The Indians being more numerous, having horses to lead, and with their steeds somewhat jaded with the long journey from their own country, could not travel as fast as their pursuers were able to do with their fresh animals. Still the savages had so much the start that it required fifty miles of sharp riding before they were overtaken. Fortunately for the pursuers, there had been recently a heavy fall of snow, so that the Indians were under the necessity of breaking a path. Their party was so large that the white men were furnished with a clearly marked, well-trodden trail. This toil through the snow, seems quite to have exhausted the strength of the horses of the Indians. They had been compelled to stop at noonday to refresh the animals. A spot had been selected on a hill-side, where the wind had blown away the snow, and where the horses found, for grazing, an abundance of succulent dried grass.

Suddenly, and probably not a little to their consternation, the twelve trappers, rounding an eminence on the full trot, appeared before them. Carson halted his troop to reconnoitre; for his foes were strongly posted and far outnumbered him. The savages, seeing the impossibility of immediately gathering and mounting their horses for flight, cunningly sent a flag of truce to solicit a parley. According to their custom, this flag consisted of one of their warriors advancing entirely unarmed, half-way to the opposing band. There he stopped, and folding his arms, waited for some one of the other party similarly weaponless, to come forward to confer with him.

These savage thieves manifested a degree of intelligence in their cunning, which was hardly to have been expected of them. Through their interpreter they assumed an air of perfect innocence, affecting great surprise that the horses belonged to the trappers, saying that they supposed that they had been robbing their hereditary foes, the Snake Indians.

"Nothing would induce us," said these barbarian diplomatists, "to commit any depredations upon our friends the white men."

Such barefaced falsehood did not, for a moment, deceive Kit Carson. But it was needful for him to move with great caution. The number of the Indians, their position, their weapons, and the nature of the ground upon which they had met, rendered the result of a battle very doubtful. It would not do for Carson to manifest the slightest trepidation, or the least doubt of his ability to recover the stolen property, and to chastise the marauders.

After some pretty severe questioning, he suggested that since they were friends, they should all meet in council unarmed, and smoke the calumet of peace. There are generally some points of honor, which will bind the most abandoned men. Such was the smoking of the pipe of peace with the savages. A large fire was built. The two parties met around it. The calumet was lighted, and passed around to each person present. Every one of the savages first puffed two whiffs, and the white men then did the same. This was the solemn pledge that there should be no treachery.

The council then commenced. Several of the Indian warriors made long and wordy speeches, with many protestations of friendship, but carefully avoiding any offer to restore the stolen animals. Mr. Carson listened patiently and made no response, until they had talked themselves out. He then simply replied, that he was very happy to learn that the Indians were friendly in their feelings toward the whites, and that the taking of the animals was a mistake. The trappers would therefore overlook the affair, and peacefully return home with the restored horses.

The Indian orators again began to chatter, branching off upon various points irrelevant to the question at issue. But Mr. Carson was in no mood to be drawn into a profitless palaver. To these eloquent speeches he made no response, but simply demanded the return of the horses.

The Indians began to bluster, to talk loud and to grow insolent. But Mr. Carson never allowed himself to lose his temper. A man in a passion seldom acts wisely. With calm persistence he said, "I can listen to no overtures of peace, until our horses are restored." Still the Indians hesitated to provoke a battle in which some of their warriors would undoubtedly fall. At length they sent out and brought in five of the poorest and most exhausted of the horses, saying that these were all that they could or would restore.

The trappers accepted this as a declaration of war. In a body they retired to seize their rifles and to submit the question to the arbitrament of battle. The savages also, with tumultuous howlings, rushed to grasp their guns. The battle immediately commenced, each party seeking the shelter of trees. But for the dread in which the savages stood of the powers of the white men, the advantages would have been in their favor ten to one. There were unerring marksmen on both sides. No one could expose himself to the aim of either party without almost certain death. Kit Carson and one of his companions, by the name of Markhead, were the foremost of the band of trappers, and they stood behind trees not far from each other. As Carson was watching the movements of a burly savage, who was endeavoring to get a shot at him, he saw another savage taking deliberate aim, from his concealment, at Markhead.

With the rapidity of thought Carson wheeled around, and at the same instant the bullet from his rifle pierced the heart of the savage and he fell dead. But there was another report, almost simultaneous with that from Carson's gun. A bullet whizzed through the air, touched the bark of the tree, behind which nearly the whole of Carson's body was concealed, and severed one of the sinews of his shoulder, shattering a portion of the bone. The blood gushed freely from the wound, and Carson fell, almost fainting, to the ground. With much difficulty his friends succeeded in bearing him off from the field, and in their rough kindness ministered to his wants.

This loss of Carson's guidance and arm was irreparable and fatal to the trappers. Still they continued the battle valiantly, holding the Indians at bay until night came. The night was bitter cold. The trappers could not light any fire, for it would surely guide the Indians to their retreat, and present them as fair targets to the bullets of the savages.

Disappointed as these bold men were, they had the consolation of feeling that the wound of their leader had not passed unavenged. They were sure that several of the Indians had been killed and many wounded. Though they did not doubt that the Indians would still fight desperately in defence, they did not fear that they would venture to pursue and to attack the trappers where they could choose their own ground. The trappers therefore, bearing as tenderly as possible their wounded leader, commenced their return to the camp which they reached in safety. The savages, as it afterward appeared, fled as rapidly as possible in the other direction.

The adventure added to the reputation of Kit Carson. All admitted that it was to save the life of a comrade that he had imperilled his own. And no one doubted that, but for his wound, his sagacity would have triumphed over the savages, and that he would have brought back all the horses. It was immediately decided, in general council, that another expedition of thirty men, under Captain Bridger, should pursue and chastise the thieves. This well armed party vigorously followed the Indian trail for several days. But the savages had fled so rapidly, into distant and unknown parts, that they could not be overtaken. The trappers returned disappointed to their camp.

Spring was returning with its milder breezes and its warmer sun. The time for the spring hunt had commenced. There were no hostile Indians in the vicinity to disturb the trappers. Success, surpassing their most sanguine expectations, attended their efforts. Every morning the trappers came in from their various directions laden with furs. All were elated with their extraordinary prosperity. There is the spring hunting and the fall hunting. But there is a period in midsummer when the fur is valueless or cannot easily be taken. Game was then abundant, camping was a luxury. This was the time selected by the traders for their Fairs in the wilderness. Here, as we have mentioned, there was exchange of the commodities needed in mountaineer-life, for the furs the trappers had taken during the autumn, winter and spring. There was at this time another rendezvous on Green river, where there was to be a renewal of the scenes of the past year.

Kit Carson very speedily recovered from his wounds. His perfect health and temperate habits caused a cure, which seemed almost miraculous. As we have mentioned, these mountaineers were beyond the limits of the laws. There was no governmental protection whatever. Every man was compelled to be his own protector, filling the threefold office of judge, jury and executioner.

The incident we are about to record would have been highly immoral in any well-ordered community where law was recognized and could be enforced. And yet the same act occurring in the savage wilderness may have merited the high commendation which it universally received.

There was a fellow at the rendezvous, as the Fair among the mountains was called, known as captain Shunan. He was of unknown nationality, of very powerful frame, a bully and a braggadocio. Totally devoid of principle, and conscious of his muscular superiority, he was ever swaggering through the camp, dealing blows and provoking quarrels. He was universally detested and also feared. Every one in the camp desired to see him humbled.

One day Shunan was particularly offensive. That morning he had engaged in two fights, and had knocked down and flogged both of the men whom he had assailed. The traders had brought whiskey to the rendezvous, and probably whiskey was at the bottom of these troubles. Mr. Carson was quietly talking with some of his friends, in one part of the extended encampment, when the swaggering bully came along seeking to provoke another fight. "These Americans," said he, "are all cowards; they are all women. I am going into the bush to cut some rods and I'll switch every one of them."

Kit Carson immediately stepped forward in his calm, unimpassioned way, and with his soft and almost feminine voice said:

"Captain Shunan, I am an American and one of the smallest and weakest of them all. We have no disposition to quarrel with any one. But this conduct can no longer be endured. If it is continued, I shall be under the necessity of shooting you."

There was almost a magic power in Kit Carson's calmness. He had a piercing eye, before whose glance many would quail. There was an indescribable something in his soft words, which indicated that they came from a lion-like heart. The whole company of trappers looked on in perfect silence, curious to see what would be the result of this bold movement.

Shunan at first, the herculean bully, looked down upon his fragile opponent, with much of the contempt with which Goliath contemplated David. But apparently that glance showed him that he had encountered no ordinary foe. The reputation also of Kit Carson, as an able and fearless man extended through the whole encampment. There was a moment of perfect silence, Shunan not uttering one word in reply. He then turned upon his heel and walked rapidly across the plain towards his camp. Carson and the mountaineers understood perfectly what this meant. He had gone to seize his rifle, mount his horse, and shoot Kit Carson for defying him.

Carson also turned his steps towards his own lodge. He took a loaded pistol, bestrode his horse, and saw Shunan riding down towards him rifle in hand. All this had occupied but a few minutes. Still it had arrested the attention of nearly the whole encampment. It was well known that when Carson and Shunan should meet on the hostile field, there was to be no vulgar rough and tussle fight, but a decisive conflict which would settle forever the question, whether the one or the other was to be master. The common law of the wilderness demanded only, that the parties should be left to settle the question in their own way.

Kit Carson always rode a magnificent horse. He bestrode his steed as if he were a part of the animal, and seemed as unembarrassed in his movements when in the saddle, as when on the floor of his tent. Rapidly he rode down upon Shunan until the heads of their horses nearly touched. Calmly he inquired, as if it were one of the most ordinary occurrences of life.

"Am I the person you are looking for?" The treacherous bully answered, "No," hoping thus, in some degree, to throw his opponent off his guard; but at the same instant, he brought his rifle to his shoulder with the muzzle not four feet from the heart of his intended victim. The life of Carson depended upon the fraction of a moment. We call him a lucky man; we should rather say, he was a wise man prepared for every emergency. His pistol was in his hand, cocked and primed. Quick as a flash, it was raised, not at the heart, but at the right arm of the insolent bully, whom he would bring to order.

So simultaneous was the discharge of both weapons, that but one report was heard. But Carson's bullet entered upon its mission probably half a second before the ball of Shunan left the rifle. Shunan's wrist was shattered, as the bullet struck it; and from the curvature of the arm the ball passed through a second time above the elbow. The sudden shock caused the rifle to tilt a little upwards and thus saved the hero's life. Carson's face was severely burned by the powder, and the ball glanced over the top of his head, just cutting through the skin. The bully's rifle dropped from his hand. He had received a terrible and an utterly disabling wound. He had fought his last battle. No surgery could ever heal those fractured bones so as to put that arm again in fighting trim. The wretch had sought the life of Carson; but Carson had sought only to subdue the tyrant.

Shunan was thoroughly humbled, and became as docile as a child. They took him to his tent, and treated him with all the rough nursing which trappers in the wilderness could bestow. The shattered bones of course could never recover their former strength. The weakest of those upon whom he formerly trampled, could now chastise him, should he assume any of his former insolent airs. The tyrant became docile as a child, and the whole camp regarded Carson as its benefactor.

It is worthy of special notice, that Mr. Carson was not at all elated by his victory. He never boasted of it. He never alluded to it, but with a saddened countenance. Whenever the subject was referred to, he always expressed his heartfelt regret, that it had been needful to resort to such severe measures to preserve the good order of the camp.

In the life of John Charles Fremont we find the following reference to Mr. Carson and to this adventure:

"Christopher Carson is a remarkably peaceable and quiet man, temperate in his habits, and strictly moral in his deportment." In a letter written from California in 1847, introducing Carson as the bearer of dispatches to the government, Col. Fremont says:

"'With me Carson and Truth, mean the same thing. He is always the same,—gallant and disinterested.'

"He is kind-hearted and averse to all quarrelsome and turbulent scenes, and has never been engaged in any mere personal broils or encounters, except on one single occasion, which he sometimes modestly describes to his friends. The narrative is fully confirmed by an eye-witness, of whose presence at the time he was not aware, and whose account he has probably never seen."

Another who knew him well, writes, in corroborative testimony:

"The name of Christopher Carson has been familiarly known for nearly a quarter of a century. From its association with the names of great explorers and military men, it is now spread throughout the civilized world. It has been generally conceded, that no small share of the benefits derived from these explorations, was due to the sagacity, skill, experience, advice and labor of Christopher Carson. His sober habits, strict honor, and great regard for truth, have endeared him to all who can call him friend; and among such may be enumerated, names belonging to some of the most distinguished men whose deeds are recorded on the pages of American history.

"A few years ago, the writer of this first met Christopher Carson. It needed neither a second introduction, nor the assistance of a friendly panegyric, to enable him to discover, in Christopher Carson, those traits of manhood which are esteemed by the great and good to be the distinguishing ornaments of character. This acquaintance ripened into a friendship of the purest stamp. Since then the writer has been the intimate friend and companion of Christopher Carson at his home, in the wild scenes of the chase, on the war trail, and upon the field of battle.

"Christopher Carson physically, is small in stature, but of compact framework. He has a large and finely developed head, a twinkling grey eye, and hair of a sandy color which he wears combed back. His education having been much neglected in his youth, he is deficient in theoretical learning. By natural abilities, however, he has greatly compensated for this defect. He speaks the French and Spanish languages fluently, besides being a perfect master of several Indian dialects. In Indian customs, their manners, habits, and the groundwork of their conduct, no man on the American Continent is better skilled."