Kit Carson - John S. C. Abbott

The Return of the Expedition


After this exciting and successful buffalo hunt, the caravan in a long dark line advanced over the prairie twenty-four miles, and encamped on the banks of a stream, where they feasted abundantly upon the choicest cuts of buffalo beef. Wolves were howling around them all night, their instinct teaching them that bones would be left there which they would be privileged to gnaw. In the morning the wolves were seen sitting around at a short distance, barking and growling impatiently, waiting for the departure of the caravan.

Resuming their march, they ascended the stream about eighteen miles, where they found a fording-place and crossed over to the northern bank. Here there opened before them a rich and beautiful prairie, bordered with gentle eminences on the north and the south. This prairie extended about twenty miles along the banks of the river and was nearly six miles wide. Its vast expanse was almost as smooth as a gentleman's lawn, and was waving with a luxuriant growth of grass and flowers. The river was skirted with a slight fringe of willow and cottonwood trees.

As Lieutenant Fremont intended to return by the same route, he concealed here for his homeward journey, in what is called a cache, a barrel of pork. They encamped in the evening upon the open prairie. As there was no wood at hand, they built their fires of the dry excrement of the buffalo. This substance, which was called buffalo chips, burns like turf and forms a very good substitute for wood. Immense numbers of wolves surrounded the camp at night, with an incessant and hideous howling and barking. In the morning, while the explorers were sitting quietly at breakfast, a small buffalo calf rushed frantic with terror through the camp, pursued by two wolves. The helpless little thing, separated from the herd, had probably mistaken the animals of the caravan for a herd of buffaloes. The frightened creature, discovering its error, continued its precipitate flight. The wolves, too wary to enter the camp, made a circuit around it, thus the calf got a little the start. It strained every nerve to reach a large herd of buffaloes at the foot of the hills, about two miles distant. Wolf after wolf joined in the chase until more than thirty were yelping in the hot pursuit.

A bull came out to the rescue of the little one, but was overpowered and driven back. Soon the foremost of the pack fastened their fangs into the calf, the rest were instantly upon him, and the quivering animal was pulled down, torn to pieces and devoured almost before he was dead. Every reader will sympathize with the remark of Lieutenant Fremont:

"We watched the chase with the interest always felt for the weak. Had there been a saddled horse at hand he would have fared better."

As the caravan was slowly advancing that afternoon, vast clouds of dust on their right near the hills attracted their attention. Several enormous herds of buffalo seemed to emerge from these clouds, galloping down towards the river. By the time the first bands had reached the water the whole prairie seemed darkened with the countless multitudes, numbering thousands upon thousands. They stretched in an unbroken line from the hills to the river, and fording the river passed on to the other side.

The prairie here was not less than two miles wide. The mighty mass filled the whole expanse. As they reached the caravan, they circled around it leaving the travellers an open space of two or three hundred yards. The caravan continued its march, and the buffaloes continued their flow, until towards evening, when the company reached its camping-ground.

It was the evening of the fourth of July. All through the day preparations were being made to celebrate the anniversary by a great feast. Lieutenant Fremont gives the following attractive account of the bill of fare:

"The kindness of our friends at St. Louis had provided us with a large supply of excellent preserves and rich fruit cake. When these were added to macaroni soup and variously prepared dishes of the nicest buffalo meat, crowned with a cup of coffee, and enjoyed with prairie appetites, we felt as we sat in barbaric luxury around our smoking supper on the grass, a greater sensation of enjoyment than the Roman epicure at his perfumed feast. But most of all it seemed to please our Indian friends who, in the unrestrained enjoyment of the moment, demanded to know if our medicine days came often."

The party had now reached near the point where the north and south fork of the Platte river unite. Lieutenant Fremont wished to explore the south branch, to obtain some astronomical observations, and to determine the mouths of its tributaries as far as St. Vrain's fort. He also hoped to obtain some mules there which he greatly needed. He took with him nine men. The three Cheyenne Indians accompanied him, as their village was upon that stream. The remainder of the company followed up the north fork to Fort Laramie to be joined by their companions there.

The journey proved an arduous one. It was intolerably hot; there were frequent tempests, with floods of rain and violent gusts of wind. The bottom lands on each side of the river seemed absolutely covered with buffaloes. Upon ascending any eminence vast herds were seen grazing as far as the eye could reach. Our adventurers pressed on, quietly and cautiously, following the windings of the stream. On the fourth day they discovered Indians in the distance; a band of three hundred, well mounted. Maxwell recognized the chief. This secured for them a friendly reception. They were led into their village. It consisted of a hundred and twenty-five lodges bordering a broad irregular street.

After a hospitable entertainment, they continued their journey and encamped in a little grove of cottonwood, in a cold drizzling rain. The next morning they caught their first glimpse of the Rocky mountains, about sixty miles distant. That day they came across a camp of four or five white men who were on a trapping expedition. They had all taken Indian wives, and a large number "of little fat buffalo-fed boys were tumbling about the camp, all apparently of the same age, about three or four years old." Their camp was on a rich bottom, luxuriant with grass, and they had many well fed horses and mules.

They reached St. Vrain's fort on the tenth, where they were hospitably received by Mr. St. Vrain. They purchased several horses and mules, and hired three additional men to accompany them across the country, one hundred and twenty-five miles, to Fort Laramie. On the twelfth they recommenced their journey, and reached the fort on the fifteenth. This trading post was quite an imposing military construction, with large bastions at the corners, its lofty walls being whitewashed and picketed. A cluster of lodges of Sioux Indians was pitched almost under the shadow of its wall. The party which Kit Carson had accompanied had arrived a few days before, and was encamped near by.

Here Fremont received the alarming intelligence that there was great excitement among the Indians beyond. They were all assuming a hostile attitude. Several parties of whites had already been cut off and massacred. Most of the men, at the Fort, remonstrated against his advance till the country should be somewhat settled. Even Kit Carson, though perfectly ready himself to proceed, declared his conviction that the danger was imminent, and that some encounters with the Indians were inevitable. He made his will, left it at the fort and was prepared to go.

Just before starting, the Sioux chiefs encamped at the fort almost forced themselves into Lieutenant Fremont's presence and presented him the following remonstrance written in good French:

"Mr. Fremont:

"The chiefs, having assembled in council, have just told me to warn you not to set out before the party of young men, which is now out, shall have returned. They tell me that they are sure they will fire upon you as soon as they meet you. They are expected back in seven or eight days. Excuse me for making these observations, but it seems my duty to warn you of danger. Moreover the chiefs, who prohibit your setting out before the return of the warriors, are the bearers of this note. I am your obedient servant,

"Joseph Bissonnette."

The chiefs who brought this note, four in number, sat in silence until it had been read. One of them rose and stepping forward shook hands with Mr. Fremont, and then said:

"You have come among us at a bad time. Some of our people have been killed, and our young men, who are gone to the mountains, are eager to avenge the blood of their relations, which has been shed by the whites. Our young men are bad. If they meet you they will believe that you are carrying goods and ammunition to their enemies, and will fire upon you. You have told us that this will make war. We know that our great father has many soldiers, and big guns, and we are anxious to have our lives. We love the whites and are desirous of peace. Thinking of all these things, we have determined to keep you here until our warriors return."

The others followed in the same strain. Lieutenant Fremont had the pride of an American military officer, and was not disposed to be driven from his course by threats of danger. He also believed the stories of peril to be greatly exaggerated, and that the great object of the chiefs was to prevent him from going farther into their country, where he had openly avowed it was his intention to establish a military fort. He therefore, in reply, urged that two or three of the chiefs should accompany him until they should meet the young men. He said they should eat at his table and sleep in his tent, and that he would abundantly reward them on their return.

Navajo Camp


This they declined to do, saying that they were too old for such a journey.

Mr. Fremont then said to them, "You say that you love the whites. But you are unwilling to undergo a few days' ride to save our lives. We do not believe you. We will not listen to you. We are the soldiers of the great chief your father. He has told us to come here and see this country, and all the Indians. We shall not go back. We are few and you are many. You may kill us all. But do you think that our great chief will let his soldiers die and forget to cover their graves? Before the snows melt, his warriors will sweep away your villages as the fire does the prairie in the autumn. See! I have pulled down my white houses, and my people are ready. When the sun is ten paces higher, we shall be on the march."

They left the fort on the twenty-second of July, and followed up the north fork of the Platte for three weeks, encountering no molestation from the Indians, and meeting only with the ordinary hardships to be expected in travelling through the wilderness. They generally found a sufficiency of water, of grazing and of game. They at length found themselves among the wildest ravines of the Rocky mountains. Here they employed themselves day after day in astronomical and geological observations, and then commenced their return. All the objects of their expedition had been successfully accomplished. They reached Fort Laramie early in September. Kit Carson's labors were now ended. He had joined the expedition as hunter and guide. In neither of these offices were his services any longer required. He therefore remained at the fort, while the surveying party returned to St. Louis.

Mr. Carson's Indian wife had long been dead. Four months after this, in February, he married a Mexican lady, named Senora Josepha Jarimilla. This lady was highly esteemed by all who knew her for her many virtues, and was also endowed with much personal beauty. She subsequently became the mother of three children, for whom Mr. Carson has ever manifested the strongest attachment.

Two months after his marriage he engaged as a hunter to accompany an expedition of Messrs. Bent and Vrain's wagons to the United States. When about half-way across the plains, they struck the great Santa Fe trail. Here Carson and his companions came upon an encampment of Captain Cook, with four companies of U.S. Dragoons. They were escorting a train of Mexican wagons, as far as the boundary line between the United States and New Mexico. The region was infested with robber bands and it was deemed important that the richly freighted caravan should not encounter harm within the limits of the United States.

The Mexicans, were apprehensive that, as soon as they should separate from their American protectors, they should be attacked upon entering Texas, by a large body of Texan Rangers, who, it was reported, were waiting for them. They therefore offered Kit Carson, with whose energetic character they were well acquainted, three hundred dollars, if he would carry a letter to Armijo the governor of New Mexico, who resided at Santa Fe. This letter contained an application to the governor to send them an escort. To convey the letter required a journey of between three and four hundred miles through a wilderness, filled with hostile Indian bands.

Carson accepted the offer, and engaging another man, Owens, to accompany him, rode back to Fort Bent. Here he learned that the Indians, through whose territory he must pass, were all up in arms against the whites, and that the journey would be full of peril. Owens refused to go farther. Carson was not a man to turn from duty because of danger. He found no one at the fort who could be induced to share the peril with him. He therefore set out alone. In addition to the powerful horse which he rode, Colonel Bent furnished him with a magnificent and fleet steed, which he led as a reserve corps.

Very rapidly Carson pressed on his way, watching for Indian trails and carefully avoiding all their wandering bands. From every eminence he narrowly examined the wide and generally treeless expanse spread out before him, in search of any sign of the foe. One afternoon he saw, far away in the distance, an Indian encampment of many lodges, directly on his trail. He immediately sought an out of the way place, where he might effectually secrete himself until night. When darkness came on, he, by a circuitous route, passed the camp of the savages and pressed rapidly on his way. In a few days he reached Taos, much exhausted by his impetuous ride.

He immediately called upon the mayor of the town, to whom he delivered the dispatches, and he at once sent an agent with them, down south a distance of about thirty miles to the governor at Santa Fe. He waited at Taos the return of the messenger to recruit himself and horses in preparation for his ride back. The response was that Governor Armijo had sent a hundred Mexican dragoons to seek the caravan, and that he was about to follow with six hundred more. We may mention in passing, that this company of one hundred men, were attacked after a few days' march, by a large body of Texan rangers, and were all massacred except one, who escaped on a fleet horse.

Governor Armijo and his dragoons, as they were on their way, learned of this massacre, and hearing exaggerated reports of the strength of the Texan Rangers, retreated rapidly to their fortification at Santa Fe. The governor, in the meantime, entrusted dispatches to Carson, thinking that he, by riding express, could reach the caravan before the governmental troops could come to their aid.

Carson was a remarkable judge of character. He selected, as a companion for his return, a Mexican boy whose innate nobility was soon developed. When two days out from Taos, Carson and his young companion came suddenly upon four Indian warriors. There was no escape, for the warriors, though at a distance, had seen them, and were riding rapidly down upon them. This noble young Mexican promptly turned to Kit Carson and said, "I am but a boy and perhaps the Indians will spare my life. At any rate your life is much more valuable than mine. Therefore mount the horse you are leading without delay, and you can undoubtedly make your escape."

Kit Carson replied, "I cannot and I will not forsake you. We must stand our ground together. If we have to die, let us take each with us an Indian warrior."

At this time the Indians had come near and halted out of rifle range, as Carson and his companion were taking deliberate aim at them, thus forbidding a nearer approach. One of the savages then alighted, and leaving his arms behind him, came forward for a parley. He assumed to be very much at his ease, and approached with a careless, swaggering air and a smile, and offered his hand in token of friendship. Carson accepted the proffered hand. The moment it was released, the savage, a man of herculean frame, grasped his rifle endeavoring to wrench it from him, doubtless intending instantly to shoot him down, when the boy would easily become their captive. But Carson, with his clenched fist and sinewy arm, gave the Indian instantly such a blow between the eyes as rolled him prostrate upon the grass, with the blood spouting from his nostrils.

The Indian, apprehensive that the next moment a rifle ball would pierce his heart, sprang up and with the fleetness of an antelope rejoined his companions. They were on the open prairie. There was nothing to afford either party the slightest protection. The Indians slowly and cautiously advanced, until they came within speaking distance. Carson, who could speak their language, hailed them and ordered them to stop. He then assured them, that if they advanced any farther or made any hostile demonstration whatever, two of their number would certainly and instantly die.

The savages began to bluster, primed their guns, and boasted of what they intended to do. But even to their darkened minds it was manifest that two out of the four, in case of hostilities, must certainly fall before the rifles of the white man. And should the remaining two rush on before their opponents could reload, still the white men had their revolvers in hand, and it was not improbable that the other two might be shot. These were not the circumstances under which the Indians were willing to enter into battle. After a short delay and many defiant gestures, they departed.

Mr. Carson and his noble-hearted boy immediately resumed their journey, and after five days of hard riding reached Fort Bent. Here Mr. Carson learned that the Texan Rangers, having incautiously entered the territory of the United States, were all captured and disarmed. This relieved the conductors of the Mexican train from all anxiety. The dispatches which Mr. Carson had borne were left at the fort, from which place they were sent back to Santa Fe.

A few days before Mr. Carson arrived at Bent's Fort, from this expedition into New Mexico, Mr. Fremont had passed by, on a second expedition to the still far off west. Carson was anxious to see his old friend and comrade again. He mounted his horse and, following his trail, by rapid riding overtook him after a pursuit of seventy miles. Colonel Fremont manifested the greatest pleasure in again meeting Mr. Carson, and so urged him to join the expedition that he decided to do so. It had become manifest that the party needed more mules to assist them in their operations. In climbing wild mountains these hardy animals are far more valuable than horses.

Kit Carson was sent back to Fort Bent to procure the mules, and to rejoin the party at St. Vrain's Fort, on the south fork of the Platte. Here Major Fitzpatrick, with a reinforcement of forty men, was added to the expedition. On Mr. Carson's return with the mules, the exploring party was divided into two forces; the main body, under Major Fitzpatrick, following the eastern bank of the river to the site of the present city of Denver, and then west, through the passes of the mountains. They took with them nearly all the camp equipage.

Colonel Fremont, with Kit Carson as a guide, accompanied by fifteen men, in what may be called light marching order, followed along the Thompson river some miles, directly west, then struck north about thirty miles, to the Cache le Poudre river. This stream they followed up in a northwesterly direction some sixty miles, through a ravine in the mountains, till they reached the head waters of the Laramie river. They then pushed on in a still northwesterly direction, under the eastern brows of the Rocky mountains, through a somewhat broken, though prairie country, two hundred miles, to the Sweetwater river.

They then pressed on, two or three hundred miles directly west, through the south pass of the Rocky mountains, along the route now followed by the Central Pacific Railroad, to Soda Springs, on Bear river. From this point Kit Carson was sent, with one companion and a relay of mules, about forty miles in a northwesterly direction to Fort Hall, on Snake river, to obtain supplies. He was directed to meet the remaining party at the extreme end of the Great Salt Lake. As usual he successfully accomplished his mission and rejoined his companions.

The whole body then journeyed down the eastern shores of this immense inland sea, about twenty miles. They were delighted with the beauty of the scenery opening before them, and were very busy in taking observations and exploring the country through which they passed. Far out in the lake there was seen a very attractive and densely wooded island. Colonel Fremont had with him an india rubber boat, which, with inflated air chambers, was very buoyant. Improvidently the plates of the boat had been gummed together only, instead of being also sewed. Thus the boat was very frail and could not endure the strain of a heavy sea.

It was the latter part of August, 1843, when Colonel Fremont encamped on these shores. Though this was but thirty years ago, that now quite populous region, had then been visited only by trappers in search of beaver streams. Colonel Fremont decided to visit the island. He selected a pleasant spot for encampment, in a grove on one of the banks of Bear river, near its entrance into the lake. He felled timber so as to make a large pen for the animals. He then erected a rude fort, which would protect the company from any ordinary band of Indians. The boat was repaired with gum, and the air chambers inflated. Game was found to be scarce, and their provisions were about exhausted. He therefore sent back one half his party to Fort Hall for supplies.

Leaving two or three to guard the fort and the horses, Colonel Fremont, with Carson and three other men, set out on their expedition to explore the island. It was a very beautiful morning, the eighth of September. Slowly they floated down the romantic stream, frequently stopping to get a shot at the wild geese and ducks they met on their way. It was not until the edge of the evening that they reached the outlet of the river.

They encamped in a small willow grove, where they found an abundance of drift-wood for their camp fire. The game they had taken furnished their supper. They made for themselves soft beds of the tender willow twigs, and in a mild atmosphere, beneath a starlit sky, slept soundly till morning. The voices of millions of waterfowl, around them, did not disturb their slumbers.