Kit Carson - John S. C. Abbott

Frontier Desperadoes and Savage Ferocity


We have occasionally alluded to the desperadoes who infested the frontiers. They were often much more to be dreaded than the Indians. Indeed the atrocities which these men perpetrated were the main cause of the hostility of the savages. It is the uncontradicted testimony that the natives were, at first, disposed to be friendly. It was only when exasperated by unendurable wrongs that they appealed to arms. When seemingly unprovoked assailants, they were seeking revenge for some great outrage which they had already experienced, from the depraved vagabonds of the wilderness.

When St. Louis was under Spanish rule, there had sprung up quite a brisk commerce between that settlement and New Orleans. But the shores of the majestic Mississippi were then infested by large bands of robbers, watching to attack and plunder boats, as they ascended and descended the stream. There were two leaders of one of these large bands, by the name of Culbert and Magilbray, who, occupying commanding points, were carrying on a regular system of river piracy.

In the year 1739, a merchant by the name of Beausoliel, had sailed from New Orleans, in a barge richly freighted with goods, bound for St. Louis. The robbers, pushing out from the shore in their light canoes, and well armed, captured the boat without a struggle. They ordered the owner and the crew into the little cabin and fastened them in.

There was a negro on board, a very remarkable man, by the name of Cacasotte. Though carved in ebony, he had great beauty of countenance, and wonderful grace and strength of person. His native, mental endowments were also of a high order. This man, Cacasotte, as soon as the barge was taken, assumed to be greatly overjoyed. He danced, sang and laughed, declaring that he would no longer live in irksome slavery, but that he would join the band, and enjoy liberty among the freebooters as their attendant.

He was so jovial, and so attentive, in anticipating all their wants, that he won their confidence, and they all thought that he would be a valuable addition to their company. He was thus permitted to roam over the boat, unmolested and unwatched. He formed a plan in all its details, for the recapture of the boat, and the liberation of the crew. This plan he succeeded in communicating to his master. Mr. Beausoliel had his earthly all in the boat, and he also expected that the pirates would take their lives. He was therefore ready to adopt any plan, however desperate, which gave any promise of success. We have the following account given in "The Great West," of the plan the negro formed and of its successful accomplishment.

"Cacasotte was cook, and it was agreed, between him and his fellow conspirators, likewise too negroes, that the signal for dinner should also be the signal for action. When the hour arrived, the robbers assembled in considerable numbers on the deck, and stationed themselves on the bow and stern and along the sides, to prevent any rising of the men. Cacasotte went among them with the most unconcerned demeanor imaginable. As soon as his comrades had taken their assigned stations he placed himself at the bow, near one of the robbers, a stout herculean fellow, who was armed cap-a-pie. Cacasotte gave the preconcerted signal, and immediately the robber near him was struggling in the water. With the speed of lightning he ran from one robber to another, as they were sitting on the sides of the boat and, in a few seconds' time, had thrown several of them overboard. Then seizing an oar he struck on the head those who had attempted to save themselves by grappling the running boards. He then shot with rifles, which had been dropped on deck, those who attempted to swim away. In the meantime his companions had done almost as much execution as their leader."

Thus every one of these robbers found a watery grave. Mr. Beausoliel had his property restored to him, and pressing all sail went on his way rejoicing.

A few years after this, about the year 1800, there was a noted robber named Mason, who occupied what is called, "The Cave in the Rock." This renowned cavern was about twenty miles below the Wabash river. Its entrance was but a few feet above high water-mark, and opened into a very remarkable chamber, two hundred feet long, eighty feet wide and twenty-five feet high. Throughout the whole central length the floor was quite level, and on each side of this central aisle the sides rose in tiers, like the seats of an amphitheatre.

This remarkable cave is connected with another a little above. Here this Mason, a man of gigantic stature, and of inferior education and intellect, had his concealed retreat, with two sons and several other desperadoes, organized into a band of land and water pirates. With great skill they prosecuted their robberies, plundering boats as they descended the river, but more often watching the return boats, to rob the owners of the money which they had received from the sale of their cargoes.

As the population of the Ohio valley increased, Mason deemed it expedient to abandon the Cave in the Rock and established himself with his gang, on a well known and much frequented trail called the Nashville and the Natches Trace. Here his gang became the terror of the whole travelling community. Sometimes, with his whole band decorated in the most gaudy style of Indian warriors, with painted faces, and making the forest resound with hideous yells, they would swoop down upon a band of travellers, inflicting outrages which savages could not exceed.

The atrocities of which this desperate gang were guilty, at length became so frequent and daring, accompanied with the most brutal murders, that Governor Claiborne, of the Mississippi Territory, offered a large reward for the capture of Mason dead or alive. But the wilderness of prairie, forest and mountain was very wide. Mason was familiar with all its lurking places. For a long time he baffled all the efforts of the authorities for his capture.

Treachery at last delivered him to the hands of justice, or rather brought his ignominious career to a close, inflicting upon him the violent and bloody death which he had so often inflicted upon peaceful and innocent merchants and travellers. Two of his own band, tempted by the large reward which was offered, and perhaps maddened by his tyranny, for he ruled his gang with a rod of iron, conspired to kill him. They watched their opportunity and one day, as Mason was counting out the money he had just gained by the robbery of some merchants, one of them advancing from behind him, struck a hatchet into his brain. The accomplices then cut off his head, and carried it to the Governor at Washington, which was the seat of the Territorial government. They received their reward. They, however, received another reward which they had not anticipated.

The proclamation of the governor had contained no promise whatever of pardon to any of the gang. These two men were immediately arrested, as robbers and murderers. They were tried, condemned and hung. The robber band, thus deprived of its leader and of two of its most desperate men, was broken up and the wretches dispersed, to fill up the measure of their iniquities in other regions.

But let us again cross the Rocky mountains, and contemplate some of the strange scenes of violence and blood which were occurring there. We have mentioned, that Kit Carson had been appointed, by Government Indian Commissioner. This gave him much satisfaction, for it was an office he felt perfectly competent to fill. It also was an evidence that, at last, his ability and services had been appreciated. He at once accepted the appointment and entered upon its duties.

He soon found the office no sinecure. The Apaches began to commit depredations upon the property of the settlers in the northern part of New Mexico. Some of the citizens fell a sacrifice to their barbarity. Mr. Carson at once sent Lieutenant Bell, a United States officer, with quite a force of dragoons, in pursuit of them. Although the red men were quite willing to scalp peaceful and unarmed citizens, when they found their own ranks torn and bleeding by the balls of their foes, and their chiefs biting the dust in the death agony, then courage gave place to terror, and flight became their resource.

Not long after, news came to Mr. Carson that another insurrection had appeared among the Apaches. They were encamped about twenty miles from Taos, upon quite a little ridge of mountains. Mr. Carson proceeded unattended, to their lodges, to meet the chiefs for a friendly talk. Having been among them for so many years, he was well known by nearly all the Rocky mountain tribes. Mr. Carson, by his gentle words and his personal influence, succeeded in pacifying them, and obtaining promises of friendly relations. Hardly had he left their lodges, when the treachery of the Indian became manifested in new crimes and barbarities. Carson, distrusting them, was not unprepared; but with a band of tried men inflicted such blows as were not soon forgotten.

Lieutenant Davidson was not long after this sent with a force of sixty United States Dragoons, to attack and dislodge an encampment in the mountains. They were all men who understood Indian character and warfare. Repairing to their fastnesses, they found the Indians well posted, and expecting a visit from the white men. Two hundred and more warriors were on the highest crags of the hills.

The Indian loves a palaver or talk; and the Lieutenant sent one or two men to endeavor to settle affairs thus amicably. But the savages, perceiving the inferior numbers of the white men, were not inclined to be communicative, or to listen to peaceful terms. Fight, blood, scalps, they thirsted for, and those they would have.

Perceiving that no pacific measures would avail, Lieutenant Davidson tried the effect of powder and lead. Many of the warriors fell dead, but the savages were so many and so fierce, that the odds were against the troops. In danger of being surrounded and of thus sacrificing the whole of his little army, Davidson decided to retreat down the mountains. Being hotly pursued he was obliged to contest every foot of his way. Trees, rocks, stumps were, as usual, Indian breastworks. With their unerring aim, they laid low twenty of the soldiers. Most of the other forty of Davidson's command were more or less severely wounded. Bravely the poor fellows fought, though unsuccessfully. They however escaped to Taos.

The people in Taos were much distressed, in learning of this disastrous termination of the battle. The next day they sent wagons to convey the remains of the fallen soldiers to a proper burial place. On reaching the spot, they found the inhuman savages had, as usual, mutilated the remains of every one, and had stripped them of their clothing. Not long after several Apaches appeared in the streets of a small Mexican settlement, clad in the garments of the slain dragoons, and afforded much amusement to the people by their grotesque appearance, and awkward endeavors to imitate military etiquette and courtesy.

As is always the case in every military disaster Lieutenant Davidson's conduct has been assailed. But the evidence of the men of his command was, that his coolness in difficulty, his courage in danger, and his judgment in the retreat entitle him to credit, not censure. Mr. Carson does not justify the unkind accusations against him, but says:

"I am intimately acquainted with Lieutenant Davidson, and have been in engagements with him, where he has taken a prominent part, and can testify that he is as brave and discreet as it is possible for a man to be. Nearly every person engaged in, and who survived that day's bloody battle, has since told me, that his commanding officer never once sought shelter, but stood manfully exposed to the aim of the Indians, encouraging his men, and apparently unmindful of his own life. It was, however, in the retreat they say that he acted the most gallantly, for when every thing was going badly with the soldiers, he was as cool and collected as if under the guns of his fort. The only anxiety he exhibited was for the safety of his remaining men."

The Apaches left the region at once, wisely fearing retribution at the hand of their foes. Mr. Carson, in travelling homeward from Santa Fe, saw no trace of them. But their barbarities were not forgotten and new and more vigorous measures were taken to reduce them to submission.

Colonel Cook was appointed commander of this new expedition. Mr. Carson accompanied him. Forty Mexicans and several Pueblo Indians joined the party under the command of Mr. James H. Quinn. Passing on in a northerly direction, they came to a small river emptying into the Rio del Norte. This was a wild mountain stream, swollen into a foaming torrent, by melting snows and recent rains. But it must be crossed. It was perilous, for the bed was rocky and the current rapid.

Carson took the lead, piloting over party after party in safety. Arriving on the shore, they found a bold perpendicular bluff several hundred feet high confronting them. Pursuing a zigzag trail around the eminence, the top was at last reached, and they emerged into a rough country, broken by ravines and hills. Passing a day at a small Mexican village, they set off, the next morning, in search of the Apaches. Carson's keen, quick eye caught the trail, and rapidly they pursued their way for a couple of days, when they overtook the Indians, leisurely resting in one of their small villages. The horses of the savages were fresh, and remembering the death-dealing rifle of the white man, most of the Indians saved themselves by flight. The steeds of the soldiers were too weary for pursuit. Yet many Indian warriors were struck down by the bullets of their pursuers, and the horses and camp furniture of the savages, such as it was, fell into the hands of Colonel Cook's party. Mr. Carson describing these events says:

"To Captain Sykes, who commanded the infantry, is due the greatest amount of praise for the part he acted in our adventures. When his men were almost broken down with sore feet, long and difficult marches, want of provisions, the coldness of the weather, and with their clothing nearly worn out, and when they were on the point of giving up in despair, they were prevented from so doing by witnessing the noble example set them by their captain. He showed them what a soldier's duty really was, and this so touched their pride that they hobbled along as if determined to follow him until death relieved them from their sufferings.

"Although this officer had a riding animal at his disposal, yet never for once did he mount him; but instead lent the horse to some deserving soldier who was on the point of succumbing to overwork. When the Indian village was discovered, he cheered his men from a limping walk into a sort of run, and dashing through a swollen mountain stream, which was nearly up to their armpits, and full of floating ice, he was, with his company, the foremost in the attack."

Night put a stop to the pursuit. The next morning, at an early hour, Colonel Cook's dragoons were again in motion, following, under the guidance of Mr. Carson, the fresh trail of the routed Indians. On and still on they pressed for many weary leagues, through valleys and over snow-clad mountains, until they found that it was impossible to overtake the red men. The sagacious Indians broke up their party into small squads of two and three and scattered in all directions. To continue the pursuit would be like chasing "a flea upon the mountains."

The Indians had manifested a great deal, not of cunning only, but of intelligence in their flight. It was their manifest object to lead their pursuers through the most difficult paths, that both men and horses might be worn out by the ruggedness of the way. Very often they would pursue a route so circuitous, through wild gorges and over mountain torrents, that Colonel Cook would often find himself bivouacking at night, but a short distance from the spot which he had left in the morning. The Indians were perfectly familiar with the country and could travel with much greater ease than could the white men.

Colonel Cook, finding that nothing could be accomplished by the further continuance of the pursuit, turned back and sought a refuge for his soldiers from the toils and hardships of their campaign, in the little Mexican town of Abiguire, about sixty miles northwest from Santa Fe, on a tributary of the Rio del Norte.

On his march back, Colonel Cook had encountered and captured an Indian warrior, whom he supposed to be one of the hostile Apaches. The Indian was deprived of his horse and arms, and treated as a captive. He made his escape. Afterwards it was learned that he belonged to the friendly Utah tribe. Colonel Cook, regretting the mistake, and fearing that it might induce the Utahs to join the Apaches, very wisely decided to do his duty, and make an apology and reparation.

Kit Carson was, of course, employed as the ambassador of peace. He sent an Indian runner to the principal village of the Utahs, with the request that their chief would hold a council with him. They all knew him, loved him, and familiarly called him "Father Kit."

The council met, Mr. Carson explained the mistake and expressed the deepest regret, that through ignorance, one of their friendly braves had been captured, and treated like an enemy. He assured them of his readiness to make ample reparation for the wrong.

"My countrymen," he said, "do not wish to do you any injury. They hope that you will overlook this accident. They do not ask this through fear. The warriors of the Utah are but a handful, when compared with those of their Great Father. But they wish to live with you as brothers. The country is large enough for both."

The Indians seemed ever ready to listen to reason. They were satisfied with the explanation, and declared that their hearts were no longer inimical to their pale face brothers. Thus another Indian war was averted. Had the Indians always been treated with this spirit of justice and conciliation, humanity would have been saved from innumerable woes.