Article originally published in The Broomfield Enterprise (7/26/2009).
One of Colorado’s earliest explorers was an illiterate mountain man who became a general and a legend in his own time. Many books have been written about him – some told his true story, others were “embellished” by pulp writers. His name was Christopher Carson, also known as Kit .
Kit Carson left home in Missouri at 17 to begin his long, eventful career by becoming a trapper in the Rockies. During these years, he was one of the few Americans who knew his way around what would become Colorado, Wyoming, and the other western states.
In 1842, at age 32, Carson’s life took a fateful turn. He met John Fremont, who would become famous for his western expeditions and his crucial role in the implementation of Manifest Destiny – the idea that the great uncharted West must be brought into the fold of the United States. Fremont was impressed by Carson’s “steady blue eye” and “modesty and gentleness,” and hired him as a guide.
At the end of the expedition, the first of three Fremont treks guided by Kit Carson, Fremont and his wife, Jessie Benton Fremont, wrote and published a colorful “report,” championing westward expansion and declaring with great enthusiasm that journeying west wasn’t as impossible as many easterners believed. The result of this and subsequent Fremont publications was a great wave of westbound immigration.
Carson’s own fame originated in the same reports. The Fremonts described his many talents in exalted detail – his uncanny wisdom, his knowledge of the mountains, his amazing ability to get the reckless Fremont out of the numerous scrapes he managed to get himself into.
In 1849, the first of many pulp novels about Kit Carson rolled off an eastern printing press. These novels, called “blood and thunders,” were the Batman and Spiderman stories of the day, with Carson escaping from impossible situations, subduing hordes of Indians, bears, and lions, and rescuing damsels in distress. They had little basis in reality and sold like hotcakes.
Carson also had a long military career, fighting in the war against Mexico and the Indian wars, eventually becoming a general. He reluctantly took on the job of subduing the Navajo Nation – an assignment he did not want but performed with terrible ruthlessness. Today he is vilified by many for his methods during this campaign – burning crops, killing livestock and starving the Navajo into submission.
Carson had three wives over the course of his life – an Arapaho woman named Singing Grass, a Cheyenne woman named Making-Out-Road, and a Mexican woman from a prominent Taos family, Josefa Jaramillo. Carson and Singing Grass had one surviving child while Josefa bore him eight children, many of whose descendants still live in southern Colorado.
Though they lived for many years in New Mexico, Kit and his beloved Josefa spent their last days at a ranch near Las Animas, Colorado, where, in 1868, they died within a month of each other.
Note: For those interested, I recommend Carson biography, Blood and Thunder by Hampton Sides.
The copyright of the article “‘Blood and Thunders’ made Kit Carson a superstar” is owned by Carol Turner. Permission to republish this article in print or online must be granted by the author in writing. Article may be quoted if properly cited.