Kit Carson

Kit Carson (Christopher Houston Carson), 1809–68, American frontiersman and guide, b. Madison co., Ky. In 1811 he moved with his family to the Missouri frontier. After his father's death, he was apprenticed to a saddler in Old Franklin, an outfitting point on the Santa Fe Trail, but in 1826 he ran away, joining a caravan for Santa Fe and continuing on to Taos, N.Mex., which became his home and his headquarters. For the next 14 years he made his living as a trapper, miner, teamster, cook, guide, and hunter for exploring parties. In 1842, while returning from St. Louis by boat up the Missouri, he met J. C. Frémont, who employed him as a guide for his Western expeditions of 1842, 1843–44, and 1845.

After Los Angeles was taken (1846) by U.S. military forces, Carson was ordered to Washington with dispatches. In New Mexico he met Gen. Stephen Kearny's troops, and Kearny commanded him to guide his forces to California. When Kearny's men were surrounded in California, Carson, E. F. Beale, and a Native American made their way by night through enemy lines to secure aid from San Diego. In 1847 and again in 1848, Carson was sent east with dispatches.

Carson determined to retire to a sheep ranch near Taos, but plundering by Native Americans led him to continue as an Indian fighter. In 1853 he was appointed U.S. Indian agent, with headquarters at Taos, a position he filled with notable success. At the outbreak of the Civil War he helped organize and commanded the 1st New Mexican Volunteers, who engaged in campaigns against the Apache, Navajo, and Comanche in New Mexico and Texas. At the end of the war he was made a brigadier general, in command (1866–67) of Fort Garland, Colo.

Carson first became known to the general public as a figure in Frémont's much-read expedition reports (1845), becoming famous as a result of Frémont's reports of his skill and courage. His considerable exploits were exaggerated by his biographer (1858) and, subsequently, wildly inflated in dozens of Wild West pulp novels. A national hero, Carson eventually attained an almost mythic status in the annals of the American West.

See D. C. Peters, The Life and Adventures of Kit Carson, the Nestor of the Rocky Mountains, from Facts Narrated by Himself (1858, much repr.); Kit Carson's Autobiography (ed. by B. C. Grant, 1926; ed. by M. M. Quaife, 1935, repr. 1966); biographies by S. Vestal (1928) and M. M. Estergreen (1962, repr. 1967); E. L. Sabin, Kit Carson Days (rev. ed. 1935); H. L. Carter, Dear Old Kit: The Historical Christopher Carson (1990); D. Roberts, Kit Carson, John C. Frémont and the Claiming of the American West (2000); H. Sides, Blood and Thunder: An Epic of the American West (2006).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2013, The Columbia University Press.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

Kit Carson: A Pattern for Heroes
Thelma S. Guild; Harvey L. Carter.
University of Nebraska Press, 1984
Kit Carson's Autobiography
Milo Milton Quaife; Kit Carson.
R.R. Donnelley & Sons Co., 1935
Kit Carson Days, 1809-1868: Adventures in the Path of Empire
Edwin L. Sabin.
University of Nebraska Press, vol.1, 1995 (Revised edition)
Kit Carson Days, 1809-1868: Adventures in the Path of Empire
Edwin L. Sabin.
University of Nebraska Press, vol.2, 1995 (Revised edition)
Narratives of Exploration and Adventure
John Charles Frémont; Allan Nevins.
Longmans, Green, 1956
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 6 "Second Expedition, 1843-1844: Kit Carson and Fitzpatrick: Journey to Great Salt Lake"
The Old Santa Fe Trail
Stanley Vestal; Marc Simmons.
University of Nebraska Press, 1996
Librarian’s tip: Chap. XIII "The Cimarron Desert"
Frontiersmen in Blue: The United States Army and the Indian, 1848-1865
Robert M. Utley.
University of Nebraska Press, 1981
Librarian’s tip: Chap. Twelve "The Army of the Southwest, 1862-1865"
Overland with Kit Carson: A Narrative of the Old Spanish Trail in '48
George Douglas Brewerton.
University of Nebraska Press, 1993
This Reckless Breed of Men: The Trappers and Fur Traders of the Southwest
Robert Glass Cleland.
Alfred A. Knopf, 1963
Librarian’s tip: Discussion of Kit Carson begins on p. 226
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