The memoirs are quite extraordinary for the way he tells of events so startling to us today in a matter-of-fact, laconic way that sometimes make the blood go cold. The thousands of miles of unexplored and highly dangerous terrain he traveled, the lethal conflicts with Indians, the marvels and wonders are all announced deadpan as if they were everyday occurrences. Part of this was perhaps his natural modesty: he was no sparkling teller of tall tales like Jim Bridger and he was, all his life, a quiet, unassuming man, despite his achievements. Statements like, “Concluded to attack the Indians. Done so.” were typical of the man.
Trapper, trader, traveler
In 1829 he signed on with a group of forty men led by Ewing Young, who was something of a mentor to Kit, to trap and trade all over Apache country and into California. All through the 1830s he trapped and traveled, attending the mountain man rendezvous and marrying an Indian wife, Singing Grass, who, however, died somewhere between 1838 and ’40. Carson considered his years as a trapper to be “the happiest days of my life.”
As a real expert, Carson was hired by John C Frémont (after a chance encounter on a Missouri steamer) as a guide, 1842 – 46, leading the ‘Pathfinder’ through much of California, Oregon and the Great Basin area. Carson was illiterate himself (could just sign his name) and it was through Frémont’s accounts of his travels – ‘polished’, not to say actually written by Mrs Frémont and much promoted by her in Washington – that Kit became famous, and the subject, then, of lurid dime novels. The Carson of these novels was the one that Hollywood adopted, rather than the actual historical figure.
He served in California in the Mexican War in the late 1840s, and is famous for his journey across the Continent to Washington DC to deliver news of the war to the government.
In the 1850s he was Indian Agent in Taos and all through the decade he trapped, guided, fought Indians and hunted. He also dictated his memoirs.
The Civil War
He led a force of New Mexico volunteers on the side of the Union in the Civil War and participated at the Battle of Valverde in 1862. He was brevetted Brigadier-General. He was one of the most celebrated names in America.
Under General Carleton, Carson then commanded forces, often using Ute allies as scouts, in various campaigns to ‘pacify’ the Navajo, Mescalero Apache, Kiowa and Comanche peoples, using a scorched earth policy.
The campaign against the Navajo was particularly brutal. The forced transfer of many Navajos to Bosque Redondo, insisted on by General Carleton, involved a terrible march which resulted in the death of hundreds, both during the trip and afterwards on the reservation: in the spring of 1864, 8,000 Navajo men, women and children were forced to move 300 miles from Fort Canby to Fort Sumner, New Mexico to be resettled there and become farmers. The experiment was a disaster and was abandoned in 1868 but Carson (although he had opposed the displacement) earned the undying enmity of many (but not all) of the Navajo.
At Adobe Walls in November 1864 with 334 men, he engaged a greatly superior force of (mostly) Kiowas, but with skill and control withdrew, losing only 2 soldiers and one Ute scout. It was in a way what Custer should have done twelve years later but Carson had none of Custer’s rash bravado.
Carson was appointed to various positions, such as commandant of Fort Garland, but his health declined and in the summer of 1867 he resigned his commission. He died in 1868.
Sammy McKim appeared as Kit in The Painted Stallion in 1938; Wild Bill Elliott was Kit in Overland with Kit Carson (1939); and Kit Carson (1940), starred Jon Hall as Kit and Dana Andrews as Frémont (see separate review).
Kit appeared in a mini-part in a 1942 oater Lawless Plainsmen, played by an (uncredited) Forrest Taylor.
Bill Williams was Kit in The Adventures of Kit Carson, 103 episodes, 1951-1955, which made Kit into a kind of Lone Ranger figure, roaming the West in his buckskins with the obligatory sidekick and righting wrongs with his 1880s six-shooters. My sister liked it.
Kit appeared in various Death Valley Days episodes, as might be imagined. Morgan Jones played him in Head of the House in 1958, and David McLean in Stubborn Mule Hill in 1963. Philip Pine was Kit in Samaritans, Mountain Style in 1966 and Kit was played twice by James Macarthur (1967 and 1968).
Disney released a two-part TV movie Kit Carson and the Mountain Men in 1977 with Christopher Connelly as Kit and Robert Reed as Frémont. This was nearer the real Kit than the Adventures series anyway.
But none of these screen Kits even came close to the original. It’s a pity because the real life of Carson would make a fascinating, and thrilling film.
In 1986, Dream West was a CBS mini-series biopic of Frémont (Richard Chamberlain) that includes Kit Carson, played by Rip Torn. Torn manages to look quite like the portraits of Kit although doesn’t quite have the modesty or deference to Frémont that Kit certainly had. It’s not a bad TV movie, though, in many ways and at least gives us a non-sensational and plausible Kit.
One day, though, we’ll get the real Kit Carson in film. That’ll be the day.