Carson, Kit

Carson, Kit (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 Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2024, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

See more Encyclopedia articles on: U.S. History: Biographies