Was legendary Kit Carson ever in Churchill County
Did Kit Carson, the legendary frontiersman, military hero, explorer, guide and trapper ever set foot in present-day Fallon and Churchill County?
The answer is a definite “yes.”
In fact Carson, the fabled “Great Scout” for whom the state capital and dozens of other sites in Nevada and across the nation are named, traveled through here twice, say historians who are noting rising interest in Carson’s Nevada explorations and Nevada history in general as plans are being finalized to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Nevada’s statehood that falls on Oct. 31, 2014.
Carson’s first visit here occurred in mid-January 1844 when he was a member of a Western U.S. topological or mapping expedition led by Army Lt. John “The Pathfinder” Fremont who achieved fame years later when he headed the Republican Party ticket in the 1856 presidential election (he lost to Democrat James Buchanan) and as a major general in the Union Army during the Civil War.
Carson, Fremont and their party of 25 — which included Indian guides, artists and engineers — traveled south from Oregon in December of 1843 and entered what today is Nevada in early January, 1844. They crossed the Black Rock Desert, discovered and named Pyramid Lake on Jan. 14, and then continued south, crossing the Truckee River to the site of present-day Wadsworth, according to Guy Rocha, a noted historian and retired Nevada State Archivist.
Traveling southeast from Wadsworth until they entered what today is Churchill County, they then continued east along a route that parallels Highway 50 and the Carson River until they reached the site of present-day Fallon on Jan. 18 or 19.
The expedition then proceeded southwest, skirting present-day Yerington and then traveling to an area five or six miles east of present-day Fort Churchill.
From there, they ascended a nearby 5,801-foot peak from which they could see the entire Carson Range and Dayton Valley, according to Rocha.
This mountain or butte, Rocha said, has been known as “Fremont Lookout,” and Rocha and fellow members of the Historical Society of Dayton Valley hope that both the Nevada and National Boards of Geographic Names will, successively, approve the name “Fremont Lookout” as an official, bona fide national geographical site by the time the 150th anniversary of Nevada’s Oct. 31, 1864, entry to the Union as the nation’s 36th state is commemorated next year.
From the Fremont Lookout, the group continued southward to the Walker River and then west where it crossed the Sierra Nevada, a venture described by UNR history professor emeritus James W. Hulse as “a daring enterprise in late January when the snows were heavy.”
The men were forced to eat pinenuts and even a pet dog when they ran out of food; they built sleighs to haul their food, baggage, weapons and mapping equipment because their weak horses floundered in the snow, and they had to abandon a heavy cannon the horses were pulling. But the party persevered despite these deprivations and the bitter cold, discovered Lake Tahoe, crossed the Sierra, and eventually reached Sutter’s Fort, Sacramento and San Francisco.
Kit Carson’ second visit to Fallon and Churchill County took place nine years later in February 1853 when he and his partner, Lucien Maxwell, led a party of men driving 8,500 sheep from New Mexico to California.
Learning that sheep fetched huge prices in rapidly-growing San Francisco and the Bay area, entrepreneurs Carson and Maxwell bought the sheep from New Mexico Navajo tribes for $1.50 apiece and drove the herd westward, following the same route he and the Fremont mapping party had taken in 1843-1844.
Once again, Carson, this time accompanied by two dozen herders and the 8,500 sheep, entered Fallon and Churchill County. About 200 sheep died during the long trek from New Mexico to San Francisco, and perhaps the bones of some of them lie today beneath the soil here in Fallon!
From Fallon, the party then turned west, and following the paths of the Carson and Truckee rivers, crossed the Sierras and made its way to San Francisco.
There, Carson sold his share of the sheep for $5.50 a head and pocketed $35,750, of which almost $25,000 was clear profit.
Kit Carson led an adventuresome and exciting life. In addition to his career as an explorer, guide and fur trapper, he won praise for his service as an Army officer during the Mexican-American War, the Civil War and campaigns against warring Navajo and Plains Indians. Carson held the rank of Brevet Brigadier General when he retired from military service.
He was married three times, each time to a Native American. When he married his third wife, she was 14 and he was 34. He fathered at least 10 children.
Kentucky-born Carson died at Fort Lyon, Colo., in 1868 at the age of 58 and is buried at Taos, N.M.
Carson has been the subject of more than two dozen plays and novels and has been the star of several television productions and at least a dozen feature motion pictures.
And the names “Carson” or “Kit Carson” have been given to countless sites across Nevada and the nation. Here in Fallon and Churchill County, of course, we celebrate his name with the Carson River.
And a statue of the “Great Scout”dominates the mall between the Capitol and Legislative buildings in Carson City.
David C. Henley is Publisher Emeritus of the LVN.