Kit Carson made history 170 years ago
For the Nevada Appeal
Editor’s note: The following is the first of two editions about Kit Carson and early Nevada history.
There was no difficulty recognizing the figure astride a white horse leading a column of U.S. Army scouts on an extraordinary 145-mile expedition that began 170 years ago this month.
First Lt. Christopher “Kit” Carson, 37, the legendary frontiersman, Western explorer, Indian fighter, guide, trapper, confidante of President James K. Polk and, years later, a brigadier general, was immediately identified by his piercing blue eyes, reddish-brown hair that cascaded down his neck, shaggy mustache, battered hat, faded woolen shirt and shabby buckskin trousers.
The two-year U.S. Mexico battle was in its fifth month, and Carson, Army Brig. Gen. Stephen W. Kearny and Navy Commodore Robert F. Stockton, in command of 516 soldiers, sailors, Marines and scouts, were en route on an urgent march from San Diego to Los Angeles in early January 1847, an adventure that ultimately would honor Carson with his name being given to Carson City, the Carson River, Carson Valley, Carson Sink, Carson Sink Pony Express Station and the Carson Mountain Range.
Upon reaching Los Angeles, the Mexican government’s regional capital, Kearny, Stockton and Kit Carson were to demand Mexico’s surrender and seize California and the future states of Nevada, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming, all of which had been a Spanish colony since the early 16th century and, most recently, had been ruled by Mexico since its successful War of Independence against Spain in 1823.
A month before the American forces began preparing for their journey to Los Angeles, they had engaged the enemy at the Battle of San Pasqual near a village of the same name that lay in a valley approximately seven miles southeast of Escondido in present-day San Diego County.
It was at San Pasqual on Dec. 6, 1846, that a mounted force of 150 Mexicans and Californios, the latter Mexican citizens, descendants of Spanish settlers and inheritors of land titles from the Spanish Crown, ambushed about 100 Americans led by Kearny and Carson.
The Mexican and Californio cavalrymen and lancers, commanded by Gen. Andres Pico, the brother of Pio Pico, a former Mexican governor of California, attacked the Americans at midnight during heavy fog and rain. The helpless and disorganized U.S. Army dragoons proved to be no match for the enemy, and 13 Americans were killed and at least 15 were wounded, including Kearny, who was stabbed in the groin. Five of Pico’s men were killed and about a dozen were wounded.
Carson and two other men, on orders from Kearny, were sent to San Diego to seek help.
“The trio took separate routes 35 miles across the desert through cactus and rocks without shoes to avoid detection by the enemy. Even the redoubtable Carson was crippled,” according to a passage in “So Far from God: The U.S. War With Mexico, 1846-1848” by John D. Eisenhower, son of Dwight D. Eisenhower, the general and president.
When the men reached San Diego, however, they learned Stockton had already sent 180 crew members of the U.S. warships Cyane, Congress, Savannah and Portsmouth that were home ported in San Diego, the only California city in American hands, to rescue the beleaguered Americans, added Eisenhower.
When the American troops and their rescue party returned to San Diego, the wounded were treated, they recuperated and rested and the force of 55 Army dragoons, 379 sailors and Marines, and Carson’s 84 scouts set out for Los Angeles.
“Carson and his scouts rode ahead of the column,” wrote Neal Harlow in his book, “California Conquered, War and Peace on the Pacific.”
“The going was ponderous,” he said. “In the train were six artillery pieces of various caliber hauled by poor mules, accompanied by some 10 ox-carts and a four-wheel carriage, all heavily laden and drawn by oxen of the poorest sort. As they moved slowly north, it rained like the devil, carts broke down and packs slipped off the mules.”
David C. Henley is publisher emeritus of the Lahontan Valley News and Fallon Eagle-Standard.