Dennis Cassinelli: Kit Carson, a Nevada icon
Christopher (Kit) Carson (1809-1868) was an American frontiersman, trapper, soldier and Indian agent who made important contributions to the westward expansion of the United States. He had become an experienced hunter and trapper by his late 20s.
After meeting explorer John C. Fremont in 1842, Carson was an active participant in extending the boundaries of the United States to its present size. He became a federal Indian agent in the 1850s and later served with the Union Army in the Civil War. Carson is remembered as an icon of the frontiersman days of the American West.
Born on Dec. 24, 1809, Carson became one of the most famous figures in the American West. He grew up on the Missouri frontier on lands bought from the sons of frontiersman Daniel Boone. From an early age, Carson knew both the beauty and the danger that this area possessed. He and his family often feared attacks on their cabin from hostile Indians.
When Carson’s father, a farmer, died in 1818, Carson did his best to help his mother, who had 10 children to raise on her own. He gave up on his education and never did learn how to read, a fact of which he was always ashamed.
Carson was apprenticed to a saddle maker in Franklin, Missouri, at age 14, but he longed for freedom and adventure. In 1826, Carson fled Franklin, breaking his contract with the saddle maker. He then headed west on the Santa Fe Trail, working as a laborer in a caravan of merchants.
Eventually Carson learned the ins and outs of trapping in the sometimes hostile lands of the West. In 1829, Carson joined with Ewing Young to trap in Arizona and California. He also worked for Jim Bridger and the Hudson Bay Company at different times.
Carson learned to speak Spanish and French fluently. Often immersed in Native American lands and cultures, he also learned to communicate in several of their languages and even married two Native American women. Unlike many other men in his profession, Carson was noted for his unassuming manner and temperate lifestyle, with one acquaintance describing him as “clean as a hound’s tooth.”
In 1842 Carson met explorer John C. Frémont, an officer with the U.S. Topographical Corps, while traveling on a steamboat. Frémont soon hired Carson to join him as a guide on his first expedition to the American West. With his many years spent in the woods, Carson was the ideal candidate to help the group make their way to the South Pass in the Rocky Mountains.
Frémont’s reports from the expedition, which praised Carson, helped make him one of the era’s most famous mountain men. In 1843, Carson accompanied Frémont to survey the Great Salt Lake in Utah and then to Fort Vancouver in the Pacific Northwest. Fremont’s Cannon was abandoned before crossing the Sierras by Carson Pass on this expedition. Carson also guided the 1845-46 expedition to California and Oregon. During this time, he found himself caught in the Mexican-American War. While in California, Frémont’s mission changed into a military operation, as he and Carson supported the uprising by American settlers that became known as the Bear Flag Revolt.
Here in Nevada, there are countless places named after Kit Carson including Carson City, Carson River, Carson Pass and others. Kit Carson was active in battles with Mexican forces in California.
In 1853, he became an Indian agent in New Mexico working with the Utes and Apaches. To prevent these people from extinction, Carson advocated for the creation of Indian reservations. In 1865, Carson was promoted to a brigadier general and later was appointed to command Fort Garland. After negotiating a peace treaty with the Utes, he resigned due to declining health.
Carson spent his final months as superintendent of Indian affairs for Colorado Territory.
Following a grueling trip to the East Coast in 1868, he returned to Colorado in terrible condition. After his third and final wife died in April, Carson followed about a month. Later, on May 23, 1868, reportedly delivering the last words, “Doctor, compadre, adios!”
Dennis Cassinelli is a Dayton author and historian. You can order his books on his blog at denniscassinelli.com.