Kit Carson led historic march 170 years ago
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 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 the men reached San Diego, however, they learned that Stockton had already sent 180 crewmembers of the U.S. warships Cyane, Congress, Savannah and Portsmouth that were homeported 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 he mules.”
Soon passing through the village of Santa Ana, today the county seat of Orange County, the column reached present-day Los Angeles County where, near a village that is now the city of Whittier, Mexican Gen. Jose Maria Flores and his mounted lancers lashed out at the Americans who were attempting to ford the San Gabriel River approximately 15 miles southwest of the city of Los Angeles.
“Carson and some of his men plunged into the lead. They dragged two field pieces through the knee-deep water” as “some 500 Mexicans and Californios fired briskly and suddenly charged the column as it crossed the river ,” wrote M. Morgan Estergreen in “Kit Carson, Portrait in Courage.” The Americans countercharged, the Mexicans inexplicitly ran off, and the U.S. won the Battle of San Gabriel, suffering three killed and and 12 wounded. The enemy received an approximate similar number of casualties.
On Jan. 9, 1847, Gen. Flores’ forces again hit the Americans, this time eight or nine miles southwest of Los Angeles on a wide mesa where the city of Vernon now stands. Flores’ artillery open fired with several cannon, but the Americans answered with better-aimed firepower and the enemy ran off for a second time. This short battle, which carries the names Battle of Los Angeles and Battle of La Mesa, ended with one American killed and five wounded. The enemy suffered one death and nine wounded. The U.S. had won the last battle in California of the U.S. War with Mexico.
The next day, the column entered Los Angeles without a shot being fired from either side and the American flag was raised in the city’s central plaza. Three days later, the United States accepted the Mexicans’ surrender of California and the vast lands that would become Nevada and the future other Western states when they signed the Treaty of Cahuenga with Mexico government representatives at a site near present-day Studio City in the San Fernando Valley.
On Feb. 2, 1848, a year later, Mexico, the loser of the U.S. War with Mexico, signed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo with American diplomats and the war officially ended.
As for Kit Carson… at war’s end, he retuned to his home in Taos, New Mexico, and became, successively, a farmer, rancher and superintendent of Indian Affairs in Colorado, rejoined the Army, was given the rank of brigadier general and fought with distinction during the Civil War. He died of a throat aneurism on May 23, 1868 at the age of 58 at Fort Lyon, Colorado. His death followed the passing 10 days earlier of Josefa, his third wife, while giving birth to a healthy child. Carson’s last words on his deathbed were “Goodbye, doctor and friends and adios compadres.”
Carson was born in Kentucky in 1809, was the sixth of 11 children, left home at 15 to seek adventure in the West and did not learn to read or write until becoming a general. He is buried next to Josefa at the cemetery in Taos and his home is a National Historic Site. During his life and since his death, Carson has been either praised or scorned by historians and the public, says Paul Apodaca, PhD, a noted Western historian and professor of American Studies at Chapman University.
Congress signaled him out with commendations following the San Diego-Los Angeles expedition and his Civil War service. The state of Nevada many years later would erect a statue of Carson astride his horse that stands on the Capitol Mall in Carson City. His name is synonymous with Army exploits against recalcitrant Native Americans and, as well, he has been lauded for his enlightened policies toward those same people. His heroism in the face of danger, recorded in books, magazines and newspapers, has provided Americans an escape from reality, added Apodaca.
But, Apodaca stated, Carson has been credited by his detractors with the deliberate, wanton killing of American Indians and for herding countless others onto reservations where they died in poverty and of neglect, disease and hunger.
“Carson was a product of his time. He was a mixed bag” and probably will be judged forever as a genuine American folk hero, the zealous enemy of the Native American, or both,”added Apodaca.
David C. Henley is Publisher Emeritus of the LVN.