Excerps from the Life of Kit Carson (Print Version)
A week or more later, the trappers again reached the Colorado River. They had traveled at a leisurely pace and once more they went into camp, where they were familiar with the country. Men leading such lives as they, were accustomed to all kinds of surprises, but it may be doubted whether the trappers were more amazed in all their existence than when five hundred Indian warriors made their appearance and with signs of friendship overran the camp before they could be prevented or checked.
The hunters did not know what to make of the proceeding, and looked to Carson for advice. He had already discovered that the situation was one of the gravest danger. Despite the professions of friendship, Kit saw that each warrior had his weapons under his dress, where he hoped they were not noticed by the whites. Still worse, most of the hunters were absent visiting their traps, only Kit and a few of his companions being in camp. The occasion was where it was necessary to decide at once what to do and then to do it without flinching.
Among the red men was one who spoke Spanish and to him Carson addressed himself:
"You must leave the camp at once; if you don't do so without a minute's delay, we shall attack you and each of us is sure to kill one warrior if not more."
These brave words accompanied by such determination of manner were in such contrast to the usual course of the cowardly Mexicans that the Indians were taken all aback. They could not suspect the earnestness of the short, sturdy framed leader, nor could they doubt that though the Indians would be sure to overwhelm the little band, yet they would have to pay dearly for the privilege. It took them but a few minutes to conclude the price was altogether too high and they drew off without making a hostile demonstration against the brave Carson and his men.
On one of these occasions, the bully became unbearable in his behavior. He knocked down several weak and inoffensive persons, and swaggered back and forth through camp, boasting that he could trounce any one there. In the midst of his bluster, Carson walked up in front of him and said in a voice loud enough to be heard by those around:
"Captain Shunan, there are plenty here who can easily chastise you, but they prefer to submit to your impudence for the sake of peace: however, we have had enough and now I notify you to stop at once or I shall kill you!"
These were astounding words, and, as may be supposed, when uttered by a man six inches shorter and many pounds lighter than the blustering Captain, they fairly took away his breath. Carson spoke in his quiet, soft voice, as though there was not the least cause for excitement; but those who knew him, noted the flash of his clear, gray eye and understood his deadly earnestness.
Captain Shunan was infuriated by the words of Carson. As soon as he could recover himself, he turned about and without speaking a word, walked to his quarters. Kit did not need be told what that meant. He did the same, walking to his own lodge, from which he speedily emerged holding a single barrel pistol. He was so anxious to be on the ground in time, that he caught up the first weapon that presented itself.
Almost at the same moment, Captain Shunan appeared with his rifle. Carson observed him, and, though he could have secured without difficulty a similar weapon, he did not do so. He was willing to give his burly antagonist the advantage, if it should prove such. The other trappers as may be supposed, watched the actions of the two men with breathless interest. The quarrel had taken such a course that they were convinced that one or the other of the combatants would be killed. Captain Shunan had been so loud in his boasts that he did not dare swallow the insult, put on him by the fragile Kit Carson. Had he done so, he would have been hooted out of camp and probably lynched.
As for Kit, his courage was beyond suspicion. He feared no man and was sure to acquit himself creditably no matter in what circumstances he was placed. He was the most popular member of the large company, while his antagonist was the most detested; but the love of fair play was such that no one would interfere, no matter how great the need for doing so.
The duellists, as they may be called, mounted each his horse and circling about the plain, speedily headed toward each other and dashed forward on a dead run. As they approached, they reined up and halted face to face, within arm's length.
Looking his antagonist straight in the eye, Carson demanded:
"Are you looking for me?"
"Have you any business with me?"
"No," growled the savage Frenchman; but, while the words were in his mouth, brought his rifle to his shoulder, and, pointing it at the breast of Carson, pulled the trigger; but Kit expected some such treacherous act, and, before the gun could be fired, he threw up his pistol and discharged it as may be said, across the barrel of the leveled weapon.
The ball broke the forearm of Captain Shunan, at the very moment he discharged his gun. The shock diverted the aim so that the bullet grazed his scalp, inflicting a trifling wound; but the combatants were so close that the powder of the rifle scorched the face of the mountaineer.
Captain Shunan had been badly worsted, and was disabled for weeks afterward. He accepted his fate without complaint and was effectually cured of his overbearing manner toward his associates.
On arriving at Taos, he spent several days with his family and friends, after which he proceeded to Santa Fe. There he learned that the United States Senate had refused to confirm his nomination as lieutenant in the army. Many of his friends were so angered over this slight that they urged him to refuse to carry the despatches further; but his reply, as given by Dr. Peters, is so admirable that we quote it:
"I was entrusted with these despatches, having been chosen in California, from whence I come, as the most competent person to take them through safely. I would try to fulfill this duty even if I knew it would cost me my life. It matters not to me, while I am performing this service for my country, whether I hold the rank of lieutenant in the United States Army or am known merely as an experienced mountaineer. I have gained some little honor and credit for the manner in which I have always conducted myself when detailed on any special and important business, and I would on no account now wish to forfeit the good opinion formed of me by a majority of my countrymen because the United States Senate did not deem it proper to confer on me an appointment which I never solicited, and one which, had it been confirmed, I would have resigned at the termination of the war."
Having determined to perform his duty, he made careful inquiries as to the state of feeling among the Indians through whose country the trail led. The reports were of the most alarming character: the Comanches were on the war path with a vengeance. They were swarming all along the old Santa Fe Trail, on the watch for parties whom they could overwhelm and destroy.
Such being the case, Carson resorted to the bold artifice of making a trail of his own. He reduced his escort to ten experienced mountaineers and then struck out upon his new route. He rode northward from Taos until within a region rarely visited by hostiles, when he changed his course by the compass several times. By this means, he reached Fort Kearney on the Platte and finally arrived at Fort Leavenworth. Not only had he avoided all trouble with Indians, but by following the new route, had found abundance of game so that the entire trip was but little more than a pleasure excursion.
All danger was over at Fort Leavenworth, where he parted from his escort and went alone to Washington. Previous to this, the war with Mexico had ended, the treaty of peace having been signed February 2, 1848, and proclaimed on the 4th of July following.
Carson tarried in Washington only long enough to deliver his despatches to the proper authorities, when he turned about and made his way to Taos, New Mexico, where he joined once more his family and friends.
The Indian Agent for New Mexico had scarcely entered upon his new duties, when trouble came. A branch of the Apaches became restless and committed a number of outrages on citizens. Stern measures only would answer and a force of dragoons were sent against them. They dealt them a severe blow, killing one of their most famous chiefs, besides a considerable number of warriors.
Instead of quieting the tribe, it rather intensified their anger, though they remained quiescent for a time through fear. Not long after, Carson was notified that a large party of the tribe were encamped in the mountains, less than twenty miles from Taos. He decided at once to supplement the work of the sword with the gentle arguments of peace.
This proceeding on the part of the Indian Agent is one deserving of special notice, for it shows no less the bravery of Carson than it does the philanthropic spirit which actuated him at all times in his dealings with the red men. Alas, that so few of our officials today deem his example worth their imitation.
The venture was so dangerous that Carson went alone, unwilling that any one else should run the risk. When he arrived at their encampment, he made his way without delay to the presence of the leaders, whom he saluted in the usual elaborate fashion, and then proceeded to state the important business that took him thither.
Nearly every warrior in camp recognized the short, thickset figure and the broad, pleasant face when they presented themselves. They knew he was one of the most terrible warriors that ever charged through a camp of red men. He had met them many a time in fierce warfare, but he always fought warriors and not papooses and squaws. He was the bravest of the brave and therefore they respected him.
But he was a truthful and just man. He had never lied to them, as most of the white men did, and he had shown his confidence in them by walking alone and unattended into the very heart of their encampment. They were eager to rend to shreds every pale face upon whom they could lay hands, but "Father Kit" was safe within their lodges and wigwams.
Carson made an admirable speech. He at first caused every serpent-like eye to sparkle, by his delicate flattery. Then he tried hard to convince them that their hostility to the whites could result only in injury to themselves, since the Great Father at Washington had hundreds and thousands of warriors whom he would send to replace such as might lose their lives. Then, when he made known that the same Great Father had appointed him to see that justice was done them, they grinned with delight and gathering around, overwhelmed him with congratulations.
The Agent insisted that they should prove their sincerity by pledging to follow the line of conduct he had lain down, and they did so with such readiness that a superficial observer would have declared the mission a complete success.
But Kit Carson thought otherwise. He knew the inherent treachery of the aboriginal nature, and his estimate of Apache loyalty was the true one. The most that he was warranted in feeling was the hope that those furious warriors would be less aggressive than had been their custom. Though they had expressed a willingness to make any agreement which he might propose, yet it was their very willingness to do so which caused his distrust. Had they been more argumentative and more tenacious of their rights, their sincerity might have been credited.
The Agent could have secured their consent almost to any agreement, but the sagacious official asked as little as he could.
"And I don't believe they mean to keep even that agreement," he muttered, as he bade the effusive sachems and warriors goodbye and made his way back to Taos.
"Carson then had his family with him -- wife and half a dozen children, boys and girls as wild and untrained as a brood of Mexican mustangs. One day these children ran through the room in which we were seated, half clad and boisterous, and I inquired, 'Kit, what are you doing about your children?'
"He replied: 'That is a source of great anxiety; I myself had no education,' (he could not even write, his wife always signing his name to his official reports). 'I value education as much as any man, but I have never had the advantage of schools, and now that I am getting old and infirm, I fear I have not done right by my children.'
"I explained to him that the Catholic College, at South Bend, Indiana, had, for some reason, given me a scholarship for twenty years, and that I would divide with him -- that is let him send two of his boys for five years each. He seemed very grateful and said he would think of it.
"My recollection is that his regiment was mustered out of service that winter, 1866-7, and that the following summer, 1867, he (Carson) went to Washington on some business for the Utes, and on his return toward New Mexico, he stopped at Fort Lyon, on the upper Arkansas, where he died. His wife died soon after at Taos, New Mexico, and the children fell to the care of a brother in law, Mr. Boggs, who had a large ranche on the Purgation near Fort Lyon. It was reported of Carson, when notified that death was impending, that he said, 'Send William, (his eldest son) to General Sherman who has promised to educate him.' Accordingly, some time about the spring of 1868, there came to my house, in St. Louis, a stout boy with a revolver, Life of Kit Carson by Dr. Peters, United States Army, about $40 in money, and a letter from Boggs, saying that in compliance with the request of Kit Carson, on his death bed, he had sent William Carson to me. Allowing him a few days of vacation with my own children, I sent him to the college at South Bend, Ind., with a letter of explanation, and making myself responsible for his expenses. He was regularly entered in one of the classes, and reported to me regularly. I found the 'Scholarship' amounted to what is known as 'tuition,' but for three years I paid all his expenses of board, clothing, books, &c., amounting to about $300 a year. At the end of that time, the Priest reported to me that Carson was a good natured boy, willing enough, but that he had no taste or appetite for learning. His letters to me confirmed this conclusion, as he could not possibly spell. After reflection, I concluded to send him to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, to the care of General Langdon C. Easton, United States Quartermaster, with instructions to employ him in some capacity in which he could earn his board and clothing, and to get some officer of the garrison to teach him just what was necessary for a Lieutenant of Cavalry. Lieutenant Beard, adjutant of the Fifth Infantry did this. He (William Carson) was employed, as a 'Messenger,' and, as he approached his twenty-first year, under the tuition of Lieutenant Beard, he made good progress. Meantime I was promoted to General in Chief at Washington, and about 1870, when Carson had become twenty-one years of age, I applied in person to the President, General Grant, to give the son of Kit Carson, the appointment of Second Lieutenant Ninth United States Cavalry, telling him somewhat of the foregoing details. General Grant promptly ordered the appointment to issue, subject to the examination as to educational qualifications, required by the law. The usual board of officers was appointed at Fort Leavenworth and Carson was ordered before it. After careful examination, the board found him deficient in reading, writing and arithmetic. Of course he could not be commissioned. I had given him four years of my guardianship, about $1,000 of my own money, and the benefit of my influence, all in vain. By nature, he was not adapted to 'modern uses.' I accordingly wrote him that I had exhausted my ability to provide for him, and advised him to return to his uncle Boggs on the Purgation to assist him in his cattle and sheep ranche.
"I heard from him by letter once or twice afterward, in one of which he asked me to procure for him the agency for the Utes. On inquiry at the proper office in Washington, I found that another person had secured the place of which I notified him, and though of late years I have often been on the Purgation, and in the Ute country, I could learn nothing of the other children of Kit Carson, or of William, who for four years was a sort of ward to me.