They Came Here to Die

Their names are used as shorthand for the iconic archetypes of the American frontier: Kit Carson, the dauntless mountain man; Doc Holliday, the stylish gambler and gunslinger; Buffalo Bill Cody, the embodiment of cowboys-and-Indians mythology. Mention one of these names and most people think: “Old West.” They probably don’t immediately think: “Colorado.” But perhaps they should.

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Christopher “Kit” Carson was a legend in his own time. He cut such a larger-than-life figure in the popular imagination as the ideal of the rugged frontiersman that those who met the actual man, standing at a not so imposing 5 feet 6 inches tall, sometimes doubted he was the real Kit Carson.

Born in Kentucky in 1809, Carson came west with his family as a child, settling in Missouri. He was apprenticed to a saddlemaker in Franklin, Mo., the eastern terminus of the Santa Fe Trail. At 16, he ran away with a wagon train headed west. He left the train in Santa Fe and traveled to Taos to find work. He joined a fur-trapping expedition to Arizona and California while still a teenager and spent the next 16 years as a mountain man, hunting and trapping all across the Rocky Mountain west. He married three times, to an Arapaho woman, Singing Grass; a Cheyenne woman, Making-Out-Road; and finally Josefa Jaramillo, of a prominent Taos family. Though carson never learned to read or write, he became a fluent speaker of Spanish, French and a number of Indian languages.

Carson worked as a hunter at Bent’s Fort near present-day La Junta, Colo., in 1841. The following year he accompanied an eastbound wagon train to take his daughter to school in St. Louis. Returning west on a Missouri River steamboat, he met John C. Frémont, a U.S. Army lieutenant tasked with mapping the Oregon Trail and beyond. Carson volunteered his services as guide, and from 1842 to 1846, he led the way for three of Frémont’s expeditions. Carson had already traveled through much of the rugged terrain, and his survival skills and familiarity with the Indian tribes proved invaluable. Frémont’s published accounts of the journeys through the Rocky Mountains were bestsellers back east, and migrants who followed on the Oregon Trail used it as a guidebook. Frémont lavished praise on his guide in his writings, making Carson suddenly famous.

“Because of Frémont’s books, everyone knew who Kit Carson was,” said John Carson, Kit’s great-grandson. “dime novel writers would take people’s names that you had heard of and just made up stories about them.” Embellished or invented tales of carson’s exploits were wildly popular.

After leaving Frémont, Carson served as a scout and messenger for the Army during the Mexican War, and later was an Indian agent in New Mexico, where he forged good relations with the Pueblos, Utes and other tribes. He was an Army officer during the Civil War, fighting Confederates in New Mexico and participating in the campaign against the Navajo tribe.

Carson finished his Army career as a brigadier general, commanding Fort Garland in southern Colorado before retiring in 1867. He settled in Colorado with his wife at Boggsville, near Las Animas, where he planned a career as a rancher. That never came to pass: his wife died in April 1868, and Carson died less than a month later at nearby Fort Lyon on May 23. His last words were, “Adios compadres,” Spanish for, “Goodbye friends.”

He was buried at Boggsville, but was later moved to Taos, where his grave is today. a marker stands at the original gravesite in Boggsville, which is now a ghost town. Visitors still can visit the stone surgeon’s building where he died, now called the Kit Carson Chapel, at Fort Lyon.


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