Courageous Explorer or Bloodthirsty Killer? The Sobering Truth About Kit Carson in Northern California

Who hasn’t heard of Kit Carson, the steely mountain man, courageous explorer, military hero, character in numerous dime novels and frontier movies, the stuff of legends, right? I’d read somewhere he’d made several expeditions through Northern California, but I wasn’t prepared for what I discovered through a little research, the true story about this so-called hero.

There are tributes to Kit Carson all over the place. The first Kit Carson monument was built in Santa Fe, NM in 1885. Carson City, NV and Kit Carson, CO are named for him. There is “Kit Carson Pass” on Highway 88 south of Lake Tahoe. The Boy Scouts of America had a bronze statue of him forged in Trinidad, CO. There’s another statue of him in Escondido, and on Olvera Street in Los Angeles. 

True, Carson led an adventurous life at a critical time in U.S. history, but the good he accomplished was sensationalized and blown way out of proportion, and his numerous evil deeds shamelessly suppressed. Largely, I’d have to label much of what history says about him “fake news.”

Background

Nicknamed “Kit” for his small stature, Christopher Houston Carson ran away from home in Missouri when he was 16 (1820s) to become a mountain man and trapper “out West.” 

It was an exciting time in American history. You might call it Manifest Destiny, but there was cheap (or free) land available in the West and a growing desire for the United States to stretch from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. Problem was, all of these western lands were either occupied or claimed by groups of Native Americans or other nations. 

No doubt Kit Carson picked up skills and more than a little reputation in his travels throughout the West. He worked as a fur trapper, wilderness guide, cook, interpreter, Indian agent and Army officer. He married into and lived among the Arapaho and Cheyenne tribes. Even though he never learned to read or write English, he was fluent in speaking several Indian dialects  as well as Spanish. His maps and descriptions of the Western landscape helped forge parts of the Oregon Trail tens of thousands of pioneers would use to populate the West. 

Carson’s memoirs (which were dictated to others to write due to his illiteracy) were full of bloody battles. These and reports of his courage and fighting ability helped elevate Kit Carson’s reputation far beyond what was likely true. Everyone likes a good story, right?

In January 1833 Crow warriors stole nine horses from Carson’s camp. Carson and two others located the Crow camp and riddled it with gunfire killing most of the Natives. Carson’s memoirs stated, “During our pursuit for the lost animals, we suffered considerably but, the success of having recovered our horses and sending many a redskin to his long home, our sufferings were soon forgotten.” 

While later in life Carson’s view of Native Americans might have softened somewhat, he is known to have killed many in his lifetime. Above all, he hated the Blackfoot, who were mainly in Montana. In the spring of 1838 Carson was traveling with about 100 mountain men led by Jim Bridger. The group came upon a teepee containing three Crow corpses who apparently died of smallpox. Bridger wanted to move on, but Carson and some others wanted to remain to see if they could kill more Blackfoot. They were able to locate the Blackfoot camp where Carson and his friends murdered many. 

Historian David Roberts wrote of the incident, “If anything like pity filled Carson’s breast as, in his twenty-ninth year, he beheld the ravaged camp of the Blackfoot, he did not bother to remember it.” Carson himself described the battle as “the prettiest fight I ever saw.”

Carson and John C. Fremont

Kit Carson and John C. Fremont

In April of 1842 Carson met John C. Fremont on a steamboat on the Missouri River. Both men later participated in the Bear Flag Revolt, the military action that was the prelude to wrestling California away from Mexico. Here we see more of Kit Carson’s true colors.

Jose de los Reyes Berryessa, an old Mexican man and his two adult nephews, were captured when their boat came ashore at San Francisco Bay. Fremont was afraid they might notify Mexico about their military activity, so he ordered Carson to execute them. As already stated, Kit Carson was not new to shedding blood. Historians suspect Carson likely killed and took his first Indian scalp while part of the Ewing Young’s expedition when Carson was about 19.

Carson made several expeditions with John Fremont, and it was in 1843 the men were in Southern California where they entered the Mojave Desert. There they encountered a Mexican man and boy who claimed they’d been ambushed by Indians. Many men were killed and the white women violated. They said the Indians stole 30 of their horses. 

Carson and fellow mountain man Alexis Godey eventually found the Indian camp where they killed and scalped two warriors and recovered the horses.

Carson in NorCal

In 1846 Fremont and Carson were moving up the Sacramento River near Lassen Ranch where they encountered Americans who claimed the Natives were planning to attack them. When their party reached Reading’s Ranch (near present day Redding) they spotted a Wintu village on April 5th. Each of Fremont’s men carried a rifle, two pistols and a knife. The Natives were unable to flee since most in the camp were women and children who were trapped against the waters of the Sacramento River. 

Expedition member Thomas E. Breckenridge wrote, “The settlers charged into the village taking the warriors by surprise and then commenced a scene of slaughter which is unequaled in the West. The bucks, squaws and papooses were shot down like sheep and those men never stopped as long as they could find one alive.”

The number of Natives slaughtered that day varies greatly between several hundred to as many as 700 men, women and children. Breckenridge went on to write, “I think that I hate an Indian as badly as anybody and have as good reason to hate them, but I don’t think that I could have assisted in that slaughter. It takes two to fight or quarrel but in that case there was but one side fighting and the other side trying to escape.”

Fremont and Kit Carson continued up the Sacramento River killing more Natives as they went. Eventually the group crossed over into Oregon Territory in the vicinity of Klamath Lake. The Natives had heard about the Sacramento River Slaughter, and killed three members of Fremont’s party in retaliation. This led to the Klamath Lake Massacre three days later where 14 Klamath People lost their lives.

Neither John Fremont or Kit Carson were ever charged with any crimes for any of the Natives they killed. In fact, history celebrates both as statesmen and heroes. Some suggest Kit Carson and John Fremont were creatures of their times, and subjugation of Native American tribes by the greater numbers and better armed pioneers was inevitable. Even if that were possible, there is nothing heroic or honorable in the wanton murder of men, women and children for the simple crime of being here first.

If ever there was a great time to actually check out (research) what we read, hear and see in the media, that time is past due. Cheap, fictional dime novels elevated Kit Carson to the status of a national hero while he was little more than a bloodthirsty killer who found government-sanctioned ways to get away with it.

Good thing Carson died in 1868 and is buried in Taos, NM. If his remains were any closer to NorCal, I’m afraid what I might be tempted to do with his grave.

Chip O'Brien

Chip O'Brien is a regular contributor to California Fly Fisher and Northwest Fly Fishing magazines, and author of River Journal, Sacramento River and California's Best Fly Fishing: Premier Streams and Rivers from Northern California to the Eastern Sierra. He lived in Redding, California, for eighteen years, where he was a guide, teacher, and regional manager for CalTrout.

2 Comments

  1. I’m afraid in a good way that the true identity of histories so called heroes are showing the true character of their integrity. Very unfortunate that the best part of what their peers saw was for some uncanny reason characterized as somewhat heroic. When in actuality they were murderous cowards. Shoot first question later. So sad!

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