Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Christopher "Kit" Carson: His Puzzling Involvement in the Navajo Long Walks

Christopher "Kit" Carson (1809-1868) is known as one of America's most famous frontiersmen, explorers believed by many to be responsible for the early settlement of our country. They were the early pioneers, paving the way for the many settlers to come, but with a different set of ethics and morals. The goal for most of these men was to educate themselves about the land and the people who inhabited the land. This, too, was the goal of Kit Carson whose family deliberately moved to the edges of society, into the frontier, to learn how to live with the Native American Indian tribes, their culture, and how they survived on the land.

And yet, in his later years, this same man, Kit Carson became a bit of an enigma, making decisions to involve himself in the Indian Wars in ways that conflicted greatly with the life he led as a young man. The young frontiersman who spoke many Indian languages, lived among the Cheyenne for years, married and had a child with the daughter of a Cheyenne chief, as a middle-aged man suddenly made the decision to follow the orders of the U.S. Military and became the driving force behind one of the most egregious acts of genocide that took place during the Indian Wars--the Long Walk of the Navajo. It was a shocking decision, perhaps not to the military or those who lived during those times, but very much so to those who have studied his life. He may have debated the decision, and later regretted the decision, but his actions speak volumes more than anything he wrote in his diaries or letters.

Kit Carson

It could be said that Kit Carson came from a family of frontiersmen. He was born to Lindsay and Rebecca Carson on December 24, 1809, the youngest of five children. The family lived near the wilderness area of Kentucky. This area did not stay wilderness for long, though, and although Lindsay was actually a farmer, he was still anxious to move away from the encroaching city limits. He decided to move the family to Howard County, Missouri. Finding a similar situation in Missouri--cities expanding too quickly for his comfort--he once again moved the family further into the wilderness.

Lindsay Carson's dream of becoming a Wilderness Man was a bit different from what the original men of the wilderness represented, though. The intention of the first Wilderness Men, such as John Colter, James Beckwourth and Jim Bridger, who explored the wilds of the country around the time that young Kit was first born in the early 1800s, was to live off the land and support themselves by trapping wild animals, and their life span was short, averaging three years in the wilderness according to "Trailblazers  & Scouts" in the History Channel series The Real West. Trapper John Colter was the first recorded white man to become a Mountain Man. He was a member of the Lewis and Clark party, returning to the wilderness after the rest of the party returned. He was the first known white man to explore Yellowstone and when he reported back on what he had seen, his reports of geysers, towering mountains, and spending days to find the tail end of a herd of buffalo, but eventually more mountain men and explorers verified these reports. These were the stories that Lindsay Carson heard, and he believed what he heard. He wanted this experience for himself and his family.

However, the expansionism experienced by the Carson family in their various homes was the result of Manifest Destiny, the belief that American settlers were destined to expand across the continent. The difference in intentions will become more important later in the story of Kit Carson when he is asked to help remove the Navajo from their lands.

As a child, Kit kept food on the Carson family table by hunting deer, buffalo, and wild ducks. He also became friends with the Osage Indians and learned their language. Nevertheless, the family did live in an area that was frequently attacked by various Native American Indian tribes and the Carsons were forced to live inside the fort. According to Moyer's Famous Frontiersmen, Kit realized he had advanced skills in hunting and languages, but he was also physically smaller than many of the other boys at the fort so he intentionally volunteered for increasingly difficult and challenging work tasks while still keeping up with his education. Of course, he eventually grew stronger and taller, resembling his father and brothers, and by the time he was 15 he resembled a grown man in both size, skills, and education, and was ready to strike out on his own. All he needed was the opportunity.

Opportunity arrived in 1826 when a party of traders stopped in Santa Fe. Kit demonstrated his skill with a rifle and pistol and was hired. As the party progressed toward Mexico, Kit soon realized he was the only man with any experience. He was relieved to arrive safely in Mexico and decided to stay awhile. He learned to speak Spanish, several Native American Indian dialects, and fur trader skills from a man named Kincaid and three years later joined another trapping party headed for California. The party worked its way back to Taos where Kit Carson discovered he now had a reputation as a skilled trapper and guide. Unlike other trappers, he had also saved his money and lived comfortably as a Mountain Man until 1839 when he was hired as a hunter by Bent and St. Vrain, working out of Bent's Fort in Colorado County. There he met a party of Cheyenne and married the chief's daughter, Rai-Du, or "Mountain Flower." Rai-Du died in childbirth, but his daughter, Mary, survived. Kit now had a half-Indian daughter--one confusing factor when considering his later actions toward the Navajo.

Carson decided to take Mary home to his family, but when he arrived at his childhood home he learned both his parents had died and his brothers had all moved on, starting families of their own. Carson, always the skilled tracker, quickly located one of his brothers in St. Louis and left Mary in the care of his brother and sister-in-law. He left on a steamboat where he met the famed explorer John C. Fremont. This meeting would solidify Carson's reputation. Carson was hired by Fremont as a guide for the Fremont Expedition, charting a route to the Columbia River on the Pacific.

When he returned to Bent's Fort, Carson met and married Maria Jaramillo then sent for his daughter, Mary. Kit and Maria had three more children. Carson also made another expedition with Fremont to map a route to Oregon and Washington then returned to Bent's Fort in 1843. Then Kit and Maria decided it was time to settle down and they built a home in Taos.

Kit Carson's Taos Home

Unfortunately, Fremont once again called on Kit Carson to join him in exploring and mapping new territories. Then, in 1846, the Mexican-American War broke out and all of Fremont's men were enrolled as militiamen with Fremont as their captain. Fremont sent Carson to Washington with dispatches, but Carson stopped at the encampment of S.W. Kearny who insisted that Carson should remain as his personal guide.

In 1847, Kearny sent Carson to Washington with dispatches of his own and Carson discovered he was a bit of a celebrity as a Mountain Man and guide. Fremont had spoken highly of Carson in his journals, so highly that people viewed him as an American hero. He met President James K. Polk who gave him a commission of first lieutenant in the Army. Carson was told to turn in his buckskins for a uniform. When Carson returned to Kearny with more dispatches, he stopped in Bent's Fort and discovered, to his surprise, that his wife, Maria, and four children were in Colorado County, forced to evacuate Taos due to the fighting.

When the Mexican-American War ended in 1849 Carson collected his pay, which was considerable, and returned to his wife and children. They built a nice home and bought large tracts of land in Rayado near Taos, hired a foreman, grew wheat, oats, and rye, and raised sheep. Carson and his neighbors fought often with Apache raiding parties. It was hardly a surprise when President Franklin Pierce made Carson the Indian Agent for the area considering his skill with language, but it was a dangerous job. The various Native American Indian tribes were under siege from the Mexican and American settlers and competing tribes. The Comanche, Cheyenne, Navajo, Arapaho, and Apache were slowly forced into a small area between New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado. Kit Carson knew their languages, their way of life, and the chiefs of each of the tribes. The chiefs often visited his ranch in Rayado--yet another reason why Carson's actions toward the Navajo are difficult to understand.

In 1861, the American Civil War began. Kit Carson remained loyal to the Union. New Mexico was like a buffer ground, separating Unionist California from Confederate Texas. Carson was made Lieutenant Colonel of the First New Mexico Volunteers, so he had a clear obligation to the American Army. He engaged in minor battles with the Confederates, but the fight of his life was yet to come. The Navajo nation consisted of nearly 10,000 people and small factions of Navajo were conducting raiding parties in the area. Carson was ordered to control the situation.

What happened next is extremely controversial. John W. Moyer, author of the book Famous Frontiersmen, describes Carson's actions as "his most brilliant undertaking. Rather than meet the Navajo in battle, Kit destroyed their villages, livestock, and fields." Moyer also points out, however, that Carson "was in sympathy with the Indians." I imagine the Navajo would disagree regarding the "brilliance" of this move as it left Carson and the soldiers with no food to feed the Navajo during the walk to the Bosque Redondo.

Navajo prisoners of Kit Carson forced on the Long Walks.

Carson waged a three year war against the Navajo, gradually rounding them up like cattle and leading them to an encampment at Fort Sumner, New Mexico. These walks are now known as the Long Walk of the Navajo. Many of the women, children and elderly died on these walks. Those who arrived were emaciated from lack of food and some had only strips of cloth left to cover their bodies.

Bosque Redondo Memorial. Photo by Darla Sue Dollman

The Long Walk of the Navajo is remembered as one of the most horrifying events in Navajo history. The Navajo traveled to the Bosque Redondo camp near Fort Sumner in a series of 53 walks. They were kept there under guard with little shelter or food from January 1864 to the end of 1868. On June 18, 1868, the Navajo started the Long Walk Home. They were given 3.5 million acres, livestock, seeds, and a weak apology. In exchange, they agreed to send their children to government schools.

In 1865, Kit Carson was promoted to Brigadier General, responsible for New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Idaho, Dakota, and Arizona. He retired from the Army in 1867 due to an injury. On April 23, 1868, his wife died. It is said that the loss of his wife affected him so greatly that he lost all desire to live and Kit Carson also died one month later, on May 16, 1868.

Kit Carson's appointment to Brigadier General

There is far more to Kit Carson's life than can be covered in a short blog post, but the question remains: Why would a man who was raised with Native American Indians, knew their language, considered them friends, invited their chiefs to share food at his table and married and had a daughter with a Cheyenne woman, years later conduct a horrific scorched earth campaign against the Navajo? Why didn't he suggest an alternative, insist on one, fight for their rights like Sam Houston who journeyed to the White House in traditional Native American clothing to argue for Native American Indian rights when he served as an Indian Agent? Was Kit Carson's scorched earth campaign a result of Manifest Destiny, the belief that American settlers were destined to expand across the American continent? If so, then why did he marry a Cheyenne woman and live as friends with the Indian tribes in his area? Unfortunately, only Kit Carson can answer that question. I know I will never understand.


  • Bosque Redondo Memorial.
  • Moyer, John W. Famous Frontiersmen. Field Museum of Natural History. Hubbard Press. Illinois: 1972. 
  • "Trailblazers & Scouts." The Real West. The History Channel. Originally aired 1993.


Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The Mormon Handcart Pioneers

Mormon Handcart Train, from "The History of Iowa 
from the Earliest Times to the Beginning of the Twentieth Century."

Between 1856 and 1860, nearly 3000 pioneers from England, Wales, Scotland and Scandinavia traveled to the end of the west-bound railroad lines in Iowa City, to Salt Lake City, Utah, with their belongings piled into handcarts specifically designed by the LDS Church President Brigham Young. These determined families were on their way to join thousands of other pioneers in establishing an independent Mormon community.

The Death of the Founder of the LDS Church

In 1830, Joseph Smith formed the Church of Christ, later renamed the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, based on teachings collected in their sacred text, the Book of Mormon. According to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints website, these teachings include discussions on family life, the nature of God, and the purpose of life. The popularity of the Church of Christ was immediate, wide-spread, and provoked suspicion and hostility in some communities, often resulting in extreme acts of violence. In Ohio, their founder, Joseph Smith, was beaten, tarred and feathered. The members of the Church moved from their original locations in New York and Ohio to Missouri and Illinois, to no avail as local government officials continued to encourage violence against LDS Church members. In 1844, Missouri Governor Lilburn Boggs issued an “extermination order” against all LDS Church members. In response to this order, an armed mob attacked the prison where Joseph Smith was held on charges of treason and he was brutally murdered.

The Perpetual Emigrating Fund Company

Brigham Young took over leadership of the Church in 1847 and led the members of the Church across the American desert into Utah territory in an effort to provide safety for the members of their community. Young’s intention was to establish an isolated, and therefore completely independent community. As they traveled to Utah, the pioneers established what would be known as the Mormon Trail. The Perpetual Emigrating Fund Company was established to assist traveling Mormons, who are also called Saints, with the financial burdens of the move. As each family settled on their land they made payments back into the fund, which enabled more families to cover travel expenses.

Brigham Young's Handcart Design

European Saints traveled to Utah by ship, then train, and the traditional ox-drawn wagons, but a poor harvest in 1855 depleted the fund and Brigham Young was faced with tough decisions regarding assistance to families already preparing to leave their homes. He decided that the use of less expensive handcarts was the best option. Young’s handcart design resembled a square wheelbarrow with two five-foot wheels and a four foot axle. It weighed sixty pounds. Each side had a seven foot pull bar and there was a three foot crossbar at the front which could be used to either push or pull the cart. The interior was three feet by four feet with 8 inch walls and carried a maximum load of 500 pounds. There were five people assigned to each handcart and each was allowed 17 pounds of clothing and bedroll. They were also supplied with tents large enough for 20 people and a tent captain. A small number of cattle was assigned to each group and ox wagons were available to carry supplies.

The Handcart Companies

On September 26, 1856, the first two handcart companies arrived in Salt Lake City. The third arrived a week later. The journey along the 1030 mile Mormon Trail from Nebraska to Utah was difficult and family members died along the way, but the majority made it through. The Martin and Willie Companies, the fourth and fifth groups to depart from Europe, did not fare as well. Church members did not expect, or prepare for, the large number of families who responded to the handcart plan. Handcarts for the last groups were hastily constructed from green wood without iron supports on the wheels or axles. These last two companies also lost precious travel time gathering supplies. A returning Church missionary surveyed the situation and argued that the companies should winter in Nebraska. Over 100 emigrants followed his advice, but 400 chose to continue.

The Tragedy of the Willie and Martin Handcart Companies

As they crossed Nebraska, a buffalo herd caused the Willie Company’s cattle to stampede. The handcarts were forced to take on heavier loads of supplies in order to compensate for this loss. A passing church official took note of their demise and returned to Utah to fetch a rescue party, but the situation continued to worsen. When the two companies reached Wyoming they learned that badly needed supplies had not yet arrived. They were forced to cut back on rations and the Martin Company discarded blankets and extra clothing, a decision that would later cost them dearly. Meanwhile, back in Utah, a rescue party of 16 wagons of food and supplies and 27 men led by George D. Grant left for Wyoming, but the handcart companies were already trapped by a sudden blizzard. The rescuers found the Willie Company first and dispersed flour rations to the families. The Martin Company was trapped near Caspar Wyoming and waited nine days before they were rescued. When the two companies finally arrived in Utah, 213 Saints from both companies had died on the Mormon Trail.

The Legacy of the Handcart Pioneers
Less than 10 percent of the Mormon pioneers traveled with handcarts, but their sacrifice was great and their accomplishments are celebrated to this day through reenactments. In 2006, the LDS Church held large celebrations on the 150th anniversary of the handcart company travels. The Wyoming campsite where the Martin Company huddled in the snow awaiting rescue is now known as Martin’s Cove and is visited by thousands of tourists each year.

  • Horn, Houston. The Old West: The Pioneers. Time Life Books. Canada: 1974.
  • "Martin's Cove." Emigrant Trails. Wyoming State Historic Preservation Office website.
  • “The Pioneer Story: The Handcart Pioneers.” The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints Website. (The LDS website includes actual diary entries from handcart pioneers.)
  • Originally published on

Christmas dinner for a family, from a series of photos documenting Gen. John J. Pershing's 1916 Punitive Expedition into Mexico. ...