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Episode 12 - Kit Carson
Michael Swickard here. Welcome to Enchanting People of New Mexico sponsored by the Fresh Chile Company in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Our award-winning Hatch Green and Red Chile is from locally owned farms in Hatch, NM, The Chile Capital of the World. Every Monday and Friday we have regular Historical and Cultural New Mexico Podcasts. Wednesdays, today, we celebrate people important to our area.
One day back in the 1980s when I was doing a two-year history project about events that happened in New Mexico, I was asked about the Carson National forest in Northern New Mexico. This person asked, “I thought Johnny Carson from the Tonight Show was from Nebraska. Why is the Carson National Forest in New Mexico named for him?
Two answers: yes, Johnny Carson was from Nebraska, having been born in Iowa. However, The Carson National Forest in Northern New Mexico was not named for Johnny, rather, it is named for Kit Carson who was one of the most interesting people of New Mexico. Before we talk about Kit, we should note that the Carson National Forest, established in 1908 was a combination of the Taos National Forest and a part of the Jemez National Forest.
One last thought about Johnny Carson. I was asked if he served in the Military during WWII. Yes, he was an ensign on the USS Pennsylvania, BB-38. Not the USS New Mexico, BB-40 which was a Pennsylvania Class Battleship also in the Pacific Theater of Operation in WWII.
We really are going to talk about Kit Carson. Before, though, since I mentioned the Carson National Forest in Northern New Mexico, I need to tell you about Project Gasbuggy. That is the name. In 1967 in the Carson National Forest, scientists from the Lawence Livermore Radiation Laboratory and the El Paso Natural Gas Company with funding from the Atomic Energy Commission tried a fracking experiment 21 miles southwest of Dulce, New Mexico, 54 miles east of Farmington. They drilled down about 4200 feet to place a 29-kiloton device.
This experiment in getting natural gas out of the ground was before hydraulic fracturing technologies began and was for the purpose of releasing for drilling natural gas deposits in sandstone. In all three tests were made in Operation Plowshare, a program intending to find peaceful uses of nuclear explosions. After much thought, it was decided that it was a bad idea.
OK, I am really going to talk about Christopher Houston Carson, Kit Carson. Before I get into the details of an amazing life, we must talk quietly about the good and bad in all historical figures in New Mexico and our country. Regardless of whomever you are discussing it seems that someone can find dirt to spread. To my way of thinking in my historical podcasts I think of the Biblical, Proverbs 11:27 "Anyone can find the dirt in someone. Be the one that finds the gold.” That is my task here on this podcast, to show why Kit Carson, a man who died 155 years ago is still honorable to the citizens of New Mexico.
Kit Carson was a 19th century frontiersman, wilderness guide, Indian Agent and Army Officer who was in the 19th and 20th century a media legend. There was so very much written about Carson during his lifetime and after that was simply not so. He did not like the media crush of stories that he never told and well, friends, he liked the wilderness and the wide-open spaces. You might say he was a solitude abuser, spending long stretches of time away from people.
When interviewed later in life, he disputed the exaggerated claims of his exploits, but most newspapers of the day sold more copies of the lies than the truth. Here is the truth.
Kit Carson was a Christmas Eve baby, December 24, 1809, born near Richmond, Kentucky. His father had a total of 15 children, five by the first wife who died and ten more from the second wife. His father Lindsay Carson, farmed, built cabins and was a veteran of the Revolutionary War and also the War of 1912. He and his family relocated to Missouri, a town called Boone’s Lick and bought land from the sons of Daniel Boone.
In 1818 tragedy happened when Lindsay Carson died after a tree limb fell on him. A decision a few years later had Kit, as a young teenager apprenticed to a saddle maker in Franklin, Missouri which was at that time the east most end of the Santa Fe Trail. Many of the customers to the shop were trappers and traders from the areas west and Kit Carson was fascinated by the stories he heard. So in August 1826 Against his mother’s wishes the 15 year old Kit abandoned his apprenticeship and joined a caravan of trappers and traders headed to Santa Fe, New Mexico.
They arrived safely in November 1826, and Kit Carson’s schooling of the wilderness and all it had to teach was going full speed. His job on the way to Santa Fe was to take care of the animals and generally help in anything needed, which he did gladly. Over the next couple of years Kit Carson learned many of the lessons needed such as the trade languages which included Spanish and several of the Plain Indian languages.
When Kit Carson was 20 years of age he truly stepped into the role of Mountain Man and traveled with other mountain men like Jim Bridger. He spent time in Taos, New Mexico and went on trips to places like the Gila River in Southwestern New Mexico where his party had to battle the Apache warriors who fought them. Over ten years he had many of these expeditions and had many of those battles which in our 21st century eyes are unfair to the Native American tribes of the Southwest. We know from many sources that the life of a mountain man was not easy, it was hard, cold work with lots of danger. He was the doctor for himself when he was wouned in these battles. But the greatest enemy of Kit Carson were the Grizzly Bears when he and his friends were hunting Elk. In his memoirs Kit Carson said it was the time he was the most scared when Grizzly Bears came into camp and everyone had to run for their lives.
Now I am just touching the high points of an amazing life in just 15 minutes. Further reading is called for if you are interested in the amazing man and his story. He had some very historic things to do in the next few years.
In 1841 Kit Carson was hired to work out of Bent’s Fort in Southeastern Colorado which in its time traded with both travelers and the Native Americans of the Cheyenne and Arapahoe tribes. Kit did a little of everything in hunting and guiding. John Charles Frémont did five explorations in the early 1840s and was guided by Kit Carson looking at the areas of California, and Oregon. Charles Frémont wrote reports and mapped the Oregon Trail encouraging people to come West.
During the Mexican American War in 1846 Kit was a scout and courier. The Mexican American War was a very low spot in the history of our country as was noted in the writing of both Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant when they wrote their Civil War memoirs that both looked back on the evil of the Mexican American War with shame.
In 1847 there was what was called the Taos Revolt where members of the Pueblo Tribe killed the first civilian United States Governor Charles Bent, of Bent’s Fort. The revolt happened in the New Mexico Territory after it was conquered by Stephen Watts Kearny in September of 1846. The revolt was put down but there is an interesting connection. Charles Bent in 1835 married Maria Jaramillo who was born in Taos. Maria’s younger sister Josefa Jaramillo would later marry Kit Carson. So he was the brother in law of the first US Governor of New Mexico but wasn’t in Toas when Governor Bent was attacked and killed.
In 1854 to 1861 with Kit Carson’s connections and his understanding of Native American culture he was appointed a Federal Indian Agent for the Ute Indians and the Jicarilla Apaches. It was during this time that various publishers tried to get Kit Carson to write his memoirs. He dictated about 35000 words one time and what really happened is that the writers just wrote dime store novel material that Kit Carson hated.
During the American Civil War, in the New Mexico area, Confederate soldiers came North from the El Paso area and pushed aside and defeated all of the union soldiers initially. Then the invading Confederate soldiers tried to take Fort Craig which is to the West of the Elephant Butte Lake’s upper end. At the time it was the largest Fort in the West with many soldiers. Some were replaced before the two-day Battle of Valverde in 1862 which was fought somewhat to a draw with the Union forces holding the fort. Eventually the inability to take the fort left Union soldiers in a perfect position to attack the confederate supply line. After the Battle of Glorieta east of Santa Fe, the Confederates gave up and fled New Mexico back to Texas.
Kit Carson’ leadership and his volunteers were essential to the Union overall victory. Carson was married three times and had ten children. He died in 1868 but in death he became larger than life as the symbol of America’s frontier experience causing the statues and monuments and celebrations in his name. Carson National Forest and more. He did serve New Mexico in many ways over the years and no, Carson National Forest was not named for Johnny Carson.
Michael Swickard, Enchanting People of New Mexico. Each Wednesday we do a podcast on people who are special to New Mexico. Hit subscribe to automatically get these podcasts.
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Michael Swickard here. This is the Enchanting People of New Mexico. Thank you for your time today. We will always have lots of News and stories about New Mexico for you on these Podcasts. If you have something you want me to talk about in a future podcast, write to: email@example.com The same is true if there is someone you would like me to talk about who was or is important to our little slice of paradise. Have a great rest of your day. Oh yes and eat plenty of that good Hatch Valley Chile. Like I always say, “Some Chile is good, more is better.” Bye for now.