Aroused from his sleep at Fremont’s camp on the south shore of Klamath Lake, Kit Carson thought he heard something, some random noise in the glade, a snap that seemed out of place. The sixty miles he’d ridden that day should have left him dog-tired and oblivious to such sounds, but Carson was a notoriously light sleeper on the trail, his fears conditioned by experience, his nerves pulled tight as a trip wire.
Carson’s eyes quickly scanned the camp. There was Fremont, sitting across the way, reading letters by his own fire. There were the others, spun up in their bedrolls, scattered about the campsite in twos and threes. The party had fourteen men, all told. They snored and snuffled away—greasy, wild-haired expeditioners at home in the wilderness: The French trapper Basil Lajeunesse; a contingent of Delaware Indians, expert trackers who’d been hired back in Kansas; Lucien Maxwell and Alex Godey and Dick Owens, fellow mountain men who were Carson’s old friends; and the new arrival, the feisty Marine, Archibald Gillespie, whose dispatches Fremont was now reading, the letters so absorbing that he seemed to ignore the other men.
It was the night of May 9, 1846, and this small group of explorers lay camped in the wilds of southern Oregon. Although they didn’t realize it yet, Fremont’s men had stumbled upon one of the largest freshwater lakes west of the Mississippi, thirty miles long, its waters teeming with salmon and so saturated with volcanic nutrients that a certain species of algae bloomed along its marshy shores, giving the shallows a strange, blue-green fluorescence. Klamath Lake was the kind of plum assignment a trained geographer like Fremont lived for. For the past week he and his expedition topographers had been sketching the lake country’s contours with a camera lucida, clipping plant specimens, taking astronomical readings, consulting their barometers and other instruments, shooting the sun with a sextant at high noon. The Klamath Lake region was “all wild and unexplored,” Fremont rhapsodized, “and the uninvaded silence roused our curiosity.”
They were in dangerous country now, and Carson was keenly aware of it. A generation earlier, when Jedediah Smith first passed through these precincts, his party of fifteen men was set upon by Indians; only Smith and two others survived with their scalps intact.
Now, on this chilly spring night, Carson was troubled that Fremont had neglected to post a watchman, something he almost always did. But as Carson looked around the tenebrous woods, he saw nothing out of place. The fire ticked and hissed. Smoke curled into the canopy. There was the clean rush of the creek, the wind sighing through the pines, the splash of the waves down on Klamath Lake. The Cascade Mountains, off to the west, were still mantled in spring snow, and their raw peaks gleamed in the moonlight.
Carson said he “apprehended no danger.” He rolled himself tight in his saddle blanket and drifted off to sleep.
Later that night, Carson awoke to a distinct sound—a heavy, dull thud. It seemed to come from over by where Lajeunesse lay sleeping. Carson rose up on an elbow and barked, “S’matter over there, Basil?”
The Frenchman gave no answer.
Now Carson clutched his pistol and jumped to his feet. He ran toward his friend Lajeunesse. It was hard to see, but in the shadowy firelight, Carson caught something, a sickening sheen: The Frenchman’s head had been cleaved into while he slept. The pale brain glistened, the hairy skull gaped in a widening pool of blood.
“Indians!” Carson cried out, firing his pistol into the darkness. The camp was encircled by what appeared to be several dozen attackers, darting in the shadows, plinging arrows.
Everyone sprang to action—everyone, that is, except for Denny, one of the Delaware Indians, a beloved tracker. Carson now saw that he, too, had been attacked in his sleep. He was shot through with arrows. Carson heard Denny give out a groan as he died.
Another Delaware, known as Crane, seized a rifle and snapped vainly away until he realized that it was unloaded. He snatched it by the barrel and swung the gun’s stock at his assailants. But Crane was exposed in the firelight, and the enemy bows soon found him. He collapsed with five arrows buried in his chest.
A painted brave, whom Carson judged to be the leader, stole into camp and fought valiantly at close range, managing to hold off Fremont’s men for a few long minutes. Carson, Owens, and several others cracked their guns at the warrior, and he stumbled to the ground. Dangling from his wrist was a steel hand ax, presumably the weapon that had killed Lajeunesse.
When the other attackers saw their bravest warrior fall, they receded into the gloom. For a while they mounted occasional charges, attempting to retrieve their leader’s body, but Fremont was determined to deny them this reward. Carson and some of the others hung blankets from the boughs of the trees as a kind of screen to blunt the rain of enemy arrows; they held steady, fending off the sorties. Finally the attackers gave up and disappeared for good.
For the rest of the night, Carson and the others nervously guarded the perimeter, wide-eyed, weapons drawn, attuned for another attack. After several anxious hours dawn broke, and the feathery woods opened up. The country seemed clear of Indians, and the lake shone its ghostly turquoise. The three dead men in Fremont’s party lay sprawled on the ground. Someone had covered them with blankets.
Carson walked over and inspected the corpse of the fearless Indian warrior who had killed Lajeunesse. He wore a feathered warbonnet and his skin was painted in elaborate patterns. He had forty arrows in his quiver. They were beautiful and finely made, their tips slathered with a poison paste.
This was a Klamath, Carson seemed sure, a lake-land tribe he’d encountered before. They were, he thought, a “mean, low-lived, treacherous race.” He and the others concluded that this was the same band of Indians to whom they had given gifts of tobacco, meat, and knives only a few days ago.
Carson examined the ax, which was attached by a leather thong to the warrior’s wrist, and recognized it as British-made. Then, too, some of the arrows he found around the camp were headed with lancetlike scraps of iron that could only have come from the Hudson’s Bay Company outpost on the Umpqua River, a nearby British concern. Maybe, Carson speculated, the British had put the Klamaths up to this? In the mid-1820s, Hudson’s Bay had tried to trap beaver to extinction along the Snake and other interior rivers in order to create what was called a “fur desert,” which the company’s jealous operatives hoped would discourage American penetration into the more valuable Columbia River country. Any company willing to pursue a policy that ruthless wouldn’t think twice about siccing angry Indians on an American exploration party.
It was hard to say, but after closely studying the camp and interpreting the footprints and other signs, he guessed the attack had involved twenty Klamath warriors.
Now he crouched over their leader’s bullet-riddled body. Carson had made a career of fighting Indians, but he was particularly impressed by this Klamath. “The bravest Indian I ever saw,” he later said. “If his men had been as brave as him, we would all have been killed.”
Then Carson removed the ax from the dead warrior’s wrist and held it by the handle, testing its heft. The bodies of Lajeunesse, Denny, and Crane lay where they had fallen, their blanketed forms sharpening in the filtered light of dawn. All were “brave, good men,” Carson said. They were his friends, and as their guide Carson felt a responsibility for their deaths. He was especially close to Lajeunesse, having ridden thousands of miles with him on Fremont’s various expeditions.
The camp was plunged in “an angry gloom,” as Fremont put it, yet everyone recognized that the situation could have been much worse, that they all could have been killed. Already the surviving Delawares were engaged in their grieving rites. They smeared themselves in black paint, they wailed and flagellated themselves. “Sick,” said one of the mourners, a man named Sagundai. “Very sick now.”
Touched perhaps by their sorrow, a wrath began to stir within Carson. Impulsively, he raised the steel ax and sank it into the Klamath warrior’s skull.
This did not satisfy his rage. He had lived among Indians for most of his adult life, had absorbed their battle rituals and frenzies of grief. He, too, was mourning now, and he wanted to punish the warrior’s spirit with the same ax that had killed Lajeunesse. He hoped this Klamath’s comrades would enjoy the full horror of finding him lying here, mutilated and defiled.
And so he hacked away at the corpse’s face until it was a sodden tangle—until, as Fremont later put it, “He knocked his head to pieces.”