In the two decades he had lived and wandered in the West, Christopher Carson had led an unaccountably full life. He was only thirty-six years old, but it seemed he had done everything there was to do in the Western wilds—had been everywhere, met everyone. As a fur trapper, scout, and explorer, he had traveled untold thousands of miles in the Rockies, in the Great Basin, in the Sierra Nevada, in the Wind River Range, in the Tetons, in the coastal ranges of Oregon. As a hunter he had crisscrossed the Great Plains any number of times following the buffalo herds. He had seen the Pacific, been deep into Mexico, pushed far into British-held territories of the Northwest. He had traversed the Sonoran, Chihuahuan, and Mojave Deserts, gazed upon the Grand Canyon, stood at the life-leached margins of the Great Salt Lake. He had never seen the Hudson or the Potomac, but he had traced all the important rivers of the West—the Colorado, Platte, Sacramento, San Joaquin, Columbia, Green, Arkansas, Gila, Missouri, Powder, Big Horn, Snake, Salmon, Yellowstone, Rio Grande.
Carson was present at the creation, it seemed. He had witnessed the dawn of the American West in all its vividness and brutality. In his constant travels he had caromed off of or intersected with nearly every major tribal group and person of consequence. He had lived the sweep of the Western experience with a directness few other men could rival.
At first glance, Kit Carson was not much to look at, but that was a curious part of his charm. His bantam physique and modest bumpkin demeanor seemed interestingly at odds with the grandeur of the landscapes he had roamed. He stood only five-feet four-inches, with stringy brown hair grazing his shoulders. His jaw was clenched and squarish, his eyes a penetrating gray-blue, his mouth set in a tight little downturned construction that looked like a frown of mild disgust. The skin between his eyebrows was pinched in a furrow, as though permanently creased from constant squinting. His forehead rose high and craggy to a swept-back hairline. He had a scar along his left ear, another one on his right shoulder—both left by bullets. He appeared bowlegged from his years in the saddle, and he walked roundly, with a certain ungainliness, as though he were not entirely comfortable as a terrestrial creature, his sense of ease and familiarity of movement tied to his mule.
He was a man of odd habits and superstitions. He never would take a second shot at standing game if his initial shot missed—this, he believed, was “bad medicine.” He never began a project on a Friday. He was fastidious about the way he dressed and cleaned any animal he killed. He believed in signs and omens. When he got a bad feeling about something or someone, he was quick to heed his instincts. A life of hard experience on the trail had taught him to be cautious at all times, tuned to danger. A magazine writer who rode with Carson observed with great curiosity the scout’s unfailing ritual as he prepared to bed down for the night: “His saddle, which he always used as a pillow, form[ed] a barricade for his head; his pistols half cocked were laid above it, and his trusty rifle reposed beneath the blanket by his side, ready for instant use. You never caught Kit exposing himself to the full glare of the camp fire.” When traveling, the writer noticed, Carson “scarcely spoke,” and his eye “was continually examining the country, his manner that of a man deeply impressed with a sense of responsibility.”
When he did speak, Carson talked in the twangy cadences of backwoods Missouri—thar and har, ain’t and yonder, thataway and crick and I reckon so. It seemed right that this ultimate Westerner should be from Missouri, the Ur-country of the trans-Mississippi frontier, the mother state.
Out west, Carson had learned to speak Spanish and French fluently, and he knew healthy smatterings of Navajo, Ute, Comanche, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Crow, Blackfoot, Shoshone, and Paiute, among other native tongues. He also knew Indian sign language and, one way or another, could communicate with most any tribe in the West. And yet for all his facility with language, Kit Carson was illiterate.
Although he was a mountain man, a fraternity legendary for swilling and creative profanity, Carson was a straight arrow—“as clean as a hound’s tooth” as one friend put it. He liked poker and often smoked a pipe, but he drank very little and was not given to womanizing. He was now married to a Hispanic girl from Taos, Josefa Jaramillo. Slender, olive-skinned, and eighteen years his junior, Josefa possessed “a beauty of the haughty, heart-breaking kind” according to one smitten writer from Ohio who got to know her, “a beauty such as would lead a man with the glance of the eye to risk his life for one smile.” Only fifteen years old when she married Carson, Josefa was a bit taller than her husband. She was a dark-complected, bright-eyed woman whom one family member described as “very well-built, and graceful in every way.” Cristóbal, as Josefa called him, was utterly devoted to her, and to please her family, he had converted to Catholicism.
Especially now that he was a married man, Carson gave off none of the mountain man’s swagger. “There was nothing like the fire-eater in his manner,” wrote one admirer, “but, to the contrary, in all his actions he was unassuming.” An army officer once introduced himself to Carson, saying, “So this is the distinguished Kit Carson who has made so many Indians run.” To which Carson replied, “Yes, but most of the time they were running after me.” His sense of humor was understated and dry, usually delivered with a faint grin and a glint of mischief in his eyes. When amused, he was prone to “sharp little barks of laughter.” He spoke quietly, in short, deliberate sentences, using language that was, according to one account, “forcible, slow, and pointed, with the fewest words possible.” A friend said Carson “never swore more’n was necessary.”
Yes, Christopher Carson was a lovable man. Nearly everyone said so. He was loyal, honest, and kind. In many pinpointable incidents, he acted bravely and with much physical grace. More than once, he saved people’s lives without seeking recognition or pay. He was a dashing good Samaritan—a hero, even.
He was also a natural born killer. It is hard to reconcile the much-described sweetness of his disposition with his frenzies of violence. Carson could be brutal even for the West of his day (a West so wild it lacked outlaws, for no law yet existed to be outside of ). His ferocious temper could be triggered in an instant. If you crossed him, he would find you. He pursued vengeance as though it were something sacred, with a kind of dogged focus that might be called tribal—his tribe being the famously grudge-happy Scotch-Irish.
When called upon to narrate his exploits, which he did reluctantly, he spoke with a clinical lack of emotion, and with a hit man’s sense of aesthetics. He liked to call his skirmishes pretty—as in “that was the prettiest fight I ever saw.” He spoke of chasing down his enemies as “sport.” After participating in a preemptive attack—others called it a massacre—on an Indian village along California’s Sacramento River, Carson pronounced the action “a perfect butchery.”
By the macabre distinctions of his day, he was regarded not as an Indian killer but as an Indian-fighter—which was, if not a noble American profession, at least a venerable one. But Carson did not hate Indians, certainly not in any sort of abstract racial sense. He was no Custer, no Sheridan, no Andrew Jackson. If he had killed Native Americans, he had also befriended them, loved them, buried them, even married them. Through much of his life, he lived more like an Indian than a white man. Most of his Indian victims had died in what he judged to be fair fights, or at least fights that could have gone the other way. It was miraculous he was still alive: He’d had more close calls than he could count.
Because Carson’s direct words were rarely written, it’s hard to know what he really thought about Indians, or the violence of his times, or anything else. His autobiography, dictated in the mid-1850s (and turned into a biography by a tin-eared writer who has charitably been described as an “ass”), is a bone-dry recitation of his life and leaves us few clues. It was said that Carson told a pretty good story around a campfire, but his book carefully eschews anything approaching an insight. His refusal to pontificate was refreshing in a way—he lived in a golden age of windbags—but at the same time, his reticence in the face of the few big subjects of his life was remarkable. He was, and remains, a sort of Sphinx of the American West: His eyes had seen things, his mind held secrets, but he kept his mouth shut.
Christopher Houston Carson was born in a log cabin in Madison County, Kentucky, on Christmas Eve of 1809, the same year and the same state in which Lincoln was born. A year later the Carson family pulled up stakes and trekked west from Kentucky to the Missouri frontier, with little Christopher, whom they nicknamed “Kit,” facing forward in the saddle, swaddled in his mother’s arms. The Carsons chose a spot in the wilderness near the Missouri River and hacked their farm from a large tract that had been part of a Spanish land grant bought by the sons of Daniel Boone, prior to the Louisiana Purchase. It was known indelicately as “Boone’s Lick,” for the salt deposits that attracted wild game and which the Boone family successfully mined. The Boones and the Carsons would become close family friends—working, socializing, and intermarrying with one another.
Kit was a quiet, stubborn, reliable kid with bright blue eyes. Although he had a small frame—a consequence, perhaps, of his having been born two months premature—he was tough and strong, with large, agile hands. His first toy was a wooden gun whittled by one of his brothers. Kit showed enough intellectual promise at an early age that his father, Lindsey Carson, dreamed he would be a lawyer.
Lindsey Carson was a farmer of Scotch-Irish Presbyterian stock who had lived most of his young life in North Carolina and fought in the Revolutionary War under Gen. Wade Hampton. The elder Carson had an enormous family—five children by his first wife and ten by Kit’s mother, Rebecca Robinson. Of those fifteen children, Kit was the eleventh in line.
The Boone’s Lick country, though uncultivated, was by no means uninhabited. Winnebago, Potawatomi, and Kickapoo Indians, among other tribes, had lived around the Missouri River Valley for many generations, and they were often aggressively hostile to white encroachment. For their own safety the pioneers in the Boone’s Lick country had to live huddled together in cabins built near forts, and the men tended the fields with armed sentries constantly patrolling the forest clearings. All able-bodied men were members of the local militia. Most cabins were designed with rifle loopholes so settlers, barricaded within, could defend themselves against Indian attacks. Kit and his siblings grew up with a constant fear of being kidnapped. “When we would go to school or any distance away from our house,” Kit’s sister Mary Carson Rubey recalled years later, “we would carry bits of red cloth with us to drop if we were captured by Indians, so our people could trace us.” Rubey remembered that, even as a little boy, Kit was an especially keen night watchman. “When we were asleep at night and there was the slightest noise outside the house, Kit’s little brown head would be the first to bob up. I always felt completely safe when Kit was on guard duty.”
One day when Kit was four, Lindsey Carson went out with a small group of men to survey a piece of land when they were ambushed by Sac and Fox Indians. In the attack, Kit’s father was nearly killed. The stock of his rifle was shot apart and two fingers on his left hand were blown off. Another man in the party, William McLane, fell in the fight and, according to one vivid account, his Indian attackers cut out his heart and ate it.
Despite many incidents like this, some Missouri tribes were friendly with the settlers, or at least found it pragmatic to strike alliances and keep the peace. As a boy, Carson played with Indian children. The Sac and Fox tribes frequently came into the Boone’s Lick settlements and carried on a robust trade. From an early age, Carson learned an important practical truth of frontier life—that there was no such thing as “Indians,” that tribes could be substantially and sometimes violently different from one another, and that each group must be dealt with separately, on its own terms.
Before settlers like the Boones and the Carsons arrived, the country along the Missouri River, like so much of North America, was heavily forested. To clear land for planting, pioneers would sometimes “girdle” trees—cutting deep rings around the trunks—to deaden them. But the most expeditious way for farmers to remove dense thickets of timber was to set them afire. One day in 1818, Lindsey Carson was burning the woods nearby when a large limb broke off from a burning tree, killing him instantly.
Kit was only seven at the time, and his life would be profoundly changed. Although some of Lindsey Carson’s children had grown up and moved out of the house, Rebecca Carson still had ten children to raise on her own. The Carsons were reduced to a desperate poverty. Kit’s schooling ceased altogether, and he spent his time working the fields, doing chores around the cabin, and hunting meat for his family. As Carson put it years later, “I jumped to my rifle and threw down my spelling book—and there it lies.”
Briefly, Kit became a ward of a neighbor. Then in 1822, Kit’s mother remarried, and the obstreperous boy soon rebelled against his new stepfather. At age fourteen, Kit was apprenticed to a well-known saddler named David Workman in the small settlement of Franklin, Missouri. The boy hated this close and tedious shopwork. For nearly two years he sat at his bench each day, repairing harnesses and shaping scraps of hide with leatherworking tools. Because Franklin was situated on the eastern end of the newly cleared Santa Fe Trail, Workman’s clientele largely consisted of trappers and traders, and the shop was often filled with stirring tales from the Far West. This bedraggled tribe of men in their musky animal skins and peltries must have impressed the young boy mightily, and one senses how the worm of his imagination began to turn. Sitting miserably at his station with his shears and his awls and his crimping tools, transfixed by the bold stories of these feral men, Kit began to dream of Santa Fe—the name signifying not so much a specific place as a new kind of existence, a life of expanse and possibility in fresh precincts of the continent.
The Santa Fe Trail had opened only two years earlier, and for young Missourians with any spark of ambition or wanderlust, the burgeoning commerce of the prairies had become a compelling romance. Out west, new fortunes beckoned. For generations, Spain had forbidden all U.S. trade with Santa Fe, and American travelers caught in New Mexico were routinely arrested and treated as hostile spies. But when Mexico won independence in 1821, the new officials in Mexico City were eager for American goods—and the tariffs that could be levied against them. A veil had been lifted; suddenly Americans were welcome. Soon the long road between the ancient capital and the westernmost settlements was creased with traffic. A new term came into vogue for those leaving the settlements for Santa Fe, a term that conveyed the excitement of piercing the unknown: Upon departing the familiar world of Missouri, travelers were said to be “jumping off.”
Enchanted by the stories he kept hearing and “anxious to see different countries,” Kit resolved to break the contract of his apprenticeship. Although he considered his employer “a good man,” Carson found the work suffocating. “The business did not suit me,” he said in loud understatement, “and I concluded to leave him.” Carson realized that if he stayed with Workman, “I would have to pass my life in labor that was distasteful to me.”
In August of 1826, at the age of sixteen, Carson secretly signed on as a laborer with a large merchant caravan heading west to Santa Fe. “Well, what do you have to say for yourself?” the caravan leader asked Carson when he applied for a job.
“Nothing,” Carson replied, “except I can shoot straight.”
He was given a slot as a “cavvy boy,” the lowliest job on a caravan. The cavvy boy was a hired hand charged with caring for the caballada, the herd of spare horses, mules, and oxen that was always brought along to replace those that wore out or died on the long journey. It was menial cowboy work—herding, feeding, and reprimanding the animals—but he loved it. He was grateful to find himself sitting in saddles every day instead of making them.
And so Carson jumped off. As the boy made his way west, David Workman, his employer back in Franklin, posted a notice in the Missouri Intelligencer, the local paper, announcing his apprentice’s flight. It was the first occasion that Kit Carson’s name would ever appear in print—
Notice is hereby given to all persons that CHRISTOPHER CARSON, a boy about 16 years old, small of his age, but thick set; light hair, ran away from the subscriber, living in Franklin, Howard County, Missouri, to whom he had been bound to learn the saddler’s trade, on or about the first of September last. He is supposed to have made his way towards the upper part of the state. All persons are notified not to harbor, support, or assist said boy under the penalty of the law. One cent reward will be given to any person who will bring back the boy.
Workman was required by law to report his apprentice’s truancy. Reading between the lines, however, it is clear that the saddler was less than zealous in his efforts to secure Carson’s return and that, in fact, he may have been aiding the getaway. Workman’s advertisement did not appear until a full month after Carson fled. By waiting so long, by providing a false clue as to which direction Carson was headed, and by offering such a conspicuously slim reward, one senses that Workman was smiling on Carson’s decision to light out for the West and perhaps wishing him godspeed.
In his autobiography, Carson recalled only one incident from his first trek across the plains. One day as the caravan worked its way along the great bend of the Arkansas River, in present-day southwestern Kansas, a traveler in the party named Andrew Broadus had an accident. The wagon train had passed into buffalo country, which was rife with wolf packs that preyed on the migrating herds. Spotting a wolf in the distance and presumably fearing that it would attack the caravan stock, Broadus reached for his rifle from his wagon. The gun prematurely discharged, and he shot himself point-blank in the right arm.
In a few days the wound became infected and then gangrene set in. No doctors were traveling in the caravan, but it was obvious to everyone that Broadus’s arm would have to be amputated if he hoped to live. He was in utter agony now, his pitiful cries going out with each jounce and rattle of his wagon. Still, Broadus would not let the others perform the inevitable, and several more precious days passed, with the line of putrefaction steadily creeping up his arm.
Finally, the party could not take the screaming anymore. They held Broadus down and one of the men sliced through the dead flesh with a razor. Another man then went to work on the arm bone with an old saw while a third cauterized the severed arteries by applying a piping hot king bolt that had been removed from one of the wagons and heated in the fire. As Broadus shrieked, Kit watched in wide-eyed amazement and tried to help out however he could—according to one probably specious account, he volunteered to wield the scalpel and actually made the first cut. Certainly the ordeal gave the sixteen-year-old boy a vivid idea of the sorts of crude and creative expedients to which men on the prairie were often compelled to resort.
At last the operation was complete and Broadus’s cries subsided. The men applied a protective plaster to his stump composed of tar taken from a wagon axle. Given the atrocious hygiene common on the caravans, most of the party did not expect Broadus to survive, but the wound soon healed without infection. As Carson put it, Andrew Broadus was “perfectly well” by the time the caravan crossed into New Mexico.
As fascinated as he was by life on the Santa Fe Trail, Kit Carson did not apparently think much of its namesake city. The caravan groaned into the old capital and created a stir among its bored denizens, but Kit did not linger long in Santa Fe. In his autobiography, Carson scarcely even mentioned the place. As soon as he could, he made his way up to Taos, the mountain village of whitewashed adobe houses some seventy miles north of the capital, and found the rough-and-ready life there much more to his liking. Taos would be his home, sentimentally if not in fact, for the rest of his life.
Spread on the sage plains at the feet of a particularly stunning stretch of the serrated Sangre de Cristo Mountains, Don Fernando de Taos was a cluttered old Spanish settlement of a few thousand souls built close to an even older settlement of Pueblo Indians, who continued to live as they had for centuries in a mud citadel of terraced apartment buildings stacked seven stories high. The town took its name from the thick chokes of willows that lined the stream flowing through the pueblo—taos means “people of the red willows” in the Tiwa language. A few miles west of the village, the Rio Grande had cut a deep gorge into the earth, with the cold whitewater spilling through a chasm six hundred feet below the canyon rim.
Taos was also the capital of the Southwestern fur trade. Free-trappers and mountain men associated with various outfits—Hudson’s Bay, the American Fur Company, the Rocky Mountain Fur Company—spent their winters in Taos. Here they mended their traps and often blew their summer earnings in sprees of dancing, gambling, lovemaking, and booze. Their poison of choice was a local moonshine known as Taos Lightning, a wheat liquor that had become a form of frontier currency among trappers, Mexicans, and Indians alike. The trappers were a spirited enclave in this remote provincial outpost. The locals resented and at the same time envied these uncouth foreigners who, with their boisterous wanderings and their easy squaw arrangements, lived apart from the stark morality of the padres.
Kit was drawn to the strange fraternity of the mountain men. He was entranced by their freedom, their ready competence, their otherworldly air, and he vowed to become one himself as soon as they would have him. That first winter he was taken in by a trapper and explorer named Mathew Kinkead, who had been an old friend of his father’s back in Missouri. From this seasoned frontiersman, Carson absorbed the elements of mountain living. Staying in Kinkead’s cabin through the snowy months, sitting before the fire in the gray tang of piñon smoke, Kit began to practice Spanish and several Indian dialects. He learned how to sew his own buckskin clothing, and how to make a good tight bed of cornhusks draped in a buffalo robe. Venturing on his first bison hunt, he learned how to jerk the meat and turn it into a fine pemmican, and how to enjoy the Plains Indian delicacy of the still-hot liver, sliced fresh from the pulsing animal and seasoned with bile squirted from its gallbladder.
In 1828, after making a caravan journey to El Paso and working long stretches of the Santa Fe Trail, Kit signed on as a cook for another mountain man named Ewing Young, who had opened a store in Taos to outfit trapper expeditions. The eighteen-year-old kid apparently was a competent chef, but then these greasy wayfarers, accustomed as they were to such odd field entrées as cougar, dog, mule, bear, and prairie oysters, were decidedly unpicky eaters known for their blasé culinary motto, “Meat’s meat.” (It was said that the trappers’ diet was so full of lard that it made a mountain man “shed rain like an otter, and stand cold like a polar bear.”)
By the spring of 1828, Kit had become proficient enough in Spanish to sign on as a translator for a merchant caravan that was bound for Chihuahua City, a thousand-mile journey round-trip along the Camino Real. The ancient capital, with its ornate cathedral, its beautiful stone aqueduct, and its stately colonial architecture hewn from the brutal wealth of Chihuahua’s silver mines, was the largest and most dazzling city Carson had ever visited, and throughout his wildly peripatetic life, Chihuahua would remain the southernmost extent of his travels.
Carson returned from his sojourn and took a job as a teamster in the Santa Rita copper mines of southwestern New Mexico. Then, in the spring of 1829, Ewing Young asked him to accompany a party of some forty Taos fur men on a journey deep into unexplored Apache country to trap the tributaries of the Gila River. Carson had at last received his wish: Although still a greenhorn, he was embarking on his first full-fledged expedition as a trapper, an occupation that would hold his interest for the next dozen years.
It was an insanely difficult way to make a living, but, for Carson, that was no deterrent. A congressional survey of the trapping profession, completed in 1831, described the mountain man existence this way: “The whole operation is full of exposures and privations…leading to premature exhaustion and disability. Few of those engaged in it reach an advanced stage of life. The labor is excessive, subsistence scanty, and the Indians are ever liable to sudden and violent paroxysms of passion, in which they spare neither friend nor foe.”
Although Carson probably did not know it, trapping was already a storied profession in the East. The mountain men became popular avatars of a wild and free life that was romanticized by such writers as Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper. The fur trade would produce many legendary names, men like Jim Bridger and Jedediah Smith. But through a peculiar confluence of events, Kit Carson would become the most famous mountain man of them all.
Carson’s first paid voyage into the mountains was an especially ambitious and dangerous one, for in addition to the usual hardships—grizzlies, Indians, hypothermia, the prospect of a killing thirst or starvation—this mission was strictly illegal. Most trapping excursions ventured north into the unclaimed wilderness of the Rocky Mountains, but this time Young planned to trap within the jealously held, if extremely porous, borders of Mexico. The government in Santa Fe rarely issued trapping permits to foreigners, so in order to confuse suspicious officials, Ewing led his party north into the mountains, then doubled back and rode southwest through the country of the Navajo and the Zuni before striking the Gila River. The Gila watershed had scarcely been trapped, and Young’s men found it incredibly rich in beaver and other game.
From Young and his international ragtag of mountain men, Carson began to soak up the nuances of the trapping trade—how to read the country and follow its most promising drainages, how to find the “slicks” along the banks where beavers had slithered from their tree stands, how to set and scent the traps with a thick yellow oil called castoreum taken from the beaver’s sex glands, how to prepare and pack the pelts, how to cache them safely in the ground to prevent theft and spoilage. And when the traps came up empty, how to invade and dismantle a dam and club the unsuspecting animals in their dark, wet den.
From his new comrades, Carson learned to savor beaver tail boiled to an exquisite tenderness—the trapper’s signature dish. He became expert with a Hawken rifle and a Green River skinning knife. He began to pick up the strange language of the mountain men, a colorful patois of French, Spanish, English, and Indian phrases mixed with phrases entirely of their own creation. “Wagh!” was their all-purpose interjection. They spoke of plews (pelts) and fofurraw (any unnecessary finery). They “counted coup” (revenge exacted on an avowed enemy), and when one of their own was killed, they were “out for hair” (scalps). They said odd things like “Which way does your stick float?” (What’s your preference?) They met once a year in giant, extended open-air festivals, the “rendezvous,” where they danced fandangos and played intense rounds of monte, euchre, and seven-up. Late at night, sitting around the campfires, sucking their black clay pipes, they competed in telling legendary whoppers about their far-flung travels in the West—stories like the one about the mountain valley in Wyoming that was so big it took an echo eight hours to return, so that a man bedding down for the night could confidently shout “Git up!” and know that he would rise in the morning to his own wake-up call.
From these men, too, Carson began to learn how to deal with the Western Indians—how to detect an ambush, when to fight, when to bluff, when to flee, when to negotiate. It is doubtful whether any group of nineteenth-century Americans ever had such a broad and intimate association with the continent’s natives. The mountain men lived with Indians, fought alongside and against them, loved them, married them, buried them, gambled and smoked with them. They learned to dress, wear their hair, and eat like them. They took Indian names. They had half-breed children. They lived in tepees and pulled the travois and became expert in the ways of Indian barter and ancient herbal remedy. Many of them were half-Indian themselves, by blood or inclination. Washington Irving, writing about Western trappers, noted this tendency: “It is a matter of vanity and ambition with them to discard everything that may bear the stamp of civilized life, and to adopt the manners, gestures, and even the walk of the Indian. You cannot pay a freetrapper a greater compliment than to persuade him you have mistaken him for an Indian brave.”
The fur trappers knew firsthand that Native Americans were ferocious fighters—some legendarily so, like the Blackfoot and the Comanche. But they also knew that the Indian style of battle was often very different from European warfare, that it was difficult to engage Native Americans in a pitched battle, that their method was consistently one of raid and ambush, attack and scatter, snipe and vanish. The mountain men said that Indians were often like wolves: Run, and they follow; follow, and they run.
The trappers murdered Indians in countless kill-or-be-killed scenarios, and some made a practice of hammering brass tacks into the stocks of their rifles for every native dispatched. But their greater slaughter was unwitting: As the forerunners of Western civilization, creeping up the river valleys and across the mountain passes, the trappers brought smallpox and typhoid, they brought guns and whiskey and venereal disease, they brought the puzzlement of money and the gleam of steel. And on their liquored breath they whispered the coming of an unimaginable force, of a gathering shadow on the eastern horizon, gorging itself on the continent as it pressed steadily this way.
That spring Carson and Ewing Young’s party worked along the Gila tributaries, moving into increasingly strange country that had never been mapped. One day Young’s camp on the Salt River was approached by Apaches. Sensing hostility, most of Young’s men concealed themselves beneath packsaddles and blankets, emboldening the Apaches to swoop down on what they thought was an easy target. Soon “the hills were covered with Indians,” as Carson recalled, but when the attackers drew within range, Ewing’s men sprang from their hiding places and drew their beads. Aiming his rifle, Carson killed his first Indian, shooting him, as an early biographer put it, “straight through the nipple at which he had aimed—straight through the heart within.”
He does not mention it in his autobiography, but according to one account, Carson then removed his sheath knife and pulled back the dead Apache’s scalp, as was the common custom among the mountain men.
Carson was nineteen years old.