Modern history




Chapter 23


On the morning of September 25—the day after the party—the bells of Santa Fe were tolling again. This time they rang to announce General Kearny’s departure and to send the dragoons off in style. Three hundred of his best men assembled at Fort Marcy. Kearny raised his hand in salute, and the column struck out at noon, bearing south by southwest for the Rio Grande. For his guide Kearny had a veteran mountain man, Tom Fitzpatrick, an old friend of Kit Carson’s. Most of the Missouri volunteers would be staying behind with Colonel Doniphan, holding down the place until more reinforcements would arrive from Fort Leavenworth—and then they, too, would dash off, for Chihuahua and points south. Most of the Missourians had grown fond of their commander and waved him off with genuine emotion. “We were sorry to part with General Kearny,” one wrote. “He had gained the good wishes of every man.”

Kearny’s dragoons were thrilled finally to be on their way, even if some of them were a bit hung over from the previous night’s ball. After spoiling for a fight in New Mexico, none had been forthcoming. Instead they had spent most of their time camping out, getting scurvy from a bad diet, and nursing their sick horses back into shape. They had drunk their share of Taos Lightning and lost innumerable hands of monte over at Madame Tules’s place. If they had stayed in Santa Fe much longer, they might well have gone astray in her hall of ruin. Perhaps California would offer something more exciting in the way of battlefield glories.

In truth, no one had liked Santa Fe very much. The soldiers filled their diaries with disparaging descriptions of the place. It was a greasy, smelly, drunken, superstitious little town, they thought, loud with the fulminations of fat friars who scratched their itches and wore the same robe every evening. Santa Fe was a place of goats and chickens, of twisted offshoots of Catholic doctrine, of spiritual and medical guesswork. The axes and hammers and saws were miserable, the apples stunted, the windows did not have glass, the houses lacked furniture, and the doors had leather straps and wood pegs for want of hinges. Sugar came from corn, alcohol from cactus, and the town’s only musical instruments were used for fandangos and masses alike. A demented beggar lady picked among the garbage and sucked on old melon rinds. Burros were constantly abused. Wagons did not have true axles or wheels, but rather clumsy trucks hacked from gnarled cottonwood stumps. It seemed an exotically primitive place, one said, as though their hosts had not quite mastered the concept of the wheel.

The soldiers were especially sick of the food, all those chile stews made with mutton fat, and the dubious slop it made on their plates. They were sick of the grit, too, and the goathead thorns and the lice. Lieutenant Emory dutifully reported on the “universal presence of vermin on the bodies of all the inhabitants…it is not unusual to see people stop suddenly, expertly hunt, and then cause a sharp sound announcing a tiny death to you—and then the next minute to see them handle the fruit or cheese which they are offering to sell to you.”

Santa Fe was indeed a dirty and impoverished place, and yet it had something—some quality of spectacle that Kearny’s men would sorely miss as they headed out into the desert. The old city offered odd incongruities of culture and the accrued weight of history. Games of chance were always being played in the streets, and the markets were filled with an interesting babble of Indian tongues. The surrounding land was strange and dramatic, the light danced on the hills, and the mountains were everywhere, in the middle distance, breathing a draught of limitless possibility. The climate was extraordinary, especially in September; all the soldiers’ diaries speak soaringly of it: “…singularly mild, equable, and salubrious…with sunsets as rich as an Italian sky could boast.”…“The weather continues delightful, as fine as a heart could wish it.”…“The air is fine and healthy, and the atmosphere perfectly pure.”

In the clear air, Kearny and his men could look one hundred miles to the west and see the sacred southeastern mountain of the Navajos, the dormant volcano not far from Narbona’s outfit that was called Blue Bead Mountain. The New Mexicans called the mountain San Mateo, but despite the assurance of a good Christian name, it was an especially nagging landmark, a kind of geological rebuke, reminding them that although they had lived hereabouts for three long centuries, they had never entirely conquered this land. The Navajos grazed sheep on the mountain’s flanks, sheep they had stolen from the New Mexicans. They thundered across it on stolen horses, and lived all around it, often with women and children they had stolen from New Mexican villages. San Mateo was close enough to see, but too far away to reach safely without mounting an expedition so large as to tip off the Diné encamped there. By the time a party approached the mountain, the stolen horses and sheep and women and children would be long gone with their Navajo captors, scattered into the infinite recesses of Navajo country.

Kearny did not know what to do about the Navajos, and he left the matter in the hands of the new governor, Charles Bent. Bent did not know what to do either, other than to build forts closer to the Navajos to keep a better eye on their movements. Shortly after assuming office, Bent wrote a long and insightful letter to Washington describing the Indian situation in New Mexico—and singling out the Diné as public enemy number one. “The Navajos are an industrious, intelligent and warlike tribe,” he wrote, “numbering as many as 14,000 souls. They are the only Indians on the continent having intercourse with white men that are increasing in numbers. Their horses and sheep are said to be greatly superior to those raised by the New Mexicans. A large portion of their stock has been acquired by marauding expeditions against the settlements. Their country consists of high table mountains, difficult of access, and affording them protection against their enemies. Water is hard to find by those not acquainted with their country, affording another natural safeguard against invasion. They have in their possession many prisoners, men, women, and children, taken from the settlements of this Territory, whom they hold and treat as slaves.”

Not that the New Mexicans had failed to find ways to make Navajo life miserable. They, too, stole Navajo sheep and horses and women and children. Although slavery was technically illegal, anyone of means in the province had at least one or two Indian criados (servants), and a young Navajo woman was considered most valuable of all—in large part because of her assumed talent for weaving.

There were slave markets in Taos and other towns where Indian servants could be purchased for a pittance. Often captives were sold in the town plazas on Sunday afternoons following mass. Other tribes that happened to be enemies of the Diné came to understand their high market value, and so inevitably, Navajo children in ever larger numbers would end up on the auctioning blocks. There was also a phenomenon known as the “New Mexican Bachelor Party,” in which a groom and a few of his swashbuckling friends would gamely push into Navajo country and go hunting for a few slaves to give to the bride on her wedding day to help her keep house. Professional slave raiders were part of the ordinary commerce of daily life.

Remarked one disgusted traveler to Santa Fe: “I have frequently seen little Indian children six years of age led around the country like beasts by a Mexican who had probably stolen them from their mother not more than a week before and offered for sale from forty to one hundred and twenty dollars.”

Said Lewis Kennon, an American doctor well acqainted with life in New Mexico: “I know of no family which can raise one hundred and fifty dollars but what purchases a Navajo slave. Many families own four or five—the trade in them being as regular as the trade in pigs or sheep.”

It has been estimated that of the 6,000 people then living in Santa Fe, at least 500 were Indian slaves or peons. The Mexican families usually baptized their Indian servants in the Catholic faith and often treated them well, like secondary relatives; some even won their freedom. Amado Chaves, son of one famous New Mexico slave raider, wrote: “On arriving home after a slaving expedition, the first thing to do was to take the children to the priest and give them a name. They would naturally take your name and as they grew up they would consider you and your wife as their parents.” Certainly the system differed in form and particulars from its agrarian counterpart in the American South, but it was slavery nonetheless.

In general, it was said that the Mexicans were better at stealing people, and the Navajos were better at stealing animals. Whatever the case, the attacks and reprisals were simply part of the grim metronome of life, swinging with the same logic of a feud. In truth there were some on both sides, most of them aggressive young men, who rather liked these cycles of violence: They relieved boredom, they tested courage and resolve, and honed warrior skills. The Navajos and their Mexican adversaries were not accustomed to the concept of all-out war or unconditional surrender or treaties that endured beyond a season—these were European concepts. The combatants in this centuries-old war did not observe tidy declarations or cessations of hostilities. A persistent, low-grade violence was always there, a possibility lurking on the horizon, like San Mateo. It was the only life they had known.


The Navajos were immediately aware of Kearny’s departure from Santa Fe, and they interpreted it as weakness: The Americans were already quitting New Mexico, they thought. These “New Men” would not press their demands; the great general Kearny lacked staying power.

Emboldened, the Navajos began raiding settlements along the Rio Grande, often right under the nose of Kearny’s army as it marched south in the last week of September. Between Albuquerque and Polvadera they killed eight settlers and stole thousands of horses, sheep, and cattle. Navajo raiders were even brazen enough to follow Kearny’s own beef herd, and near the town of Algodones managed to steal a few head.

Kearny was livid when he heard the news. The Navajos were clearly testing him. It must have seemed to him, in theatrical terms, that the villain was stealing the limelight just as Kearny was exiting the stage. It chafed the general that the Navajos had been the only major tribe of New Mexico that had refused to send envoys to Santa Fe to confer with him, and he was embarrassed that he could not make good on his promise to protect the Mexican citizenry from their age-old enemy. But his dragoons could not afford to go hunting after Navajos right now—he was on a tight schedule and had to continue his march to California. Instead, Kearny distributed a proclamation in which he noted the “almost daily outrages committed by the Navajoes” and then “authorized” the people living along the Rio Grande to form their own “war parties, to march into the country of…the Navajoes, to recover Property, and to make reprisals and obtain redress for the many insults received from them.” Kearny stopped short of urging an all-out war, however: “The Old, the Women, and the Children of the Navajoes,” he warned, “must not be injured.”

At the same time, Kearny immediately sent back a message to Alexander Doniphan in Santa Fe ordering the colonel to launch a foray into Navajo country as soon as possible. Doniphan, Kearny instructed, was to reclaim New Mexican prisoners and livestock and do whatever the colonel thought necessary to “secure a peace and better conduct from these Indians.”

By October 6, Kearny and his three hundred dragoons had marched 150 miles down the Rio Grande. They were eleven days out of Santa Fe and enjoying the crisp radiance of Indian summer. It was a cool, clear day, with the cottonwoods and river willows yellowing in the thick bosque that lined the river. Sandhill cranes and geese flocked overhead—the Rio Grande was a major flyway for waterfowl. They were camped just below the village of Socorro, at a little place called Valverde, which had once been a Spanish village of some importance, but had been abandoned in the wake of Navajo and Apache raids. Kearny’s men were bivouacked among the town’s adobe ruins. They had come to the end of the first leg of their thousand-mile journey to California. They had been marching straight south, following the river, but from here on they would aim west, eventually striking the Gila River and crossing the solitudes of the Sonoran and Mojave deserts.

Sometime around midday, a tiny brown cloud appeared on the western horizon. There was a sound of hoofbeats in the distance. Horsemen, a dozen or more, emerged from the contrails of dust. They seemed to be aiming straight for Kearny’s camp. The dragoons suspected for a moment that the riders might be Navajos.

As they drew nearer, it became clear that although some were Indians, the party was being led by a group of Americans. It was a meeting of fellow countrymen, and soon the ruins of Valverde erupted in a ruckus of halloos and the tossing of hats.

A small leathery man slid off his mule and greeted the dragoons. Like all of his comrades, he was haggard and sun-beaten and in bad need of food. He indicated that he and his party had come posthaste from California, bearing important messages for the East Coast.

What is your name? someone asked.

The little man grinned as he led his mule into Kearny’s camp. “I’m Kit Carson.”


Kearny had never met Kit Carson, but he knew who he was. The general had read about him in Fremont’s exploration reports. Carson had a home in Taos, a little adobe not far from the town square, and he was the most famous American then living in the New Mexico territory. He had been away for more than a year, on his various errands in California and Oregon, but nearly everywhere General Kearny’s forces had been, they had heard stories about the famed scout. He was a friendly phantom presence: Along the Santa Fe Trail, at Bent’s Fort, in the mercantile shops and warehouses of the capital, Carson’s name had repeatedly cropped up, usually with a smile and a colorful tale of some wild exploit in the mountains.

Carson and Kearny greeted one another as compatriots. They must have acknowledged the strange serendipity of their encounter. What were the odds that these two men trekking from nearly opposite sides of the continent would meet in this way, that of all the possible routes across the canvas of the West, theirs would intersect?

Carson seemed surprised and puzzled to meet three hundred soldiers of the United States Dragoons, aimed in the same direction from which he had just come. Kearny explained that all of the New Mexico territory had been conquered, without a fight, that the American flag flew over the Palace of the Governors in Santa Fe, and that he was now pushing west to conquer California.

The scout tried to absorb the implications of this news. His home for the past twenty years was now part of America. His wife in Taos and her proud Spanish family had all effectively become Americans. Even now he and the general were standing on American soil. His own brother-in-law was governor.

Carson looked exhausted, and he was thickly coated in dust from a long overland journey. For twenty-six consecutive days Carson and his party of men had ridden more than eight hundred miles from Los Angeles. They had already worn out thirty-four mules, crossing some of the most infernal country imaginable on the Gila Trail, and they still had another two thousand miles to go. They were on their way to Washington City, Carson said, to deliver important dispatches to the president of the United States.

General Kearny was perplexed. Carson went on to explain that he had been given a temporary commission as a lieutenant and was under orders from his commanders in California to ride to Washington in sixty days or less to deliver news on the progress of the war with Mexico. California, he said, was now in American hands; the Stars and Stripes “floated in every port.”

Kearny’s reaction to this fabulous piece of intelligence was ambiguous. As a patriot he found these developments encouraging, but at the same time he must have been somewhat miffed to learn that his work had already been done for him. New Mexico had fallen without his firing a shot, and now, it seemed, California scarcely needed his services, either. A physician traveling with Kearny, Dr. John S. Griffin, summed up the general reaction to Carson’s news. “This created considerable sensation in our party,” Griffin wrote, “but the feeling was one of disappointment and regret—most of us hoped on leaving Santa Fe that we might have a little kick-up with the good people of California but this blasted all our hopes.”

On the other hand, General Kearny understood that California was a vast realm and that insurgent locals could rise up at any time or place—or worse, that reinforcements might be rushed from Mexico to ignite a widespread resistance. The cautious general wondered whether the dispatches Carson was bearing might convey an overly optimistic assessment of the situation there.

Then Kearny’s thoughts began to turn. Whether or not the fighting had ended, his orders were to push on to California and institute a new government there, just as he had done in Santa Fe. The general, however, was seriously concerned about the unmapped desert ahead of him, uncertain which route to take and whether his animals could survive the journey. Carson had just crossed the same withered terrain over which his dragoons would soon be passing. The scout knew the lay of the land and the disposition of the Indians along the route. He knew the watering holes and the grassy spots where his horses and mules might graze. He could tell Kearny which stretches were suitable for wagons and rolling artillery pieces. He knew the best places to ford the creeks and rivers—especially the Colorado, the greatest obstacle before him.

And so Kearny needed Carson. The general recognized something about this man, a certain aura of success, that would be indispensable to his Army of the West. The general ordered him to hand over the dispatches, to be placed in another able courier’s saddlebags and taken to President Polk. The great scout had more important work to do: General Kearny wanted him to make an about-face and go back to California, as his personal guide.

This put Carson in a quandary. He had promised Fremont that he would rush the documents to Washington, no matter what. Not being a military man, Carson preferred to ignore the hard dictates of rank—that Fremont was only a Topographical Corps captain whose wishes paled before the will of a brigadier general like Kearny. Carson’s simple frontier sense of honor had been offended. His father in Missouri had always taught him his word was his bond, and here was a man telling him to ignore his earlier promise and give the messages to someone else.

Carson briefly agonized over what to do—agonizing being something he rarely engaged in. He seriously considered a plan to escape from Kearny’s forces under cover of nightfall and speed to Washington as planned. He thought of Josefa, whom he had not seen for nearly two years. He had hoped to surprise her for one night in Taos on his way east. If he went west with Kearny, he feared he might not get a chance to see her for yet another year. For her sake, he wanted to get back to Taos and take the pulse of the town.

Mostly, though, he kept thinking of Fremont and Commodore Stockton. “I was pledged to them,” he later said, “and could not disappoint them, and besides that I was under more obligations to Captain Fremont than any man alive.”

But some of the men in his party persuaded Carson not to attempt an escape. The dragoons would catch up with him, they argued, and even if they didn’t, Kearny would have him court-martialed. Besides, the general had already decided to give the messages to a courier Carson knew well and trusted, Tom Fitzpatrick, who had accompanied Fremont on several of his expeditions. Fitzpatrick could blaze the way to “Washington City” just as well as he.

At this, Carson began to soften. Besides, Kearny was a difficult man to say no to—even for someone as stubborn as Carson. Kearny had an iron will, and, as one account put it, he showed “a resolute countenance and cold blue eyes which there was no evading.” Carson began to feel the sheer weight of Kearny’s rank bearing down on him. “He made me believe,” Carson said, “that he had a right to order me.” Kearny later recalled that although Carson “was at first very unwilling to turn back,” he was “perfectly satisfied” with Fitzpatrick taking the messages, “and so told me.”

So Carson relented. He handed over the letters and agreed to accompany the general. The following morning, October 7, 1846, Kearny gave the dispatches to Fitzpatrick and also sent two-thirds of his dragoons back to Santa Fe to reinforce the capital. If Carson’s own assessments and the reports in the dispatches were correct, then the situation in California did not require a large force. The general would continue on to Los Angeles leading a leaner, lighter contingent of only one hundred dragoons. Carson would guide them, and he would not look back. Lt. Abraham Johnston, a young officer serving under Kearny, admired Carson’s decision. “He turned his face to the west again,” Johnston wrote, “just as he was on the eve of entering the settlements, after his arduous trip and when he had set his hopes on seeing his family. It requires a brave man to give up his private feelings thus for the public good; but Carson is one such! Honor to him for it.” Capt. Philip St. George Cooke commended Carson: “That was no common sacrifice to duty.”

Dr. John Griffin noticed that having Carson on board discernibly improved the morale of all the dragoons. He wrote in his diary, “We put out, with merry hearts & light packs on our long march—every man feeling renewed confidence in consequence of having such a guide. From the way the Genl marched today, I should say he was on his way in Earnest.”

Later Carson tersely summed up his decision this way: “Kearny ordered me to join him as his guide. I done so.”

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