Modern history

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Chapter 29

AMERICAN MERCURY

St. Louis, the roistering frontier capital, lay at the confluence of the Missouri and the Mississippi, whose snaggy brown waters were filled with steamships. The humid city climbed off the alluvial banks, its streets of dirt and cobblestone crammed with dray wagons and dearborns and lined with locust trees, its huddled neighborhoods radiating west from the wharves in an orderly grid that had been established by the city’s French founders. For such a remote city in the hinterlands, St. Louis was a surprisingly cosmopolitan place of more than fifteen thousand souls, a city with its own peculiar Creole culture. Its taverns were filled with French and Spanish and queer Indian tongues—and, more recently, with the tongues of the newer immigrants, the Germans and the Irish, who had come west in droves looking for good work and free land.

The last time Carson passed through here, in 1842, St. Louis was a smallish town perched at the edge of the United States, capital of the westernmost state. Now, in the spring of 1847, the city was almost unrecognizable. Without the residents knowing it, St. Louis had effectively become the geographical center of the country. In only a few short months, through far-flung military events Carson had himself witnessed, the fulcrum of the nation had shifted west more than a thousand miles. The margin had become the middle.

As Carson rode into St. Louis, exhausted after a journey of two months, he was about to change the city’s view of itself. It was near the end of May, a month after the trials and executions for the Taos Revolt that marked the final flicker of Mexican resistance to the American conquest of the West. Carson was passing briefly through town, bearing messages from California. The transcontinental courier mission that General Kearny had denied him in the fall of the previous year had finally materialized: After the Mexicans in California had at last capitulated and Los Angeles had returned to American hands, Carson’s old friend John C. Fremont, who was serving as governor, had given him a bundle of letters to rush east to the secretary of state, important dispatches on the course of the war. After this short stop in St. Louis, Carson would continue by steamboat, then by train, to Washington City.

It was the kind of assignment that seemed to suit him—riding in a small party, carrying intelligence for people more powerful than he, safeguarding secrets of history as he sped across the continent like some bedraggled Mercury. He was the illiterate bearer of written messages, an irony that probably did not escape him.

To reach St. Louis, Carson had followed the Gila route east from California. He had successfully fended off an attack by Apaches—“them arrers came whizzing along like a raft of geese going south” Carson later said in describing the incident. He had stopped off in Taos long enough to reunite with Josefa, whom he hadn’t seen in twenty months. From her, he learned all about the Taos Revolt and that terrifying evening in the Bent home—and became convinced that Padre Antonio Martinez, the Taos priest who’d married Kit and Josefa, was the real mastermind behind the insurrection. Although he was never able to prove it, Carson carried this hunch with him for the rest of his life.

After ten days in Taos, Carson had continued on by way of Bent’s Fort and the Santa Fe Trail, passing through Fort Leavenworth. For the whole trip Carson’s traveling companion had been his friend Ned Beale, the young navy lieutenant with whom he had trekked barefoot through the California desert to break the siege of San Pasqual. Although the details of the lieutenant’s ailments are murky, Beale was still in such excruciating pain from his ordeal in the desert that Carson had to lift him on and off his horse. Beale would be forever grateful to Carson for his kindnesses on their cross-continental odyssey. Years later he thanked “Don Kit” for the time when, under the broiling sun in the mesquite desert, Carson had selflessly removed his own canteen and “poured upon my fevered lips the last drop of water.”

(Another anecdote from Beale’s long ride illustrated Carson’s hair-trigger temper. Stumbling upon an army sergeant hectoring a sick man with a knife—presumably somewhere in California—Carson flashed a pistol and calmly said, “Sergeant, drop that or by the splendor of God, I’ll blow your heart out.” The story could be exaggerated, but it rang true with other accounts of Carson’s reaction to bullies. A small man himself, he had no tolerance for predation and responded with ferocity whenever he encountered it.)

When Carson and Beale loped into St. Louis, the townspeople knew nothing about the battle of San Pasqual or its triumphant aftermath, nor did they know the latest news from the gallows in Taos. Now here was a messenger fresh from the front. Once word spread that Carson had arrived, everyone in town wanted to get a look at the famous mountain man—a fellow Missourian, no less, who had become a national legend.

People didn’t just want to gawk, however—they were genuinely anxious to learn what was happening in the West. Nearly everyone in St. Louis had a relative in Kearny’s army, or serving with Doniphan’s volunteers, but reliable news of how they had fared was almost nonexistent. It is impossible to exaggerate how miserably slow frontier communications were in the 1840s. A soldier’s wife in St. Louis was much like a whaler’s wife in Boston—she said good-bye to her beloved as he set sail on an ocean of land and then she accepted the voids of silence, the hard nights of not knowing, as the weeks and months became years. In place of solid information, St. Louis buzzed with rumors about the Army of the West: Santa Anna had dispatched an enormous force to retake New Mexico. Colonel Doniphan had been killed by Indians. Kearny’s men had all frozen to death in the mountains.

Until now, Carson had never quite realized the extent to which he was a celebrity, or what that meant in a public situation, and he was deeply uncomfortable. People pressed at him in the streets and dram shops, and he soon found himself in what he called “a surround.” He was put off by this new impertinence, the way strangers expected something from him. He quickly learned to distrust journalists. “Some of these newspaper fellows,” he said, “know more about my affairs than I do.” In alleyways and taverns, people would accost him and slap his back as if they knew him. Carson, who was a bit of a claustrophobe anyway and hated crowds, would jerk himself away and gesture awkwardly toward the open street, saying, “I always see folks out in the road.”

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No one was more impatient to hear Carson’s news than Thomas Hart Benton, who happened to be home in St. Louis that May. Some of the dispatches Carson carried in his saddlebags, in fact, were addressed to Benton. The senator offered his house to the cross-country courier and embraced him like a long-lost nephew. Benton of course knew all about Carson from Fremont’s expedition reports, but he had never met him.

Throughout his career Benton had befriended nearly all the explorers of the West—the trappers and traders and voyageurs, the eccentric English lords who traipsed across the prairies on hunting safaris, the expedition topographers and botanists and Indian-fighters. They all passed through St. Louis eventually, and Benton made it his business to debrief them. Although he had never traveled west of Missouri, he gave off the impression that he had. He seemed to have met everyone connected with the frontier—James Audubon, the Bent brothers, Washington Irving, the now-aged explorer William Clark, traveling artist George Catlin, and the great fur trappers Jim Bridger and Jedediah Smith. Benton had also intersected with all the prominent warriors of the West, soldiers like Kearny, Leavenworth, and Dodge, and even the young Robert E. Lee, who served as a captain in St. Louis with the Army Corps of Engineers.

The Benton mansion on the outskirts of the city became something like a clearinghouse—the American Empire’s western field office, in effect, where disparate strands of frontier science, commerce, and military intelligence met and mingled in a rough first draft. It was the age of happy dilettantes and gentleman explorers, when disciplines easily blurred, when a soldier might be a geologist, cartographer, botanist, ethnologist, linguist, and artist, all at the same time. American ignorance of the West was so vast that all forms of knowledge, however obtained, were welcome pieces of an emerging puzzle.

Benton’s place was where the puzzle came together. Explorers would haul in their dog-eared maps and their field specimens, their Indian relics and their folios of charcoal sketches. Benton would ply them with good food and drink and make them stay up late on the porch, telling stories fresh from the Western wilds.

Carson was no exception. Although he was in a terrific hurry to move on to Washington, he had little choice but to camp out in the Benton home for a few days and endure a minute cross-examination from the senator on all the latest events in Oregon, California, and New Mexico.

Benton’s wife Elizabeth, a genteel woman from an old Virginia plantation family, was there in the home, but she could speak only in a halting mumble, her face slack and sallow from a paralytic stroke in 1842 that had left her brain-damaged, bedridden, and subject to seizures. The family thought the stroke had been caused by an old family doctor who insisted on bleeding Mrs. Benton whenever she complained of any sort of ailment. (In the years leading up to her stroke, she had been bled thirty-three times.) Benton was devoted to his invalid wife, and since her stroke had scarcely gone out in public. He kept a desk by her bed where he read and scribbled through the nights by the light of a special lamp he had devised—four spermaceti candles burning on a white reflecting screen.

Staying at the Bentons’, Carson got a good hot bath, bought some store clothes, and tried to make himself presentable. He was not used to cities, and he was self-conscious about his grimy buckskins and parfleche moccasins. St. Louis, he knew, was only a rehearsal—much more would be expected of him in Washington in the way of fine clothes and manners. He was nervous about what would happen in the nation’s capital, the dignitaries he would have to meet, the airs he’d have to put on. But Benton tried to allay his fears. He insisted that when Carson got to Washington, he must stay in his home on C Street, not far from the Capitol. He assured Carson that his daughter Jessie, who lived there, would guide him through the tight spots.

Carson was grateful for this new connection and enjoyed his brief stay in St. Louis, although he scarcely mentions it in his autobiography. “I accepted Benton’s invitation,” Carson allows, “and received the kindest of treatment from him.”

Benton was taken with his new guest. The senator thought of Carson as one of the great behind-the-scenes heroes of the Mexican War. “Although he did not enter the army through the gate of the military academy,” Benton said, “he is at the head of the principal military successes” in the West. Above all, Benton came to trust Carson’s clear sense of judgment. It was not only his honesty, but his attention to concrete details; in an oral culture like that of the American frontier, paramount importance was placed on the hard accuracy of memory, and that was what struck Benton most: Carson’s recollections seemed fundamentally reliable. Fremont had once said that his guide was incapable of dissembling, that “Carson and Truth are one.” Now Benton saw that same quality. “He is a man,” the senator said, “whose word will stand wherever he is known.”

The senator was delighted to hear Carson’s reports from Los Angeles and San Diego. Carson made it clear that after only a few hiccups and one small, brutal battle with lances, California was now safely in American hands. The British menace, one of Benton’s pet terrors, had been averted.

There was one glitch in Carson’s narration of events that troubled Benton, however. It had to do with his son-in-law. Apparently Fremont had gotten himself into a terrific row with General Kearny after the final surrender of Los Angeles. By the sound of it, Fremont was caught in the middle of an internecine rivalry between the army and the navy over who would control California. Commodore Stockton insisted that he was in charge, while Kearny claimed that his more recent orders from President Polk clearly trumped Stockton’s command. Neither man would back down. To complicate matters, Stockton had named Fremont as his choice to be the new governor, and when Kearny questioned this appointment, Fremont, a mere captain in the Topographical Corps, refused to recognize the general’s authority. Brazenly, the new governor said he would not step down until Stockton and Kearny had, as Fremont put it in a tortuous letter to the dumbfounded general, “adjusted the question of rank between yourselves.”

Benton, who was well acquainted with all the parties, remained confident from his remove in St. Louis that the dispute could be resolved—especially after he read Fremont’s handwritten dispatches carried in Carson’s pouch. But the senator also understood the U.S. Army, with its rigid protocols and petty jealousies. A general was not to be trifled with—especially not a general as headstrong as Stephen Watts Kearny. Benton realized that in the cold light of a court-martial, Fremont’s actions could be interpreted as mutiny.

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Having enjoyed Senator Benton’s hospitality, Carson had one other matter to attend to before he could resume the trip east to Washington. It was a private errand, an important one that concerned events buried in his personal history: He needed to pay a visit to his daughter.

Five years had passed since he left Adaline. She was ten years old now and could hardly remember her father when he showed up at his niece’s farm not far from the town of Fayette, Missouri. The visit must have been as awkward as it was brief. Carson couldn’t linger, but he wanted to make sure Adaline was happy, that her education was progressing, that it wasn’t too much of a burden for her to grow up as a half-breed so far away from her father.

She was becoming a young woman. He could see a lot of her mother in Adaline. He was satisfied that she felt at home there, and that she was well loved by the Carson clan. It must have tickled him to learn that she could read. Already she had more schooling than he’d ever had. Still, he decided it was time she moved on from the little country school in which he had placed her; he now made arrangements for her to enroll as a boarder in a nearby Catholic school. Education was an understandable sticking point with him; his clumsiness with letters and figures—and the nuanced experiences he’d been denied because of it—remained his greatest humiliation. He wanted to spare his firstborn the lifelong embarrassment he’d felt.

Because his niece refused to take money, he showered the household with gifts and presented the family with a mahogany rocking chair, a sturdy piece of frontier furniture that would last generations. For Adaline, the rocking chair would be part of the architecture of her girlhood, a physical reminder of her kind but emphatically absent father. The family thought his gift was especially apt, for like Kit, the chair was never fully itself unless it was moving.

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