In October 1849, a few weeks after the Washington Expedition returned home to its barracks at Fort Marcy, a trader named James M. White was traveling west with his family on the Santa Fe Trail. The Whites had come from Missouri in the company of a well-known merchant named Francis Xavier Aubry, who was leading a large caravan of wagons packed with goods. With only 150 miles left to reach Santa Fe, White decided to break from the slow convoy and push ahead in a faster carriage with his young wife Ann and their infant daughter. Believing that they had passed out of the most threatening Indian territory, they bid Aubry and the others in the long train good-bye near a popular stop called Point of Rocks, expecting to reunite with them in Santa Fe in a week’s time.
Francis Aubry was a celebrated figure on the trail. A compact French Canadian with intense black eyes and a thick beard, Aubry had made a fortune in the Santa Fe trade. He knew every rutted inch of the road and did not see any problems with his friend James White leapfrogging ahead. White was a veteran of the trail himself, with interests in Santa Fe and El Paso. An unseasonable cold snap had made the going miserable for Mrs. White and her baby girl, and they wanted to get to a warm hotel. White was driving with his family and a black female servant. For protection, Aubry detached three armed men to accompany the Whites in a second carriage.
Francis X. Aubry had won national celebrity a year earlier, when he broke the record for the fastest crossing of the Santa Fe Trail. In September 1848 he had ridden nonstop nearly eight hundred miles from Santa Fe to Independence, Missouri, in five days and sixteen hours—killing several horses in the process, but winning a thousand-dollar bet that he could beat his old record of eight days. Aubry accomplished this feat by stashing fresh horses at relay points every few hundred miles along the route. Many times he dozed off as his mounts galloped eastward, but he took the precaution of cinching himself to his saddle to keep from tumbling. At ten o’clock on the night of September 17, 1848, Aubry and his last horse staggered into Independence, where patrons at a hotel immediately recognized him and lifted him out of his saddle, which was blood-soaked from the more than five days of constant chafing of human against horse. Nearly catatonic from exhaustion, able to speak only in a whisper, Aubry ordered ham and eggs and then was taken upstairs to bed.
His eight-hundred-mile dash made national news and heralded a new age of transport in the last innocent years before construction of the transcontinental railroad, which was then being planned and routed. As his example showed, the physical crossing of the Great Plains was getting to be old hat. The big caravans were still enormous logistical undertakings, and they would always be tediously slow, for there was no way to speed up a train pulled by oxen. But Aubry’s record gallop punctured some of the Trail’s aura and served to inspire more timid souls who had long been nursing vague ambitions of traveling west. Only a few years after Kearny’s conquest of the Southwest, the mother road seemed well-trod, its supply points better stocked, the names of its stops and stages burned into the public memory—Switzlow’s Creek, Council Grove, Diamond Springs, Pawnee Rock, Cottonwood Fork. New Mexico was still a long way from Missouri, but if a single man could traverse the country in under six days, then the trek was clearly not the impossible adventure it once had been.
Aubry’s example made it look too easy, however. People seemed to forget how dangerous the journey still was, particularly in the westernmost stretches, the broiled solitudes where water was scarce and the possibility of Indian attacks high. Every year settlers were murdered by Indians—or kidnapped and mercilessly tortured. The Santa Fe Trail was rife with tales of Indian cruelty. Many of these stories were exaggerated bits of folklore fueled no doubt by racial ignorance if not outright animus, but the mutilation of captives—even corpses—was a documented part of the warrior rituals of many Plains tribes. One authority on the Plains Indians wrote that “as a rule mutilation was inspired by spite after losses, or animated by a superstitious fear that a great fighter—one ‘hard to kill’—might come alive again.” The hostiles of the Great Plains rarely seemed to hold a special hatred toward white pioneers; in fact, they tended to reserve their most lavish abuses for ancient enemies from other tribes.
Nevertheless, even the most intelligent commentators on the subject tended to assume that the Plains Indians were expressly out to get white folks. William Davis, an astute lawyer and judge who lived in New Mexico for years traveling the circuit court, compared the Plains Indians to the biblical Ishmaelites, “whose hands are turned against every white man, woman, and child.” Davis noted that “there are hundreds of captives among the Indians of the Plains, principally women and children. The great majority spend a lifetime with them, and drag out a most miserable existence.”
The Comanches were reputed to be the most diabolical in their cruelties to captives. Historian Bernard DeVoto wrote that the Comanches were “practising sadists” who had “great skill in pain” and for whom “cruelty was their catharsis.” The authenticated accounts, DeVoto said, “fill thousands of pages, and some are altogether unreadable for men with normal nerves.” It was widely reported, for example, that the Comanches liked to take their victims to a remote stretch of the plains and stake their bodies to the ground. Then the Comanches would slit open their bellies and poke their organs with spears, making a slow study of it, delighting in the bloodcurdling screams, sometimes slicing a bit of a victim’s liver and eating it right in front of him. Or the Comanches might pry open their captive’s eyelids with twigs and leave him, helpless and exposed, to be cornea-scorched by the sun, then eaten alive by wolves.
It was the Comanches who in 1841 killed and scalped twenty-five-year-old Robert Bent, the youngest of the Bent brothers (his scalped body, discovered near the Arkansas River, was buried just outside the walls of Bent’s Fort). It was also thought to be the Comanches who killed Jedediah Smith, probably the greatest explorer of the West, by shooting him in the back and riddling his body with lance wounds. Smith’s murder in 1831 occurred on the Cimarron River, not far from the stretch of the Santa Fe Trail where the White party was now riding.
These were the kinds of horrors that were told along the trail, stories that James White had doubtless already heard and discounted when he pulled away from the Aubry caravan and made good time with his family toward Santa Fe.
At that moment, Kit Carson was hard at work in the fields of his new ranch on Rayado Creek, some fifty miles east of Taos and not far from the Santa Fe Trail. By October the corn had all been harvested, but the last patches of squash and beans and peppers were still growing, moistened by the acequia that siphoned cold mountain water from the creek rippling from the Sangre de Cristos. The north-facing crags of the mountains were dusted with snow. Out in the distant fields, clusters of cattle, sheep, horses, and mules cropped the blue grama grass. Elsewhere on the property, laid out in erratic jumbles, were various sheds and lean-tos, a blacksmith shop, a slaughterhouse, and a number of pens made of cedar staves wired together to keep the wolves from attacking the stock at night. In the center of it all stood the ranch house, a cabin made of rough-hewn ponderosa logs, reminiscent of the Missouri homesteads of Carson’s youth. Surrounding the compound was a high adobe wall, to keep the Indians at bay.
At thirty-nine, Christopher Carson had decided, of all things, to become a farmer. He had grown too old for the trail, too weary of the nervous hardship of guiding the U.S. Army. He loved the discipline of working a ranch and took to it immediately. He would head out for the fields at dawn and keep at it until dusk—clearing land, plowing and planting, lambing and shearing, making constant additions and repairs, building his new domain from scratch. There was hay to cut and bundle and sell to government agents as fodder. There were pine logs to whipsaw into lumber and adobe bricks to be molded and baked in the sun. There were vegetables to put up, animals to butcher, hides to tan, mules to shoe, meats to cure. The work was endless.
Yet, as much as he loved it, this sedentary life was against his nature; he had always been a wanderer. As an adolescent runaway, a teamster, a trapper, a hunter, a scout and guide, a soldier, a transcontinental courier—every turn of his career had been characterized by nearly ceaseless movement over the West. In all those years since he left Missouri, he had never stopped.
Taos had been his home, theoretically, a home he kept failing to get back to. It was and would continue to be one of the recurring themes of his life—his desire to settle down to honest labor, to be with his wife and start a family, only to be pulled away again by larger events. He and Josefa had been married six years, but in all that time he had been at home without interruption only a few months. Carson had made several earlier attempts to start a farm near Taos, but something had always come along to disrupt his plans, some unforeseen mission of national import laid at his feet.
After leaving Washington in the summer of 1847 with messages for General Kearny, Carson had sped to California, only to receive further orders to do it all over again—that is, to make another trip to Washington bearing another round of important dispatches. Like a good soldier, he accepted the assignment, but all that travel took a toll on him and his family life. Since the start of the Mexican War he had covered nearly sixteen thousand miles—a good percentage of it riding on a mule.
Josefa hated his absences. She missed him, surely, but that was only part of it. Josefa perhaps only dimly knew what Carson was doing all those years and, as a native Mexican, she had no particular reason to share his patriotism for the United States. His fame meant next to nothing to her. Stories passed down through the Jaramillo family in Taos have it that she understandably resented her husband for always being on the go, earning no great sums of money in the service of an army whose primary relation to her people was one of subjugation.
So once again Carson was trying to settle down, only this time he knew he had to make it stick: He was a father. That spring, Josefa, now twenty-two, had given birth to their first child, a son. They had named him Charles after Gov. Charles Bent, her sister’s late husband, murdered in his home that horrible night two years earlier. Born prematurely, Little Charles was so sick and fragile that Josefa decided to stay home with him in Taos that first summer while Kit cleared ground and established the new ranch.
In this farming operation, Carson had partnered with another famous Taos trapper, named Lucien Bonaparte Maxwell. A native of Illinois, Maxwell was a stout, swarthy bull of a figure with a vaudevillian mustache. He had been on the first three Fremont expeditions and knew Carson well. By the happy twist of marriage, Maxwell now managed, and would soon own, a land grant in northeastern New Mexico even larger than the state of Delaware. This stupendous piece of real estate—more than 1.7 million acres—would make Maxwell the largest private landowner in the United States. It was a kingdom unto itself, completely undeveloped. From the rugged high country, promising creeks and rivers dropped into broad, lush valleys. Maps of the grant showed immense tracts of empty tableland between the Cimarron and Purgatoire rivers that were marked simply “fine grazing.” Maxwell ruled it all, and he had invited Carson and just a few other acquaintances to develop select parcels of his virgin domain.
Ambitious, dry-humored, lavishly generous to his guests, but prone to whipping the peons who worked for him, Maxwell “was king of that whole country,” a contemporary said. “He had perfect control…and had Indians and Mexicans just to do what he bid them to.” A soldier who knew him well remembered his “hospitality and firmness of will.” Ranching came naturally to him, for he was already a discerning stockman, ever interested in buying better breeds and improving bloodlines. A contemporary writer said that Maxwell’s horses, his cattle, his poultry, even his dogs “were always of the same style—the best that can be had.”
Maxwell and Carson had been talking for some time about making a fresh start of it somewhere in this vast land grant. That spring, in 1849, Carson took a thousand dollars saved from his trapping and guiding days and invested in Maxwell’s growing operation. It has been written that this was the first large-scale cattle operation ever undertaken by Anglo-Americans in the West—that Maxwell and Carson were, in effect, the first American cowboys. (Hispanic vaqueros, of course, had been running cattle for generations throughout the Southwest.) The claim is probably dubious and anyway unprovable, but it is nevertheless true that Carson was again living a step ahead of his time, as he did so often through his protean career in the West.
“We had been leading a roving life long enough,” Carson later said in his memoirs, “and now was the time, if ever, to make a home for ourselves. We were getting old. We commenced building and making improvements, and were in a way of becoming prosperous.”
The Rayado Valley was a stunning sweep of land on which to settle, an open country of high meadows and brilliant skies where the Sangre de Cristos gave way to the endless plains. Elk and deer and the occasional silvertip grizzly roamed this grassy piedmont, and trout darted in the cold streams. The name Rayado—Spanish for “streaked”—was said to derive from the colorful markings often tattooed on the faces of certain Plains tribes that wandered the area; Rayado was also the name of a prominent Comanche chief from the early 1800s.
Carson’s ranch was not far from the Santa Fe Trail, the same road that had brought him here in his youth. His father had been a farmer at the other end of that trail, a thousand miles to the east, in newly cleared forestland that was then the frontier. Now the son was repeating the pattern, one that had been followed by countless other pioneering families in the steady westward crawl of America.
Indians, of course, were part of the old pattern, too. Carson’s first memory of life in Missouri was of the men working the fields as sentries patrolled the perimeter with muskets to guard against Indian attack. A constant low-grade fear was imprinted on Carson’s psyche from an early age. In that sense the Rayado Valley differed little from Missouri. It was dangerous country. A number of hostile Indian tribes lived and hunted in these high grasslands. Utes and Apaches regularly passed through, as did Comanches, Kiowas, and Cheyennes. The previous summer a band of Ute raiders had shot Maxwell in the neck. Maxwell probably would have died had he not been taken to Santa Fe, where a physician removed the ball in “an extremely difficult and painful operation.”
Attacks of this sort were a regular occurrence, and Carson had to remain wary. On the Rayado he kept a guard watching over his cattle by day and by night.
A few days after he pulled away from Aubry’s caravan, James White and his party encountered hostile Indians while camped near the Santa Fe Trail at a spot between Rock Creek and Whetstone Branch. The Indians demanded gifts. White was a proud and stubborn man, and considering his party to be well armed, he refused to pay a toll to these highway thieves. In addition to his wife, their daughter, and their servant, White was accompanied by three men—a German named Lawberger, an unknown American, and a Mexican hand. A little later the party was visited by the same Indians, only this time the warriors appeared in much larger numbers, perhaps as many as a hundred. Still, White was adamant—he would offer them nothing. With rifles loaded, he attempted to drive the Indians from his camp. But they descended in a storm of arrows, promptly killing White’s Mexican escort, who fell into the burning campfire. The travelers attempted to flee but did not get far. Soon the bodies of White and his two other guides bristled with shafts. The Indians scooped up Ann White, her daughter, and the servant, and stole across the prairie.
Some of the murderers, however, stayed behind with White’s carriages. Practicing an old ruse, they hid in the scrub along the road, waiting to ambush the next travelers who might happen along. Soon a party of Mexicans came down the trail. Seeing the dead bodies and the upturned carriages, they began to rummage through White’s belongings, taking whatever looked promising. Then the Indians pounced. After a struggle the Mexicans somehow got away, but not before one of their party, a small boy, was pierced with an arrow. Thinking the boy was dead, the marauders quickly gathered up their loot and scattered.
After the horses’ hoofbeats had faded, the Mexican boy rose up, frightened and disoriented, and staggered down the trail. The arrow was lodged deeply between the bones of his arm, but he could walk. Later that day he was picked up by a caravan of Americans and taken to Santa Fe, where he was able to communicate the details of his ordeal to the authorities.
Soldiers were dispatched to investigate, and the bodies from White’s party were soon found and identified. The abandoned carriages were broken to pieces. Trunks had been pried open and belongings strewn about. It was not altogether clear which tribe of Indians was responsible. The dead had not been scalped or mutilated, which was unusual for a Plains Indian attack. The soldiers buried the bodies by the side of the trail and covered them with rocks to keep the wolves from digging them up. When Francis Aubry learned of the massacre, he immediately put out the word to friends throughout the region, offering a one-thousand-dollar reward for the return of Ann White.
For some time, Kit Carson had sensed a change in the air. He recognized that the once inexhaustible West was shrinking before his eyes. In the mountains above Taos, the population of silvertip grizzlies had dwindled in just a few short years. The great migratory herds of buffalo roaming the plains were fast succumbing to the new tide of immigrants, many of whom slaughtered the beasts for the sheer sick pleasure of it and left the carcasses to rot on the prairie. Indians across the West were finding that their old hunting grounds were being steadily grabbed up by new settlers. Many tribes had been wiped out by smallpox and other European diseases from which they had no immunity. Homesteads were popping up everywhere, it seemed, and there was an unfamiliar traffic in the narrow mud streets of Taos and Santa Fe. Carson saw the tendrils of civilization creeping in; the America he had left behind was finally catching up with him.
In a literal and even legal sense, it had caught up with him. All the West he had known since leaving Missouri as a boy had become, at last, American soil. With the signing of the Guadalupe Hidalgo Treaty in February 1848, the Mexican War officially ended, and the United States officially absorbed 1.2 million square miles of new real estate—increasing the national domain by more than 66 percent. Agreeing to pay the paltry sum of $15 million, Polk had won precisely what he wanted at the outset, a vast, unbroken continental nation with Pacific harbors. Washington’s first war of foreign intervention had cost the lives of more than 13,000 Americans—the highest death rate per fighting soldier in U.S. military history—with the Mexican toll soaring far higher, perhaps as high as 25,000 dead. The victory did not come without stout reservations and pangs of somber introspection among many American leaders who could not ignore the war’s darker imperial shadings. Ulysses S. Grant, to name one prominent doubter who actually fought in the conflict, would call the Mexican War “one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation.” Even Sen. John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, who had at first so staunchly supported the war (as a way to extend slavery), began to have his doubts. He told the Senate: “A deed has been done from which the country will not be able to recover for a long time, if ever; it has dropped a curtain between the present and the future, which to me is impenetrable.”
Nicholas Trist, the American envoy sent to Mexico City to negotiate the treaty, later recalled sitting down with the Mexican officials and trying to hide his guilt about concluding a treaty that sheared from Mexico nearly half of its territory: “Could those Mexicans have seen into my heart at that moment, they would have known that my feeling of shame as an American was strong…. For though it would not have done for me to say so there, that was a thing for every right-minded American to be ashamed of, and I was ashamed of it, most cordially and intensely ashamed of it.”
And yet already, it seemed, the great landgrab had paid off: Scarcely before the ink had dried on the Guadalupe Hidalgo Treaty, gold was discovered in California, and now the rush was on. It’s remotely possible that Kit Carson played a role in disseminating news of the strike; some accounts have suggested that on his second transcontinental journey to Washington, in 1848, Carson carried in his saddlebags one of the first notices of the placer discoveries in the Sierra Nevada. Almost instantly a dusty exodus of people and goods was set in motion. The Santa Fe Trail, the Oregon Trail, and their tributaries were now virtually choked with determined men—“Forty-Niners,” they were called—who had chucked everything for a stake in the California argosy.
From Carson’s point of view, the West was filling up fast with what he took to be untrustworthy characters—outlaws, charlatans, religious zealots, opportunists, schemers, boosters, empire-builders. Yet he seemed scarcely to recognize that by guiding Fremont all over the West, he had been an important catalyst in bringing about these changes; in a sense, Carson had unwittingly fouled his own nest, luring to the West the very sorts of people he loathed.
Everything he touched, it seemed, had withered. The beaver he had trapped were on the verge of extinction. The Indians he had lived among had been decimated by disease. Virgin solitudes he once loved had been captured by the disenchanting tools of the togographers. The annual rendezvous of the mountain men was a thing of the past. Even the seemingly indestructible Bent’s Fort was no more. One day in August 1849, Charles’s brother William decided it was time to start over. Not wanting to sell the great fort to the government, not wanting it to be vandalized and overrun by Indians, he came up with a more dramatic solution: He filled the labyrinthine chambers with kegs of powder and blew parts of his weird, splendid castle to smithereens. If there had been any doubt before, the immolation of Bent’s Fort loudly proclaimed the death of an era.
In this diminished new world, Carson was an anachronism, a buckskin curiosity who had, it seemed, no role left to play other than as a beloved symbol. And he was beloved: Everyone who encountered him seemed to find him inexplicably endearing. An English writer named George Ruxton, who passed through the West shortly after the American occupation, was intrigued by the contrasts within Carson’s personality—his laconic homeliness on the one hand, and his legendary status on the other. Ruxton wrote, “Small in stature, and slenderly limbed, but with muscles of wire, with a fair complexion and quiet, intelligent features, to look at Kit none would suppose that the mild being before him was an incarnate devil in an Indian fight.”
William Tecumseh Sherman, then a young army lieutenant, met Carson briefly in California and expressed a similar astonishment at the scout’s appearance: “I cannot express my surprise at beholding a small, stoop-shouldered man, with freckled face, soft blue eyes, and nothing to indicate extraordinary courage or daring. He spoke but little, and answered questions in monosyllables.” But, Sherman went on, “Carson’s integrity was simply perfect. The Indians knew it and would trust him any day before they would us [soldiers], or the president, either!”
“His voice is as soft and gentle as a woman’s,” wrote George Brewerton in a perceptive article for Harper’s Monthly after having ridden with Carson on one of his transcontinental treks. “The hero of a hundred desperate encounters, whose life has been mostly spent amid wildernesses where the white man is almost unknown, is one of Dame Nature’s gentlemen.” For other people, especially women, Carson’s humility came across as a disconcerting awkwardness. “He was uncouth…a lonely man,” recalled Marian Sloan, an Anglo girl who lived in Santa Fe. “His was a great heart and very kind, yet he wore shyness before his face like a veil.”
The majority of the public apparently saw something beyond the veil, however, for Carson’s fame now spread far and wide. Rivers, lakes, passes, trails, and mountain peaks bore his name. A tiny outpost in Nevada, eventually to become the territorial and then state capital, would be called Carson City. Kit Carson, an elegant steamship launched a year earlier, now threshed the Mississippi and Missouri waters.
Carson was somewhat oblivious to the attention he stirred. Even if it had occurred to him to cash in on his burgeoning fame, he lacked the talents to promote himself, and this only made him more authentic. The man was just plain hard to reach in remote New Mexico and had, up until the summer of 1849, been so constantly on the move that few reporters had gotten a word with him. Keeping himself scarce whetted the public’s appetite, for nothing stokes a myth like inaccessibility.
Carson’s reticence led people to fill in the gaps and project upon him whatever qualities they wanted a frontier hero to have. Most magazine and newspaper writers couldn’t resist the urge to make him taller, stronger, more dashing and more eloquent than he actually was. Once, on the Oregon Trail, Carson happened to encounter a man from Arkansas who’d heard the famous scout was in the vicinity. “I say, stranger, are you Kit Carson?” he demanded. Carson answered in the affirmative, and the man studied him doubtfully. “Look ’ere,” the Arkansan finally said, “you ain’t the kind of Kit Carson I’m looking for.”
It was only a matter of time before popular novelists would take up the character of Kit Carson and shamelessly fictionalize him. That year, 1849, saw the publication of Kit Carson: The Prince of the Gold Hunters, the first pulp fiction paperback featuring Carson as its swashbuckling protagonist. In this forgettable story, written by a hack named Charles Averill, Carson slaughters Indians by the score and predictably rescues a young girl who has been kidnapped by savages. Carson is presented as a great hero who had never lost a battle, a man with “a lynx-like eye and an imperturbable coolness” who is “as little seen as he is widely known.” Carson’s slight stature has, in Averill’s book, swelled to superhuman proportions—he has a “mighty frame,” “massive arms,” “prodigious strength,” and a chest built like “a fortress.” Among other twists, the story involves a prairie fire, a treasure-laden cave, a naïve Harvard student pursued West by an evil miserly uncle, and a perilous escape from Indian captors in which Carson frees his party by having one of his comrades hold a torch to his wrists to sizzle away the ropes that bind him.
Averill’s twenty-five-cent novel was a “blood and thunder,” as the genre was known, a precursor to the modern western, briskly paced and packed with cliffhangers and hair-raising scrapes. Although he claimed the book was “founded on actual facts,” Averill did not make the slightest attempt to learn anything about the real Kit Carson or seek permission to use his name. As one of his actual facts, Averill fabulously asserts that Carson single-handedly “discovered” the goldfields of California. Yet Prince of the Gold Hunters became wildly successful, a best-seller as measured by the standards of its day. More important, many other writers would soon copy Averill’s formula. His was only the first in what would be a long line of hyperbolic thrillers, pulp novels, and juvenile biographies—some seventy books would be written over the years—starring Kit Carson as avenger, rescuer, horseman, and Indian killer, the “Nestor of the Rockies,” the “Happy Warrior,” the “Knight of the Prairie,” the “Captain of Adventure.” He had become an action-figure hero. This lurid body of literature would catapult Carson into a stratosphere of celebrity that few nineteenth-century Americans would ever enjoy.
It was difficult to exaggerate how hungry the nation had become for a single heroic character who could personify the surge of Manifest Destiny that was so dramatically changing the country. Of course, many Americans suspected that stealing land from another sovereign power ran counter to the country’s noblest first principles—as did stealing land roamed for millennia by aborigines who just might be human beings. Certainly, there were doubts tugging at the national excitement. Perhaps the public found comfort in the possibility that extraordinary, and yet also quite ordinary, Anglo-Americans already inhabited this new Western world, exalting American accomplishments while simplifying the stickiest themes of the conquest.
Kit Carson, more than any figure on the Western stage, filled the role. Honest, unassuming, wry around a campfire, tongue-tied around the ladies, clear in his intentions, swift in action, a bit of a loner: He was the prototype of the Western hero. Before there were Stetson hats and barbed-wire fences, before there were Wild West shows or Colt six-shooters to be slung at the OK Corral, there was Nature’s Gentleman, the original purple cliché of the purple sage.
Carson hated it all. Without his consent, and without receiving a single dollar, he was becoming a caricature.
In late October, about a week after the bodies of the White party were discovered, a group of Pueblo Indians reported that they had visited the encampment of some Jicarilla Apaches somewhere out on the plains to the east of the Santa Fe Trail. In the camp they had seen a white American female and her baby, obviously captives and in some distress. When this news reached Santa Fe, a company of 1st Dragoons was immediately dispatched from Taos under the command of Maj. William Grier. Their mission was to track down the Indians and bring Ann White and her daughter back alive. Grier’s mounted soldiers galloped eastward through Taos Canyon to Carson’s ranch on the Rayado. After conferring with the tracker and scout, Major Grier persuaded Carson to come along on the rescue.
Carson was intimately acquainted with the Jicarilla tribe. Since setting up the ranch, he’d had several dealings with them. They were a small branch of the Apaches who ranged across northern New Mexico in tight warrior bands. Like all Apaches, they spoke a dialect of the Athapaskan tongue and were ethnically and linguistically related to, though not friendly with, the Navajos. The Jicarillas had few allies. They were overpowered by larger, better-armed, and more cohesive warrior tribes of the plains, especially the Comanches, who made frequent incursions into their territory.
The Jicarillas were a cornered people, living in the interstices, in the shadow of stronger nations. Years later a spokesman of the Jicarillas would remember this dark time when everyone in the tribe seemed plunged in fear. “At the first sound, even a shout, they all made for the brush,” he recalled. “And whenever they went out on the plains, they were afraid to stay there.”
The tribe’s name derived from its proficiency in constructing tight straw baskets—jicarilla means “little basket” in Spanish. The name bespoke the tribe’s peripatetic lifestyle. The Jicarillas were hunter-gatherers who roamed the watersheds in search of berries, roots, seeds, nuts, and wild plants; as a light and portable means of carrying their foraged foods, baskets were an important part of their culture. Their baskets were reputedly woven so tightly that they could hold liquid. One army account described a raid in which Jicarilla warriors stole a herd of milking cows from the Rayado area; pursuing soldiers found the thieves with the stolen cows surrounded by scores of baskets that were hanging from the trees and filled to their brims with milk. “Evidently,” the reporting officer wrote sardonically, “they were planning to go into the dairy business in a big way.” The Jicarillas were also expert hunters—pursuing elk, deer, antelope, and mountain sheep as well as small game like jackrabbits, squirrels, and beaver. Occasionally they moved out onto the plains to hunt buffalo, but they did so cautiously, for these expeditions only invited Comanche attack.
The Comanches, in turn, were reacting to new pressures of their own. Pushed steadily westward by the rapid settlement of Texas, the slaughter of the Great Plains buffalo herds, and the creation of new reservations for relocated Eastern tribes in the Indian Territory of Oklahoma, the Comanche warriors had stepped up their attacks on the Jicarillas in recent years. Old borders were changing, and nomadic tribes that had traditionally operated over huge areas were now brushing up against one another as never before. American expansion had set in motion a complex chain reaction of social displacements; even in the immense Southwest, there was only so much land to go around.
Since the American occupation of New Mexico, the Jicarilla hunting grounds had consistently thinned as new settlers moved into their already attenuated territory. Squeezed in this way, the Jicarillas turned to raiding. Their agriculture was limited, and they were finding wild game increasingly scarce. They were understandably angered, and at the same time tantalized by new settlements like Maxwell’s growing operation on the Rayado. This was their home turf, and had been for centuries. According to Jicarilla creation stories, their ancestors had emerged into the world not far from here, in a place they broadly referred to as “near the center of the earth.” In the early 1700s, Spanish soldiers had explored “La Jicarilla,” as they called the wild world beyond the mountains, and they briefly considered building a presidio in its midst but then abandoned the idea as impractical—the area was simply too remote and too overrun with warlike Apaches.
Yet now, a century and a half later, the once-proud Jicarilla tribe was tiny—amounting to no more than 1,000 people, possibly only 500. They were not a twentieth as large or as powerful as their Athapaskan cousins, the Navajos, but they were more desperate. In contrast to the Navajos, who principally stole livestock to increase their already considerable wealth in a risky game of status, the Jicarillas stole to survive. In the three years since the American occupation, the Jicarillas had swiped many thousands of sheep from ranchers in northeastern New Mexico. Carson was not surprised to learn that the Jicarillas were behind the massacre of the James White party and the kidnapping of Ann White, her daughter, and servant. For several years the outrages committed by the Jicarillas had been hotly discussed throughout this part of the territory. An army lieutenant stationed in Taos reported in the summer of 1849 that the Jicarillas were “robbing everywhere throughout the mountains.” Col. George A. McGill at the time described the Jicarillas as “troublesome” and “incorrigible,” and darkly predicted that they would “continue to rob and murder our citizens until they are exterminated.”
When he was governor, Charles Bent characterized the Jicarilla Apaches as “a great annoyance” to life in New Mexico. They were “an indolent and cowardly people,” he wrote, “living principally by thefts committed on the Mexicans, there being but little game in the country through which they range, and the fear of other Indians not permitting them to venture on the plains for buffalo.”
Whether these assessments from the capital were accurate, the Jicarilla Apache were not an abstract problem for Kit Carson. To make a success of his ranching enterprise, he had to come to terms with the Jicarillas and the changing constellation of other tribes that surrounded him. The Jicarillas would often drop by Rayado for what Carson and his fellow ranchers called “dinner stops.” They expected food, tobacco, and other presents, and they always came in sufficiently intimidating numbers to lace their visits with the threat of attack.
In dealing with the Jicarillas, Carson drew on the rough art of frontier diplomacy he had learned as a mountain man, a diplomacy that was entirely pragmatic. He understood the importance of holding peace councils and constantly renewing alliances among tribes, but he did not hesitate to attack any band that had attacked him. He practiced the code of swift reprisal that was almost universally practiced by the Indians themselves: Failure to strike back, he understood, would only be interpreted as weakness and inevitably lead to an even bolder assault.
A few months earlier Carson was briefly visited by a man named Charles Pancoast, a Pennsylvanian traveling the Santa Fe Trail en route to the goldfields of California. Pancoast’s diaries leave a vivid portrait of Carson’s work on the ranch and his ongoing troubles with the Jicarilla Apaches. Pancoast described Carson as a “Rocky Mountain Hunter” wearing moccasins and buckskins, with shoulder-length hair and a sombrero to block the summer sun. Carson welcomed Pancoast cordially enough, but the visitor was struck by how taciturn and humble the “famous Mountaineer” was; Pancoast had to goad him to talk about himself, but eventually Carson let down his guard and the two men stayed up late around the campfire, discussing Carson’s adventures. At one point, at Pancoast’s urging, Carson even showed him a few old wounds from his mountain exploits.
Carson was preoccupied with his ranch, which Pancoast said was “not at all stylish.” Carson described the difficulties he’d had in protecting his stock from the ravages of the Apaches. He had made a habit of treating all visiting Indians kindly and lavishing them with gifts, but on at least one occasion he had been forced to ask U.S. soldiers to help him pursue raiders. “Being thoroughly acquainted with the haunts of the Indians,” Pancoast wrote, “he had punished them so severely that they had found it their best policy to make their peace with him. He now enjoyed their Friendship, and often gave them meat; and they no longer molested his stock, although they continued to steal from others.”
Once, Carson brought his family over to the Rayado. Teresina Bent, Charles Bent’s daughter, was living with the Carsons then, and years later she recalled a terrifying encounter the family had with an Indian tribe. Carson had left on a business errand of some sort, and while he was away, a band of Indians, probably Jicarilla Apaches, showed up on the property, demanding food. “We women all set to work cooking,” Teresina recalled, “coffee and meat and whatever else we had.”
The chief of the war party saw me and wanted to buy me to make me his wife. He kept offering horses—ten, fifteen, twenty horses. We acted friendly with the Indians so as not to make the chief angry. My, I was so frightened! And while I carried platters of food from the kitchen, the tears were running down my cheeks. That made the chief laugh. He was bound to buy me, and when they all got through eating he said that they would wait; if I was not delivered to him by the time the sun touched a hill there in the west, he would take me by force. Then he and the warriors went out a little way and camped right in sight of the house. We started to [make] bullets. We were all ready for a siege when, just as the sun touched the hill in the west, Mr. Carson and a company of soldiers came galloping up the valley. The Indians saw them and went away. Then I cried some more, I was so glad. I did not want to go with the dirty chief.
Maj. William Grier and Kit Carson took off from the Rayado ranch with a company of dragoons and sped east some forty miles to the scene of the White massacre. Although it had been several weeks since White and his escorts were slain, Grier and Carson discovered the setting much as the Jicarilla assailants had left it. In his dictated autobiography, he noted that they found “trunks that were broken open, harnesses cut, everything destroyed that the Indians could not carry with them.”
Carson studied the scene closely and gazed out over the endless plains, looking for anything that might tell him which way the Jicarillas had ridden. Tracking was his greatest talent. Plenty of mountain men equaled or surpassed him in other skills, but no one was better than Carson at “reading sign,” as it was called. There was a narrative on the ground if one had the knack for seeing it. By looking for faint patterns imprinted on the land, by studying the individual blades of grass, by analyzing the dung of the horses he was following, an expert tracker could tease out a story from the most fragmentary of facts. He might look for sheeny compactions in the soil, or tiny cinders blown from a far-off campfire, or curious gaps in the spiderwebs strung between trees. He might notice the broken-off limb of a cholla cactus and see a sticky liquid oozing from the wound; by assaying its amount and the quality of its tackiness, he might judge how long ago someone or something had passed through.
It was early November. The skies were iron gray and touched with the cold breath of winter. The signs were almost impossible to read. Carson said it “was the most difficult trail that I ever followed.” Not only were the tracks several weeks old, but they had been further obscured by a light snowstorm. Carson discovered that the Jicarillas had obscured their trail by splitting into different parties after breaking down their camps each morning. These smaller parties, he found, would vector off across the prairie in multiple directions, only to reconvene at some appointed place that evening. Piecing together these byzantine lines was slow and painstaking work, and several times they came close to losing the trail and abandoning the chase. But one day they came upon the residue of a Jicarilla camp, and Carson took heart: Lying in the prairie grass was an article of woman’s clothing.
Several days later they passed the next former Jicarilla encampment, and again Carson found a woman’s garment. He began to think that Ann White had deliberately left a trail of her belongings, like so many crumbs for her rescuers to follow. Seeing these articles encouraged Carson. As he recalled in a characteristic understatement, “It was the cause of renewed energy.”
Major Grier and Carson followed the trail eastward for twelve days, pushing almost to the border of Texas. They passed into the first suggestions of the Staked Plains, a prickly expanse of mesquite, yucca, and cholla cactus. Then Carson spotted fires smoking on the horizon. It was the encampment of several hundred Jicarilla Apaches, under the leadership of a well-known chief named White Wolf, set along the banks of the Canadian River near Tucumcari Butte. As they approached the camp, Grier and his men were spread out over great distances, and a miscommunication occurred. Carson gave the signal to attack, and he started off in a canter toward the encampment. But Grier countermanded Carson’s signal and instead ordered his men to wait and confer. Grier thought it was best to approach the Jicarillas in a conciliatory posture and request a parley with White Wolf. Carson, realizing that he was the only one charging the Jicarilla camp, had to stop abruptly and wheel his horse around.
He strongly disagreed with Grier’s decision to delay. If Ann White was alive and hidden somewhere in the encampment, the Jicarillas would not turn her over without a fight. Grier’s best chance of success, Carson felt, was to surprise the Jicarillas in a lightning assault that gave them no time to react. But now precious minutes were dripping away. The Jicarillas eventually spotted Grier and his men, and began to pack their belongings in haste. The element of surprise had been entirely lost. Several more minutes went by and still the dragoons waited. One of the Jicarillas picked up his rifle and shot Grier in the chest from a distance of several hundred yards. It was an extraordinary bit of marksmanship, but the Jicarilla rifleman was too far away to do much damage. The ball tore through Grier’s clothes and knocked the wind out of him but caused only a slight bruise.
Recovering from the shock, Major Grier finally gave the order to charge. Yet, Carson argued, “The order was too late for the desired effect.” By the time dragoons reached the camp, the Jicarillas had dispersed, spreading out in all directions. “There was only one Indian in the camp,” Carson recalled. “He, swimming into the river hard by, was shot.” Some of the dragoons took off in pursuit of the fleeing Jicarillas, killing one and taking several prisoners.
But then Carson spotted something. About two hundred yards from the campsite, a figure was sprawled on the hard-baked plain. The men rode over to inspect and found to their dismay that it was the corpse of an American woman. Ann White had been shot through the heart with a single arrow. “She was perfectly warm,” Carson said, “and had not been killed more than five minutes.” By the looks of things, she must have known that her rescuers were at hand. She had been running away from the Jicarillas. Carson wrote, “It was apparent that she was endeavoring to make her escape when she received the fatal shot.”
Carson studied Ann White’s face. It was obvious to him that she had been horribly mistreated. “She was emaciated,” he later told a friend, “the victim of a foul disease, and bore the sorrows of a lifelong agony on her face.” Probably she had been passed among the warriors and repeatedly raped, Carson said, as “the prostitute of the tribe.” A soldier in the party later wrote that Mrs. White was “a frail, delicate, and very beautiful woman, but having undergone such usage as she suffered nothing but a wreck remained; it was literally covered with blows and scratches. Her countenance even after death indicated a hopeless creature. Over her corpse, we swore vengeance upon her persecutors.” Carson believed that Ann White had been fatally ill. “She could not possibly have lived long,” he said. “Her life, I think, should never be regretted by her friends. She is surely far more happy in heaven, with her God, than among friends of this earth.”
Although he kept his opinions to himself, Carson was plainly furious with Major Grier. Carson felt “certain that if the Indians had been charged immediately on our arrival,” Ann White might have been saved. The men buried her in the prairie and then began to pick through the various belongings the Jicarillas had left in their camp. One of the soldiers discovered a book that the White family had evidently brought with them from Missouri, a paperback novel starring none other than Kit Carson. Almost certainly it was Charles Averill’s blood and thunder, Kit Carson: The Prince of the Gold Hunters. Carson could not read it, of course, but later, perhaps over the campfire, one of the soldiers regaled him with passages from the story. “Kit Carson! His lip, that proud, that determined lip, was compressed with the firmness of a rock between his clenched teeth as he held his devoted hand within the flame, scorching it to the very bone!”
This was the first time that the real Kit Carson had come in contact with his own myth. “The book was the first of its kind I had ever seen, in which I was made a great hero, slaying Indians by the hundred,” Carson said. At first he was vaguely amused by this colorful novel, but then he began to think of Ann White. He imagined her reading it while enduring her miserable captivity. In Averill’s story, Kit Carson finds the kidnapped girl and saves the day, fulfilling his vow to her distraught parents back in Boston that he would scour the American West until she was found. But in this instance the real Kit Carson had failed to avert a disaster; he feared Averill’s fiction may have given Ann White a false hope. “Knowing that I lived near,” Carson said, “I have often thought that as Mrs. White read the book, she prayed for my appearance and that she would be saved.” Neither Ann White’s daughter nor her servant were ever found.
The White murder would haunt Kit Carson—“I have much regretted the failure to save the life of so esteemed a lady,” he wrote a decade later—and he would continue to be troubled by the implications of his growing celebrity. He insisted that everything in Charles Averill’s book was a lie. Later, when a friend offered him a copy of his own, Carson threatened to “burn the damn thing.”
The Santa Fe New Mexican reported the White case’s tragic end on November 28, 1849. “We learn,” the paper noted dolefully, “that the wife of the late Mr. J.M. White has at last been deprived of her sufferings, having been shot by the Indians.” The paper’s editors went on to insist that this murder, along with the “recent butchery of Mr. White,” called for “a terrible and immediate retribution. The tribes surrounding this Territory should be confined to certain fixed limits and there should be compelled to remain under penalty of utter annihilation. It is folly to think of securing peace by making treaties with these Indians. They must be forced to a complete submission.”