Modern history


Chapter 39


The Texans were gone, yet still the war was not over. In the welcome calm, New Mexico awoke to realize that while the army had been preoccupied with ejecting Confederate invaders from the territory’s front yard, the Navajos had been attacking from the rear. Manuelito and the other warriors did not understand why the two bilagaana armies were fighting one another. They could not have guessed the underlying concepts of secession, or states’ rights, or the hovering issue of slavery as it was practiced in a wet, green world that existed somewhere far to the east, beyond the Staked Plains.

But the Diné quickly saw opportunities in the conflict. Many of the American forts were abandoned, and along the Rio Grande the flocks still grazed, ripe for the taking. The chain of logic wasn’t complicated: American soldiers were somewhere else, so the Navajos pounced. Emboldened by what they correctly perceived as a power vacuum, and still outraged over the massacre at Fort Fauntleroy, the Diné warriors raided almost without check through the drought-stricken year of 1862. William Arny, a former Indian agent who was now territorial secretary, estimated that New Mexico’s property losses to Indian raiders in 1862 amounted to $250,000; more than thirty thousand sheep were stolen by the Navajos that year. James Collins, superintendent of Indian affairs in New Mexico, reported that the record of murders committed by Navajos had become “truly frightful…This death list is not made up of a few lives lost. Its number will extend to nearly three hundred for the past eighteen months.”

Something had to be done—the people of the territory cried out for retribution as never before. The Santa Fe Gazette clamored for all-out war, reminding its readers that “for months the bells of your sacred edifices have tolled the obsequies of your slaughtered citizens.”

And so Col. Edward Canby, in his own slow and methodical way, turned his attention to the matter. In the late spring of 1862 he began to formulate plans for a campaign into Navajo country unlike any other. It would be ambitious, it would be decisive, and it would result in the creation of a true Navajo reservation far to the west, carved from Diné land, possibly along the Little Colorado River in what is now northeastern Arizona. As far as Canby was concerned, the time for half measures had passed; this would be the ultimate solution, the endgame. The colonel wrote to his superiors in Washington that “there is now no choice between the Navajos’ absolute extermination or their removal and colonization at points so remote from the settlements as to isolate them entirely from the inhabitants of the Territory.”

Canby’s plan would not come to fruition, not exactly, not in the way he envisioned. History would have played out quite differently, for Edward Canby was above all a practical man, and the campaign he was planning, however ruthless, would have been far better for Navajos and non-Navajos alike than what was to come. But in the summer of 1862, Canby was promoted to general and recalled to serve in the East. His plodding but sensible mind was needed in the frantic halls of wartime Washington. That fall, Canby was replaced by another career frontier soldier, a formidable figure of the West who had his own deeply held notions about the Navajo conflict.


How to describe the singular personality of Brig. Gen. James Henry Carleton? A pedant, a prig, a man who thought of everything and whose perfectionism seldom gave him an occasion to apologize. But also an officer of rare excellence, rigid ethics, fine manners, and multifaceted competence. An officer with a probing but perhaps overly tidy intellect. In another place, in another time, perhaps in another profession, James Carleton might have been a great man of towering good deeds. Instead, his entrance upon the stage of New Mexico during the late summer of 1862 resulted in one of the most tragic collisions in the U.S. government’s long, sorry relationship with Native Americans.

It would be facile to call him, as many have, a villain and a fiend and be done with it. But Carleton was a much more nuanced man than he is usually given credit for. He wasn’t an entirely unlikable man—many people found him extremely gracious and kind. As a friend he was steadfast to a fault. His hobbies and interests were refreshingly eclectic. He climbed mountains, collected rare seeds, read voraciously. He had a talent for waltzing. Though he did not attend college, he knew eminent figures of science and literature, men such as Audubon and Longfellow. He penned authoritative articles for the Smithsonian Institution about archaeological ruins, one of his great loves. He wrote the first comprehensive book on perhaps the most crucial engagement of the Mexican War, the Battle of Buena Vista, where he served with distinction under Gen. Zachary Taylor.

Perhaps self-conscious about not being a West Pointer, Carleton had made it his life’s work to catch up with his better-connected colleagues by outdoing them in abstrusities of military science, natural history, and other fields befitting a gentleman officer of his day. Whatever it was that drove him, Carleton was a perpetual motion machine, always burrowed in some interesting pet project or cranny of amusement. He was, for example, the nation’s foremost military expert on the cavalry tactics of the Russian Cossacks, having made a formal study of the matter at Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania. From time to time, during his nearly constant Western travels, he took it upon himself to ship unusual minerals and specimens of flora and fauna to Harvard University. He had a facility for boat design—he was especially fond of building Mackinaws. Perhaps his greatest extracurricular hobby was meteorites, and while in Arizona he discovered an important one, a 632-pound hunk of cosmic metal—“discarded by Vulcan himself”—that he hauled all the way to San Francisco (to this day it’s still known as the Carleton Meteorite).

Forty-eight years old, he was a New England Calvinist with the posture of a lamppost. There was a snap and rigor to his movements that fairly telegraphed his titanic work ethic. His sun-crisped face, hedged in a trim topiary of muttonchop sideburns, projected the intellectual pugnacity of Teddy Roosevelt. In photographic portraits, his pronounced jaw is often tensed, his teeth gritted, his lupine eyes trained on something far away, as though he were intensely preoccupied with another, better world. Carleton by all accounts liked the sound of his own voice and had much to say, enunciating with shrill precision in the flinty inflections of his native Maine.

It can’t be said that Carleton came out of nowhere. On the contrary, he was a well-established and highly regarded officer, the cream of the frontier army. Carleton seemed to know everyone: U. S. Grant, William Sherman, John C. Fremont, George McClellan, George Crook, the whole pantheon. His wife Sophia was the niece of Gen. John Garland. As a young officer, Carleton had trained as a proud dragoon at Fort Leavenworth under the late great Stephen Watts Kearny, and it was General Kearny, that consummate soldier-student of the prairie, whom Carleton seems to have consciously emulated.

Over his long career as a dragoon, Carleton had ridden all over the West—from Oklahoma to Utah to California—and he had dealt with countless Indian tribes. The only place he had lingered for any length of time, however, was New Mexico. For five years during the 1850s, he had been stationed at various forts in the territory, chasing Indians, protecting immigrant trains, and immersing himself in the peculiar problems of the Southwest. In those years he had seemed to hate everything about the place save its magnificent ruins. He once wrote with disgust that the local people of New Mexico were “utterly ignorant of everything beyond their corn fields and acequias” and noted a “universal proclivity for rags, dirt, and filthiness. The national expression of quien sabe (who knows?) appears deeply written on every face.”

Carleton believed that the Navajo conflict was the largest reason for New Mexico’s depressing backwardness; the wars sapped resources, rendered enterprise impractical, made travel unsafe, produced a perpetual cycle of enslavement, and gave life in the territory a quality of chronic despair. He recognized that if slavery was the underlying issue of the Civil War as it was being fought in the East, then slavery was also the underlying issue here. As a New England Calvinist from an abolitionist state, he could not countenance the concept of human chattel. There was no hope for any advancement in New Mexico until the citizens confronted what he called “this great evil.”

He had been away for five years, and during his absence he’d thought long and hard about how to solve “the Navajo problem.” Now, for better or worse, New Mexico would experience the second coming of James Henry Carleton.

To reach the territory, he had marched all the way from California, leading a column of fifteen hundred soldiers and miner volunteers. He had come with the original intention of helping Canby repulse the invading Texans. By the time he reached the Rio Grande, however, the main action was over. Carleton and his California column did successfully flush the territory’s southern precincts of avowed Confederates; he instituted martial law and reclaimed Tucson, Mesilla, and other important southern towns for the Union. But he and his men were sorely disappointed to have missed out on the laurels of real battle.

Then, in September 1862, he was named commander of the 9th Military Department, and Carleton rode north to assume his office in Santa Fe.

For the next four years he would preside over New Mexico virtually as a dictator. But he was an uncommon kind of despot: a Puritan schoolmaster with a zeal for social engineering, a martinet of the cod liver oil–dispensing, this-is-for-your-own-good variety. He was a utopian in an odd sense, and a Christian idealist. Carleton saw a perfect world on the horizon but could not imagine the real-world horrors that would be required to reach it. C. L. Sonnichsen, a historian of the Southwest Indian wars, wrote that if Carleton had “never had to function as God in a war-torn and distracted country, his determination and organizing ability might have been put to better use. He had intelligence and foresight, driving energy, and a consuming ambition to do well. His trouble was that he could not admit an error, or take a backward step.”


It was his abiding fascination with Indians, with their dying habits and vanishing worlds, that originally brought Carleton to the West.

Born in 1814, the son of a shipmaster who died young, James Henry grew up on Maine’s Penobscot Bay in the misty coastal village of Castine. His family was poor, but rich in Yankee blue blood—his mother was a Phelps, a venerable Puritan name, and Carletons had been living in New England since the 1660s. Both lines of his family had mottoes and coats-of-arms and sterling genealogies they were proud to recite.

The time of Carleton’s youth was a fragile period in the history of eastern Maine. During the War of 1812, British forces had occupied most of Maine east of the Penobscot River and annexed the territory to New Brunswick. Much of it was an unknown, blackfly-ridden wilderness that had never been properly surveyed and had been in dispute since the Revolutionary War. Like many other American loyalists, the Carleton family became exiles, forced to abandon their original home on what became British-held Moose Island. All through his boyhood the lingering boundary dispute remained a volatile subject, and clouds of war constantly threatened (the border was not finally settled, in fact, until 1842). Some have speculated that it was Carleton’s memory of this unpleasant experience from his adolescence—of his family having to endure a bitter, protracted, worrisome dispute along what amounted to a wild frontier—that gave him later in life such an urgent impatience to solve the Navajo problem with clean, stark finality. Whether by constitution or experience, Carleton was a man who hated social messiness.

Apart from the boundary dispute and the early passing of his father (the boy was only fifteen when John Carleton died), James Henry’s childhood seems to have been happy. Carleton grew up as a “salt-water Yankee,” spending his summers along the Penobscot River and the rocky coastline, fussing with boats, hunting for clams, fishing for quoddies. His friend David Barker (who later became known as the “Robert Burns of Maine”) wrote a poem to Carleton about their adolescent years together that captures the mood of those times:

When happiness lived up this way

When feet could stroll and hearts could beat

And never feel fatigue

Those times we swam and fished and sailed

Upon old Kenduskeag

Yet even back in those salad days, Carleton vaguely yearned for the Western frontier and sensed that his destiny lay there. Though his formal schooling was shaky, he had ambitions to be a novelist, and like many aspiring writers of his generation, he was drawn to the narratives of Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, and other American authors who made the frontier a central theme. Carleton was a tireless composer of letters and seems to have made a habit of writing to prominent writers, seeking advice. When he was twenty-four he wrote a letter to Charles Dickens, in which he professed his literary ambitions and his desire to write stories about the “aborigines” of the West. In the letter, he suggested that if he could not make a go of his career in America, he was considering moving to England and trying his hand there. He then somewhat impertinently asked if he might come to London and call on the great novelist as a friend.

To his shock, Dickens actually replied.

The letter, dated March 27, 1839, is quite lengthy. In it, Dickens vehemently suggests that Carleton by all means stay in the United States and write. “I cannot but think that good tales—especially such as you describe, connected with the customs and history of America’s aboriginal inhabitants who every day become more interesting as their numbers diminish—would surely find patrons and readers in her great cities.” Adopting a tone of paternal kindness cut with just a hint of don’t-quit-your-day-job exasperation, Dickens offers very sensible advice: “Satisfy yourself beyond all doubt that you are qualified for the course to which you now aspire…and try to achieve something in your own land before you venture on a strange one.” Finally, Dickens says that if Carleton came to London, he may or may not call on him as a friend—it was a question he simply could not answer. “To pledge myself to find a friend in a man whom I have never seen and with the whole tenor of whose thoughts and feelings I am unacquainted—as I find them expressed in one enthusiastic letter—would be to prostitute the term.”

Ironically, even as Dickens’s letter of advice was steaming across the Atlantic, young Carleton was preparing to fight against the countrymen of the famous novelist. Like thousands of Maine youths, Carleton joined the militia to engage a mounting force of English-Canadian troops in what became known as the Aroostook War. This conflict was only the latest chapter of the Northeastern boundary controversy, a crisis that proved bloodless in the end but gave Carleton his first taste of military life.

That same year, Carleton joined the regular U.S. Army and trained at the Cavalry School of Practice, in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. In 1840 he married Henrietta Tracy Loring, a fair young Boston Brahmin with beautiful brown curls. The couple was married only a year, however: In 1841, while stationed with her husband at Fort Gibson on the Arkansas River, Henrietta died, probably of malaria. Her body was shipped back to Massachusetts and buried in Cambridge.

Racked with grief, the widowed Carleton threw himself into his army career. Perhaps because of his prickly personality and his sometimes overzealous desire to fulfill the letter of military protocol, he had a penchant for getting into soldierly altercations—one of which resulted in a brief suspension and reassignment. He was a difficult man to deal with, the sort of man who would not back down.

True to his correspondence with Dickens, Carleton remained fascinated by American Indians and carefully documented his prairie experiences in a series of logbooks that were later published. At Fort Croghan, near Council Bluffs, Carleton was intrigued to interview a tribe of Plains Indians who had a grotesque habit of grinding up the dried remains of their enemies into a lucky powder, which they stored in their medicine bags. He also met a Potawatomi warrior who ate the heart of one of his foes. “Make heap strong,” Carleton says the Indian told him. “Like him very much—great medicine.”

On the Missouri River, in October 1843, Carleton befriended James Audubon, who was then traveling the West studying and sketching quadrupeds. In his journal, the great naturalist called Carleton “a fine companion and a perfect gentleman” and presented him with a signed plate from a recent study of the Oregon flying squirrel. Carleton, in turn, gave Audubon a bearskin and a fine set of elk horns.

Carleton’s years as a young frontier soldier were by all accounts his happiest. Among his many adventures, he accompanied a unit of dragoons, led by Colonel Kearny, on a march of more than two thousand miles from Fort Leavenworth to the South Pass of the Rocky Mountains; the young officer loved every step of the odyssey. Carleton’s logbooks are filled with paeans to life in the frontier army. In one passage he rhapsodizes about “the white tents standing in long rows over the green grass, the blue smoke curling upward, the athletic figures of the soldiers intent upon their duties…surrounded by nature in all her purity…on fields no plough has ever furrowed, in groves no axe has ever sullied.” Returning to Fort Leavenworth after a long campaign, Carleton writes that all he can think about is returning to the trail, noting that his heart “would pant with impatience to mount and be away again” with his “staunch and cheerful comrades, the roasted buffalo ribs, the broiled venison and the coffee, the sociable pipe and the accompanying story, joke and song.”

But even his pristine prairie was starting to see major changes. Along the Oregon Trail, he marveled at the dusty spectacle of the wagon trains—so many hopeful immigrants pushing West, “all going to the other side of the mountains to bury their bones there and never return.” In one passage from his logbooks, Carleton fairly swelled with a national—even racial—pride at the seemingly endless caravans plodding along: “Judging from the way they go on, by the time the leading company reaches the valley of the Columbia, there will be a broad stream of the real Anglo-Saxon stock stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific, a regular Life-river traveling at a steady three-knot current.”


The Mexican War abruptly ended Carleton’s frontier idyll, and he soon found himself fighting under Gen. Zachary Taylor in Monterrey. It was a very different war against a very different enemy. The light and supple dragoon tactics he had honed under Kearny proved irrelevant; in most of the action Carleton witnessed, the fighting was pitched and concentrated, and heavy artillery carried the day.

The battle of Buena Vista, the engagement Carleton fought in and subsequently wrote about, was a turning point of the war—quite possibly the turning point. For two murderous days in February 1847, in a mountain pass not far from Saltillo, Taylor’s force of 5,000 Americans managed to rout an army of 14,000 Mexicans serving under Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, the phoenix-like, one-legged generalissimo. In his combat narrative, Carleton describes the morning of the battle as “unusually bright and clear,” with the sunlight “seeming to cover with flashing diamonds the burnished Mexican weapons…and the fluttering pennons of what appeared to be a countless forest of lances.” Carleton vividly recalls the curious quiet in the pass, and then the sudden fury of the battle’s opening fusillade: “The sharp rattle of musketry, the sullen reply of the rifle and the bugle-calls, intermingled with the shouts of those who were struggling high up the mountain…the rushing sound of the balls as they tore up the ground in the midst of us, or went screaming through the air—all will come back to memory until [we] shall be old men.”

The gruff General Taylor is supposed to have acted so coolly during the heat of battle (or so a popular story went) that when he spotted a small cannonball hurtling directly toward him, he nonchalantly rose in his stirrups to let the ball pass between his derriere and his saddle. That one was doubtless apocryphal, but the general did became famous for a command he casually issued during the battle to a young artilleryman, Braxton Bragg. Grumbling in his phlegmy voice, Taylor asked the gunner to pack the howitzers with more lead shot. “Maybe,” the general suggested, “you should give ’em a little more grape, Captain Bragg.”

Another artillery captain who made a name for himself on the battlefield at Buena Vista was the young John M. Washington, who would, a few years later, put his ordnance acumen to more dubious use in the absurd shelling of the aged Narbona and other fleeing Navajos during the first expedition into Navajo country.

Santa Anna’s defeat at Buena Vista marked the beginning of the end of his spirited homeland defense. Leaving their campfires burning, he and his tattered army retreated to Mexico City in semidisgrace and prepared for the inevitable American onslaught. It was said that he brandished his prosthetic cork leg over his head when troops questioned his dedication to the republic.

Many of the officers who fought at Buena Vista—including John Wool, Jefferson Davis, and the aforementioned Braxton Bragg—would swiftly rise in rank and apply the lessons of their hard-won experience, with brutal efficiency, on the battlefields of the Civil War. As for the commanding general, the battle of Buena Vista made Zachary Taylor an almost immediate national hero and catapulted him to the White House with the pitch-perfect campaign slogan “A Little More Grape.”

The battle also cemented James Carleton’s career: The able young lieutenant was cited for gallantry and double-promoted to major. Contracting a serious illness—possibly dysentery—he was sent back to Washington on sick leave, and it was during his convalescence there and in Boston that he started writing about his war experiences while courting and marrying his second wife, Sophia Garland Wolfe. Carleton’s book, The Battle of Buena Vista, published by Harper Brothers in 1848, was well received by the popular press and closely read by War Department officials as well as President Taylor himself. Mostly the book is a nitty-gritty battle narrative, clear and concise if a little purple, but at times Carleton lapses into passages of gross hyperbole. “When all is carefully considered,” he writes in his gushy conclusion, “the Battle of Buena Vista will probably be regarded as the greatest ever fought on this continent; and it may be doubted if there can be found one that surpasses it in the history of any nation or of any age.”


Glorious though he made it sound, the Mexican War was really only a brief interlude for Carleton, an aberration in a career almost exclusively spent fighting, policing, and studying Indians. He gladly returned to the life he loved as a frontier dragoon and soon found himself stationed in New Mexico. It was there, during the early 1850s, that Major Carleton struck up a lasting and improbable friendship with Kit Carson.

Their first meeting was occasioned by an incident that befell Carson on the Santa Fe Trail in the summer of 1851. Carson was returning from a trip to Missouri to retrieve his now sixteen-year-old daughter Adaline and bring her back to New Mexico to live. He and Adaline were traveling in a small party of about a dozen people that included several Mexican trail hands, Carson’s niece Susan, and her new husband, a young man named Jesse Nelson.

Somewhere in western Kansas, the party had a sticky encounter with a village of hostile Cheyenne Indians. Carson was confident at first that trouble could be averted; for he knew the southern Cheyennes well—his second wife had been a member of the tribe—and the Cheyennes were closely tied, by blood and friendship, to the Bent clan. What Carson didn’t know was that this particular band had recently been “chastised” by a column of U.S. Army soldiers. Apparently an inebriated American officer had publicly flogged a Cheyenne for some minor infraction, and the man’s whole band, which like many Plains tribes did not countenance this sort of physical violence outside of battle, considered the punishment an unforgivable insult. (Days later, when Carson learned about the flogging, he instantly understood its cultural repercussions; in his autobiography he sneers with contempt at the perpetrator: “I presume courage was oozing from his fingertips, and since the Indians were in his power, he wished to be relieved of such a commodity.”)

In any case, the humiliated Indian and his band were now on a quest for revenge: Any whites would do, preferably the first ones they saw, and Carson’s party fit the bill. It didn’t matter that Carson was ignorant of the original offense. This was a tribal ethic Carson knew all too well and had practiced himself, as a trapper and as a guide with Fremont. Now Carson uncomfortably found himself on the opposite side of the same retributive code by which he had lived for years.

Sensing from the start that something was seriously wrong, Carson kept his cool and invited the Indians into his camp for a smoke. There, the Cheyenne began talking among themselves, not realizing that Carson understood their language. Carson says in his autobiography that the Cheyenne were plotting to kill him then and there (along with those members of his party they did not choose to kidnap). “I understood them to say that while I was smoking and not on my guard they could easily kill me with a knife,” he writes. “As for the Mexicans with me, they could kill them as easily as buffalo.”

Carson instantly intervened, glaring at his guests. “I do not know the cause of your wishing my scalp,” he says he told them in Cheyenne. “I’ve done you no injury, and welcomed you as friends. Now you must leave!”

The Indians looked at each other awkwardly, not knowing what to do. According to Jesse Nelson there were a few tense moments, with arrows drawn and guns pointed and one Cheyenne warrior threatening Carson with a tomahawk. Then the Cheyenne rose from the smoke and slinked away toward their horses.

Carson shouted after them, “If you come back, you’ll be shot.”

He struck his camp and proceeded west on the trail until dusk. Under cover of darkness he dispatched a messenger to ride ahead on his fastest horse to seek assistance from a small garrison of U.S. soldiers stationed near his ranch on the Rayado. The rider took off into the night. The following morning Carson discovered to his dismay that now hundreds of Cheyenne, their faces fairly seething with bad intent, were closely trailing his party.

Carson engaged the Cheyenne in another blunt conversation. “I have sent a rider ahead,” he said, confident that his swift messenger had now ridden too far for the Cheyenne to overtake him. “I have many friends among the soldiers. If you kill us, they will know it was you and they will find you. Our deaths will be avenged.”

The admonition seems to have worked. The Cheyenne dispersed, though they still followed Carson at a distance.

A few days later a small detachment of well-armed dragoons, led by Maj. James Henry Carleton, came galloping up the trail, rushing to Carson’s aid after having ridden more than a hundred lathered miles. And so the two men met for the first time—the crisp, arrogant dragoon and the celebrity hayseed, now vastly relieved, standing perhaps a little bashfully on the plains with his frightened half-breed daughter at his side.

It is possible that in this first encounter, Carleton had saved Carson’s life—and the lives of Adaline and the rest of the party. It was the sort of personal indebtedness that Carson, in his very soul, could never forget.

They were an unlikely pair: the odd couple of the West, perhaps even odder than Carson and Fremont had been. But now it was sealed: The two men would be friends for life.


A few months later, Major Carleton had an occasion to venture to the southern part of the territory to survey the Pecos River. Though it seemed a prosaic assignment, it was, for Carleton, a fateful trip—and so it would become for the Navajo.

At the time, the course of New Mexico’s second longest and second most important river (after the Rio Grande) was something of a mystery. The Pecos, a crystalline trout stream in its mountainous upper reaches, spilled from the Sangre de Cristo wilderness behind Santa Fe and swirled east past the Pecos ruins and several Mexican villages that drew sustenance from it. Then the river turned south and ran in a straight shot, becoming progressively warmer, slower, and more alkaline as it dropped through red rock mesas and willow-choked sand flats.

The Pecos was known to flow at least as far as the town of Anton Chico. After that, it vanished into oblivion—at least it did on maps. Some called it a “lost river,” though it never really went anywhere but south, into precincts of thorny desolation.

In February 1852, Carleton was sent with a contingent of dragoons to follow with precision where the Pecos led, and to learn whether there might be a place, somewhere downriver, to build an army fort.

Carleton and his men traced the river for nearly a hundred unappealing miles, through stingy country of mesquite and cholla cactus, occasionally glimpsing buffalo in the grasslands to the east. They moved across a hard yellow plate of dirt that lay beneath a pitiless sky prone to weird weather, abrupt storms, leveling gusts. He was not far from the border of Texas and the swallowing hopelessness of the Staked Plains, a place so featureless and vast that early Spanish explorers, Theseus-like, were said to hammer stakes into the ground every league they crept along to mark a sure path for their safe return.

Then Carleton began to grow encouraged. The river opened up into a broad valley. Miles of hoary cottonwoods lined the banks. Deer and antelope and wild turkey flitted in the thick timber. One place in the valley especially caught his eye, an abrupt elbow in the river where the soil was chocolate brown. There were duck and beaver and deep pools that promised fine fish. Compared to the blistered country all around, it was an oasis.

The place was an old meeting ground for Indians of the southern plains. Comanches, Kiowas, Mescalero Apaches, and sometimes Spanish buffalo hunters would gather here seasonally to trade and smoke and drink in the cool shade of the big trees. Hemmed by the river’s sinuous curve, the cottonwood grove here grew in a thick circular clump, and it was because of this that the Spanish had long called the place Bosque Redondo: The Round Forest.

Carleton was smitten. In his mind’s eye, he saw irrigated farms, houses, a meeting hall, a steepled church perhaps—the marks of civilization as he’d known it back east. He studied the soil and pronounced it excellent, comparable if not preferable to the black loam of the Missouri Valley. He noted that the dried stalks of sunflowers, now brittle and clicking in the wind, reached higher than the head of a man mounted on a horse. The surrounding grama grass was rank and luxuriant, and the supply of wood seemingly inexhaustible. One of his men shot a plump turkey, which Carleton found “flavorful.”

Carleton reported that Bosque Redondo was “a most excellent point for the establishment of a strong cavalry post,” but he seemed to harbor even greater notions about its purpose. In his enthusiasm, he was moved to hack a thick pole out of a cottonwood trunk and drive it into the ground to mark the spot where he thought the fort should go.

The Round Forest—he would never turn loose of the place, or the idea. For years he talked about it when no one would listen. Even though Bosque Redondo lay far from everything, marooned in the meanest Comanche country, he urged his superiors to make something of this Edenic spot. It was his own private vision, the seed of a solution taking root in his mind to problems yet unforeseen, a shimmering place he marked for something grand.


James Carleton’s friendship with Kit Carson deepened throughout the major’s five-year military tour in New Mexico. Both married, with growing families, the two men didn’t have vices to share; they weren’t drinking buddies or gamblers, though they did meet every so often as fellow Masons in the new Santa Fe hall. Carson seems to have genuinely liked Carleton and found him a dazzling font of energy. As with Fremont, Kit was impressed by Carleton’s erudition, by his high standing in the regular army, and by his connections to the world back east.

Carleton, on the other hand, found Carson a bit rough around the edges for his tastes—at least at first. He suspected that the newspaper accounts of Carson’s talents were greatly overblown. But then the major changed his mind. In the spring of 1854 he happened to witness the scout pulling off one of the most storied feats of his career—this one entirely true—and his esteem for Kit Carson was cemented.

In late May of that year, Carleton hired Carson to guide him on a hastily arranged campaign to recover stolen horses from the Jicarilla Apaches, who had been especially restive that spring. The two men left Taos with several companies of dragoons and pushed north into Colorado, crossing the jagged Sangre de Cristo Mountains. When they reached the brink of the prairie, Carson discerned a faint trail—about as faint as the trail he had followed in 1849 while pursuing the kidnapped Ann White and her baby.

Carson was not overly optimistic this time, for the trail was cold and he considered the Jicarillas the hardest of all Southwestern tribes to track. But a few items he found jettisoned on the trail convinced him these were indeed Jicarillas, and after several days of patiently reading sign, the trail grew warm.

One morning over breakfast, Carson confidently told Major Carleton that they would intercept the Jicarillas that very day. Then he went further, saying it would be precisely at two that afternoon. Carleton was highly doubtful of Carson’s specificity—and told him so—but the scout clung to his prediction.

So Carleton proposed a little wager: If the tribe they were following proved to be Jicarillas after all, and if the dragoon party overtook them without incident at two o’clock, he would buy Carson the finest beaver felt hat that could be purchased in New York City. For Carson this was quite a proposition, for not only were beaver hats extremely dear, but in all his years as a beaver trapper, he had apparently never owned the finished product of his cold, wet labors.

The two men shook on it.

That afternoon they spotted the Jicarillas encamped in a natural grass amphitheater in the Raton Mountains, not far from the Santa Fe Trail. Carleton glanced at his watch and cursed under his breath. It was seven minutes past two.

The astounded major later wrote without hesitation that “Kit Carson is justly celebrated as the best tracker among white men in the world.” The dragoons attacked, and though most of the Jicarillas escaped, Carleton succeeded in recapturing forty rustled horses and loads of stolen loot.

Carson insisted he had lost the bet by seven minutes, but Carleton said it was close enough. Through the mail he ordered a beaver felt hat from a prestigious haberdasher in New York, and when it arrived in Taos a few months later, Carson could not stifle his grin.

On the inside band, a gilt-lettered inscription read: AT 2 o’CLOCK, KIT CARSON, FROM MAJOR CARLETON.

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