Modern history

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Chapter 46

CROSSING PURGATORY

That same week, Kit Carson lay two hundred miles away on a pallet of buffalo robes, on the dirt floor of his doctor’s quarters. He was propped up in an awkward, half-sitting posture, one that allowed him to breathe more easily. For the last few days he had been spitting up blood. His physician, Dr. Henry Tilton, had told him that bloody sputum would be the sure sign of his condition’s final stages—proof that his aneurysm was leaking into his trachea. And so now, with each raspy cough, Carson could not help studying his own spit, with a kind of dreadful curiosity, to see how much time he had left.

He was at a dreary place called Fort Lyon, an army outpost in southeastern Colorado Territory on the Arkansas River, not far from the site of Bent’s Fort. Dr. Tilton, the young post surgeon at Fort Lyon, had decided to bring Carson here so he could watch him around the clock. Outside the one-room stone house, spring had finally arrived. Along the river, the cottonwoods issued new green leaves. Just a few hundred yards away, the Arkansas ran swollen with Rocky Mountain snowmelt.

Carson could press against his lower neck and feel a bulge steadily growing. His upper chest was under pressure, his heart often raced, and at times he thought he was suffocating. His air passages constantly seized with spasms. To ease his cough, he’d been given a bottle of opium distilled in a syrup of wild cherry, and to regulate his heartbeat he took a tincture of a muscle sedative called veratrum. When the pain became too great, Dr. Tilton knelt at his side to administer chloroform. The doctor warned him that the chloroform itself might kill him, that it was hard to know precisely what dosage might be lethal.

Carson did not care. “He begged me not to let him suffer such tortures,” Dr. Tilton later wrote, “and if I killed him by attempting relief, it would be much better than death by suffocation.”

“What am I to do?” Carson said at one point. “I can’t get along without a doctor.”

Dr. Tilton assured him that he would not leave his side. “I’ll take care of you.”

“You must not think I’m going to live long,” Carson said with a smile. “If it wasn’t for this,” he said, thumping his chest, “I might live to be a hundred.”

In the intervals when he was feeling better, Carson had spent much of the past few weeks listening to his own story. Dr. Tilton had a copy of The Life and Adventures of Kit Carson, the Nestor of the Rocky Mountains, From Facts Narrated by Himself. It was the first Carson biography, published by DeWitt Peters in 1859. Dr. Tilton would read passages from the book, and Carson would lie quietly on his buffalo hides, sometimes smoking his pipe, thinking about the old days. The Peters book was full of gross exaggeration and passages of purple prose—Carson had always said that “Peters laid it on a little thick”—but now he didn’t care. He had grown fond of the young surgeon and enjoyed the little ritual they shared.

“With the hero for my auditor,” Dr. Tilton wrote, “I read Peters’ book…and from time to time he would comment on the incidents of his eventful life. It was wonderful to read of the stirring scenes, the thrilling and narrow escapes, and then look at the modest but dignified little man who had done so much.”

Though he’d lived a full life, Carson knew he had little to show for it. He had spent the past week drawing up a will, in which he estimated that his assets amounted to nine thousand dollars, mostly in promissories other people owed him. In fact, Carson was destitute, and now he despaired for his family. He had seven living children, three boys and four girls. The youngest, Josefita, was only eleven days old.

The Carson children were happy and spirited enough, but they were, he was embarrassed to admit, quite unruly. Carson had never been much of a disciplinarian, and he regretted it now. A few years earlier General Sherman had visited the Carson household while making an inspection tour of the West and found the Carson kids “as wild and untamed as a brood of Mexican mustangs…running through the room half clad and boisterous.” Carson confided to Sherman his concern for his children’s education; the schools in New Mexico were poor, and he could not afford to send them back east. “I fear I’ve not done right by them,” Carson told Sherman.

His children were only five miles away, but it was hard for his family to visit him. They were staying in the three-room house where he and Josefa had been living for the past year, in a tiny settlement called Boggsville, which was situated near the place where the Purgatory River flows into the Arkansas. To get to Fort Lyon they had to brave the swift, bone-wincingly cold currents of both rivers, a trek that was impractical and not a little dangerous. And in truth, Carson found it painful to see his family; he didn’t want them to remember him like this.

But one day two of his sons came to visit—William, the oldest at fourteen, and seven-year-old Charles. The boys wanted to see their father one more time before he died.

Carson sat up and gave it his best, but he was soon exhausted. As a parting gift, he sent William and Charles over to the Fort Lyon sutler’s store to be outfitted with new hats. The boys said their awkward good-byes and forded the Arkansas. They were proud of their new acquisitions—Little Charles, especially—and cocked them jauntily to their heads.

Then, a few miles to the west, they came to the Purgatory. While they were crossing the river in a wagon, a gust of wind blew Charles’s hat off his head and dropped it into the cold river. It shot downstream, spinning like a waterbug on the surface, and drifted away.

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Although he now was a pauper on his deathbed, Christopher Carson could take comfort in the fact that he had finally become a general—possibly the only illiterate general in American history. Three years earlier President Lincoln had approved his promotion to the rank of Brevet Brigadier General of Volunteers. It was a well-deserved honorific, but it didn’t actually mean much. The “brevet” status conferred neither greater pay nor heightened authority; it just meant that people were supposed to call him “general,” which they were more than happy to do, even though Carson found it a little embarrassing. Once, when someone slipped up and called him “colonel,” Carson replied, “Oh, call me Kit and be done with it.” Carson attributed his rise within the army to good connections and serendipity. “My damn luck—thar’s the difficulty,” he once said. “It places me in positions I’m no more fit to fill than I’m fit to fill a pulpit.”

General Carson had spent the three and a half years since the battle of Adobe Walls almost ceaselessly on the move. He had lived in a succession of cheerless army outposts—Fort Union, Fort Garland, now Fort Lyon. He had led negotiations with various Plains tribes. He had traveled to St. Louis to confer with Gen. John Pope and General Sherman. In his final years, the old warrior had taken on an unfamiliar new role for himself—that of peacemaker. On these and other sojourns, his health did not permit him to ride horseback; he usually traveled in an army ambulance. “I am now quite old and worn out,” he wrote a relative, “and hardly my own master.”

His most recent trip, in the late winter and early spring of 1868, had taken him to Washington, where he helped negotiate a treaty creating a permanent reservation for the Utes. The trek was extremely difficult for someone in his condition, and Dr. Tilton had warned him against making it. Carson especially hated to leave Josefa, who was seven months pregnant, but Chief Ouray and the other Ute leaders—who called him “Father Kit”—convinced him to be their advocate at the negotiations. Besides, Carson wanted to consult with a prominent doctor back east to seek a definitive diagnosis and, if one existed, a cure.

The general took a series of stagecoaches to Kansas, then rode by train to Washington. The treaty was quickly concluded, and Carson led the Utes all over the capital city. They took Turkish baths, visited President Andrew Johnson in the White House, and gawked at the growing obelisk of the Washington Monument, whose construction had been interrupted by the Civil War. Everywhere he went, people fussed over “the general,” but the crowds were more respectful now. They could see he was suffering.

For once, Carson seemed to enjoy the attention. He had come to accept his celebrity and was even a bit amused by it. He had long since given up fighting the fictions of the dime novels. The phenomenon was bigger than he was—why not enjoy it? When offered a copy of a recently published blood and thunder, he put on his spectacles and studied the cover for a minute. It showed an image of Carson with his arm draped around the slender waist of a beautiful buxom girl, surrounded by the corpses of countless freshly killed savages from whose clutches he had just rescued her.

Carson put down the book and said, “Gentlemen, that thar may be true, but I hain’t got no recollection of it.” And then he winked.

At the War Department, Carson met with generals Phil Sheridan and William Sherman. Sherman was preparing to travel west as part of a special commission to make treaties with numerous tribes. Among other ambitious projects, he and his fellow commissioners would be visiting New Mexico to consider closing down Bosque Redondo. During their visit in Washington, Sherman in all likelihood discussed the Navajo predicament with Carson. They were old friends, after all, and both had led scorched-earth campaigns that would, each in its way, leave long historical wakes.

There is some evidence that Carson had slowly come to recognize the massive failure of the bosque. Having now successfully created a reservation for the Utes in their own homeland, perhaps Carson had come to see the wisdom of allowing the Navajos to return to their native country as well. One writer who kept a diary while accompanying Sherman out west claimed that Carson told Sherman: “General, I’m not so sure the Great Spirit means for us to take over Indian lands. Let me lead them back while they still have the will to live.” The possibility that Carson had undergone a complete reversal is tantalizing, but the provenance of this quote seems fishy. Certainly it doesn’t sound much like Carson.

One day Carson sat for several portraits with the famous Civil War photographer Mathew Brady in his Washington studio. In the photographs, Carson is dressed in a handsome black suit. He looks like a dignified elder statesman, with a touch of gray in his hair and mustache, but his face is withered, his eyes hardened by pain. There is an unfamiliar tightness in his bearing, as though he is summoning every ounce of energy to pull himself together long enough for the bulb to flash.

While staying in Washington, Carson met with his old boss, John C. Fremont, still prominent in Republican Party circles though now financially ruined, his reputation tarnished by shady business deals. Fremont was thrilled to see his beloved scout but found him “greatly altered by suffering.” He gave Carson the name of a specialist in New York, Dr. Lewis Albert Sayre, and told him to make an appointment straightaway.

Carson took the train to Manhattan and stayed with some of the Ute chiefs in the Metropolitan Hotel on Broadway. Dr. Sayre had only bad news for Carson: The diagnosis Dr. Tilton had given him back in Colorado—an aneurysm of the aorta—was correct. He could die at any moment, and there was nothing the good doctor could do for him. Dr. Sayre thought the general might postpone his death a little by resting, avoiding excitement, and eschewing alcohol. (Whether they discussed the likely agent of the aneurysm is unclear, but Dr. Sayre would have known that it was most improbable for an aneurysm to have been caused, as Carson always believed, by injuries sustained in that long-ago tumble with his horse. High blood pressure was a more likely cause, though an aneurysm can also be a symptom of syphilis, a disease that Carson might have contracted during his trapping days.)

Shaken by his visit with Dr. Sayre, Carson returned to the Metropolitan. One night, he had a dream that he was dying. He felt his breath leaving him, and the bed seemed to rise, bearing him toward heaven. He woke up in a sweat, with one of the Ute chiefs cradling his head. “You called your Lord Jesus,” the chief said. Carson, who had always been private about his beliefs, had no knowledge of having called on Christ. “But,” he said, “it’s only Him that can help me where I stand now.”

Carson was impatient to meet his double deadline—of not only getting home to Josefa alive but getting there in time for her delivery. Before he could leave New York, however, there was one last person he had to see. Jessie Benton Fremont came down from her home on the Hudson and met him in Manhattan at the house of a friend on Madison Square. Carson was so weak he could stand up only by leaning on the shoulder of an escort. “I’m alive yet!” he told Jessie. They embraced and reminisced about old times, but after a few minutes he was out of breath. “If I died out here, it would kill Josefa,” he told Jessie. “I must get home, and I think I can do it.”

Carson made a short train trip to Boston and possibly consulted another doctor there. Then he rode the new Union Pacific Railroad all the way to Cheyenne, Wyoming, and took a stagecoach to Denver, where he had to stop and rest in a hotel. Each day crowds of well-wishers held vigil outside his window. When he emerged in slightly better health three days later, the general stood up on a dry goods box and thanked the people of Denver for their prayers. Most of the way home he rode in an open wagon, lying in the back wrapped in blankets. Josefa met him with a carriage in the tiny Colorado town of La Junta on April 11, and they hurried home to their three-room house.

Two days later she gave birth to a baby girl. Carson named her Josefita, after her mother.

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Carson was so frail from his cross-country odyssey that he could scarcely hold his new daughter. He spent the next two weeks lying on the floor of his house, on a pallet of blankets, sometimes lost in an opium haze. Dr. Tilton thought the trip had all but killed him. The aneurysm had “progressed rapidly,” Tilton wrote, “and the tumor, pressing on the pneumogastric nerves and trachea, caused frequent spasms of the bronchial tubes which were exceedingly distressing.”

Josefa was not feeling well, either. She was suffering from complications related to childbirth, an infection of some kind. Her fever would not go away. When Dr. Tilton saw her, he could only describe her as a woman “who had evidently been very handsome,” but sickness had leached the beauty from her face.

On the evening of April 27, Josefa must have been feeling better, for somehow she summoned the strength to rise and interact with her children. Teresina, who was thirteen, came to her, and for a few moments she brushed her daughter’s hair. Suddenly the bottom dropped from her spirit. “Cristobal, come here!” Josefa cried out. Carson rose from his pallet in another room and shuffled to her as fast as he could.

Her eyes were vacant. “I’m very sick,” Josefa said. Then she died in his arms.

She was buried in a garden five hundred yards from the house, near the banks of the Purgatory. Carson was wrecked with grief. “He just seemed to pine away after mother died,” Charles Carson recalled years later.

He wrote to Ignacia Bent in Taos and summoned her to come take care of his motherless children. Shortly after Ignacia arrived he began to cough up blood, and Dr. Tilton urged him to cross over to the fort before the rivers rose any higher.

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On the afternoon of May 23, Carson rallied. He told Dr. Tilton he was hungry—not for the thin broths and meager gruels he had been subsisting on, but something substantial. He wanted a big buffalo steak like old times, cooked rare, maybe served up with a mess of red chili like he always preferred it. And a big pot of coffee. And after that, a smoke from his clay pipe.

Dr. Tilton got to it, and soon the general had his request. He ate and smoked his fill, there on the floor, sprawled on his buffalo robes. Then, at 4:25 in the afternoon, he started coughing violently, and blood spouted from his lips. The aneurysm had ruptured. Carson yelled out, “Doctor, compadre, adios!

Dr. Tilton rushed to his side. “I supported his forehead on my hand,” he wrote, “while death speedily closed the scene.”

Other friends appeared in the room. Tilton shook his head. “This is the last of the general,” he said.

They took his body across the Arkansas, across the Purgatory, and laid him beside Josefa, the dirt still disturbed from her burial. They were married twenty-five years, and died less than a month apart. At Fort Lyon, a bugler played taps and the flag was flown at half-mast.

Four days later the Rocky Mountain News in Denver ran a notice of Carson’s death: “Over what an immense expanse of plains, of snow-clad sierras, of rivers, lakes, and seas, has he cut the first paths? His guiding instinct was an innate chivalry. He had in him a personal courage which came forth when wanted, like lightning from a cloud.”

And Monster Slayer said, “Some things should be left as they are. Perhaps it is better for all of us in the long run that certain enemies endure.”

—FROM DINÉ BAHANE, THE NAVAJO CREATION STORY

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