Modern history

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Chapter 4

SINGING GRASS

In the summer of 1835, Kit Carson attended the annual mountain man rendezvous, which that season was held on a large meadow by a languid bend of the Green River in present-day southwestern Wyoming. As always happened at these notorious gatherings, various bands of Indians had also pitched their lodges to trade, gamble, and drink with the mountain men. It was not uncommon for trappers to take squaws for their wives during these monthlong festivals. Carson was twenty-five years old that summer, and during the previous trapping season he’d suffered a near-fatal shoulder wound during a vicious fight with the Blackfoot. Still sore, and perhaps impressed by his brush with mortality, he was in the mood to settle down. Or, as the mountain men liked to say, it was time for him to be “womaned.”

One of the more popular women attending the rendezvous was a young Arapaho named Singing Grass (or Waa-ni-beh in her native language, the name suggesting the keening sound of prairie wind whipping through tall grass). The beautiful Singing Grass caught Carson’s eye, but another man named Joseph Chouinard was equally smitten. The French-Canadian trapper, known as the “the Bully of the Mountains,” was a swaggering, blustering giant and an expert shot. An English adventurer described Chouinard as “a stupid-looking man,” while Carson assessed his adversary as “a large Frenchman, one of those overbearing kind and very strong.”

There are many versions of the tale—indeed it is one of the most storied incidents in the literature of the mountain men. Apparently it all started over at the Arapaho camp one night when Singing Grass picked Carson, and rejected Chouinard, from a lineup of suitors to be her partner during the ceremonial “soup dance.” The jilted Frenchman promptly insulted her and then later, according to one account, tried to rape her. Whatever happened, Carson seems to have felt a keen sense of sexual rivalry with Chouinard. “It was all over a squaw,” one of Carson’s Taos friends later said, “and the Frenchman got mad about it.”

Then, at the fevered height of the rendezvous, Chouinard went on a bender that lasted several days. Fortified by what Carson called “the demon of alcohol,” Chouinard began to menace anyone who crossed his path. He was famous for these rampages, however, and everyone tried his best to ignore him—which only got the man more lathered up. Now positively spoiling for a fight, Chouinard shambled over to Carson’s camp and disparaged the Americans there, bellowing: “Mewling schoolboys! I could take a switch and switch you!”

Carson had had enough of this drunken thug. “I did not like such talk from any man,” he later said, “so I told him that I was the worst American in camp.”

Carson wore what one witness called “a peculiar smile, as though he was about to perpetrate some excellent joke.” He told Chouinard: “Stop right now, or else I’ll rip your guts!”

The two men went in search of weapons while a large crowd of trappers and Indians thronged in the main clearing of the camp. Suddenly Chouinard and Carson came galloping into the grassy arena brandishing guns. They stopped so close to each other that their horses’ heads touched. Tense words were exchanged. They raised their hands and fired their guns, point-blank, with such perfect simultaneity that, as Carson later noted, “All present said but one report was heard.”

As he did so often throughout his life, Carson had cheated luck: Chouinard’s horse jerked as he mashed the trigger. The hot powder of Chouinard’s bullet grazed the left side of Carson’s face, scorching his eye and hair and leaving a scar under his left ear that he would carry the rest of his life.

Chouinard, on the other hand, was seriously injured. The lead ball from Carson’s single-shot pistol had ripped through the Frenchman’s right hand and blown away his thumb. Carson went for another pistol to finish him off, but Chouinard, gingerly holding his maimed appendage, begged for his life. In his dictated autobiography, Carson leaves the drama frustratingly open-ended, telling us only that the camp “had no more bother with this bully Frenchman.” Some versions of the story have it that Chouinard later died of his wound—as a result of gangrene, perhaps—while others suggest Carson in fact killed Chouinard with a second shot.

The duel became one of the most famous incidents in Carson’s life and made him renowned among the mountain men; but in many ways it was uncharacteristic of him. Although he had a lightning temper, Carson was ordinarily a much more calculating risk-taker who certainly knew enough to back out of a fight so obviously fueled by alcohol. Perhaps the incident can be explained by Carson’s youth, or by his desire to prove himself among the grizzled fraternity of trappers, or by some chivalric desire to avenge Chouinard’s insults to Singing Grass. Whatever the case, the whole hot affair was an aberration for him. He survived less by skill than by thin luck. A newspaper writer said his fight with Chouinard was “the only serious personal quarrel of Kit Carson’s life.” Certainly Carson had no regrets. Years later a close friend said: “He was pleased with himself for doing it.”

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Perhaps the satisfaction had more to do with the romance that blossomed in the incident’s aftermath. Now he could pursue Singing Grass in earnest. He asked her father, Running Around, for her hand and offered a “bride price” of three mules and a new gun. The wedding, probably the following year, was a traditional Arapaho ceremony held in her father’s tepee. The ritual was complete when Running Around threw a blanket over the couple and gave his blessing. There was a feast and then the Arapaho relatives erected a tepee for the newlyweds. If Carson followed the rest of the Arapaho custom, then he did not immediately consummate the marriage; he and his bride would have slept in the same bed, but for several weeks she would have worn a tight rope cinched about her waist and loins—a chastity belt of sorts—until their probationary period was over.

By most accounts the marriage was a happy one, although we know very few intimate details since Carson neglected even to mention Singing Grass in his memoirs. With certainty, it can be said that the marriage was more than a casual “squaw arrangement.” Singing Grass was in every respect his wife. They followed the Arapaho traditions and lived with the tribe’s blessing. Singing Grass was his first love, and Carson adored her.

Arapaho relatives told author Stanley Vestal, who spent months interviewing among her band in the 1920s, that Singing Grass was highly regarded within the tribe—“a good girl, a good housewife, and good to look at.” Carson learned to speak the strange and sonorous language of the Arapaho, an Algonquin tongue whose “broad vowels, soft liquids, and smooth diphthongs” made it so beautiful, according to Vestal, “that Indians of other tribes preferred to sing Arapaho songs even though they could not understand the words.” The Arapaho were also celebrated for their intricate beadwork, and under his wife’s careful stitching hand, Carson’s clothes—his buckskins, his moccasins, his tobacco pouch and saddlebags—began to take on shiny new patterns of adornment.

With his Arapaho bride following him whenever she could, Carson trapped for two seasons with the Hudson’s Bay Company, and then signed on with Jim Bridger’s brigades, working the upper Yellowstone, the Powder, and the Big Horn. During these years he moved incessantly throughout present-day Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana. Trapping gave him, he later said, “the happiest days of my life.” It was an unimaginably free sort of existence, one that historian David Lavender described as “flitting ghostlike from creek to creek, with no St. Louis board of directors watching behind them and no suspicious clerks checking their balance columns with crabbed fingers.” Carson took great pleasure in those seasons spent “in the mountains, far from the habitations of civilized man, with no other food than that which I could procure with my rifle.”

Singing Grass helped with the considerable labors of this hard, roving life—and she made the cold nights more eventful. “She was a good wife to me,” Carson once told a friend, noting that Singing Grass was always waiting for him in their lodge with a boiling kettle when he returned from the traps, his moccasins soaked in icy river water. “I never came in from hunting,” he said, “that she did not have warm water for my feet.”

Their first child, a daughter, was born in 1837. Carson named her Adaline after a beloved niece back in Missouri. (Her Arapaho name, whatever it was, is lost to us, although some accounts say that Carson also called his daughter Prairie Flower.) Carson’s family life may have been blissful, but economically, times were lean. The nation was in the grip of a serious depression—the Panic of 1837—and the market for Western goods was volatile at best. The same year, a smallpox epidemic worked its way north and west from St. Louis, borne, it was said, on infected blankets. By the time the scourge had passed, whole tribes had been wiped out and one out of every ten Native Americans living along the Missouri River drainage was dead. Carson almost found sympathy for his age-old nemesis, the Blackfoot tribe, which was particularly hard hit by the epidemic. An early Carson biographer vividly described the eerie silence of a pox-ravaged Blackfoot camp that the mountain men once stumbled upon: “Teepees stood smokeless. Wolves ran about the village, fat and impudent. The Indian dead hung in swarms in the trees and brown buzzards sat in rows along the bluffs, gorged with human flesh, drunk with ptomaines.”

Meanwhile, the beaver trade was seriously on the wane, in part because of the Panic and in part because of the vicissitudes of high fashion: In an inexplicable turn, silk hats had replaced beaver hats as objects of patrician desire in the cities of the East and all across Europe. And in truth, there weren’t very many beaver left. The fur companies had been so successful in penetrating the Western rivers that the beaver population had been pushed to the brink of extinction. Eastern markets were drying up; the summer rendezvous grew smaller and drearier each year. The mountain men, through skillful persistence, were the agents of their own demise, having depleted the very resource that had enriched them. Like most of the trappers, however, Carson seemed only dimly aware of his own role in the phenomenon. “Beaver was getting scarce” was all he said on the subject in his memoirs, adding, “It became necessary to try our hand at something else.”

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Sometime in 1839, Singing Grass gave birth to their second child, another daughter whose name is not known. Singing Grass developed a fever following childbirth and soon became gravely ill. She lay on her bed of buffalo robes while the medicine men treated her with herbs and tapped a drum to the exact beat of her pulse. It was all in vain—the infection, probably puerperal fever, soon took her. The grieving Carson now realized he would have to raise their two girls on his own. The Arapaho relatives mourned in the self-flagellatory tradition of the tribe—pulling out hanks of their hair, tearing at their own skin, perhaps cleaving a finger. They wondered why Carson was not wailing like they were, and, according to one biographer, “Kit had to explain that he was crying in his heart, after the manner of white men.” We do not know the place or method of burial, but if the Arapaho custom was followed, Singing Grass’s body would have been hoisted on a platform high in a tree with some of her favorite personal belongings and then torched, the charred remains left to be consumed by prairie birds.

In the summer of 1840 he somehow managed to attend the summer rendezvous on the Green River—which, as it happened, was the last mountain man gathering ever held. The fur trapper was truly a moribund breed, and at that dismal 1840 gathering, everyone seemed to know it. One participant lamented: “Times was hard, no beaver, and everything dull.”

With the death of the trapping trade, Carson was increasingly drawn to Bent’s Fort, a teeming mercantile establishment on the Arkansas River in what is now southeastern Colorado. Founded in 1833, the fort was an important nexus for American trappers, traders, mountain men, and assorted other adventurers worming their way into the West. Resembling an ancient Algerian citadel, with adobe walls three feet thick, Bent’s Fort was strategically perched on the northern bank of the Arkansas River in present-day southeastern Colorado (the Arkansas River then defined the border with Mexico). Owner Charles Bent and his brother William were shrewd businessmen, sons of a St. Louis lawyer who had once been surveyor of the Louisiana Territory.

The Bent brothers offered Carson steady employment as a hunter, and he had numerous friends at the fort who helped him look after his girls. As a hunter, Carson ranged widely over the Southern plains, hunting antelope and buffalo not only for their valuable hides but also for meat to sustain the hundreds of people who lived in or worked out of Bent’s.

Sometime in 1841, Carson married a Cheyenne woman named Making-Out-Road (the meaning is lost in translation). She was a beautiful but shrewish woman well known around Bent’s Fort for her headstrong independence. Carson’s union with Making-Out-Road was as miserable as his marriage to Singing Grass had been blessed. His new wife wanted nothing to do with raising his half-Arapaho girls. The couple fought all the time. The marriage lasted only a few months before she evicted him, with all his belongings, from her tepee. (Making-Out-Road went on to marry and divorce a brisk succession of other men, both Native American and Anglo.)

Carson had a brief affair with a Hispanic woman with a loose reputation named Antonia Luna, but by 1842 he had fallen in love with Josefa Jaramillo, the beautiful teenage daughter of a prominent Taos family. The two were soon engaged. Carson decided sometime that year that his daughter Adaline, who at four was now approaching school age, would be better off with his relatives back in Missouri, where she could get a solid education. So in April 1842 he signed on with a merchant caravan captained by Charles Bent and headed east along the Santa Fe Trail with Adaline in tow, having left her little sister with the Bent family in Taos. (He would never see his baby girl again. Shortly thereafter, the toddler was scalded to death when she fell into a boiling vat of soap tallow.)

The Bent train stopped in the small outfitting town of Westport, on the Missouri River, in what is now Kansas City. Carson feared what people in the settlements would say about his having a half-Indian girl, and wanted little Adaline to look clean and pretty. She was primitive-looking in her animal skins, he realized, and her manners left much to be desired. In Westport he bought her new outfits and had them specially tailored to fit her. Susannah Yoacham, the daughter of a Westport tavern owner, recalled Adaline well. “Carson brought this little girl with him to be educated,” Yoacham said. “She came to us dressed in buckskin and left dressed in the finest goods [that] could then be bought on the border. She was uncivilized. She pulled up all my mother’s vines and was chewing the roots when we found her at it.”

Carson went to his former home of Franklin, only to find that it had been washed away in a flood, the town moved to higher ground, its residents scattered. He located his youngest brother, Lindsey, and learned that his mother, Rebecca Carson Martin, had died the previous year. “It had been sixteen years since I had been among civilized people,” he said in his memoirs. He knew that some members of the Carson clan would not understand the outlandish life he’d led in the mountains and would never accept his marriage to an Indian. A first cousin, Thomas Kelly Carson, certainly viewed Kit as a black sheep of the family, judging him “a wild uncouth boy who married, of all things, an Indian squaw and had a little half-breed girl.”

But to Carson’s relief, most of his immediate family around Franklin was welcoming to Adaline. He was able to leave her with a niece who had a farm not far from a decent country school. He hated to say good-bye, but she was in good hands, among his own people.

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