Modern history

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Chapter 7

WHAT A WILD LIFE!

To an unusual extent, Kit Carson was a person who lived not in words but in action, responding to situations with a preternatural swiftness. Nearly everyone who knew him mentioned this quality. An army doctor who had traveled with Carson remarked on his “shrewdness of perception” and his “promptitude in execution.” When telling stories about himself, Carson’s favorite phrase was “done so,” the words popped off with the clarity of a clean, neutral fact. One of his early biographers, Stanley Vestal, observed that Carson constantly used the construction “Concluded to charge them, done so,” noting that he often rendered it in a single sentence. “To Kit,” Vestal said, “decision and action were but two steps in the same process.”

For all his self-assurance in the heat of a tight moment, Carson had powerful doubts and vulnerabilities. He was deeply embarrassed by his illiteracy and tried to cover it up in various ways, but the fact remained that he could not write his own name. When signing documents he simply scrawled an X (he later learned to write “C. Carson”). At times he showed something of an inferiority complex that manifested itself in an instinctive deference to culturally refined men from back east who were more intellectually accomplished and socially better-connected than he. Falling under the spell of such figures, Carson seemed comfortable playing the role of a loyal lieutenant—or, some might say, a henchman. When people he perceived as his betters told him to do something, he did it, happily and without question.

For Carson, John Charles Fremont was one of those people. Fiercely intelligent but of questionable ethics, Fremont was a man of striking good looks, with a full black beard, hawkish features, and the manic expression of a prophet. Behind his mystic eyes burned the will of a glory hound who saw himself on the path to a fortune far brighter than his rank or talents would immediately suggest. Unlike other leading army topographers, Fremont was not a West Pointer—in fact, he was not even a college graduate, having been expelled from university in South Carolina for “incorrigible negligence.” The bastard son of a wandering French artiste, Fremont was born in Savannah and grew up in Charleston. Largely self-taught, he had a passion for botany, a reputation as a Lothario, and a penchant for melodrama that could be insufferable.

But Fremont had something else going for him: He was married to Jessie Benton Fremont, the estimable daughter of Sen. Tom Benton. With the senator’s constant lobbying behind the scenes, Fremont won an ambitious series of official assignments to explore the great wildernesses of the West.

For his first expedition, in the summer 1842, Fremont’s mission was to map and describe the general course of the Oregon Trail all the way to the South Pass in the mountains of present-day Wyoming. The Oregon Trail was a new wagon road that branched off from the Santa Fe Trail in Kansas and worked its way northwest over the Rockies to Oregon, which was then an ill-defined territory occupied jointly by the United States and Great Britain. American emigrant parties, enticed by reports of fertile land in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, had been taking to this braided, rutted road in increasing numbers.

But in truth the route was uncertain, its main thoroughfare forked with dangerous detours, its various stages and watering holes poorly understood, the whereabouts of hostile Indian tribes unknown. To all but the stoutest of hearts, the Oregon Trail was simply too forbidding.

And so the proponents of western expansion wanted to do something about this tenuous state of affairs. Hoping to encourage a full-scale wave of emigration, Senator Benton and others realized that what settlers most sorely needed was a foolproof map and guidebook—a manual, almost—one that pioneers could closely follow, mile by mile, stage by stage.

Producing such a handbook would be the task of Fremont’s first expedition.

While outfitting his party in St. Louis, Fremont chanced to meet Kit Carson on a Missouri River steamboat. Carson was thirty-two years old then and had been visiting his family in Missouri after his many years working as a trapper in the Rockies.

Leaning against the steamship’s railing, Fremont immediately took a liking to this curious little man. “He was broad-shouldered and deep-chested,” Fremont wrote, “with a clear steady blue eye.” Fremont was particularly impressed with Carson’s “modesty and gentleness.” He told Carson that he was looking for a guide to lead him to South Pass.

“I’ve been some time in the mountains,” Carson replied. “I could guide you to any point you wish to go.”

Fremont hastily inquired after Carson’s reputation among other mountain men who happened to be in Missouri—and heard nothing but praise. Carson was hired.

Fremont’s “First Expedition,” as it came to be called, left Missouri in June 1842 with twenty-five men and the novelty of inflatable rubber boats. The mission took five months and was a success. The weather was fair, no one died on the journey, and the trail was blessedly free of Indian trouble, although false rumors of an impending attack along the North Platte did cause Carson at one point to draw up a will.

Performing splendidly, Carson showed a knack for keeping a traveling party on track and out of trouble. Fremont proved to be a plucky and resourceful explorer—the kind of man who could repair a broken barometer with animal horn and glue from a boiled bison hoof. The expedition reached the South Pass on schedule, and on the way back Fremont made a flamboyant, and ill-considered, dash into the Wind River Range to plant an American flag on the summit of a snowy mountain he erroneously thought to be the highest peak in the Rockies.

All in all, the fates seemed to smile on “Fremont’s First.” Upon his return to Washington in the fall, he immediately set about writing Benton’s hoped-for road manual, complete with maps and botanical sketches. Congress rushed it into print with the ungainly title A Report on an Exploration of the Country Lying between the Missouri River and the Rocky Mountains on the Line of the Kansas and Great Platte Rivers.

The report struck a national nerve, and it was soon reprinted in newspapers across the country. The public lapped up Fremont’s picaresque descriptions of trail life, of buffalo and grizzly bears and strange Indian customs. The way to Oregon, Fremont seemed to be saying, was not so forbidding after all. The American prairie was not an inhospitable desert, but a beckoning carpet of flowers. Fremont became an instant celebrity, a champion of expansion, a conqueror wielding not a sword but a compass and a transit. “Fremont has touched my imagination,” wrote poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. “What a wild life, and what a fresh kind of existence! But ah, the discomforts!”

Fremont’s expedition narrative did precisely what Senator Benton envisioned it would—it touched off a wave of wagon caravans filled with hopeful emigrants, many of whom held the book in their hands as they bounced down the rutted trail. “Fremont’s First” was such a huge success that the next summer he was assigned a follow-up mission. This time it was to map and describe the second half of the Oregon Trail, from South Pass to the Columbia River. It was a considerably longer and more ambitious trek.

Again, Fremont hired Carson to guide him.

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