Kit Carson - John S. C. Abbott

Recollections of Mountain Life


In writing the life of Kit Carson, my object has been, as has been mentioned, not merely to record those remarkable traits of character which Mr. Carson developed, but also to portray and perpetuate the great features of that wild and wondrous mountaineer life, which the discovery of this continent ushered in, but even the memory of which is now rapidly passing to oblivion.

It so happens that I have an intimate friend who passed ten years of his early manhood roving through these solitudes. I have spent many an evening hour, listening to his recital of the adventures which he encountered there. This friend, Mr. William E. Goodyear, is a man of unusual native strength of mind, of marvellous powers of memory, and I repose implicit confidence in his veracity. At my earnest solicitation, he has furnished me with the following graphic narrative of the scenes which he witnessed nearly a score of years ago, when these regions were rarely visited save by the wild beast and the Indian.

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In the year 1852 I, then a young man, in all the vigor of early youth, and of unusual health and strength, when the wildest adventures were a pleasure, was led by peculiar circumstances to undertake a trip across the continent. Our journey from Independence, Missouri, to Salt Lake was accomplished without any incident worthy of especial record. Along the route we were accompanied by almost an incessant caravan of wagons, horsemen and footmen, some bound to the Mormon city, some flocking to the recently discovered gold mines in California, and some on hunting and trapping excursions, to the vast prairies and majestic valleys of the far west. Here we met several men whose names had attained much renown among the pioneers of the wilderness, such men as James Bridger, Tim Goodell, Jim Beckwith, chief of the Crow Indians, William Rogers, a half breed, and Arkansas Sam.

Our company numbered but four, consisting of my uncle, then and now resident in California, who was returning to his home, from a visit to the States; myself, who was crossing the continent mainly for the love of adventure; another young man, and an Indian boy, about sixteen years old, called Joe. The boy had been brought from the Indian country, and was about as wild and ungovernable a spirit as ever chased a buffalo or shouted the war-whoop.

My uncle had often during the previous twenty years, crossed the mountains, on trapping expeditions with an elder brother. In these adventures my uncle, whom I was accompanying, had become quite familiar with the peculiarities of the Indian, and had become acquainted with many of the chiefs of the different tribes. Neither he nor his brother had even been afraid to enter the camp of the Indian; for they had never deceived nor defrauded him.

Western Mountains


Let it be remembered that these excursions of my uncle had taken place nearly forty years ago, before unprincipled traders had carried whiskey into the country and robbed the Indians in every possible way. The native Indian seems to have been the soul of honor. But now how changed! contaminated by vagabond white men.

Our company had about a dozen horses and mules. We rode the horses and the well packed mules carried our luggage. We had also a light two horse spring wagon. Behold us, then, three of us, mounted in half Spanish saddles, with our rifles in front lying crossways between our persons and the horn of the saddle. The never-failing revolver and hunting knife were in our belts. The young man drove the wagon which contained many of our most valuable effects.

It was without much thought that we set out on the emigrant trail to California, a distance of about three thousand miles. As on our journey we were one day descending the hills into the valley of the Platte river, near a place called Ash Hollow, our keen-eyed Indian boy exclaimed, "I see Indians." Looking around with a rapid glance and seeing nothing, I said, "I think not." "Yes," he replied, "there certainly are Indians," and pointed to some specks far away before us, on the meadows which skirted the stream.

Sure enough, there was a band of Indians quite distinctly discernible. My uncle looked at them for a moment quite intently and in silence. Then he said:

"Boys! there is a band of Indians on the war-path. I wish you to obey my instructions exactly. Do not stop your riding animals or the team. Keep straight ahead, unless I tell you to halt. Do not fire a shot unless I fire first. Then take deliberate aim and kill as many as you can before you go under."

"Go under!" this was the almost invariable phrase, in the language of the mountains, for death. I well remember my thoughts as we neared them. It was indeed a formidable looking band of Aripaho Indians, hideously painted, and looking more like demons than men, armed for a fight. They were all mounted, and each warrior carried in his hand a long spear and a strong shield, impervious to arrows, made of rawhide. Their bows and arrows were slung to their backs. To my inexperienced eye they seemed incarnate fiends. We had met several small bands of Indians before, but no war party like this.

When we had approached within a few hundred yards of each other, my uncle said:

"Boys! do not forget what I have told you."

Then pressing his large Mexican spurs into the sides of his horse, he darts away towards them upon the full gallop, at the same time shouting something in the Indian language which I did not understand. Their ranks opened and he rode into the centre and instantly dismounted. There was the chief on a splendid charger. He also alighted, and for a moment both were concealed from our view, buried as it were, within the ranks of the plumed warriors. They were, as we afterwards ascertained, fraternally embracing each other. Both remounted their horses, the ranks opened again and they two, my uncle and the chief, rode out upon the full run towards us as our little cavalcade were steadily pressing forward on the trail.

When they reached us, the chief held out his hand to me, and said in broken English, "How do, brother?" I shook hands with him, returning the salutation of "How do." My uncle then turning to me said, "Have you plenty of tobacco with you?" "O yes," I replied rather tremblingly, for I was ill at ease. "You can have it all if you want it." "I don't want it all," uncle replied. "Give me one plug." I gave it to him and he handed it to the chief.

The war party was directly on the trail. Four hundred mounted warriors occupy much space, composing a formidable looking band. Following the directions which had been given us, we continued on the move. The chief waved a signal to his men, to which they promptly responded, opening their ranks and filing to the right and to the left. We passed on through this, living wall bristling with spears, meeting with an occasional greeting of "How do." Having passed through the long lines of the band my uncle said to me, "Keep straight on till night. I will then rejoin you. I am going to have a big smoke with the chief."

With alacrity we obeyed this mandate, glad enough to leave such customers behind us. I confess that I was half frightened to death, and feared I should never see my uncle again. In the evening he joined us and laughed very heartily at me for wishing, in my trepidation, to give the chief all my tobacco.

In after life, in my intercourse with the Indians, I got bravely over being scared by any sights or sounds emanating from them. We pressed on without molestation to Salt Lake, passing continually the newly made graves of the dead. The cholera had broken out with awful fatality, along the whole line of the emigrants' march, consigning thousands to burial in the wilderness.

We reached the Great Salt Lake, the home of the Mormons, in safety. Here we remained for nearly a month. I called on Brigham Young, and also on the old patriarch Joe Smith. From the latter I received a commission, or power of attorney, for the consideration of two dollars, authorizing me to heal the sick, to raise the dead, and to speak all languages. Perhaps my want of faith left me as powerless as other men, notwithstanding my commission. We spent our time here in strolling around the city, visiting the tabernacle, bathing and fishing in the river Jordan, which empties into the lake, and in making sundry purchases for the continuation of our journey to the Pacific.

Again we started upon our journey. After weary days of travel, without encountering any adventure of special interest, we reached the vast ridge of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Up, up, and still up, the trail led us over the gigantic cliffs. On the summit we found snow hundreds of feet deep, and apparently as hard as the rock which it surmounted. We crossed the ridge by what is called the Carson route. Descending the mountains on the western side, we find ourselves in California, and pressing on through Sacramento, to Benicia, are at our journey's end.

We left Independence on the third of June. It is now the latter part of September. We have spent almost four months on the road. And here let me say, that had I given a description of the country, its rivers, its mountains, its scenery, its abundance of game, among the noblest of which, are the buffalo, bears of different kinds, deer, antelope, mountain sheep; its numerous rivers abounding with a great variety of fishes,—had I endeavored to give a full description of all these, it would have demanded a volume rather than a chapter.

Here I was at Benicia, and winter was at hand. I decided not to go to the mining district until the spring sun should return. Provisions commanded almost fabulous prices. Packers got a dollar a pound for packing flour, sugar, rice and other things which the miners must have.

But an unexpected opening presented itself to me. Mr. Frederick Loring was about to set out on a surveying tour in behalf of the government. I secured a position in the party as chain-man.

We set out for San Rafael, which is in Marin county, on the coast of the Pacific, just north of San Francisco. We had been out but five or six weeks, when Mr. Loring's health began seriously to fail him. One day he called me to him, and said:

"I wish you now to quit chaining and to carry my instrument and to watch me, that you may learn to use it yourself. I shall probably not be able to finish this contract. I ought to be on my bed now."

Very readily I fell in with this arrangement. Having studied navigation while a boy at school, which is somewhat similar to surveying, it did not take me a great while to learn to adjust the instrument, or to take the variations at night, on the elongation of the north star. I will here remark in passing, that Mr. Loring soon became so enfeebled that he returned to San Francisco, where he died.

One day while surveying in the coast range, we had descended a mountain, and upon a plain below had found a dense chaparral or thicket of bushes, so closely interwoven that we could not penetrate it with our pack animals. We therefore sent the boys down the plain, along the edge of the thickets, to find some better place to go through. Mr. Loring, our chain-man and I prepared to make a triangulation, in order to get the distance from the point we were at, to a white stone on our line of survey, which was on the side of the opposite mountain and across the chaparral.

Having finished the triangulation, Mr. Loring and I endeavored to cross the chaparral by a direction different from that which the main body of the party was pursuing. Suddenly Mr. Loring dropped his instrument and in a tone of terror exclaimed:

"Look at that bear." I looked as he pointed in the direction of a large rock, and there were three huge grizzly bears. Loring, being longer legged than I, left me like a shot from a gun. I ran to a tree, near by, from four to six feet in circumference, and very speedily found myself perched among its branches. I looked for the bears. One had not left the spot where we discovered them. Another was growling and snarling at the foot of the tree which I had climbed. The other was going after Loring at no very slow pace.

We had got through the chaparral and our party with the mules had also come across and were many rods farther down the valley, coming up to meet us. As Loring fled with the speed of an antelope, he met the first animal, which happened to be the kitchen mule. He was so called, because he had very large open bags or panniers, into which we put all our cooking utensils. Loring sprang upon the back of the mule. At the same moment the animal caught sight of the grizzly bear. Frantic with terror, he turned and fled as mule never fled before. Down went the mule on the back track along the edge of the chaparral. Once in a while, as the bags flew around, they would catch on the bushes, and tear a hole. Soon the tin cups and plates began to fly, the mule kicking at them with every jump, making such a din as to set all the rest of the animals flying through the bushes, and down the trail in the wildest imaginable stampede. The huge bear in mad pursuit was rushing after them.

It was a sight I shall never forget. Loring on the cook's mule hanging on with all his might. The tin ware flying in all directions. All the boys as well as your humble servant, up in the trees looking on. I laughed so heartily at the ludicrous scene, that I was in danger of falling, in which case the bear would have torn me to pieces right quick.

But who is this coming towards me? He is an old hunter of our party who used to make shingles in the Red-woods. He has had two sons killed by bears. Now he has joined our party to provide us with game. Deliberately, he walks up to within ten feet of the bear who is growling at the foot of my tree. Bruin turns on his new foe, and rising on his hind feet, with appalling howlings, prepares for battle. But in an instant the old man's rifle is at his shoulder. His eye runs quickly through the sights, an explosion follows, and the bear is dead. The hunter knew well where to strike a vital point. Satisfied that the monster was powerless, I came down from the tree.

The other bear, apparently dismayed by the commotion he had created, turned into the chaparral and disappeared. It required all the rest of the day to re-collect our party and to repair damages.

Let us now pass from these scenes to the spring of the year 1854. Here we are then in San Francisco, all ready to start on board the Sea Bird. "Cast off the lines." "Aye, aye, sir." Off we go around North Beach. You will see Point Boneta on the north, and Point de los Lobos on the south. Through the straits we go out at the Golden Gate. Onward we glide past Farallones de los Frayles, and here we are out on the broad Pacific.

After sailing about three hundred miles south we arrive at San Pedro. We go ashore at once and secure seats in the stage for Ciudad de los Angelos, which is situated about twenty-five miles from here in a northerly direction. There is now, after the lapse of twenty years, a railroad, instead of Banning's stages, by which one can be transported to the City of Angels. We shall be obliged to stay here for a few days, to prepare our outfit. Let us see what we want. Mules and jacks, pack-saddles, saddles for ourselves to ride, in fact every thing pertaining to camp-life. Here we can get almost any thing we wish for man or beast.

Well then we will suppose that now we are ready to start. Away we go towards San Bernardino. We pass the finest of vineyards where thousands of gallons of wine are made. On, on we go, and at last, after a ride of about seventy miles, we arrive at San Bernardino. One of the first things which attracts our attention is the mountain of the same name. It rises seventeen thousand feet above the level of the ocean, attaining an altitude two thousand feet above that of Mont Blanc, the monarch of the Alps.

The inhabitants of the towns are, with few exceptions, Mormons. It was from this place that we started on a survey, commencing east of the coast range of mountains, and extending our operations to the extreme boundary line of California, on the east. The Colorado river was then the line which separated California from New Mexico.

The party employed in this surveying tour consisted of about forty men. The first day we went as far as the mouth of the Cahon Pass, by which we were to penetrate through the coast range of which I have spoken. At this spot we found a large farm, which they call a ranche, where provisions can be purchased, and also poor whiskey. We rested here for the night, sleeping in the open air, and at an early hour in the morning, sprung from our blankets ready dressed. The cook speedily prepared our breakfast, we ate like hungry men and then packed our mules and jacks, and were on our way. Our pack animals will carry from two to three hundred pounds without any trouble.

Nearly at the eastern end of the pass we came to water. This I claim that I discovered, or at least that my horse discovered it for me. It is called in Spanish Guilliome Bobo, or "William I Drink." No one would see the spring unless narrowly looking for it. It trickles down the almost perpendicular side of the mountain. We encamped at the spring, and in the morning made an early start, as we had some forty or fifty miles to go that day. But we had a serious job to encounter before we could get out of this defile. It is so steep at its eastern extremity, that we had to unpack and send up very small loads at a time. In some places we had to use ropes, to haul up our goods.

But after a while everything is ready for another start. On, on we go, through a barren cactus country, till we reach the Mohave river. The day is far spent, we are all very weary, men as well as animals. So, boys, off with the packs of provisions, and let your mules go with their long hair ropes. Let one of the men be sent to look out for the animals. This was no sooner said than done. I was captain of my men. A harder set could not be found, in any prison in this or any other land.

My lieutenant, whose name was Texas, had but one eye and he was covered with scars. But notwithstanding the company was a hard one, it was the best I could get for my use. Almost all of them had been in many a fight. Before they had been with me three months, I have reason to believe every one of them loved me, and I know that they feared me. Only two instances of mutiny occurred in over two years and a half. Both of these I will here relate.

On one occasion I observed that some of the jacks had been kicked severely. I said to my pack-master, "Mr. Williams, how is this? Those jacks have been shamefully used. The skin is off and the wounds are bleeding. I, as you well know, hold you personally responsible for every animal. Don't let me ever see this again, sir."

As I turned to go from him, I heard him mutter something. I at once, with my hand upon my revolver, came back towards him and inquired, "what's this you're saying, sir?"

He replied, "I kicked the jacks myself and I will do it again if they bother me."

I walked to within perhaps ten paces of him and said, "If I ever catch you at it, I will shoot you like a dog."

"Two," he replied, "can play at that game," and his hand neared the butt of his revolver. I jerked out my pistol and fired at his arm. His pistol dropped to the ground.

"Don't shoot again, captain. I will do as you wish in the future."

"All right," said I. "Let me see your arm."

I had shot him through his wrist. I bound up the wound as well as I could, and it soon healed. He remained in my employ nearly four years after that, and to my knowledge was never guilty of doing me or my animals a wrong.

Another instance happened a long time after this. I was getting short of provisions, and had got to do just so much work within a certain time. So I resolved to run two instruments. As we were then running sectional lines, I could take the variations at night. So I fixed another instrument and gave it into the hands of a young man by the name of Biddleman. I assigned to him his part of the line then, and set him at work within three miles of the camp.

Returning to camp about two o'clock in the afternoon, to do some traverse work around a small lake, what was my astonishment, to see that Biddleman's party was already in camp. Upon asking him what it meant, he told me that upon running a random line, he stopped to correct the error at the half mile corner, and that his men on getting to the mile corner, instead of coming back and reporting the error as they should have done, started for camp. He, of course, followed on, as he could not do anything alone.

I at once called his party of men, told them to get their chain and pins, put the stakes, pickaxe and shovel on the line animal, and follow me. This they did. When we got to the corner where Biddleman left off work, I set my instrument, gave them an object to run by, and sent them off. They went and returned to me. I then ran another mile north, set my instrument and started them east again on random. They went and I followed them to the half mile corner, to which place they returned.

I said: "Boys, we will now go to camp. In future whether with me or Biddleman, you will continue at your work until you are directed to return."

Had I allowed either of the above transactions to have passed unpunished, I might as well have started for the States, for all order would have been at an end.

Sometimes we would see a small party of Indians at a short distance from us. I would step to my instrument, and turn the glass towards them. They would at once commence to scamper, throw sand, turn into all manner of shapes, lie down, roll over, thinking no doubt it was a gun or something that would destroy them. At one time, I attempted to cross from the sink of the Mohave river to Providence, some sixty miles, expecting to find water at Washburn's well. This was a hole which I afterwards found dug down about ten feet in the white sand that covers this desert. On this sand not any thing grows, but musquit bush, which bears a bean that the Indians eat.

After travelling to within twelve miles of the mountain, my animals and my men all gave out. We did not have a drop of water, and my chart said that there was none short of the mountain. I told the boys that evening was coming on, and I would take some leather bottles we had and go and get some water as quickly as I could. So just before dark, I started with bottles enough to hold twenty quarts. I had a trail to follow in the dark, not over a foot in width. After what seemed to me the longest twelve miles I ever travelled, I arrived at the mountain. After following the ravine through the top, I found the spring, drank heartily, filled my bottles, and started on my return trip. I arrived at the place where I had left my men, just as the day was breaking. After giving them a good drink, I gave some to each of the animals, any one of which would drink from a canteen or bottle.

We then all immediately started on towards the mountain, at which place we finally arrived. When within about fifty yards of the spring, I saw a small party of Indians camped just above it. One of them, the chief, stepped forward, and in Spanish ordered me to stop. And here let me say, that almost all of the Indians, especially their chiefs, can talk Spanish. When he ordered me to stop, I burst out into a laugh, and asked him "what for." My boys in the meantime were preparing for a fight. I told them to put up their weapons, as I did not wish to commence fighting the Indians here, as there were lots of them, and we had a good deal of work to do in that vicinity. Though we might kill or capture all of this party, a larger band might attack us in the future. So I told the boys that if they would keep still, I would bother the Indians a little, and then let them go. This was agreed to. Upon my asking the chief what for, he said,

"This water belongs to the Indians."

I replied, "Do you call yourselves Indians? You are nothing but squaws and papooses. I was here last night, and got water under your very noses, and you did not know it."

"The white captain," the chief replied, "talks with two tongues. He lies."

"You are the one that lies," I rejoined. "Has the chief lost his eyesight? Is he so old that he cannot see the white man's trail? Let him come forward and meet his white brother alone, and he will show him his trail."

He at once advanced as I did myself. We shook hands. I pointed out my last night's trail. He saw it at once, and turning to his companions, said to them,

"The white captain has told the truth."

So we shook hands all around. I gave them some hard bread, also some bacon, and we had a good time generally all day resting at this spring. At nightfall they all departed, as silently as shadows, leaving us in full possession of the spring of water.