Biography of Kit Carson

Frontiersman Symbolized America's Westward Expansion

Studio portrait photograph of famed scout Kit Carson
Kit Carson. Getty Images

Kit Carson became widely known in the mid-1800s as a trapper, guide, and frontiersman whose daring exploits thrilled readers and inspired others to venture westward. His life, for many, came to symbolize the hardy traits Americans needed to survive in the West.

In the 1840s Carson was being mentioned in newspapers in the East as a noted guide who had lived among the Indians in the region of the Rocky Mountains.

After guiding an expedition with John C. Fremont, Carson visited Washington, D.C., in 1847 and was invited to dinner by President James K. Polk.

Lengthy accounts of Caron's visit to Washington, and accounts of his adventures in the West, were printed widely in newspapers in the summer of 1847. At a time when many Americans were dreaming of heading westward along the Oregon Trail, Carson became something of an inspirational figure.

For the next two decades Carson reigned as something of a living symbol of the West. Reports of his travels in the West, and periodic mistaken reports of his death, kept his name in the newspapers. And in the 1850s novels based on his life appeared, making him an American hero in the mold of Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone.

When he died in 1868 the Baltimore Sun reported it on page one, and noted that his name "has been the synonym of wild adventure and daring to all Americans of the present generation."

Early Life

Christopher "Kit" Carson was born in Kentucky on December 24, 1809. His father had been a soldier in the Revolutionary War, and Kit was born the fifth of 10 children in a fairly typical frontier family. The family moved to Missouri, and after Kit's father died his mother apprenticed Kit to a sadder.

After learning to make saddles for a time, Kit decided to strike out westward, and in 1826, at the age of 15, he joined an expedition that took him along the Santa Fe trail to California. He spent five years on that first western expedition and considered that his education. (He received no actual schooling, and did not learn to read or write until late in life.)

After returning to Missouri he left again, joining an expedition to northwestern territories. He was engaged in fighting against the Blackfeet Indians in 1833, and then spent about eight years as a trapper in the western mountains. He married a woman of the Arapahoe tribe, and they had a daughter. In 1842 his wife died, and he returned to Missouri where he left his daughter, Adaline, with relatives.

While in Missouri Carson met the politically-connected explorer John C. Fremont, who hired him to guide an expedition to the Rocky Mountains. 

Famous Guide

Carson traveled with Fremont on an expedition in the summer of 1842. And when Fremont published an account of his trek which became popular, Carson was suddenly a famous American hero. 

In late 1846 and early 1847 he fought in battles during a rebellion in California, and in the spring of 1847 he came to Washington, D.C., with Fremont.

During that visit he found himself very popular, as people, especially in the government, wanted to meet the famous frontiersman. After having dinner at the White House, he was eager to return West. By the end of 1848 he was back in Los Angeles.

Carson had been commissioned an officer in the U.S. Army, but by 1850 he was back to being a private citizen. For the next decade he was engaged in various pursuits, which included fighting Indians and trying to run a farm in New Mexico. When the Civil War broke out he organized a volunteer infantry company to fight for the Union, though it mostly battled with local Indian tribes.

An injury to his neck from a horseback accident in 1860 created a tumor that pressed on his throat, and his condition worsened as the years went on. On May 23, 1868, he died at a U.S. Army outpost in Colorado.