WHAT FLAG FLIES OVER THE KIT CARSON HOUSE & MUSUEM?
Oh, say can you see . . .
There is no sight more stirring to a real red-blooded American than Old Glory snapping in the breeze, with its thirteen broad stripes and fifty bright stars . . . Wait a minute! That flag, the one flying day and night over the Kit Carson Home and Museum in Taos, NM, it only has thirty-four stars! What’s going on here?
Relax -you haven’t been caught up in a time warp. That really is a thirty-four star flag you see, and there’s good reason for it’s flying there.
The United States National 34-Star flag was adopted with the admission of Kansas, the 34th state, in January of 1861. This flag was used until 1863 when West Virginia became a state. Since the United States believed that secession from the Union was illegal, the flag continued to bear the stars of all the states of the union, even the ‘rebellious’ Southern states.
Serving under that flag was an illiterate 54-year old mountain man, trapper, army scout, Indian agent and explorer who, before the ‘unpleasantness’ between the Union and the South came to an end, rose to wear the star of a brigadier-general on his shoulder boards. And with that, you have received a somewhat rude introduction to Christopher Houston Carson.
Later to be called ‘Kit’ by his father, Carson was born in Madison County, Kentucky, on December 24 1809 to Lindsey, a veteran of the War of Independence, and Rebecca (Robinson) Carson. Some records list him as the sixth of ten children, while others show him as the ninth of fourteen.
When he was nine years old, Kit Carson’s father died. Depending again on which record you read, Lindsey’s death was either caused by a falling tree limb or occurred during an Indian raid on their then home in Boone’s Lick, Howard County, Missouri.
Some five years later, Carson was apprenticed to a saddle- and harness-maker in Franklin, Missouri, at the eastern end of the Santa Fe Trail. This employment proved to be too tame for his adventurous spirit and about 1826 he hired on to tend the horses, mules and oxen with a wagon train heading west on the Trail. In the then capital of the fur trade in the Southwest in Taos, New Mexico Territory, during the winter of 1826-1827, Kit Carson began learning the skills of a trapper while staying with a friend of his father’s, the trapper and explorer Matthew Kinkead. At this time, although unable to read or write English, he learned and became fluent in Spanish. During the next ten years Carson also gained a working knowledge of Navajo, Apache, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Paiute, Shoshone, and Ute.
In the spring of 1829 Carson signed on with Ewing Young, along with forty others, for his first fur trapping expedition. The group travelled into unexplored Apache country along the Gila River where it was attacked by the Indians. During this encounter Carson, for the first time in his life, shot and killed an attacker -he was then just twenty years old. Young’s party continued on to California, trapping and trading from Sacramento to Los Angeles. The group returned to Taos in April, 1830, after trapping along the Colorado River.
Accompanied by Singing Grass (Waa-ni-beh), an Arapahoe woman he had met, and fought a duel for during the summer of 1835 at the mountain man rendezvous along the Green River in south-western Wyoming, Kit Carson worked with the Hudson’s Bay Company, as well as the renowned frontiersman Jim Bridger, trapping beaver along the Yellowstone, Powder, and Big Horn rivers. While they trapped throughout what is now Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana in 1837, Carson’s first child was born, a daughter named Adeline. Singing Grass, to whom he was now married, gave birth to a second daughter about a year later but developed a fever shortly after and died sometime between 1838 and 1840.
The nation was undergoing a severe depression at that time which, in addition to the new demand for silk hats and a much decimated beaver population, brought about the end of the fur trapping industry.
Carson attended the last mountain man rendezvous, held in the summer of 1840 at Ft. Bridger, near the Green River. Moving on to Bent’s Fort, he found employment as a hunter. In 1841 Carson married a Cheyenne woman, Making-Our-Road, but she left him only a short time later to follow her tribe’s migration.
By the following year, 1842, Carson had met and become engaged to Josefa Jaramillo, the daughter of a prominent Taos family. Only fourteen years old at that time, Josefa was twenty years younger than her groom-to-be. They were married on February 6, 1843 and, during the next 25 years together, again according to which record you read, had seven or eight children. Some of their descendants may still be found in the Arkansas Valley of Colorado.
In the summer of 1842 Carson met John C. Fremont on a Missouri River steamboat. This chance meeting led to Carson becoming the guide for Fremont’s first expedition to South Pass. This five-month journey was a great success, and Fremont’s report, published by Congress, was said at the time to have “touched off a wave of wagon caravans filled with hopeful emigrants heading west.”
The success of the first expedition lead to a second expedition, in the summer of 1843, which proposed to map and describe the second half of the Oregon Trail, from South Pass to the Columbia River. Carson’s services were again engaged for a journey that took them along the Great Salt Lake into Oregon, and brought them within sight of Mount Rainier, Mount St. Helens, and Mount Hood.
This second expedition, while ultimately also a success, nearly ended in tragedy when it became snowbound in the Sierra Nevada Range that winter. It was only through Carson’s expertise that the group survived. The expedition then moved south into the Mojave Desert, fending off several Indian attacks
During August, 1844, more than a year after their departure, Carson and the other surviving members of this expedition returned home. By the time of Fremont’s second report to Congress in 1845, both he and Kit Carson were becoming nationally famous.
While serving with Fremont’s California Battalion in the Mexican-American War, Kit Carson met Commodore Robert Stockton around mid-July of 1846. Stockton subsequently made Carson a lieutenant, beginning his long and distinguished military career.
Carson also commanded forces of United States, under General Stephen Kearney, from Socorro, New Mexico into California, when a band led by Andrés Pico mounted a challenge to American occupation of Los Angeles in 1846. At the end of this war, Carson returned to his home in Taos, New Mexico.
In 1854 Carson was appointed Indian agent for the Moache Ute, Jicarilla Apache and Taos Pueblo at Taos, New Mexico, a post he held until 1861 when the Civil War imposed new duties on him including assisting Ceran St. Vrain to organize the New Mexican infantry volunteers, with which organization, in 1862, he was in battle at Valverde against Confederate forces.
This same year, 1862, saw Carson in an action surrounded by controversial and conflicting reports that exist to this day, the roots of which grew from a Navajo raid on Socorro, New Mexico Territory, near the end of September, 1846.
Raiding continued sporadically through 1862, and New Mexicans were beginning to demand that something be done. The commander of the Federal District of New Mexico, Brigadier General James H. Carleton, believed that the Navajo conflict was the reason for New Mexico’s “depressing backwardness.” He called upon Kit Carson, by then nationally known, to help him fulfill his plans of upgrading the District.
Declaring a state of martial law, with curfews and mandatory passports for travel, Carleton then brought his authority to bear on the Navajo.
As a prelude to this campaign, Carleton decided to force the Mescalero Apache to Bosque Redondo and ordered Carson to kill all the men of that tribe.
Appalled by this brutal attitude, Carson refused to obey the order. Instead, after a campaign that lasted less than a month, he took the surrender of more than a hundred Mescalero warriors.
Learning that Carleton was going to order him to pursue the Navajo, on February 3, 1863, Carson tendered a letter of resignation that Carleton refused to accept. He then issued the order for Carson to lead an expedition against the Navajo.
Operating under Carleton’s direct and explicit order, Carson instituted a scorched earth policy, burning Navajo fields and homes, and confiscating or killing their livestock. Other Indian tribes, chiefly the Utes, also served against the Navajo.
No pitched battles were fought, just a few skirmishes. In January, 1864, Carson ordered troops under his command to attack the last Navajo stronghold, under the leadership of Manuelito, in Canyon de Chelly. Forced to surrender because of the destruction of their livestock and food supplies, 8,000 Navajo men, women and children began the 300-mile march to Fort Sumner and many died en route.
Despite subsequent books written and stories told by contemporary Navajo, there is ample evidence that on more than three occasions Kit Carson not only refused orders to destroy the tribe but also tendered his resignation, which was consistently set aside by his superior officers.
Rightfully proud as he was of his service to his country, Kit Carson was also very proud to be an active member of the ancient and worldwide Masonic order.
Carson was initiated in the First Degree, as an Entered Apprentice, on April 22, 1854; passed to the Second Degree, that of Fellowcraft, on June 17, 1854. He was raised to the sublime Third Degree, Master Mason, on December 26, 1854 -just two days after his 45th birthday- all in Montezuma Lodge #101, located in the city of Santa Fe, Santa Fe Territory.
By 1859, some seventeen years after Carson first established himself in the New Mexico Territory community of Taos, there were at least ten other Masons living there or nearby. On November 16, 1859, these men, including Carson, after applying for and receiving a dispensation from the Grand Lodge of Missouri, became the Charter Members of Bent Lodge #204 Ancient Free & Accepted Masons. Kit Carson was the new Lodge’s first Junior Warden, the third-ranking elected officer, and the following year was moved up to Senior Warden. Due to his service in the US Army during both the Mexican and the Civil Wars, Brother Carson was never able to sit as Master of the Lodge.
Upon the surrender of the Bent Lodge charter in 1864 -most of the members then being involved with the Civil War- Brother Carson re-affiliated with Montezuma Lodge. (In 1909 the Grand Lodge of New Mexico Territory issued a charter for Bent Lodge #42 AF&AM. The Lodge is still open and active in Taos, NM and owns the home of Kit and Josefa Carson, now operated as the Kit Carson Home and Museum by an independent 501(c)(3) corporation.)
In 1865, cited for gallantry and distinguished service, Carson was promoted to Brigadier General. In the summer of 1866, he took command of Fort Garland, Colorado. Ill health, however, forced him to resign the following year and, in 1868 he and his family moved to Boggsville, near present-day La Junta, Colorado.
On May 23, 1868, at 4:25 of the afternoon, while in the Fort Lyon quarters of Assistant US Surgeon H. K. Tilden, Kit Carson suffered the rupture of an aneurysm in his trachea. As blood gushed from his mouth, Carson said, “Doctor, compadre, adios.” A few minutes after these words, the flag at the southern Colorado Territory fort was lowered to half-staff -Christopher Houston Carson was dead.
The wife of an officer at Fort Lyon used her wedding dress to make a lining for the plain, rough wood of Kit Carson’s casket. Wives of other officers removed the silk flowers from their hats and placed them atop the casket. The following day, a military escort took Carson’s body across the Arkansas River to Boggsville and buried him beside his beloved Josefa, who had died in childbirth the previous month. Their remains were brought to Taos, New Mexico Territory, a year later for final burial.
To the men who had served under him, Kit Carson would always be known as ‘the General’ – the great man and dedicated Mason who helped open the Western Frontier; honorably and bravely served his country under the 34-star flag now flying above his home.
Kit Carson Home and Museum is located at113 Kit Carson Road, Taos, NM. For more information, operating hours or directions to the museum, please call (575) 758-4945.
Please visit us on our web site, www.kitcarsonhomeandmuseum.com; on Facebook you will find us at Kit Carson Home and museum, Inc. or Kit Carson House.
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