If Fremont had become a household name, so had his scout. By 1845, thanks to the expedition reports, Kit Carson’s name, with its sturdy alliterative snap, had crossed the threshold of the national imagination. Fremont painted Carson as an explorer of nearly mythic competence and perspicacity on the trail. He consistently came across as courageous but never rash, a person with a sure presence of mind. And also, crucially, a person who seemed to have enormous stores of luck on his side: Time after time, the stars smiled on Kit Carson. In nearly every contretemps Fremont got himself into, Carson found the way out.He was multilingual but illiterate.
The special thing that Carson had couldn’t be boiled down to any one skill; it was a panoply of talents. He was a fine hunter, an adroit horseman, an excellent shot. He was shrewd as a negotiator. He knew how to select a good campsite and could set it up or strike it in minutes, taking to the trail at lightning speed. (“Kit waited for nobody,” complained one greenhorn who traveled with him, “and woe to the unfortunate tyro.”) He knew what to do when a horse foundered. He could dress and cure meat, and he was a fair cook. Out of necessity, he was also a passable gunsmith, blacksmith, liveryman, angler, forager, farrier, wheelwright, mountain climber, and a decent paddler by raft or canoe. As a tracker, he was unequaled. He knew from experience how to read the watersheds, where to find grazing grass, what to do when encountering a grizzly. He could locate water in the driest arroyo and strain it into potability. In a crisis he knew little tricks for staving off thirst—such as opening the fruit of a cactus or clipping a mule’s ears and drinking its blood. He had a landscape painter’s eye and a cautious ear and astute judgment about people and situations. He knew how to make smoke signals. He knew all about hitches and rope knots. He knew how to make a good set of snowshoes. He knew how to tan hides with a glutinous emulsion made from the brains of the animal. He knew how to cache food and hides in the ground to prevent theft and spoilage. He knew how to break a mustang. He knew which species of wood would burn well, and how to split the logs on the grain, even when an axe was not handy.
These were important skills, all of them, though they were hard to measure and quantify. But in the right person, a person who was also cheerful on a trail he already knew well, who had a few jokes up his sleeve and possessed an absolute honesty—they were invaluable.
Fremont’s nickname, The Pathfinder, was a misnomer several times over. For it was Carson, not Fremont, who had usually “found” the path—and often as not he was merely retracing trails that had already been trod by trappers, Indians, or Spanish explorers. In Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales series, the main protagonist, Natty Bumppo, a.k.a. Hawkeye, a.k.a. the Pathfinder, wears buckskins, lives with the Indians and follows their ways. It was Carson, not Fremont, who actually lived a life that resembled Cooper’s hero.
16 August 2016
Kit Carson's Skillset
From Blood and Thunder: The Epic Story of Kit Carson and the Conquest of the American West, by Hampton Sides (Anchor, 2007), Kindle Loc. 1271-1293: