Kit Carson: from California to Washington D.C. in 60 days

The Marathon of '46 (Part 1 of 6)

Kit Carson
  • Kit Carson

On August 13, 1846, Commodore Robert F. Stockton led a force of U.S. Marines and Navy into Los Angeles. Behind him came Major John Charles Frémont’s California Battalion. They entered without resistance. The 51-year-old Stockton’s ambitions ran far beyond his abilities (“no one speaks of him but in terms of condemnation,” wrote Henry Smith Turner). Unauthorized, Stockton declared himself “Commander-in-Chief and Governor of the Territory of California” and California part of the United States.

Stockton and Frémont ordered their scout, Kit Carson, to race to Washington D.C. — with victorious dis- patches for President Polk — and return in 140 days. Carson vowed a record run: “I would reach Washington in 60 days, and they would have return dispatches from the government in 120...and never mind mule flesh or expenses.”

In person, the famous Christopher Houston “Kit” Carson, disappointed people (a Fort Laramie emigrant told him, “You ain’t the kind of Kit Carson I’m looking for”). Expecting a colossus, they encountered a 5 ́, 6 ̋, 135 pound, stoop-shouldered man, whose auburn hair, a Britisher observed, was “parted amidships.” Carson spoke softly — Elias Brevoort said he had a “mild, rather effeminate voice” — some thought because he was illiterate; others, so “everybody would stop to listen.”

Though the hero of biographies, yellow-back novels, and penny dreadfuls, Carson was one of several mountain men of equal ability: among them were Thomas “Broken Hand” Fitzpatrick (“Perhaps the greatest,” some say), who guided Stephen Watts Kearny’s Army of the West as far as Socorro; and Antoine “Alexis” Godey, a trapper, guide, and California Battalion Lieutenant who, like Carson and Kearny’s army, fought the Battle of San Pasqual.

Carson chose a route he’d taken with trapper Ewing Young in 1830: from Los Angeles through the Mojave to the Colorado River, to Santa Fe; then a side trip to Taos to see his wife Josefa (he hadn’t been home in over a year); followed by 800 miles across the plains to St. Louis, where he’d ride a boat or steam train to Washington. The last leg wouldn’t take ten days.

Carson handpicked 15 men, including five Delaware Indians and his friend Lucien Maxwell. To travel light, they carried sacks of pinola — parched cornmeal flavored with mesquite beans — and only 25 pounds of dried meat. They brought 50 horses and mules, the pack train lashed to the ones they rode. Carson preferred mules, which were better suited to the dry, rugged Southwestern terrain. Plus, if the riders ran out of food, they could always eat a mule. None were strangers to its stringy flesh.

Obsessed with keeping his word to Fremont and setting a record, Carson left Los Angeles September 5. Whenever the terrain permitted, the group rode at a gallop and never rested long at night camps. Carson said to reach the Mississippi River on time, they must average 30 miles a day.

In California history, 1846 was the year of the marathon. Large expeditions traveled epic, often uncharted distances, striving beyond endurance. Three are famous: Kearny’s Army of the West wore out mules and patience (“What a country,” Turner wrote. “I wish there was a railroad through it, and at the rate of 60 miles an hour”). Then 21 died at the Battle of San Pasqual.

Three weeks behind Kearny, Colonel Philip Cooke led the Mormon Battalion, which forged a wagon trail from Santa Fe to San Diego in 103 long days. Cooke called it “a leap in the dark of a thousand miles of wild plain and mountain.”

Also in 1846, 87 emigrants left Independence, Missouri, on the California Trail. Hearing of a shortcut through the Sierra Nevada, they changed course, got snowed in, and 35 members of the Donner Party lost their lives.

Less known are individual marathons, many related to the Battle of San Pasqual, which attempted to move, as Turner dreamed, at railroad speed.

To bystanders, Kit Carson’s express made no sense: a controlled stampede — 200 pounding hooves; riders spurring gaunt ribcages. In the mid-1840s, livestock was gold. Why wear out animals over such barren terrain?

“Every bush in the country is full of thorns,” writes John S. Griffin, Army of the West’s doctor. “Every rock you turn over has a tarantula or centipede under it. In the summer the most beautiful specimens of rattlesnakes are scattered around in the greatest profusion”— and loved to crawl under soldiers’ blankets.

Moving never less than at a trot, the express crossed the Colorado desert, at one stretch going 60 miles without water. They lost an exhausted mule a day. Packs of wolves trailed behind, feasting on a wake of carrion. When they reached the Gila River, the men were as emaciated as the animals. “We suffered considerably for food,” Carson wrote.

Near New Mexico’s Santa Rita del Cobre copper mines, the express came upon an Apache village. Since they couldn’t stop or race through. Maxwell and Carson decided to ride by “cautiously.” If spotted, they wanted to be “as close as possible to them at the time of the discovery.” One hundred yards away, the natives saw the express and were “somewhat frightened.” Carson signaled peace and explained his purpose. The Apaches became friendly. They traded mules, two for one, to Carson’s group.

In his memoirs, John G Fremont wrote, “Going off at the head of his own party with carte blanche for expenses and the prospect of novel pleasure and honor at the end was a culminating point in Carson’s life.” It would have been, if he had completed the journey. Thirty days out of Los Angeles, sleep-deprived and famished, Carson assured his men I he "worst was over.” They’d come 801) miles and were just 200 from Santa he. They’d lost 3-4 mules. But with their fresh Apache mounts, they could sprint to Santa Fe, exchange animals, and dash across the prairie.

On October 6, about ten miles below Socorro, New Mexico, Carson’s express spotted dust clouds above the lower Rio Grande Volley. It was Kearny's army, like a city on the move: 300 dragoons, long pack trains, wagons, herds of cattle, and camels — Girts with cumbersome wheels that moved slower than the animals — and mule-drawn “mountain" howitzers that often lagged days behind.

From a distance, Carson's men thought: friends, food, maybe a swig of Taos lightning before speeding eastward. As they rode toward the army, the express whooped and hollered.

Kearny also headed for a culminating point. He had "captured” Santa Fe without firing a shot. With President Polk’s authority, Kearny marched to California, where laurels awaited. Although his army grumbled like no other — in 104-degree heat, they refused his order to wear jackets — Kearny admired their bravery.

On closer inspection, it was hard to tell which group was worse off, Carson’s alkali-caked express or Kearny's glum dragoons, riding "jaded beasts,” eating half- rations spiked by cacti, and harassed by swarms of mosquitoes and buffalo gnats.

“We were not on an exploring expedition," L.t. W.H. Emory complained two days before Carson’s arrival. “War was the object; yet we had now marched one thousand miles without fleshing a sabre."

The same day, Turner wrote. “Oh! that I were 1000 miles in this or that direction.”

When Carson met Kearny, each brought the worst possible news. Carson said Kearny was "too late." Stockton annexed California to the United States, and ° the American flag floated in every port.” Without presidential authority, Stockton had trumped Kearny’s destiny.

Kearny doesn’t record his reaction, but he must have been stunned. He had missed the grand chance. So had his troops. Turner: “Unless we are fortunate enough to get into a fight before reaching California and be successful in it, too, our laborious service in marching over this country will never be appreciated."

Kearny’s news was as blunt. He told Carson to abandon his record quest and guide the army to California. Although the fighting was over, Kearny had orders to establish a "civil government." And Carson was an ideal scout. After all, he just covered the ground, for which no maps existed. Thomas "Broken Hand” Fitzpatrick could take the dispatches to Washington — which he did, though it took many months.

At first, Kearny recalled. Carson was "very unwilling.” Unwilling? It was like telling a bullet to turn around.

A week, at most, from seeing his wife at Taos, in the middle of a legend-making ordeal, now Car-son must go west for possibly another year? But his pledge to Fremont! The record! Before meeting the army, Carson said the express was “on schedule.”

Kearny assured Carson "more than 20 times” that his change of plans wouldn't break Fremont’s trust.

The army moved ten miles before Carson assented. "When Kearny could not persuade me to turn back, he made me believe he had a right to Order me.... I let him take me back; arid I guided him through but went with great hesitation."

The night before the army moved out, Carson planned an escape. He’d continue the express, alone if necessary. But Lucien Maxwell urged him against it.

Convinced the war was over. Kearny sent 200 dragoons back to Santa Fe. Canon said traveling with supply and baggage wagons would take four months, so Kearny returned them too. And the Army of the West, pared to only 101 dragoons on "devilish poor” mules and led by two chagrined trail-blazers, slouched toward San Diego — and the bloodbath at San Pasqual.


Carson’s news was out of date. After he "conquered” Los Angeles, Stockton dreamed of invading Mexico, via Acapulco. He sailed to San Francisco to confer with Fremont and muster KICK) more troops. Stockton left Lieutenant Archibald H. Gillespie in charge.

Like Stockton, writes Dale L. Walker. Gillespie was "as drunk with power" as Angelenos were "drunk on aguardiente” (one said Gillespie enjoyed “humiliating the most respectable men”). He ordered strict curfews, liquor bans, no public or private meetings (including family reunions), no two people even walking together. Five weeks later, "put in a condition worse than that of slaves” Angelenos revolted. They elected Jose Maria Mores major general. His third in command, Andres Pico, led Californio forces at San Pasqual.

(Gillespie, who stereo typed Californios as "lazy” and "cowardly,” also fought at San Pasqual During the battle, six of Pico’s lancers wrestled with each other for the right to kill "the despicable Gillespie.” He had three stall wounds, including a lanced lung, but lived.)

Gillespie had to warn Stockton that Las Angeles was besieged. So he ordered Juan Flaco ("Skinny John”) Brown to ride nonstop from Los Angeles to San Francisco with news as jaw- dropping as Carson’s and Kearny’s. In tiny handwriting, Gillespie scribbled messages on cigarette papers; one of them, which included his seal, said, "Believe the Bearer.”

Flaco balled up the papers and hid them in his hair. He pulled his hat down tight and, changing horses at way-stations along the El Camino Real, sprinted 500 miles in a record six days.

Continue to Part 2: Don Antonio Coronel's Barefoot Marathon

Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6

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