On February 3, 1843, well-known and well-respected frontiersman and scout Christopher Houston Carson (better known as Kit Carson) escorted his bride, Maria Josefa Jaramillo, from Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Taos, where they were married, to their new home not far away. Maria was Carson’s third wife. He was thirty-three years old and she was fifteen. The couple was introduced by Carson’s friend and an occasional employer, Charles Bent. Bent was a fur trader and explorer and was, coincidentally, married to Maria Josefa’s sister, Ignacia.
According to the May 16, 1907, edition of the Rio Rancho, New Mexico, newspaper the Rio Rancho Observer, Carson was described as “short, balding and bowlegged.” He saw in Maria Josefa “grace and elegance”, and Maria Josefa saw in Carson “fearlessness and a sense of decency.” Carson’s friends agreed with Maria’s assessment of his personality. History records that he wasn’t afraid of “hell or high water” and that his private life was “as clean as a hound’s tooth.”
Maria Josefa was born on March 19, 1828, in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Her father, Francisco Jaramillo, was a merchant, and her mother, Maria Apolonia Vigil, owned substantial acreage in the Rio Grande area of the state. Maria Josefa helped her parents maintain their ranch and cared for her younger brothers and sisters. She met Carson in Taos in 1842. He had been on an expedition with Colonel John Charles Fremont in the Rocky Mountains and was anxious to visit a place where there were lots of people. Historical records on hand at the Kit Carson Museum in Taos, New Mexico, note that Carson thought Maria Josefa was a lovely young woman.3 Author and politician Gerrard Lewis noted that “her style of beauty was of the haughty, heart-breaking kind – such as would lead a man with a glance of the eye to risk his life for one smile.”
Although Maria Josefa and Carson were equally impressed with one another, her father would not permit them to marry because Carson was illiterate. Francisco was an educated man and very well respected in the community. He was aware of Carson’s work as an accomplished scout, criss crossing the western territories, but preferred his daughter marry someone with a scholastic background, at the very least someone who was a member of the Catholic faith. Carson was determined to make Maria Josefa his wife and decided to convert to Catholicism. He attended the necessary classes, counseled with a priest, and paid the fee required for a wedding ceremony in the church.
According to the records on hand at the Catholic parish in Taos, “Cristobal Carson, thirty-two years old and a native of Missouri, the son of Linsey Carson and Rebecca Roberson, was baptized on January 28, 1843.” Luise Lee and Maria Cruz Padilla are listed as his godparents. Padre Antonio Jose Martinez presided over the service. Carson and Maria Josefa were married nine days later on February 6, 1843. Her sister, Maria Ignacia, and her husband stood on either side of the couple when they exchanged vows.
A short three months after the wedding, Carson left on the first of many expeditions he would participate in during his married life. Carson had been leading treks to various parts of the unsettled frontier since he was fifteen years old. He was born in Madison County, Kentucky, on December 24, 1809. Just after his first birthday his parents moved to Howard County, Missouri. Carson had five brothers and six sisters. His father was a lumberjack and died in a work-related accident when Carson was nine years old. At the age of fourteen he was an apprentice to a saddle maker, a job which he said “soon became irksome to him.” He ran away (a one cent reward was offered for his return) and arrived in Santa Fe in the fall of 1826.
The Rio Rancho Observer notes that the independent Carson had a talent for learning different languages. He mastered Spanish quickly and was able to communicate easily with people in New Mexico and other territories where he traveled. He spoke French, fifteen different Indian dialects, and knew sign language. Because he also had a talent with weapons, he was able to handle any trouble that came his way. He shot Native Americans who tried to interfere with his work as a hunter and trapper.
In 1829 Carson hired on as an interpreter and accompanied copper mine owners to their property in Mexico. From there he joined a party of trappers traveling north to California over uncharted wilderness. He collected furs, hides, elk, deer, and antelope meat to sell and trade at outposts along the Salt River and in the Rocky Mountains. While bravely blazing a westward trail for pioneers to follow later, Carson suffered lack of water, rugged terrain, and inhospitable weather. His daring reputation was proven in 1833 when he and fifty trappers were hunting along the Arkansas River in Colorado and a band of Crow Indians stole their horses. Carson led a dozen men forty miles through the snow to catch the thieves and retrieve their rides.
Two years later Carson battled with the Blackfoot Indians in Wyoming. Employed by the Rocky Mountain Fur Company to supply military forts with food, Carson led more than one hundred trappers along the Green River when they were fired upon by Blackfoot Indians angry that smallpox had killed many in their tribe. With little ammunition Carson and the others managed to drive the Blackfoot Indians back to their encampment.
Maria Josefa was not Carson’s first venture into married life. An Arapaho woman named Waa-Nibe married him in the summer of 1835. Carson wasn’t the only one vying for her affections either. Another trapper wanted to marry her. In his autobiography, Carson recalled the fight he and the trapper had that earned him Waa-Nibe’s hand. “There was in the part of Captain Drips a large Frenchman, one of those overbearing kinds and very strong. He made a practice of whipping every man that he was displeased with and that was nearly all. One day, after he had beaten two or three men, he said that for Frenchmen he had no trouble to flog, and as for the Americans, he would take a switch and switch them. I did not like such talk from any man, so I told him that I was the worst American in the camp. Many could trash him, but they didn’t on account of being afraid. I told him if he made use of anymore such expression, I would rip his guts.
“He said nothing but started for his rifle, mounted his horse, and made his appearance in front of the camp. As soon as I saw him, I mounted my horse and took the first arms I could get ahold of, which was a pistol, galloped up to him and demanded if I was the one which he intended to shoot. Our horses were touching. He said no, but at the same time drawing his gun. We both fired at the same time; all present said but one report was heard. I shot him through the arm and his ball passed my head, cutting my hair and the powder burning my eye, the muzzle of his gun being near my head when he fired. During our stay in camp we had no more bother with this bully Frenchman.”
Carson and Waa-Nibe married shortly after the altercation with the French trapper. Historians and ancestors of both Carson and Maria Josefa admit that Waa-Nibe was the “true love of his life.” Waa-Nibe died from a fever three years after the two were wed. The couple had two daughters the youngest of the girls died in a tragic accident. Adaline his oldest daughter, was entrusted to the care of one of Carson’s sisters living in Missouri. Carson had joined an expedition traveling to Yellowstone and Bighorn and could not take the child with him.
Once again Carson encountered problems with Native Americans living on the land. The Blackfoot Indians were so desperate to get rid of Carson and the other mountain men with him they set fire to the dry grass and brush around their camp. Carson managed to escape the blaze and continue on with the venture.
Between 1826 and 1842, Carson was a part of more than a dozen organized treks across the western wilderness. His reputation as a great frontiersman grew with each undertaking; from the Columbia River to the Rio Grande, through the Sierra and the Rocky Mountains, his powers of endurance were impressive to all who heard about them. According to the September 22, 1905, edition of the Boston Globe, Carson could go for days without food and did not tire easily. He always kept moving toward his destination, whether across the arid deserts of Arizona or the snowy cliffs of the Northern Sierras; he refused to be diverted from his route.
In 1841, two years after he lost his first wife, Carson married a seventeen-year-old Cheyenne Indian woman named Making-Our-Road. The two became acquainted during a trip to Bent’s Fort in Colorado. Carson had been contracted by the commander of the post to do some hunting for the troops. The extended time he spent away from his new bride working contributed to the demise of their union. Less than a year after they were married, Making-Our-Road decided she no longer wanted to be tied to Carson. When he returned to the Cheyenne tribe camp to see his wife, he found his personal belongings outside her lodge. According to Cheyenne custom that was her way of telling him she wanted him to be gone. She later migrated out of the area with other members of her tribe. A year after his marriage to Making-Our-Road ended Carson met Maria Josefa.
The survey trip Carson made with John Fremont before he wed Maria Josefa made him famous. As an employee with the United States Corp. of Topographical Engineers, Fremont was charged with mapping the country of the Platt River to the Rockies. Carson was paid one hundred dollars a month to serve as Fremont’s guide, more than three times the amount he made as a hunter for military posts.
Carson’s true-life adventures working for Fremont and the military were translated into popular dime novels. Stories of how he led exploration teams across the plains, hunted buffalo, tracked down Native Americans who attacked wagon trains, killed pioneers, and kidnapped women, were read by thousands of emigrants traveling west. According to Carson’s autobiography his name and notoriety did not impress Francisco Jaramillo. Jaramillo had envisioned his daughter Maria Josefa marrying a much younger man. Carson’s dedication to his Catholic conversion eventually won Maria Josefa’s father’s approval. “The custom was for the groom-to-be to furnish the bride with a complete trousseau,” Carson noted in his memoirs. “The wedding feast took place in the home of the bride, but the bride groom’s family [he was referring to Charles Bent and his wife Ignacia] was completely in charge, and furnished everything for the occasion.”
Josefa spent much of her first year of marriage without her husband. Thirteen months passed from the time Carson left Taos in late May 1843 (shortly after they wed, he joined Fremont as a guide and scout on another excursion) and he returned. Josefa maintained the cabin Carson built for her on the Little Cimarron River, alone. Carson spent the time apart from his wife (whom he called “Chipeta”, which means little singing bird) leading still more expeditions across the western territories, clearing crude paths for future travelers while others on the journey recorded astronomical and topographical findings. He kept the company he was hired to work for safe from warring Native Americans and wild animals.
When war broke out between the United States and Mexico, Carson joined in the fight and served daringly. His actions on the field of battle earned him a personal appointment from President James K. Polk as Lieutenant of Rifles.
Between the end of the Mexican War and start of the Civil War, Carson and his friend, Lucien Maxwell, began a ranching and farming operation on Maxwell’s property in Rayado, New Mexico, fifty miles away from Taos. Josefa was able to finally spend a great deal of time with her husband as he tried to adapt to the life of a gentleman rancher. No matter how Carson tried to rid himself of the desire of traipsing into uncharted territory, he couldn’t. Josefa recognized that Carson was not meant to lead a life working the land. She could see he was much more interested in protecting her, their family, friends, and his business associates from frequent raids by the Indians in the southern plains and the desert. Many Apache, Ute, Comanche, and Cheyenne Indians around Carson’s ranch stole horses, livestock, and personal possessions from those trying to settle in the Rayodo area and those living in Taos. Before Carson could get his wife out of the volatile situation, Josefa gave birth to their first child. Charles Bent Carson was born one month premature in May 1849. The baby was too frail to make a grueling journey. Carson and his family decided to stay behind with the Maxwells and a few others who had come to the settlement hoping to find gold in the nearby Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
In October, Carson was called upon by the military to help locate several pioneers who had been separated from wagon trains traveling to the Cimarron Cutoff. It didn’t take Carson long to find the men in the party, all had been killed by Apache Indians and their bodies were strewn along the trail. The women and children with the train had been taken hostage. Carson tracked the women to an abandoned Indian camp and discovered they had been killed. The children were never found. Carson returned to Taos to be with his wife and their infant son. The baby’s health had never fully improved from his early birth, and he died in 1851.
Carson and Josefa had a second son in October 1852 and named him William. Four months after the baby was born, Carson decided to help drive sheep to California. He had heard that pioneers were willing to pay large sums of money for the animals. Carson and a friend rounded up sixty-five hundred head of sheep and along with twenty-two hands pushed them west. His arrival into Nevada with the animals attracted the attention of newspapers in Northern California. It drew a barrage of unwelcomed attention to him. Carson was pointed out wherever he went. He was given free passes on steamboats and all places of amusement and harassed by people while he tried to eat.
Once he sold his sheep (at $5.50 a head) he hurried home to Josefa and William, vowing to make more of an attempt to be content with a quiet life on the ranch.23 The Carsons had now been married nine years, and he had spent more than half of that time away from Josefa. Just as he was adapting to being a full-time husband and father, the United States government appointed him Indian agent for the Ute, Apache, and Pueblo Indians. Carson was devoted to serving the Native Americans he represented well, and Josefa supported him in his efforts. There were times when the couple used their own earnings to help feed the Indians who were not getting the provisions promised to them by Washington politicians.24 According to a report issued by Carson to the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1859, “Scarcely a day passes but I have five to twenty-five to feed and take care of – their only resource is upon the government.”
Carson and Josefa adopted three Indian orphans during his tenure as an Indian agent. The pair also had two more children of their own in that time: a daughter, born in 1856, and a son born in 1858.
When the Civil War broke out in April 1861, Carson resigned his post with the Bureau of Indian Affairs and joined the Union Army. He was made Lieutenant Colonel of the New Mexico volunteers and was required to meet in Albuquerque with the other soldiers from the territory in June 1861. Josefa and family went with him. On August 2, Josefa gave birth to another boy. The Carsons named him after their son that died. Carson was not shy about showing his love for his wife and children. Officers in the New Mexico volunteers, such as Captain Rafael Chacon, wrote in his memoirs about the touching scene he witnessed between the mountain man and his brood. “He used to lie down on an Indian blanket, in front of his quarters, with his pockets full of candy and lumps of sugar,” Chacon recalled. “His children would jump on top of him and take the candy and sugar from his pockets and eat it…and he derived great pleasure from these little episodes. He was most kind to his wife, Dona Josefa Jarmillo.”
Carson distinguished himself during the Civil War at the Battle of Valverde. He led his troops across the Valverde River to engage more than four hundred Confederate troops in combat. Heavy cannon fire from rebel cannons eventually pushed Carson and his troops back across the river and onto Fort Craig in Socorra County, New Mexico. Fort commander, Colonel E. R. S. Canby left the post to lead soldiers to a skirmish with the Confederates at Glorieta Pass.28 In his absence he put Carson in charge and gave orders to defend the camp from any attack. When Carson learned that the Confederates were not going to advance on the fort but bypass it instead and press on in the direction of Taos, he sent word to Josefa to leave the area.
Josefa wasted no time gathering her family together. She quickly ushered them out of town and to safety. Fearing the advancing troops might overtake Taos and raid the Carson home looking for valuables, Josefa decided to take the money and jewels she had tucked away with her when they departed. She hid the items on an Indian girl she and Carson were raising. During their mad dash from Taos, the Carson family met a band of Ute Indians with a three-year-old Navajo boy in tow. The Utes complained to Josefa that the toddler was a bother and that they were going to kill him. She could not bear the idea of the boy’s life being taken and decided to bargain for him. After trading one of the horses she had with her for the child, Josefa hurried off with her family. When Carson and Josefa were reunited, she told him what had transpired. The couple adopted the boy and named him Juan Carson.
Carson resigned from military service in 1865, but any hope Josefa had that he would return home to stay was dashed when her husband accepted the position of Superintendent of Indian Affairs for the Colorado Territory. He moved his family to Boggsville, Colorado, in 1866 where he briefly took command of daily operation at Fort Garland in the southern portion of the territory. Not long after they arrived at the post, Josefa gave birth to their third daughter.
By July 1867, Carson’s health was rapidly deteriorating. An accident he had suffered some months before taking the job as Superintendent of Indian Affairs for the Colorado Territory was causing him problems. During one of his many trips across the west a rattlesnake had spooked his horse. Carson was hurled over an embankment and injured his neck. At the age of fifty-seven, riding a horse was excruciatingly painful for him. He traveled primarily by army ambulance. Carson used an army ambulance to transport himself and a delegation of Ute Chiefs to Washington, D. C., in February 1868. They made it as far as Fort Lyon (more than one hundred and forty-seven miles from their starting point) using the ambulance. The remainder of the trip was made via stagecoach and railroad. The purpose Carson had for enduring such hardship was to negotiate a treaty concerning tribal lands.
When it came time to return to Colorado in March 1868, Carson was weak and exhausted. Josefa was expecting their seventh child, and he wanted nothing more than to be with her. “My wife must see me,” he reportedly told the Ute Chiefs who made the journey east with him. “If I was to write about this, [referring to how ill he truly was] or died out here, it would kill her. I must get home….”
On April 11, 1868, Josefa met Carson at La Juanita, Colorado, with a team and a wagon to take him home. The Carsons welcomed their seventh child into the world on April 13, 1868. Two weeks after their daughter was born, Josefa died of complications from that birth. Carson was heartbroken over the loss of his wife and overwhelmed by the prospect of caring for his large family alone. The financial burden worried him as well.34 The income earned as military man, superintendent, and former trapper was meager. “I fear I have not done right by my children,” Carson confided in his friend William T. Sherman, concerning the little wealth he had to pass on.
A month after Josefa’s death Carson passed away. He died of a ruptured abdominal aneurism on May 23, 1868, at Fort Lyons, Colorado. The June 4, 1868, edition of the Decatur, Illinois, newspaper The Decatur Review reported on the frontiersman’s accomplishments, “No one man did more than Kit Carson in expediting the development of the wilderness of the Great West.” Carson and Josefa were buried at the cemetery in Boggsville, Colorado. Their bodies were later moved to a cemetery in Taos, New Mexico.