Today In Western History: Kit Carson Goes Under

May 23, 1868

Christopher Carson, legendary mountain man, trapper, explorer and soldier
Christopher Carson, legendary mountain man, trapper, explorer and soldier

Kit Carson dies of old age, at 58, in Fort Lyon, Colorado.

Christopher Houston “Kit” Carson was an American legend.  He lived in a time of change, when the West was opening up to exploration and development.  For most of his life he lived off the land, holding few actual paying jobs.  During his lifetime he had been a trapper, a mountain man, a wild-erness guide, Indian agent, and even an American Army officer.  As with many of the famous names of that period, their reputations were greatly enhanced by repeated embellishments of their exploits, sometimes by themselves or just normal story-telling by others to build up their own reputations, and sometimes by their biographers or people just looking to make a dollar by selling complete fiction.  Ned Buntline did this for Buffalo Bill Cody, Wild Bill Hickok and Wyatt Earp.

William F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody, Frontiersman, creator of the Rodeo
William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody, Frontiersman, creator of the Rodeo

Christopher left home at the age of 16 to become a mountain man and trapper in the vast and un-explored Western territories.  In the 1830s, he accompanied Ewing Young on an expedition to what was then Mexican California and later joined fur trapping expeditions into the Rocky Mountains.  To improve his chances of survival and acceptance by the carious tribes, Carson lived among and even married into the  Arapaho and Cheyenne tribes.  In the 1840s, based on his growing reputation as the one who knew the mountains, he was hired as a guide by John C. Fremont, the man who would become known as the Pathfinder.  Carson achieved national fame through Fremont’s accounts of his 

John C. Fremont, The Great Pathfinder"
John C. Fremont, The Great Pathfinder”

expeditions.While serving with Fremont, Carson took an active part in the uprising in California at the beginning of what became known at the Mexican-American War. Later in the war, Carson served as a courier and a scout, and became celebrated for his rescue mission after the Battle of San Pasqual and for his coast-to-coast journey from California to Washington, DC., to deliver news of the conflict in California to the U.S. government.  In the 1850s, he was appointed as the Indian agent to the Ute Indians and the Jicarilla Apaches.

During the American Civil War, Carson led a regiment of mostly New Mexico volunteers of Hispanic heritage supporting the Union at the  Battle of Valverde in 1862. When the Confederate threat to New Mexico was eliminated, Carson turned on the native Americans he had lived with and led forces to suppress the Navajo, Mescalero Apache, Kiowa and Comanche Indians.  For this service, Carson was breveted (a type of military commission conferred especially for outstanding service by which an officer was promoted to a higher rank without the correspond- ing pay) a Brigadier General, and given command of Fort Garland, Colorado, but after only a short time his declining health forced him to retire from military life.  Carson was married three times and had ten children.  Carson died at Fort Lyon, Colorado, of an aortic aneurysm on May 23, 1868. He is buried in Taos, New Mexico, next to his third wife Josefa Jaramillo.




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Today In Western History: Edward Zane Carroll Judson Is Born

March 20 —

Edward Zane Carroll Judson is born today, in 1823, in Stamford, New York.  He didn’t become well known until 1845, when he founded a sensationalistic magazine in Nashville, Tennesee, called Ned Buntline’s Own. 

Edward Zane Carroll "Ned Buntline" Judson
Edward Zane Carroll “Ned Buntline” Judson

Ned Buntline became the best known of several pseudonyms he used during his exciting career. Buntline’s goal in life was very simple. He wanted to make as much money as possible writing stories that the public would pay to read. He filled the pages of Ned Buntline’s Own with a variety of fantastic and outrageous stories, although he tended to favor nautical adventures. A compulsive womanizer (he was married an incredible seven times), he ended up killing a jealous husband who suspected him of seducing his wife in 1846.  Even though Buntline was only defending himself, some of the townspeople sympathetic to the dead man decided to hang Buntline from an awning post in the town square, but luckily for him, and for history, Buntline’s friends cut the rope before he strangled and he was spirited out of town.  Buntline relocated to New York, where he began publishing his magazine once more. Al-though he had once desired to become a serious writer, he was desperate to make a living so he began to write more for a mass audience. Buntline’s popular adventures were successful beyond his expect-ations, and he penned dozens of melodramatic “shocking” stories over the course of only a few years. By the time he was in his late 20s, Buntline had earned the title “King of the Dime Novels” and was making an excellent living.

After traveling to San Francisco in 1869, Buntline realized he could easily adapt his stock adventure plots to a setting in the American West.  At about the same time he met a handsome young scout and buffalo hunter named William Frederick Cody. Buntline claimed to have given Cody the nickname

William F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody, Frontiersman, creator of the Rodeo
William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody, Frontiersman, creator of the Rodeo

“Buffalo Bill,” but Cody later said he earned the name years before as a hunter for the railroads.  It was Buntline’s decision to write a dime novel starring Buffalo Bill Cody made the relatively unknown scout into a national media star. Buntline’s book The Scout of the Plains grossly exaggerated Cody’s western adventures, even making up the entire story and flagrantly manufacturing the details to sup-port the story, but the Eastern public loved the thrilling tales.  Always the promoter, Buntline turned the novel into a play that he staged in Chicago. In 1872, Buntline convinced Cody himself to travel to the city and play himself in the production. Cody was a poor actor, but his participation brought in people and money.  Cody broke with Buntline after a year, but the national fame he had acquired as a result of Buntline’s endless energy and boundless imagination eventually allowed “Buffalo Bill” to create his famous Wild West show. Buntline churned out other western dime novels, and he eventually became the nation’s top literary money earner, surpassing the income of serious authors such as Samuel Langhorne Clemons (“Mark Twain“) and Walt Whitman.  Buntline prized his wealth, but he always remained scornful of his own work. “I found that to make a living I must write ‘trash’ for the masses, for he who endeavors to write for the critical few, and do his genius justice, will go hungry if he has no other means of support.”

One of the other famous legends that was attributed to him was about a set of special guns that he sup-posedly presented to a group of famous lawmen.  The guns were a variation of the famous Colt Peace-maker, but with an extra-long barrel.  This legend was started by Stuart N. Lake in his HIGHLY fiction-

Stuart N. Lake, creator of the legend of Wyatt Earp
Stuart N. Lake, creator of the legend of Wyatt Earp

alized biography of Wyatt Earp in 1931.  The only problem with this enduring legend is that neither  Colt, nor any of the other firearm manufacturers, ever made the extra-long barrel in that time period, and none of the researchers have ever found any proof that the real Wyatt Earp ever owned such a fanciful weapon.  Certainly a 12” barrel would have created some logistical problems for a quick draw, no matter how fast the gun artist was.

Perhaps more than any single writer, Ned Buntline was responsible for creating a highly romantic-cized and somewhat misleading image of the American West as the setting for great adventure and excitement. Buntline died at his home in Stamford, New York, in 1886. He was 63 years old and had written more than 400 novels and countless other short stories and articles.


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