Chapter 8


The Mountain Man as Western Hero: Kit Carson

The successor to Daniel Boone and Leatherstocking in the role of Western hero was foreshadowed in the rapid development in the 1830s of the Rocky Mountain fur trade. The fur trapper, or Mountain Man, much more uncivilized than the sons of Leatherstocking, is a monster produced by the anarchic freedom of life in the wilderness. Writers like Timothy Flint and Charles Sealsfield portray trappers as a group of men who stoically suffer hardship and completely rely on their own physical prowess and cunning to survive in a world bracingly devoid of the uniformity and monotony of civilized life. Leatherstocking never took Indian scalps; the mountain men, who behave much more like the Indians, revel in taking scalps.

The burgeoning nationalism fostered by the Mexican War widened the audience for tales of the mountain man and thrust him into the role of the standard-bearer of expansion (fulfilled in the glory days of Kentucky by Daniel Boone). Kit Carson, foremost among the mountain men, was portrayed in whitewashed biographies by Dewitt C. Peters and others as a paragon of untutored nobility. Carson owed much of his notoriety to two main sources: John Fremont's Oregon Trail journals of the 1840s and Charles Averill's novel Kit Carson, The Prince of the Gold Hunters. The latter was paradigmatic of the new "steam literature" contrived for a mass audience by the editors of weekly papers after the fashion of the 1830s' penny daily newpapers. Maturin M. Ballou and Frederick Gleason established periodicals such as The Flag of Our Union and Ballou's Pictorial, which reached hundreds of thousands of readers and required the employment of a stable of hack writers capable of turning out copious amounts of fiction. By the late 1850s these writers had perfected the formula for the adventure story, which could be set in any locale but increasingly took up the far West.

The cast of characters in Averill's Kit Carson includes Cooper's genteel hero and heroine, assorted villains, and trusty guide, but Carson displays no evidence of inferiority to the Eastern hero. Averill's Carson is a young, self-assured version of Leatherstocking, mounted on a horse. Complete unto himself, isolated both from society and nature, reliant upon his courage and physical prowess to make his way among the fires and wolves of the prairies, Carson has been divested of virtually all the influences of the East and suggests today's intensely conventional Western hero.

Chapter 9