The Mountain Man as Western Hero: Kit Carson

The first generation of fictional Wild Western heroes after Cooper--the sons of Leatherstocking--were primarily symbols of anarchic freedom. The notion that men who ranged the wilderness had fled from the restraints of civilization-- for better or for worse, according to the social philosophy of the observer--had been greatly strengthened during the 1830's by the spectacular development of the Rocky Mountain fur trade. The fur trapper, or Mountain Man, was much more clearly uncivilized than Daniel Boone had been. The prime theater of his activities lay hundreds of miles distant from the frontier beyond the Great American Desert, and was not a region that invited agricultural settlement. He had adopted many more Indian ways than had the typical pioneers of the area east of the Mississippi. His costume, his speech, his outlook on life, often enough his Indian squaw, gave him a decidedly savage aspect. Yet the trappers dominated the exploration of the trans-Mississippi region, and the successor of Boone and Leatherstocking in the role of typical Wild Western hero was certain to be a mountain man. Cooper had acknowledged this fact in The Prairie by transporting Leatherstocking beyond the Mississippi and trying halfheartedly to make him over into a trapper. But Leatherstocking did not really belong in the Far West--a region about which his creator knew next to nothing. Besides, the old hunter considered the vocation of a trapper somewhat beneath his dignity.

This low opinion of the fur trade was shared by Timothy


Flint, whose The Shoshonee Valley, published in 1830, is the first novel in which mountain men figure as characters. It is true that Flint divides his trappers into two classes. A few, potentially virtuous, experience in the presence of mountain landscapes "a certain half chill sensation of the awful and sublime" which will be recognized as evidence of at least rudimentary ethical nobility. But by far the greater number of the trappers are as insensitive as deer to the charms of the scenery, and therefore by implication vulgar or wicked.1 These "strange, fearless, and adamantine men," Flint says,

renouncing society, casting off fear, and all the common impulses and affections of our nature . . . finding in their own ingenuity, their knife, gun and traps, all the Divinity, of which their stern nature and condition taught them the necessity became almost as inaccessible to passions and wants, and as sufficient to themselves, as the trees, or the rocks with which they were conversant.2

Such an existence satisfies man's baser impulses. Few who have tasted its dangerous joys can return with pleasure to the tedious routine of the settlements. Life in the mountains is especially attractive because of its unrestricted love and licensed polygamy. All the trappers have

an instinctive fondness for the reckless savage life, alternately indolent and laborious, full and fasting, occupied in hunting, fighting, feasting, intriguing, and amours, interdicted by no laws, or difficult morals, or any restraints, but the invisible ones of Indian habit and opinion.3

Charles Sealsfield, although he was not committed to the essentially theocratic social theory of the New Englander Flint, was equally certain that the Western trapper was a monster, peculiar to America, produced by the absolute freedom of wilderness life. He asserts that the fur trade is carried on by men to whose intractable minds even the rational liberty of the settled portions of the United States seemed an intolerable constraint.4 Having fled to the wilderness to escape the control of law, the trappers come to regard a wild freedom as the one absolute necessity of existence. In this situation, every man must rely upon his own physical prowess. Warlike skills, practical cunning, and sheer ferocity are developed to the highest degree. The true


trapper hates mankind and kills any rival with "a real fiendish joy." 5

The picture of the mountain man presented in David H. Coyner's fictionalized narrative The Lost Trappers (1847) is in substantial agreement with Sealsfield's, although it has less of his overstraining and love of hyperbole. Coyner asserts that the mountain man rejects civilized life deliberately because he despises its

dull uniformity and monotony when compared in his mind with the stirring scenes of wild western adventure. The security and protection of the laws have no attraction for him; for he wants no other means of defence than his rifle, which is his daily companion. He is impatient of the formalities and the galling restrictions of well organized society, and prefers the latitude and liberty of a life in the woods.6

Emerson Bennett, whose novel The Prairie Flower may have been based upon a narrative composed by an actual traveler on the Oregon Trail, introduces a few passages of remarkably accurate dialogue in the scenes dealing with the four trappers who figure in the story; one of them tells tall tales which belong to the authentic tradition of Davy Crockett.7 But Bennett has nothing to contribute to the interpretation of the mountain man's character. He merely reshuffles the standard themes-the trapper's love of freedom, his indifference to hardship and danger, his hatred of the dull life of settled communities.8 The novelist is noncommittal concerning the ethical character of the trapper, mingling hints of primitivistic approval with contradictory suggestions of moral condemnation, and concludes tamely that the mountain man is "a strange compound of odds and ends-of inexplicable incongruities-of good and evil." 9 As a straw in the wind pointing to the future development of the Wild Western hero we may note that Bennett's trappers, to the horror of the genteel hero Frank Leighton, delight in scalping Indians.10 Leatherstocking, who always insisted that the white man and the Indian had different "gifts," had never condoned scalping by whites. As the literary Western hero moves beyond the Mississippi he is becoming more and more fully assimilated to the mores of the Indian.


At the same time, he is conceived as more and more completely autonomous, isolated, and self-contained. This is in accord with factual reporting by firsthand observers in the mountains. Lewis H. Garrard's autobiographical narrative Wah-To-Yah, for example, places great emphasis upon the mountain men's anarchic freedom and self-sufficiency. In the trappers' camps Garrard experienced "a grand sensation of liberty and a total absence of fear." There was no one to say what he should do; no "conventional rules of society constrained him to any particular form of dress, manner, or speech." It is true that Garrard was a youngster on his first vacation away from home, but he reports other attitudes than his own. He quotes the kindly advice of an old mountaineer:

If you see a man's mule running off, do n't stop it--let it go to the devil; it is n't yourn. If his possible sack falls off, don't tell him of it; he'll find it out. At camp, help cook--get wood an' water--make yourself active--get your pipe, an' smoke it--don't ask too many questions, an' you'll pass! 11

The dissolution of the bonds that tie man to man in society could hardly be carried farther than this.

The best known mountain man was Kit Carson, who owed his fame to Jessie Benton Fremont's skillful editing of her husband's reports on his exploring expeditions in the early 1840's.12 Although these narratives had been widely read before 1846, the Mexican War created an even greater audience for them by bringing to bear on everything related to the winning of the West the yeasty nationalism aroused by the conflict. The momentary effect was to make of the fur trapper and mountain man just such a pioneer of empire as the glorifiers of Kentucky had tried to make of Boone in earlier decades. This in turn implied that Carson must be depicted according to canons of progress and civilization and even gentility that had not previously been invoked in discussion of the mountain man. Carson, like Boone, had now to be transformed into

one of the best of those noble and original characters that have from time to time sprung up on and beyond our frontier, retreating with it to the west, and drawing from association with uncultivated nature, not the rudeness and sensualism of the savage, but genuine


simplicity and truthfulness of disposition, and generosity, bravery, and singIe heartedness to a degree rarely found in society.

Barbaric life in the wilderness held grave dangers for the ethical purity considered obligatory in national heroes. But if the typical Wild Westerner was, as the contemporary journalist just quoted was forced to admit, "uncurbed," a prey to his own base passions, still an unassailable formula could be found for Carson: "In the school of men thus formed by hardships, exposure, peril, and temptation, our hero acquired all their virtues, and escaped their vices." 13 This almost exactly reproduces Timothy Flint's characterization of Boone and Cooper's characterization of Leatherstocking.

The pure and noble Carson was developed in later years by a series of biographers. The first of these, DeWitt C. Peters, was an army surgeon who had been stationed near the famous scout's home in New Mexico during the 1850's, and who made use of an autobiographical narrative dictated by the hero. The Peters biography appeared in 1858 before Kit's death and established the genteel interpretation of his character. Kit himself complained that Peters "laid it on a little too thick." 14 One instance will illustrate the doctor's method. Commenting upon the return of a trapping expedition under command of Ewing Young to Santa Fe in 1831, Peters confronts the fact that according to Carson's own account the mountain men went on a long spree. But this will never do. The biographer therefore commits the following extravaganza:

Young Kit, at this period of his life, imitated the example set by his elders, for he wished to be considered by them as an equal and a friend. He, however, passed through this terrible ordeal, which most frequently ruins its votary, and eventually came out brighter, clearer and more noble for the conscience-polish which he received. and contracted no bad habits, but learned the usefulness and happiness of resisting temptation, and became so well schooled that he was able, by the caution and advice of wisdom, founded on experience, to prevent many a promising and skillful hand from grasping ruin in the same vortex.15

Two subsequent biographies of Carson, one by an obscure novelist named Charles Burdett in 1862, and one by the famous


popularizer of history, John S. C. Abbott, in 1873, are based on Peters and the Fremont reports, with various flourishes on the theme of the mountain man's spectacular refinement. Burdett implies that Carson never touched liquor, and emphasizes his extreme frugality amid men who loved to spend a year's earnings in a single splurge.16 Abbott, accepting these positions as established, goes to the further extreme of maintaining that no oath ever passed Carson's lips. As Abbott remarks, "Even the rude and profane trappers around him could appreciate the superior dignity of such a character."17 The historian also invoked the outworn theme of communion with nature (in this instance, in the Yellowstone country) as the source of his hero's virtue:

Men of little book culture, and with but slight acquaintance with the elegancies of polished life, have often a high appreciation of the beauties and the sublimities of nature. Think of such a man as Kit Carson, with his native delicacy of mind; a delicacy which never allowed him to use a profane word, to indulge in intoxicating drinks, to be guilty of an impure action; a man who enjoyed, above all things else, the communings of his own spirit with the silence, the solitude, the grandeur, with which God has invested the illimitable wilderness; think of such a man in the midst of such scenes as we are now describing. 18

This sort of thing could lead only to more and more acute distress in the reader. The future belonged to a different Kit Carson who had been developed entirely apart from the genteel conception -- the Indian fighter, the daredevil horseman, the slayer of grizzly bears, the ancestor of the hundreds of two-gun men who came in later decades to people the Beadle dime novels. The rip-roaring Kit Carson made a brief appearance in Emerson Bennett's The Prairie Flower in 1849,19 and came fully into his own in a thriller called Kit Carson, The Prince of the Gold Hunters, by one Charles Averill. This is probably the book dealing with his exploits that Kit found in October of that year amid the plunder taken by Apaches from a wagon train they had stampeded. He was decently embarrassed by it.20 Averill's novel was one of the consequences of a literary trend that had almost as much to do with Kit's rise to fame as did his association with Fremont. The subliterary story of adventure


deliberately contrived for a mass audience, called "steam literature" because it was printed on the newly introduced rotary steam presses, was developed by editors of the weekly story papers established in imitation of the penny daily newspaper in the late 1830's and early 1840's. The earliest of these weeklies were the Boston Notion and New World, and Brother Jonathan of New York. At first the story papers relied heavily on pirated British fiction. Thus in 1842 both the New World and Brother Jonathan brought out Bulwer-Lytton's Zanoni at a "shilling," that is 12 1/2 cents.21 In 1844 Maturin M. Ballou, then twenty-five years old, Boston-born son of the noted Universalist minister Hosea Ballou, joined forces with another young writer named Frederick Gleason in publishing three sea stories that Ballou had written under the pseudonym "Lieutenant Murray." The tales were highly successful -- the first, Fanny Campbell, sold 80,000 copies within a few months -- and the two young partners immediately expanded their publishing venture by hiring writers to grind out novelettes for them, including a few, such as Mrs. Ann S. Stephens, who later found steady employment on Beadle's staff. The Ballou-Gleason series of tales, selling at a shilling, was the ancestor of the many comparable series published during the second half of the century by Beadle and his competitors. Gleason and Ballou also pioneered the development of a national system of distribution by maintaining agents in nine cities, including Samuel French of New York.22

In 1846 Gleason and Ballou established a weekly story paper, The Flag of Our Union, which soon outstripped the Boston Notion and its other competitors to dominate the field. After holding the lead for five years it yielded in turn to the New York Ledger, which Robert Bonner bought in 1851 and publicized by the most sensational methods. 23 But Ballou had plenty of energy left. In 1854 he forced Gleason to sell out to him, and after various experiments, in 1857 inaugurated a series called The Weekly Novelette, selling for four cents. Each issue earried one-fifth of a story, so that the whole story cost twenty cents.24 In that year Ballou's publications included The Flag of Our Union, a story weekly with a circulation of 80,000; The Dollar Magazine, a monthly with a circulation of 100,000; and Ballou's Pictorial, an illustrated weekly


with a circulation of 140,000. To provide fiction for these various periodicals Ballou had enlarged his staff. Several of the newly added writers also went over to Beadle later, including Dr. John Hovey Robinson, A. J. H. Duganne, and the veteran E. Z. C. Judson ("Ned Buntline"). Ballou himself was the author of at least two stories published later by Beadle. Under Ballou's guidance these writers, by the late 1850's, had developed the standard procedures of the popular adventure story.25 They could turn with ease from pseudo-Gothic tales of knights in armor to yarns about pirates in the Caribbean; but popular demand brought most of them back in the end to the standard subjects of the American past: the Revolution, Kentucky, and, with increasing frequency, the Far West. Bennett's and Averill's stories belong to this class.26

The cast of characters in Averill's Kit Carson is substantially that standardized by Cooper -- a genteel hero, a heroine, assorted villains, and the faithful guide -- but the pattern has undergone a significant evolution. The logic of the Far Western materials has begun to make itself felt. Although the upper-class Eastern hero is still present, he has sunk into insignificance, and is hardly more than a vestigial remnant beside the gigantic figure of Carson. Furthermore, Kit is presented without any mystical or genteel mummery; he is notable for his prowess and his courage alone. He is introduced to both the official hero and the reader by the device of a miniature, described with a quaint hagiological charm which is only increased by the contrast between subject and medium. The painting depicts

a man on horseback, in the dress of a western hunter, equipped like a trapper of the prairies; his tall and strongly knit frame drawn up erect and lithe as the pine tree of his own forests; his broad, sunburnt face developing a countenance, on which a life of danger and hardship had set its weather-beaten seal, and placed in boldest relief the unerring signs of a nature which for reckless daring and most indomitable hardihood, could know scarce a human superior. Far in the background of the painting, rolled the waving grass of a boundless prairie; amid the silent wilderness of which, towered the noble figure of the hunter-horseman, half Indian, half whiteman in appearance, with rifle, horse and dog for his sole companions, in all that dreary waste; though to the right a yelling pack of wolves were seen upon his track, and on his left the thick, black smoke, in curling


wreaths, proclaimed the prairie fire, while in the clear, gray eye that looked from the thrilling picture forth, there seemed to glance a look of proud indifference to all, and the conscious confidence of ennobling self-reliance!27

This figure, which the reader will recognize has little physical resemblance to the actual Kit Carson, is the Leatherstocking of The Prairie, made younger, mounted on a horse, and given an appreciably greater degree of self-assurance. Gone is the humility of the former servant, but gone also is the power to commune with nature. The Wild Western hero has been secularized -- if the term may be employed in this connection -- and magnified. He no longer looks to God through nature, for nature is no longer benign: its symbols are the wolves and the prairie fire. The scene has been shifted from the deep fertile forests east of the Mississippi to the barren plains. The landscape within which the Western hero operates has become, in Averill's words, a "dreary waste." It throws the hero back in upon himself and accentuates his terrible and sublime isolation. He is an anarchic and self-contained atom -- hardly even a monad -- alone in a hostile, or at best a neutral, universe.

This portrait of Kit Carson establishes the lines along which the Wild Western story was to develop for the next half century, until it should reach the seemingly indestructible state of petrifaction which it exhibits in our own day and is apparently destined to maintain through successive geological epochs while subtler and more ambitious literary forms come and go. In Averill's tale the stage is already set for the entrance of Erastus Beadle.28

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