Monday, March 22, 2010 3/22/10 - kit carson

In today's excerpt - any discussion of the expansiveness and fierce independence
of the American character must center in part on the mountain men of the early
American west. Here we find a very young Christopher Houston "Kit" Carson (1809
- 1868), who became perhaps the most famous of these mountain men, learning the
trade of beaver trapping in the early 1800s:
"[Nineteen-year old] Kit Carson began to soak up the nuances of the trapping trade
-how to read the country and follow its most promising drainages, how to find the
'slicks' along the banks where beavers had slithered from their tree
stands, how to set and scent the traps with a thick yellow oil called castoreum
taken from the beaver's sex glands, how to prepare and pack the pelts, how to cache
them safely in the ground to prevent theft and spoilage. And when the traps came
up empty, how to invade and dismantle a dam and club the unsuspecting animals in
their dark, wet den.
"From his new comrades, Carson learned to savor beaver tail boiled to an exquisite
tenderness - the trapper's signature dish. He became expert with a Hawken rifle
and a Green River skinning knife. He began to pick up the strange language of the
mountain men, a colorful patois of French, Spanish, English, and Indian phrases
mixed with phrases entirely of their own creation. 'Wagh!' was their all-purpose
interjection. They spoke of plews (pelts) and fofurraw (any unnecessary finery).
They 'counted coup' (revenge exacted on an
avowed enemy), and when one of their own was killed, they were 'out for hair' (scalps).
They said odd things like 'Which way does your stick float?' (What's your preference?)
They met once a year in giant, extended open-air festivals, the 'rendezvous,' where
they danced fandangos and played intense rounds of monte, euchre, and seven-up.
Late at night, sitting around the campfires, sucking their black clay pipes, they
competed in telling legendary whoppers about their far-flung travels in the West
- stories like the one about the
mountain valley in Wyoming that was so big it took an echo eight hours to return,
so that a man bedding down for the night could confidently shout 'Git up!' and know
that he would rise in the morning to his own wake-up call.
"From these men, too, Carson began to learn how to deal with the
Western Indians - how to detect an ambush, when to fight, when to bluff, when to
flee, when to negotiate. It is doubtful whether any group of nineteenth-century
Americans ever had such a broad and intimate association with the continent's natives.
The mountain men lived with Indians, fought alongside and against them, loved them,
married them, buried them, gambled and smoked with them. They learned to dress,
wear their hair, and eat like them. They took Indian names. They had half-breed
children. They lived in tepees and pulled the travois and became expert in the ways
of Indian barter and ancient herbal remedy. Many of them were half-Indian themselves,
blood or inclination. Washington Irving, writing about Western trappers, noted this
tendency: 'It is a matter of vanity and ambition with them to discard everything
that may bear the stamp of civilized life, and to adopt the manners, gestures,
and even the walk of the Indian. You cannot pay a freetrapper a greater compliment
than to persuade him you have mistaken him for an Indian brave.'
"The fur trappers knew firsthand that Native Americans were ferocious fighters -
some legendarily so, like the Blackfoot and the Comanche. But they also knew that
the Indian style of battle was often very different from European warfare, that
it was difficult to engage Native Americans in a pitched battle, that their method
was consistently one of raid and ambush, attack and scatter, snipe and vanish. The
mountain men said that Indians were often like wolves: Run, and they follow; follow,
and they run."
Hampton Sides, Blood and Thunder, Anchor Books, Copyright 2006 by Hampton Sides,
pp. 19-21.


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