Kit Carson and Howard County Missouri

“I was born on December 24, 1809, in Madison County, Kentucky.  My parents moved to Missouri when I was one year old and settled in what is now Howard county. —-”  So begins Christopher (Kit) Carson’s autobiography.

Kit Carson

General Fremont was so impressed with his civilian scout Carson he recommended that Carson be commissioned a Lieutenant in the army. A haughty congress refused to commission the illiterate Carson. When America’s civil war started they were more than glad to give Kit Carson an officers commission. At the time of Kit’s death in 1868 he held the rank of General (brevet).

Indians harassed the Franklin and Boonslick community constantly in what was to become Howard County.  Carson notes that his family was forced to remain forted for two or three years, after moving to the Missouri frontier.  The settlers resorted to posting guards in the fields and spending the nights in Fort Hempstead for protection.  Fort Hempstead was located in the hills above the river bottoms just a short distance northwest of the current town of New Franklin.  Carson’s father and older brother took their turns standing guard against the Indians.

Kit Carson spent the next fifteen years in Howard county.  After his father was killed by a falling tree limb, he was apprenticed out to a saddle and harness maker, plying his trade in Franklin.

Franklin became the starting place of the Santa Fe trail when in 1821 a trader named William Becknell loaded up a few pack horses with trade goods and started west with four other men for the purpose of trading with the Indians.  Before reaching his original destination, Becknell ran into a troop of Mexican rangers that assured him that he could journey into the previous off limits New Mexico territory.  Becknell sold his trade goods in Santa Fe for Spanish silver.  The Santa Fe Trail route had been launched.  The rest is history.

The capricious Missouri River washed Franklin away a few years after Kit Carson left, but Howard County remains the birthplace of the the Santa Fe Trail.  Franklin was moved back to the foot of the bluff and then New Franklin was born on the bluff high above the flood waters.

The boring life of a leather worker became too much for the teenage Carson and he ran away to join a group of trappers and mountain men on the Santa Fe Trail.  This is really no surprise because his older half-brother Moses Carson was already a mountain man working in the fur trade.  It is a bit difficult for those of us with agricultural roots to understand why Kit would want to leave the fertile soil of Howard County for the cold of the mountains and sand of the desert.  But, picture a sixteen year old boy, sitting long hours, day after day, straddling a stitching horse, a needle and string in one hand and a leather awl in the other, sewing on harness and saddles. 

Stitching Horse

Stitching horses are sort of a work bench with a clamp to hold leather in place while being hand sewed. Similar versions are still used in modern saddle shops.

The Santa Fe traders coming into the shop were talking about the adventure, the mountains, the money to be made, and those pretty Spanish girls in Santa Fe.  In August of 1826 Kit Carson jumped ship, as they say.

He took a job driving oxen hooked to a wagon of trade goods.  According to Josiah Gregg in his book Commerce of the Prairies, a hitch of oxen consisted of eight animals hooked to a wagon in pairs.  The driver usually walked along side to control them.  Kit Carson says in his autobiography that he received one dollar per day in wages.

As an explorer, trapper and Indian fighter, Kit Carson became as they say “a legend in his own time.”  The skills gained in the Boonslick country and a liberal helping of Howard county grit served him well on the western frontier.

Hawken Rifle

I snapped this picture of Kit Carson’s Hawken plains rifle several years ago. It was on temporary display at the Palace of the Governor’s on the Plaza in Santa Fe, NM. The Hawken shops were located on Washington Street in St. Louis MO. The first shop was just off the west end of the modern day Eads Bridge. Percussion caplock guns such as this one were first produced and marketed in St. Louis in the 1830’s. Prior to that flintlocks were used. By the time Kit owned this rifle he had probably worn out several hunting rifles. Note the worn finish on this one.

On a trip through the western states the traveler sees a myriad of commercial enterprises using the Kit Carson name to capitalize on the fame and heritage of the renown frontiersman.

New Mexico has its Carson National Forest.  Colorado and Texas have counties named Carson.  The states of Washington, Colorado, Nevada, California and North Dakota, have towns named for Carson.  Yet, in Howard County, Missouri where it all began, the only marking of Kit Carson’s passage, for many years, was a neon sign in front of the rustic little Kit Carson motel along old highway 40. Even the motel and sign are gone now.  They were torn down in the 1990’s to make way for the north end ramp of the new highway bridge.

On a recent drive through Howard County I was pleasantly surprised to see the growth in southern Howard County.  New road construction and two new Missouri River bridges have helped spur new home and business construction.  The first settlement on the frontier west of St. Louis and the Mother of Counties is growing.  Mother of counties you ask?  Twenty-nine counties and parts of nine others came from the vast area which was once Howard County.

For years, there was no marker at Old Franklin at all, but recently its place and importance to the Santa Fe trail has been marked quite well.  Where it stood is marked by a flag pole in a bottom field.  The flag pole marks the exact center of the old town square.

Several sign boards and markers now tell the story.  A new building nearby and directly across the river from Boonville  is privately owned by the estate of the late Robert Biesemeyer.  Howard County native Chris Rolphing told me that Mr. Biesemeyer had intended to establish a river history museum there, but he was struck down by cancer before he could finish the project.  Hopefully someone will finish it, the history should be told.

Many historically famous people have lived or visited in Howard County.  I could not leave the subject of famous people without mentioning the beautiful and talented country music star, Sara Evans.  Her home town is New Franklin.

I lived and worked in Howard County for nine years.  I managed the consumer owned electrical distribution cooperative. The people there are friendly, wonderful people to know and work with.  Howard Countians are some of the nicest people I have met on my journey along The Sundown Trail.

Some places to visit along the Santa Fe Trail:

Howard County: Old Franklin site and Fayette
New Franklin, MO
Fayette, MO

Boonslick: Nathan Boone and his brother Daniel Morgan Boone extracted salt from the salt spring there. Old Daniel himself lived in a cabin near there for a short time.
Boonslick State Park

Arrow Rock: Lewis and Clark named it.  The Santa Fe Trail put it on the map.  A restored frontier town.  A must see if you are in the area.
Arrow Rock, MO

Fort Osage: in Missouri near the Missouri river.
Fort Osage

Council Grove, Kansas: in the beautiful Flint Hills area of Kansas.  An Indian treaty made there played an important part in Trail history.  One of my ancestral cousins, Mahlon Stubbs, was an Indian Agent there, appointed by then President Grant.  Stubbs was a Quaker.  Quakers were chosen by Grant for their honesty.
Council Grove, KS

Pawnee Rock: an interesting place out in the middle of the Kansas plains.  Josiah Gregg climbed the rock and counted three thousand buffalo on the surrounding plains before he stopped counting.  The grave on top is listed as Kit Carson.  It may be a Carson, but it is not Kit.  He is buried in Taos, New Mexico.
Pawnee Rock, KS

Bent’s Old Fort: Near La Junta, Colorado. Another must see.  Great for children. Completely restored on theoriginal foundations.  A fabulous bit of history.  Kit Carson worked there as their hunter, meat provider.  When I visited during the summer months they had re-enactors working at the daily fort activities.  National Park Service operates it.
Bent’s Old Fort

Taos, New Mexico: Visit Kit and Josepha Jaramillo Carson’s humble home, now a museum.  Don’t miss the Rio Grande gorge just west of town on 64 hwy.
Taos, NM

Santa Fe: It is just a dandy place to visit.  Check out The Governor’s Palace museum on the Square.  Native Americans sell their jewelry crafts on the sidewalk.  Traders brought their wagons loaded with trade goods into town on the street in front of the La Fonda Hotel.  That is where the trail ended.
Santa Fe, NM

Santa Fe Trail links:
Santa Fe Trail – National Park Service
Santa Fe Trail Association
Santa Fe Trail Center in Larned, KS

Recommended reading:

The Commerce of the Prairies
By Josiah Gregg
buy at

Down the Santa Fe Trail and into Mexico
By Susan Shelby Magoffin
First woman over the trail,  her diary.
A young woman newly married to a Santa Fe
trader.  A woman’s perception is keener than a mans.  A good read.
buy at

Categories: American History, History, Missouri, travel | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

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