Mountain man Kit Carson was small -- just 5 feet 4 inches in his boots -- but fearless enough to take on the hulking French-Canadian drunk Joseph Chouinard. They charged each other on horseback, and in the ensuing gunfight, Carson shot and disabled the “great bully of the mountains.”
Born in Kentucky, Carson quit school at age 8 when his father died. Apprenticed to a saddler at 14, he soon ran away to find his fortune in the West as a trapper, explorer, guide and soldier.
Mountain men often married local American Indians. Adding to the hostility between Chouinard and Carson was that both were wooing the lovely Arapaho maiden Singing Grass.
After defeating his rival, Carson won her hand in marriage by paying her father, Running Around, three mules and a gun.
These exploits made Kit Carson famous in his own time, and he starred in such dime novels as “The Fighting Trapper: Kit Carson to the Rescue.” Later, his enduring legend sold comic books, films and television shows.
I spoke with Eric Jay Dolin, author of “Fur, Fortune and Empire” (Norton), on the following topics:
1. Pelts Save the Pilgrims
2. Guns & Alcohol
3. Raucous Fur Rendezvous
4. Death Knell for the Mountain Men
5. Contemporary Fur Trading
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(Lewis Lapham is the founder of Lapham’s Quarterly and the former editor of Harper’s magazine. He hosts “The World in Time” interview series for Bloomberg News.)