Tucked away in the southwest corner of Barton County, Kansas is a Dakota sandstone formation known as Pawnee Rock, perhaps the state's most prominent Santa Fe Trail landmark. Nearby is the town of the same name. Adjacent to the little municipality is a Kansas Historical Marker on K-156/US 56 which reads: "Here 17-year-old Kit Carson standing guard one might in 1826 shot his mule mistaking it for an Indian."
The reference is to Christopher Carson, a runaway apprentice who was making his inaugural trip in 1826 on the Santa Fe Trail as a cavvy with a caravan captained by Charles Bent. The story of young Carson shooting the mule was published in 1881 by Henry Inman in Stories of the Old Santa Fe Trail. It reads as follows.
"At dark the sentinels were placed in position, and to young Kit fell the important post immediately in front of the south face of the Rock, nearly two hundred yards from the corral; the others being at prominent points on top, and on the open prairie on either side. All who were not on duty had long since been snoring heavily, rolled up in their blankets and buffalo-robes, when at about half-past eleven, one of the guard gave the alarm, "Indians!" and ran the mules that were nearest him into the corral. In a moment the whole company turned out at the report of a rifle ringing on the clear night air, coming from the direction of the rock. The men had gathered at the opening to the corral, waiting for developments, when Kit came running in, and as soon as he was near enough, the colonel asked him whether he had seen any Indians. 'Yes,' Kit replied, 'I killed one of the red devils; I saw him fall!'
"The alarm proved to be false; there was no further disturbance that night, so the party returned to their beds, and the sentinels to their several posts, Kit of course to his place in front of the Rock.
"Early the next morning, before breakfast even, all were so anxious to see Kit's dead Indian, that they went out en masse to where he was still stationed, and instead of finding a painted Pawnee, as was expected, they found the boy's riding mule dead, shot right through the head."
A similar story appeared in Uncle Dick Wootton by H. L. Conard, Wotton's ghost writer, in 1890. In this account, Richens Lacy Wootton made his initial trip on the Santa Fe Trail in 1836 as a mule driver with a Charles Bent caravan. One May evening the caravan went into camp at Little Cow Creek near present Lyons, Kansas. Wootton's version of the incident follows:
"About one or two o'clock at night I heard a slight noise, and could see something moving about, sixty or seventy-five yards from where I was lying on the ground. I wasn't a coward, if I was a boy, and my hair didn't stand on end, although it may have raised up a little. Of course, the first thing I thought of was Indians, and the more I looked at the dark object creeping along toward the camp the more it looked to me like a bloodthirsty savage. I didn't get excited, although they tried to make me believe I was after-ward, but thought the matter over and made up my mind that whatever the thing was, it had no business out there. So I blazed away at it and down it dropped. The shot roused everybody in camp, and they all came running out with their guns in their hands to see what was up.
"I told them I had seen what I supposed was an Indian trying to slip into camp and I had killed him. Very cautiously several of the men crept down to where the supposed dead Indian was lying. I stood at my post and listened for their report, and by and by I hear one of the men say 'I'll be cussed if he haint killed Old Jack.' Old Jack was one of our lead mules. He had gotten loose and strayed outside the lines, and the result was that he met his death. I felt sorry about it, but the mule had disobeyed orders, you know, and I wasn't to blame for killing him.
The similarities between the story attributed to Carson and that of Wootton are striking. In both cases, the men were making their first trip on the Santa Fe Trail. Carson was seventeen years of age, Wootton a year older. Carson was employed as a cavvy, Wootton a mule driver. One distinct difference is that Carson shot his own mule. Wootton shot "Old Jack," a lead mule.
The author consulted eight separate biographies of Carson. All failed to so much as mention the mule-shooting incident with the exception of Kit Carson A Portrait In Courage by Morgan Estergreen. He wrote:
"Authors of old western romances tell of the 1826 Bent caravan's having an Indian scare at Pawnee Rock, wherein young Kit shot his mule instead of a Pawnee. This incident was also proclaimed by Jim Bridger, Buffalo Bill, Daniel Boone, and others. It was a perennial joke for the rough traders to tell of the green cavvy boy's first trip---their way of initiating the newcomer."
Who then shot the mule? Perhaps Carson, perhaps Wootton, perhaps both. There is another possibility, perhaps neither.
Used With Permission of the Author
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Larry & Carolyn
St. John, Ks.