Maria Josefa Jaramillo was fifteen when she married well-known frontiersman Kit Carson on February 3, 1843. The thirty-three year old Carson made Maria’s stomach flutter with excitement. He was fearless and decent and in him she saw forever.
Maria Josefa was born on March 19, 1828, in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Her father, Francisco Jaramillo, was a merchant, and her mother, Maria Apolonia Vigil, owned substantial acreage in the Rio Grande area of the state. Maria Josefa helped her parents maintain their ranch and cared for her younger brothers and sisters. She met Carson in Taos in 1842. He had been on an expedition with Colonel John Charles Fremont in the Rocky Mountains and was anxious to visit a place where there were lots of people.
Although Maria Josefa and Carson were equally impressed with one another, her father would not permit them to marry because Carson was illiterate. Francisco was an educated man and very well respected in the community. He was aware of Carson’s work as an accomplished scout, criss crossing the western territories, but preferred his daughter marry someone with a scholastic background, at the very least someone who was a member of the Catholic faith. Carson was determined to make Maria Josefa his wife and decided to convert to Catholicism. He attended the necessary classes, counseled with a priest, and paid the fee required for a wedding ceremony in the church.
A short three months after the wedding, Carson left on the first of many expeditions he would participate in during his married life. Carson had been leading treks to various parts of the unsettled frontier since he was fifteen years old. He was born in Madison County, Kentucky, on December 24, 1809. Just after his first birthday his parents moved to Howard County, Missouri. Carson had five brothers and six sisters. His father was a lumberjack and died in a work related accident when Carson was nine years old. At the age of fourteen he was an apprentice to a saddle maker, a job which he said “soon became irksome to him.” He ran away (a one cent reward was offered for his return) and arrived in Santa Fe in the fall of 1826.
The Rio Rancho Observer notes that the independent Carson had a talent for learning different languages. He mastered Spanish quickly and was able to communicate easily with people in New Mexico and other territories where he traveled. He spoke French, fifteen different Indian dialects, and knew sign language. Because he also had a talent with weapons, he was able to handle any trouble that came his way. He shot Native Americans who tried to interfere with his work as a hunter and trapper.
Maria Josefa was not Carson’s first venture into married life. An Arapaho woman named Waa-Nibe married him in the summer of 1835. Waa-Nibe died from a fever three years after they wed. The couple had two daughters the youngest of the girls died in a tragic accident. Adaline his oldest daughter, was entrusted to the care of one of Carson’s sisters living in Missouri. Carson had joined an expedition traveling to Yellowstone and Bighorn and could not take the child with him.
Once again Carson encountered problems with Native Americans living on the land. The Blackfoot Indians were so desperate to get rid of Carson and the other mountain men with him they set fire to the dry grass and brush around their camp. Carson managed to escape the blaze and continue on with the venture.
Between 1826 and 1842, Carson was a part of more than a dozen organized treks across the western wilderness. His reputation as a great frontiersman grew with each undertaking; from the Columbia River to the Rio Grande, through the Sierra and the Rocky Mountains, his powers of endurance were impressive to all who heard about them.
In 1841, two years after he lost his first wife, Carson married a seventeen year old Cheyenne Indian woman named Making-Our-Road. The two became acquainted during a trip to Bent’s Fort in Colorado. Carson had been contracted by the commander of the post to do some hunting for the troops. The extended time he spent away from his new bride working contributed to the demise of their union. Less than a year after they were married, Making-Our-Road decided she no longer wanted to be tied to Carson. When he returned to the Cheyenne tribe camp to see his wife, he found his personal belongings outside her lodge. According to Cheyenne custom that was her way of telling him she wanted him to be gone. She later migrated out of the area with other members of her tribe. A year after his marriage to Making-Our-Road ended Carson met Maria Josefa.
Josefa spent much of her first year of marriage without her husband. Thirteen months passed from the time Carson left in late May 1843 (shortly after they wed he joined Fremont as a guide and scout on another excursion) and he returned. Josefa maintained the cabin Carson built for her on the Little Cimarron River, alone. Carson spent the time apart from his wife (whom he called “Chipeta”, which means little singing bird) leading still more expeditions across the western territories, clearing crude paths for future travelers while others on the journey recorded astronomical and topographical findings. He kept the company he was hired to work for safe from warring Native Americans and wild animals.
When war broke out between the United States and Mexico, Carson joined in the fight and served daringly. His actions on the field of battle earned him a personal appointment from President James K. Polk as Lieutenant of Rifles.
Between the end of the Mexican War and start of the Civil War, Carson and his friend, Lucien Maxwell, began a ranching and farming operation on Maxwell’s property in Rayado, New Mexico, fifty miles away from Taos. Josefa was able to finally spend a great deal of time with her husband as he tried to adapt to the life of a gentleman rancher. No matter how Carson tried to rid himself of the desire of traipsing into uncharted territory, he couldn’t. Josefa recognized that Carson was not meant to lead a life working the land. She could see he was much more interested in protecting her, their family, friends, and his business associates from frequent raids by the Indians in the southern plains and the desert.
Carson and Josefa raised ten children together. Three were Indian orphans Carson took in during his tenure as an Indian agent. The pair also had six children of their own and they adopted a Navajo boy.
When the Civil War broke out in April 1861, Carson joined the Union Army. He was made Lieutenant Colonel of the New Mexico volunteers and was required to meet in Albuquerque with the other soldiers from the territory in June 1861. Josefa and family went with him. On August 2, 1861, Josefa gave birth to another boy. Carson was not shy about showing his love for his wife and children. Officers in the New Mexico volunteers, such as Captain Rafael Chacon, wrote in his memoirs about the touching scene he witnessed between the mountain man and his brood. “He used to lie down on an Indian blanket, in front of his quarters, with his pockets full of candy and lumps of sugar,” Chacon recalled. “His children would jump on top of him and take the candy and sugar from his pockets and eat it…and he derived great pleasure from these little episodes. He was most kind to his wife, Dona Josefa Jarmillo.”
Carson resigned from military service in 1865, but any hope Josefa had that he would return home to stay was dashed when her husband accepted the position of Superintendent of Indian Affairs for the Colorado Territory. He moved his family to Boggsville, Colorado, in 1866 where he briefly took command of daily operation at Fort Garland in the southern portion of the territory. Not long after they arrived at the post, Josefa gave birth to their third daughter.
By July 1867, Carson’s health was rapidly deteriorating. An accident he had suffered some months before taking the job as Superintendent of Indian Affairs for the Colorado Territory was causing him problems. During one of his many trips across the west a rattlesnake had spooked his horse. Carson was hurled over an embankment and injured his neck. At the age of fifty-seven, riding a horse was excruciatingly painful for him. He traveled primarily by army ambulance. Carson used an army ambulance to transport himself and a delegation of Ute Chiefs to Washington, D. C., in February 1868.
When it came time to return to Colorado in March 1868, Carson was weak and exhausted. Josefa was expecting their seventh child, and he wanted nothing more than to be with her. “My wife must see me,” he reportedly told the Ute Chiefs who made the journey east with him. “If I was to write about this, [referring to how ill he truly was] or died out here, it would kill her. I must get home….”
On April 11, 1868, Josefa met Carson at La Juanita, Colorado, with a team and a wagon to take him home. The Carsons welcomed their seventh child into the world on April 13, 1868. Two weeks after their daughter was born, Josefa died of complications from that birth. Carson was heartbroken over the loss of his wife and overwhelmed by the prospect of caring for his large family alone. The financial burden worried him as well. The income earned as military man, superintendent, and former trapper was meager. “I fear I have not done right by my children,” Carson confided in his friend William T. Sherman, concerning the little wealth he had to pass on.
A month after Josefa’s death Carson passed away. He died of a ruptured abdominal aneurism on May 23, 1868, at Fort Lyons, Colorado. The June 4, 1868, edition of the Decatur, Illinois, newspaper The Decatur Review reported on the frontiersman’s accomplishments, “No one man did more than Kit Carson in expediting the development of the wilderness of the Great West.” Carson and Josefa were buried at the cemetery in Boggsville, Colorado. Their bodies were later moved to a cemetery in Taos, New Mexico.
Here are a few love lessons learned by the devoted Maria Josefa Jarmillo.
1. Let the man you love feel free to travel, especially after you get married. Kit Carson was a busy explorer. After three months of marriage he joined an expedition across the unsettled frontier, leaving his new bride at home alone.
2. Be emotionally and spiritually grounded. Maria Josefa was devoted to the church and wanted the same in a husband. Kit appreciated that about Maria Josefa and her faithful example led to his conversion.
3. Show confidence. Be sure of yourself, and like an explorer of the Old West, be ready to tackle whatever obstacle lies ahead of you. Maria Josefa withstood many hardships to run the home Kit built for her on the Little Cimarron River. He knew she could handle the job in his absence.
4. Appreciate a man’s strengths. Maria Josefa knew her husband would never had been happy as a rancher. She encouraged him to do what he believed he was called to do, explore the rugged west.
5. Convey unconditional love. The strong relationship Maria Josefa and Carson enjoyed was based on the mutual respect they had for their spouse.
Chris Enss is the COWGIRL Book Editor, and a New York Times Bestselling author who writes about women of the Old West. For more stories about these wild women, visit www.chrisenss.com for more information on her books.