Rock Island Auction Company

Lot 3065: Historic Half-Stock Rifle Inscribed to Kit Carson

Auction Date: May 15, 2022

Historic Presentation, German Silver Mounted Percussion Half-Stock Rifle, Inscribed to Legendary Frontier Scout, Mountain Man and Trapper Kit Carson from His Friends in New Mexico, on July 14th, 1852, Reportedly at the Conclusion of Their Final Hunt, with Research

Estimated Price: $60,000 - $100,000

Historic Presentation, German Silver Mounted Percussion Half-Stock Rifle, Inscribed to Legendary Frontier Scout, Mountain Man and Trapper Kit Carson from His Friends in New Mexico, on July 14th, 1852, Reportedly at the Conclusion of Their Final Hunt, with Research

Manufacturer: American
Model: Half Stock
Type: Rifle
Gauge: 36
Barrel: 31 1/4 inch octagon
Finish: bright/German silver
Stock: curly maple
Item Views: 1745
Item Interest: Very Active
Serial Number:
Catalog Page: 39
Class: Antique

This fine rifle bears a wear plate on the bottom of the forend that is inscribed: "PRESENTED TO KIT CARSON/BY HIS/friends in Les Vagas, N.M./JULY 14TH, 1852." The rifle has an "R & W.C. BIDDLE & Co/PHILADELPHIA" lock with bird hunting scene and scroll engraving. The barrel has a series of crosses around the muzzle, low profile blade and notch sights, and a breech plug with a clean out screw and vent hole in the bolster and a long tang held with three screws. The rifle has adjustable double set triggers. The stock is curly maple and has right and left hand cheek rests and all nickel-silver/German silver furniture, including "eye" shaped pin escutcheons and the noted wear plate on the forend, a spurred trigger guard, cap/patch box, a hunter's star on the each of the cheek rests, an acorn on the bottom of the butt ahead of the toe plate, and a spread wing eagle on the left side at the butt. A small piece of paper with an "H" is adhered on the right ahead of the lock, and a newspaper clipping adhered on the left side of the butt reads "Kit Killed In Fall ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (UPI) -Famed frontier scout Kit Carson, who led an often violent life, died as the result of an injury received when he fell from a horse during a campaign against the Navajos in New Mexico." The rifle has been identified as the work of riflemaker David Leonard in an included 2016 evaluation letter from Brian LaMaster, then President of the Kentucky Rifle Association and a nationally recognized master gunsmith. He notes that "after research and study, it is obviously the work of David Leonard of Ohio, and is an important piece of American history. Leonard worked in Mahoning County between 1825-1908. The double cheek rest, eagle inlay, cap box, and architecture, are all details found on other examples of his work." He goes on to write, "On the Kit Carson German Silver Mounted Rifle, the wear plate inlay, located between the trigger guard and the ramrod entry pipe, is engraved with the date and town in which this rifle was presented to Kit Carson and the date of the inscription places this rifle at the peak of Leonard's work. When compared to other engraved items of the time period, such as swords and silver trophies, the engraving pattern on the plate shows the style and font typically used. The rifle is well constructed and mounted in German silver, which would have made for an impressive gift." Christopher Carson, almost exclusively known to the world as Kit Carson, (1809-1868) likely needs no introduction to those interested in the 19th century American frontier. He remains one of the most famous frontiersmen in American history and was a legend in his own time. Unlike many legends of the West, Carson wasn’t a mythical figure. He was the real deal. He actually did survive an astounding number of skirmishes leaving many other men dead in his wake over many years in the early West, travelled vast swaths of the western half of North America from Oregon down to Chihuahua in Mexico, and was not prone to telling tall tales about his exploits like so many other famous western figures. In fact, he was actually quite humble by all accounts. Aside from the fact that he just wasn’t the type, he didn’t need to; his life was incredible all on its own. He ran away to the Santa Fe Trail just a few years after it opened when he was just 16 in 1826. The skill he advertised was that he could shoot straight. He joined up with trappers in the fur trade seeking out beaver in unmapped stretches in the West just a few years later in the spring of 1829, and by the end of his life, he was the most famous of all of the West’s trappers, scouts and Indian fighters. His activities were regularly featured in newspapers around the country. On his very first trapping expedition, when he was but 19, he killed his first man, an Apache during an attack on the trappers’ camp. For the rest of his life, his relationship with Native Americans was complicated to put it very mildly as was so often the case with the trappers and frontiersmen of the era, but his actions as an Indian fighter and frontier guide made him a hero in the period. Unlike many, he was not known to be an Indian hater and was well versed in tribal languages and with the differences between the various tribes living in the West. His first marriage was preceded by a horseback duel with French trapper Joseph Chouinard, "the Bully of the Mountanins," who was reportedly in love with Waanibe or Singing Grass, a beautiful Arapaho woman that Carson loved as well. Per the stories, the Frenchman's first shot grazed Carson’s face and cut a piece of his hair. Carson's shot damaged the trappers hand and blew off his thumb. It is unclear whether Carson finished him off with a second shot, but Carson won the battle and married Singing Grass. They reportedly had a devoted marriage, but it did not last long as she unfortunately died from complications after the birth of their second daughter in 1841. While a trapper, he worked with many of the other legendary mountain men, including Jim Bridger, and attended some of the famous rendezvous such as the one in 1839 at Horse Creek. As the boom years of the fur trade era largely ended in the 1840s, Carson became nationally famous essentially by coincidence. He took his eldest daughter to Missouri to be raised by his sister and educated in St. Louis. He met John C. Fremont on a riverboat on the Missouri River at the beginning of the latter's famous western expeditions and was hired on as a scout and guide as they explored, mapped, and claimed much of the West for the United States, often leaving Native American corpses in their wake. Fremont's journals of their expeditions and news reports led to Carson becoming a national hero, by some accounts without Carson himself even realizing it. Tales of Carson were also told in various articles and dime novels, which called him among other things the "Prince of the Gold Hunters" and "Prince of the Backwoodsmen." Jessie Benton Fremont in "The Will and The Way Stories" wrote that, "Kit Carson is as well known [in the West] as the Duke is in Europe." He also participated in the bloody Bear Flag Revolt in California with Fremont. General Stephen W. Kearny employed him as a guide in California during the Mexican-American War, and he helped save Kearny and his men when they came under attack near San Diego by sneaking through the enemy lines barefoot to get reinforcements. After the war, Carson settled down as a rancher in New Mexico near Santa Fe but also continued to work as a government guide. It was during this period in his life that the rifle was presented. In early 1852, he made arrangements for a long hunt with his former trapper friends. On March 17, 1852, the New York Daily Tribune ran a brief notice calculated to interest readers. It read: “The beaver trappers are again in motion. Kit Carson and Mr. Lucien Maxwell, his partner in business, are about starting out with a party of 40 to trap. There is not a doubt that they will bring in a great quantity of fur.” Kit Carson was the hook attracting attention to the announcement, since by this date his adventures in the West were widely known and admired. Notable also was the surprising reference to trappers being “again in motion.” Back in 1840, the price of beaver fur had collapsed, just as Western streams and rivers were reported to be trapped out. Mountain men like Carson and fur traders such as his friend Maxwell were forced into other lines of work. By 1852, both were developing ranch properties at Rayado on the east side of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains from Taos. That spring, as Kit relates in his autobiography, “Mr. Maxwell and I rigged up a party to go trapping, I taking charge of it.” In fact, the idea of a nostalgic trapping trip, as a sentimental journey into the past, seems to have been entirely Kit’s. Veteran mountaineer Jim Baker was one of those receiving an invitation to join comrades on an old-time hunt. He accepted with glee. The message from Carson had said prophetically, “It will be our last.” Perhaps as many as 40 trappers had been originally invited, but the number as given in the Daily Tribune has to be adjusted downward, for only 16 actually responded. So the final count, with the addition of Carson and Maxwell, came to 18. Another, the Frenchman Alex Godey, however, was surely a member of the hearty band that rode out of Rayado headed north. With it were strings of pack mules bearing traps, skinning knives, camp equipment and kegs of gunpowder. By this time, the beaver population had recovered thanks to a lack of hunting pressure that came with the decline in the fur trade in the 1840s. Carson, his business partner Lucien Maxwell, Jim Baker, Alexis Godey, and a party of around 14 other trappers set out from his farm at Rayado. They headed to the Arkansas River in south-central Colorado, down the river, over to the South Platte River, east to the North Platte junction, and then into southern Wyoming over the course of two months before returning back to New Mexico. Reluctant to disband, Kit’s companions lingered for almost two weeks, engaging in matches that displayed their uncanny skill in handling firearms. Alex Godey took top honors while rapidly reloading and shooting from horseback, racing at high speed. Jim Baker and Lucien Maxwell tied hitting a long-range target from a kneeling position. And so it went, with good-natured roistering lasting far into the night. At last it was all over. The throwback trappers shook hands and dispersed, never to see one another again. The specific dates of the trip and much of the details of the events are not known, but Les Vagas, New Mexico, is due east of Santa Fe and a few days ride south of Rayado. It may have been their final destination after delivering the pelts to Sante Fe before parting ways. What is known is that the date on the rifle would tie in to those final days of the hunt, or soon thereafter when a suitable rifle was available for his friends to procure for their presentation Also published in the papers in the early 1850s were advertisements for the play "Kit Carson" in New York City at the Bowery Theatre and the book "Kit Carson: The Prince of Gold Hunters." In the years following the famous "final hunt," Carson served as an Indian Agent in Taos, New Mexico for seven years starting in 1854 until the outbreak of the Civil War. During the war, he remained loyal to the Union and served as a lieutenant colonel and later colonel in the 1st New Mexican Volunteer Infantry. He engaged Confederates in the Battle of Valverde Ford on February 20 and 21 of 1862, and, after the Confederates had been pushed out of the area, Carson tried to resign due to ill health in February 1863. Instead, he was asked to stay on and ordered to force the Apaches and Navajo (ancestral enemies) onto the same inhospitable reservation by his commander: Major General James Henry Carleton. Carleton was eventually fired in 1866 due to his brutal orders and tactics against the Navajo, and the survivors were finally allowed to return to their homeland in 1868. Carson's final battle was one of the largest ever fought in the West: the First Battle of Adobe Walls in Texas on November 25, 1864. Again, he was called upon by Carleton to lead a punitive expedition following raids on the Sante Fe Trail. Carson's force was small: 335 soldiers and cavalrymen and 72 Ute and Jicarilla Apache scouts. He destroyed a Kiowa village that morning and headed to the abandoned trading post at Adobe Walls and noted several Comanche villages nearby. The combined Kiowa and Comanche force was reported at over 1,200, and possibly more. After fighting for four to five hours, Carson retreated to New Mexico after burning another Kiowa village. He was promoted to a brevet brigadier general on March 13, 1865, and placed in command of Ft. Garland in Colorado among the Ute and then returned to ranching. He escorted a delegation of the Ute to Washington, D.C. in 1868 for a meeting with President Andrew Johnson. Though fairly young at 58, Carson had lived a hard life, and his health had been declining for several years by the time he returned to the West. He lost his third wife in child birth that spring, and on May 23 at Fort Lyon in Colorado, he suffered an aortic aneurysm. His death was reported in newspapers across the country. Internationally famed firearms author R. L. Wilson thought so highly of this rifle that he penned a 38-page letter about it. In it, he calls the rifle "a unique and historic American frontier decorative arts treasure" and "what has to be the finest Plains Rifle ever owned by the legendary and heroic Kit Carson" and provides details on "The Final Hunt with Fellow Trappers" that took place in 1852, primarily from "Trail Dust: Kit Carson, Fellow Trappers Made Final Hunt" by Marc Simmons, as well as other colorful events in Carson's life. He also notes that he was making arrangements to feature this rifle on the cover of "The Guns That Won the West" (a special reissue of "The Peacemakers") and also for this rifle to be placed in a prominent exhibition. Although this rifle has been attributed to David Leonard, it is unsigned, and Leonard signed and dated much of his work. It has been brought to our attention by the world’s foremost authority on David Leonard rifles that the breech plug on this rifle is a feature of Leonard’s later work, predated by this rifle, though he could have experimented with it earlier in his career or worked on the rifle after its presentation date. That being said, the rifle also has distinct characteristics of guns made by George Biddle and son Levi, who operated approximately 50 miles from Leonard. The elder Biddle is recorded in the 1850 and 1860 census records as operating in Sugar Creek, Ohio as a gunsmith, with son Levi operating into the 1890s. The architecture and inlays of some of their rifles are very similar to this example, with triggerguards almost identical to the Carson Gun. Other Ohio makers also produced similar work. With this additional information and being unable to positively identify the maker, we are lowering our estimate to $60,000 to 100,000.

Rating Definition:

Very good with mostly silver-gray patina visible on the lock plate and barrel along with some areas of smooth brown, light pitting mainly on the hammer, and mild overall wear. The furniture generally has a mellow aged appearance and minor wear. The stock is also very good and has attractive flame figure thin crack extending up from the nose of the lock, small flake below the hammer, repaired break through the lock mortise and left flat, and mild overall wear. The double, set-trigger lock is setup to require the trigger to be set before cocking, and it and the set triggers function fine. As Wilson wrote, "No other artifact is of more importance to these frontier figures than their firearms . . . And for a collector or museum today - no more treasured firearm from the 19th century West could be an artifact such as the Masterpiece Presentation Plains Rifle of Kit Carson, built by the talented Ohio Gunmaker David Leonard." Sadly, Wilson passed away shorty after he penned his letter on the Carson Presentation Rifle.

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