Born in Madison co., Ky. In 1811 he moved with his family to the Missouri frontier. After his father's death, he was apprenticed to a saddler in Old Franklin, an outfitting point on the Santa Fe Trail, but in 1826 he ran away, joining a caravan for Santa Fe and continuing on to Taos, N.Mex., which became his home and his headquarters. For the next 14 years he made his living as a teamster, cook, guide, and hunter for exploring parties. In 1842, while returning from St. Louis by boat up the Missouri, he met J. C. Frémont, who employed him as a guide for his Western expeditions of 1842, 1843–44, and 1845. He became famous as a result of Frémont's reports of his skill and courage. After Los Angeles was taken in 1846 by U.S. military forces, he was ordered to Washington with dispatches. In New Mexico he met Gen. Stephen Kearny's troops, and Kearny commanded him to guide his forces to California. When Kearny's men were surrounded in California, Carson, E. F. Beale, and a Native American made their way by night through enemy lines to secure aid from San Diego. In 1847 and again in 1848, Carson was sent east with dispatches. He determined to retire to a sheep ranch near Taos, but plundering by Native Americans compelled him to continue as an Indian fighter. In 1853 he was appointed U.S. Indian agent, with headquarters at Taos, a position he filled with notable success. At the outbreak of the Civil War he helped organize and commanded the 1st New Mexican Volunteers, who engaged in campaigns against the Apache, Navajo, and Comanche in New Mexico and Texas. At the end of the war he was made a brigadier general, in command (1866–67) of Fort Garland, Colo.
See his autobiography (ed. by B. C. Grant, 1926; ed. by M. M. Quaife, 1935); biographies by S. Vestal (1928) and M. M. Estergreen (1962, repr. 1967); E. L. Sabin, Kit Carson Days (rev. ed. 1935).