The riddle of Kit Carson

Western Wanderings
Peter Fish

TAOS, NEW MEXICO―Kit Carson Street mixes the crumbling with the chic. On one side of the street there's a cafe/newsstand, where customers sip lattes and read Elle. On the other side sits a modest adobe.

The adobe is the Kit Carson Home and Museum. If that sounds somnolent, it isn't. Carson last lived in this house in 1868, but he is no museum mannequin. He still stirs angry words. Last year he was the subject of two major books, with a third on the way. That's what happens when people can't decide if you're the West's noblest hero or its worst villain.

Raised on a Missouri farm, at age 15 Carson arrived in New Mexico and set about transforming himself into a mountain man. Over the next 40-plus years, until his death in 1868, he traversed the West from the Great Plains to the Pacific Coast.

Carson explored the Sierra Nevada as a guide on John C. Fremont's 1843 and 1845 expeditions, and the ambitious Fremont was key to Kit's fate. Hungry for publicity, Fremont penned reports that portrayed his guide as a living symbol of the Manifest Destiny drawing America westward.

More mercenary forces went to work. New York publishers had introduced the dime novel, a lurid form that needed larger-than-life heroes. In volumes like Kit Carson, Prince of the Goldhunters, an imaginary Kit rescued damsels and fought Indians. The real Carson was mortified by the notoriety. But so potent was the mythical figure that travelers encountering the slight, soft-spoken frontiersman came away disappointed. One told him, "You ain't the kind of Kit Carson I'm alookin' for."

As you walk around the Carson house, you see how this mix of fact and fiction created an American hero. Carson came to be immortalized in statuary and Western place-names: Carson Pass, California; Carson City, Nevada; Kit Carson County, Colorado.

But that was the old Kit. The new Kit is a darker figure. As New Mexico historian Marc Simmons puts it: "For the last 30 years, there's been an almost universal attempt to demonize Carson."

 

The reasons behind this demonization are two prettily named Southwestern locales. In 1863, the U.S. Army, alarmed by Navajo raids, commanded the tribe's relocation from Canyon de Chelly in what is now northeast Arizona to Bosque Redondo, in eastern New Mexico. By then a colonel, Carson was ordered to drive the Navajo from their ancestral home. Hundreds of Navajo died during the 400-mile Long Walk and the ensuing four-year exile at Bosque Redondo.

Only in recent decades has the sense of wrong done to Native Americans seeped into the national consciousness. As it has, Kit Carson has gone from symbolizing the best of the American character to the worst. To Carson's defenders, this is unfair. They argue that Carson did his best to ensure peaceful resettlement of the Navajo--and that as a frontiersman who spent much time with Indians, he understood the injustices being visited upon them.

"He simply knew too much," says Tom Dunlay, a historian whose new book Kit Carson & the Indians takes a thorough look at the issue. "He could see both the tragedy of the Indians and feel the white people's viewpoint."

Knowing too much--a strange verdict to render about a man who could neither read nor write. But it feels just. In life, Carson bore the burden of being more symbol than man. That burden continues. After you visit Kit's house, you can walk a few blocks to Kit Carson Park to see where he was buried. You hope he's resting in peace. That may be too much to ask. It's been nearly 140 years since Carson walked the New Mexico earth. But we're still not sure if he's the kind of Kit Carson we're looking for.

Kit Carson Home and Museum: 113 E. Kit Carson Rd., Taos; (505) 758-4741. Tom Dunlay's Kit Carson & the Indians is available from the University of Nebraska Press for $45. Also new is David Roberts's A Newer World: Kit Carson, John C. Fremont, and the Claiming of the American West from Simon & Schuster for $25.