The riddle of Kit Carson

Western Wanderings

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."

 

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