The riddle of Kit Carson

Western Wanderings

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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.


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