Sunday, November 27, 2016

Kit Carson (1809-1868)

On a recent visit to Taos, New Mexico, known to most as a ski resort and the model of what people think of as an Indian Pueblo, it was also the home of many famous artists and Kit Carson, who played an important role in the Westward expansion of the United States. The hero of my youth has been reviled in recent years as a symbol of the Anglo mistreatment and removal of Native Americans from their lands. The park in Taos where he is buried bears his name despite a recent attempt to rename it, and his home is now a modest museum.

Carson’s life was a classic story of  the American  frontier. When he was one year old his parents moved from Kentucky to the new frontier, Boone’s Lick, Missouri.  He was the ninth of fourteen  children and both his parents died before he was 10 years old.  There was no time to get a formal education.  By the age of 14 he was recorded as being apprentice to a harness and saddle maker.  Within a year becoming restless he hooked up with a wagon train heading down the Old Santa Fe Trail to Santa Fe.  He later went up to Taos, which was his residence for the rest of his life, though he spent precious little time there.  Over the years he was a fur trapper (known at the time as a mountain man), a wilderness guide, an Indian Agent and American Army officer.

When Carson was 19 he was hired to go on a fur trapping expedition to California.  Later, he was appointed as the hunter for the garrison at Bent’s Fort, Colorado.  There was obviously no food delivery to the frontier and the troops had to be fed. 

His travels had him interacting with the Indians and learning several of their languages.  During his lifetime he had three wives, one was Arapaho, another Cheyenne and the third was Hispanic.  The first died shortly after a daughter was born to them who he loved dearly,  taking the best care of her he could.  In 1842 he took her back to Missouri where she could be educated in a convent.  During his return he happened to meet John C. Fremont, the military man and explorer, on a Missouri River Boat.  They got along immediately and Freemont hired Carson as a guide for his first expedition to map and describe the trails to the Pacific Coast.  Freemont’s accounts of the expedition brought Carson to National attention.

Kit Carson had a long and troubled relationship with his legend.  He was most surprised when he first saw a book about himself describing him as a hater of Indians who killed them whenever he could.  The first “dime store novel” came out already in 1840 and he detested them all but there was nothing he could do.  More recently he has been described as a racist, a ridiculous idea considering his marriages alone.

Did Carson fight with the Indians?  No doubt, but he was also recognized by many of them as someone who was totally straight and did not go back on his word.  “Nothing is ever as good as it seems or as bad as it seems.”  This is true for people too.

Carson was in charge of the forced deportation of the Navajo people from their lands known in the oral history of the Navajo as “The Long Walk”. The notion of rounding up and relocating the Navajos, who along with the Apaches, were considered a threat to settlers, was the misguided vision of General James Henry Carleton, head of the Union Army in the territories of New Mexico and Arizona. The Navajo were meant to be converted from nomadic sheepherders to farmers but the chosen resettlement land along the Pecos River was completely incompatible to agriculture.  Carson had objected to the plan but Carleton insisted he carry out the round up and forced march as his patriotic duty.  Many Navajo died for a number of reasons including attacks by enemy tribes, being moved during the winter and nothing would grow on their new land but later many agreed that far more would have died if Carson had not been the one leading the march.

My father always said “I believe everything I read unless I know something about the subject.” So it is with Kit Carson. For the best biography of his life and a full view of the frontier in his time get Hampton Sides’ book, “Blood and Thunder: The Epic Story of Kit Carson and the Conquest of the American West.”

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