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Often portrayed by past historians as the greatest guide and Indian fighter in the West, Kit Carson (1809–68) has become in recent years a historical pariah—a brutal murderer who betrayed the Navajos, an unwitting dupe of American expansion, and a racist. Many historians now question both his reputation and his place in the pantheon of American heroes. In Kit Carson and the Indians, Tom Dunlay urges us to reconsider Carson yet again. To Dunlay, Carson was simply a man of the nineteenth century whose racial views and actions were much like those of his contemporaries.
Will the Real Kit Carson Please Stand Up?
Carson: Gentlemen, that thar may be true,
but I hain't got no recollection of it.
Henry Inman, The Old Santa Fe Trail
In the fall of 1851 a young American writer who had gained some fame for his books based on his experiences as a sailor and his travels in the South Seas published a novel about whales and whaling, among other things. The writer, of course, was Herman Melville and the novel was Moby-Dick. To prove that whaling was a sufficiently elevated subject for literature, he wrote a chapter called "The Honor and Glory of Whaling," in which he more than half humorously dragged in the name of every mythological figure who could conceivably have anything to do with his topic, including "Perseus, St. George, Hercules, Jonah, and Vishnoo!" Hercules he characterized as "that antique Crockett and Kit Carson." Melville clearly assumed that his American readers, at least, would recognize the names of the American heroes he ranked with Hercules and would consider the comparison, if fanciful, not wholly inappropriate.
But who were these Americans deemed worthy to stand with the Greek hero, "that brawny doer of rejoicing good deeds"? In 1851 Davy Crockett was fifteen years dead in the Alamo, the manner of his passing having turned a folksy, tall-tale-telling Indian fighter and congressman into one of the great dead. A series of Davy Crockett almanacs telling ever-taller tales of his imaginary exploits was keeping his memory green.
But Christopher "Kit" Carson was very much alive in 1851 and living in Rayado, New Mexico. He was in his early forties, barely ten years older than Herman Melville, and some of his most notable exploits were still ahead of him. In fact, Melville had already mentioned Carson two years before, in a review of Francis Parkman's The California and Oregon Trail, where he said of Parkman's hunter and guide Henry Chatillon: "He belongs to a class of men, of whom Kit Carson is the model; a class, unique and not to be transcended in interest by any personages introduced to us by Scott."
In the Kit Carson Home and Museum in Taos, New Mexico, one may see a bill of lading for the clipper ship Kit Carson, which sailed from Boston for San Francisco in 1855—a ship named for a man who made only one sea voyage in his life and who vowed never to take another. In 1849 two works of fiction were published in which Carson appeared as a character, Emerson Bennett's The Prairie Flower and Charles Averill's paperback Kit Carson, The Prince of the Goldhunters, made into a play the next year. This was the beginning of a series of what were later called dime novels featuring Carson, with rifles like Kiowa Charley, the White Mustanger; or, Rocky Mountain Kit's Last Scalp Hunt, Kit Carson's Bride; or, The Flower of the Apaches, Red Knife; or, Kit Carson's Last Trail, and The Fighting Trapper; or, Kit Carson to the Rescue, plus works more specifically aimed at boys.
The first full-length biography of Carson, which drew heavily on Kit's own dictated autobiography, was DeWitt Clinton Peters's The Life and Adventures of Kit Carson, the Nestor of the Rocky Mountains, from Facts Narrated by Himself, which appeared in 1858, before the subject was fifty. Three more books, by Charles Burdett, Edward S. Ellis, and John S. C. Abbott, had appeared by 1873, just five years after Carson's death.
The first biography based on serious, broad research, Edwin L. Sabin's Kit Carson Days, was published in 1914. Carson's own autobiography appeared in versions edited by Blanche C. Grant (1928) and Milo M. Quaife (1935). Stanley Vestal (Walter Stanley Campbell), not a man to let the facts spoil a good story, produced Kit Carson, The Happy Warrior of the Old West, in 1998. Biographies varying in scholarship and literary value have continued to appear, their basically positive view of Carson indicated by the rifles of the more significant: Great Westerner: The Story of Kit Carson, Kit Carson: A Portrait in Courage, "Dear Old Kit": The Historical Christopher Carson, and Kit Carson: A Pattern for Heroes.
Besides all of the above, there was an enormous body of juvenile literature of mixed quality honoring Carson as a "pattern for heroes" for boys, and not only in his native land. At his home in Taos one may view works in French, German, Portuguese, Gujarati, Hindi, Singhalese, Arabic, and Japanese recounting Kit's exploits.
Obviously then, by the time he reached middle age, Kit Carson had become a true example of an old cliché: he was a legend in his own time, and he would remain a legend long after his death. Besides the biographies, he figured prominently in fur trade histories like Bernard De Voto's Across the Wide Missouri (1947) and David Lavender's Bent's Fort (1954), and in works of fiction like Jack Schaefer's Company of Cowards (1957).
The adobe house in Taos where Carson lived much of his later life competes with Taos Pueblo and the homes of literary and artistic figures like D. H. Lawrence and Ernest Blumenschein as a tourist attraction, as does his grave in a park bearing his name near the center of the town. A river in Nevada and the capital of that state bear his name, as do the military base of Fort Carson and the town of Kit Carson in Colorado, Carson County in Texas, and the Carson National Forest in New Mexico. Kit Carson's place as a national hero was secure for at least a century after his death in 1868.
It would be misleading to imply that a change took place overnight, but one indicator of shifting attitudes that attracted great attention was the 1970 publication of Dee Brown's Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. Presented as "An Indian History of the American West," the book narrates the western Indian wars from 1862 to the final tragedy at Wounded Knee in 1890. Relentlessly critical of whites and sympathetic to the Indians, it appeared at precisely the right moment of national self-doubt and "agonizing reappraisal" and permanently changed many people's view of the "Winning of the West." In Brown's chapter on the final Navajo war, Kit Carson played a prominent role as the field commander who finally defeated the Navajos. Brown saw the Navajos' fate as a terrible martyrdom, although he was less critical of Carson than of his military superior, General James Carleton. Brown characterized Carson as a man who liked Indians and had lived and married among them. Although he had become famous and respected, he had never, Brown wrote, overcome "his awe of the well-dressed, smooth-talking men at the top," and this awe made Carson act as Carleton's tool in inflicting much suffering on the Navajos. Brown also noted trader and Indian agent William Bent as a friend of the Cheyennes who "tried to do the best he could for them," without mentioning that Bent and Carson were old friends and in thorough agreement about the white men's treatment of Indians and about the policy the government should pursue to mend the situation.
In 1972, at Colorado College in Colorado Springs, associate professor of anthropology Shirley Hill Witt persuaded the college ROTC to remove a display honoring Kit Carson, declaring that she found it offensive to have "a terrorist and a killer displayed with honor." This action prompted the leading authority on Carson's life to spring to his defense, but Professor Hill's description of Kit Carson as "a genocidal racist" perfectly encapsulated a common view of the man in the late twentieth century.
On PBS recently, a folksinger introduced his song by explaining that he had always believed that Kit Carson was one of the good guys who wore a white hat. Then he had become acquainted with a Navajo Indian, who told him the truth about Kit and his treatment of the Navajos. Now, on the authority of this one source, he knew that Carson was a villain, rather like Colonel Oliver North! The song depicted Carson as having undertaken the campaign against the Navajos on his own initiative, apparently knowing that he had thereby damned himself at least historically. On a recent visit to Tods, I was told by a bookstore proprietor that he had decided to advertise on the local radio station the fact that his store was located across the street from Kit Carson Park; the radio people told him that they preferred to avoid mention of Kit Carson because he was so controversial.
In an introduction to Piñon Country, Haniel Long's 1941 depiction of the Upper Sonoran life zone of Arizona and New Mexico and its people, Tony Hillerman, the popular mystery writer whose stories are set on the Navajo Reservation, found Long's praise of Kit Carson "hard to swallow." "Navajos," Hillerman wrote, "remember Carson as a pretended friend who betrayed them, swept his troops through their territory, killing all who didn't escape, destroying their homes, cattle, and crops with a savage scorched-earth campaign worthy of Genghis Khan and then herding the survivors into captivity." Hillerman blamed Long's error on his writing "before our consciousness (and conscience) was raised on the subject of the white man's behavior and motivation in the frontier Indian wars."
Scholarly works have demonstrated the same sort of shift in attitude. In a study of American Indian population history since 1492, Russell Thornton describes Kit Carson as "infamous among American Indians" (of all tribes, presumably) and says that besides having "pillaged the land and destroyed crops and livestock until the Navajo were brought to the brink of starvation ... Carson killed a good many Navajos as well during this period of `warfare.'" Thornton describes the suffering of the Navajos at Bosque Redondo without mentioning General James Carleton, implying that Carson was solely responsible for that episode.
In The Civil War in the American West, Alvin Josephy surveys all the military campaigns of the period 1861-65 west of the Mississippi. In writing of the Navajo campaign, he acknowledges that in 1862 "the Rio Grande settlements were suffering intensely from resumed Navajo attacks," which he blames on the attacks of Hispanic New Mexicans on the Navajos. His description of the military operations details the "scorched earth" campaign, the suffering this entailed for the Navajos, and the "Long Walk" and confinement at Bosque Redondo. He is far less severe in his criticism of Carson than Hillerman or Thornton, observing that many knew him as "dear old Kit," but concludes that Carson's respect for military authority and his loyalty to General Carleton "made him an instrument of Carleton's inflexible will, and an enemy whom the Navajos and other Southwestern tribes would never forgive."
The central work in the attack on Carson, however, is Clifford Trafzer's The Kit Carson Campaign: The Last Great Navajo War. Trafzer's first sentence acknowledges that "Kit Carson stands as one of the most famous figures in the history of the American West," and he ranks Kit's fame with that of Davy Crockett, Wyatt Earp, and Billy the Kid, all of whom, "like many of the `infamous' people of the West had something in common—they were killers." The Navajo Indians, Trafzer asserts, have never shared the white people's view of Carson as a heroic figure. Trafzer's history of the Kit Carson campaign of 1863-64 places a major share of the blame for what happened to the Navajos on Carson.
Trafzer also allots a large share of blame to General Carleton, whom he characterizes as "an unscrupulous, ambitious, selfish man, whose bearing radiated an abrasive, tyrannical personality"—an assessment that certainly reflects the opinion of many of the general's contemporaries, and he also describes Carleton as "savage-minded," a term he would undoubtedly not use to describe any Indian leader. Carson also receives his share: "Kit was a simple man of `sound' character (except that he killed people from time to time, particularly Indians)." Carson was "easily impressed" by people like Carleton, who had formal education and social standing; he often yielded to "casual adulation" and was easily "persuaded and maneuvered through words of praise, flattery, and commendation. In short, Carson was Carleton's tool.... Because of his loyalty to his country and his friend, his thirst for adventure, and his innate sense of duty ... Carson would carry out a brutal campaign against the Navajos." None of these conclusions about Carson's character and motivation, it should be noted, are really proven; they are only asserted.
Trafzer's research and his conclusions have been severely criticized by scholars like Lawrence Kelly. Near the end of his book, Trafzer seems to have had some second thoughts, for he admits that "Carson was not a ruthless murderer, and he did not condone those who were," and he notes with approval Kit's condemnation of Colonel John Chivington, the perpetrator of the Sand Creek Massacre against the Cheyennes in 1864.
Nonetheless, it appears that Carson is on the verge of taking over the place formerly held in Western historiography by Colonel Chivington as the designated villain of the Indian wars for his attack on Southern Cheyennes under a flag of truce. A recent defender of Chivington even dismisses the testimony against him by Carson, "who was personally responsible for the starvation and freezing deaths of thousands of Navajos."
Considering all the above, it is perhaps not surprising that by 1986 a reviewer of Thelma Guild and Harvey Carter's biography of Carson could confidently write that Kit's campaigning against the Mescalero Apaches and Navajos "has proved detrimental to whatever remains of his popular reputation," and describe him as "a good company man, one who may doubt but who will in the end obey orders regardless of their rightness."
An observer from another country and culture, reviewing the material presented here so far, might ask, "What's going on here?" Anyone who has lived in the United States for the last thirty years, however, will know perfectly well what is going on and why it has affected Kit Carson's reputation. The middle and late 1960s marked a major intellectual and popular shift in attitudes about our country and its history and a serious reevaluation of many cherished beliefs and values, including our views on the status and treatment of groups who had not shared all the benefits American society was believed to bestow. Blacks and American Indians were prominent among the groups whose standing and past experience came up for extensive review. The conquest of the continent, including the American West, commonly viewed as a triumph for American democracy, progress, and opportunity, looked rather different if one tried to imagine the viewpoint of the original inhabitants. Francis Jennings described the English settlement on the continent as "the invasion of America," and viewed the land not as "virgin" but as "widowed," deprived of its inhabitants, first by disease and then by war and dispossession.
Inevitably, the entire history of Indian-white relations in the United States came under scrutiny. There had indeed been attacks on federal government policy toward Indians and on the attitudes and actions of the white population generally for many years, by historians whose work received little attention outside of specialized circles. By the early 1970s, however, the rise of a militant, articulate Indian movement added force to a shift in emphasis toward the suffering and dispossession of American Indians and the selfishness, violence, and racial prejudice of American whites.
The change was bound to affect the historical reputation of Kit Carson. In 1928 Stanley Vestal declared Carson to be "the symbol of the American frontier, as Odysseus was of the Greek seafarings," and asserted that "it is important that we understand and love the thing he represents." But if that frontier experience became, instead of something to love, something to be ashamed of, then what of Kit Carson?
In a new preface to the 1991 edition of his "Dear Old Kit," originally published in 1968, Harvey Carter noted that the first edition had met criticism from those "who were not content with a hero ;is ordinary as the actual historical person but who wished to worship him as a superman who never failed and could do no wrong." The second edition, Carter feared, would face "the new mythmakers who regard Carson as an inhuman monster who starved, beat, and killed untold numbers of Navajo Indians and enslaved those who survived." In the original work Carter noted that Carson's early biographers had depicted him as "the greatest single factor in reducing the Indian population of Western America." This dime-novel image was all very well for much of the nineteenth-century audience, but in the late twentieth century such a reputation would not do.
There were those within the historical profession who challenged the attack on Carson's good repute. Following the 1972 incident at Colorado College noted above, Harvey Carter, professor emeritus there, whose "Dear Old Kit" included the definitive version of Carson's autobiography, published an article defending the "Slandered Scout"; it appeared in the Denver Westerners' Brand Book, which assured that it would have a sympathetic audience but not the broad one that Carter might have hoped for. Carter made some good points within the limited space available, and also made plain the extent to which he identified himself with Carson and resented attacks on the man as attacks on his own scholarship and judgment. Born in the first decade of the twentieth century, Carter may not have fully perceived the radical—in the true sense of the word—nature of a later generation's developing criticism of Carson and of the western experience.
Guild and Carter's 1984 biography, Kit Carson: A Pattern for Heroes, intended in part to answer such criticism and was factually the best and most authoritative to date, but it had to divide attention between a definitive factual account of Carson's life and a favorable presentation of his actions. Their assertion that Carson was not responsible for the Navajos' suffering at Bosque Redondo prompted the reviewer already quoted to charge them with "an extremely restricted sense of `responsibility,'" and to wish for more speculation on Carson's motivations and for "intelligent insights on the sociocultural milieu which accorded this unlikely man fame."
In 1992 R. C. Gordon-McCutchan, director of the Carson Historic Museums in Taos, reportedly heard a woman standing outside the Carson home declare, "I will not go into the home of that racist, genocidal killer." Hearing this prompted him to organize a conference held at Taos in July 1993, titled "Kit Carson: Indian Fighter or Indian Killer?" The avowed purpose of the conference was to reverse the current negative perception of Carson, and several respected Western history scholars, including Robert M. Utley, Marc Simmons, and Lawrence Kelly, presented papers directed to that end. Clifford Trafzer, whose work was sharply criticized by some of the speakers, was invited but did not attend. Other scholars asked to observe also were not present, among them Patricia Nelson Limerick, one of the most respected among the newer Western historians, and some Navajo scholars. One of the Navajos, anthropologist Harry Walters, remarked, "It's like trying to rehabilitate Adolf Hitler." Limerick saw no reason why "aging historical figures" like Carson had to be "gussied up," and said, "I think Kit Carson would be very angry that these wimpy intellectuals feel it necessary to be defending him." Limerick, who as a professor of history presumably qualifies as an intellectual herself, seems to have envisioned an unrepentant Carson indignant at having his bloody triumphs against the despised "redskins" misrepresented or even denied by misguided scholars. Another New Western historian, Ramón Gutierrez, opined: "It's the old white men angry that they're losing control over the world."
There was obviously a more basic debate going on between schools of thought in Western history, and Carson, as so often in his lifetime, led the way because of his status as one of the greatest heroes of the older Western tradition. Apparently, for many of his critics, the question "Indian Fighter or Indian Killer?" was meaningless, proposing a distinction that embodied no real difference, since all violent actions against Indians by whites, under whatever circumstances, were equally reprehensible. Nonacademics, unacquainted with disagreements inside the ivory tower, were surprised that the discussion over the character and actions of an illiterate frontiersman dead for well over a century could provoke not "a productive, scholarly debate" but "an old-fashioned schoolyard brawl."
But while disputes between so-called traditionalists and New Western historians, and debates over deconstructionism and presentism, may entertain those directly engaged, there are those who, perhaps naively, would simply like to know the truth about Kit Carson. Was he the simple, brave, noble hero admired by several generations of Americans; or was he a "genocidal racist," contemptuously slaughtering those unfortunate enough to have darker skins than his own; or was he the tool of ruthless agents of Manifest Destiny, carrying out unconscionable orders? Or is it possible that he has been both praised as a hero and damned as a villain for things he never did and attitudes he never held?
There are two stories about Carson that seem to bear on these questions. The first is told by Carson himself in his autobiography. In November 1849 he served as a scout for a force of U.S. dragoons that pursued a group of Jicarilla Apaches on the plains of northeast New Mexico; the Jicarillas had attacked a small wagon train on the Santa Fe Trail, killing a trader named James White and several others and carrying off Mrs. Ann White. It was the most difficult trail that he ever followed, Kit observed, but the hope of rescuing the woman spurred them on. When the column overtook the Indians, the commanding officer ignored Carson's desire to attack immediately and tried to parley. The Jicarillas instead prepared to flee, firing on the troops, who then charged. The Indians were scattered, but Ann White was found dead with an arrow in her heart, apparently killed while trying to escape. In the debris of the camp was the loot from the wagon train, including, Carson says, "a book, the first of its kind I had ever seen, in which I was made a great hero, slaying Indians by the hundred." The book may have been Charles Averill's Kit Carson, Prince of the Gold Hunters; its discovery prompted some uncomfortable thoughts in the real Kit: "I have often thought that as Mrs. White would read the same, and knowing that I lived near, she would pray for my appearance and that she would be saved."
Patricia Limerick sees this episode as part of a pattern of betrayal—of the gap between the way printed words have described the West and the often disillusioning reality. On a more individual level, however, one may view it as Carson's first encounter with the uncomfortable aspect of his own fame—the raising of expectations that neither he nor any other man could possibly live up to.
The second story appears in DeWitt Clinton Peters's biography of Carson, and since Peters relied heavily on Carson's recollections, this story may also have come from him. In 1850 Kit and a friend, Tim Goodale, took a herd of mules from New Mexico to Fort Laramie to sell to travelers on the California and Oregon Trails. People passing through the post were naturally excited to hear that the famous scout was there, and the mountain men present amused themselves by pointing out various buckskin-clad passersby as the great man. One traveler "fresh from the canebrakes of Arkansas" was, however, directed to the real Kit. He immediately went over and asked, "I say, stranger, are you Kit Carson?" Kit replied that he was, and the Arkansawyer looked over the man before him, about five-foot-five, stocky and bowlegged, and altogether unimpressive. "Look 'ere, stranger," he said, "you can't come that over me, any how. You ain't the kind of Kit Carson I am looking for." Kit then turned and pointed to a large, impressive trader in suitable prairie garb who was walking by, and the hero-worshipper went off to gaze upon his hero.
The story is one of several that show Carson's mixture of embarrassment and amusement at his own fame, and the self-deprecating way he reacted to such displays of adulation. It also shows one of the reasons why so many people liked Kit. Here, it might be taken as an illustration of our central problem. In his own time and since, a great many people, like the man from Arkansas, have gone looking for a particular kind of Kit Carson and have refused to accept any substitute that does not fit their preconceptions.
For many Americans, of course, "Kit Carson" is simply a name vaguely associated with some sort of Western heroism. In the summer of 1994 I encountered a woman with some knowledge of Western history who asked why Carson had killed all those buffalo. Obviously she was thinking of William F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody. Others, with vague memories of a misbegotten 1950s television series, may associate him with law enforcement, like Wild Bill Hickock. It may be helpful, therefore, to survey, very briefly, Carson's career in chronological order.
Christopher Houston Carson was born in Kentucky on December 24, 1809; his family moved to the Missouri frontier in 1811, and there he grew up. His father died in 1818, and in 1824 Kit was apprenticed to a saddlemaker. He ran away from his apprenticeship in 1826 and went west on the Santa Fe Trail to New Mexico. Alter a few years of miscellaneous labor he became a Rocky Mountain fur trapper—a "mountain man"—pursuing the life of a trapper and hunter until 1842. He then became a guide and scout for the government explorer John Charles Frémont, whose published reports, including accounts of Carson's daring exploits, made him nationally known. With Frémont he was involved in the conquest of California during the Mexican War and performed more actions that enhanced his fame. For the next few years he resided in New Mexico with his wife, Maria Josefa Jaramillo, whom he had married in 1843, ranching and serving as a scout for the army. In 1854 he became government agent for several Indian tribes in northern New Mexico Territory, including Utes, Jicarilla Apaches, and the people of Taos Pueblo. With the coming of the Civil War in 1861 he became colonel of a regiment of New Mexico volunteers that participated in driving Confederate invaders out of the territory, and for the remainder of the war he was involved in campaigns against various southwestern tribes, including Navajos, Mescalero Apaches, Kiowas, and Comanches, as the principal field officer for General James Carleton, the commander in New Mexico Territory. At the close of the war he received the brevet rank of brigadier general. He continued in military service until 1867, commanding in southern Colorado, and also advised the government on Indian problems and participated in efforts to negotiate peace with different Indian tribes; then he left the service because of failing health. He soon accepted appointment as superintendent of Indian affairs for Colorado and accompanied a Ute delegation to Washington, but soon after his return to Colorado, and a month after the death of his wife, he died at Fort Lyon, Colorado, on May 23, 1868, from the rupture of an aortic aneurysm.
It is not proposed to recite every detail of Carson's life but to examine his actions and his attitudes regarding the western American Indians he encountered at the various stages of his career. Carson's personality, as far as we can know it, is obviously relevant here; so is the historical context in which he acted and thought. If we cannot understand how the world may have looked to him and his contemporaries, then we will have trouble understanding why they did many of the things they did. Tired as the cliché is, the past is indeed another country.
Carson, it seems fairly certain, was at least a functional illiterate; reading was either very hard for him or impossible. The only specimens of handwriting certainly his are signatures, almost always written "C. Carson." His perception of the world was limited to what he could observe for himself and what he could learn directly from those around him. The intellectual and cultural movements of his time could affect him only indirectly. He spent most of his life in parts of North America remote from the centers of civilization and revolutions in industry and technology. He was born in the same year as Abraham Lincoln, Charles Darwin, Edgar Allan Poe, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and William E. Gladstone, but the only one of these great contemporaries we can be sure he ever heard of was Lincoln.
Yet Kit Carson did not live in a timeless, unchanging Never-Never Land "Wild West." The West he knew was very much subject to historical change, which profoundly affected his life. The ways in which he adapted to these changes were often representative of what was happening in the West, and make his life a paradigm of the whole process of American expansion in the early and middle nineteenth century.
Stephen Tatum describes the man who made these adaptations as an "unlikely man" to be a hero. The reaction of the skeptical Arkansawyer at Fort Laramie was shared, less vehemently, by many of Carson's contemporaries. There is a remarkable consistency to the reactions of people who met him after he achieved fame. William Tecumseh Sherman was a regular army lieutenant serving in California in 1848 when Carson rode into Monterey with mail from the East. "His fame was then at its height, from the publication of Frémont's books," Sherman recalled, "and I was very anxious to see a man who had achieved such feats of daring among the wild animals of the Rocky Mountains, and the still wilder Indians of the Plains." Carson proved wholly different from Sherman's expectations: "I cannot express my surprise at beholding a small, stoop-shouldered man, with reddish hair, freckled face, soft blue eyes, and nothing to indicate extraordinary courage and daring. He spoke but little, and answered questions in monosyllables."
Another lieutenant, with a somewhat less distinguished future, who met Carson in California in 1848 was George Douglas Brewerton, who also had certain definite expectations about the hero: "The Kit Carson of my imagination was over six feet high—a sort of modern Hercules in his build—with an enormous beard, and a voice like a roused lion.... The real Kit Carson I found to be a plain, simple unostentatious man; rather below the medium height, with soft, brown curling hair, little or no beard, and a voice as soft and gentle as a woman's."
Clearly, Brewerton, Sherman, and the Arkansan at Fort Laramie expected someone like the "half-horse, half-alligator" frontiersman of popular myth, a compound of Davy Crockett, Mike Fink the Mississippi keelboater, and the "Big Bear of Arkansaw"—the loud, boastful, hard-living, casually violent westerner who could whip his weight in wildcats and who delighted in the slaughter of Indians. This uncouth stereotype was well established in popular culture by the mid-nineteenth century; it did owe something to the actual behavior of some assertive backcountry types, and some men on the frontier did their best to live up to it. It was the prototype for the dime-novel Kit Carson of a few years later who made his first appearance in Emerson Bennett's The Prairie Flower (1849), where he was an "incarnate devil in an Indian fight," who had "killed and scalped more savages in the same number of years than any two hunters west of the old Mississippi."
Kent Steckmesser, Daryl Jones, Richard Slotkin, and Darlis Miller have all examined aspects of Carson's career as a dime-novel hero. Steckmesser and Slotkin both emphasize the blood-and-thunder aspect of the character, and Slotkin points out how "grossly racist" the dime-novel Carson is.
But the real Kit Carson, seen in the flesh, could only disappoint such expectations; he was short, clean-shaven when possible, soft-spoken, modest, and rather uncommunicative. (At five-foot-five Carson was not remarkably short for his day; the majority of recruits for the Union and Confederate armies were between five-foot-five and five-foot-nine, so Kit hit the low end of the average.) But there was another literary model for the frontier hero available, one to which the modest, unaffected, and quietly courteous Carson could more easily be assimilated.
The most famous American author of the nineteenth century, translated into any number of foreign languages, was James Fenimore Cooper, and he created perhaps the most famous American literary character of all time, a buckskin-clad frontiersman who embodied all the natural, untutored virtues. Natty Bumppo, variously called Deerslayer, Pathfinder, Hawkeye, Leatherstocking, and Long Rifle, owed something to Daniel Boone, but Cooper admitted that he was essentially a product of the imagination. Cooper himself explained that he was trying to create "a character that possessed little of civilization but its highest principles as they are exhibited in the uneducated, and all of savage life that is not incompatible with these great rules of conduct, ... [one] removed from all the temptations of civilized life, placed in the best associations of that which is deemed savage."
Cooper's hero is modest, scrupulous, honorable, brave, and philosophical, very careful to point out that he is a white man, not a "half-breed," and that he has a different standard of conduct because of his white "gifts" from the Indians. This was important to readers in post-Revolutionary America, where the "white Indian," the "renegade" who fought as an Indian against the white frontier, like Simon Girty and Walter Butler, was a figure of unmitigated evil. But Natty Bumppo is a man who lives with Indians, who survives and makes his living by skills learned from Indians, and who can truthfully say that his best friends are Indians. He admires Delawares and Mohicans exceedingly, while despising Iroquois and Hurons, a fact that is not irrelevant to a study of Kit Carson.
Cooper's Leatherstocking novels featuring Natty Bumppo, published between 1823 and 1841, were widely read, extravagantly admired as authentically American romances rivaling those of Scott, and condemned as offering a hopelessly idealized portrait of the American Indian. A literate young man like George Brewerton was surely thinking of them when he wrote that Carson, "the hero of a hundred desperate encounters, whose life had been spent amid wildernesses, where the white man is almost unknown, was one of Dame Nature's gentlemen—a sort of article which she gets up occasionally, but nowhere in better style than among the backwoods of America." Brewerton, it should be noted, grew up in an army family on the Atlantic coast, not "among the backwoods of America." The same year Brewerton met Carson, the Rough and Ready Annual provided a sketch of the new hero and asserted, "In the school of men thus formed by hardship, exposure, peril, and temptation, our hero acquired all their virtues and escaped their vices."
Another young man who met Carson in California during the Mexican War was Navy Lieutenant Edward Fitzgerald Beale, who shared some hard, dangerous traveling with Kit. Years later, defending his departed friend against slander by poet Joaquin Miller, Beale declared, "Carson was a man cleanly of mind, body, and speech, and by no means a Border ruffian. He had no gift of swearing." Beale further asserted that Carson had "a calm, dignified, sweet nature," and apostrophized him thus: "Dear old Kit! ... Oh, wise of counsel, strong of arm, brave of heart and gentle of nature, how bitterly you have been maligned."
In 1866 painter Worthington Whittredge went on a tour of the eastern Rockies and New Mexico. Whittredge says, "I had all my life wanted to meet a man who had been born with some gentle instincts and who had lived a solitary life, either in the woods or somewhere where society had not affected him and where primitive nature had had full swing of his sensibilities." The "wild characters" Whittredge met in the West were not what he was looking for: "I wanted to see a man of more modesty and more truthful turn of mind. The nearest approach to such a character I ever met with was Kit Carson, the famous scout."
From Cooper's explanation of what he was trying to do, we can see the mold that Carson seemed to these observers to fit. If he was not a boastful, belligerent "border ruffian," there was another convenient category for him. Those who met Carson in the latter part of his life generally saw him in the Cooperian mode. The fact that none of them specifically compared him to Leatherstocking, while employing the language and images of his creator, suggests how well-established, and how taken for granted, the archetype was in American culture. It was in this genteel mode that his nineteenth-century biographers depicted him. Like the man from Arkansas, they knew what kind of Kit Carson they wanted to see, and Kit's outward personality allowed them to find the resemblance to Cooper's hero without too much strain.
Still, we must remember that these contemporary witnesses, like many others, had one great advantage over us, over Carson's later critics and admirers alike: they actually knew the man. Some of them only met him briefly and were happy to have their preconceived ideas confirmed. Others, however, like Brewerton and Beale, or like John Frémont, knew him for extended periods of time, and traveled with him under trying conditions. Perhaps some of them were not overly sensitive to the wrongs done to Indians. Yet the cumulative testimony in Carson's favor is hard to ignore. After a difficult trip from California to New Mexico over the Old Spanish Trail, including tense encounters with Indians, Brewerton judged Carson well suited to the office of Indian agent, which required "great tact, much common sense, and a fair amount of judgement." In his account of the journey he had noted Kit's courage and boldness, and his caution, but he found him endowed with other qualities as well.
Edward Beale, remembering his own trip through the southwestern desert with Carson, was even more fulsome. When he was sick, Kit had cared for him "as tenderly as a woman," giving Beale the last drop of water from his canteen. "Oh, Kit! I think again of afterwards on the bloody Gila, where we fought all night and travelled all day, with each man his bit of mule meat, and no other food, and when, I so worn from a hurt could go no further, begged you to leave me there and save yourself, I see you leaning on that old, long Hawkins gun of yours, (mine now) and looking out of those clear blue eyes at me with a surprised reproach, as one who takes an insult from a friend." In our day such prose as this arouses instant suspicion, but in the nineteenth century it was the appropriate way to express deep emotion.
Jessie Benton Frémont, the explorer's wife, was another writer of purple prose, and she too was impressed with more than the obvious "manly" virtues in Carson. She credited him with a "merry heart" and "that most lovable combination of a happy and reasoning patience under trial, with quick resource and a courage equal to all proof." She also remembered the kindness he showed when her firstborn son—Kit's godson—died as an infant. "You were the first to warn me that my oldest boy could not live," she wrote to him years later. "I always think of you in connection with that poor suffering baby." Jessie and her husband were publicists and politicians, but there was no political advantage to be gained when she assured Kit that, if he died first, "There will be two friends here to feel that something has been taken from them not to be replaced."
These admiring contemporaries and later biographers share one other characteristic with those who despise Carson as a racist and a practitioner of genocide, besides their tendency to see what they want and expect to see. They virtually all portray an uncomplicated Carson who is all of one piece and whose actions are wholly consistent with the character they assign to him. He is a man of simple nobility and courage who can be depended on to do the right thing under the most difficult circumstances, or he is a callous, brutal racist, or the easily manipulated agent of the genocidal policies of his superiors, representing the worst aspects of white Anglo-America. He is either/or. He is never seen as a man who had to make hard, complex, often ambiguous moral choices like the rest of us, who had to face the frustration of grappling with intractable circumstances, who was capable of growth, of learning and modifying his ideas.
Worthington Whittredge offers an unusual dimension of Carson's character. He reveals how Carson gave him a detailed description of a sunrise he had seen once in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, "how the sun rose behind their dark tops and how it began little by little to gild the snow on their heads, and finally how the full blaze of light came upon them ... and he wanted to know if I couldn't paint it for him." Granting that Whittredge may have gilded the account a little, this is the only source I have seen that gives any indication that Carson had any appreciation of the beauty of the landscapes among which he spent so much of his life. Except for that conversation, and the artist's recording of it, we would have no idea that Carson had any aesthetic sense. It was not what most people were interested in hearing about the great scout and Indian fighter.
This study has two aspects, which are necessarily intertwined. One is to place Carson in his historical context, remembering that he lived in the early and middle nineteenth century, not in the late twentieth, and that this is more than a matter of dates. The other purpose is to study what Carson actually did and said, to see how far he conforms to the stereotype of the "genocidal racist." The intention is not to write a simple brief for the defense but to try to understand Carson in his human complexity.
The focus will be on Carson's relations with Indians, as far as can be judged from what he thought and did. Carson was first of all a man of action, and his actions, as recounted by himself' and others, are the primary evidence. They ought to be seen, not only as the bare facts of what happened, but as they would have appeared to contemporaries, white and Indian, and to Indians of different tribes—for different tribes might have viewed the same act quite differently. The Navajo campaign was not unique or unprecedented, and it was not undertaken simply out of motiveless malice, or a generic, undifferentiated white "racism," however much ethnic or racial prejudice may have played its part. A verdict should not be pronounced on that campaign on the basis of secondhand accusations of "genocide" or invocations of the names of Genghis Khan or Adolf Hitler, without a detailed knowledge of the unique history of New Mexico, of the history, strategy, and tactics of Indian-white conflicts in the West, and of the actual events of the Navajo campaign.
Since World War II the word genocide has been used to raise the consciousness of members of the dominant culture to the very real historical injustices suffered by Native Americans in the centuries since Columbus. But the word originally had a very particular and restricted meaning, derived from what the Nazi regime in Germany tried to do to the Jews of Europe. A recent, scholarly definition is that genocide is "a form of one-sided mass killing in which a state or other authority intends to destroy a group, as that group or membership in it are defined by the perpetrator."
James Axtell, one of the leading historians of Indian-white relations in colonial North America, points out that the definition "excludes from consideration the victims, civilian or military, of two-sided war, of any natural or unintended disaster, and of any individuals or `loose cannons' acting outside the orders of the state or political authority." (Colonel John Chivington might be placed in the last category; he was certainly disavowed by the federal government.) Axtell, who can hardly be accused of lack of either sympathy or indignation in his writing on Indians, insists that "we must not apply [the term genocide] wholesale to every Indian death in the colonial period. To do so is to dilute our moral vocabulary to insipidity and to squander its intellectual and emotional force."
Fritz Stern, historian of twentieth-century, Germany, has made the same point: "Out of respect for the dead, we should adopt a moratorium on facile analogies with unique suffering; the memory of that past should not be dissipated by mindless invectives."
One of the commonest "facile analogies" is that between the Indian wars and the Vietnam War. For the generation to whom that war was an unforgettable trauma—the author's generation—the comparison seems irresistible. One historian who makes that association most explicitly, drawing a clear line of succession from colonial Indian-white conflicts to Vietnam, all part of an unbroken chain of white American racism and imperialism, is Richard Drinnon. Regarding Kit Carson, he writes, "Carson's Long Knives were forerunners of the Burning Fifth Marines," who, he informs us, had "the habit of burning at least half the [Vietnamese] villages they passed through."
Obviously there are many acts deserving condemnation that do not fall under the classification of genocide, and many also that do not require comparison with Vietnam, except in the universal terms of human suffering. Some historical comparisons appear in this book, but I do not mean to suggest that exact analogies can be drawn between, say, Bosnia in the 1990s and New Mexico in the 1860s. Comparisons can be made between different Indian-white conflicts at different periods of history. Indian raids on frontier Missouri in Carson's childhood surely influenced his later actions; the relations between mountain men and Indians, hostile and friendly, which he participated in during his young manhood, I will argue, did influence him. The conduct of the Seminole War in Florida in 1835-42 is not irrelevant to the Navajo wars of the 1850s and '60s, and neither, certainly, is the conduct of Indian wars in the trans-Mississippi West from 1848 to 1890. The whole history of Indian-white interaction on the frontier is more complex than many writers are prepared to admit. In the Missouri of Kit's youth and the New Mexico of his maturity, and certainly in the Rocky Mountains during his first adult experiences, Indians were both enemies and allies, and those who knew most about the subject saw well beyond the broad classification Indian to distinctions that were more important and sometimes literally vital.
It is not always possible to reach definitive, infallible conclusions about the thoughts and actions of historical characters, even in the unlikely event that we could get past all our preconceived ideas about what they did, and should have done. Inevitably, the record is less than complete, especially in Carson's case. His illiteracy means that all that he said and thought comes down to us through interpreters, who may have altered the record, intentionally or otherwise. His official correspondence as an Indian agent and soldier was all taken down by clerks of varying ability. His spoken words, including official testimony, were taken down by others and reported according to the style of the various scribes. Even his autobiography, which stops short of the most controversial period of his life, was dictated to his Indian agency clerk.
His autobiography is one of the essential sources for any attempt to understand Carson. His amanuensis, John Mostin, apparently attempted to turn Carson's colloquial speech into more or less standard English, not always successfully. Carson clearly intended to provide a plain, factual narrative of his life to 1856, without literary flourishes or philosophical asides. Like many another autobiography, it is sometimes notable for what it does not say; yet Kit does often make his attitudes and reactions to specific situations clear.
Because of the way in which the document was produced, it is important not to read too much into matters of style and choice of words. Literary scholar Martin Green, in his study of American adventure literature, is perhaps the only one to evaluate Carson's autobiography as literature, in a volume that also covers selected works by such writers as Cooper, Irving, Richard Henry Dana, Melville, Parkman, Mark Twain, Theodore Roosevelt, Hemingway, Faulkner, and Norman Mailer. Certainly he does not consider Carson the peer of any of these in literary skill, but he points out that Kit was a more authentic adventurer than any of them. Therein lies the problem, for Green finds Carson to lack "moral delicacy, generosity, or passion," the reason being that "Carson was a real hero of adventure, and heroes are not notable for such qualities." Green seems unaware of the definitive version of the autobiography in Carter's "Dear Old Kit" and his blanket judgment on heroes suggests that he too has found the Carson he was looking for. Aware of Carson's illiteracy, he cannot help holding the man responsible for matters of style and tone that Green views as proof that Carson was a callous, vindictive brute. He does not quote D. H. Lawrence, but he seems to have in mind the Englishman's famous definition, based on Cooper's hero, of "the essential American soul": "hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer." Carson, like the other authors, appears as an illustration of Western civilization as "a society obsessed by and addicted to the lust for power." Yet Green's comments are valuable as indications of a certain viewpoint, and will be alluded to on occasion.
Carson seldom makes general observations about "Indians" as a group, and when he does it is usually in reference to a specific event or problem, as when he gives his opinions on Indian-white relations in New Mexico in the 1850s at the end of the autobiography—opinions at some variance with ideas he expressed later. He never says anything about Indians as harsh as Francis Parkman's remark that, after a few weeks or months on the prairie, one "begins to look upon them as a troublesome and dangerous species of wild beast." Nor does he utter any observation about any tribe, even the Blackfeet, like that of Mark Twain about the Gosiute Indians: "The bushmen and our Goshoots are manifestly descended from the self-same gorilla, or kangaroo, or Norway rat, whichever animal-Adam the Darwinians trace them to."
Innumerable observers noted Carson's reticence. The account of James Meline, who met him in 1866, is typical: "He is one of the few men I ever met who can talk long hours to you of what he has seen, and yet say very little about himself. He has to be drawn out. I had many questions to ask, and his answers were all marked by great distinctness of memory, simplicity, candor, and a desire to make some one else, rather than himself, the hero of his story." Some people could draw Carson out, others could not, finding him, as William T. Sherman did, monosyllabic.
One reason for this reticence will be apparent to those Americans who have grown up among country people (the real thing, not media caricatures). Such people, confronted by those who assume a superiority based on social standing or education, or urban sophistication, often prefer not to waste their time trying to communicate. With those who take them as they are and speak as one person to another, they can communicate quite well, but they show a deep reluctance to brag, to "blow their own horn." Those who too obviously patronized the quaint, unpolished scout, Carson probably did not consider worth his time. Hero-worshipers he could treat as he did the army officer who met him with the words, "So this is the great Kit Carson, who has made so many Indians run!" "Yes," replied Kit, "sometimes I run after them, but most times they war runnin' after me."
Carson's fame depended less on what he said about himself than on what others, starting with John Frémont, said about him. Without the chance of his meeting and taking employment with the explorer, he might have ended up as just another old mountain man, sitting around the plaza in Taos, telling stories about his mountain days. Carson has often been compared to Daniel Boone, and certainly each became a representative figure, symbolizing a heroic era of westward expansion. Boone represented the trans-Appalachian frontier in its crucial first settlement in Kentucky, and the holding of that settlement in the face of Indian hostility; he symbolized the permanent frontiersman, whose restless search for freedom paradoxically opened new lands to civilization. Carson, representing the trans-Mississippi West, was one of the trappers who first ventured into the Rockies. As a guide and scout he "led the way" for Manifest Destiny; as an Indian fighter he consolidated the conquest. Before the era of the badmen and the gunfighters, he was the supreme western hero.
Boone owed his first fame to John Filson, whose sketch of his life in a promotional work on Kentucky caught the public imagination, leading to more imaginative biographies, and even a mention in Byron's Don Juan, besides helping to inspire Cooper in the creation of Natty Bumppo. Boone was neither the first to explore Kentucky, nor the first settler there, nor the supreme Indian fighter; indeed, he seems to have killed very few Indians, and enjoyed at least intermittently friendly relations with some thoroughout his life.
Carson, his more recent biographers have agreed, was neither a leader nor an outstanding figure among the mountain men, simply a good trapper and a reliable man—a good man to have on your side in a fight, but not a superman. Like Daniel Boone, he was elevated by accident to preeminence as a symbolic hero. If the selection of a hero tells us something about the society that selects him, then so does the rejection of one. The dime-novel Carson represented endless adventure and the solution of problems by ready violence, applied chiefly to "lesser breeds." The more genteel Carson was "one of Dame Nature's gentlemen," with none of the vices and all of the virtues of the trapper and the scout, the fit champion of his people. The Carson now rejected is a brutal racist who carried out genocide against innocent people who had the misfortune to stand in the way of a self-appointed "superior race"; he thus becomes a scapegoat for the sins of our fathers, and the representative of much we wish to reject in our present society.
Like the traveler from Arkansas, many people have searched for the kind of Kit Carson they wanted, whether a dime-novel hero, Natty Bumppo in the flesh, or a Nazi in buckskins. Instead of these cardboard figures, let us take Carson seriously as a man, and try to find out what really was the relationship, or relationships, between him and the American Indians among whom he spent his life. It may not be possible to recover the full truth, and there may be times when the only possible conclusion is that of Saint Paul: "I do not know; God knows." But the attempt to discover the truth may be more interesting than the easy stereotype, for all that.
Carson's life can be divided fairly adequately into six periods. First comes his backcountry boyhood in Missouri, then his years as a mountain man, then his service as a guide and scout for Fremont and others, a period of some seven years as an Indian agent, his military service as an officer of New Mexico volunteers during the Civil War, and the last years when he was both soldier and peacemaker. The divisions are somewhat arbitrary, but they will be seen to correspond to real changes, not only in Carson's life but in the world he knew.
|List of Illustrations||ix|
|1. Will the Real Kit Carson Please Stand Up?||1|
|3. Mountain Man||37|
|4. Guide and Scout||85|
|5. Indian Agent||148|