Kit Carson: The Life of an American Border Man


History has portrayed Christopher "Kit" Carson in black and white. Best known as a nineteenth-century frontier hero, he has been represented more recently as an Indian killer responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Navajos. Biographer David Remley counters these polarized views, finding Carson to be less than a mythical hero, but more than a simpleminded rascal with a rifle.

Kit Carson: The Life of an American Border Man strikes a balance between prevailing notions about this ...

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Kit Carson: The Life of an American Border Man

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History has portrayed Christopher "Kit" Carson in black and white. Best known as a nineteenth-century frontier hero, he has been represented more recently as an Indian killer responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Navajos. Biographer David Remley counters these polarized views, finding Carson to be less than a mythical hero, but more than a simpleminded rascal with a rifle.

Kit Carson: The Life of an American Border Man strikes a balance between prevailing notions about this quintessential western figure. Whereas the dime novelists exploited Carson's popular reputation, Remley reveals that the real man was dependable, ethical, and—for his day—relatively open-minded. Sifting through the extensive scholarship about Kit, the author illuminates the key dimensions of Carson's life, including his often neglected Scots-Irish heritage. His people's dire poverty and restlessness, their clannish rural life and sternly Protestant character, committed Carson, like his Scots-Irish ancestors, to loyalty and duty and to following his leader into battle without question.

Remley also places Carson in the context of his times by exploring his controversial relations with American Indians. Although despised for the merciless warfare he led on General James H. Carleton's behalf against the Navajos, Carson lived amicably among many Indian people, including the Utes, whom he served as U.S. government agent. Happily married to Waa-Nibe, an Arapaho woman, until her death, he formed a lasting friendship with their daughter, Adaline.

Remley sees Carson as a complicated man struggling to master life on America's borders, those highly unstable areas where people of different races, cultures, and languages met, mixed, and fought, sometimes against each other, sometimes together, for the possession of home, hunting rights, and honor.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Remley (Crooked Road: The Story of the Alaska Highway) separates the myth from the man in this engrossing portrait of frontiersman Carson (1809–1868), Dime novels about Carson began to appear well before his death, ruthlessly exploiting his name in fanciful fictions. In the unheroic reality, as Remley tells it, Carson left Missouri at age 16 for a life as a trapper and mountain man, "traveling the Rockies and the Far West, fighting with and living among Indians, getting revenge, killing while being shot at, recovering stolen horses, wading freezing rivers, hunting game, and surviving short days and long nights in snowbound winter camps." Marrying his third wife in 1843, he survived an Indian attack while a guide and adviser on John Frémont's 1840s Oregon-California expeditions; published reports of those expeditions brought Carson unwanted fame. Contrasting dangerous days and rip-roaring action with poignant moments of Carson's family life, Remley challenges recent revisionist representations of Carson as a "trigger-happy" outlaw and scoundrel. Instead, the nomadic Carson emerges as an aggressive, helpful, and caring man, who "matured intellectually and ethically as he grew older." Remley's Old West overview permeates this rich and rewarding work of scholarship. 25 b&w illus. (May)
Library Journal
Kit Carson (1809–68), a genuine American frontier hero in his own time, received much critical reinterpretation in the late 20th century as a glorified Indian killer. Remley (Adios Nuevo Mexico: The Santa Fe Journal of John Watts in 1859) follows the lead of Tom Dunlay's Kit Carson & the Indians to reject generational chauvinism to portray Carson according to the mores of his own frontier border culture and to emphasize the influence of his Scotch-Irish devotion to duty. The result is a biography showing Carson as a full participant in a deeply multicultural frontier society. Carson's early unquestioned embrace of frontier justice for immediate and fierce retribution is contrasted to his later rejection of punishing entire nations for the violent actions of a few, such as his public condemnation of the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre of Cheyenne and Arapaho despite his own role as an officer under General Carleton in the brutal subjugation of the Navajo in 1863–64. VERDICT This is highly recommended as a useful and balanced academic study, but the colorful writing of Hampton Sides's Blood and Thunder: The Epic Story of Kit Carson and the Conquest of the American West may have more appeal to general readers.—Nathan E. Bender, Laramie, WY
Kirkus Reviews

A fair-minded, sympathetic reappraisal of the Kentucky-born mountain man who was more of a guide and trapper than killer of Indians.

Legends of wild frontiersman Christopher Houston "Kit" Carson (1809–1868) sprang up by the mid-1850s. Remley demonstrates (Bell Ranch: Cattle Ranching in the Southwest, 1824–1947, 1993, etc.) that most of these legends had little grounding in fact. From the time he ran off from his apprenticeship at a saddle shop in Franklin, Mo., to his death at his last home in Fort Lyon, Colo., Carson was a man of action, making his livelihood as a trapper, guide, government scout and Indian agent. He was also illiterate, and dictated his early exploits in 1856 while living in Taos, N.M., with his third wife and numerous children. Later, his tales were imaginatively exploited in dime-store potboilers feeding Eastern readers' taste for the lurid. Remley attempts to shade in a more complex portrait of this anti-hero, less as a "simpleminded rascal with a rifle" who had helped lead the Navajo removal in Arizona and New Mexico, and more as a conduit between the whites and Indians, a man who learned Indian languages and had Indian wives. The author depicts Carson as very much a product of his Scots-Irish upbringing—from a large family of hardscrabble migrant farmers, clannish, fierce under attack, loyal to strong leaders. Having moved with his family from Kentucky to Missouri, Carson lost his father when the boy was eight, and he grew rebellious and independent. Traders to the saddle shop at Franklin, located at the end of the Santa Fe Trail, fueled his imagination, and he soon ran away to join a scouting party headed into the Rocky Mountains. Trading beaver skins was more profitable than gold, and his sure-shot survival skills attracted the likes of Lt. John C. Frémont, and later Gen. James H. Carleton, on government expeditions out West. Remley is a skillful narrator of this true-grit life.

With a biographical essay and index, this proves a solid, clear-eyed history lesson in the making of the Wild West.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780806142739
  • Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
  • Publication date: 1/15/2012
  • Series: Oklahoma Western Biographies
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 387,744
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

David Remley is the author of Crooked Road: The Story of the Alaska Highway; Adios Nuevo Mexico: The Santa Fe Journal of John Watts in 1859; and Bell Ranch: Cattle Ranching in the Southwest, 1824–1946.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations xi

Series Editor's Preface xiii

Preface xvii

Aknowledgments xxix

1 A Young Boy in the Schoolhouse 3

2 The Only Use for a Saddle 25

3 Better Exchanges Than Gold 44

4 "Shuch Thing Never Has Been Known until Late" 66

5 A Clear Steady Blue Eye 88

6 "Life Yet, Life Yet" 111

7 "I Done So" 147

8 "Burn the Damn Thing" 173

9 "I Do Not Wish to Incur Any Debts" 194

10 "My Duty as Well as Happiness" 218

11 Just Another Call to Duty 240

Bibliographical Essay 263

Index 277

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