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Kit Carson: ‘The most hated white guy in American history?’

TAOS – Reaction to the Taos Town Council’s recent gesture aimed at making peace with the past by renaming Kit Carson Memorial Park shows that old wounds over Carson’s legacy are hardly cauterized.

Native Americans and Taos activists have praised the move as long overdue, while historians and others see it as political correctness based on poor reading of history.

Kit Carson.

Kit Carson.

“They are trying to put the values of the present day on what happened 150-160 years ago,” said John Carson, great-great-grandson of the trapper, Indian agent and Indian fighter. “It was a whole different world in the West when he was running around out there.”

“Carson is often depicted as an Indian hater, and nothing could be further from the truth,” said best-selling author and Santa Fe resident Hampton Sides, who wrote the book “Blood and Thunder,” a warts-and-all depiction of Carson’s life.

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“He’s become the most hated white guy in American history. He has eclipsed Custer,” Sides said. “He has a memorable, catchy name. Kit Carson has become a bogey man for all tribes.”

But five taoseños, including retired University of New Mexico anthropology professor Sylvia Rodriguez and former state District Judge Peggy Nelson, sent a letter thanking the council for its “courageous and unprecedented vote.”

They wrote that for decades many locals have asked “why so many places in Taos and northern New Mexico were named for only one man, best known and celebrated for his role as a killer and subduer of Navajo and other Native people.”

“The point is the act of naming the park, not to mention the entire national forest and so many other local venues for him, constituted an official proclamation that there is only one true version of history: that of the victors.”

At a meeting Tuesday, the Taos council is expected to entertain pubic discussion on its decision about what’s now officially Red Willow Park, derived from the meaning of “Taos” in the Tiwa language of adjacent Taos Pueblo.

Although the council published a legal notice that renaming the park was on its June 10 agenda, there was little public awareness that the issue was up for consideration until after the vote took place.

The park has been named for Carson since before it was owned by the town. The 20-acre-site was Kit Carson State Park when the state turned it over to Taos in 1990.

A U.S. soldier guards Navajos during The Long Walk of 1864. (Courtesy of newmexicohistory.org)

A U.S. soldier guards Navajos during The Long Walk of 1864. (Courtesy of newmexicohistory.org)

The Long Walk

Carson, who lived in Taos at a house that is now a museum, has become a lightning rod for criticism as the Old West portrayed in cowboys-and-Indians movies gave way to a more realistic view of the country’s 19th-century past. Carson’s role in The Long Walk, removing Navajos from their homeland to the Bosque Redondo in southeastern New Mexico, is his most infamous episode.

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As Sides’ “Blood and Thunder” recounts, Carson was the point man for carrying out a “scorched earth” plan devised by Brigadier General James Carleton under Abraham Lincoln’s Manifest Destiny policy, a response to repeated Navajo raids, including attacks on Spanish settlements and the Pueblo Indians.

Excursions and treaties were unsuccessful so Carleton decided with Carson as his field commander to cut off Navajo food supplies and force them to relocate to Fort Sumner in New Mexico. The result was The Long Walk of 1864.

Some 8,000 to 9,000 Navajos were marched 300 miles in winter to Bosque Redondo, where they spent four years struggling with food shortages and starvation, water problems, disease and Comanche raids before they were allowed to return to their ancestral lands. An estimated 3,000 or more Navajos died at the bosque or during the march; some writers call this chapter in American history “the Navajo holocaust.”

“History is messy and fraught with contradictions,” Sides said. “But one needs to remember that it was indeed a war. It was a war that had its genesis in centuries of brutal raiding and kidnapping between the Navajos and the Spanish, a cycle of violence that the U.S. Army was seeking, in its own flawed way, to end.”

Carson actually tried to resign from the Navajo campaign but was turned down, Sides said. “He was definitely reluctant.”

“If you are really looking for a villain, it’s further up the food chain,” Sides said, mentioning Lincoln and Carleton, the general running the military campaign.

Kit Carson’s name will no longer be part of Taos’ downtown park. The Town Council has changed the name to Red Willow Park. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Kit Carson’s name will no longer be part of Taos’ downtown park. The Town Council has changed the name to Red Willow Park. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

The Navajo Nation had no comment last week on the Taos council’s decision to drop Carson’s name from the park, a spokesman said.

Navajo Adam Teller has a website about The Long Walk and lives in Chinle, Az. – just outside Canyon de Chelly, where Carson has never been forgiven for ordering the total obliteration of Navajo peach orchards consisting of thousands of trees (the orchards were “the pride of the Diné” and destroying them was “a final thumb in the eye” of the tribe, Sides writes in “Blood and Thunder”).

Teller, a teacher who operates tours in Canyon de Chelly, said he was pleased by the Taos council’s decision. “That sounds like something very positive,” he said on Monday. “Not only does it make the healing process a lot easier, but just to know that people are sensitive.”

Teller said his website has upset some. “I talk about how the real Kit Carson was responsible for a lot of lives taken at the time,” he said. “The public, they need to know the other (Navajo) side.”

But Teller agrees that Carson was caught up in something bigger than he. “He was a man of his time. To me he was a soldier. He really didn’t have a choice in dealing with the Indians the way he wanted to,” Teller said. “He was a good man who wanted to trade and be friends with the Indians, but he had no choice as a blue coat.”

Lyla June Johnston, a Taos native who now works for Verizon in Southern California as a liaison with Indian communities, started the Taos Peace and Reconciliation Council, which supported the name change. “When I was a little girl, I always asked myself why would we name our park after a symbol of armed conflict and oppression of indigenous people,” said Johnston, whose mother was Navajo and father was Cheyenne and Anglo.

“I have forgiven the past in my heart as a Navajo woman, and I do not judge Kit Carson as a man,” she added. “But I do understand the symbol he has become.”

Chris Pieper, who runs a Taos outdoor apparel and equipment store, was a leader in the push to take Carson’s name off the park. “It has nothing to do with Kit Carson,” he maintained. “It has to do with changing a symbol of war and oppression to a symbol of peace and unity.”

“This is about extending a healing hand not to just the Pueblos but to Native people throughout the West.”

Author Hampton Sides poses next to a showcase at the Kit Carson Home and Museum in Taos in 2006 after the release of his book about Carson, “Blood and Thunder.” Sides says Carson has unjustifiably “become the most hated white guy in American history.” (AP Photo/Jeff Geissler)

Author Hampton Sides poses next to a showcase at the Kit Carson Home and Museum in Taos in 2006 after the release of his book about Carson, “Blood and Thunder.” Sides says Carson has unjustifiably “become the most hated white guy in American history.” (AP Photo/Jeff Geissler)

History lesson needed?

Paul Hutton, a University of New Mexico history professor, believes remedial lessons are in order for the Taos council. “Let’s just say I don’t believe their decision was well grounded in history,” he said.

Sides and Hutton said Carson befriended and worked on behalf of many tribes, especially the Utes and Pueblo groups. “He was one of the best friends the Indians had,” Hutton said.

When he died in 1868, Carson was married to Josefa Jaramillo, from a prominent Taos family. Although he couldn’t write his own name, he was fluent in Spanish and French and spoke several Indian languages. Carson had two Indian wives before Josefa.

“He is sort of the poster boy for multiculturalism,” Hutton said. “He represents the blending of racial groups in the American West, especially here in New Mexico, where it gives us our unique culture.”

Hutton said that, before he moved to the state, he didn’t “realize Kit Carson was so despised by groups in New Mexico.”

“Here we celebrate so much Billy the Kid, who was an outlaw, yet we run away from Kit Carson,” he said.

Sides believes the Taos council caved to pressure when a group of taoseños made their presentation to the council before the 3-1 vote declaring the park will now be Red Willow Park.

“It’s kind of a shame when a political group succumbs to pressure to change a name,” Sides said. “I am not absolutely sure they know the history of Kit Carson.”

As for the new Red Willow name, he said: “It’s bland, it’s safe” and that “to sidestep the messiness of the past, the town has picked … an eminently forgettable name for its gathering place.”

The Kit Carson Home and Museum in Taos has many artifacts from the life of the famous and controversial Old West figure. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

The Kit Carson Home and Museum in Taos has many artifacts from the life of the famous and controversial Old West figure. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

But the name does have local and cultural significance: Taos Pueblo refers to its people as the Red Willow People. “Red willow is a flexible plant that can be woven together,” Pieper said, “a plant that is both healing and represents working together.”

Martin Jagers, president of the board of directors for the Kit Carson Home and Museum in Taos, thinks the council acted in haste.

The board of the Carson home “had formalized an offer to serve as a resource to the town in this discussion,” Jagers said in an e-mail. “Unfortunately the action was made without asking for any input. It is disappointing that the Taos Town leaders did not make the effort to study and perhaps understand history before judging it.”

On the other side, the group that includes anthropology professor Rodriguez and ex-judge Nelson applauded the council for not dilly-dallying. “Actually, this debate has been going on for decades, but until now, no one in power ever gave it a serious and respectful hearing,” they say in their letter to the council. “We suspect that if you had not acted quickly, the discussion would have devolved into endless bickering that could defer a decision indefinitely.”

Most seem to agree that Carson was hard to pigeonhole. The Rodriguez group said their point is not “that Kit Carson was an evil man.”

“He was a complex mix of contradictory qualities, who committed constructive as well as destructive acts during his lifetime,” their letter says.

John Carson, great-great-grandson of Kit Carson, says what’s most important about his famous ancestor “is what people who actually knew him thought of him — all people, all races, all tribes — as opposed to what people today may think.” (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

John Carson, great-great-grandson of Kit Carson, says what’s most important about his famous ancestor “is what people who actually knew him thought of him — all people, all races, all tribes — as opposed to what people today may think.” (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Carson was ‘human’

Does great-great-grandson John Carson – a park ranger at Bent’s Old Fort National Historic Site, a historic trading post in La Junta, Colo., that Kit Carson knew well – remain proud of the relative that gave him his surname?

“Damn right, and that you can make a direct quote,” he answered.

“Overall, I would love to sit down and talk to the guy. He’s human – it’s not like he was walking around in a halo or anything.”

John Carson, who performs Chautauqua presentations as Kit, believes what’s most important “is what people who actually knew him thought of him – all people, all races, all tribes – as opposed to what people today may think.”

He summed up the issue with a quote attributed to Kit Carson: “I don’t know if I did right, I don’t know if I did wrong, I did the best I could.”

Sides sees a plus side to the debate over the name of the Taos park, which has gone national. “Any kind of exposure like this that gets people talking about history in a serious way is not all bad,” he said.

“All the controversy would probably be lost on Carson,” Sides added.

By all accounts he was a shy man who eschewed the limelight but could be moved to quick, definitive violence in certain circumstances.

“Carson himself, whatever his faults, was not a glory hound,” Sides said. “He is not sitting, rolling in his grave bothered by this. He’s probably surprised they named a park after him at all.”

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