SANTA FE, N.M. — Kit Carson cradled the muzzle of a smooth bore rifle in his left hand, while his son hoisted it against a gnarled cottonwood.
Thursday’s scene at El Rancho de las Golondrinas living history museum came embroidered with twittering birds, a wandering churro sheep and the frontiersman’s “children” perched on a felled tree trunk dressed in cotton dresses and corduroy trousers, their feet laced in black boots.
Swathed in fringed deer hide, John Carson has played his great-grandfather in Old West re-enactments at Bent’s Old Historical Fort, near La Junta, Colo., where he lives.
A history teacher at his local community college, he agreed to reprise the role in New Mexico for an episode of the PBS “History Detectives” series slated to air sometime this summer. The series’ crew was in town this week filming at Las Golondrinas, as well as the New Mexico History Museum/Palace of the Governors and Old Fort Marcy Park.
For this episode, host Tukufu Zuberi will research a Kit Carson biography that may or may not have belonged to the Indian fighter’s family. Zuberi is a sociology professor and past director of the Center for African Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Each episode of “History Detectives” begins with an artifact with a mysterious past. Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting and Lion Television, the show is now in its 10th season.
Charles Burns of Bakersfield, Calif., bought a leather-bound edition of “Life and Adventures of Kit Carson” at the estate sale of a Wild West collector. As he leafed through the book, Burns discovered a center page listing the names of Carson’s family members in what appeared to be quill pen and ink. Zuberi and Wes Cowan, the show’s Wild West expert, are on an historical hunt to determine whether the book actually belonged to Carson.
Both detectives are well aware of Carson’s contradictory legacy.
Kit Carson has been alternately lauded and vilified. Many Native Americans regard him as a war criminal for his conquest of the Navajo and their forced transfer to Bosque Redondo, where many of them died. Those who knew him personally described Carson as a gentleman and patriot who helped drive the Confederates from New Mexico.
Others portray him as a man with divided loyalties, whose beliefs and prejudices were shaped by his times. To complicate the mystery, Carson’s first two wives, Singing Grass (Arapaho) and Making-Our-Road (Cheyenne) were Native American. He married Josefa Jaramillo, the daughter of a prominent Taos business family, in 1842. They had eight children.
“He was a man of his times,” said Cowan, who owns an auction business specializing in Native American artifacts and antiquities. “There’s no question he was one of a handful of men who came West and explored the West and were trailblazers. He was serving his government. He was asked to take care of what they called an ‘intractable problem.’ Carson knew it was terrible. He didn’t want to do it.”
Zuberi said it was important to understand Carson’s role in American history.
“You really can’t understand America unless you understand this push West,” he said. “You’ve got to understand people like Kit Carson. You’ve got to understand what motivated him.
“On the one hand, he was a good supporter of the Union; on the other hand –– look what he did to the Navajos, come on!”
As the pair browsed the weathered leather book on the bar at the old Tin Star Saloon, they determined it was definitely from the 19th century. It bears the raised lines on its broken spine and the gilded edgings typical of the time. Someone sandwiched yellowed newspaper stories about Carson’s descendants between the pages. A faded and smeared page listing the names, birth dates and death dates of Carson’s children appears to have been penned using a worn quill.
“The style of ink is the right kind of ink,” Cowan said. “See how much it’s bleeding into the back of the paper?
“The head is worn out,” he added. “That why (the script) is so wide. Everything about it says that it’s from that century.”
“My guess is that this book belonged to his daughter and the daughter wrote the family history.”
With his deep-set eyes and bushy mustache, John Carson bears an eerie resemblance to his ancestor. He said he owned a second edition of his great-grandfather’s biography and thought Burns’ edition might be the real thing.
John Carson defends Kit Carson as a man who voluntarily signed up to defend the state from the South in the Battle of Valverde in 1862. He also led armies to pacify the Mescalero Apache, the Kiowa and Comanche, as well as the Navajo.
“What counts the most are the people that knew him,” Carson said, “not the folks from the ’60s who have hounded him.
“He was a guy out here doing what he needed to do to survive,” he continued. “He came out here as a trapper making a living. When New Mexico was threatened by the Confederacy, he enlisted in the New Mexico volunteers and became the colonel of that outfit.
“He tried to resign after the Confederate threat was over. He tried to resign several times … All those resignations were refused. That’s when you get into the campaign against the Mescaleros and the Apaches and the Navajos.
“When you’re in the army, you follow your orders.”