C is for Carson, Kit (1809-1868): Hero or Villain of the Westward Expansion?


Historical figures like Kit Carson will always nourish the imagination because he belonged to a generation of men who still knew what it took to survive in the wilderness. In a world in which the real wilderness is shrinking, we remain fascinated by the phenomenon of survival in the wild, as the ratings of Discovery’s Man versus Wild also reveal.

Although Carson could not read, let alone write his own name, he could read the mountains like no other. After his birth in Kentucky and childhood in Missouri, he took off for the mountains of Colorado and Oregon to become a trapper. He was married twice to Indian women and thus learned even more about the mountains.

He would serve numerous times as the “scout” or guide for John Charles Fremont. Fremont was commissioned to explore the Western territory and map the different trails and routes. Carson was also a guide during the Mexican War, and he served as a courier for the American President Polk.

After the Mexican war, he became a rancher in Taos (New Mexico) and managed to ferry 6500 sheep across the mountains to Sacramento. This was a supreme business success as the sheep could be sold for a fortune since prices had gone through the roof because of the Gold Rush. Remember that it wasn’t the gold people fished out of the river but the businesses that were triggered by the Gold Rush migration that made people rich. It was better to sell shovels and jeans than to get your boots wet looking for gold. Just as you might make more money opening a taco truck near some startups in Silicon Valley than by writing some code yourself…but I digress.

During the American Civil War, Carson somehow managed to gather a regiment of Mexican infantrymen: were these the only Mexicans who “served” in the Civil War?

However, as a soldier in the American army, Kit Carson should also be remembered as an oppressor and worse: when the Navajo Indians didn’t budge at a reservation, he burned everything in sight: harvests, orchards and cattle. When the Navajos finally surrendered after a year (in 1864), he forced 8000 men, women and children to walk from Arizona to New Mexico, which became known as the Long Walk (no kidding). He was promoted in the army but he was done soldiering and retired on a ranch in Colorado.

After his death in 1868, his fame, “heroics” and good fortune were embellished in books for kids and adults and therewith his status as one of the heroes of the Wild West seems to have been set. But among the Navajos “Kit Carson” became a curse word and a man comparable to the likes of Adolf Hitler. Although he could not read or write, murder was his thing, the Navajos hand down to  their children, and there have been but few publications that fully illuminate the Navajo side of things. Even a recent book by Thomas Dunlay (Kit Carson and the Indians, 2005) argues in the introduction that other times meant other standards and that we, with our 21st century “enlightened” views cannot condemn Kit Carson outright.

Hmm– but what if your beautiful Navajo great-great-great-grandmother had perished on that Long Walk? Maybe this says something about how our US (melting-pot) history is still predominantly the history of the white man?

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