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Kit Carson, edited by R.C. Gordon-McCutchan

Review by Ed Quillen

Western history – April 1997 – Colorado Central Magazine

Kit Carson – Indian Fighter or Indian Killer?
R.C. Gordon-McCutchan, editor
Published in 1996 by University Press of Colorado
ISBN: 0870813935

Among the scores of scouts, traders, and trappers who operated in the West before the Yankees got serious about taking over the territory with railroads and farms, Kit Carson’s name leads the list.

This was so even in his own time. Many of his colleagues may have been as courageous or capable, but Carson hooked up with John C. Frémont’s expeditions in the 1840s. The Great Pathmarker’s reports, deftly re-written into best-seller status by his wife, Jesse Benton Frémont, made Carson into a celebrity who starred in the lurid “dime novels” that appeared even before the Civil War.

Carson roamed all over the West, including Central Colorado — in 1855, he guided Col. Thomas Fauntleroy’s soldiers north from Fort Union on an expedition against the Utes and Jicarilla Apache. On March 19, they fought at Saguache, and on April 28, at Salida.

But Carson’s controversial campaign, and the subject of this book, was waged against the Navaho in 1863-64. Thanks to the Civil War back east, few soldiers were around to discourage the Dineh from raiding their neighbors, both white and red. After the raids, they would retreat to Canyon de Chelley.

The U.S. government decided to move the Navaho to Bosque Redondo, about 200 miles away, where soldiers could keep an eye on them. The Navaho were in no hurry to move; Carson led a campaign into their homeland, destroying crops so the Navaho had two choices — surrender or starvation.

Over the years, that campaign has changed Carson’s popular reputation from heroic frontiersman to brutal and genocidal killer. Thus the question — is either reputation really supported by the facts? — and this book, a collection of five essays examining Carson’s career, the Navaho war, and the Carson legends.

This book offers a wonderful insight into historians at work — gathering and sifting evidence, examining literary trends, drawing conclusions as best they can. And Carson, whether you regard him as the epitome of manly heroism or as a betrayer of people who had trusted his word, is always an interesting fellow.

Was he always an honorable one, though? Well, I didn’t see anything to change my conclusion that Carson should have resigned his commission rather than pursue the Navaho campaign. If we’re looking for conscientious heroes, let’s look to Gen. George Crook, who did resign his commission after our government refused to support the sensible terms he offered to the Apache.

On the other hand, Carson doesn’t come off as brutal and genocidal either. In the Navahos’ case, it was U.S. policy that proved brutal, and Carson simply followed orders.

At any rate, if you’re interested in either Carson or the processes of writing the history of the American West, this short book is well worth your time. It was written by scholars, but the prose moves right along, and their thoughts are quite accessible.

–Ed Quillen