Kit Carson, hero or villain in Taos?

Taos debates legacy of Kit Carson, hero and villain of the Southwest

 by Allen Best

Colorado liberally honors the mountain man, scout, and army leader Kit Carson. We have a 14,000-foot peak, a county, and a town all named after him.

Kit Carson full

Christopher “Kit” Carson

Carson spent his final months in Colorado, at a hamlet east of Pueblo called Boggsville. He died there in 1868. A few years before, he had reluctantly but vigorously prosecuted the U.S. war against the Navajo Indians in the Southwest. The brute strength of the U.S. Army prevailed, and in what is remembered as the Long March, the Navajo were forced to a reservation in southeastern New Mexico.

That military campaign and the march in which so many Navajos died continue to be remembered, bitterly so. In New Mexico, elected officials in Taos in June removed Carson’s name from the 19-acre park where he and his third and final wife, Josefa Jaramillo Carson, are buried.

In its place, the councilors chose Red Willow Park, using the English translation of the Pueblo word for Taos. The Taos Pueblo objected, claiming proprietary use of the Red Willow name. So, in July, the council restored Carson’s name while pledging to consider nominations.

As the (Santa Fe) New Mexican pointed out in June, New Mexico remains deeply conflicted about its history. Several statues honor the Spanish conquistadors, or professional soldiers, of the 1500s and 1600s. But the statue of Don Juan de Oñate, a colonial governor, and others have been vandalized and in some cases spray-painted with the words “murderer” and “killer.”

Colorado could have similar debates. One of our most overtly liberal counties, Pitkin, is named after one of our most overtly exclusionist governors, Frederick Pitkin, who famously proclaimed that “Utes must go.”

The Sand Creek Massacre that occurred 150 years ago this coming November provides cause for even more reflection. The territorial governor then, John Evans, is remembered in a 14,000-foot peak, a major avenue in Denver, and the city adjacent to Greeley. He was a founder of the University of Denver among other noble achievements. But if not bearing the same responsibility as John Chivington for the injustice at Sand Creek, Evans does not emerge from that particular passage as someone to be honored.

Not everybody in Taos agrees with deletion of Carson’s name. “The big backlash that I’m getting from this community is ‘Don’t we have bigger fish to fry beyond the renaming of the park?’” Councilman Andrew Gonzales told The Taos News.

And even one councilman who supported a new name conceded it’s unlikely to resolve underlying problems. “The problem we have with bigotry or intolerance or any of these issues or conflicts between cultures is not going to be settled by the naming of the park,” Fred Peralta told the same newspaper.

Blood and ThunderFor its June article, The New Mexican talked with Hampton Sides, who wrote the best-seller “Blood and Thunder: An Epic of the American West.” It’s an account of Kit Carson and the campaign against the Navajos. His research has given Sides a nuanced view.

“History is messy and fraught with contradictions,” he said.  Kit Carson’s first two wives were Native Americans, he noted, and his research found only friendly relations between Carson and the pueblos of New Mexico.

Sides cautioned against over-simplifying the campaign against the Navajos. “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,” he said. He provided further commentary in an essay titled “Kit Carson — a messy, violent and fascinating man.”

In Taos, a Catholic priest has been nominated as a worthy namesake. But others on the Daily News website wonder where this will end. The local electrical provider is named after Kit Carson, as is the Carson National Forest.

There’s also the question of how deeply we should examine the life of any geographic namesake. I live in Jefferson County, named after a slave owner who could be cruel.  And Sides points out that Lincoln, arguably our greatest president, personally authorized the war against the Navajos.

In Denver, I asked my friend Wayne Trujillo his thoughts. Through his father, he’s roughly half Spanish and half Indian, although of which tribes, other than Apache, he’s uncertain. Wayne said he didn’t want to sound indifferent and he does care about injustices of the past, but really, he is focused on  completing his master’s degree and securing a job to pay off his student loans—and then looking to help people today.

In other words, while the past is interesting and at some level matters greatly, the decisions we make today matter the most.

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About Allen Best

Allen Best is a Colorado-based journalist. He publishes a subscription-based e-zine called Mountain Town News, portions of which are published on the website of the same name, and also writes for a variety of newspapers and magazines.
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