One of the most controversial figures in the history of the American West, Christopher "Kit" Carson (1809–1868) has been lauded as a great frontiersman and hero by some, and condemned as a mass murderer by others. The chief point of contention is his role in the last great Navajo war, which led to the forced relocation of roughly 8.000 Navajos from their traditional homeland to the wastelands of Bosque Redondo in eastern New Mexico. For the Navajo, this trek is known simply as the Long Walk, and its memory is alive and well—and painful—in their oral tradition.
Kit Carson was born on Christmas Eve, 1809, in Madison County, Kentucky. As a boy, he dreamed of heading west to the great Rocky Mountains where he hoped to carve out a niche for himself. In 1826, young Kit took off for Santa Fe and soon became a mountain man and fur trapper. He eventually found employment as a hunter at Bent's Fort in southeastern Colorado and earned a reputation as a reliable and experienced frontiersman. In the mid-1840s, Carson served as a guide to John C. Frémont, who was exploring the Rocky Mountain West for the U.S. government. Frémont recorded and subsequently published an account of his travels. The charismatic and rugged Carson was a central character in the report and soon gained notoriety and fame throughout the land. His reputation was further enhanced by his role in the Bear Flag Revolt during the Mexican–American War.
Between 1854 and 1861, Carson was Indian agent to the Utes, with whom he developed a positive rapport. When the Civil War broke out, Carson took a commission as colonel in the First New Mexico Volunteers. He fought off invading Texans in the Battle of Valverde and helped in expunging the Confederates from the New Mexico Territory. In 1863, Carson was reassigned and ordered to fight the Mescalero Apaches who were raiding the settlements of encroaching whites. The famed mountain man successfully brokered an agreement with the Indians, leading to their relocation near the watchful eye of Fort Sumner. Next, General James H. Carleton commanded Carson to conduct a campaign against the Navajos in eastern Arizona and western New Mexico. Hoping to return home to his family in Taos, a reluctant Carson nevertheless took the commission.
Though Carson was hesitant to wage war on the Navajo, he was relentless in carrying out his assigned duty. He launched an all-out assault against his adversaries, who quickly realized that they had to conduct a guerrilla-like war against Carson's formidable army. The Navajo hoped to disrupt the invaders by making quick lightning strikes before retreating back into the canyons and mesas spread across their homeland. Carson was not discouraged. If he could not fight them head-on, he would carry out a protracted war of attrition by destroying their crops and livestock and burning their homes and possessions. His scorched-earth strategy worked. The Navajos, on the run, were forced deep into Cañon de Chelly. As winter set in, the fugitives had no food or shelter; many starved or succumbed to the elements. Finally, in January 1864, most of the Navajos surrendered, accepting Carson's terms and their removal to Bosque Redondo. Carson was not present during the Long Walk to eastern New Mexico, but his roundup led directly to it. Like the Trail of Tears, the death and despair that marked the forced trek and the Navajos' confinement at Bosque Redondo were compounded by the psychological impact of being torn away from their home-land.
After his campaign against the Navajo, Carson went on to lead 1,000 troops, accompanied by Ute and Apache scouts, in an assault on the Kiowa and Comanche of the Great Plains. Soon, however, Carson's health began to decline, and he returned home to his family in Taos, New Mexico. On May 25, 1868, Kit Carson died.
Carson's reputation only grew after his untimely death. In the late nineteenth century he became the subject of countless dime novels. These sensationalist and, more often than not, fictitious books portrayed Carson as a near superhero. Though he was still celebrated, this pulp Kit Carson was a fearless Indian killer and scalper, rather than the trusty mountain man and guide described in John Fremont's report. In the 1960s and 1970s, Carson's image was further revamped. With the mounting Indian activism of the era, Kit was targeted for his role in the Indian wars and, more specifically, the campaign against the Navajo. Today, Carson remains a point of contention between scholars, who hope to restore his legendary status as an American icon and Western hero, and the Navajos, who can never forget the tears and suffering that he brought to their ancestors.
Hutton, Paul. 2006. "Why Is This Man Forgotten?" True West 53, no. 2: 24–32.; Trafzer, Clifford E. 1982. The Kit Carson Campaign: The Last Great Navajo War. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.