Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Christopher "Kit" Carson: His Puzzling Involvement in the Navajo Long Walks

Christopher "Kit" Carson (1809-1868) is known as one of America's most famous frontiersmen, explorers believed by many to be responsible for the early settlement of our country. They were the early pioneers, paving the way for the many settlers to come, but with a different set of ethics and morals. The goal for most of these men was to educate themselves about the land and the people who inhabited the land. This, too, was the goal of Kit Carson whose family deliberately moved to the edges of society, into the frontier, to learn how to live with the Native American Indian tribes, their culture, and how they survived on the land.

And yet, in his later years, this same man, Kit Carson became a bit of an enigma, making decisions to involve himself in the Indian Wars in ways that conflicted greatly with the life he led as a young man. The young frontiersman who spoke many Indian languages, lived among the Cheyenne for years, married and had a child with the daughter of a Cheyenne chief, as a middle-aged man suddenly made the decision to follow the orders of the U.S. Military and became the driving force behind one of the most egregious acts of genocide that took place during the Indian Wars--the Long Walk of the Navajo. It was a shocking decision, perhaps not to the military or those who lived during those times, but very much so to those who have studied his life. He may have debated the decision, and later regretted the decision, but his actions speak volumes more than anything he wrote in his diaries or letters.

Kit Carson

It could be said that Kit Carson came from a family of frontiersmen. He was born to Lindsay and Rebecca Carson on December 24, 1809, the youngest of five children. The family lived near the wilderness area of Kentucky. This area did not stay wilderness for long, though, and although Lindsay was actually a farmer, he was still anxious to move away from the encroaching city limits. He decided to move the family to Howard County, Missouri. Finding a similar situation in Missouri--cities expanding too quickly for his comfort--he once again moved the family further into the wilderness.

Lindsay Carson's dream of becoming a Wilderness Man was a bit different from what the original men of the wilderness represented, though. The intention of the first Wilderness Men, such as John Colter, James Beckwourth and Jim Bridger, who explored the wilds of the country around the time that young Kit was first born in the early 1800s, was to live off the land and support themselves by trapping wild animals, and their life span was short, averaging three years in the wilderness according to "Trailblazers  & Scouts" in the History Channel series The Real West. Trapper John Colter was the first recorded white man to become a Mountain Man. He was a member of the Lewis and Clark party, returning to the wilderness after the rest of the party returned. He was the first known white man to explore Yellowstone and when he reported back on what he had seen, his reports of geysers, towering mountains, and spending days to find the tail end of a herd of buffalo, but eventually more mountain men and explorers verified these reports. These were the stories that Lindsay Carson heard, and he believed what he heard. He wanted this experience for himself and his family.

However, the expansionism experienced by the Carson family in their various homes was the result of Manifest Destiny, the belief that American settlers were destined to expand across the continent. The difference in intentions will become more important later in the story of Kit Carson when he is asked to help remove the Navajo from their lands.

As a child, Kit kept food on the Carson family table by hunting deer, buffalo, and wild ducks. He also became friends with the Osage Indians and learned their language. Nevertheless, the family did live in an area that was frequently attacked by various Native American Indian tribes and the Carsons were forced to live inside the fort. According to Moyer's Famous Frontiersmen, Kit realized he had advanced skills in hunting and languages, but he was also physically smaller than many of the other boys at the fort so he intentionally volunteered for increasingly difficult and challenging work tasks while still keeping up with his education. Of course, he eventually grew stronger and taller, resembling his father and brothers, and by the time he was 15 he resembled a grown man in both size, skills, and education, and was ready to strike out on his own. All he needed was the opportunity.

Opportunity arrived in 1826 when a party of traders stopped in Santa Fe. Kit demonstrated his skill with a rifle and pistol and was hired. As the party progressed toward Mexico, Kit soon realized he was the only man with any experience. He was relieved to arrive safely in Mexico and decided to stay awhile. He learned to speak Spanish, several Native American Indian dialects, and fur trader skills from a man named Kincaid and three years later joined another trapping party headed for California. The party worked its way back to Taos where Kit Carson discovered he now had a reputation as a skilled trapper and guide. Unlike other trappers, he had also saved his money and lived comfortably as a Mountain Man until 1839 when he was hired as a hunter by Bent and St. Vrain, working out of Bent's Fort in Colorado County. There he met a party of Cheyenne and married the chief's daughter, Rai-Du, or "Mountain Flower." Rai-Du died in childbirth, but his daughter, Mary, survived. Kit now had a half-Indian daughter--one confusing factor when considering his later actions toward the Navajo.

Carson decided to take Mary home to his family, but when he arrived at his childhood home he learned both his parents had died and his brothers had all moved on, starting families of their own. Carson, always the skilled tracker, quickly located one of his brothers in St. Louis and left Mary in the care of his brother and sister-in-law. He left on a steamboat where he met the famed explorer John C. Fremont. This meeting would solidify Carson's reputation. Carson was hired by Fremont as a guide for the Fremont Expedition, charting a route to the Columbia River on the Pacific.

When he returned to Bent's Fort, Carson met and married Maria Jaramillo then sent for his daughter, Mary. Kit and Maria had three more children. Carson also made another expedition with Fremont to map a route to Oregon and Washington then returned to Bent's Fort in 1843. Then Kit and Maria decided it was time to settle down and they built a home in Taos.

Kit Carson's Taos Home

Unfortunately, Fremont once again called on Kit Carson to join him in exploring and mapping new territories. Then, in 1846, the Mexican-American War broke out and all of Fremont's men were enrolled as militiamen with Fremont as their captain. Fremont sent Carson to Washington with dispatches, but Carson stopped at the encampment of S.W. Kearny who insisted that Carson should remain as his personal guide.

In 1847, Kearny sent Carson to Washington with dispatches of his own and Carson discovered he was a bit of a celebrity as a Mountain Man and guide. Fremont had spoken highly of Carson in his journals, so highly that people viewed him as an American hero. He met President James K. Polk who gave him a commission of first lieutenant in the Army. Carson was told to turn in his buckskins for a uniform. When Carson returned to Kearny with more dispatches, he stopped in Bent's Fort and discovered, to his surprise, that his wife, Maria, and four children were in Colorado County, forced to evacuate Taos due to the fighting.

When the Mexican-American War ended in 1849 Carson collected his pay, which was considerable, and returned to his wife and children. They built a nice home and bought large tracts of land in Rayado near Taos, hired a foreman, grew wheat, oats, and rye, and raised sheep. Carson and his neighbors fought often with Apache raiding parties. It was hardly a surprise when President Franklin Pierce made Carson the Indian Agent for the area considering his skill with language, but it was a dangerous job. The various Native American Indian tribes were under siege from the Mexican and American settlers and competing tribes. The Comanche, Cheyenne, Navajo, Arapaho, and Apache were slowly forced into a small area between New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado. Kit Carson knew their languages, their way of life, and the chiefs of each of the tribes. The chiefs often visited his ranch in Rayado--yet another reason why Carson's actions toward the Navajo are difficult to understand.

In 1861, the American Civil War began. Kit Carson remained loyal to the Union. New Mexico was like a buffer ground, separating Unionist California from Confederate Texas. Carson was made Lieutenant Colonel of the First New Mexico Volunteers, so he had a clear obligation to the American Army. He engaged in minor battles with the Confederates, but the fight of his life was yet to come. The Navajo nation consisted of nearly 10,000 people and small factions of Navajo were conducting raiding parties in the area. Carson was ordered to control the situation.

What happened next is extremely controversial. John W. Moyer, author of the book Famous Frontiersmen, describes Carson's actions as "his most brilliant undertaking. Rather than meet the Navajo in battle, Kit destroyed their villages, livestock, and fields." Moyer also points out, however, that Carson "was in sympathy with the Indians." I imagine the Navajo would disagree regarding the "brilliance" of this move as it left Carson and the soldiers with no food to feed the Navajo during the walk to the Bosque Redondo.

Navajo prisoners of Kit Carson forced on the Long Walks.

Carson waged a three year war against the Navajo, gradually rounding them up like cattle and leading them to an encampment at Fort Sumner, New Mexico. These walks are now known as the Long Walk of the Navajo. Many of the women, children and elderly died on these walks. Those who arrived were emaciated from lack of food and some had only strips of cloth left to cover their bodies.

Bosque Redondo Memorial. Photo by Darla Sue Dollman

The Long Walk of the Navajo is remembered as one of the most horrifying events in Navajo history. The Navajo traveled to the Bosque Redondo camp near Fort Sumner in a series of 53 walks. They were kept there under guard with little shelter or food from January 1864 to the end of 1868. On June 18, 1868, the Navajo started the Long Walk Home. They were given 3.5 million acres, livestock, seeds, and a weak apology. In exchange, they agreed to send their children to government schools.

In 1865, Kit Carson was promoted to Brigadier General, responsible for New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Idaho, Dakota, and Arizona. He retired from the Army in 1867 due to an injury. On April 23, 1868, his wife died. It is said that the loss of his wife affected him so greatly that he lost all desire to live and Kit Carson also died one month later, on May 16, 1868.

Kit Carson's appointment to Brigadier General

There is far more to Kit Carson's life than can be covered in a short blog post, but the question remains: Why would a man who was raised with Native American Indians, knew their language, considered them friends, invited their chiefs to share food at his table and married and had a daughter with a Cheyenne woman, years later conduct a horrific scorched earth campaign against the Navajo? Why didn't he suggest an alternative, insist on one, fight for their rights like Sam Houston who journeyed to the White House in traditional Native American clothing to argue for Native American Indian rights when he served as an Indian Agent? Was Kit Carson's scorched earth campaign a result of Manifest Destiny, the belief that American settlers were destined to expand across the American continent? If so, then why did he marry a Cheyenne woman and live as friends with the Indian tribes in his area? Unfortunately, only Kit Carson can answer that question. I know I will never understand.


  • Bosque Redondo Memorial.
  • Moyer, John W. Famous Frontiersmen. Field Museum of Natural History. Hubbard Press. Illinois: 1972. 
  • "Trailblazers & Scouts." The Real West. The History Channel. Originally aired 1993.



Shane Joseph said...

Darla...your article indicates you must be healing well...I loved it!...and the depth of analysis on Carson.. really thought provoking! They say the sign of a good journalist is it causes your readers to follow up with what you have written. Thanks...and Good Stuff! Joe

Darla Sue Dollman said...

Thanks Joe! And thank you for the compliments on the article. I've studied the Long Walk of the Navajo for many years and this is a question that has always bothered me--why would Carson involve himself this way? I still don't know the answer. I was halfway hoping the article would spark some conversations, that perhaps other readers might have ideas or suggestions on what would cause him to act in such a cruel manner toward the Navajo. I'll admit, he was a soldier. He was given orders and he did his job, but if I understand it correctly, the scorched earth campaign was his idea, the killings, the marches--a way to balance the odds. He had 700 men to capture 10,000 Navajo. And yet, the question still nags at me. Considering his past, his family life, his belief in the rights of Native Americans, how could he do it? I just don't know.

Shane Joseph said...

There is a DVD out entitled:"The Long Walk: Tears of the Navajo". It was made in 2007 through KUED/Salt Lake City by a producer named John Howe. I have not seen the movie itself, but have read some articles related to it. Gets pretty in depth including the thoughts Carson may have had in enforcing the "Scortched Earth Policy" against the Navajo etc. According to this view, the Navajos regarded Carson much like we would Hitler.
Carson seemed sympathetic through this horrible this "documentary" points out.

Darla Sue Dollman said...

I haven't seen the video, but I have watched a few others and will discuss one soon made by a man whose ancestors were on the Long Walk. I have read numerous books on the subject, including Dine: A History of the Navajo, and Navajo Stories of the Long Walk Period, which includes first hand accounts of these events. The Navajo lived very differently from other Native American Indian tribes in the Southwest. They didn't travel around. They worked the land, which they called their "mother." They lived in large family groups in Hogans, grew crops and raised cattle and sheep. They acted independently, respecting the family elders. They did not have a single chief or war leader. Those Navajo who were conducting raids acted independently, which may explain a few things--Carson would not have invited a tribal chief to his home as there were many leaders in the Navajo community. However, if he did take the time to learn their language and culture, as he did other Native Americans, he would have understood that the raiding parties were acting independently and did not represent the 10,000 people living on the border of New Mexico and Arizona. I have no doubt that they viewed him as Hitler. Regardless of what his diaries and letters may claim, he behaved in a similar fashion. He didn't simply gather them up. Women, children and elderly who struggled on the walk were killed on the spot. Two women went into labor at the same time during one march and the soldiers took them behind some rocks and shot them. The Bosque Redondo was built to "contain" 4000 Mescalero Apache raiding near the border of Texas and New Mexico. Instead, they added 8,000 (that was the approximate number who managed to complete the walk) Navajo. Fort Sumner was not prepared for this large number. Eventually, the Apache all escaped, and the Navajo were living in holes dug in the ground with strips of cloth to cover the holes through the winter. There was no firewood and what little food they were given, they did not know how to prepare, and it made them very sick. Carson may have "felt" sympathy, but he certainly did not show it. Some historians believe he "felt" loyalty to the Army, others believe he was angry because he and his neighbors were forced to constantly defend their own homes, though not necessarily against the Navajo, generally against the Apache. I think it would be easy for Carson to say, after the fact, that he felt sympathy, but I suspect his emotions were more along the lines of guilt. I doubt his daughter would have kept silent about what happened to the Navajo when the news reached their town. It was a huge scandal. In a way, as a lifelong Mountain Man, guide and scout, if we are speaking community, he belonged more with the Native American Indian communities than the Anglo/European, or the Mexican communities, as he lived his adult life in Mexico territory and married a Mexican wife. He also had an obligation to represent the Native Americans in the area as their Indian Agent, but he chose to represent the Army. I suspect his fame, inspired by the interviews and journals of John C. Fremont, had a bit to do with his decision to carry out a scorched earth policy. He was known as a man who finished the job, known as a fearless leader. People sometimes questioned this view as he was, in reality, short with red hair and freckles, not the tall, dark-haired muscle man presented in Dime Novels. Perhaps he felt he had something to prove. I don't know. It is definitely a puzzle.

Shane Joseph said...

What I have read...everything you have said is certainly true. Now this has really got me curious. Thanks Darla for all your thought and input. Joe

Darla Sue Dollman said...

Curiosity is good! Now go out and explore! There's a few posts on this blog about the Bosque, Fort Sumner and the Long Walk of the Navajo, and sources at the bottom of posts. I would recommend clicking on the link in this post to the Bosque Redondo--plenty of information there for you. Isn't it funny how, just when you start to think you know all there is to know about the American West something new comes into view? That's the beauty of our country and its history--there's so much to learn!

Rob Lopez said...

I think one clue may be gained from recognising that the Indian tribes were not, in their own eyes, one nation. Like other tribes throughout world history, the inhabitants of one tribe regarded other tribes as foreign enemies. Carson was raised among the Cheyenne, so he may not have considered his actions against the Navajo as a betrayal. Indians often served as guides for the army against other tribes, and tribal wars were brutal affairs involving massacres and torture. Belated attempts to unite the tribes against the whites were, I think, exceptions, and problematic. It's like when the Romans invaded Briton to subjugate the Celts. The various celtic tribes did not see themselves as 'Celts', but as unique tribal nations. They were never able to unite to fight the Romans, and often betrayed other tribes in return for Roman favours. When Boudicca led her revolt against the Romans and sacked Colchester and London, her tribe (the Belgae) then set upon the neighbouring tribes, who appealed to the Romans for help. With regards to Kit Carson's actions, the Navajo were likely enemies of the Cheyenne. There may have been unresolved feuds between the two. Kit may have had little love for the Navajo then, even as he loved the Cheyenne. And his image as a 'fearless leader' would have been at one with the macho culture of the Indian warrior. The hindsight of history might make it look like the Indians should have seen all tribes as one nation under threat, but I suspect those at the time may not have seen it that way - until it was too late.

Similar dynamics have occurred in tribal cultures throughout history - and are happening right now in Afghanistan, where tribal and clan rivalries look positively byzantine to UK and US officers, who struggle to understand trends that are, in fact, older than civilization.

The tension of loyalties between the various tribes that Kit grew up with, plus his own tribal identity to the white race, were likely played out in Kit's own head, whose mysteries he probably took with him to the grave, so we can only speculate about his motives. But if he really did 'go native', and if he did see things from the perspective of, say, the Cheyenne, rather than of all Indians, then maybe that might shed some light on the incident in question.

Hard to say, really.

Darla Sue Dollman said...

I think these are all very good points, Rob, and good clues as to what may have happened. Although I am not assuming that the tribes were all connected, or that Carson viewed them that way, or should have viewed them all the same, I think what surprises me is that he did not have more knowledge and connections with the Navajo people considering the area where he was raised and spent most of his life, in what is now New Mexico. Then again, as I said before, the Navajo people were disjointed, they were not one tribe, but lived as independent families.

I think my problem is I am putting myself into this situation. I think I would have tried to understand the situation from the perspective of the Navajo, would have made the connections between the way they lived and how the actions of the local government treated them as less than human. I would have looked at the bigger picture and tried to mediate, rather than saying, "I'm a member of the U.S. Army and must do what I'm told." He was an officer in the Army, but he had also served for many years as an Indian Agent and I think he could have used these experiences to come up with a non-violent solution. He was clearly a very intelligent man, but he was thinking "military strategy" instead of thinking about how to resolve a conflict between humans.

Anonymous said...

for an educated person you are sure one dumb bunny! yada-yada from your facebook rant! as i said from my first post and you might want to take reading and comprehension as a refresher course... fb did the solicitation for friends- no need to get your panty in a wet wad- all you had to do from the first post was say "no" ... but your stupidity got the best of you asking "what is your title" over and over again... you sounded like a kennel pound dog that just yaps! my middle finger giving you a good day salute!

Gary Wrigley said...

To add onto what Rob said, Kit also had strong ties with the Ute's. He was Indian agent to the Utes. The primary non-military support he had on the Navajo campaign was from Ute's. Ute's biggest enemy was Navajo. So as has been already said several times, I believe Kit made great distinction among tribes and was taking on an enemy, the Navajo, not an enemy of native americans.

Darla Sue Dollman said...

Another good point! Thank you, Gary! This is such a great thread of conversation. I don't know about the rest of you, but I've learned a lot from this chat, and that's the whole point of this blog--education. Thank you to everyone! And that is not meant to bring an end to the conversation, just a thank you!

Brian T. Bolten said...

Ms. Dollman

I just wanted to thank you for your fine article on Kit Carson and the Navajo. I write a Blog called "Today in History" here on Blogspot and I published a posting for today, the beginning of Carson's Navajo Campaign. I found your discussion so interesting that I put an excerpt of it on my Blog, along with a link to your Blog, and a full endorsement of it urging my readers to click it on and read it. Here is a link to my Blog posting for this day; I hope that it meets with your approval: What an enigma this man has turned out to be! A man like Thomas Jefferson, who wrote "All men are created equal" and yet he never freed his slaves. Anyway, thank you again for your fine discussion!

- Brian T. Bolten

Darla Sue Dollman said...

I enjoyed reading your blog and appreciate the careful way you quoted from my post. It is indeed a puzzling situation. Kit Carson is one of those people from history who I wish I could sit down with and talk to for an hour, primarily about the Navajo. He did live a fascinating life, though.

Christmas dinner for a family, from a series of photos documenting Gen. John J. Pershing's 1916 Punitive Expedition into Mexico. ...