Kit Carson left a complicated and controversial legacy

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By Sherry Robinson

Kit Carson Park in Taos will have a new name.
The local argument over the name is one of those debates New Mexicans have from time to time that shows our lingering sensitivities. Navajos have strong feelings about the man, but let’s look more closely at the person and the place.
Kit Carson was a man of his time. The frontiersman and trapper scouted for explorer John C. Fremont, fought in the Civil War and served as Indian agent. He once testified, “I think, as a general thing, the difficulties (with Indians) arise from aggressions on the part of the whites.”
In 1862, Gen. James Carleton ordered Carson to attack Mescaleros, kill all the men and capture women and children. It was a brutal campaign, but Carson ignored the order to kill all the men, and the Mescaleros became the first to occupy the Bosque Redondo reservation on the Pecos.
The next year Carleton ordered Carson to round up Navajos. Carson didn’t want to lead the campaign and tried to resign, but Carleton cajoled him into staying. In “Blood and Thunder,” author Hampton Sides describes how Carson grimly carried out the ruthless, scorched-earth campaign that Carleton demanded. After troops destroyed their crops, livestock and orchards, the starving Navajos surrendered.
Contrary to popular belief, Carson didn’t oversee the terrible Long Walk to the Bosque Redondo. He rode with the first group (there were many groups over several months) to the Rio Grande and then went home to his wife. Taoseños greeted him as a hero; Navajos were their enemies.
Carleton is the real villain, but it’s Carson who’s blamed.
In 1978, after the park name controversy first erupted, respected New Mexico historian Marc Simmons wrote in New Mexico Magazine that during an adventurous life Carson demonstrated a “noble and sturdy character.”
“It is symptomatic of our time that writers attempting to give Indians a fairer shake in our history books — as they unquestionably deserve — sometimes trespass the boundaries of justice and fair reporting,” Simmons wrote. “In point of fact, there were good men and bad on both sides of the bloody and probably unavoidable conflicts that represented the Indian wars of a century ago.”
In revisionist history, Carson is a racist, a terrorist and a killer. And yet, his first wife was Arapaho, his second was Cheyenne, and his third, Josefa Jaramillo, was the daughter of a long-time Taos family. Carson’s life was more than the Navajo campaign; he served his country bravely, and scores of people would latter attest to his honesty and his character.
That’s the man. Now let’s talk about the place.
Taos isn’t Navajo country. Nobody would dream of a Kit Carson Park in Gallup or Farmington or Ruidoso. In northern New Mexico, Navajos and Hispanic settlers fought for 200 years before the Americans showed up. Taos is where Kit Carson made his home (now a museum), which is why descendents still come forward to defend his name.
In 2002, Rep. Roberto Gonzales and Sen. Carlos Cisneros, Taos Democrats, proposed a study of Kit Carson for a possible monument. Said Cisneros, “He did some good things, he did some not so good things.”
Said Sen. John Tsosie, “It’s a short list of good things, and a long list of bad things.”The measure died on the opposition of Navajo Sens. Tsosie and John Pinto.
Last week, Taos councilors voted to name the cemetery where Carson and his wife are buried Kit Carson Memorial Park; the rest would be called Red Willow Park, after the Tiwa name for Taos, but Taos Pueblo elders object to that name.
History can be ugly, but by remembering it — correctly — we learn.