July 03, 2010

Kit Carson:  Hero or villain?

Hampton Sides, author of Blood and Thunder: The Epic Story of Kit Carson and the Conquest of the American West, discusses whether Kit Carson was a hero or villain, or both:

Frontiersman’s complex identity

By Carol BerryCarson was part of a widespread depiction of the American West that was “old and stale and hackneyed and full of stereotypes,” perpetuated by cheap fictional narratives of the time known as “blood-and-thunders,” Sides said.

Although Carson was portrayed as larger than life–seven feet tall, blond, blue-eyed and handsome, rescuing the damsel in distress–in fact he was about 5 feet, 4 inches in height, illiterate, from Missouri, and eager to escape the notoriety accorded him via the dime-fiction accounts.

Carson seemed to embody the Anglo-American notion that the West was “supposed to be ours, or something,” traveling westward on the Santa Fe Trail as a youth after his father died, then becoming a mountain man and trapper at a time when beaver pelts were prized by hatters in the U.S. and abroad.

Rather than epitomizing quintessentially Anglo values, however, he spoke several Native languages, was married into the Arapaho and Cheyenne nations, and was close to Ute and Spanish communities, as well.
Carson's role in the Long Walk:The brutality of the Army campaign attributed to Carson, who was commissioned a colonel, actually may have belonged to Gen. James H. Carleton, who offered to “solve the Indian problem for once and all” by instituting reservations. Carson himself never entered Canyon de Chelly, last refuge of Navajo resistance, saying he was “spooked by the place,” and he believed that if reservations were to be created, they should be on ancestral lands.

Attempting to force agriculture at the Bosque Redondo was “destined to fail, anyway,” Sides noted. “It was an arrogant way of trying to say, ‘We don’t like the way you’re living now; you should live an entirely different life.’”

Somewhat like a Mafia character, Carson lived in a violent world but mostly remained true to his personal code and to tribal alliances despite a propensity for violence and hair-trigger temper, he said.

In assigning hero and villain roles to the historical figures, Carson’s closeness to–and, some said, betrayal of–Native cultures was a defining characteristic, especially his closeness to the Ute nation and his use of Ute scouts against the Navajo in Canyon de Chelly.
Comment:  Sounds like the correct answer is "both."

I have Blood and Thunder but haven't read it yet. A few years ago I debated someone on the subject. Specifically, someone who got upset when I quoted someone who labeled Bosque Redondo a "concentration camp." (Because it fits the definition of one.) The person thought I was criticizing Carson too, but I wasn't.

For more on the subject, see How America Became Cowboy Country and Docudrama About Yellow Woman.

1 comment:

dmarks said...

About Bosque Redondo, the name is new to me. I must have overlooked your previous discussion of it.

Information on it is easy to find<:

The page says it "was a forced labor prison camp which was subsequently studied by Nazis in order to perfect their death camps for Jews. It served as a prototype for Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Dachau and other sites of mass murder of the Third Reich."

That and other details make it sound like a concentration camp to me. Pike Island, where the Minnesota Dakota were imprisoned before being expelled from the state, bears some resemblance to a concentration camp also:

"more than 1600 Dakota women, children and old men were held in an internment camp on Pike Island, near Fort Snelling, Minnesota. Living conditions and sanitation were poor, and infectious disease struck the camp, killing more than three hundred" (Wikipedia)