Dead White Man Chronicles: Kit Carson — evil racist butcher or American hero?

Dead White Man Chronicles: Kit Carson — evil racist butcher or American hero?

For many Americans, the name Kit Carson evokes several of the greatest elements of the American character: bravery, self-sufficiency, and the thrill of exploration. For some, Carson’s name stands for victory over hostile native tribes. But for one group of ethnic grievance activists in Taos, New Mexico, Carson represents racism and American evil. One local politician even drew a direct comparison between Carson and Hitler.

Taos is the site of Kit Carson Memorial Park, where Carson is buried.  The Taos Town Council recently voted to change the name of the Kit Carson Memorial Park to Red Willow Park.  The council has since dropped the name change to Red Willow Park, but the council still plans on renaming the area of the park beyond Carson’s graveyard. But has anyone stopped to ask what Kit Carson actually did, or why he is being slandered?

These questions are part of a deeper, fundamental question about the American identity. Should we feel guilty about the supposed historical injustice of “stealing” native land, or should we refuse to apologize for prevailing in mutual conflict?

“[Kit Carson] was atrocious, an Indian killer,” said Taos council member Fritz Hahn.  “We have got to heal the wreckage of the past, and Kit Carson is part of that.”  Council member Judi Cantu posted on Facebook that having a park named after Kit Carson is as offensive as “naming a park in Israel after Adolfo [sic] Hitler.”

Kit Carson
Image taken from Council member Judi Cantu’s public Facebook page


The “wreckage” Hahn referred to is the “Long Walk,” a military operation whereby U.S. soldiers, with the help of several Indian tribes, removed the Navajo from Arizona and northwest New Mexico, then relocated them to an area in eastern New Mexico.


Viewed in isolation, the Long Walk seems to feed the narrative that European settlers as a whole were generally unfair towards natives. However, viewed within a historical context, without anti-white or anti-European bias, the Long Walk holds a very different significance. “To heap blame on Kit Carson and charge him with the chief responsibility for all of the Navajos’ woes is irresponsible,” claims Marc Simmons, the prominent New Mexico historian and author of over 40 books on the Southwest.  In fact, some Navajo oral histories place the blame for the Navajo removal squarely on certain members of the Navajo tribe.


Who was Kit Carson, and why did he fight some Indians? What did the Navajo Indians do that caused Kit Carson to involve himself in their relocation? These are the questions that should have been asked by the Taos Town Council, and they are questions that inquire into the roots of our national character.


Kit Carson, an honorable American


Kit Carson was born in 1809 in Kentucky, and his family moved to the dangerous Missouri frontier when Kit was a young boy. During this time, the Missouri frontier was so unsafe due to raiding Indians that settlers, farmers, and families were forced to seek shelter in forts.  Kit’s father was a member of the local militia, and he lost two fingers fighting Indians.  As Carson biographer Tom Dunlay writes:

Kit was surely old enough to remember his father coming home with a bloody, bandaged hand; certainly he saw that mutilated hand daily for the next few years, and heard often enough the tale of how it came to be so [1].


Carson would go on to fight for the Union in the Civil War and establish fame as a trapper, scout, and soldier. He guided John C. Fremont on the expeditions to Oregon and California, which led to the mapping of the Oregon Trail. In the 1840s, he settled in New Mexico, where conflict had been raging among Indian tribes and Mexicans for generations. The Navajo, in particular, were a source of tremendous tension and violence.


The Navajo viewed non-Navajo groups as “prey,” justifying their “aggressive and thieving impulses,” in the words of R.C. Gordon-McCutchan, former director of the Kit Carson Museum [2].  The Taos Town Council appears to be completely unaware of the Navajo’s conduct toward settlers and neighboring tribes, but it was in fact the Navajo’s conduct that ultimately led to their relocation. Dunlay notes that “[b]asically, the Pueblos and Hispanic people were allies against the Navajos” [3]. According to Raymond Friday Locke, the Navajo were constantly in conflict with their neighbors, Indian and white alike. Locke authored “The Book of the Navajo,” a definitive work on that tribe. He writes that, beginning in the early 1700s, the Navajo were in frequent conflict with Hispanics and Pueblo Indians, with all caught in “a long list of raids and counter-raids, of expeditions and punitive expeditions” [4].


In Carson’s day, the challenges faced by New Mexicans were practical and immediate. As Dunlay describes:


It requires a real effort to recapture the world view of nineteenth century New Mexicans, for whom the Navajos were not the victims of others’ rapacity and racism but the scourges of New Mexico, perpetrators of innumerable raids in which thousands of head of horses, cattle, and sheep were carried off and hundreds of ordinary, unoffending people, herders, and inhabitants of small villages and ranchos were killed or made captive.


The Navajo had no unified government with which to form treaties that would be binding on all involved. Instead, there were innumerable subgroups that proved nearly impossible to coexist alongside of. Peace treaties were often unenforceable. Innocent Navajos were victimized at times in the cycles of indiscriminate recrimination, but the role of Navajo conduct in driving hostilities should not be ignored.


By 1861, Navajo raids had resulted in almost 300 murders over an 18-month period [5]. Given the extremely small population relative to current figures, that number of murders would have been seen as an existential threat in the American southwest. It was in this context that Carson became an Indian agent for the Utes and Jicarillas. U.S. officials, unsurprisingly, decided that relocation of the Navajo would be the only effective alternative to perpetual war. The 1864 relocation came to be known by the Navajo as the “Long Walk.”


The Navajo were so disdained that several neighboring Indian tribes joined in the U.S. mission to relocate them. Interestingly, PBS’s series The West reveals this point: “When Utes, Pueblos, Hopis and Zunis, who for centuries had been prey to Navajo raiders, took advantage of their traditional enemy’s weakness by following the Americans onto the warpath, the Navajo were unable to defend themselves.”


This is truly a testament to the widespread fear and contempt the Navajo engendered through their own conduct. That important historical fact is totally missing from the current effort to slander Kit Carson, and all that he represents. The historical record is full of very compelling reasons why American settlers, and neighboring Indian tribes, would want the Navajo relocated. The record also places, in a meaningful context, Carson’s subsequent conflict with those Navajo who refused to relocate.


In fact, several Navajo ancestors passed along stories placing the blame for the Long Walk on a handful of Navajo criminals. One member of the Navajo Tribal Council, named Howard Gorman, said that “[a] handful [of Navajo], here and there, riding horseback, killed white people and others that were traveling overland, and took their belongings. So the soldiers, commanded by Kit Carson, were ordered out” [6].


Another Navajo ancestor said:


… [W]e lived like being on two paths or two separate ways, fighting and having wars with other tribes that lived in neighboring territories. For that reason, Wááshindoon (the United States government) took us to Fort Sumner a little over a hundred years ago. It was because of our own angriness. Old men and women folks told it that way – the ones who took the journey. [7]


Who are Kit Carson’s “people”?


Council member Hahn, claiming to speak on behalf of a “Native American,” said “[s]he feels uncomfortable in the park, which is named after someone who egregiously hurt her people.” For such a person, the thought that “her people” may have hurt American people is beside the point. She has her racial loyalty, and that is the starting point for her worldview. By contrast, Kit Carson does not have an interest group advocating for his heritage and his accomplishments.


Americans should regard Carson as an admirable, central figure in the settlement of the West. At the very least, a reasonable assessment of Carson would include a few essential facts: Carson was called upon to lead armed forces in a civilizational conflict that would paralyze modern men with dread. He did so with distinction and fairness, in the eyes of many. Simmons notes that Carson was appreciated during his life by “Indians, Mexicans and Americans” [8].


Carson’s actions were at times forceful, but he acted in keeping with the established norms of military conduct during conflicts of his day. From a moral and practical standpoint, Carson’s treatment of the Navajo was far more humane than the manner in which the Navajo treated their neighbors and enemies. Given all of this, it is an Orwellian rewriting of our history for certain victim groups to slander Carson.


One of Carson’s great-great-great-grand nieces, Terecita, summed up the essence of the man:

Those of them who treated him with kindness and respect, he did the same. And those of them who treated him with violence and disregard, he did the same.


Let us hope that our national character still contains and preserves some part of Carson’s spirit. To that end, we should at least preserve the name of the state park established in his memory.


[1] Dunlay, Thomas W. Kit Carson and the Indians. U of Nebraska Press, 2000, 28.


[2] McPherson, Robert S., “Review of Kit Carson: Indian Fighter or Indian Killer? Edited by R.C. Gordon-McCutchan” (1998). Great Plains Quarterly (2007) 191.


[3] Dunlay, 252.


[4] Locke, Raymond Friday, The Book of the Navajo (Los Angeles: Mankind Publishing Company, 1986),


[5] Dunlay, 258.


[6] Navajo Stories of the Long Walk Period (1973) 265.


[7] Id. at 23.

Cross-posted at American Thinker


John Bennett

John Bennett

John Bennett has written for The Daily Caller, American Thinker,, Human Events, Accuracy in Media, FrontPage Magazine, and WND. He has been a featured guest on the Laura Ingraham, Lars Larson, and Rusty Humphries programs. He holds a Master's degree from the University of Chicago.


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