Kit Carson’s name is everywhere on maps of the West. Nevada’s capital city is named after him, and in California, a Carson Pass crosses the Sierra Nevada. Colorado has Carson County, a town named Kit Carson and 14,000-foot Kit Carson Peak. But was the man himself really worth honoring?
A few years before Carson died in 1868, at a town in Colorado called Boggsville, he’d reluctantly fought the Navajo Indians in the Southwest, acting on behalf of the U.S. government. The brute strength of the U.S. Army prevailed, and in what the tribe remembers as their Long March, the defeated Navajos were forced onto a reservation in southeastern New Mexico.
That military campaign, and the long march in which so many Navajos died, continues to be remembered by some people with bitterness. This June, in New Mexico, for example, elected officials in Taos decided to remove Carson’s name from the 19-acre park, where he and his third and final wife, Josefa Jaramillo Carson, are buried.
Instead, the councilors renamed the park Red Willow, using the English translation of the Pueblo word for Taos. But after the Taos Pueblo objected, claiming proprietary use of the Red Willow name, the council restored Carson’s name, while also pledging to consider nominations for a new name in the hope that maybe there’s one out there that nobody will find objectionable.
It’s not surprising that New Mexico remains deeply conflicted about its history. Though the Spanish conquistadors of the 1500s and 1600s have been memorialized with statues of heroic-looking men on horseback, several of those statues have been vandalized and in some cases spray-painted with the words “murderer” and “killer.”
But even in Taos, not everybody agrees that Carson’s name should be forgotten. “The big backlash that I’m getting from this community is ‘Don’t we have bigger fish to fry beyond the renaming of the park?’ ” asked Councilman Andrew Gonzales in The Taos News. Another councilman conceded that the name change accomplishes little: “The problem we have with bigotry or intolerance or any of these issues or conflicts between cultures is not going to be settled by the naming of the park,” Fred Peralta told the same newspaper.
For its part, The New Mexican talked with Hampton Sides, who wrote a bestselling history of Carson’s campaign against the Navajos. His research for “Blood and Thunder: An Epic of the American West,” led Sides to develop a more nuanced view. “History is messy and fraught with contradictions,” he said. “It was a war that had its genesis in centuries of brutal raiding and kidnapping between the Navajos and the Spanish, a cycle of violence that the U.S. Army was seeking, in its own flawed way, to end.”
There’s also the question of how deeply we should examine the life of any geographic namesake. Sides points out that Lincoln, arguably our greatest president, authorized going to war against the Navajos.
In Colorado, Pitkin County, home to Aspen one of our most overtly liberal enclaves, is named after one of our most overtly exclusionist governors, Frederick Pitkin, who infamously proclaimed that the “Utes must go” – which they eventually did, driven at gunpoint from their homes. I live in Jefferson County, one of several in the West named after a man who was a wonderful writer, philosopher and scientist, as well as a cruel slave owner.
The Sand Creek Massacre that occurred 150 years ago this November provides cause for even more reflection. John Evans, then territorial governor, is remembered by a city of 20,000, a major avenue in Denver, and a 14,000-foot peak. His actions leading up to Sand Creek, however, were not his most noble passage. So how many people lead such unblemished lives as to justify highways, mountains or buildings named in their honor?
I asked my friend, Wayne Trujillo, what he thought about the Kit Carson flap. Trujillo is of Swedish and German descent, and through his father’s New Mexico roots, Spanish and Indian as well. He said he didn’t want to sound indifferent, but all he cared about at the moment was completing his master’s degree and securing a job to pay off his student loans. In other words, while the past is interesting, the decisions we make today matter the most.
Meanwhile in Taos, the name of a Catholic priest has been suggested for the park that now bears Carson’s name, although others wonder where this push for historical correction will end. Oh, yes, I forgot to mention that there’s also a Carson National Forest, a Carson electrical co-op, a Kit Carson Road and …
Allen Best is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News. He is a writer in Denver.