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.