art gallery
contributors subscribe links trumpet fiction back issues exit
Kit Carson and the Indians by Tom Dunlay

An important new book with a balanced reassessment of Carson’s relationships with Indians

By Mark Dworkin

Kit Carson and the Indians by Tom Dunlay, University of Nebraska Press, 507 pages, $45

The decade of the 1990s saw historians of the American West reinterpret the legacy of a number of nineteenth century American icons. These historians refused to exercise what William Manchester has called “generational chauvinism,” the imposition upon figures of the past the values of the writer’s generation, attempting instead to assess them within the context of their times. A notable example was the way historians Casey Tefertiller and Allen Barra reinterpreted the life and legend of Wyatt Earp, bringing him back to a middle ground from both the hagiography of earlier writers such as Stuart Lake and the revisionist condemnations of many western historians of the Vietnam Era who saw Earp as representing everything wrong about American values.

Kit Carson’s reputation had undergone a similar evolution, from intrepid scout and soldier, justifiably killing heathen “savages,” to dark and genocidal Indian hater, especially guilty in the deaths of scores of Navajo Indians. Such a progress roughly follows the pattern of historical interpretation of this reviewer’s life. Like many of my generation, as a boy I admired the television heroes of the fifties westerns, where Carson, who never was a lawman, was portrayed in a series as a dime-novel like hero who brought evildoers to justice. Later I developed a revisionist-like revulsion against such heroes in the wake of the Vietnam War Era protests against American values, where Carson was now seen as a racist killer.

Two new books this past year have righted the imbalance and brought Carson’s legacy back to human proportions. One of them is A Newer World: Kit Carson, John C. Frémont, and the Claiming of the American West (Simon & Shuster). The other is Tom Dunlay’s Kit Carson & the Indians. Dunlay has performed the important task of painstakingly assessing all of Carson’s’ words and actions in his dealings with Indians, words and actions latterly condemned and vilified.. Dunlay frontally attacks the conception of Carson as “genocidal racist,” an Indian hater and betrayer complicit in the deaths of thousands of innocent Navajos.

Dunlay’s is not a conventional biography but a detailed treatment of Carson’s lifelong relationship with Indians, from his Missouri boyhood to his final days in Colorado. This story takes him through his backcountry youth, and continues chronologically through his years as mountain man, guide, scout, Indian Agent, soldier, and peacemaker. Lengthy chapters investigate Carson in each role, carefully accumulating data in the form of his own words and actions. This was a complicated task as Carson’s was a semi-literate man of action who, when he did write, expressed himself through an amanuensis, but the author makes the case that there is enough on the record for fair evaluation.

By placing Carson in the context of what others of his time were saying and doing, the current charges do not hold up. The actual evidence shows Carson with a capacity to develop deeper understandings of Indians through continuous re-evaluation of conditions on the ground. In the end he moves from a policy merely of the frontier law of retaliation, to one of preservation. In an extraordinary example of this growth, Carson develops and recognizes American moral and ethical responsibility toward Indians, stating that by “dispossessing them of their country we assume their stewardship.”

Dunlay rejects the use of the word ‘genocide’ as applying either to the American Indian experience or to Carson’s actions. For Dunlay, by diminishing the currency of a word meant to portray the Nazi regime’s final solution to their so-called Jewish problem, modern writers dilute the moral vocabulary of the language, show disrespect for the dead, and squander the language’s intellectual and moral force. Dunlay goes to great pains to demonstrate that, in the case of the American Indian, genocide was in no way America’s or Carson’s policy.

By not imposing upon Carson the values of the late twentieth century, we are able to understand that he and his contemporaries discussed only two scenarios for the Indian future. Either the Plains and other western tribes were to be made extinct by inevitable clashes with ever increasing numbers of white settlers whose actions would destroy their food supply, or a way must be found to preserve them from the destruction resulting from white encroachment. His visit to California in the wake of the gold rush settlements, where he sensed an encirclement of the western Indians, further convinced him of the urgency for a humane solution before ‘his’ Indians would suffer the fate of the California tribes.

Conventional wisdom in Carson’s had it that exposure to whites only left Indians open to adopting the worst vices of white settlers, especially alcoholism, or would lead to death from white man’s diseases. Because of cultural inferiorities, as this wisdom went, Indians could not adopt white virtues because such virtues were tied to an agrarian milieu foreign to nomadic hunters. The concept of cultural relativism as espoused and even demanded by modern writers analyzing this period was nearly unknown. Strange cultures were simply viewed by white Americans as inferior, noble perhaps, but not worthy of preservation if the cost was too high. The currency of nineteenth century debate was really about how best to convert Indians to American culture or whether the effort itself was doomed because of a perceived Indian “inaptitude for civilization.”

Carson was attempting to find a humane solution to saving Indian lives within the mainstream debate of his times. Dunlay lists such factors as:

  • His acceptance of the government’s policy of placing Indians on protected reservations where they would learn agriculture and become “civilized”
  • His incorruptibility as an Indian agent at a time when most agents were excessively corrupt (frequently spending his own money when government funds were not forthcoming)
  • His efforts to replace corrupt Indian agents
  • His insistence upon saving the lives of all but the most hostile Indians
  • His unequivocal condemnation of the cowardly slaughter of women and children at Sand Creek by Chivington

All of this places him with the “assimilationists,” those of his time who were for preserving Indians from the mass “extinctionists.” Extinctionists viewed Indians as hopelessly unable to learn Anglo-Saxon ways and values and saw men like Carson as “sentimentalists. The extinctionists heeded the pseudo-science of the era that had ‘proven’ Indian intellectual inferiority.

Carson’s first hand observations helped him grow into an awareness of the inhumanity of white and Mexican activity against Indians. His Congressional testimony reveals his greater condemnation of settler depredations upon Indians. He emphatically rejected the “only good Indian is a dead one” attitudes of Generals Sherman, Sheridan and many settlers. Instead Carson advocated complete separation of the races by removal of recalcitrant Indians to reservations as far from settlements as possible, where they would have a chance over time to adapt and survive.

Such a removal was, in Carson’s view, the only alternative to “utter ruin.” This made force justifiable in order to deny subsistence, sanctuary and security to hostiles who opposed removal. Yet, he always made crystal clear distinctions between Indians opposed to his policies and others who were his allies, friends, and even his adopted children and wives. Such distinctions were not common in his time, and belie the notion of Carson as Indian hater.

During the Navajo campaign many innocents who surrendered as a result of destruction of their crops and animals ended up perishing from Army policies including the notorious 1864 Long Walk to the Bosque Redondo. Here Carson has been condemned by history, but in fact he was not in charge of the walk and was on leave for a major portion of it. Further, upon his return he raised a fuss about the general conditions and lack of food for the Navajo people. Yet, while he demonstrated little concern either for the tribes’ own wishes or attachments to their ancestral lands, to charge Carson and General James Carleton with activities analogous to Genghis Khan or Hitler, as has been done, ignores actions like Carson’s protests, and Carleton’s putting his own soldiers on limited rations in order to feed those in his charge, and not accepting the surrender of those he could not feed. Clearly, Carson never had or ever saw his orders as a “license to kill” and did his utmost to follow a “humane course” as he understood it.

Dunlay responds to the charge that Carson was a ‘company man,’ serving his government as a good soldier by helping to dispossess tribes of their ancestral lands. The evidence tells another story, one of a man who even in his dying days traveled the long distance to Washington, leaving a pregnant wife and a child, to convey his vision of setting aside lands for the Utes. These lands were to be respected by whites in order to give at least one generation time for a transformation of lifestyle. He has also been charged with being too much in awe of better educated and more articulate superiors, but he often criticized them when they revealed attitudes betraying gross misunderstandings of Indians. He spent his mature years, in the words of Dunlay, “trying to avert conflict, moderating disputes, recovering stolen animals, distributing food to Indians, and repeatedly seizing the opportunity to make peace…”

Dunlay’s Carson, in the final analysis, should be judged by how he grew into his role as the most frequently consulted frontiersman of his era. Carson’s own words show him far out in front of most of his contemporaries in his humanity towards those being dispossessed. Much of this growth came about in middle age, a time of life when many refuse to reassess attitudes and become set in their ways. His relationships with Indians, even when apparently brutal, were never simple, were always nuanced, and should not be labeled in a facile manner as a supposed blind, irrational prejudice.

While he could not see any other solution than the reservation system, neither could many others of his time. Perhaps he was not a hero, but, as the author points out, he did embody classical western heroic traits. He traveled over long distances while battling valiantly as a warrior, he had an unblemished reputation for integrity and plain speaking, and he always comported himself with honor in the eyes of both friends and foe. As Edwin Sabin writes in his 1914 biography of Carson, “Kit Carson was not a great man, nor a brilliant man. He was a great character; and if it was not his to scintillate, nevertheless he shone with a constant light.” Dunlay’s scrupulously researched and thoroughly footnoted examination of Carson’s legacy has brought him back to his rightful place in western American settlement history.

Tom Dunlay Reassesses the Life of Kit Carson

Interview with author Tom Dunlay

by Mark Dworkin

Nebraska-based historian and freelance writer Tom Dunlay, author of the 1982 book Wolves for the Blue Soldiers, a study of the role of U. S. Army Indian Scouts and Auxiliaries in subduing the Indians of the western frontier, has written an important new study of legendary mountain man and Indian fighter Kit Carson reviewed elsewhere in this issue (Kit Carson and the Indians, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln,2000, $45). In this study Dunlay focuses on the relationship of Carson with the Indians, investigating in detail his many roles during the period of western settlement while attempting to place Carson within the context of his time. Was a great American hero making the west safe for American settlement, or was he a brutal murderer as some of his later critics have maintained, a racist bent on genocide? Or does he deserve a more balanced and nuanced legacy as a man caught in cross-cultural currents doing his best to be humane in difficult times? The author agreed to answer the following questions:

Should Kit Carson be seen as an American hero?

Dunlay: Carson certainly had many of the characteristics traditionally ascribed to heroes in Western culture since the ancient Greeks. Patricia Limerick says that we need a new kind of hero, imperfect and inconsistent, but doing the right thing some of the time-a kind of heroism we can all aspire to. It seems to me that Kit Carson fits this model, although she would probably not accept him, because he was sometimes violent. But that was just what made him a hero for his contemporaries.

What should the legacy of Kit Carson be for twenty-first century students seeking to understand his role in the American western movement?

Dunlay: Carson was a notable example of many men who lived on the real frontier between cultures, the ''middle ground" and who was constantly involved in the transactions, of all kinds, violent and otherwise, between those cultures. He was "the man who knows Indians."

Did you initially expect your research to exonerate and bring him back to a more favorable role as much as it did?

Dunlay: I set out believing that much of the criticism of him was based on latterday standards and understandings. Some readers will conclude from that that I was already biased in Kit's favor. But I found more than once that I had underestimated him, both intellectually and ethically. As I say in the book, you have to consider where he started from and where he got to from there. He was capable of growth, even in his later years. He expressed ideas we might think would only come to an educated Eastern humanitarian and reformer, not an illiterate frontiersman. Beware of stereotypes. I wanted to take him seriously as a historical figure, not just some quaint Old Scout.

You have chosen a biographical approach that concentrates on interpreting Carson and his legacy through the prism of his relationship with Indians, rather than a more conventional full-length and definitive biography? Couldn’t important insights into his relationship with Indians be gained by a more comprehensive approach?

Dunlay: My original purpose was to evaluate Carson's relations with Indians, but I found that his whole life was involved with Indians, from childhood to his last years. While I have emphasized "Kit Carson and the Indians," I feel I have covered the basic experiences and character, and put him in his historical context, without which his actions and thoughts wouldn't make sense.

Carson was semi-literate which begs the question as to how his words can be examined with any degree of accuracy when for the most part they’re filtered through the presentation of others?

Dunlay: This is the big problem with a Carson biography. You can't assign too much significance to choice of words when the words may not be his. You simply have to go through enough correspondence and other materials-autobiography, reported conversations-and see if he expresses the same ideas consistently. And of course, like the rest of us, Carson could be inconsistent, could change his mind, and sometimes responded to the situation of the moment, then thought better of it.

In the book you seem adamant about rejecting genocide as a term to describe Carson’s relationship with Indians, despite the characterizations of some recent writers. Why the insistence?

Dunlay: "Genocide" was coined to describe a very particular type of action, the attempt of the Nazis to exterminate the Jews in Europe. People have taken to using it for shock value to express their indignation over the wrongs--very real wrongs--inflicted on American Indians. But using the word that way really isn't accurate, since the U. S. government never adopted such a policy, and was always trying, often not very effectively, to find a way to avoid such a result. One reviewer vas very unhappy with me for insisting on a strict interpretation of the word, which would exclude the use he obviously wanted to give It. The quote about diluting our moral vocabulary comes from James Axtell, an outstanding historian of colonial Indian-white relations.

How was Carson’s self-image affected by all of the dime novels written about him during his lifetime?

Dunlay: He seems to have felt a mixture of irritation and amusement. He threatened to burn one paperback, which he said was full of lies, and he once said that "Them newspaper fellers know a damn sight more about my affairs than I do." On another occasion he viewed an illustration showing "Kit Carson" rescuing a maiden and slaying various Indians and said, "That thar may be true, but I hain't got no recollection of it." I think the idea that people might have exaggerated expectations of him may have bothered him a bit. I don't think he ever confused himself with the image.

In the book you stress the importance of Carson’s visit to California during the gold rush as a pivotal event in shaping his views. Can you elaborate briefly as to why it was so crucial to shaping his later approach?

Dunlay: I was just suggesting that the trip seemed to make a strong impression on him. This is based on a conversation he had with James Meline in 1866, where he spoke of the disappearance of whole tribes he had seen on earlier trips. The problem is that we don't really have much material-virtually none-about his thoughts on the subject before he became an Indian agent in 1854. I wondered why he came out, almost immediately after taking the job, as a strong advocate of the reservation system, the policy of Eastern reformers and officials.

What do you think was the most important discovery of your research?

Dunlay: That's tough. Maybe, as I said before, that you have to be wary of stereotypes about people like Carson, of assuming that they are only capable of thinking in a certain, stereotyped way, and that they are the same from youth to old age.

What aspects of Carson’s life and actions remain the most enigmatic or puzzling?

Dunlay: I wish I had a clearer idea of his religious ideas. Most people think he didn't take his Catholic baptism very seriously, because he later became a Mason. Maybe they're right. His biographers haven't considered the question of Carson's religion, and maybe that neglect is significant, either because historians don't pay enough attention to these things, or because they assume somebody like Carson wouldn't care about them. And of course I'd really like to interview him about a lot of things, like his relations with General James Carleton, and his basic, rock-bottom attitude toward Indians. As one professional biographer said, "They always elude you in the end."

You place Carson in the position of moderate, given his times, a man who wanted to save Indians rather than exterminate them? Surely there were those who wanted America to respect native culture and treat the Indians with a dignity that would allow them to thrive in their traditional ways and who viewed Carson as anything but moderate?

Dunlay: There were a very few, like George Catlin, who really respected Indian culture. There were a lot of people who believed, more or less, in the Noble Savage in the abstract, but that didn't help the real Indians very much, since they couldn't live up to that image, any more than Kit could live up to his. But there were very few indeed who didn't think that Indians would be better off by becoming "civilized." The only question was whether it was possible. Cultural pluralism is very popular today, at least with intellectuals, but it didn't have much of a constituency in the 1800s. And remember, Carson's concern was with the impending extinction of the Indians, which seemed all too likely. He wanted to find some way of avoiding that, within the limits of what he and his contemporaries thought of as possible.

In his last days, when Carson knew he was dying and yet took the arduous trip to Washington to communicate his ideas, what kind of future do you think he envisioned for the Utes that would have been different from the reservation system as we knew it?

Dunlay: I don't know how much thought he may have given to the details of how the reservation would work. Remember, the only one he'd really seen in operation was the Navajo reserve at Bosque Redondo. Trying to lay out such a big reservation for the Utes in Colorado may have resulted from the less than expected results from the small reservation In New Mexico. And he may have hoped that giving them a lot of land would give the Utes a cushion against white land hunger. But that's one of the things that I haven't been able to figure out. Remember, we're looking at the reservation system with hindsight, which he was denied.

How have Native Groups or reviewers responded to your more positive approach to Carson?

Dunlay: I haven't really heard from explicitly Native American reviewers. Perhaps some of the less favorable are in fact Indians. And maybe they don't respond according to stereotypes either. Nobody has sent me any reviews or publications identified specifically as Indian.

Both your books have had a common thread of examining the relationship of individuals and groups involved in the removal of Indians standing in the path of American western settlement? What are you working on now?

Dunlay: We have a lot of books about white attitudes toward Indians based on literary evidence from a small, largely Eastern elite. We need more books about people who were actually on the frontier, dealing with real Indians. My current project is about frontier rangers, from colonial origins in the seventeenth century down to the Texas Rangers in the nineteenth, emphasizing how they learned from Indians, how they often had complex and close relations with Indians, and how often they had Indians as allies.