Myth of the West: Kit Carson to the Rescue
In this lesson, students learn about the life of Kit Carson, a famous frontiersman from the 1800s. They then sift through a series of statements about Kit Carson to untangle fact and myth.
How do we untangle myth from reality when studying the lives of popular historical figures?
Related Episode: Kit Carson Biography
While browsing through an estate sale, Charles Burns found what he thought could be a family heirloom - a first edition of The Life and Adventures of Kit Carson with a handwritten genealogy of the Carson family written on one of its pages. He asks host Tukufu Zuberi to find out if this book really did once sit on the bookshelf in frontiersman Kit Carson’s home.
Suggested Grade Level
This lesson is written for grades 9-12, but can be adapted for grades 6-8. Suggestions for adapting the lesson for lower grades: limit the number of facts and myths; assign students heterogeneous work groups; introduce students to Kit Carson through video. Using these videos as factual examples and an excerpt from The Adventures of Kit Carson television show as a mythical example.
Suggested Unit of Study
This lesson is appropriate for an American History unit on westward expansion and the late 1800s.
The Real Kit Carson
Tukufu Zuberi meets with fellow detective Wes Cowan to discuss Kit Carson's background.
In this excerpt from the Kit Carson Biography investigation, History Detective Tukufu Zuberi meets with fellow detective Wes Cowan to discuss Kit Carson’s background. They inspect a copy of Kit Carson’s autobiography and confirm that it is a first edition of the book. Zuberi then meets with David Remly, a writer who has researched Kit Carson and his family extensively, who explains that it is very hard to tell the fact from the fiction in Carson’s life due to his desire to keep his personal life private.
To download Facts and Myths of Kit Carson PowerPoint slideshow, click here.
To view The Two Sides of Kit Carson slideshow, click here.
To print slideshow, click here.
Estimated Time Required
1-2 class periods
Hang the Facts and Myths of Kit Carson PowerPoint slideshow around the room, each slide on a separate sheet of paper.
Kit Carson was born in 1809 and left home when he was only a teenager to become a trapper in the West. He led expeditions throughout the West and became famous as a mountain man and fighter in the Indian Wars. Carson’s relationship with Native Americans is complex. Though he lived with and married into the Arapaho and Cheyenne tribes, he was also responsible for forcing the Navajo off their land—a transfer that led to many deaths. Carson was a hero in pulpy dime novels, both during his lifetime and after, making the truth of his personal life hard to separate from the mythic mountain ranger.
Have students watch the video The Real Kit Carson while taking notes on the following. Afterwards, use the following questions to assess comprehension and prompt discussion:
- How did Kit Carson become famous?
- What details does Kit Carson’s Biography leave out?
- How was he portrayed in popular fiction?
- Why is it difficult to write a biography about Carson?
- Think about what you already know about the Old West. What kinds of details in Carson’s biography and the dime novels are likely to be exaggerated or made up?
After watching the excerpt from the History Detectives episode Kit Carson Biography, lead students in a discussion about The Wild West. Be sure to cover the settlers, the frontier, Native Americans, and cowboys.
- What does “The Wild West” means to you?
- What is a “myth”? (a traditional story that explains a culture’s origins)
- Which elements of “The Wild West” fall into the category of “myth”? Which elements represent reality? Which elements are both?
- Why does the United States have mythology surrounding the Wild West at all? Why is it important to us that the West sound exciting and dangerous?
Tell students it is their job to separate the myth from the reality in Kit Carson’s life. Begin by showing the students the two images that represent The Two Sides of Kit Carson
- A portrait of Kit Carson
- A Dime Store Novel cover
Lead a brief discussion about these images:
- How are these images different?
- Which image represents a mythical version of Carson? What details do you notice?
- Which image represents a factual version of Carson? What details do you notice.
Then, direct students to classify the statements from the Facts and Myths of Kit Carson into “Fact,” “Myth,” and “Some of Both.” (Note: slides 1-12 are facts, 13-21 are myth, and 22-27 are “some of both.”) Encourage students to consider the sources for each fact to help them make their decisions. You might print out the book cover and description from amazon.com or Google Books for each of the sources listed in the Powerpoint for students to consider when evaluating the facts and myths.
Students may take notes on the Who was the Real Kit Carson? reproducible.
- Does this statement reflect any of the myths we just identified?
- Does this statement sound exaggerated? Or is it a straightforward rendering of a situation?
- What is the source for this statement? When was it written?
- Is this a primary source? Is it trustworthy or exaggerated? Are all primary sources trustworthy?
After students have completed the activity, lead a whole-class discussion on the difficulty of separating fact and myth when it comes to the American West.
- What did you record as a “fact”? What as part of the “myth”? Why?
- Which elements of Carson’s character were “Some of Both”? What made them difficult to classify?
- How did you figure out the difference between the facts and myth? Do you need any other information to confirm your thoughts?
- Think about how you determined the difference between fact and fiction. How do you think historians determine “fact” and “myth” when investigating figures like Kit Carson? Can a historian ever know if he is absolutely correct?
Have students conduct further research into Kit Carson or another famous hero of the Wild West. Ask students to fill in the Wild West Dossier reproducible with information that represents what they believe to be the “real” person. (See resources for possible research sources.) How did they separate fact from myth in their research?
More on History Detectives
Use the following episodes or lesson plans from History Detectives to support/enhance the teaching of this lesson in your classroom.
- New Perspectives on the West: Kit Carson
- Biography: Kit Carson
- Notable Biographies: Kit Carson
- The Life and Adventures of Kit Carson. Full text of biography discussed in the episode, from Project Gutenberg
- PBS Teachers Guide: The American West
- Dime Novels and Penny Dreadfuls.Collection of dime novels, including thousands of cover images and full text, from Stanford University
National History Standards
2. Historical Comprehension: The student comprehends a variety of historical sources
3. Historical Analysis and Interpretation: The student engages in historical analysis and interpretation
4. Historical Research Capabilities: The student conducts historical research
US History Content Standards for Grades 5-12
Era 4: Expansion and Reform (1801-1861))
- Standard 1: United States territorial expansion between 1801 and 1861, and how it affected relations with external powers and Native Americans
- Standard 2: How the industrial revolution, increasing immigration, the rapid expansion of slavery, and the westward movement changed the lives of Americans and led toward regional tensions
Era 6: the Development of the Industrial United States (1870-1900)
- Standard 4: Federal Indian policy and United States foreign policy after the Civil War
Common Core State Standards
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.6-8.1 Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.6-8.6 Identify aspects of a text that reveal an author’s point of view or purpose (e.g., loaded language, inclusion or avoidance of particular facts).
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.6-8.8 Distinguish among fact, opinion, and reasoned judgment in a text.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.6-8.9 Analyze the relationship between a primary and secondary source on the same topic.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.9-10.1 Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, attending to such features as the date and origin of the information.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.9-10.6 Compare the point of view of two or more authors for how they treat the same or similar topics, including which details they include and emphasize in their respective accounts.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.9-10.9 Compare and contrast treatments of the same topic in several primary and secondary sources.
CCS.ELA-literacy.RH.11-12.1Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, connecting insights gained from specific details to an understanding of the text as a whole.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.3 Evaluate various explanations for actions or events and determine which explanation best accords with textual evidence, acknowledging where the text leaves matters uncertain.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.6 Evaluate authors’ differing points of view on the same historical event or issue by assessing the authors’ claims, reasoning, and evidence.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.8 Evaluate an author’s premises, claims, and evidence by corroborating or challenging them with other information.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.9 Integrate information from diverse sources, both primary and secondary, into a coherent understanding of an idea or event, noting discrepancies among sources.