To some, he was one of America's greatest heroes: a brave and loyal guide who laid out a path for the westward-moving nation, an Indian tracker who could follow any trail, and a fearless warrior featured in dozens of best-selling novels. But to others, Christopher "Kit" Carson was a villain who waged a merciless crusade against Native Americans. In the end, his contradictions would define his legacy -- and tell the true story of how the West was won.
AMERICAN EXPERIENCE premieres Kit Carson, from Emmy Award-winning director Stephen Ives (New Orleans, Las Vegas: An Unconventional History, Seabiscuit). The 90-minute documentary draws upon rich archival materials, original recreations, and interviews with authors Hampton Sides and Sally Denton, Western historian Paul Hutton, Navajo historian Harry Walters, and more, to reveal the many facets of a complex and controversial figure who became a legend in his own lifetime.
"Kit Carson was the greatest living symbol of the desire Americans had to mythologize the West and take real things and turn them into something else," notes author and historian Dayton Duncan. "He just was who he was and other people projected onto him their own beliefs, their own myths. In that respect, I think he is like the West itself: it's a real place, there were real things that happened and they were fascinating, dramatic, and tragic. But that wasn't quite enough for us as a society."
When he ran away from his home in Missouri in 1826, Kit Carson was just 16 years old. But the call of the West was impossible to resist: it promised boundless opportunity and freedom from the restraints of family, adventure, danger, and excitement. With no money, few prospects, and almost no education, Carson set out for Taos, a high-desert settlement in the far corner of the Mexican frontier, and the hub of the southwestern fur trade.
He spent most of the next dozen years earning his living as a trapper, one of a small band of white men living among the native peoples of the mountain West. They were deep in the wilderness, on unfamiliar soil, surrounded by hostile strangers: survival depended on making alliances with friendly tribes whenever possible, and then living more or less as the tribes did. Eventually, Carson learned at least half a dozen American Indian tongues and mastered the universal sign language used by the western tribes. And when he was 25, took an American Indian wife, an Arapaho woman with whom he eventually had two daughters.
Then, in 1842, Kit Carson happened to meet a young Army lieutenant named John C. Fremont, who was about to embark on an expedition to map and survey the West, and had yet to hire a guide. After more than 10 years as a trapper, there was no trail Carson had not traveled, and no wilderness challenge he couldn't meet. Fremont hired him on the spot. The encounter would change both Carson's life and the West forever.
Over the next two years, Carson led Fremont and his men on two separate expeditions across the far West, and established himself in Fremont's eyes as the ideal scout. When Fremont later published his account of the expeditions, they included the first maps ever to be published of the overland route to the Pacific that would become known as The Oregon Trail. They also contained enthusiastic and lavish praise of Kit Carson. "Carson became a great romantic figure as an explorer, a guide, as a frontiersman, as an Indian fighter in these books that were supposed to be reports, but were actually grand adventure tales. These books were best-sellers in their day," says historian Paul Hutton.
Then, in 1849, came a new literary hero, Kit Carson: The Prince of the Gold Hunters. Written by an East Coast hack who claimed it had been based on actual events, the book became an overnight sensation, portraying five-foot-five Carson as a Herculean adventurer who referred to Native Americans as "redskins," "critters" and "varmints," and cheerfully slaughtered them by the dozen. Scores of similar books followed, solidifying Carson's image in popular American folklore as a brutal killer of American Indians.
Carson himself was largely oblivious to his fame. As America's westward migration gathered steam, he accepted an appointment as an Indian Agent for the tribes of Northern New Mexico Territory. For seven years, he struggled to mediate the mounting conflict between whites and native peoples, and to find some means of peaceful accommodation.
But eventually, his popular reputation caught up to him, and compelled him into a new role. "More than any other westerner," says director Stephen Ives, "Kit Carson straddled two worlds, as the West he'd encountered as a young man increasingly gave way to what we eventually would think of as the American West. He is the ultimate symbol of that transition, the embodiment of both the heroism and tragedy of America's drive to become a continental nation."
Having joined the Volunteer Army to help repel a Confederate invasion during the Civil War, he found himself increasingly drawn into the national effort to "civilize" the West. In 1862, he was ordered to wage war on the nomadic tribes of New Mexico Territory -- foremost among them, the Navajo -- and to see to it that they were removed to a reservation that had been established in eastern New Mexico, called the Bosque Resdondo.
Never one to defy an order, Carson waged a brutally effective campaign, destroying Navajo crops, orchards and livestock, and forcing thousands of men, women and children on a 300-mile journey that survivors remembered as a death march. In the end, although Carson spent much of his life advocating for native peoples and would continue to do so until his death, his name would be inextricably linked to one of the most tragic episodes in American history -- the "Long Walk" of the Navajo people.
"In many ways, Kit Carson exemplifies the contradictions and complexities of a little-understood era in America's history," says AMERICAN EXPERIENCE executive producer Mark Samels. "His storied life simultaneously elicits both pride and shame, much like the history of America as a growing nation."
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