Narrator: To some, he was one of America's greatest heroes -- a man who had helped open a vast continent for settlement.
Sally Denton, Writer: Kit Carson was this larger than life figure. that represented freedom and independence and adventure. It was the cowboy mythology and the cowboy ethic long before that had even been thought of.
Narrator: To others, he was a villain who waged a merciless campaign against one of the great native tribes of the West.
Harry Walters, Historian: My great-grandfather lies buried in Bosque Redondo because of him.
Narrator: In the end, his contradictions would define his legacy -- and tell the true story of how the West was won.
Paul Hutton, Historian: He represented his country and he represented what America was becoming. And so when we look at Kit Carson if we get uncomfortable, well, that's cause we're looking in the mirror and we're seeing ourselves.
Title Card: KIT CARSON
Narrator: Early in the fall of 1862, a military courier made his way south from Santa Fe to the U.S. Army post at Fort Stanton, with a dispatch addressed to Colonel Christopher Carson.
At 52, Kit Carson was one of the most famous Americans of his time. When the West was still a mystery to most of his countrymen, he had been the one to master it. Few white men knew the vast western landscape as intimately, or understood the ways of its native peoples so well.
He was the brave and loyal guide who had marked out a path for the westward-going nation, the sought-after Indian tracker who could follow any trail, the fearless warrior portrayed in dozens of best-selling books.
Now, he had been chosen to lead an historic military campaign -- one that would force New Mexico's most formidable tribes into submission, remove them to a reservation and clear the way for American settlement.
As a clerk read the dispatch aloud, Carson listened with mounting dismay: "All Indian men ... are to be killed wherever you find them. The women and children will not be harmed, but you will take them prisoners ... until you receive other instructions about them."
Carson had never before defied an order. His sense of honor would not allow for it. But duty in this case seemed dishonorable as well. To carry out the task now given him, Carson would have to destroy an entire way of life -- the very one that had made him who he was.
Dayton Duncan, Writer: Kit Carson lived in a world in which there weren't a lot of good choices often. And he tried to navigate it as best he could, true to his own lights. And in some instances, that led him to moments of great heroism and in some instances that led him to moments that he will forever be reviled for.
Narrator: As a young man, Kit Carson had been sure of two things. He would not make his life in Missouri, the way his father had done. And he would not earn his living making saddles, as his mother had hoped.
He was just 16 and a bit shorter than average. He had no money, few prospects and so little education that he couldn't even write his own name.
But he was tough. He knew how to handle a rifle. He figured that and a horse would take him anywhere he wanted to go.
The year was 1826, and Missouri was then the vanguard of American settlement: beyond its border lay another world. Just five years earlier, merchants had opened the Santa Fe Trail, an international trading route that ran southwest from Missouri nearly 900 miles, and linked America's frontier to Mexico's. Carson had been itching to hit the road almost ever since.
Paul Hutton: The West offers boundless opportunity, the freedom from all the restraints of family, all the restraints of a shopkeeper's life, and, of course, the promise of adventure, of danger, of excitement. And so he runs away, he does a Huck Finn and lights out for the territories.
Narrator: He wound up in Taos -- a small, high-desert settlement in the far corner of the Mexican frontier, that for nearly a quarter century, had been the hub of the southwestern fur trade.
When he arrived, in early winter, the place was teeming with trappers -- Americans, Frenchmen, Canadians -- all of them scruffy and sunburned after months spent pulling beaver from the rivers of the Rockies. With their furs now sold, soon to be turned into fashionable hats back in the East, they frittered their days away playing cards, telling tales and tossing back a local moonshine called "Taos Lightning."
Hampton Sides: Carson wanted to be a part of this fraternity of men, these greasy, grizzled, hairy, often drunk international cast of characters who knew the rivers of the West and had been to all these amazing places. He wanted to be one of these guys as quickly as they'd have him.
Narrator: Over the next two years, Carson worked as a cook and a hunter in Taos, and then, having learned Spanish, as an interpreter for a merchant caravan. Finally, in the spring of 1829, when he was 19, he was hired as a trapper -- on an expedition to the untapped tributaries of the Gila River.
He was the greenhorn among some 40 seasoned mountain men: deep in the wilderness, on Mexican soil and surrounded by hostile Apaches. "They would frequently of night crawl into our camp ...," Carson remembered. "[They would] steal a trap ... kill a mule or horse, and endeavor to do what damage they could."
In a world populated almost exclusively by Native Americans, the trappers' best chance at survival was to act as if they were just another tribe.
Hampton Sides: The mountain men were very practical people. They had a job to do and they had to go into these dangerous areas and extract a commodity. So they formed all kinds of alliances with American Indians and found that it was practical to live more like an American Indian than like a Frenchman or a Anglo-American.
N. Scott Momaday, Poet: Carson acquired a good many skills from the Indians and uh, an attitude as well, a way of thinking of the world around them. I think he adopted a large part of that and it became inseparable with his personality.
Paul Hutton: He understood what was expected of him by native peoples that he came in contact with in terms of peaceful relationships and trade relationships but also in terms of conflict. And he understood that retribution must follow crime and follow it immediately and harshly if one was to survive in this environment.
Narrator: On one occasion, while trapping on the North Fork of the Missouri River, Carson and his companions came in sight of a large encampment of Blackfeet -- a tribe that had attacked them at every opportunity, for several seasons past. As Carson recalled it: "we were determined to try our strength to discover who had right to the country."
Catching the Blackfeet off-guard, the trappers charged the village, firing as they went. "It was the prettiest fight I ever saw," Carson said later. "[After three hours], we finally routed them [and] took several scalps. ... This ended our difficulties with the Blackfeet. ..."
Hampton Sides, Author, "Blood and Thunder:" Whatever situation he was in would he negotiate, would he fight, would he bluff, based on knowledge that he had of the specific tribe and sometimes a sub-tribe within the tribe. It was not a monolithic situation, the American Indian. He didn't live that way and nor did many of the mountain men. Their experience was much more informed by practical considerations of how to get along day to day.
Narrator: In time, Carson became what Americans of his generation might have called a "white Indian." He mastered the universal sign language used by the Western tribes, and acquired a working knowledge of more than a half-dozen Indian tongues. He dressed in buckskins, slept on buffalo robes, dined on buffalo jerky. And when he was 25, he took an Indian wife -- an Arapaho named Singing Grass -- offering her father "a bride price" of five blankets, three mules and a gun.
Hampton Sides: Like many of the trappers, Carson settled down with an American Indian woman. He found that this marriage was certainly a marriage of convenience in the sense that he had someone on the trail with him who helped do all the thousand and one tasks that had to be done. But it was the first love of his life. He was devoted to her.
Narrator: Not long after they were married, Carson gave Singing Grass a gift of glass beads -- an item highly prized among the Arapahos as decoration for their moccasins. "She was a good wife to me," he told a friend years later. "I never came in from hunting that she didn't have warm water ready for my [cold] feet."
Carson and Singing Grass would have two daughters together. Only one, Adaline, would survive early childhood; and the birth of the second, in 1839, would claim Singing Grass's life.
By then, the era of the mountain man was coming to an end. Just as decades of over-trapping took their toll and the beaver grew scarce, the fashion shifted to hats of silk. Within a year, the market had collapsed -- and Carson suddenly found himself out of work, widowed and shouldering the burdens of parenthood alone. He was 29.
Another man might have headed back to the place he had come from. Carson decided to stay.
Hampton Sides: You know, he knows that there's this whole life that is going on back East that he left. And he's got a curiosity about it. But I think he knows that's not a world that he can operate in successfully. He knows the West, he loves the West. And this is his world. This is his life. He has become a Westerner.
Paul Hutton: The West is where races intersect, cultures intersect, sometimes violently, more often not. Kit Carson moves easily in that world. He's not opposed to confronting people straight on, and engaging in combat, taking a scalp if need be to make a point. But that doesn't mean he couldn't sit down and break bread the very next week.
Narrator: In May 1842, two years after the fur trade went bust, Carson was heading up the Missouri River from St. Louis, having just brought his daughter Adaline to be educated in the East.
He was on his way back to Taos -- his pockets all but empty and his future uncertain -- when he struck up a conversation with a young Army lieutenant, who introduced himself as John C. Frémont.
Frémont was about to embark on an expedition to survey and map the West, and he had yet to hire a guide.
Carson saw an opportunity. After more than ten years as a trapper, there was no trail he hadn't traveled, no wilderness challenge he couldn't meet. But his pitch to Frémont was characteristically modest. "I informed him that I had been some time in the mountains," Carson later recalled, "and I thought I could guide him to any point he would wish to go."
David Roberts, Writer: Frémont's suspicious at first. He says, I don't know about this guy, you know. For one thing, Carson was not physically impressive. he doesn't look like a rugged outdoorsman. He was a short little guy.
Sally Denton: He was kind of self-effacing and understated, but had this reputation for being quite capable. And Fremont hired him on the spot.
Narrator: In early June, Carson and Frémont set out from St. Louis, with a party of 25 men. Their mission was to map the first leg of an overland route to the Pacific -- a route that had been discovered some 30 years before, but virtually unused by anyone but fur trappers and Indians ever since, a route that soon would be called "the Oregon Trail." The expedition had been sponsored by the federal government at the urging of Frémont's father-in-law, U.S. Senator Thomas Hart Benton, one of America's most zealous promoters of Western expansion.
Hampton Sides: Benton saw early on the importance of essentially America being a continental nation, having ports on the Pacific and having all the land in between. He also understood that before this could happen the United States needed to understand this land
Narrator: Carson likely did not realize it, but he had signed on to the most ambitious political enterprise of the 19th century -- a project that would come to be known as "Manifest Destiny." Paul Hutton: Carson is right on the cutting edge of this movement this idea that God or nature or whatever one wants to call it is going to open up the West for the American republic, going to make the West the empire of liberty.
Narrator: With Carson in the lead, and a dozen wagons' worth of equipment and scientific instruments in tow, Frémont's party covered some 1,200 miles that summer -- moving steadily westward along the Platte and the North Platte, through the present-day states of Kansas and Nebraska, and up into the Rockies as far as South Pass, the broad valley that cut through the mountains and separated the first leg of the trail from the second. The next summer, they returned to complete the route -- following the trail west across Mexico's frontier to the Pacific, then turning south and continuing on -- over the Sierra Nevada in the dead of winter, down into Alta California and across the Mohave Desert, before finally winding back around to the southern Rockies. By then, they had surveyed nearly 5,000 miles, and Frémont was convinced he'd found the ideal guide.
Sally Denton: He knows the land. And that's what attracts Frémont to him and vice versa. Fremont is a romantic and a lover of nature. Carson had a real sense of duty and loyalty and devotion to John C. Frémont. I don't think he had a sense of duty to American expansionism.
Hampton Sides: Carson was a very pragmatic, very humble, very steady guy. He had great judgment and a sort of education that was hard won, over many winters as a trapper. He understood all sorts of practical things that Frémont had no idea about. Dayton Duncan: He could give cool advice when you come across an Indian tribe, you know how should you act? If you want to try to figure out where water might be. Or also how to read signs, how get from here to there over a mountain pass. Carson's the person you want to ask.
Hampton Sides: One of the things that Carson did during one of the expeditions with Frémont was ... they encountered some Hispanic wayfarers who had had their horses stolen from them.
Paul Hutton: The New Mexicans have been attacked by Indians and the kind of mindset of the frontiersman was that you didn't allow this kind of behavior to go on, that you had to make a statement.
Hampton Sides: Rather spontaneously Carson decides to pursue these Indian horse thieves.
Paul Hutton: The Indians were a large group. But nevertheless Carson and his companions snuck up on the band, killed several of them, retrieved all the horses and brought back the horses and several Indian scalps to Frémont's camp.
Hampton Sides: This really impressed Frémont: Carson, risking his life for a complete stranger. And this is really where the myth of Kit Carson as this great sort of white avenger on the trail got its start.
Narrator: Thanks in large part to Carson, Frémont would come to be known as "the Pathfinder": the man responsible for mapping the entire length of the Oregon Trail, a great American explorer on the order of Lewis and Clark.
Frémont returned the favor. In August 1844, he had his expedition reports bound into a single volume and published in Washington, D.C. -- and on nearly every page, he lavished praise upon his trusty scout. "Mounted on a fine horse, without a saddle, and scouring bareheaded over the prairies," he wrote in one typical passage, "Kit was one of the finest pictures of a horseman I have ever seen."
Paul Hutton: Carson became a great romantic figure as an explorer, as a guide, as a frontiersman, as an Indian fighter in these books that were supposed to be reports were actually grand adventure tales. These books were best-sellers in their day and ... were used as handbooks by hundreds of thousands of people going West.
Sally Denton: Immigrants would be in their wagons with that, holding that and it would say, this is where you're going to find fresh water, this is where there's going to be grass where you can graze your cattle. It was really the first map of its kind in America.
Narrator: Native people and mountain men had long known the way across the vast western wilderness. Now, most of America knew it too.
Narrator: In July 1844, Carson rode into Taos, weary from his travels with Frémont, and ready to settle down with the girl he'd come to love.
The youngest daughter of a prominent New Mexican family, she was petite and raven-haired -- "a beauty," said one observer, "of the haughty, heart-breaking kind." Her name was Josefa, but Carson called her Josefita -- or sometimes, Little Jo.
Hampton Sides: She was 18 years Carson's junior. Carson was not exactly winning any beauty contests, but he clearly had some sort of charm and charisma if he was able to win her over.
Narrator: The wedding had been celebrated 17 months earlier, in February 1843, in the parish church in Taos. Carson had been away from home almost ever since.
Now, he and Josefa were finally able to make a life together -- in their own little adobe house, not far from the town plaza.
Hampton Sides: He truly married into this whole Hispanic life in Taos. He converted to the Catholic faith in order to please her family. They spoke Spanish in their household. Their kids spoke Spanish as their first language and you know, this was his world.
Andrés Reséndez: Taos is a very special place. It's literally the hinge between Mexico and the U.S. It is Mexico's northernmost town. It is a traditional trading place for indigenous peoples throughout the region: the Utes, Comanches, Apaches, Pueblo Indians. So this is a trading hub of the first magnitude.
Narrator: In the two decades since Carson first arrived, the bustling trade on the Santa Fe Trail had turned the place noisy and crowded. Scores of Americans already had put down roots in town -- and more were coming all the time.
With his mind on his young bride, Carson may have missed the meaning of all those new arrivals. But they had come to stay -- and with the might of the American government behind them, they soon would make the West their own.
Narrator: It all happened more quickly than would later seem possible.
When 1845 dawned, the western border of the United States was officially drawn at the Rocky Mountains. Except for Texas, which had declared its independence, and the as-yet-unclaimed Pacific Northwest, the remainder of the continent was officially Mexican territory.
But due to the expansionist designs of President James K. Polk, and a bloody war with Mexico that he provoked, by the late winter of 1847, the entire region -- more than 500 million acres -- was on the verge of becoming the property of the United States.
Hampton Sides: It was a bald land grab is essentially what it was, during the Mexican War. The American army marched all the way from Fort Leavenworth, Kansas to New Mexico, it conquered New Mexico. It kept on marching towards California.
Narrator: Carson happened to be in California that winter, on yet another expedition with Frémont, and at Frémont's urging, had lent his assistance to the American forces there.
In the field reports that were scribbled out during the course of the fighting his name appeared again and again -- describing how he had guided troops to San Diego, slipped through enemy lines to conduct vital messages, secured aid for several hundred soldiers under siege.
As a reward for his valuable service, Carson now had been sent East with a thick packet of sealed letters for the Secretary of State and the War Department -- the glowing accounts of his own battlefield heroism among them.
Dayton Duncan: When the United States conquered California, took it away from Mexico, they needed to get the news back. There was no telegraph or anything at that time. They wanted to get news across the entire continent of the United States and the guy that they decided was the best to do it was Kit Carson.
Narrator: He arrived in Washington, D.C. in May 1847, some three months after he'd set out, having made the last leg of the journey by train.
On the platform to meet him was Jessie Benton Frémont -- wife of the nation's Pathfinder, and daughter to its most vocal champion of Manifest Destiny. She had never laid eyes on Carson before; but she easily recognized him from the descriptions in her husband's expedition reports. It would be her honor, she told Carson, to act as his guide.
But Carson found the capital bewildering -- a welter of inscrutable signs and gawking strangers. He was outraged at having to pay for transportation, and complained about it so bitterly that Jessie was moved to get him a horse. His room at the Benton mansion was stifling, and he soon quit the soft mattress there for a bedroll out on the veranda. But nothing put him at ease.
Hampton Sides: It was almost like a Tarzan character been dragged out of the jungle and brought into the city. He didn't really understand city life and had spent very little time in any sort of urban situation. Most the time he's with Jessie Frémont. She introduced him to all these influential figures in Washington. And people were fascinated by him.
Paul Hutton: Everyone wants to meet Kit Carson. And that's because Kit Carson is the very living, breathing symbol of the American frontier and of our expansion westward. And of course everyone to hear from his lips what the opportunities are for America in the West.
Narrator: Their schemes were ambitious -- and to Carson's ears, a bit outlandish. They saw the Western landscape transformed: its forests cleared, its valleys covered over with farms and towns. There was even talk of a railroad that would run clear across the continent.
Paul Hutton: He's sort of amazed at the attitude of these men. He said, they're princes here in the east but they would be nothing in the West. They would be completely helpless there, but here they put on such airs.
Hampton Sides: You get a sense that as much as he hated it, he knew that it was important. These men had sponsored him and were sort of the agents of all of these changes that had come to the West. Carson was deferential towards men who were better connected and who were better educated than he was. And he felt a duty to respond to their inquiries in various ways.
Narrator: By the time he was ushered into the White House for a private audience with President Polk, Carson had only one objective: to get back to Taos and Josefa.
Polk had other plans. He had some official dispatches to send to the U.S. commanders in California, and he wanted Carson to carry them.
John M. Carson, Great-Grandson: You know he wasn't the kind of guy that said no, he's going to, you know he's got a job to do, he's going to do it.
Hampton Sides: Carson assumes a [new] role as a transcontinental courier, ferrying these messages back and forth from California to Washington. It's unbelievable when you think about how many tens of thousands of miles this guy covered. In many ways, Kit Carson was the field agent of Manifest Destiny.
Narrator: Before he finally returned to Taos, 16 months later, Carson's sense of duty would take him across the country four times and over some 16,000 miles, most of it on the back of a mule. Along the way, he would convey government reports and military orders and news of developments on the ground -- all of it vital information that would bind the two sides of the country together, and help to make West an entirely different place.
Paul Hutton: Kit Carson went to the West for the freedom and the openness to escape from the constraints of society back home, back in the States. But then of course he brought it all with him. The dream of a continental nation has been met. America stretches from sea to sea. The west is transformed and he sees it all but he's also one of the major instruments that brings about that change.
Narrator: By the late 1840s, Kit Carson, the hero of Fremont's best-selling expedition reports, was fast becoming a national obsession.
It began innocently enough, with stories told in taverns and names on a map. Then, in 1849, came a new literary hero, Kit Carson: The Prince of the Gold Hunters -- a giant of a man who referred to Indians as "redskins," "critters" and "varmints," and cheerfully slaughtered them by the dozen.
Written by an East Coast hack who claimed it had been "founded on actual facts," the book was a smash hit. Almost overnight, it became the template for a brand new genre of adventure stories -- hair-raising, action-packed and set in the uncharted wilds of the far West. Americans called them "blood and thunders."
Hampton Sides: These were atrocious books. I mean they were just terrible to read. I would dare you to read them. But they were enormously popular in the late '40s, '50s, and '60s. During the Civil War, they were read by Northerners and Southerners in the trenches. One theme that everyone could agree on, the American West and great plucky characters like Kit Carson.
Narrator: Rocky Mountain Kit's Last Scalp Hunt, Kit Carson's Bride, Kit Carson to the Rescue -- some 70 books would be written over the years to come. Priced to sell at just 25 cents or less, they would seal Carson's reputation as a hunter-avenger-killer whose exploits helped clear the way for civilization.
David Roberts: These popular romances are unabashedly about killing Indians. The ones featuring Kit Carson have him riding into a camp, greeting 20 hostile savages, dispatching all of them and scalping them and riding out with his scalps dangling from his saddle. In the mood of the day this is heroic.
Hampton Sides: They made no attempt to understand the real Kit Carson, not gotten his consent to use his name. They certainly didn't pay him any money. And the final irony of the blood and thunders was that Carson couldn't read them because he was illiterate.
Narrator: Of course, the fictional Carson bore almost no resemblance to the real one. As a stranger once put it, after being told that the small man before him was the legendary Kit Carson: "... You ain't the kind of Kit Carson I'm lookin' for."
Dayton Duncan: Kit Carson just was who he was and other people projected onto him their own beliefs, their own myths. And 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, tragic. But that wasn't quite enough for us as a society, we had to twist it and mythologize it and sometimes distort it completely out of context. Kit Carson was the greatest living symbol of that desire that Americans had to mythologize the West and take real things and turn them into something else.
Hampton Sides: Throughout Carson's life he doesn't linger anywhere really. He's always on the move. He seems to be constitutionally incapable of saying "no" to these various missions that are laid at his feet. But the central theme in his life is always that he wants to get back to New Mexico and get back to Josefa and live this sort of normal existence that he imagines for himself.
Narrator: By the close of 1848, Carson was home in New Mexico, the last of his courier missions finally behind him. In six years of marriage, he and Josefa had so far lived together fewer than six months. With their first child now on the way, Carson had partnered with a fellow ex-trapper and launched a cattle operation in the Rayado Valley, some 50 miles east of Taos.
Like settlers all over New Mexico, they were treading on contested ground.
Andrés Reséndez: We tend to see maps of that area of New Mexico and we see of course the American settlements and we draw lines and the rest is just Indian territory. We don't know what's in there. In fact, a more realistic map of that area would see very large, very powerful, very stable Indian nations and even though these nations were nomadic, they had clearly formed territories and whenever somebody trespassed they were punished.
Narrator: Carson had spent too many years among native peoples to be daunted. "We had been leading a roving life long enough," he later remembered, "and now was the time, if ever, to make a home for ourselves and our children." Then, one afternoon in late October 1849, Army Major William Grier came tearing up to the ranch to ask Carson for help.
A few weeks before, a Missouri trader named James White had been heading west on the nearby Santa Fe Trail with his wife Ann and their infant daughter, when their party had been attacked by Indians. White had been killed; Ann and the child taken captive. In the days since, the captured woman and her baby had been spotted in a Jicarilla Apache encampment, out on the plains somewhere east of the Trail. Grier figured if anyone could find them, it was Carson.
Hampton Sides: Kit Carson understood the Jicarilla Apaches quite well, spoke their language. And he was a likely candidate for this job. So he begins to pursue them east towards Texas. He was accompanied by a group of soldiers. They chased the Jicarilla Apache for something like twelve days.
Narrator: "It was the most difficult trail that I ever followed," Carson later said. "In nearly every camp we would find some of Mrs. White's clothing, which was the cause of renewed energy on our part to continue the pursuit."
Finally, late on the twelfth day, Carson saw plumes of smoke curling skyward in the distance: the cooking fires of a large Jicarilla Apache camp.
Hampton Sides: There's a disagreement about how to approach the Jicarillas, some within the party hoped that they can negotiate with them. Carson believes they should attack immediately. In the confusion, however, the Jicarilla Apaches spot the party and scatter.
Narrator: Grier "ordered the men to charge," Carson remembered, "but the order was too late for the desired effect. In about 200 yards, the body of Mrs. White was found, perfectly warm, had not been killed more than five minutes -- shot through the heart with an arrow."
Later, sorting through what remained of the camp, one of Grier's men came across a book, which presumably had belonged to Mrs. White: a copy of the wildly popular blood-and-thunder Kit Carson: The Prince of The Gold Hunters.
Hampton Sides: Of course Carson couldn't read it, he had to have someone else read it to him, but it was extraordinary because in this book Kit Carson was assigned the task of rescuing a woman who'd been kidnapped by Indians, and here he was given the task of saving this woman, but in this case, in the real situation, he'd failed and she had died. And he felt perhaps that this book had given Ann White some sort of false hope, that she would be rescued, that Kit Carson was near.
Paul Hutton: The myth of the West came head to head with the reality of the West in that moment. And Kit Carson was just stunned by that experience. He never got over, never got over the incident. And it haunted him all the rest of his days.
Narrator: Things might have been different if James and Ann White had been the last, or the only. But they were two among tens of thousands -- a tiny drop in the massive migratory wave that was then rolling westward and swamping everything in its path.
Carson could trace the start of it back to the discovery of gold in California, news of which he is thought to have carried, on one of his courier missions East. In 1849 alone, some 100,000 Americans had set out for California; and as the traffic on the trails increased, so too did the clashes between settlers and Indians.
Inevitably, Carson was called upon to help mediate those conflicts -- and in 1853, he accepted a position as an Indian agent for the northern New Mexico Territory.
Andrés Reséndez: I'm sure part of his calculation was that he would moderate whatever destructive impulses the U.S. may have had towards these groups. So part of his calculation I'm sure is that well I better do it rather than somebody else.
Narrator: For an annual salary of $1550, he would now serve as the U. S. government's official representative in its dealings with the Muache Utes, a band of nomadic hunters that New Mexican officials had branded "the most difficult ... to manage in the Territory."
Day after day, Carson listened to the Utes' grievances, lodged complaints on their behalf, smoked and talked with them. He grew especially fond of a chief named Kaniache, who would prove a lifelong friend.
Hampton Sides: The Utes called Carson "Father Kit." And they loved him by all accounts he was fair-minded and honest and began to really do the very tough work of thinking about Indian policy. What are we doing to the lives of these tribes?
Dayton Duncan: He was a better Indian agent than most of the other people at the time because he actually knew the Indians. A lot of times they were political appointees. A lot of times they were people with connections. Sometimes they were missionaries come, not necessarily just to understand the Indians, but to make them not Indians, to convert them. And Carson was not entirely unique, but he stands out as somebody who honestly tried to do what he thought was the best for them.
Narrator: By far the bulk of Carson's time was taken up with New Mexico's most persistent source of conflict -- an ancient practice, common to the Utes, the Navajos and other native peoples, known as "raiding."
Andrés Reséndez: This was part of their way of gaining resources. You would go out and raid. Because some of these settlements were exposed, and because they had tangible resources that you could appropriate. There were women and children that could further your population expansion. All of these things came into play these were very shrewd communities living in a very harsh environment and so you had to do what you had to do.
Narrator: Carson considered raiding a grave threat to frontier security -- and he knew from long experience that the Indians' own code of justice demanded retribution.
But as the months and years passed, he began to see that many of the crimes blamed on Indians were in fact the fault of whites -- newcomers who were settling on traditional hunting grounds and driving off all the game.
When a Ute chief called Blanco was accused of robbing sheep, Carson reported that the Indian had had no other choice. "[If] the Government will not do something . . . to save [the Utes] from starving," he argued, "they will be obliged to steal."
Andrés Reséndez: Here we have a world that had existed on its own for thousands of years, a world that is coming to an end because of a very rapidly growing American population. Carson came to see the moment white settlers outnumber indigenous peoples. It's very hard for these indigenous peoples to actually hold the line then.
Hampton Sides: He was alarmed, everywhere he turned he saw that the Indian populations were dwindling and he began to grapple in his own way dictating hundreds and hundreds of letters you begin to see a realization that many of the changes that he had set in motion were really changing the whole complexion of the West.
Narrator: No American, least of all Carson, believed the nation's westward migration could be stopped. "The government has but one alternative," he concluded, "either to subsist and clothe [the Indians] or exterminate them."
Dayton Duncan: There are these incredible forces at work at this time. There is a nation intent on moving across the west as quickly and as decisively as possible. Kit Carson found himself incapable of stopping those larger forces. So he became an agent in their...in the destruction of their way of life, though he was not an Indian hater in the...in the sense that a lot of Anglos of the mid-19th Century were true racist Indian haters in the worst possible sense. That was not Kit Carson.
Paul Hutton: His children are Indian and Hispanic. And he knows that they will carry that appellation in their life because of the blood that they carry. He deals easily with native peoples because he's just like them. That doesn't mean he's on their side, he's not. But it means he understands where they're coming from.
Narrator: On the day the army courier turned up with his orders to round up the Indians, in the fall of 1862, Carson had just marked his one-year anniversary as Commander of the First New Mexico Volunteers.
He'd accepted the position during the early months of the Civil War, when a force of Texas cavalry rode into southern New Mexico and proclaimed the area Confederate territory.
The Confederates had been easily turned back, and Carson hoped soon to be mustered out, returned to Josefa and reinstated as an Indian agent.
But events had conspired against him. While the New Mexican forces had been preoccupied with the Civil War, the Indians, especially the Mescalero Apaches and the Navajos, had stepped up their raiding. Over the previous year alone, more than 30,000 sheep had been stolen, and some 300 people killed.
Now, Carson had received an urgent dispatch from Brigadier General James Henry Carleton, ordering him to put the Indian troublemakers down -- one tribe at a time, and once and for all.
Hampton Sides: James Henry Carleton was a piece of work. He was a New England Calvinist, man of a very tidy intellect. These were messy social problems and he could not countenance this sort of situation. And believed with great conviction that he could fix it almost overnight.
Narrator: Convinced that treaties had no lasting effect, Carleton planned the most comprehensive -- and most ruthless -- campaign ever to have been carried out in the West: Carson and his men would make total war on the Indians. They would kill all the adult men on sight, take the women and children prisoner, and march them several hundred miles to the new reservation Carleton had established in the grasslands of eastern New Mexico -- the Bosque Redondo.
Hampton Sides: He wanted to force them overnight at gunpoint to become Christian farmers. He believed this was important not only for their own good, but he believed this was a model for how to deal with all the nomadic tribes of the West.
Paul Hutton: He felt that he could solve in New Mexico, this Indian problem and Carleton turns to Carson of course because he's Kit Carson.
Narrator: Carson was 52 now, and bone-tired -- and there was an odd pain in his chest that came and went without warning. He missed his wife, and regretted that the four children they'd had together lately had seen so little of their father. But an order was an order -- and Carson could not refuse.
As he struggled to reconcile himself to another season away from his family, he called in his clerk and dictated a letter, in Spanish, to Josefa. "Adora Esposa," he began, "Do not worry about me because with God's help we shall see each other [again]... I charge you above all not to get weary of caring for my children, and to give each one a little kiss in my name ... I remain begging God that I return in good health to be with you until death ... Your husband who loves you and wishes to see you more than to write to you."
Four months later, Carson could report [to Carleton] that the first phase of the campaign had been accomplished. Although he'd quietly ignored the order to shoot the men on-sight, he'd nevertheless managed to round up the Mescalero Apaches -- and he asked that Carleton release him from his commission.
Hampton Sides: He really had not joined the U.S. army to fight Indians. He had joined to fight the Texans during the Civil War. And he said, if the Texans return I'll put on a uniform again, but I need to go back to my wife and children. Josefa was pregnant again. He wanted to get back home to Taos.
Narrator: Carleton refused. He needed Carson to complete the campaign. No one else, he insisted, possessed Carson's "peculiar skill and high courage." And no one else stood a chance against Carleton's next target, the most formidable of all of New Mexico's native peoples, the Navajos.
Marie Jakes, resident of Canyon de Chelly: We consider this our land. We're the ones who use it and care for it. These have always been fertile lands, with bold harvests. There is a deep presence of spirituality here. The mountains that surround us are holy. One can't let that connection drop.
Narrator: For nearly 500 years, they had lived on the ground bordered by the Four Sacred Mountains. For 500 years, they had tended their flocks of sheep, and cultivated their fields and orchards. And for 500 years, they had tangled continually with their neighbors, perpetuating the cycle of raid and retaliation that had made the New Mexico Territory infamous. They called themselves the Diné. But to the many who feared them, they were the Navajos.
N. Scott Momaday: New Mexico was terrified of Navajo They were warlike. This was a part of their culture, raiding, stealing, killing. They were formidable, they were dangerous and people were afraid of them.
Hampton Sides: Carson had lived in New Mexico his entire adult life and public enemy number one was the Navajo. Everybody in New Mexico, every Hispanic person had some friend or family member who had been killed by the Navajo, or had been stolen by the Navajo. And I think he thought Carleton's idea of a reservation on the Pecos was as good as any that had been put forward as to how to end this cycle of violence.
Narrator: In early July 1863, Carson set off in the direction of Navajo country with a column of several hundred men: U.S. Army officers, New Mexican volunteers, and auxiliary troops recruited -- at Carson's request -- from among his former charges, the Utes, who were longtime and bitter tribal enemies of the Navajos.
Dayton Duncan: Kit Carson followed orders. That was part of how he had gotten to where he had gotten by not questioning the society he was in and he got there by taking orders and doing a good job of carrying them out. When Carleton told him, go take care of the Navajo for me, he was going to go do it.
Narrator: "The Colonel is after the Indians at full speed," one of Carson's men noted, "and is determined to overtake them if horseflesh will stand it." In a typical scout, Carson pushed his men nearly 500 miles in 27 days -- capturing over a thousand head of livestock, but pitifully few Navajos.
Hampton Sides: He goes out into Navajo country and he doesn't see a soul. He basically thinks this is kind of like a ghost campaign against a ghost tribe. He's fighting an enemy he can't see.
Narrator: Frustrated and eager to bring the campaign to a rapid conclusion, Carson made a fateful decision -- one that would define him for generations to come.
Harry Walters: He could not get the Navajos to come out in open battle. And so the thing to do is to destroy their source of strength, you know, which is the food and their homes. And that's what he did. His tactics causes great suffering.
Hampton Sides: He ordered every cornfield to be destroyed, every melon patch, every bean patch. He had his men guard the salt sources and the water sources. And chop down every tree. It was brutal. This was not majestic, heroic warfare, if there is such a thing. This was a dirty little war of attrition with the express intent of starving the Navajos out.
N. Scott Momaday: He knew the Indians; he had known them from an early time as a mountain man. He probably knew Indians better than any other white man of his time. He knew what they would stand and how they could be brought to terms with the army. And you know he didn't hesitate I think to act on the basis of his knowledge.
Narrator: Carson later estimated that his men had destroyed nearly two million pounds of food. Come winter, he told Carleton, the loss "will cause actual starvation, and oblige the Navajos to ... accept emigration to the Bosque Redondo."
For the moment, however, the Navajos remained maddeningly elusive. "I deplore it the more," he complained to Carleton, "as I now have only one way of communicating with them -- through the barrels of my Rifles."
Summer gave way to fall, and the campaign ground on with little result. Finally, in November, on the eve of his 54th birthday, Carson requested a leave of absence, to attend to what he called "some private business of importance."
Carleton would not hear of it. Carson would be permitted to leave the field only after he had captured 100 Navajos; and then, only on the condition that he first conduct a thorough sweep of Canyon de Chelly, a 100-mile sandstone labyrinth in the heart of Navajo country.
Hampton Sides: I think Carson was a little spooked by Canyon De Chelly. All his instincts as a mountain man had taught him to stay away from tight spots and situations where you're vulnerable, you're on the defensive. He really had no interest in personally going down in the canyon. He skirted around the sides of it. He scouted from the rim. But he was more than happy to have his subordinate officers go in and get the glory of having penetrated this great bastion of the Navajo people.
N. Scott Momaday: He knows that this a powerful place and that he can violate the rules of the game there and suffer for it. We think of him as being the person who led the siege in Canyon De Chelly. He did it at a distance.
Narrator: By now, the Navajos had begun to feel the effects of Carson's scorched earth campaign. Hidden in various caves and atop a towering butte known as Fortress Rock, they daily grew hungrier, colder and more desperate.
Lupita McClanahan, Resident of Canyon de Chelly: They were trying to save themselves from being killed and so they had to run and hide They ran off into the caves and were hiding. They had hiding places along the rim of the canyon. They wanted to take our lives, he wanted to end the life of the Diné people.
Narrator: Two days after the first of his men entered the Canyon, Carson encountered a party of Navajos riding under a flag of truce.
Hampton Sides: this is where Carson's at his best. He's able to communicate with them and reassure them that this campaign is not a war of extermination.
Harry Walters: He selected ten influential men, gave them a horse and ten days ration, and told them to go home and tell them they would be treated well that if they surrendered they will not be harmed, and that works.
Lupita McClanahan: There was no other way because they said, we're dying off. We have to listen to this man and that we have to follow his rules, if you wanted to live.
Narrator: By ten o'clock the next morning, January 15, 60 Navajos had surrendered to Carson. Soon, that number would swell to more than 800 -- and Carleton's quota would be met.
The end was finally in sight, and Carson determined to hasten it along: "now is the time," he declared, "to prosecute the campaign with vigor."
He then issued a new directive to one of his captains -- ordering him to march his company the length of the Canyon, and lay waste to the Navajo orchards.
N. Scott Momaday: There were a thousand peach trees orchards in the canyon and the Navajos had taken great pride in those trees. And they loved the fruit that was born. Carson ordered them burned. Needn't have been done, there was no real point in that. It was so gratuitous, but it was in a way the last blow you know.
Paul Hutton: By invading Canyon de Chelly, by laying waste to it, and by making it impossible for the Navajos to remain there Carson breaks them, he breaks their spirit.
Lupita McClanahan: The whole canyon was silent. It was dead. There was no harmony in it anymore.
Maria Jakes: What kind of human beings would have the capacity to be so harmful without conscience? He acted without mercy, killing who knows how many of us.
Narrator: If Carson felt any remorse, his final report gave no sign of it. "We have shown the Indians that in no place ... are they safe from the pursuit of troops of this command ... that the principle is not to destroy them but to save them, if they are disposed to be saved."
Paul Hutton: He absolutely guarantees them that he will protect them that he will make sure that their families are taken care of. This is the power of Carson, they trust his word. They believe him. He is, after all, Kit Carson.
Narrator: In Santa Fe, Carson received a conqueror's welcome. Jubilant New Mexicans accosted him in the streets, slapping him on the back and shaking his hand in congratulation. Even Carleton gushed with praise -- and declared Carson's victory the "crowning act in a long life spent fighting the savages." The Carson of fiction -- the ruthless Indian fighter who had animated dozens of blood-and-thunders -- no longer seemed quite such a caricature.
Paul Hutton: For hundreds of years the Navajo had been a threat to the New Mexico settlements. He's broken them in just a matter of months, and he's ... he's lionized, again, as a great American hero.
Narrator: The adulation meant nothing to Carson. The pain in his chest was constant now, and his exhaustion so complete that one of his men had described him as "reeling in his saddle." As soon as it was possible, he made his excuses to Carleton and pointed his horse toward home.
Meanwhile, thousands of Navajos set off on the grueling trek to the Bosque Redondo -- a journey of between 375 and 500 miles, depending on the route -- most of them with nothing but the ragged clothes on their backs. What rations the army provided made many of them sick; and in any case, there was nowhere near enough food to sustain them all.
Of the nearly 9,000 who made the journey, the U.S. government estimated that 350 died en route -- most from starvation, illness or exposure -- and some 2,000 others simply went missing. The Navajos would count the missing as dead -- and put the number of casualties at more than 3,000.
The episode would come to be known as "the Long Walk." Those Navajos who survived would remember it as a death march -- and they would hold one man responsible.
Harry Walters: He did a lot of damage to the Navajo nation. Every Navajo today you know has family history of someone that went on the Long Walk. My grandfather, you know, was six years old when he went. And the stories that my grandmother and my mother used to tell you know were of great hardship and pain. And I hated Carson for that.
Paul Hutton: He abandons the Navajos on the Long Walk he deserts them. Perhaps he knows what's coming and he wants to be protected from the blame. Perhaps he's just getting old and tired. But whatever the reason, Kit Carson breaks his word.
Narrator: Over the years that followed the defeat of the Navajos -- years that would prove to be Carson's last -- the West he'd chosen as a young man increasingly came to resemble the world he'd left behind. Americans pushed their way in, built their towns and railroads; and one way or another, they pushed the Indians aside.
Somewhat unexpectedly, the voice that was raised time and again on their behalf was Carson's.
He'd spent one summer as Superintendent of the Bosque Redondo -- and as he put it to a Senate investigating committee in 1865, one summer was enough to convince him that the entire experiment had been a terrible mistake.
Hampton Sides: He told the commission that these forced relocations don't work. To remove a whole tribe from their ancestral lands was to doom the experiment from the start. And that if these reservations were going to work at all they had to be located on the land of the people in question. So Carson emerges in this testimony as really one of the most eloquent and most perceptive of thinkers with regard to Indian policy in the West.
Narrator: Now in the twilight of his life, Carson became a sort of elder statesman of Indian affairs. He helped to negotiate a treaty with the Plains tribes, and advised both the military and the government on Indian policy reforms. And in 1868, despite chest pain so severe that he could barely breathe, he again made the long journey to the nation's capitol, where he assisted in talks that established a permanent reservation for the Utes, on the very ground the tribe claimed as their own. Dayton Duncan: I think he felt an obligation to the Utes, a friendship to the Utes, loyalty, all those things that were part and parcel of his makeup. And so he needed to go to Washington because he was the person who would be the one who could really represent them.
Hampton Sides: Here he is this Indian fighter known for his various campaigns. And yet he was also a peacemaker and diplomat. I think the trick to understanding Carson is to go back to that idea that for him there was no such thing as the American Indian. He sided with certain groups and other groups were his enemy throughout his life
Narrator: Before Carson left Washington, he paid a call on his old friend and employer, John C. Frémont.
Distressed at the sight of his former scout, whom he later described as "greatly altered by suffering," Frémont recommended a specialist, and begged Carson to consult him.
The diagnosis was bleak: an aneurysm of the aorta. It could rupture, the doctor said, at any moment.
"My wife must see me," Carson told Jessie Frémont. "If I was to write about this, or died out here, it would kill her. I must get home, and I think I can do it."
Two days after his return, his eighth child, a daughter, was born. Two weeks after that, Josefa, suffering from complications related to the birth, died in his arms.
Hampton Sides: Here he thought he was going to try to get home just in time to die. And instead, she dies first and he's just completely stricken with grief. And pines away and is really kind of a kind of a catatonic after her death.
Narrator: Carson's health deteriorated rapidly. Soon, he was moved to a nearby military post, where his doctor kept him as comfortable as possible and spent long hours reading aloud from a book entitled Nestor of the Rockies -- the first full-fledged biography of Carson ever to have been published.
Paul Hutton: How that must have been with death closing in to hear those words and to relive all those glorious days from the past.
Dayton Duncan: He wanted to be back in that old world, sleeping on a buffalo robe, having a buffalo steak, a little coffee, smoking his pipe. And you know that's not a bad way to go. In one sense, it's a mythic way of ending and another way, it's very much like the real Kit Carson, the less assuming part of him, which is he wanted to be the way he had been once.
Narrator: As Carson lay on his deathbed during the waning days of May 1868, the U.S. government was in the midst of negotiating an historic treaty with the Navajos -- one that would acknowledge the hardship of their forced relocation, and return them to their land among the Four Sacred Mountains. But Kit Carson would not live to see their homecoming.
On the afternoon of May 23, eight days before the Navajo treaty was signed, he called out suddenly from his pallet of buffalo robes on the floor: "Doctor, Compadre, Adios." There was a rush of blood from his mouth. And then he was gone.
Dayton Duncan: Kit Carson never really questioned what might have been going on in the West. He accepted those things. That was just the way the world was. And he brought into it no sentimentality, no myth of what was going on. He was living in that moment. And it was just pretty straightforward for him.
N. Scott Momaday: He was a complicated man, turning upon himself in certain ways, this confliction between compassion on the one hand and very violent behavior on the other. How to reconcile those ... maybe we need to remember that in him those things were never reconciled.
John Carson: Maybe one of Kit's quotes would...would fit best here, he said, I don't ... something to the effect that, I don't know if I did right or if I did wrong, but I did the best that I could.
Paul Hutton: He dies at just the right time. Kit Carson had no place in the new west, not the west of railroads, not the west of the slaughter of the buffalo herds, not the west of the Indians' last stand. The new west was not a place he would have been happy in, but he's the man who created it. He was that agent of empire that made everything possible that was to follow.
My American Experience
From Billy the Kid to Wyatt Earp, and George Custer to Geronimo, the real-life people who helped tame the west would shape the western heroes celebrated in film and television for decades.