The frontiersman and his family lived here a quarter century.
Christopher Houston “Kit” Carson (1809–68), a complex individual in a simpler time, left his mark in the annals of the Old West—though exactly what kind of mark is debated. He had great strengths and significant weaknesses. A restless adventurer, he was still devoted to his family. An independent spirit and self-sufficient frontiersman, he was also an obedient soldier, doggedly loyal to superiors. Although he couldn’t read or write, he became fluent in Spanish in his early years in Taos, learned French as a trapper and spoke the languages of the Navajos, Apaches, Comanches, Paiutes and Utes. A fearsome Indian fighter, he drew the hatred of most Navajos for his role in the 1860s campaign against them, but he also strived to be honest and fair to Indians at a time when mutual mistrust was the standard of the day in the Southwest.
The Kit Carson Home and Museum in Taos recounts much of Carson’s intriguing life story. In 1843 at age 33, the frontiersman bought the adobe home for his third wife, Josefa Jaramillo, the 14-yearold daughter of a prominent Taos family. They raised seven of their eight children there and several Indian children they had adopted. Except for a few short absences, the Carson family lived in the house for the next 25 years.
In 1866 Carson became commandant of Fort Garland, in Colorado Territory, and brought his family north with him. A year later they moved to Boggsville, near Fort Lyon, until Josefa’s death following childbirth, in April 1868. Carson, himself quite ill and devastated over the loss of his wife, died a month later, on May 23. Both were buried in Boggsville. The following year Kit’s brother-in-law Thomas Boggs exhumed their bodies and reburied them in a Taos cemetery a block from the present-day museum.
The Carsons’ Taos home passed through several owners after Kit’s death. In 1909 the Taos Masons of Bent Lodge No. 42 acquired an option on the home, and two years later these Masons bought the property for $2,134. In 1949 the former Carson home opened as a museum, and in 1963 it was designated a National Historic Landmark. Bent Lodge No. 42 AF & AM still owns the property, while a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization operates the museum.
The Kit Carson Home and Museum, the oldest museum in town, now welcomes 20,000 visitors a year. In August 2012 the museum, with help from supporters, bought at auction Kit’s U.S. Army saber and scabbard, Josefa’s leather sewing box with a red silk lining, a branding iron from the Rayado ranch and a branding iron from the Lucien Maxwell ranch. “These artifacts will stay in Taos for the delight of locals and visitors alike,” says Martin Jagers, president of the museum’s board of directors.
The L-shaped Spanish colonial home with 2-foot-thick adobe walls and a courtyard remains much the same as when the Carsons lived there. Flying over the entry portal is an 1862 territorial flag bearing 34 stars. At the outbreak of the Civil War, Southern sympathizers kept tearing down the American flag that flew over Taos Plaza. Carson and other Union men eventually nailed the flag to a tall cottonwood pole, raised it over the plaza and guarded it constantly. Congress later allowed Taos officials to fly the flag over the plaza 24 hours a day.
Displayed in the courtyard is a horno (adobe oven), a drying rack and other everyday 19th-century artifacts. In the museum itself the first room, originally the children’s room, showcases a spyglass similar to one used by Carson, an 8-gauge shotgun reportedly used by him, an exact replica of his .54-caliber Hawken rifle (the original is at the Masonic Lodge in Santa Fe), Josefa’s sewing box and Kit’s saber and scabbard.
The next room, originally the bedroom, features photos and artifacts from Kit’s era and a reconstructed fireplace in period style. The kitchen is also loaded with artifacts typical of those used by the Carsons. Kit’s brigadier general’s jacket is in the adjacent parlor, which served as Kit’s office during his term as a U.S. Indian agent.
Visitors can take in a video produced by the History Channel. The gift shop, occupying what was most likely the stables, offers many books on Kit’s life and legend. The museum, at 113 Kit Carson Road, also hosts a series of Carson lectures by noted scholars. For more info visit www.kitcarsonhomeandmuseum .com or call (575) 758-4945.
Originally published in the October 2013 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.