Kit Carson is still a household name; it’s just that his name these days is about as welcome in New Mexico households as Mexican cockroaches and Texas chili. Back in the third grade in Ohio when I had to do a written report on a historic figure, I chose the famous frontiersman from a long list of American heroes. With shaky scissors, I cropped the pages to resemble Kit’s profile, and on a back page I drew a colorful map of New Mexico, placing a mighty yellow star up north to designate his Taos home. When I first visited that state later in the 1960s, my grandparents took me to see not only the Indians at Taos Pueblo but also Kit Carson’s adobe house and grave in town. To me, Kit and the Indians went together in the Land of Enchantment like green and chile…and both were so cool.
The Carson house and museum, which opened to the public in 1952, fell into such disrepair that it had to be shut down in 2004. It has since reopened thanks to private funds, but with no help from New Mexico. “The state has done almost nothing in regard to Kit Carson since the 1960s,” says historian Paul Hutton of Albuquerque.
“Carson became a villain in a number of books because of the Navajo contention that he had persecuted them. When the Kit Carson house fell on hard times, legislation to aid it was defeated. The state acquired ownership of Lincoln, which is associated with Billy the Kid, in 2006, but it has no interest in the Carson-Taos association.”
Hutton, who rates Carson as the No. 1 frontier character, points out that the revisionist view (which also happens to be the traditional Navajo view) of Carson as the evil architect of the Navajo War and the Long Walk is dead wrong. There was real pain during those hard times in the 1860s, but the soldier Carson was not to blame. It’s a long story, but one that could easily have been longer and sadder if not for Kit’s presence. The state, though, has chosen to reject the frontiersman extraordinaire while embracing the little bucktoothed bad guy known as the Kid. “At one time on those state history maps, you saw a picture of Carson near Taos and at the Kit Carson Cave near Gallup as well as pictures of Billy the Kid at Fort Sumner and Lincoln,” says Hutton. “Now Kit is off the map, while the Kid has become a major tourist attraction supported by the state.”
New Mexico officials apparently have decided it is best to let Billy’s remains rest in peace at Fort Sumner, but some of those folks still have an interest in pardoning the Kid for his actions way back in the Lincoln County War. When the Kid is in the news, the story gets picked up by out-of-state media, and a nation full of potential tourists thinks New Mexico. The legendary Kid really was quite a character, and is indeed No. 5 on Hutton’s Top Ten frontier characters list. But how long can we, as a nation, continue to ignore or shun heroic No. 1? Dime novels were written about Carson in his day, but he was “the real stuff.” I seemed to know that in the third grade, but somewhere along the line forgot it.