Kit Carson: Hero Or Villain?

Kit Carson is considered the ultimate American hero by some and the most evil of villians by others.
Kit Carson is considered the ultimate American hero by some and the most evil of villians by others.

This story originally aired on Jan. 7, 2007

The grandeur and majesty of the American West have always overwhelmed. It is landscape that never fails to humble and inspire the visitor.

And perhaps that explains the near-mythic stories of the early explorers who came here, laid claim to the land, and conquered the Native Americans.

We imagine those explorers as giants. But in reality, the most famous of them all stood a mere 5" 4' in his stocking feet.

Christopher Houston Carson, or Kit Carson, couldn't read and couldn't even write his own name, but he knew how to fight and how to kill.

He was the hero of America's westward expansion - or its villain. Which made Kit Carson irresistible to author Hampton Sides, who wrote the Carson biography, "Blood and Thunder: An Epic of the American West."

"It's really a book about the conquest of the American west, seen mainly through the eyes of Kit Carson," Sides said. "Because Kit Carson lived every phase of that westward expansion. He was a mountain man, an explorer, a scout, a soldier, a transcontinental courier. Finally he was a general."

He was lionized in movies, like 1933's "Fighting with Kit Carson" and in the 1950s TV series, "The Adventures of Kit Carson."

There was a lot of excitement, but very little truth. Even in his lifetime, Carson was made out to be bigger than life. The country had a bottomless appetite for stories about the opening of the western frontier, and reports of Carson's exploits provided the nation with its first western hero. Long before there was Buffalo Bill, there was Kit Carson.

Back East, publishers made him the star of an entire genre of pulp novels known as "Blood And Thunder," the inspiration behind the title of Sides' book.

"He hated those 'Blood and Thunder' books - absolutely hated them because they were fictions," Sides said. "They never got his consent to use his name. He hadn't made any money off these books whatsoever. And they said things like, you know, that he would kill two Indians before breakfast. Which was considered a good thing or something. And the final irony of those 'Blood and Thunder' books is that as much as he hated them, he couldn't read them, because he was illiterate."

But Carson was industrious and his story does read like a novel. He ran away from home at age 14 and joined a wagon train leaving Missouri for New Mexico on the Santa Fe trail.

He gained renown as a mountain man and was soon recruited to guide government expeditions into Oregon and California. He spoke seven Native American languages, and twice he took Indian women as his bride.

Carson said he just wanted to settle down as a rancher, but his nation's call to duty kept him always on the move.

"He covered something like 20,000 miles, almost all of it on the back of a mule. I tried to cover as many of those miles as I could, in my truck," Sides said. "Here he is in Santa Fe. Now he's in Oregon. How does this guy get to all these places?"

Even today, some of those places still bear his name: cities and towns across the West, not to mention rivers, mountains, a national forest, and a major army base.

His legacy is no small point of pride to his great-great-great-grand nieces, Natividad and Terecita, who run a modest museum in Carson's old adobe home in Taos, N.M.

They said visitors to the museum most often ask them how they feel about their uncle.

"The way I respond to that is, I think, after doing all the research, hearing all the stories, that he was one of the greatest American heroes that ever existed," Natividad said. "And I'm proud to say that he was my uncle."

"But he was a man from that time period," Terecita said. "Those of them who treated him with kindness and respect, he did the same. And those of them who treated him with - violence and disregard, he did the same."