Kit Carson: Hero Or Villain?

To be sure, wherever Carson went, trouble often followed. He possessed a hair-trigger temper, and despite his kinship with Native Americans, he killed without remorse. As a soldier, he was not one to challenge an order, no matter what its consequences.

"The most troubling chapter in the Kit Carson story occurred here in Canyon de Chilly, Arizona, the heart and soul of the Navajo nation where Carson followed orders and executed a scorched earth policy to force the Navajo to move," Sides said. "To begin the infamous long walk that killed thousands."

Navajo guide Adam Teller's ancestors held off Carson and his cavalry troops for more than three months in this 70 mile-long canyon. It was a period the Navajo called "Time of Fear."

"And Chief Who Wore Lambskins On His Hat would take his hat and he would put it on top of a stick and he would poke it up and the soldiers would shoot at that hat," Teller said, "and pretty soon they realized that this was just a trick ... trying to shoot at the hat and waste their ammunition."

When his patience was exhausted, Carson devised a more brutal plan.

"So he decided to essentially attack the land," Teller said. "To destroy every corn field. Slaughter sheep. Destroy every melon patch and then finally to come down here in the canyon. To essentially try to force them into submission. It was a brutal campaign - there was nothing pretty about it."

The starving survivors were forced to make the 300 mile-long walk East to Bosque Redondo, a patch of land across New Mexico where the Navajo were expected to become farmers. But bad weather and disease made Bosque Redondo a nightmare. The Navajo became captives in a natural concentration camp.

"Navajo people compare Kit Carson to a person like Hitler because of the things that happened in this canyon," Teller said. "He murdered thousands and thousands of innocent people - women and children. So the comparisons of Hitler and Kit Carson are not off by much here in Navajoland."

It was that fearful legacy that Sides confronted on the final stop on his book tour, here, on the Navajo reservation.

"All good stories should have a villain and a hero," Sides said at a lecture about his book in Navajo country. "I was lucky enough to find both in the same man."

Even among the Navajo, there is a growing understanding of the Carson portrayed in Sides' book.

"Carson was a flesh and blood human being, first and foremost. A product of his times, trapped in the very real limitations of his own culture, and it's that flesh and blood Kit Carson that I've spent the past four-and-a-half-years searching for," Sides said.

Indeed, Carson was one of the first to realize the relocation of the Navajo to Bosque Redondo was a failure. After four years, they were allowed to return to their native territory.

Today the reservation is a blended America, where the national anthem is sung in Navajo. Girls basketball is played with passion, and the favorite treat is still fry bread, created nearly 150 years ago when the U.S. cavalry gave the starving Navajo flour and salt and they mixed it with animal fat. It's been a staple every since.

Carson died in 1868, just shy of 59 years old. By the standards of his day, he had served his country well. By other standards, he served America to a fault.