A fair-minded, sympathetic reappraisal of the Kentucky-born mountain man who was more of a guide and trapper than killer of Indians.
Legends of wild frontiersman Christopher Houston “Kit” Carson (1809–1868) sprang up by the mid-1850s. Remley demonstrates (Bell Ranch: Cattle Ranching in the Southwest, 1824–1947, 1993, etc.) that most of these legends had little grounding in fact. From the time he ran off from his apprenticeship at a saddle shop in Franklin, Mo., to his death at his last home in Fort Lyon, Colo., Carson was a man of action, making his livelihood as a trapper, guide, government scout and Indian agent. He was also illiterate, and dictated his early exploits in 1856 while living in Taos, N.M., with his third wife and numerous children. Later, his tales were imaginatively exploited in dime-store potboilers feeding Eastern readers’ taste for the lurid. Remley attempts to shade in a more complex portrait of this anti-hero, less as a “simpleminded rascal with a rifle” who had helped lead the Navajo removal in Arizona and New Mexico, and more as a conduit between the whites and Indians, a man who learned Indian languages and had Indian wives. The author depicts Carson as very much a product of his Scots-Irish upbringing—from a large family of hardscrabble migrant farmers, clannish, fierce under attack, loyal to strong leaders. Having moved with his family from Kentucky to Missouri, Carson lost his father when the boy was eight, and he grew rebellious and independent. Traders to the saddle shop at Franklin, located at the end of the Santa Fe Trail, fueled his imagination, and he soon ran away to join a scouting party headed into the Rocky Mountains. Trading beaver skins was more profitable than gold, and his sure-shot survival skills attracted the likes of Lt. John C. Frémont, and later Gen. James H. Carleton, on government expeditions out West. Remley is a skillful narrator of this true-grit life.
With a biographical essay and index, this proves a solid, clear-eyed history lesson in the making of the Wild West.