Finding Kit Carson's Graffitti Out West
By Elaine Meinel Supkis
Kit Carson was a romantic figure in our history...To invaders. He "opened up" the southern route to California via Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. I grew up out there and often saw his name scratched into rocks at various picturesque places. He left a bloody trail in a bloody land that was wracked by warfare with the introduction of the horse.
Under Carleton's direction, Carson instituted a scorched earth policy, burning Navajo fields and homes, and stealing or killing their livestock. He was aided by other Indian tribes with long-standing enmity toward the Navajos, chiefly the Utes. Carson was pleased with the work the Utes did for him, but felt some irritation when they went home in the middle of the campaign, having collected what they thought was sufficient booty.Kit Carson cut a dashing figure. He dressed in the classic "Byronic" fashion, the penetrating glare into the firmament, the locks of unruly auburn hair, streaming over the shoulders, the sensuous but determined mouth, the constant need for activity and movement, ever seeking conflict and glory.
Carson also had difficulty with his New Mexico volunteers. Troopers deserted and officers resigned. Carson urged Carleton to accept two resignations he was forwarding, "as I do not wish to have any officer in my command who is not contented or willing to put up with as much inconvenience and privations for the success of the expedition as I undergo myself."
There were no pitched battles and only a few skirmishes in the Navajo campaign. Carson rounded up and took prisoner every Navajo he could find. In January 1864, Carson led forces, including Utes auxiliaries, into Canyon de Chelly to attack the last Navajo stronghold under the leadership of Manuelito. The Navajo were forced to surrender due to the destruction of their livestock and food supplies. In the spring of 1864, 8,000 Navajo men, women and children were forced to march 300 miles to Fort Sumner, New Mexico. Navajos call this “The Long Walk.” Many died along the way or during the next four years of imprisonment. In 1868, after signing a treaty with the US government, remaining Navajos were allowed to return to a reduced area of their homeland, where the Navajo Reservation exists today.
This is what undid another classical romantic, Col. Custard. Like Carson, he stepped into an ancient world to wreck chaos and bring wealth home.
When I was a child in the 1950's, America was undergoing another imperialistic spasm similar to the 1848-1890 period and the iconography used to express this was the same used back then: the romatic frontiersman overcoming nature and natives to take over and exploit. This topic was all over the movies and the brand new TV channels. Every kid was playing cowboys and Indians with the Indians as the bad guys, naturally.
I knew real Victorians who grew up in the Wild West, they were very much alive if very elderly. Their tales were quite different from the TV or movie's tales. It was all so schizophrenic to a child who is trying to figure things out.
Kit Carson, in classic fashion, first lived amoungst his victims, learning their lore and their ways. Then he hired himself to General Fremont to find a secure southern route to California. At that time, sailing ships had to go around South America, a long and very dangerous journey. Lewis and Clark had found a credible northern route to Oregon and Washington but California was difficult due to the Sierras and Death Valley. Carson knew, thanks to living with the natives, all the watering holes, streams and hazards of the complex landscape of New Mexico and Arizona. One of his graffitti marks I found as a child was at Sawtooth Mountain in Texas. I got to spot others in south Tucson, in the mountains in New Mexico, he marked significant rocks with his name so he could insure his trails were true.
One of his more gruesome actions was to subdue the Navajo tribes. In the 1950s, many Hollywood movies were made where the Navajos were rounded up, it is a very striking landscape. Scene after scene featured those amazing stone mesas and mountains, glowing blood red in a stark setting. It is now a great tourist site, like the Grand Canyon, breath taking. It is also a land of mineral wealth which is why Carson and Fremont were so eager to find a more direct route to the Golden Land of California.
Subduing the natives on the Great Plains and the Southwest Desert was very difficult because unlike the natives in the east, these people got ahold of horses from the Spanish and took to them like a fish to water. This gave them mobility and power which caused great changes to rip through the native tribal communities as the horse users harrassed and harried the farmers who didn't use horses like the peaceful tribes in southern Arizona. These people wanted the strange "white" men to help them fight off the horse raiders.
Divide and conquer. During the fifties, it was difficult being a native because of the flood of propaganda exaulting the exploits of our exploiting forebearers. The romance of the wild west faded rapidly during the Vietnam war. The natives were not being herded into camps and tamed, they fought us toe to toe and shoved us out of Vietnam entirely! We became morose and our propaganda became one of victimization whereby we complained about our men being tortured as prisoners. In addition, the American Indian Movement arose and today, the tribes are finally finding wealth and prestige again. Kids want to be Indians, not Cowboys, in fantasy play.
Well, full circle yet again, no? Only now, to "heal the wounds" we inflicted upon ourselves in the Vietnam orgy which grew out of the Wild West fantasies, we are again involved in a new Wild East venture that is more like Custer's last stand rather than Carson's victory in Chelly Canyon. And unlike the military suppressing the natives using cheap technology and few soldiers, we are doing this romantic (sic) venture gold plated and reckless about losses.
I suspect that 100 years from now, the people in the Middle East and there abouts will be romanticising thier war with us and replaying scenes of American soldiers being blown up after showing the evil invading soldiers torturing the Muslim heroes with various ingenius, ugly ways.
Yup. Ride 'em, camel jockey!
To return to homepage click here
To read more education news click here