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Connecticut River Valley, New England, United States

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Kit Carson? He Had THREE Wives?

Kit Carson & His Three Wives: A Family HistoryKit Carson & His Three Wives: A Family History by Marc Simmons
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is one of those books that I pick up when on our annual two month X-C road trip across the USA. We visit all types of historic sites and out of the way places and on this day we had gone to Taos, NM--one of those " beautiful " places with art galleries and boutiques and bohemian cafes that also happens to have an historic pueblo, beautiful Catholic church and the modest adobe home in which Kit Carson spent his family life with his wife, Josefa Jarmillo, the mother of eight of his children.

I'm not sure how many of the young people of this country or the modern Easterner knows of this man. He was one of the early mountain men, trappers and hunters of the pre-Civil War West. He hailed from Missouri but as many young men of the time, he found his way on the Santa Fe Trail to New Mexico and Arizona and Colorado. He gained fame as a trapper but became best known as the guide who led Fremont into California on at least three expeditions authorized by the Washington government to scout out the Spanish there and evaluate the English presence in Oregon Territory.

Not many people in the West required written works about the exploits of Carson and his ilk, but the folks in the East were greatly excited to hear about the savage red men and the white men who encountered him in the vast open spaces of the mysterious mountains and plains beyond the Mississippi. Just as in the present, newspaper reporters and paperback writers, who ventured into this territory to gather information, found that the more titillating the tale the more likely the sales of their works. As a result the stories of these adventurers were exaggerated and enhanced. Carson, himself illiterate, was amazed at the embellishments added to the stories of his activities. He himself, by most accounts from family and friends, was a man of great humility and devotion to duty as well as compassion and gentleness. Yet, the image of the man that has come down through the years is almost heroic beyond belief. The story of his private family life, as in most cases of his contemporaries, is practically non-existent and certainly, the story of his wives even more shadowed. What information about what came down within the first hundred years of his exploits painted him as one of the heroes of Westward expansion and worthy of great respect and regard. The erosion of this type of historical pride in the 1960's and onward, has further removed Kit Carson from the national memory.

In an effort to rectify this situation, Marc Simmons has spent almost forty years researching not only the facts of Carson's work but also the story of his marriage to three very disparate women over the course of his life. Two of them were Native American : Waa-Nibe, an Arapaho, to whom he was married by Indian culture of simply co-habiting after gifts to her father, gave him two daughters before her untimely death three years into the marriage. His second marriage, probably to provide a mother to his young daughters, was to a Cheyanne, Making-Out Road, who by all indications was quite a handful and who, after fourteen months, divorced him. It was not until he left the trapping, nomadic way of life that he finally married Josefa, a teen girl to his mid-aged self. She was his wife for 25 years and bore him eight children.

The story of these women, and of his children, male and female places Christfer Carson in a much different and softer setting than most of the other writings about him. Probably because there IS such a large assortment of books and articles dealing with his work for the Government as scout and courier, as soldier in the Civil War, as Indian Agent and primary architect of the Navajo version of the Trail of Tears, these aspects of his life are not dealt with in very great depth. In that way, this book, in my estimation, does what the author wishes to achieve: it rounds out the record, it shows an aspect of Carson's life not usually explored. But, also in my opinion, if coming new to learning of Carson, read some more of the record. He certainly is worthy of regard and respect for much of his life's work, but it cannot be overlooked that the Navajo and Apache of New Mexico and Arizona do not love this man. The story of Bosque Redondo is as heart wrenching as that of the Trail of Tears and Carson was the man who used the scorched earth tactics that resulted in the horror of that march and internment.

As, with all men who attain great renown, or at least most, Carson is not all good. On the other hand, he is not all bad. He is human. Do his errors, his faults, his foibles, outweigh his achievements and devotion to family and country? Depends on your viewpoint. But, whatever you decide, the story of life in New Mexico, the position and influence of women in its evolution and in the life of this man is interesting and worth the read.

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