KIT CARSON & THE INDIANS, by Tom W. Dunlay, University of Nebraska Press, 507 pages, $45.00.
Don’t use modern-day American values to judge a man who lived in a rough and tumble, nineteenth-century frontier environment. That plea is the central theme behind Tom Dunlay’s Kit Carson & The Indians, a detailed look at the backcountry woodsman who inadvertently became a key player in U.S.-Indian relations for much of the Manifest Destiny period.
Until about 30 years ago, Christopher “Kit” Carson was held in high regard as a legend of the American West, a superlative mountain man and Indian fighter whose bravery and courage were rivaled only by his wisdom and humility. In recent years, however, closer scrutiny of his numerous violent encounters with Native Americans has tarnished his image. Instead of comparing Carson to Daniel Boone as an ideal frontiersman, some compare him to Adolf Hitler as a practitioner of genocide.
Dunlay attempts to peel away the propaganda, both positive and negative, surrounding Carson to examine the individual and his documented interaction with Native Americans throughout the course of his lifetime. Carson was capable of both fierce brutality and genuine compassion, and his actions varied greatly depending on the circumstances. The author obviously prefers the traditional perception of Kit Carson to the modern, revisionist version, and he argues that his subject did not subscribe to the sentiment, held by many of his contemporaries, that “the only good Indian is a dead Indian.”
Kit Carson & The Indians is a scholarly and painstakingly researched book that is perhaps intended more for dedicated students of the Old West. Only the reader can decide if Dunlay is successful in restoring the original luster to Kit Carson’s image.
JIM CORRIGAN is a freelance writer from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, with an interest in American historical figures.