The Journal of San Diego History
Fall 1985, Volume 31, Number 4
Thomas L. Scharf, Editor

Book Reviews

Raymond Starr, Book Review Editor

Kit Carson: A Pattern for Heroes. By Thelma S. Guild and Harvey L. Carter. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984. Preface. Maps. II-lustrations. Notes. Bibliography. Index. 367 Pages. $18.95.

Reviewed by Professor William H. Lyon of Northern Arizona University, who has published in the field of frontier journalism and Arizona history, and is a student of Navajo history.

In Kit Carson’s lifetime, he became a living legend. He achieved fame in the 1840’s with the publication of the widely read Fremont reports, and novels were written in that decade with him as the hero. An embellished biography based on Carson’s recorded memoirs of 1856, was written about him in 1858, which only added to his laurels. Three biographies have been written in the twentieth century. The volume under review is a successor and a complement to Harvey L. Carter’s earlier Dear Old Kit (1968), which contained a scholarly version of the Carson memoirs, and corrected a number of errors. Not surprisingly, many of the conclusions found in Dear Old Kit are also found in this biography. For a man so self-effacing, whose exploits were not quite the equal of Jedediah Smith, James Ohio Pattie, Joseph Redeford Walker, or Ewing young, Kit Carson has done well in the public eye.

Carson was everywhere. Born in Kentucky, he traversed the trans-Mississippi west from Missouri Boonslick to the California coast. He began his western career in 1826, first with trading caravans to New Mexico and then as a mountain man. He trapped all the way to California in the Ewing young expedition of 1829-31. As the fur trade dribbled out he began his experience as a guide with the Fremont expeditions. He thus became involved in making California American. Chosen by Commodore Robert P. Stockton to carry this news to President Polk, he was forced to turn back and guide General Kearney to California. After the Battle of San Pasqual, Carson and two others stole off to San Diego to seek help from the navy for the desperately beleaguered forces of General Stephen Kearney. But San Diego was on Carson’s periphery. His home was Taos, New Mexico, where he became an Indian agent, and finally a leader of military expeditions against the Mescalero Apache, the Navajo, and Kiowa, Apache and Commanche. The authors believe that Carson has been given too much notoriety in the Navajo roundup (1863-1864), not enough credit for the victory (?) at Adobe Walls against the Kiowa and Comanche, and that he should be given recognition for averting a war with the Utes when he was commander at Fort Garland. In 1868 he died an early and unfortunate death.

If the account of the Carson escape into San Diego is typical of the Guild and Carter style, then this is a lean and spare narrative of his life, lacking some drama and suspense, but sticking close to the historical record. The authors lament his poor reputation among the Navajos, but wonder why he is treated so unjustly by the non-Navajo historians. They assess Carson’s role in the trans-Mississippi west, comparing him to Jedediah Smith, Jim Bridger, and Thomas Fitzpatrick, and conclude that Carson is the best all-around representative of the west of his time. They make what is undoubtedly a fair and honest appraisal.