The Journal of San Diego History
Fall 1998, Volume 44, Number 4
Richard W. Crawford, Editor

Book Reviews

Kit Carson: Indian Fighter or Indian Killer?

Edited by R. C. Gordon-McCutchan. Niwot, CO: University Press of Colorado, 1996. Notes, index. xvi + 105 pages. $24.95 cloth.

Reviewed by Raymond Starr, Professor of History at San Diego State University and author of San Diego State University: A History in Word and Image (1995).

Kit Carson: Indian Fighter or Indian Killer? is an unfortunate little book growing out of a conference designed to challenge a “pervasive, negative view of Kit,” (p. xii) and his relations with Indians, especially the Navajos. It does not deal at all with the question asked in the subtitle; it is merely a defense of the traditional heroic view of Kit Carson. As such it hardly makes a contribution to new generations trying to understand the west from more complicated perspectives.

The book begins with a nice essay by Darlis Miller noting Kit Carson’s images in dime novels. That is followed by a series of chapters attacking Clifford Trafzer’s The Kit Carson Campaign: The Last Great Navajo War (1982), which tries to look at Carson and the Navajo war from the Indian point of view, and with some Navajo sources.

R. C. Gordon-McCutchan’s defense of many of Kit Carson’s actions during the Navajo War sounds very much like the establishment defense of aspects of the Vietnam War. It assumes certain inevitable things, once one recognizes the “necessity” of the war. Gordon-McCutchan assumes that necessity and never really deals with the question of whether or not it was appropriate for the Navajos to conduct warfare to defend themselves from the superpower’s invasion of their world. Hence he cannot understand Trafzer’s position, and thus misses much of the point of the book.

In the next paper Lawrence C. Kelly revives an attack on Trafzer’s work which he began fifteen years ago. His attack, however, is hard to take too seriously inasmuch as much of it consists of comparing Trafzer to his (Kelly’s) own work. He certainly shows that Trafzer can be sloppy, but he dissects minutiae, and never really explores the bigger questions and issues Trafzer tries to deal with.

Marc Simmons reviews the growth of the negative view of Kit Carson the Indian Killer since the late 1960s. In fact, the evidence he offers to show the emergence and the widespread acceptance of that negative view of Carson seems rather limited. Nowhere does he really prove the “deep-seated” “current belief that Kit Carson was an Indian hater and brutal assassin” (p. 86). His whole essay is an exercise in creating a strawman, and then attacking it vigorously.

After the self-serving and defensive pieces just described, one turns eagerly to the conclusion by distinguished historian of Indians and the army in the west, Robert Utley. Surely his will be a voice of reason and good judgment. His tone is indeed one of reason and good judgment; his main point is that “Carson is one of those figures out of the past who tells more about the generation looking at him than about who he really was” (p. 91). He also introduces the issue of “presentism” in history. It is the critical point in the whole controversy. The only problem is that the authors included in this book think anyone who looks at Carson and the Indian Wars from any perspective than theirs is introducing “presentism” into the picture because they are asking questions pertinent to their world. Are the authors of these pieces doing anything different? Are they really representing the contemporary world of Kit Carson? Or are they defending their presentism, i.e. the last years of the old frontier, pro-westward expansion view of American history? Is Trafzer’s effort to see the war from the contemporary view of the Navajos “presentism?” Or is it just good history? Unfortunately, by not including any authors representing any view except their traditional one, the organizers of this conference and this book lost a chance to explore some of these critical issues.

What is the value of the book? It gives a good picture of the interpretation of Kit Carson as hero; it also gives insights into the values and assumptions of the historians who accept that view. Kit Carson: Indian Fighter of Indian Killer? also illustrates well the point Sherry Smith raised in “Lost Soldiers: Re-searching the Army in the American West,” (Western Historical Quarterly 32 (Summer 1998): 149-64) — a continuing tendency of scholars to view Indians wars primarily from the army point of view. Finally, it provides a platform from which to view the complicated questions of presentism in history. But use your library’s copy; do not encourage such polemical and self-serving publications as this by purchasing the book.