Western Trips

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Kit Carson and Taos New Mexico / A Western Road Trip

If you have the opportunity of taking a western road trip to Taos New Mexico, a visit to the Kit Carson Home and Museum makes a perfect and interesting addition to your trip planner. Taos New Mexico has long been a popular southwest U.S. tourist attraction. Filled with a rich history that includes the Spanish, Pueblo Indian, Mexican and American cultures, Taos offers the history minded tourist a wonderful adventure. In addition to this, the Taos scenery is spectacular.

taos new mexico
View from Taos Plaza
What today is Taos New Mexico was established as the village of Fernandez de Taos in the year 1615. This was about five years after the founding of Santa Fe and was the northernmost outpost for New Spain. In the 1700's, before the American Revolution, the mission church of Ranchos de Taos was erected. This location is about four miles south of the town of Taos. By the mid 1700's, Taos became an active trading center. During this time there was bartering at Taos between Pueblo Indians from Taos Pueblo, colonists, American Mountain Men and French fur traders. The large trading gatherings happened on an annual basis and also let the trappers and traders enjoy the civilization of a town for some time. In a way it was a mixture of work and pleasure. They called it a trappers and traders rendezvous. One of the most popular still goes on today as the Rocky Mountain Rendezvous.

The story of Kit Carson and Taos is the story of westward expansion. Kit Carson was a trapper, trader, scout and military leader. He was a part of some of the most important western expeditions of the 1800's.

Today, the Kit Carson Home is an historic landmark visited by thousands each year. It's estimated that the museum receives about 25,000 visitors annually. The Kit Carson Home and Museum is owned by the Bent Lodge No. 42 of Taos and is operated by the Kit Carson Memorial Foundation Inc. The home became a museum in 1949 and was made into a National Historic Landmark in 1963. The Bent Masonic Lodge was first established in 1860 to honor Charles Bent, the slain first governor of the U.S. Territory of New Mexico. The original structure was erected in 1825 and was purchased by Kit Carson in 1843. This would have been while the New Mexico Territory was ruled by the Mexican government. It was also a time when the population of Americans was growing rapidly in the region.

Kit Carson Home and Museum
The eventual takeover by the U.S. of New Mexico from the Mexican government in 1846 was first seen as a possible benefit to the native population. The theory was that government would be more efficient for the population as opposed to the far away Mexican rule. Unfortunately, there were a few attempted uprisings which were put down by 1847 but not until many innocent Americans lost their lives including the newly installed Territorial Governor, Charles Bent, during the Taos Revolt of January 1847. The major battle in this short lived rebellion took place at Taos Pueblo.

During his lifetime, Kit Carson was indeed involved in many pursuits. According to the Kit Carson Museum, Kit Carson was born in the year 1809 in Missouri. He was apprenticed out to a saddle make,r but instead ran away to Taos in 1826. He became a mountain man at the age of nineteen and spent some ten years trapping beaver and hunting throughout the west. He married an Arapaho woman and fathered two daughters. After her death, Carson married a Cheyenne woman. It is at the age of thirty-three that Carson married Josefa Jaramillo, the fourteen year old daughter of a prominent Taos family. It is the house that is now the Kit Carson Home and Museum which Kit bought for Josefa as a wedding present. The couple would call this house a home for twenty-five years and it is here that they raised seven of their eight children including several Indian children they adopted. The house in Taos was certainly a family home, but as his lifetime achievements attest, Kit Carson spent a good deal of his time away from both Taos and his family.

Fireplace in kitchen, Kit Carson Home
One of the most significant expeditions that Kit Carson was involved with was the John C Fremont expedition to California. Kit Carson served in the capacity of a guide for Fremont's journey into California. Carson was with John Fremont when the latter became involved with the unsuccessful Bear Flag Revolt in California just before the Mexican American War. In addition to this, Kit Carson was involved in scouting for General Stephen Kearny when the General Kearny traveled from New Mexico to California to put down an uprising from Mexicans opposed to U.S. occupation  of the Los Angeles area.

After California's statehood in 1850, Kit Carson took on the position in 1854 of Federal Indian Agent for the Moache Ute, Jicarilla Apache and Taos Pueblo tribes. Most historians called Carson probably the most effective Indian Agent at a time when the agents in general had considerable trouble with the Native Americans across the plains and southwest. It's interesting to note that while Carson served as an Indian Agent he became a Freemason and was inducted at the Masonic Lodge in Santa Fe.

Carson was involved during the American Civil War in basically two capacities. Firstly, he helped organize the New Mexico Volunteers to oppose the Confederates. Secondly, Kit Carson was involved with a campaign against the Navajo Indians who opposed confinement in distant reservations as set up by the U.S. Government. Relations between the Americans and the Navajos were not too good ever since the start of the territorial government.

The following link will take you to an interesting story regarding Kit Carson's involvement in the New Mexico Navajo Campaign during the Civil War. This was the campaign that led to what historians refer to as  "The Long Walk".

Outdoor kiva fireplace on Carson Home grounds
When the Civil War concluded, Kit Carson was given a commission of brigadier general and was cited for both his service to the nation and his gallantry. Also after the  Civil War Kit Carson moved to Colorado in an effort to expand his ranching business. While in Colorado, Carson also took command of Fort Garland. Unfortunately, ill health was to strike Carson. He had to resign his military post in 1867 and then relocated to near present day La Junta Colorado. Kit Carson died at the new Fort Lyons, which just opened in 1867 on the eastern Colorado plains, on May 23, 1868.  His remains were taken back about a year later to his home at Taos New Mexico.

Another very interesting aspect of Kit Carson's life was that during his last few years he was outspoken about the need to return the Navajo to their ancestral lands. This of course was a major turnaround since Kit Carson himself had much to do with forcing the Navajo to walk the three hundred miles to the Bosque Redondo Reservation. Kit Carson's efforts to convince Congress to allow the Navajo to go back home were successful and the Native Americans were freed in 1868, the same year of Kit Carson's death.

Today, the Kit Carson Museum is a must visit when vacationing in Taos. The museum offers a twenty minute video reenactment about Kit Carsons adventures as well as a tour of the four room Carson home. The Kit Carson grave site is located just about a quarter mile from the home and museum. From the museum it's a very short walk or about a two block drive.

(Photos are from author's private collection)