In the pandemic summer of 2020, as Black Lives Matter protesters toppled statues honoring Confederates and colonialists, simultaneous calls to remove monuments honoring the frontiersman Christopher “Kit” Carson reverberated along the Rocky Mountain corridor that links Denver and Santa Fe. The oldest memorial is in Santa Fe, an obelisk dedicated in 1885 that sits outside the U.S. courthouse there. In Denver, Carson was commemorated in the Pioneer Monument, erected in 1911 near Civic Center Plaza. The base featured a white hunter, prospector, and pioneer mother, and Carson towered over them, brandishing a rifle. The Carson of these monuments is a pathfinder who paved the way for white civilization in the U.S. West. The Carson of history is more complicated. He participated not only in the dispossession of Indigenous peoples but also in two forms of slavery practiced in nineteenth-century North America. The West and the nation need worthier, more honest memorials.
Carson’s life illuminates the enslavement of both African Americans and American Indians. He was born in Kentucky to people of Scots Irish descent who enslaved African-descended people. The Carsons moved to Missouri in the early 1800s. The family wasn’t prosperous and at 16, Kit followed the Santa Fe Trail west in search of new opportunities. The trading trail tied the U.S. western frontier of Missouri to the northern Mexican frontier of New Mexico, passing through lands controlled by Indigenous peoples. The trail also connected two regimes of slavery: the enslavement of African Americans, mostly by Anglo Americans, in Missouri and points east, and the enslavement of American Indians, mostly by Spanish Mexicans and other American Indians, in New Mexico and the wider borderlands.
So Carson moved from one slave regime to another. During the years he spent traversing the West as a trapper, hunter, and U.S. government guide, he married two Indigenous women, a Northern Arapaho called Singing Grass, who died, and a Southern Cheyenne called Making Out Road, who divorced him. Then he wed a nuevomexicana. Carson and his wife Josefa Jaramillo purchased Navajo captives according to the custom of the country, by which Spanish Mexicans made servants of Indigenous people and masked the coercive nature of the practice by calling them criados, from the verb criar (to raise up), as if the captives were nurtured in hispano families just as hispano children were. Apologists argue that Carson acquired Native captives to save them from abuse by other captors, but the record to confirm such claims is spotty and the experiences of the Carson criados are unknown.