Christopher (Kit) Carson, born on Christmas Eve 1809, was a man of contrasts. At age 15, he ran away from an apprenticeship, whereupon his master advertised for his capture, offering a reward of one penny. Some 20 years later, he dined with President James Polk at the White House.

Of slight stature and shy in demeanor, Carson nonetheless exemplified the courage to become a Western hero. Mountain man, scout, and guide, he once dueled with a French Canadian for an Indian maiden, and he walked barefoot over many miles of rough country to muster reinforcements in a critical battle against Mexican forces in California.

Carson was an Indian agent whose sympathies frequently lay with Native Americans, yet he was also a colonel in the New Mexico volunteers and was ordered to carry out brutal campaigns against the Navajo. Some feel that Carson was a cruel oppressor for his involvment in the Long Walk, a forced march across New Mexico that left hundreds of Navajo dead, while others commend him for doing his best to mitigate the hostility of government policies.

He never did learn to read or write, yet within his own lifetime, Carson was the subject of Western “blood and thunder,” dime store novels—exaggerated pulp much like the paparazzi-driven pages of today’s celebrity magazines. His 1868 obituary in the Rocky Mountain News summed him up well, though: “He had in him a personal courage which came forth when wanted, like lightning from a cloud.”

To learn more about this remarkable man, visit the Kit Carson Home and Museum in Taos, N.M. or read Blood and Thunder, by Hampton Sides, (Anchor Books, 2006).

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