Historian Comes Clean, Stay Dirty

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The following excerpt is taken from Writing Kit Carson: Fallen Heroes in a Changing West by Susan Lee Johnson

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When I started my research many years ago, I thought I might write a book about Carson’s intimate ties to American Indian and Spanish Mexican women and about what those ties meant to a colonized West. It was the character and content of those relationships that I planned to study when I mapped out a project called “Marrying Power: The Intimate World of Kit Carson.” Of concern to me were Carson’s bonds with women whose ties to western places and peoples were different from and deeper than his own: Singing Grass, who was Northern Arapaho; Making Out Road, who was Southern Cheyenne; and Josefa Jaramillo, who descended from two hispano families of northern New Mexico, the Jaramillos and the Vigils. Each of these women was married to Carson according to the varied customs of the country—Singing Grass for several years in the 1830s; Making Out Road for several months in the 1840s; and Josefa Jaramillo for a quarter century after Carson renounced Protestantism and was baptized a Catholic in 1843. And these were just three intimacies among many similar connections that crossed cultures in Carson’s world, relationships in which newcomers in the West cast their lot with companions whose own peoples still held sway over their geographies of residence. Most who have written about Carson have acknowledged these kinds of bonds, even if they have neither perceived the habit as a matter of “marrying power” nor seen power as residing historically among Indian and hispano peoples.

When I conceived of my project, as far as I knew, no one had given these ties their narrative or analytical due, preferring instead to keep the historical spotlight on Carson himself—as hero, as villain, or as man of his times. By focusing on these ties but also by situating them in the context of Carson’s manifold relationships with fellow trappers and opponents in battle, hispano neighbors and Indigenous hunters, his mixed-race children and his “adopted” Indian servants, I aimed quite literally to put Carson in his place. I aimed to diffuse the light so that it fell instead on a broader social and cultural milieu that gave birth to the world that persists in the spaces Singing Grass, Making Out Road, and Josefa Jaramillo called home, a borderlands world that bleeds out across North America to touch many more peoples and places in our own time.

Imagine my surprise, then, to learn that four decades earlier, at a time when there was little interest in Carson’s intimate life, Quantrille McClung and Bernice Blackwelder had wrestled with these very same relationships—and sometimes with each other over how best to present them. After uncovering evidence of a sexual bond in the Carson family circle that was forged without benefit of clergy, for instance, biographer Blackwelder wrote to genealogist McClung that she worried about “broadcasting anything” that would “smirch” the reputations of the couple involved. Blackwelder went on, “It is different for you to put all information you wish in a family history but not for me. Don’t you agree?” I saw similar evidence myself, and while I did not worry much about matters of reputation (having come of age at a time when protecting sexual reputations, for white people, anyway, seemed old-fashioned), I did worry about matters of representation. What did it mean, I wondered, to write even one more word about a figure like Carson, even if my focus and purpose differed from those of enthusiasts who had celebrated or vilified or rehabilitated him in the past? The longer I wondered, the less I could separate my own project from those of earlier Carson specialists—and especially from the projects of Blackwelder and McClung. Separation could come only through pride of profession, the arrogance of relative youth (my youth was long gone, anyway), and the condescension of historical hindsight. As I thought through all of this and as I also reckoned with my own relationship to Carson and his intimate life, I realized that I had in my hands a very complicated story indeed.

This book tells that tale. It interweaves the lives of two minor historians, embracing and exploring their minor status, and it braids those lives together with the life of a so-called pioneer. Like a simple braid, the book starts by plaiting three strands: Quantrille McClung, Bernice Blackwelder, and Kit Carson. But Carson is not just a historical figure; he is also a character endlessly recreated in collective memory and popular culture. What is more, activists and historians fought over his legacy in the 1970s and they argue about him still. In other words, Carson has not only a life but a half-life, and that half-life is as much at issue here as the days he walked the earth. So, like a complex braid, the book ultimately interlaces more than three strands. As a text about the everyday conditions in which people produce knowledge about the past, it centers the stories of McClung and Blackwelder. It explains how their daily lives across the twentieth century brought them to love nineteenth-century history and what kind of history those lives made them love. Yet how I see those lives and the historical knowledge those lives produced is a product of my own life path, which makes me a strand in this braided story, too, not an absent, omniscient observer. I am present in the text for a purpose: to insist that when we interrogate the lives of others, we also ought to examine our own. Just so do we learn how we know what we know about the past and how that knowing is shaped by the conditions of our knowing.

Susan Lee Johnson is the Harry Reid Endowed Chair for the History of the Intermountain West at the University of Nevada Las Vegas.