Friday, June 22, 2012
Hampton Sides, in his wonderful book Blood and Thunder: An Epic of the American West, tells this story, but it bears repeating, as so much of the epic does.
Kit Carson was an unlikely superhero--he wasn't particularly big, people often thought him tongue-tied, and he rarely spun yarns out of his own incredible story. His autobiography is characterized, some say, by understatement.
But when, as a boy, he left Missouri for the West, he began a career that created some significant fortune and not a little fame. In the American West, he became a legend long before his own last chapter was written.
Maybe the most profound and humbling lesson of his life occurred when he discovered the lifeless body of Mrs. James White, who'd taken a bullet through the heart not five minutes before he found her, after suffering unspeakable things at the merciless hands of her captors, a band of Jicarilla Apaches. When they heard the story, Carson, and a Major William Grier had lit out after them. The year was 1849.
For twelve days they followed a trail only a true frontiersman could interpret or read, all in an effort to locate this woman who had been captured when her husband had been brutally slain in an Indian attack. When they finally found her, she had just been murdered.
On her face she "bore the sorrows of a lifelong agony," he told someone later because he assumed she'd suffered more horrors than the imagination can conjure as what he called "the prostitute of the tribe." This is how he described the woman he found: "a frail, delicate, and very beautiful woman, but having undergone such usage as she suffered nothing but a wreck. . .a hopeless creature."
If you want to understand the true drama of the Westward expansion, you need only to understand the conflict here--the Jicarilla Apaches had lost everything, first to Navajo raids, and then to white man. Desperate and broken, they undertake depredations that make the soul shrink and blood boil. When finally Carson finds this woman they'd been following, dead, he and Major Grier swear revenge, and Carson was not a man to be trifled with.
They buried her body, then searched through the things the Jicarillas had left behind. There, amazingly, they discovered Kit Carson: The Prince of the Gold Hunters, a dime novel, the first of many hacked out of the silly imaginations of Eastern money-grabbing novelists, a story that featured Kit Carson rescuing a captured white woman, doing exactly what he'd done in following the path of the Jicarillas and Mrs. White.
In the Prince of the Gold Hunters, the fictional Kit Carson had actually found and saved the beautiful woman he was determined to rescue. In life, he couldn't quickly forget the woman they'd failed to bring home, and the difference peeled back the resilience of his frontiersman's heart. "This was the first time," Hampton Sides says, "that the real Kit Carson had come in contact with his own myth," and then he quotes Carson himself: "The book was the first of its kind I had ever seen, in which I was made a great hero, slaying Indians by the hundred."
And then this: "I have often thought that as Mrs. White read the book, she prayed for my appearance and that she would be saved."
Credit him with this: he knew a lie when he saw one.
But he was no superhero. Little more than a decade later, he'd lay shameless waste to the entire Navajo food supply in Canyon de Chelly, then send the Navajos into a chapter of their misery no Navajo, even today, will ever forget--the Long Walk. He was human. There was no divinity in him. He wasn't anyone's savior; to the Navajos, he was a warrior who created great suffering.
Carson was much smaller than his burgeoning myth. He was gutsy and uncanny in his ability to escape danger, but he was absolutely nothing of the god those dime-novel readers lied into being. Maybe he was at his best the day he discovered, tragically, the lies people were creating about him.
We have, it seems, an insatiable appetite for superheroes. What we want is a savior, maybe because the one we have isn't superhero-like--after all, he encouraged selflessness, preached love, hung around with ne'er-do-wells, and just up and died when some of those who'd followed him not a week before in jubilation, turned on him and chose an creep for life and him for death on the cross.
We'd rather read dime-novels than the real story of the American West too, rather not know, rather not remember.
Kit Carson was illiterate and it bugged him so badly that he often tried to cover it. But he was smart enough to read the truth about stories, the truth he learned by way of a still warm body he'd discovered after twelve days on a thin trail, a woman with a bullet through her heart and a book, a lie right there at her side.
Posted by J. C. Schaap at 6:07 AM