Friday, July 11, 2014

Kit Carson's Taos

Kit Carson's home as he knew it.
(Courtesy Kit Carson Home & Museum)

Casa Escondida, Chimayo, NM.  7/11/2014:   He might recognize the homestead, but it's doubtful Kit Carson would know Taos anymore.  It was a dusty little town in his day, given to trading and politics.  Now, it's an art colony, a tourist magnet, a colorful attraction all to itself.  Santa Fe may be bigger, but Taos packs it into a tighter package.

It's fun all year 'round..the mountains and the wilderness are star attractions,  too.  A lot different from the practical survival times of Kit Carson and his cohorts.  Like Santa Fe, it's got the central square..and a big bandstand.

There was precious little of that going on in Christopher (Kit) Carson's day.  Then, it was adobe walls and stick fences, dirt streets and open corrals.  Horses were as important to people as most other people were.  Chickens, sheep, dogs and some cats ran the streets, stirred up by barefoot the summertime.  With no provocation at all, it can go to 40 below zero here in the winter.  Houses with thick adobe walls had a fireplace in every room and people slept under fur blankets.  Things are better today..but it still gets outrageously cold.

Carson arrived in Taos in 1826 when he was about 16 years old.  By the time he was 19, he was a mountain man, trapping fur for a living.  He hired on as a hunter for villages, keeping them supplied in venison. Carson came to know the territory so well that he agreed to guide John Charles Fremont on his expedition to map the Oregon trail and then on two other efforts to map the Rocky Mountains.  Fremont was a friend and a big fan..his tales of Carson's exploits blew them all out of proportion in Carson's opinion and he found it hard to escape fame he didn't believe he deserved. The Eastern so-called "Penny Press" had done the same thing to people like Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson and "Wild Bill" Hickock, although there's no record that any of them resented it quite as much as Carson.  A small man..about 5'5"..he described himself as smaller than his reputation.  

Kit Carson served in the Civil War and then took part in the Army's Indian Campaigns.  He's still controversial among the tribes because of that, although his biographers say it was Carson who ignored orders to kill all captured Indian men and who campaigned for the release of Navajos imprisoned at the notorious Bosque Redondo encampment.


Carson's home is an L shaped set of rooms surrounding a central court or Placita, which was common at the time.   In the summertime, most family activities and work  took place out there.  It would have been a place for wood, leather and metal working.  And that's where the privy was located, too.

Historians say they doubt there was much vegetation in the Placita.  Rather, as was the custom, it would have been swept dirt..kept as clean as possible under prevailing conditions.


Kit Carson was an important figure.  People sought him out for his opinions and his influence.  It's no coincidence that the last room in the chain is an office as well as guest room.

But the heart of the house, of course, was the kitchen.  Every family activity surrounded that room.  Carson's third wife, Josefa Jaramillo Carson, cooked on.. or in..this stove.   No microwave, no electric

oven..just hot wood coals that were managed to keep the temperature right for whatever you wanted to do.  Try that sometime.

They used the interior of the house as sparingly as possible.  It was probably white washed as you can see it today and the furniture was treated with care and respect.  It took about two months to get a shipment from Kansas City, so nobody wanted to break anything, and nobody really wanted to take the time to build something new.

A visit to the house is fun and, in some ways, sobering.  The Spanish Colonial building proves how hard life was on the frontier, how people worked to make it as enjoyable--or at least comfortable--as they could.

The floors were dirt, the walls were thick adobe, the roof was wood..and sturdy.  It was the frontier.  Slowly, it grew and modernized, particularly after the railroads came.  But when Kit Carson arrived, it was a place where you took your living from the land..and out here, a lot of that is vertical.  It's no place for sissies.

Kit Carson was born in 1809 and died in 1868.  Whether he wanted to be--or believed himself to be--he is a legend, even today.

Quite a guy.


Tomorrow, if everything goes right, we go to a Pow Wow.  Am I having fun or what?