What I find most dismaying about the current wave of iconoclastic vandalism is the acquiescence and even support for the mob’s demands from our political leadership. Whether a cynical bid for short-term political advantage or craven cowardice, Dismounting Kit Carson “proactively for safety and as a precautionary measure to keep it from being torn down,” dishonors all of us as heirs to his legacy far more than it insults the man himself.
Kit Carson never ran from a fight in his life. To traduce his memory by calling him “as bad and as evil as any Confederate general,” is simply malevolent ignorance. Carson was not just physically courageous, he was honest, straightforward in his opinions and a man who stood by his word. He followed orders even when he disagreed with them because he was bound by his oath to obey.
I take what has become the unpopular position of defending his conduct of the Navajo campaign in 1864, the one incident in his long career his critics seize on to define his life. Carson marched through Canyon de Chelly as Sherman marched through Georgia that same year. Carson probably wouldn’t have approved of Sherman’s tactics, but his boss, General James Carleton, did. Carson could have resigned and left a dirty job to some other man, but he stood to his duty.
And just as Sherman’s Year o’ Jubilo brought a lasting peace to the South, the final defeat of the Navajo ended centuries of endemic border warfare between Navajo, Pueblo and Hispanics. That long cycle of theft and reprisal, murder and revenge, enabled by and supporting a sordid trade in whisky, guns, livestock and captives, was finally broken by Col. Carson and the men of the 1st New Mexico Volunteer Cavalry.
I’ve been busy on a couple of other issues/projects and stalled out on my history work. Like the guy trying to herd his horses into the barn, I’ve been hoping to just hunker down and let the storm pass over, figuring to pick up the damage later. Unfortunately, this particular twister shows no sign of going away. I feel that if we don’t stand up to it, this ill wind will sweep away our shared past altogether.
I didn’t have Albuquerque on my 2020 bingo card. But when the nationwide mania for iconoclasm metastasized to include other historical figures beyond Confederate generals, it was inevitable that an old battle would be rejoined over New Mexico’s most famous conquistador. Dead for close to four centuries, Don Juan de Oñate remains a polarizing figure, revered as a heroic founding father by a great many of the state’s near-majority Hispanic population and reviled as a cruel oppressor by a smaller but aggressive alliance of Native Americans and White Progressives. There have been recurring attempts to topple him from his pedestal, but all previous clashes ended in no more than harsh words. What’s changed has been the political establishment’s decision to side with the mob rather than the law. Given that abdication, violence was the inevitable result.
The current controversy over the names attached to various military posts (a week ago, how many Americans knew or cared who Braxton Bragg, John Bell Hood or Henry Benning were?) got me thinking about the names of various 19th Century forts in the Southwest. Would their patrons pass muster in today’s retrospective reputational revaluation?
Most would seem non-controversial, like Major Benjamin Wingate, mortally wounded at the Battle of Valverde on the Rio Grande in 1862 in New Mexico’s only Civil War campaign. Brigadier General George Bayard (pictured) was another Civil War hero who died of wounds received back east at the Battle of Fredericksburg that same year.
Louis S. Craig (not to be confused with Louis A. Craig, a general in WW2) was a regular Army captain murdered by deserters in California in 1852.
Fort Bowie in Arizona Territory was named not for the hero of the Alamo but for G.W. Bowie, colonel of the 5th California Volunteers, who established the post in 1862 and immodestly named it after himself — a not uncommon practice among officers in the West until after the Civil War.
Henry Selden was a regular officer serving in New Mexico Territory who switched to the volunteers at the onset of the Civil War to become Colonel of the 1st New Mexico Volunteers. Fort Stanton was named not for the noted abolitionist of that same name but for Henry W. Stanton, a Captain of Dragoons killed fighting Mescaleros in New Mexico in 1855.
W. W. Bliss was a West Pointer and a gifted mathematician as well as being fluent in 13 languages and a student of ethnology. He not only served as Gen. Zachary Taylor’s chief of staff in the Mexican War but took the opportunity to woo Old Rough and Ready’s daughter.
Off topic but well worth recalling when the going gets tough: June 11 marks the 58th anniversary of the only successful escape from Alcatraz federal prison. I say “successful” because whatever happened to them, Frank Morris and the Anglin Brothers were never returned to federal custody, and as far as I know the feds are still looking for them. Whether the three men survived the treacherous waters of San Francisco Bay remains an open question, forever muddied by the FBI’s prevarications in the initial investigation. In the years since, the story, like that of Butch and Sundance, has grown barnacles of speculation, rumor and tantalizing but unverifiable clues. Whatever their ultimate fate, the tale of their escape remains an epic of determination, clever improvisation and desperate courage.
To add a further cautionary note to the previous post on desert travel, here’s another piece from Desert USA that demonstrates how quickly a casual day’s expedition into the back country can turn into a life-or-death adventure. The story is more striking because the author, Jim Hatt, was no inexperienced tourist but a seasoned desert rat who had spent years exploring the Superstitions. In this case, familiarity bred not contempt for the terrain but feckless overconfidence, leading him to make several mistakes that combined with bad luck (not one but two flat tires!) to cost him a rough 24 hours.
Speaking of Death Valley, here’s some guidance on climate acclimation for those venturing out into the Southwestern deserts this time of year. With all national and state parks and various public recreation areas closed, I expect some folks will be pushed deeper into the back country in search of a little peace and quiet. Air conditioning (Thanks, Willis Carrier) opened the Southwest to mass immigration but left us all confined in climate-controlled comfort, watching the world outside through double-paned glass. We forget that doesn’t have to be. Nana and his people lived in this country year-round.
I’ve found some temporary escape from house arrest by looking back over old notes on past travels. I posted notes on a trip to colorado 8-10 some time ago, and I want to add Death Valley to the archive as one of my favorite memories. I had been looking forward to a return trip this spring but the Park Service, like the BLM, decided visiting our “public lands” is hazardous to our health.
“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo. “So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
I’ve composed, rewritten, edited and finally discarded dozens of posts since I last updated this site. But when you have nothing worth sharing to say, fall back on the words of a better writer. Tolkien, like Churchill and Marcus Aurelius, conveys both cold comfort and much needed resolve in facing difficult and uncertain times.
Although I haven’t written anything worth sharing, my thoughts have frequently turned to Nana over the past month. In researching and writing the old man’s story I not infrequently found myself wondering how I myself would react faced by the same daunting circumstances. Not as well, I’m afraid.
A dangerous question to raise in today’s climate. where even amateur historians are justifiably reluctant to offend ethnic sensibilities and professionals can risk their reputations and careers on one unguarded comment. But the recent debate over the passing of the late Quessam Soleimani at least briefly focused attention on the question of definition: what is terrorism and who can be justifiably viewed as a terrorist?
Retroactively applied to the Apache Wars, the question might be immediately dismissed on the perfectly rational grounds that we cannot judge another, past culture according to today’s ethical and moral standards. But many of today’s historians don’t hesitate to apply their own value judgments to the antebellum South, the “Lost Cause” and the entire history of the American people. If we’re to truly understand our shared history here in the American Southwest, we need to honestly confront the past.
I don’t believe I directly applied the label to Nana himself in my book, but I certainly described his Raid as classical terrorism: the application of violence against a civilian population to exert pressure on the society’s leadership.
Terrorism is inherently a political act, and “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” In that sense, Nana would certainly to prefer to be known as a terrorist rather than considered a common criminal, which is how he was viewed by most of his white contemporaries.