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Reexamining a Pair of Western Explorers

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A NEWER WORLD

Kit Carson, John C. Fremont,

and the Claiming of

the American West

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by David Roberts

Simon & Schuster

$25, 320 pages

*

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“A Newer World” is a gripping look at crucial aspects of the lives and deeds of Kit Carson and John C. Fremont, the two men most responsible for opening the West to American emigration and occupation. Looking at the recent shifts in historians’ views of the settlement of the West, David Roberts writes that "[w]hether Fremont and Carson emerge again, like Lewis and Clark, as paragons of exploratory genius is largely beside the point. Both men had their faults, but pure heroes or villains do not exist outside the pages of bad literature.”

To cast a light on what Fremont and Carson did to achieve such a hold on the American imagination of 150 years ago, Roberts, whose books include the well-regarded “Cochise, Geronimo and the Apache Wars,” focuses on four episodes in their lives: Fremont’s 1842 expedition into the Wind River range in Wyoming with Carson as his guide; Fremont’s so-called “conquest of California in 1845-46" with Carson; Fremont’s disastrous search in 1848-49 for a railroad route through the San Juan Mountains in Colorado, during which his men succumbed to the elements or to cannibalism; and Carson’s 1863-64 roundup of the Mescalero Apaches and the Navajos, leading to the Long Walk and the imprisonment of 9,000 Native Americans in the Bosque Redondo concentration camp in New Mexico.

Roberts’ prose is easy and balanced. He meticulously visited every spot he could find where the explorers went, and his own expeditions give his account a fine verisimilitude. Especially gripping are his retellings of Fremont’s ascent of the great peak in the Wind Rivers that was later named for him, and the bone-chilling story of Fremont’s foolish attempt to cross the San Juans in the middle of an unusually terrible Rocky Mountain winter.

Roberts’ account of Fremont’s “conquest of California” is finely done, and he renders it as farce--certainly a tragedy for the militarily weak Mexicans--and as the inevitable result of the push westward of the immense, proud and self-assured nation to the east. Roberts does history a great service by reviving the almost lost tale of the lengthy, deliberate and wanton massacre of hundreds of Indians near the confluence of the Sacramento River and Deer Creek. Fremont gave the orders and Carson, as he had so often before, participated.

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About Carson, Roberts is torn. He clearly finds this modest, soft-spoken person more attractive than the blustery, vainglorious and foolishly stubborn Fremont. He struggles to find in Carson’s later life a softening of his earlier belief, common on the frontier, that there were good Indians and bad Indians, and the bad ones could be killed without a thought.

The principal evidence Roberts offers for a more understanding view is that Carson tried to mitigate the Navajos’ suffering at Bosque Redondo, and that, late in his life, Carson, as U.S. agent to the Utes, protested against killing their women and children. It is a careful and balanced account of Carson’s life and of his possible change in attitude toward the Indians. But the Navajos, to this date, are not buying it. To them, Carson is still an Indian killer.

Carson is buried with his wife, Josefina Jaramillo, in Taos, N.M., where they lived. Their graves have frequent visitors. Fremont, the first and unsuccessful Republican candidate for president in 1856, is buried near the Hudson River in New York with his wife, Jessie, daughter of the powerful Missouri senator and westward expansionist, Thomas Hart Benton. Their graves are overgrown, and few come there. In considering two such intriguing characters, Roberts’ “A Newer World” is a model of evenhanded history-telling, and suggests some reasons why Americans are the way we are.


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