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Kit Carson House
Taos, New Mexico
American frontiersman, trapper, soldier and guide Kit Carson is one of the great heroes of the Old West. During the early 1800s, Carson was a legendary mountain man and free trader in the American Southwest, having gained renown for his fur trade and trail-blazing efforts in New Mexico and westward to California. He served as a United States military guide, an American Indian agent, and a celebrated aide during the Mexican-American War. His extensive travels and experience tell a story of not just one man, but of many peoples and cultures throughout the area of what would become the Southwestern United States.
Built in 1825, the Kit Carson House, a National Historic Landmark, stands as one of the only remaining physical reminders of Carson’s life. Carson purchased the simple single-level adobe house in 1843, when he married the daughter of a prominent Taos family, Josefa Jaramillo. Carson’s work often kept him away, but his family was there for him when he returned. Today, the Kit Carson Memorial Foundation carefully preserves the home, which is open to the public as a historic house museum.
Born in Madison County, Kentucky in 1809, Kit Carson spent most of his early childhood in rural Missouri. As a young man, he traveled to Santa Fe, New Mexico during the early 1820s, a time of booming trade between the eastern States and the New Mexican Territory via the Santa Fe Trail. Serving for several years as a teamster and guide along the trail, Carson interacted with the diverse peoples who made use of the economic highway to the West. He soon became fluent in Spanish, Apache, Navajo, and several other American Indian dialects.
In 1830, Carson moved to Taos, which served as his base of operations for an extensive fur trapping and trade operation. The town’s location was ideal for trapping because it was near the foot of the southern Rockies and numerous streams of the Colorado Basin. Scores of trappers made camp at Taos during the early 19th century for this reason. Carson’s hunting took him as far west as California and north to the upper Rockies in modern-day Colorado and Idaho. His explorations opened up trails leading west that travelers used for decades of American expansion.
Throughout Carson’s travels, he encountered American Indian tribal cultures, as well as towns established by the Spanish, and later the Mexicans, after Mexico gained its independence from Spain. Because of his experience and knowledge of the terrain and the diverse peoples in the Southwest, Carson repeatedly obtained work as a traveling guide and Federal Indian agent. He gained additional notoriety after meeting John C. Fremont in 1842 and becoming his guide in Oregon and Northern California. Fremont would soon play a role in California’s famed Bear-Flag Rebellion, just before the outbreak of the Mexican-American War in 1846.
During the early 1840s, Carson established his permanent residence in Taos. Except for its 1825 date of construction, we know little about his Spanish-Colonial style residence before the Carson era, which began in 1843 when Kit Carson purchased the property to live in with his new wife, Josefa Jaramillo. The house reflects the aesthetics of late 18th century Spanish influence combined with traditional American Indian building traditions and materials. The one-story adobe building is U-shaped and surrounds an open patio in the rear. Outwardly, it is relatively simple: the home’s most prominent architectural feature is a long, low wooden porch (or, portal) along its front façade. The Carsons did not alter the house’s Spanish appearance during their time there.
While Kit Carson was often away, he, Josefa, and six or seven of their children called this house their home for most of the next 25 years. Carson was involved with various ventures--ranching west of Taos at Rayado, serving the US Army as the commanding officer at Fort Garland, Colorado, or guiding merchants on the Santa Fe Trail. He spent the longest period of time at home with his family between 1853 and 1861 when he served as an agent for the Utes headquartered in Taos. He and Josefa left Taos and moved to Boggsville in the Colorado Territory just before they both died in 1868. In 1869, their bodies came back to Taos for burial in the local cemetery, which soon thereafter became the Kit Carson Cemetery in honor of the famous frontiersman.
The Kit Carson House changed ownership several times before Bent Lodge #42, a Masonic Order, purchased the home in 1910. Carson himself was the founder of the parent order in Taos during his lifetime. At the time the Lodge acquired the property, the house was in disrepair with broken windows, a collapsed roof, and much of the space in use as stables. The Lodge established the Kit Carson Memorial Foundation, Inc. in 1952 to raise awareness and money to restore and interpret the property. The organization also began using the building as a publicly accessible house museum. The nonprofit Memorial Foundation still preserves the property and administers the Kit Carson Home and Museum.
The house retains its over-all Spanish-Territorial appearance and much of its historic integrity. The carefully preserved exterior is in excellent condition. Inside, several of the rooms, including the living room, kitchen and bedroom, are carefully restored and authentically refurnished with period furniture. Other rooms contain exhibits. The museum also includes a replica of a small chapel space and religious articles, as Josefa Jaramillo was a practicing Roman Catholic.
Visitors can take a guided tour of the house and explore exhibits on Carson’s life and accomplishments. The museum also has a bookstore and gift shop. Just around the corner in Kit Carson Memorial State Park is the local cemetery with the graves of Carson and his wife. Both of their tombstones are the originals: Kit Carson’s installed in 1890 and Josefa’s, later, in 1908. An iron fence now rings the gravesite to protect the stones from souvenir hunters, who around the turn of the century had chipped away at Carson’s tombstone causing severe damage to the marker.