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[whitespace] A 'Newer' Past

David Roberts revises the revisionist in his study of two frontiersmen

By Allen Barra

A Newer World: Kit Carson, John C. Frémont, and the Claiming of the American West
By David Roberts Simon & Schuster; 320 pages; $25 cloth

IF NOT FOR Kit Carson and John C. Frémont, there is more than a fair chance that much of the American southwest would still be part of Mexico, or that California would be part of the British empire, or that Washington, Oregon and Idaho would be part of Canada. That many Americans today aren't quite sure if those are good or bad things is part of what makes David Roberts' A Newer World: Kit Carson, John C. Frémont, and the Claiming of the American West such exhilarating reading.

Before the Civil War, John Frémont (soldier, explorer, politician and bestselling author) and his friend Christopher "Kit" Carson (pioneer, trapper and Indian fighter) were two of the most famous men in America. Today, Frémont is virtually forgotten by all but a few history students, while Carson clings to a minor fame as, at best, a poor man's Davy Crockett or, at worst, the infamous enforcer of the 1863-64 "Long Walk" roundup, in which perhaps a third of the Navajo nation perished in government reservations.

Both men's lives have been recounted many times, but Roberts is the first to consider how the talents of each complemented the other. Simply put, the great rush of emigration that followed their expeditions into the American West (and Frémont's hugely popular accounts of the treks) might not have happened for years if not for a chance meeting of the two men on a Mexican river steamboat in 1842.

Without Frémont's invitation to join his expedition, Carson would probably be no more than a colorful footnote in obscure books about mountain men. Without Carson's frontier savvy, Frémont would have been just another soldier of fortune.

Frémont's fourth expedition, undertaken in 1848--the only one he began without Carson--ended in disaster, with nearly a third of his party dead and some of the survivors resorting to cannibalism. Together, they traveled more miles than any other American explorers, reaching into the Far West and mapping out most of the area from the Great Plains to the Pacific Ocean.

They also helped foment a revolution in California by provoking incidents with the Mexican government, and they enflamed the imaginations of Americans and Europeans alike with tales of their exploits--filtered through Frémont's hero-worshipping collaborator, his wife, Jesse, to whom he dictated every word of his books.

Roberts fixes on the defects in Frémont's character, which kept him from being counted among the great men of his time. He was possessed, it is true, of vision, courage and an unshakable self-confidence that pulled him through harrowing trials. But he was also something of a schemer and self-promoter, given to taking credit for the achievements of others.

Paraphrasing historian Bernard De Voto, Roberts nails Frémont's fatal flaw as "a self-conscious preoccupation with how everything he did would look in the view of history, which precluded the kind of thoughtless performance that, at its purest, defines true heroism."

Carson, says Roberts, "had that quality in his very blood." A near illiterate, Carson acquired a working vocabulary in 10 Indian languages and, eventually, Spanish; a fierce and unapologetic opponent of Indian tribes hostile to whites, he married an Arapaho woman and fathered a child by her. A survivor of spectacular clashes with numerous tribes, he ended his days as a relatively enlightened advocate for Indian rights.

IN THE END, it is the rough-hewn Carson who emerges as the hero of A Newer World. Of Frémont, we know perhaps too much; he left so many letters, interviews and memoirs behind that the only new task for a historian is to separate fact from legend. Roberts not only does that but also shows us how the legend evolved.

On Carson, though, Roberts revises the revisionists. Carson's stock over the years has risen and fallen according to the prevailing attitude toward Manifest Destiny. Or, stated more simply, if you don't feel that America's conquest of the Far West was a good thing, you might be in sympathy with those who spray-painted "Nazi" on Carson's Taos tombstone.

But Roberts finds in him a heroism that surpasses shifting political winds. If Frémont could today be aroused from his grave to see the West he helped to settle, he "would be avid to find his own footprints on the desert sands, in the mountain snows." But Carson "would survey the landscapes, scanning impatiently past the snaking paths of the interstate highways, the sprawling smog-hung cities, his eyes cocked for some yet-untraveled corner of the wilderness into which he might plunge for one last adventure." One can picture the old frontiersman's bewilderment at the ideological battleground risen in the wake of his travels.

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From the March 2-8, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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