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Geographic Naming Board mulls Kit Carson Mountain name change due to controversial historical figure

(Image courtesy of Google Earth)

Geographic Naming Board mulls Kit Carson name change
The board that decides the name of geographic features in Colorado declined to vote on changing the name of Kit Carson Mountain in the Sangre de Cristo Mountain Range to one of several proposed names during a meeting on January 25. However, they stated that the process of changing the name is still ongoing, and they will be reaching out to local communities and native tribes in the area to discuss possible name changes.

Kit Carson Mountain is interesting in that the mountain has several different named high points that honor failed NASA rocket missions: Challenger Point and Columbia Point were named in 1985 and 2003, respectively. (One high point is currently unnamed.) But the mountain itself has long been known as Kit Carson to honor the explorer, mountain man, and soldier active in the region in the mid-1800s. The mountain is visible from parts of the Wet Mountain Valley but is not one of the prominent features of the Sangre de Cristo skyline. However, it does dominate the skyline over the town of Crestone and much of the San Luis Valley.

There are several reasons that the Colorado Geographic Naming Advisory Board is interested in changing the peak’s name. The Town of Crestone, which sits at the base of the mountain in the San Luis Valley, has long called the peak Crestone as it is visible from the city. For 14 years, the city has shown interest in renaming the mountain, but the problem is that a mountain just to the south of Kit Carson already exists which is called Crestone. Ironically, Crestone Peak and the famous Crestone Needle are not visible from the town of Crestone itself.

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But the reason the Geographic Naming Board is now seriously considering a name change stems from a proposal filed in December 2023 that says the name of Kit Carson Mountain should be changed because Kit Carson has become a controversial historical figure. As the proposal states, “The current name, Kit Carson Mountain, glorifies a contested historical figure. He is seen as an almost mythical figure of the American frontier but was also a murderer and perpetrator of genocide. As a U.S. Army officer, Carson led campaigns against the Apache and Navajo people. In his campaign against the Navajo people, Carson was ordered to shoot all males on sight and take all women and children captive. He was not to make any peace treaties with the Navajo until they were forced off their land and placed on a reservation. Carson, unable to capture the Navajo people, burned their homes, crops, and orchards and captured their livestock with the intention of starving them out of hiding. In the Long Walk to Bosque Redondo, Carson forced the 8,000 captured Navajo people to walk 400 miles from their homeland to be interned at a reservation at Fort Sumter, New Mexico. The Navajos were given few supplies, and many died along the way from starvation and exposure. Soldiers, under Carson’s leadership, shot and killed the stragglers.”

Last year, Mount Evans was changed to Mount Blue Sky. Dr. John Evans was the territorial governor of Colorado and had helped form a unit of soldiers to fight Natives in 1864 that ended up massacring 230 Cheyenne and Arapaho, who were mostly women and children. The outcry in the United States at the time led to an investigation and helped delay Colorado’s statehood by almost a decade.

However, while John Evans’s incompetence led to the events at Sand Creek, Kit Carson is a much more complex historical figure. Carson went from being a mountain man who targeted native warriors of the Blackfoot tribe as a young man to making friends with the Colorado Ute and escorting chiefs to Washington DC to meet the president of the United States and push for good reservations and strong legal protections of the natives. In addition, Carson joined Union Forces in the Civil War and helped to push back a Confederate force as it tried to take all of New Mexico and Colorado. As the Colorado writer and mountaineer, David Roberts, stated in his book A Newer World: Kit Carson, John C. Fremont and the Claiming of the American West “Carson’s trajectory, over three and a half decades, from thoughtless killer of Apaches and Blackfeet to defender and champion of the Utes, marks him out as one of the few frontiersmen whose change of heart toward the Indians, born not of missionary theory but of firsthand experience, can serve as an exemplar for the more enlightened policies that sporadically gained the day in the twentieth century.”

It is unlikely that the mountain name will be changed to Crestone due to the confusion it would cause local search and rescue crews to have multiple mountains with the same name. But it is also unlikely that the question will disappear anytime soon.

So far in the discussion, most of the renaming requests have come from the San Luis Valley side of the Sangre de Cristo Mountain range, but it is likely that the board will reach out to those in the Valley for their thoughts on the mountain name.

– Jordan Hedberg

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