Were any of the legendary cowboys of history genuinely admirable figures?

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29 November
10:24
November
2016

I think so, but all these guys had flaws, so I don’t want to put them up as models of perfection. One of my favourites was Kit Carson. He was an explorer, and just his nerve, his abilities and his sensibilities for the people of the West were somewhat uncommon. There have been a dozen books written about him, and most of them are really good.

Kit came out of the Santa Fe Trail as a teenager and then he became a mountain man (fur trapper). He lived with the Native Americans and married a Native American woman. Later he became a scout for General Fremont (together they mapped the Oregon trail to encourage pioneers that way), and he was one of the early government explorers. Kit Carson had one adventure after another, crossing deserts and fighting off then Native Americans.

“Kit Carson loved the wildness and the freedom of being a Mountain Man. Then he had to subdue one of the last tribes of the West. That was hard on him.”

He then became a cavalry officer and was very instrumental in subduing the Navajo people. Later in life – Kit died quite early, in his 50s – he settled and was very close with the most influential people in the New Mexico government, which was the only government in the West at the time. He lived through a lot of different eras and all along he really grappled with the changing West. Having to go from being a person who loved the wildness and freedom of being a Mountain Man, to someone who had to subdue one of the last tribes of the West, was hard on him.

Charles Goodnight was another one of my favourites. He went from being a scout with the Texas Rangers to taking herds two points north from Texas to a ranch in Colorado that he’d founded. The chuckwagon was named after him (Goodnight is recorded as having invented the concept). He lived a long life, well into his 90s and he was on hand when Cynthia Ann Parker was reclaimed from the Native Americans. Cynthia had been kidnapped as a child by the Comanche war band and raised as their own for 24 years before being rescued; she tried to return to the Comanches but was brought back.

Goodnight and an Irish partner John Adair founded one of the biggest ranches in America. Adair’s descendants still own it today – it’s called the JA Ranch, which is located the Palo Duro Canyon, Texas, and the Canadian River runs through it. He lived to see cars become a thing. He was a neat character.

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