Denver removes Kit Carson statue, and it's unlikely to return anytime soon | OutThere Colorado

2022-09-03 18:05:12 By : Ms. Debby Qin

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DENVER • Where in the world is Kit Carson?

The once-iconic downtown Denver Pioneer Monument which celebrated the likeness of one of Colorado's most infamous mountain men is now weirdly barren.

The statue stood as a symbol of Western expansion at the southwest corner of Broadway and Colfax for over a century before the city of Denver removed it on June 26, 2020 to keep it from being torn down by protesters. 

Two other monuments, the Union soldier which stood on the west steps of the state Capitol, and Civic Center Park's Christopher Columbus statue, had been toppled during downtown's 2020 George Floyd riots just days before.

Today, Carson's empty pedestal is surrounded by a 3-foot-tall fence and a sign warning people to leave it alone. Pedestrians walk by without a glance.

The Pioneer Monument was a statue and fountain erected 111 years ago at a cost of more than $70,000, paid for by donations and by the city and state. In 2020, a crane removed the huge bronze topper to cheering onlookers. Kit Carson and his horse disappeared into the sunset,  unceremoniously driven away in a semitrailer by crews with the city of Denver.

The Kit Carson statue comes down in Denver. A person with the city said they wanted to take it down before it got ripped down and caused damage to the fountain around it. They knew it wouldn't make it through the night. pic.twitter.com/NuxdTh963V

Exactly where the artifact is stored today is a mystery, perhaps for its own good. The city of Denver will only say that it is in a "safe" place.

To some, Christopher Houston "Kit" Carson was a brave frontiersman and trapper who floated between cultures. He spoke the language of seven different tribes and even took two Indigenous women as brides — an Arapaho and a Cheyenne. “Kit Carson was the most famous of the Indian Scouts and mountain men,” said University of Denver emeritus professor Tom Noel. “He was a real service to the U.S. government leading troops into battle.”

But to others, he was no war hero.

During his military years, Carson was part of the removal of the Navajo from Canyon de Chelly, Arizona into the reservation system in a march which killed thousands of men, women and children during an era the Navajo called the Time of Fear.

In a 2020 letter to the Mayor's office, the American Indian Movement implored Michael Hancock to remove Carson's likeness from the Pioneer Monument. He is known to AIM an “Indian murderer.”

Chester Whiteman, a Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho tribal representative does not want to erase history, just tell it like it was. “Kit Carson was a half-truth. He was a pioneer and in the end, he sold out the Indians,” Whiteman said. He admitted that he would be happy if the city replaced the offensive buckskinned model with an image of Carson standing next to one of his Indigenous wives. 

The future of the dry fountain base which sits in the shadow of the state Capitol is a tricky issue. Tariana Navas-Nieves, director of Cultural Affairs for Denver's Arts and Venues, said that because of Carson’s “dark and complex history,” his statue will never return. “Carson carried out the U.S. Army’s scorched-earth policy, burning crops and starving the Navajos into submission.”

Even after two years, she admits that the evaluation process hasn’t started, but “it will certainly include the entirely of the Pioneer Monument.”  

She is referring to the three bronze settler figures still attached to the structure which many anticipate will follow Carson to The World of Misplaced Statues.

Those figures surrounding the empty pedestal are a life-sized hunter, a prospector and a pioneer mother and child, dedicated to the spirit of "Manifest Destiny." It is a term that first saw light in 1845 to describe the United States’ supposed preordained mission to spread democracy westward.

To Colorado’s Indigenous community, however, the notion of a female settler holding a rifle is just as offensive as the Kit Carson statue. Glenn Morris, a professor of ethnic conflict at the University of Denver and leadership council member for the American Indian Movement, asked a reporter. “Who do you think that rifle is for?”

Controversy and division haunted the Carson monument from the start. 

A group of elite Denverites known as The Denver Real Estate Exchange first commissioned it, and Mayor Robert Speer approved it in 1907 as part of a movement to bring historical statues, trees and parks to Denver. Speer dubbed the era “City Beautiful.”

The group chose Frederick McMonnies, one of the most influential sculptors of the time, to draw up a sketch, and 50 members of the Exchange approved his original version of the statue that was topped with the nude figure of a Plains American Indian offering peace. Circling the hexagon underneath the Indigenous hero were three pioneer figures, early on not including a woman.

The applause for McMonnies' vision was short-lived. When his original design was published in the Rocky Mountain News in April 1907, local outcry was vicious.

A Union soldier and leader of the Society of Pioneers, Captain J.D Howland, wrote that the “triumphant Indian” towering above settlers was an abomination. “It does not represent truth. It does not represent Colorado. It does not represent pioneer days. The place for the Indian in such a monument is dead upon the ground, or subjugated or fighting at the base. The pioneer himself should be triumphant over all and holding the place of honor,” wrote Howland.

A Denver Post editorial cartoon showed a drawing of raucous men in long beards throwing bricks at the offensive image. “We don’t want no tarnal redskin on our monument!” said one cartoon balloon.

The drawing was captioned, “How McMonnies’ design is apt to stir up the old spirit of ’59.” The reference to '59 meant the year the Gold Rush peaked in Colorado when people flooded into the state looking to get rich quick and settled here. 

Public pressure proved to be the final catalyst for change. Angry and hurt, McMonnies traveled from Paris to Colorado for Denver Pioneer Monument Round Two, this time settling on Kit Carson, then dead 39 years, to top his sculpture.

Tom Noel noted, though, that the offended artist made one concession: “He was so upset, he drew Kit Carson in a smaller scale as a protest.”

Denver’s Pioneer Monument was erected in 1911, joining similar homages to Western settlers unveiled in Salt Lake City, San Francisco and Portland, Ore.

What’s left of Denver’s Pioneer Monument, the life-sized bronze pioneer woman protecting her child with a rifle in her hand, stares ahead as commuters buzz by on scooters and in horseless carriages.

While she waits for the city to decide what to do with her, Noel believes that in this instance, history should literally go back to the drawing board. “Why not adopt McMonnies’ original plan? We have the drawing. We have the specifications,” said Noel. “I can’t imagine a lot of people would protest today.”

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How about replacing Kit Carson with the city council bending over ready to take it from the thugs in the area. Unbelievable, no guts by politicians

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