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The courtyard of Kit and Josefa Carson’s Taos, N.M., home, now a museum, was the center of family and social life in the mid-1800s. It served as the family’s kitchen and laundry, and the place where they processed wool and leather, forged iron implements and carried on with other activities that sustained the household. Photo by E’Louise Ondash
Columns Hit the Road

Sense of Taos life in mid-1800s at Kit Carson House

Taos is too quiet.

Between the COVID-19 pandemic and the dead of winter, this historic Northern New Mexico town of about 6,000 seems to be asleep. It is not the active town square that we remember from former visits, which were mostly in spring and fall. 

Surrounded by boutiques, restaurants and art galleries that, in warmer weather, are usually buzzing with shoppers and diners, the plaza draws both locals and tourists who gather under towering cottonwoods to chat, listen to live music and eat ice cream.

But this is January and the temperature hovers around 30 degrees. Nevertheless, that ever-present, intense New Mexico sun forces us to zip-open our down jackets while we sip rich, South American hot chocolate from Chokola.

There are other knots of people gathered around small tables just outside the shop, which boasts of “bean to bar” chocolate used in making full-bodied drinks, baked goods and candy.

We arrived at the Taos Plaza via the free, on-demand shuttle offered to guests who stay at The Blake, a boutique hotel 30 minutes north in Taos Ski Valley. Though we’ve never lived in Taos (elevation 7,000 feet), I always feel like I’m home when we visit. Many of the area’s transplants will tell you something similar.

“You don’t choose Taos,” one resident told us. “Taos chooses you.”

This restored photo of Kit Carson was taken in 1868 during a visit to Washington, D.C. He died later that year, just a month after his wife, Josefa. Their Taos, N.M., home, just off the plaza, is a museum that holds many of their personal belongings and family photos. Courtesy photo

Despite the slower-than-usual pace and a bit of pandemic hangover, Taos still gives us options. We wander around the square, window shop, then find the Kit Carson House & Museum, about a three-minute walk from the plaza. It’s a draw for us partly because of Carson’s North County connection.

A famous frontiersman, fur trapper, cattle and sheep rancher, diplomat, guide and U.S. Army officer who vehemently denied his legendary status, Christopher Houston Carson (1809-1868) was a key figure in the 1846 Battle of San Pasqual.

This battle of the Mexican-American War took place just south of the Escondido city line. Although there is controversy about who was victorious, the battle was a turning point and opened California to settlers.

Carson first arrived in Taos in 1826.  At age 33, he married Josefa Jaramillo, the 14-year-old daughter of a prominent Taos family. They moved into this house that is now the museum and resided here for 25 years. From all accounts, the couple had a strong marriage.

Josefa died in 1868, at the age of 40, after giving birth to their eighth child. (They also adopted several Native American children.)

Carson died a month later of a carotid aneurysm at age 58. The Carsons’ graves are in nearby leafy Kit Carson Park.

Walking through the home gives a sense of the simple, rudimentary life of Taos residents in the mid-1800s. Rifles and an army uniform belonging to Carson are on display, and multiple photos of Carson and his immediate and extended family hang on the whitewashed adobe walls.

Most rooms were heated by wood-burning, adobe fireplaces, a feature you’ll find in countless current-day New Mexico homes. Carson’s sturdy, simple wooden desk that he used during his service as a U.S. Indian Agent sits in the corner of one room.

I am drawn to a delicate, amazingly small, hand-sewn silk dress and jacket displayed in a glass case. It belonged to Carson’s youngest daughter, Josefa, named after her mother.

An orphan at 6 weeks old, she lived only to age 34. The ages at death of Carson, two of his three wives and several of his children are reminders of how difficult and fleeting life could be in 19th century New Mexico. 

If you visit, don’t miss the 20-minute video on Carson’s life, in which Carson’s great grandson, John Carson, plays the part of his acclaimed ancestor.

For more photos and discussion, visit www.facebook.com/elouise.ondash.

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