Writing Kit Carson

Fallen Heroes in a Changing West

By Susan Lee Johnson

528 pp., 7 x 10, 63 halftones, 2 maps, notes, bibl., index

  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-4696-5883-4
    Published: December 2020
  • Paperback ISBN: 978-1-4696-7931-0
    Published: February 2024
  • E-book EPUB ISBN: 978-1-4696-5884-1
    Published: October 2020
  • E-book PDF ISBN: 979-8-8908-5842-9
    Published: October 2020

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Awards & distinctions

2021 Robert G. Athearn Award, Western History Association

In this critical biography, Susan Lee Johnson braids together lives over time and space, telling tales of two white women who, in the 1960s, wrote books about the fabled frontiersman Christopher "Kit" Carson: Quantrille McClung, a Denver librarian who compiled the Carson-Bent-Boggs Genealogy, and Kansas-born but Washington, D.C.- and Chicago-based Bernice Blackwelder, a singer on stage and radio, a CIA employee, and the author of Great Westerner: The Story of Kit Carson. In the 1970s, as once-celebrated figures like Carson were falling headlong from grace, these two amateur historians kept weaving stories of western white men, including those who married American Indian and Spanish Mexican women, just as Carson had wed Singing Grass, Making Out Road, and Josefa Jaramillo.

Johnson’s multilayered biography reveals the nature of relationships between women historians and male historical subjects and between history buffs and professional historians. It explores the practice of history in the context of everyday life, the seductions of gender in the context of racialized power, and the strange contours of twentieth-century relationships predicated on nineteenth-century pasts. On the surface, it tells a story of lives tangled across generation and geography. Underneath run probing questions about how we know about the past and how that knowledge is shaped by the conditions of our knowing.

Sponsored by the William P. Clements Center for Southwest Studies at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas

About the Author

Susan Lee Johnson is the Harry Reid Endowed Chair for the History of the Intermountain West at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

For more information about Susan Lee Johnson, visit the Author Page.


"For readers who wish to know more about how history is written, its influencers, their writings, and how figures such as Carson fall from grace. An excellent addition for women's studies collections."—Library Journal

“In this sometimes ruminative, sometimes gripping volume, Johnson shows how women's history does not simply add to, but transforms our broader understanding of history. . . . [Writing Kit Carson is] a novel work of scholarship and lyrical narrative, enriched and enlivened with memoir, loaded with impressive research, careful citation, historiography, and bibliography.”—Reviews in American History

"A capacious and unruly book. It sweeps across more than a century. As it spins its yarn across lives and decades, it moves backward and forward in time. In glorious prose it defies the borders between author and subject, between past and present, and lures the reader into caring about the tangled lives of two women . . . staking their own claim to significance, in part, by their work on Kit Carson. . . . Richly complex."—Missouri Historical Review

"A remarkably thoughtful, subtle, genre-bending study that weaves history and historiography, politics, and memoir into an eloquent whole."—Emma Donoghue, author of Room and The Pull of the Stars

"It is a testimony to Johnson's talents as a historian and a writer that this book is such a page-turner. Here we have the story of two unknown women, drawn to each other in the 1950s by their shared fascination with Kit Carson, a hero in their heyday, but certainly not in ours. Focused on their overtly unremarkable lives, Writing Kit Carson is a unique history of twentieth-century America, rooted in lived experience. Johnson's archival indefatigability, expert toggling between small and big stories, and her stance—at once empathic and critical—makes this a remarkable history."—Alice Echols, author of Shortfall: Family Secrets, Financial Collapse, and a Hidden History of American Banking

"Susan Johnson has crafted a stunning meditation on the ways in which we all struggle to make sense of the contingencies and compromises that shape the making and consumption of history."--Katrina Jagodinsky, author of Legal Codes and Talking Trees: Indigenous Women's Sovereignty in the Sonoran and Puget Sound Borderlands 1854-1946