The processing of the Aultman Studio Collection at History Colorado is still underway! However, I had to pause this week, as I had a bit of a mystery on my hands. It all started with an Aultman Studio portrait that depicts a steely-eyed man wearing an embroidered buckskin coat. According to the Aultman Studio Register, this formidable looking man is none other than Christopher “Kit” Carson II, son of the famous frontiersman Kit Carson.
Or is it?? I also found several copy photographs of the same image that instead identified the man as “Dan Taylor wearing Kit Carson coat.” I hopped online to research the image. It appears several times on Ancestry.com and in Google Image search. Genealogists and Carson family descendents on these sites frequently identify the image as Kit Carson II. Unsatisfied, I went to compare the mystery photograph with other images of Dan Taylor in the Aultman Studio Collection — and I found that the negatives were missing!
To try to figure out once and for all whether the man in the coat was Dan Taylor or Christopher “Kit” Carson II, I decided to investigate Dan Taylor to see what connection he had to the Kit Carson. A native of New York, Taylor came to Trinidad, Colorado in 1858. While the details of how and when Taylor crossed paths with Carson are unknown, it was most likely during the 1860s when Carson was the commander of Fort Garland and later Superintendent of Indian Affairs for the Colorado Territory. Carson died in 1868, and Taylor went on to be elected mayor of Trinidad multiple times. He eventually commissioned a large, equestrian statue of his old friend. He also donated eight acres of land surrounding the statue for a public park. Dedicated in 1913, the Kit Carson statue stands in Trinidad to this day. Considering this information, the case for Dan Taylor being the man in the photograph is actually quite strong.
The coat pictured in the photograph is part of History Colorado’s collections (H.7200.295), so my next step was to research it as well. Not surprisingly, the origin story of the coat is also quite fuzzy! First, this coat has been historically called “Kit Carson’s coat” in our records. However, there is little concrete evidence that Carson wore the coat himself. In addition, local legends state that the coat is Native American in origin — either crafted by Kit Carson’s first wife, an Arapaho woman named Singing Grass, or given to Carson by an unidentified Native American chief. In reality, however, curators believe that the coat was manufactured, not hand-made, in the 1850s; it is machine-stitched and was likely purchased at a buckskin tailoring establishment. And here’s the kicker: the coat was donated to History Colorado by Dan Taylor’s grandson! According Taylor’s family, Kit Carson gifted Taylor with the fringed buckskin coat. So, there’s another point in favor of Dan Taylor being our mystery man.
But there are further complications, because this coat is actually one of two “Kit Carson coats” held in History Colorado’s collections. The second coat (H.119.1) was owned by John S. Hough, — who was, like Dan Taylor, also a personal friend of Kit Carson. Luckily, the two coats are visually distinguishable, so the Hough coat does not factor as much in our main mystery. As you can see in the accompanying photographs, the two coats are made out of similar material, but the Hough coat is much shorter and less elaborate than the Taylor coat. More confusingly, History Colorado also holds photographs of Hough that are misidentified as “Kit Carson II”! Both of the Kit Carson coats were reportedly taken to Paris by sculptor F. W. Macmonnies and worn by his model for the figure of Carson which tops the Monument to Colorado Pioneers near Civic Center Park in Denver.
So where could I turn next to figure out the identity of the man wearing the embroidered Kit Carson coat? I decided to search History Colorado’s photograph collections for photos of Kit Carson II and Dan Taylor; research indicated that the man in the photograph was indeed Dan Taylor, but I needed additional documentation to support this conclusion. There, I found alternate images of Dan Taylor in the very same buckskin coat as the photograph in question. He looks visually similar to our mystery man but is not a dead ringer; both images picture men with prominent cheekbones and white facial hair, but they are not identical. Our files also hold a few images of Kit Carson II at a very advanced age, much older than the man in the photograph. Therefore, a comparison between these photos and our mystery man was pretty difficult.
I needed a definitive answer, so I finally turned to the Kit Carson Museum in Taos, New Mexico. Curators there recognized the mystery photograph and provided a surprising conclusion to my quest: the man in the photograph is indeed Kit Carson II after all! The Kit Carson Museum even scanned and sent me several reference photographs of Kit Carson II to back up their statement.
Interested in learning more about these items? The “Kit Carson coat” is currently on display at the Sante Fe Trail Museum in Trinidad, Colorado. An image of Kit Carson II in the “Kit Carson coat” can be viewed online through History Colorado’s digital collections (Go to h-co.org/collections and search “93.322.1812.a” in the Object ID field of the Advanced Search tab). Also, thanks to our on-going NHPRC funded grant project, the entire Aultman Studio collection — the largest photography collection held by History Colorado, documenting 110 years of photography by the Trinidad-based studio — is currently being processed. Selections from the Aultman Studio will also be digitized for the History Colorado Online Collections database. These images will go online soon! The collection itself will be open to researchers early next year.