A Journalist's Archive

Blood and Thunder
Hampton Sides
Reviewed by Kathy Hare

Now here’s an adventure story! A true account of how the “West was won,” that neither shies away from acknowledging bravery, or the numerous atrocities committed by men we call heroes. “Blood and Thunder: The epic story of Kit Carson and the conquest of the American West,” by Hampton Sides, transports readers directly into a vast, hostile, yet magnificent wilderness coveted by three distinct groups of humans. Deep within its surreal environment laid riches and despair. Some adventurers found only a violent death; others discovered a landscape with a magnetic attraction more powerful than the hardships it imposed. So grab a mule and head west with Kit Carson, his mount will be a sure-footed mule too, because horses spook in howling winds, drop like flies in the desert sun, and stumble on treacherous mountain passes.

Sides knits three years of intense research into brilliant fast-paced prose to create a multifaceted history of the nation’s westward expansion between 1826 and 1868. His account of America’s “Manifest Destiny” tells the history from three different perspectives: American, Mexican, and Native American. Anglo settlers rushed west looking for a “new start,” but didn’t want to brave both the elements and Indian attacks. Mexican settlers, who inhabited the west for over 250 years before the U.S. government became interested in the territory, woke up one morning to find themselves under the rule of a foreign nation. Indian nations, with distinct cultural differences, were viewed only as a scourge upon the land that had to be eliminated or contained in order for the west to be “civilized.” However, Sides never stoops to portraying native peoples as “noble savages.” Murder and mayhem ruled the west, perpetrated by all. Some who killed were called “heroes,” others “villains.” In reality many individuals, including Carson, were both. But since east-coast pulp fiction writers were telling the tale, atrocities became legendary victories. And Carson and others became larger than life conquerors.

During the 1850’s this genre of pulp fiction novels was called “Blood and Thunder.” Their colorful covers depicted Carson rescuing half-clad women from wild Indians – and other exaggerated scenes of bravery. So Sides’ use of the title for this book is sly irony indeed. His historical book retells many of the events once glorified and embellished in “Blood and Thunder” novels, beginning as a 16 year-old Kit Carson is planning his escape from a saddle-maker apprenticeship job in Franklin, Missouri. The year is 1826. Trappers and traders frequent the shop telling “stirring tales from the Far West.” To an adolescent stuck in an occupation he didn’t like, the trail looked like the Promised Land. Sides said that to most adventurers the Santa Fe Trail signified “not so much a specific place as a new kind of existence, a life of expanse and possibility in fresh precincts of the continent.”

Carson actually loathed Santa Fe, but he found a lasting home in a mountain village seventy miles north of there. Taos, with its whitewashed adobe homes, was “the capital of the Southwestern fur trade.” Here Carson joined seasoned trapper Mathew Kinkead, who taught him how to survive in the mountains. Within two years, Carson learned enough Spanish to gain employment as a translator on a merchant caravan headed for Chihuahua City, Mexico. While Chihuahua was the farthest south Carson ever ventured, Sides writes, by age 36 Carson “crisscrossed the Great Plains” numerous times while hunting buffalo. As a fur trader he “traveled untold thousands of miles in the Rockies,” Great Basin, Sierra Nevada, Wind River Range, Tetons, and the coastal ranges of Oregon. During his travels, he learned Indian sign language and many tribal languages, giving him the ability to communicate with any group he encountered. However, in spite of his verbal skills, Carson was functionally illiterate.

But the Union Army was not interested in Carson’s academic qualifications. He could shoot straight, follow a cold trail, and he had an animal-like instinct for survival. This combined with his knowledge of the terrain and its inhabitants made Carson invaluable to the Army. Therefore, readers will find him embroiled in most of the major Western battles during the Mexican-American War, the Civil War, and the campaign waged against the Navajo.

While “Blood and Thunder” spans Carson’s lifetime, it is far from limited to his exploits. Sides’ book is packed with famous names familiar to many of us, in a hazy sort of way. But Sides makes sure Fremont, Bent, Stockton, Kearny, Carleton, Sibley and Chivington will no longer be foggy historic names.

Sides said it was President Polk’s fervor to unite the country from the Atlantic to the Pacific that truly sounded the death knell for many native tribes. But first Polk needed to conquer Mexico. To expedite that goal he sent John Charles Fremont on “scientific expeditions” into the region. In a chance meeting, Fremont encounters Carson in St. Louis before setting out on a mission with orders from Polk to cross the Oregon Trail and prepare a map and guide book for future settlers. Polk believed flooding the west with American settlers could only aid his expansionist dream.

Carson described Fremont as “fiercely intelligent but of questionable ethics.” Find out why by reading about the murder of the De Haro twins and their elderly uncle on page 110. But remember, while Fremont gave the orders, it was Carson, “a natural born killer,” who pulled the trigger. Sides said, “Fremont needed Carson to carry out his dirty work.” And “Carson seemed incapable of resisting an order he personally disagreed with.”

I cheered when the Colorado Volunteers, led by Col. John Chivington, won the battle of Glorieta; and cursed Chivington for the massacre of 150 Cheyenne – most of whom were women and children - at Sand Creek. When asked to justify the slaughter of children, Chivington replied, “Nits breed lice.” Find a full description of the slaughter on page 471.

A movie based on “Blood and Thunder” could never cover half the battles in Sides’ epic manuscript. Read about Santa Anna’s “forest of lances” at the Battle of Buena Vista. Then read what happened to the Confederate lancers at Valverde. But for me, the most interesting part of this book is the cultural information Sides provides about various tribes, especially the Navajo. He explains their social structure, origins belief, and customs. The Diné, the Navajos rightful name, became a semi-nomadic pastoral people soon after the Spanish arrived in the New World. By “procuring” Spanish livestock they amassed a huge amount of wealth. Regular raids on neighboring Mexican settlers kept the Diné prosperous. When Colonel Stephen Kearny cakewalked into Santa Fe in 1846, a well respected Diné leader, Narbona, didn’t understand the “white men” were here to stay, but he did realize their fire-power was unlike any he had faced before.

Carson knew and understood Narbona and the Diné ways. Was it his superstitious fear or survival instinct that kept him from entering Canyon de Chelly? No matter, Carson began decimating the Diné in 1863 by implementing a “scorched-earth” policy against them. The successful tactic was duplicated by William Tecumseh Sherman a year later throughout the South.

Read “Blood and Thunder,” and judge for yourself. But to me, the heroes and villains look remarkably the same.

First published in The New Falcon Herald
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