Tuesday, February 26, 2008

A Review of Hampton Sides' Blood and Thunder, the Epic Story of Kit Carson and the Conquest of the American West

Hampton Sides: Blood and Thunder, the Epic Story of Kit Carson and the Conquest of the American West, New York: Anchor Books, 2006. 496 pp., soft cover, $15.99.

Hampton Sides’ Blood and Thunder, the Epic Story of Kit Carson and the Conquest of the American West is an expertly written result of an extraordinary amount of research on the American West during America’s antebellum period. Sides’ work is based on Kit Carson as the American west’s central character. Expertly recounted, Sides highlights most of Christopher Carson’s adult life as a trapper, guide, soldier and husband. Moreover, Sides uses Carson’s endeavors in the west to recount the acquisition of the territories of California and New Mexico, the relationship between the American government and the Spanish-speaking colonials, and the uniqueness of the Native American tribes of the area and how colonials and natives interacted on the western frontier.

Throughout the far west during the early 19th century, Kit Carson is simply omnipresent. Sides’ chronological account of Carson’s life shows the reader what a pivotal role he played in America’s Manifest Destiny in the region.

Sides’ introduces Carson as a young “Mountain Man” and trapper throughout the mountains of the west. Gaining experience on the trails and outposts of the west, and building an understanding and relationship with the Native American tribes in the area, it was not long before Carson found himself guiding official American government expeditions into what was then Mexican territory. Carson’s first major expedition of this nature was with John C. Freemont. Together, Carson and Freemont explored what would become the Oregon Trail south to California and back east again. It was Freemont’s crediting written accounts of Carson’s bravery and cunning during California’s Bear Flag rebellion and his skills as a guide that elevated this rather quiet, man-of-few-words into a national hero. In the “Blood and Thunder” stories of the time Kit Carson was immortalized, however, Carson could never read these adventure stories about himself due to his illiteracy.

Adventures that fuel Carson’s fame continued as he later accepted other guiding missions. During the Mexican War, Carson was pressed into service by General Stephen Kearney. While patrolling in eastern California their unit of dragoons were attacked and pinned-down by a superior force of Mexicans. Sides vividly recounts how Carson with two others snuck through the Mexican lines at night, traveled briskly to San Diego, brought reinforcements to Kearney, and essentially saved the unit from destruction.

Other adventures of Carson’s did not end-up with the same heroic results. On one voluntary mission Carson sets-out with a group of troops to rescue a young woman who had been kidnapped, which was a common practice among many native tribes of the area. Carson’s attitude of harsh punishment against native people who attack white settlers is well illustrated. This harsh, punitive policy toward Native Americans who resisted Carson’s further official American business in the Southwest would manifest its-self a number of time is his future. As a Lieutenant and later as a Colonel in the US Army, Carson dealt harshly with native resistance to relocation, first with the Navajo and later with the Comanche. Consequently, however, Sides reports that Carson’s later position as superintend of the relocation site for the Navajo on the Pecos River forced him to realize the error in a harsh Indian policy and the relocation of native peoples far from their ancestral homeland.

Sides does not leave out how connected Carson was with the native people of the Southwest as well as his intimacy with the Mexican culture. Carson was fist married to a young native girl named Singing Grass. They had two children before Singing Grass’ death. Throughout his first marriage, Sides paints Carson as being self-conscious of his native wife and worried about the half-breed status of his children. Later, Carson was remarried to a considerably younger Mexican girl. This marriage brings more children, a large extended family and a great deal of absenteeism from his wife.

In addition to the immense biographical information on Kit Carson, Sides highlights a number of influential individuals of the time and the region. One of these is Narbona, of the Navajo Nation. Narbona is best described as a highly respected Navajo elder, as their culture of the time did not bear individual leaders. However, to the Americans, Narbona is regarded to be a leader by both Carson and his commander Col. Washington. In a divisive instance, Narbona, was summoned by Carson to negotiate the end of raids which involved stealing of livestock. As he was in his advanced years, Narbona found it challenging to dismount his horse for the meeting, however both Carson and Narbona constructively negotiated the issue before a calamity occurred. Washington became angry over the fleeing of a suspected horse thief among the Navajos who accompanied Narbona. When a replacement horse would not be returned to Washington, he ordered the firing of the company howitzer into the Navajos, which killed Narbona.

Tragedies similar in nature to the one that led to Narbona’s death were ubiquitous when the US Army encountered many native tribes. Another such tragedy involving a Col. John Shivington and the comparatively cooperative Cheyenne. This instance brought out a raging reaction which allows us today to understand how Carson understood his relationship with the Native American tribes during this period of Manifest Destiny. Simply, Col. John Shivington slaughtered more than 150 Cheyenne men, women and children. In reaction, Carson was quoted by Col. James Rusling, dialect and all.

His men shot down squaws, and blew the brains out of little innocent children.
You call sich soldiers Christians, do ye? And Indians savages? ….I don’t like hostile red skin any more than you do. And never yet drew a bead on a squaw or a papoose, and I despise the man who would. I’ve seen much of ‘em as any man livin’, and I can’t help but pity ‘em, right or wrong. They once owned all this country yes, Plains and Mountains, buffalo and every thing. But now they own next door to nuthin, and will soon be gone. (Sides p.471)

In Blood and Thunder, the Epic Story of Kit Carson and the Conquest of the American West, Sides treats Christopher Carson well, illustrating how profoundly Carson’s actions determined American history in the Southwest. Additionally, Sides has researched and documented an exquisite chronological summary of how the Southwest of America was conquered by the United States, and how it was lost by the Native Americans. I highly recommend this work by Hampton Sides.