The blog of a Western fan, for other Western fans

Blood and Thunder by Hampton Sides


A thundering good read

Kit’s house in Taos

I
visited Kit Carson’s home in Taos in the summer of 2005 and there bought a very
good biography of the man, ‘Dear Old
Kit’, The Historical Kit Carson
by Harvey Lewis Carter, a well-written and
properly researched book of 1968. I enjoyed it and learned a lot about the
famous frontiersman. The house, by the way, is an excellent museum which
retains much of the atmosphere of old Taos, and I recommend it.

Hampton Sides

Had I
been there a year later, I probably would have purchased a more recent book and
enjoyed it even more, for Blood and
Thunder
by Hampton Sides (Random House Inc., New York, 2006), which I have
only just read, is quite outstandingly good. It is, in fact, one of the best
books I have ever read on the West.
 
Hampton Sides
 
Mr.
Sides comes from a background of magazine writing but is a serious historian
who just happens to write fascinatingly well. You may know him for his World
War II story Ghost Soldiers or
perhaps for his more recent book about the hunt for the killer of Martin Luther
King. But Blood and Thunder is an
expansive, almost novelistic treatment of the Mexican and Civil Wars in the
West and the period in between.

A simple, modest fellow

It is
centered on the life of Kit Carson and a wonderful portrait of Carson it is
too. The man was, on the surface, a simple, direct, modest, straightforward fellow,
a good husband and father, kind, loyal and decent. He was married twice to Indian women, then to a Hispanic New Mexican and they had mixed-blood children. He spoke
several Indian languages as well as Spanish. He loved and was loved by the
Utes, whose Agent he became.
 
Christopher Carson (1809 – 1868)
 
At the
same time he was an Indian killer without compunction who notoriously laid
waste the country of the Navajo and supervised the infamous Long March as they
were exiled from their hereditary lands to the ghastly failure of Bosque
Redondo. In an
interview on NBR, Sides said, “It is something I was
never fully able to understand and reconcile.” But this is, in a way, what makes
Carson so fascinating. Probably, Carson didn’t think of ‘Indians’ as a group at
all. Navajos were the traditional enemies of the Utes and it would have seemed
entirely normal for Carson to fight the enemies of his friends.

We’ve
commented before in this blog on the direct line of descent from Cooper’s Natty
Bumppo and Daniel Boone, through Davy Crockett and Lewis & Clark, to Jim Bridger and Kit
Carson. These were the great heroes of the early West, the woodsmen, the
pathfinders, the trappers, deerslayers, explorers and mountain men. From Kit,
the line would later descend to Buffalo Bill (who named his son Kit Carson Cody) and the West would become more
dime-novel, more sensational and, of course, more fake. Kit was in some ways
the last of the true pioneer Western heroes, in other ways a bridge between the
coonskin cap days and the ‘Wild West’ of legend.

Billy the Kid? Oh please.

House Made of Dawn author N Scott Momaday in a review in The New York Times drew a comparison between Carson and Billy the Kid: both were slight of
build, nerveless and efficient killers. But this seems a bit far-fetched to me,
even if I knew what a ‘nerveless’ person was. They were so different as to make
such strained parallels pointless.
 

Terrific
 
Other
characters come through Sides’s narrative wonderfully strongly, notably John
Frémont, Stephen Kearny and James Carleton. Frémont is a well-known figure,
appearing in many books and even being played by Richard Chamberlain in a
worthy 1986 TV miniseries (and by Dana Andrews in a fun 1940 movie). But Kearny
and Carleton are less often described and this book gives us a riveting picture
of them.

Kearny

General
Stephen Kearny (1794 – 1848) comes across as an enormously sympathetic
character.
 
Stephen Watts Kearny (1794 – 1848)
 
Remembered especially for his conquest of New Mexico and California
during the Mexican war, the Kearny that Sides shows us is a disciplinarian yet
compassionate, a skilled tactician yet with strategic foresight, an
intelligent, thoughtful man who drew up the first US constitution for New
Mexico, still today the basis for the state’s laws. He and Carson had huge
respect for each other.

Carleton

General James Carleton (1814 – 1873) was a more complex character who was earnest, worthy,
sincere but more often than not completely wrong. As you read the parts of the
book concerning him, you want to box his ears to make him see sense, yet you
can’t help admiring his concern, constancy (call it stubbornness if you will)
and caring for the Navajo.

 
James Henry Carleton (1814 – 73)
 
He seems to have gone in for tough love in a big way
but it came across as just tough. Poor Carleton. But more, poor Navajos.
He and Carson also respected each
other greatly.

Narbona, Manuelito, Chivington

Other
interesting characters people Sides’s narrative. The Navajo leaders known as Narbona
(1766 – 1849) and Manuelito (1818 – 1893) – they had many and various Navajo names – are very well drawn and for the first
time (for me) they emerge as real people.

 
Narbona (1766 – 1849)

Manuelito (1818 – 1893)
 
I have always been fascinated by the
appalling Colonel John Chivington, Bible-thumping soldier and parson, effective
victor of Glorieta Pass yet leader at the unconscionable Sand Creek Massacre.
In an age when to many it was acceptable to slaughter Indians, his action
against Black Kettle’s village in November 1864 shocked and disgusted almost everyone,
including Carson. Again, you begin to ‘see’ Chivington, if not understand him.
 
John Milton Chivington (1821 – 1894)
 
Bent

Charles
Bent is another interesting character who figures in the narrative. From Bent’s Fort, his trading
post on the Santa Fe Trail from the 1820s on, Charles and his younger brother
William became leading powers in New Mexico. He had his home in Taos and was a
close friend of Carson – in fact he and Carson married sisters.
 
Charles Bent (1799 – 1847)
 
Kearny
appointed him the first Governor of New Mexico Territory, a job he found,
understandably, very difficult. He was murdered and scalped by Pueblo Indians,
hitherto thought peaceable, in the Taos Revolt in January 1847. That revolt, very well described in the book, was
probably fomented by the scheming, Jesuitical Padre Antonio Martinez, a sinister
figure who lurks in the shadows of the narrative rather than emerging from them.
Of course, he got off scot free while Pueblans were hanged in reprisal.

And
there are many other fascinating figures of the old West. Sides has studied
many journals of the period, as well as Carson’s own memoirs (dictated, for he
was illiterate). These diaries bring the events and people to life.

Landscape

The
landscape is also a leading character in the book. Frémont’s travels give great
scope for descriptions of the terrain but it is New Mexico (where Sides lives)
and Arizona that emerge especially strongly. You can really see the Navajo lands around
the Cañon de Chelly and the alkali waters around the Bosque Redondo, for
example. Sides clearly knows the area well and it shows.
 
Spider Rock in the Cañon de Chelly
 
Navajo

There
have been so many books and movies about the Apaches, Cheyenne and Sioux, we
almost know them. But far less has been written and shown about the Navajo. For
me, the best thing about Blood and Thunder is that the Navajo are finally seen
as real people. Sides tells us about their culture, their beliefs and myths,
their lifestyle and their leaders.

They
called themselves the Diné, which means simply the People. Many American Indian
tribes had similar names for themselves. Often, the names they are known by now
are what their enemies called them. But when Thomas Berger uses the term ‘human
beings’ for the way the Cheyenne describe themselves, he is really trying to
translate the simple term most Indians used, usually rendered as
Tsitsistas, ‘those
like us’ or ‘people’
.
The name Apache probably derives from a Zuni or Yavapai term for enemy but they
refer to themselves as Tin-ne-ah, people, or the People.

One
problem with writing and reading about Native American peoples is the
nomenclature. The word tribe is considered
by some to be slightly politically incorrect, almost demeaning, by others perfectly OK. But tribe, people and nation are
sometimes used interchangeably. And then there are smaller divisions: band, clan, group. Sides even
introduces a new one, outfit, to
describe (I think) an extended family – but how is this different from clan? It’s a pity writers don’t define their
terms for us readers.

Read it

Well, it’s
a great read and I heartily recommend it to you if you haven’t got hold of it
already. Anyone remotely interested in the West (i.e. all human beings or
People) will not regret the purchase price, I promise.

 


3 Responses

  1. Excellent book. I've listened to the audiobook twice. At some point I'll be tackling Carson at Frontier Partisans. From the 1840s, he's always been a symbol of one thing or another — Manifest Destiny or racist genocide. I appreciate how well Sides rescued the MAN. I have ordered the PBS American Experience documentary on Carson and I am very curious to see how he's depicted.

    Happy New Year to you.

    Jim Cornelius
    http://www.frontierpartisans.com

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