Synopses & Reviews
A Magnificent History of How the West Was Really Won an Epic Tale of Shame and Glory.
In the fall of 1846 the venerable Navajo warrior Narbona, greatest of his people's chieftains, looked down upon the small town of Santa Fe, the stronghold of the Mexican settlers he had been fighting his whole long life. He had come to see if the rumors were true if an army of blue-suited soldiers had swept in from the East and utterly defeated his ancestral enemies. As Narbona gazed down on the battlements and cannons of a mighty fort the invaders had built, he realized his foes had been destroyed but what did the arrival of these "New Men" portend for the Navajo?
Narbona could not have known that "The Army of the West," in the midst of the longest march in American military history, was merely the vanguard of an inexorable tide fueled by a self-righteous ideology now known as "Manifest Destiny." For twenty years the Navajo, elusive lords of a huge swath of mountainous desert and pasturelands, would ferociously resist the flood of soldiers and settlers who wished to change their ancient way of life or destroy them.
Hampton Sides's extraordinary book brings the history of the American conquest of the West to ringing life. It is a tale with many heroes and villains, but as is found in the best history, the same person might be both. At the center of it all stands the remarkable figure of Kit Carson-the legendary trapper, scout, and soldier who embodies all the contradictions and ambiguities of the American experience in the West. Brave and clever, beloved by his contemporaries, Carson was an illiterate mountain man who twice married Indian women and understood andrespected the tribes better than any other American alive. Yet he was also a cold-blooded killer who willingly followed orders tantamount to massacre. Carson's almost unimaginable exploits made him a household name when they were written up in pulp novels known as "blood-and-thunders," but now that name is a bitter curse for contemporary Navajo, who cannot forget his role in the travails of their ancestors.
"[A]n engaging and exciting book. Sides engages readers with his fast-tempo, almost staccato-like chapters....[T]his great book is the finest telling of Manifest Destiny that has lasting impact on all of us in the American West." The Oregonian
"Like a Cinemascope western, Blood and Thunder abounds in colorful characters, bristles with incident and ravishes the eye with long, lingering pan shots of the great Southwest." William Grimes, The New York Times
"Two related but not interdependent epic themes run through this book: the wresting of the Southwest and California away from Mexico to make them a part of the United States and efforts by the Navajo to protect their territory from inroads by Mexico and the United States." Library Journal
"This work will be an excellent addition to collections on western history." Booklist
"[Sides'] fascinating work delivers...pulpy pleasures as it recounts America's expansionist war against Mexico in the 19th century. (Grade: A-)" Entertainment Weekly
"The story of the American West has seldom been told with such intimacy and immediacy. Legendary figures like Kit Carson leap to life and history moves at a pulse-pounding pace—sweeping the reader along with it. Hampton Sides is a terrific storyteller." Candice Millard, author of The River of Doubt
"Sides brings life to this history through his excellent use of stories passed down by the Navajos and of original documents, including soldiers' journals, personal letters and battle reports." Seattle Times
"[E]ngrossing....Sides' keen observations are fresh and fairly impartial, weighing in with the flaws and failures of all sides involved in this pivotal period of America's expansion." San Antonio Express-News
"Blood and Thunder is a full-blown history, and Sides does every part of it justice....By telling this story, Sides fills a conspicuous void in the history of the American West." N. Scott Momaday, The New York Times Book Review
"Sides offers a beautifully written, mesmerizing account of...the quarter-century-long quest to explore the Western lands and build an American empire that would span sea to shining sea." USA Today
"Sides works material well-known to historians...into an unchallenging but informative narrative." Kirkus Reviews
"In the end, once all the land has been cleared, the Indians and Mexicans tamed, the United States united, there is Carson, a grizzled old man whose only want is to go home to his wife and kids. Whether you bemoan his actions or not, it's a truly American story about a soldier who got the job done." Tyler Cabot, Esquire
(read the entire Esquire review
In the summer of 1846, the Army of the West marched through Santa Fe, en route to invade and occupy the Western territories claimed by Mexico. Fueled by the new ideology of “Manifest Destiny,” this land grab would lead to a decades-long battle between the United States and the Navajos, the fiercely resistant rulers of a huge swath of mountainous desert wilderness.In Blood and Thunder, Hampton Sides gives us a magnificent history of the American conquest of the West. At the center of this sweeping tale is Kit Carson, the trapper, scout, and soldier whose adventures made him a legend. Sides shows us how this illiterate mountain man understood and respected the Western tribes better than any other American, yet willingly followed orders that would ultimately devastate the Navajo nation. Rich in detail and spanning more than three decades, this is an essential addition to our understanding of how the West was really won.
How a lone manand#8217;s epic obsession led to one of Americaand#8217;s greatest cultural treasures: Prize-winning writer Timothy Egan tells the riveting, cinematic story behind the most famous photographs in Native American history and#8212; and the driven, brilliant man who made them.
andldquo;A vivid exploration of one man's lifelong obsession with an idea . . . Eganandrsquo;s spirited biography might just bring [Curtis] the recognition that eluded him in life.andrdquo; andmdash; Washington Post
Edward Curtis was charismatic, handsome, a passionate mountaineer, and a famous portrait photographer, the Annie Leibovitz of his time. He moved in rarefied circles, a friend to presidents, vaudeville stars, leading thinkers. But when he was thirty-two years old, in 1900, he gave it all up to pursue his Great Idea: to capture on film the continentandrsquo;s original inhabitants before the old ways disappeared.
Curtis spent the next three decades documenting the stories and rituals of more than eighty North American tribes. It took tremendous perseverance andmdash; ten years alone to persuade the Hopi to allow him to observe their Snake Dance ceremony. And the undertaking changed him profoundly, from detached observer to outraged advocate. Curtis would amass more than 40,000 photographs and 10,000 audio recordings, and he is credited with making the first narrative documentary film. In the process, the charming rogue with the grade school education created the most definitive archive of the American Indian.
andldquo;A darn good yarn. Egan is a muscular storyteller and his book is a rollicking page-turner with a colorfully drawn hero.andrdquo; andmdash; San Francisco Chronicle
andquot;A riveting biography of an American original.andquot; andndash; Boston Globe
About the Author
A native of Memphis, Hampton Sides is editor-at-large for Outside magazine and the author of the international bestseller Ghost Soldiers, which was the basis for the 2005 Miramax film The Great Raid. Ghost Soldiers won the 2002 PEN USA Award for nonfiction and the 2002 Discover Award from Barnes & Noble, and his magazine work has been twice nominated for National Magazine Awards for feature writing. Hampton is also the author of Americana and Stomping Grounds. A graduate of Yale with a B.A. in history, he lives in New Mexico with his wife, Anne, and their three sons.
Reading Group Guide
1. Were you familiar with the Navajo wars before reading Blood and Thunder
? How do the books historical details compare with what you previously believed about the West?
2. The contradictions in Kit Carsons personality make him an alluring figure. How was Carson able to embrace so many aspects of Native American culture, even marrying two Indian women, but nonetheless lead campaigns that crippled them? To whom (or what) was he most loyal?
3. What was John Fremonts essential quest in exploring the West? What spurs all explorers to pursue risky journeys?
4. What do the biographical details in chapter six indicate about James K. Polk? What might have stoked his determination to claim the West? How did he manage to keep military leaders motivated, despite Polks ambiguous leadership style?
5. Is American literatures love of the “noble savage,” inspired by characters such as Fremont and his pathfinder Carson (chapter nine), a thing of the past? Who are the heroes in new fiction of the twenty-first century?
6. How did the post-colonial unrest in Mexico affect U.S. attempts to purchase and conquer the West? What racial hierarchies were in place among Hispanic and Indian populations there? What is the current legacy of these conflicts?
7. Is the underlying concept of Manifest Destiny still used to justify violence around the world? What did Carsons words and actions reveal about his understanding of divine will?
8. What does Carsons illiteracy, paired with his knowledge of numerous languages, say about him? What distinguishes the power of the written word from the power of the spoken word, as evidenced by Carsons enthusiasm for an epic poem by Lord Byron? Is a society truly literate if its members are not versed in more than one language?
9. Did the Texas Confederates believe they were different from (or even superior to) the Confederates fighting closer to the Mason-Dixon line? What were the stakes for both sides as the Civil War played out in the West? How did the reasons for this war compare to the reasons behind Native American warfare and raids (such as the Comanche raids on dwindling Pecos resources at the end of chapter seventeen)?
10. Why was Carson able to scorn generalizations and see Native Americans as individuals? What made him resistant to the hubris of men like General Carleton? How would you have responded if you had been a witness to both the death of Navajo chief Narbona (which closes chapter thirty-two) and the brutalization of Ann White (depicted in chapter thirty-five)?
11. In what way was the landscape a “warrior” in Blood and Thunder (as in the Washington Expeditions encounter with Canyon de Chelly, depicted in chapter thirty-four)? How have various populations perceived the landscape of the West, from ancient populations to modern-day tourists?
12. Discuss the promises that were made to Mexicans and Indians by Americans such as General Kearny. Why did so many of the treaties and pacifist proclamations prove to be hollow? How was this lack of concern for credibility justified?
13. What did Carson seek in a wife? What prevented him from being more involved in the lives of his children? Did his first child, Adaline, fare better or worse than his other children, who were raised with less structure?
14. How did you react to the scorched-earth tactics that forced the Navajos to begin their doomed migration? How would you categorize these tactics of war? Why has the Navajos Long Walk, until now, been less well-known than the Cherokees Trail of Tears?
15. The books title is derived from the rousing “blood-and-thunder” pulp novels that made Kit Carson a caricature. Were fictionalized versions of his life harmful? Is exaggerated storytelling a necessary component of most cultures? Why have some Native Americans rejected historical and linguistic evidence for their global migrations, preferring to maintain dramatic myths instead?
16. Why did Kit Carson die in poverty? What does it say about Carson that his estate comprised considerable debt–owed to him by others? What are the appropriate means of measuring a lifes accomplishments?
17. What was the ultimate fallout of the history contained in Blood and Thunder? Where do Indian and American identities now stand in response to each other?
18. How would Kit Carson advise contemporary America on diplomacy and fighting terrorism? How did he balance the need to win allies with the need to be perceived as a fearsome warrior?
19. How did Kit Carsons ideas about American Indians evolve over the course of his life?
20. Do Americans still have an emotional investment in believing that the “winning” of the West was a glorious, even heroic endeavor? How does the real story of Western conquest differ from the one we were taught in grade school?
21. During its first war of foreign aggression, the United States seized many thousands of square miles of territory from Mexico. How should this historical fact shape the current debate over Mexican immigration–especially considering that the states most keenly affected by the immigration controversy (California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas) are the very states the United States appropriated from Mexico?
In conversation with Hampton Sides, author of BLOOD AND THUNDER
How did you come to this story?
I never in a million years thought I’d write a Western! But five years ago, I went to the national cemetery here in Santa Fe where I live. It’s a mini-Arlington, with those immaculate white gravestones of veterans who fought in Vietnam, Korea, World War II, and on back. In the oldest and least visited part of the cemetery, you find men who died fighting “the savages.” Just rows upon rows of soldiers who perished in the Indian Wars. And I thought, these men probably had the same good qualities we celebrate in other soldiers from other wars. They were brave. They did their duty. But they fought in a war we now consider immoral. I stood there wondering, who were they? And how should we honor their sacrifice? I decided to write about the early Indian wars of the western frontier, in what I call the “pre-West.” It was an interesting time when the Western clichés had not yet solidified. There were no stage coaches or Stetson hats, no Colt six-shooters or cattle drives. America was just beginning to make its imprint.
How did you get from there to your central character, Kit Carson?
That was easy–all narrative roads led to this one man, the ultimate “pre-Westerner.” Out here in the West, Carson is like a jack-in-the box. Towns, rivers, and forests are named after him–not to mention dry cleaners, RV parks, and don’t-tell motels. The capital of Nevada, Carson City, bears his name. I had thought of him as a fictional character, a fabled gunslinger, or a stage character in a Wild West show. Little did I realize, the real Carson was far more interesting and far more important. This guy got around! He did everything there was to do in the West, and knew everybody. He was a fur trapper, buffalo hunter, scout, explorer, tracker, transcontinental courier, rancher, soldier, Indian agent–and finally a general. He did it all.
Why should we care about Kit Carson now?
Carson is one of those pivotal folk figures who invite reexamination. He was the “field agent” of Manifest Destiny, the guy who more than any other individual personified the American expansion into the West. Throughout most of the 1900s, historians who wrote about Carson and his times were emotionally invested in the idea that the western conquest was a glorious adventure led by a generation of mythically self-reliant pioneers. Then, by the 1960s, the pendulum had swung in the other direction. Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee and other histories painted the western expansion as a thoroughly shameful episode. All white pioneers were murderous land thieves; all Indians were noble environmentalists shrouded in golden mist. Now the pendulum has swung back to the middle, I think, and it’s possible for us to see the life of a controversial figure like Carson with the clarity of some dispassion.
Carson is the main character of Blood and Thunder, but is he the villain or the hero?
Both. By most classical definitions, Carson was heroic. He trekked unimaginable distances into dangerous wildernesses. He was modest about his exploits. Time and time again, he rescued people without expecting pay or recognition. He had physical grace and a sense of chivalry. He pulled stuff off you wouldn’t believe. Like some medieval knight, he was repeatedly called upon to slay dragons for the kingdom. The problem was, those “dragons” were often Native Americans. Carson played a key role in some of the more unfortunate collisions between the United States and the American Indian. Many Native Americans think of Carson as a genocidal maniac, right up there with Custer and Sheridan. A Navajo friend of mine told me, “We think of Kit Carson the way Jews think of Hitler.”
Was he really as bad as that?
I understand why the Navajos hate the man who conquered their nation. But for his day, Carson was quite enlightened on the subject of Indian policy. Back then, even sophisticated thinkers like Mark Twain were calling for their extermination. Carson had lived among Indians his whole life. He spoke seven Indian languages. His first wife was Arapaho. He knew first-hand that exposure to the white man was wiping the Indians off the map. And so he came to believe that the only alternative to their demise was to create reservations where formerly nomadic tribes could learn to live self-sufficiently without contamination from whites. Although it was tragically mishandled and horribly patronizing in its premise, that’s what Carson’s final campaign was about: To move the Navajos to a place where they could be “civilized” as an alternative to their own extinction.
If Carson isn’t the villain of Blood and Thunder, who is?
Brigadier General James Henry Carleton, Carson’s superior. He was the real architect of the Navajo campaign and just an absolutely insufferable prig. A stout New England Calvinist, he believed the Navajos had to become Christian farmers overnight. Carleton insisted that a Navajo reservation would not work anywhere on Navajo land–the entire tribe had to be rounded up and force-marched 400 miles to a place he had personally selected on the windswept plains near Texas. The Navajos called the resulting forced relocation “The Long Walk” and still talk about it as though it happened yesterday. Their migration was on a scale second only to the Trail of Tears of the Cherokee Indians. More than one-third of the Navajo people died in exile at this horrible place. If anyone was responsible for this tragedy, it was General Carleton.
Do you see resonances between Carson’s times and today?
In grade school we were taught the USA “never invaded a foreign country for land.” That’s just nonsense. The Mexican War, our first war of foreign intervention, resulted in an unbelievable expansion of our national domain. In 1846, an American army, guided by Kit Carson, marched across the continent and took most of the American West–just plain stole it! Suddenly we found ourselves nation-building in a mountainous desert, trying to make sense of this complicated patchwork of cultures and religions. We justified the conquest by saying we were spreading democracy to a benighted place. We believed our new subjects would welcome us as deliverers. It was all going to so easy! But we soon realized that we had no understanding of how intricate the cultures were. It was a cauldron of conflict, and yet we had pledged ourselves to the dangerous and expensive task of bringing it all under control. We were intensely naïve and intensely brutal. All of this seems very familiar to me.
Another fascinating resonance, for me, has to do with the current controversy over illegal immigration from Mexico. I think it’s interesting that the frontline states in this debate–California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas–are the very states we stole from Mexico. The people who get so bent out of shape about the Hispanicization of America conveniently forget that we crossed their borders long before they crossed ours. We forfeited our right to get worked up over this issue. Conquerors can’t be outraged!
Why did you choose to focus on the Navajos?
The Navajos are the largest tribe in the United States, living on the largest reservation. Yet most Americans know next to nothing about their relationship with the U.S. government. The popular conception of the Indian wars tends to focus on the Plains Tribes, particularly the Sioux. I thought this story begged for greater attention. Not only that, but Carson’s war against the Navajos–and their linguistic cousins, the Apaches–was couched in ways very similar to today’s war on terrorism. The Navajos and Apaches were often described as “terrorizing’ the countryside. They were successful raiders who stole women and children and livestock. And yet they were hard to catch. They lived in the shadows, in remote desert country riddled with canyons and caves. They were everywhere and nowhere–and they drove the military crazy.
What’s the image on the cover?
It’s a photogravure plate taken a hundred years ago by the famous photographer, Edward S. Curtis. Entitled “Before the Storm,” it’s a sepia-tone of Apaches on horseback in the mountains of the Southwest. Curtis was an extraordinary man who went around the West making pictures of Native Americans–the “vanishing race,” he called them. He was wrong about that of course–Indians have endured–but the traditions and lifeways he captured on film have changed dramatically.
Blood and Thunder also concerns the Civil War. How did you manage that in a Western?
It’s a little-known fact, but there were two extremely fierce Civil War battles out west, both of them fought in New Mexico. Kit Carson was there as usual, right in the middle of the action. He fought valiantly on the side of the Union. A rebel army of more than 3,000 soldiers had come up the Rio Grande from Texas, with an eye on seizing the goldfields of Colorado and eventually re-conquering most of the West for the Confederacy. It seemed like a quixotic mission, but the Texans actually succeeded in taking Santa Fe and hoisting the Rebel flag over the capital before they were finally repulsed. It was an important campaign. History would have played out very differently if the Texans had succeeded.
Are there similarities between Blood and Thunder and your last history, Ghost Soldiers?
When I finished Ghost Soldiers, people kept suggesting other World War II stories for me to write. But I was done with that war. I wanted to try another history that was radically different in place and time. Oddly enough, though, as I started this book, I found there was a compelling similarity in the story arc. As with Ghost Soldiers, the story of the Navajo conquest takes the form of a brutal siege, a surrender, a forced march, and a long captivity that ends in a bittersweet return home. As for stylistic similarities, much like Ghost Soldiers, I’ve tried to be inventive with the narrative structure, employing as much scene-painting and cross-cutting as possible, with different time-lines that inch closer together and finally intersect. And I’m afraid the “gross-out factor” is similarly high. The story of the “winning” of the West is every bit as brutal as Bataan–it’s violence on a Hobbesian scale. And so instead of samurai-style beheadings and tropical diseases, you have scalpings, corpse mutilations, Indian massacres, and extremely disgusting diets. People who liked the more gothic aspects of Ghost Soldiers will not be disappointed here.
How did you research this book?
It was an adventure keeping up with Kit Carson. I tried to go most everywhere he went, and that means pretty much the entire west. I drove the Santa Fe and Oregon Trails. I spent a lot of time on the Navajo Reservation, and in Taos, Carson’s home. I bounced around to a lot of old frontier forts– Bent’s Fort, Sutter’s Fort, Ft. Leavenworth. And of course, there was a lot of archival work to do–from Yale University to the Huntington Library. It kept me busy for five years.
Where does the title come from?
The first “Westerns” were cheaply produced pulp novels, almost like comic books, called “blood-and-thunders.” Starting in the late 1840s, Kit Carson appeared as the hero in many dozens of these blood-and-thunders. The publishers used his name and fictionalized his exploits without his permission and without paying him a cent. And ironically, because he was illiterate, Carson couldn’t even read these atrocious books that bore his name. He hated them, both for their wild inaccuracies and for the cheesy celebrity status they conferred on him without his consent. In his own lifetime, he became a kind of action figure hero. These hyperbolic books raised expectations that he spent the rest of his life trying to live down. I chose it as a title, because at its essence, this book examines the tension between the glorious myth and the brutal reality of Carson’s West.