Book review: “Blood and Thunder”
October 21, 2017
One cannot live in the western half of the United States and not come into daily contact with place names — cities, streets, mountains, etc. — that pay some kind of homage to one notable individual or another, who, through his authoritative actions, played a part in the demonstrably ferocious policy of manifest destiny. The men have their places in the standard history textbooks as significant in the expansion of the United States, but what is so often overlooked is the impact that their actions had on the native tribes who stood in the way of their personal ambitions and nationalistic undertakings.
But, bestselling author, Hampton Sides uses his well-heeled writing chops and manages to thread the needle of fairness and accuracy with his book, "Blood and Thunder," a comprehensive and exhaustively researched examination of the actions and the long-reaching consequences of famous Western explorers, fighters and politicians like Kit Carson, John Charles Fremont and President James K. Polk, among many others.
Sides has a true talent for weaving together both the big picture and the intimate details that make up one of the most unsettled periods in this country's bumpy history. The mid-1800s were a time of turmoil and the march of progress was moving at a breakneck pace, being ushered along by zealous and ambitious men who hoped to gain favor, land or reward.
Though Sides digs deeply into the lives of many who played pivotal roles in the expansionist agenda of the United States, he uses famed frontiersman, Kit Carson as the axis around which the narrative unfolds, for Carson, Sides says, "had caromed off of or intersected with nearly every major tribal group and person of consequence. He had lived the sweep of the Western experience with a directness few other men could rival."
Kit Carson could speak Spanish and French very well, had a passable handle of some of the languages of the continent's indigenous tribes, and was well-known among all players on the desert and prairie landscapes from St. Louis westward to the Pacific Ocean. But, for one so traveled and prominent among the movers and shakers of the unfolding American narrative, he lamented his own lifelong inability to read or write, and subsequently so little is known of his story from his own perspective. Though "he lived in the golden age of windbags," Sides describes Carson as the "Sphinx of the American West," an enigma of his time.
Carson seems to have been everywhere, and had a hand in many of the most transformative actions and conflicts during both the war with Mexico and the ongoing Indian Wars that persisted throughout the 19th century. When John Charles Fremont was tasked with mapping the Oregon Trail, a key pathway to the Pacific Coast, Carson was called on to be the guide, his skill and notoriety already marking him as invaluable in the field. Carson, for his part, was happy to hitch himself to Fremont's rising star, and he remained loyal to him and his causes throughout his life.
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The pathfinding task was not a simple or straightforward one, for much more was involved than locating a passable route west. Crucial to the success of taming and conquering the land was the complete vanquishment of the indigenous tribes that had called the desert swaths and canyons home for centuries. Much of the story of Carson and his relationship to Fremont is symptomatic of "a kind of dark symbiosis between authority and action. Fremont needed Carson to carry out his dirty work, and Carson needed Fremont, apparently, to tell him what to do."
The further Carson went along the path towards the extermination of the native tribes, the more complex and entangled his relationship with them became. His first wife had been Cheyenne, and he had a deep respect for the Ute warriors who fought alongside him against the Navajos. Nonetheless, having killed — and scalped — his first Indian at age 19, he was forever tied, and rightly so, to the slaughter of the native peoples.
Sides follows Carson's trajectory through history, detailing his role as pawn and facilitator for one ruthless military leader after another. Carson killed both Mexicans and Navajos for General Stephen Watts Kearney, and at the behest of General James Henry Carleton he assisted in the rounding up and removal of thousands of starving and weakened Navajos from their ancestral lands to the nation's first attempt at a reservation far from the four sacred mountains that cradled the Navajo's home. To bring the mighty Navajo to their knees, crops and livestock were ordered destroyed, and waters were poisoned. Carleton made it clear that the intent was "entire subjugation or destruction."
Sides tackles the painful details of that legacy of western expansionism with unambiguous clarity, and in doing so he lays the realities bare, allowing no icon of American history to escape the impacts of his actions, both fair and foul. "Blood and Thunder" is a compelling missing link to understanding and coming to terms with much of this country's reckoning with its fetid and over-exalted past.
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