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Blood and Thunder: The Epic Story of Kit Carson and the Conquest of the American West

There is a story told in Hampton Sides’ remarkable book, Blood and Thunder, whereas Kit Carson, the famous mountain man explorer and trapper, sets out to rescue a young woman who has been kidnapped by a raiding party of Jicarillo Apaches.

Carson tracks the raiding party’s trail for days before he and his men finally reach the Apache encampment. They spring to action, hoping to rescue the young woman, but she is tragically killed in the ensuing melee. As Carson grieves over her tattered and bruised corpse, his men find a book she had been reading, a so-called blood and thunder, one of the dime novels of the era detailing the exaggerated exploits of Western heroes like Carson.

Remarkably, this particular book was Charles Averill’s Kit Carson: Prince of the Gold Hunters, a pulpy damsel-in-distress adventure in which Kit rescues a young woman who had been kidnapped by Indians. The bitter irony of the event would haunt Carson for the rest of his life.

Sides’ brilliant, painstakingly researched and engrossing account of Carson’s life intertwines seamlessly with the story of American Western conquest. The book opens with a series of character studies. We meet Carson, frontier officer Stephen Watts Kearny, and James K. Polk. We’re introduced to the Navajos and their beleaguered leader, Narbosa. Back in Washington, US Senator Thomas Hart Benton and his intrepid, vain son-in-law John C. Fremont take the stage. The stories of these men, as they’re swept away in America’s pursuit of Manifest Destiny and subsequent quest for glory, make for absolutely riveting reading.

Sides does a remarkable job of telling a massive tale, epic in scope, in a way that never feels overstretched. The book burns along, chapter after chapter, as the tragedy of the 19th century Southwest unfolds in both intimate portraits of key players as well as broader accounts of major battles and mass movements of people and civilizations.

And yet, Sides’ resists the lure of the morality play. This is a complex tale, rendered in shades of grey. While we’re tempted to paint the Native Americans as innocent victims, protectors of the land, and the American soldiers as wicked imperialists, driven by notions of strident white supremacy, Sides shows us that the story of the American West was considerably more nuanced.

While we might naively view the native tribes as a monolith, in reality their world, like ours, was one of constantly shifting alliances, betrayals, ancient rivalries and dissonant cultures.

The landscapes of the Southwest too come brilliantly alive in these pages. Sides’ descriptions of deserts, canyons, mountains and plains are wonderfully vivid, particularly his portrait of Canyon de Chelly, a formidable fortress of rock that served as the site of both serene solace and violent battles from the time of the Spanish conquistadores on through to the scorched earth campaigns that eventually led to the Long Walk of the Navajo people.

Primarily set between the 1820s through the 1860s, Blood and Thunder’s scope is wide. It recounts the Mexican War through the eyes of the Kearny’s Army of the West, the explorations and exploits of John C. Fremont, the political machinations of Polk and Benton, the Civil War confrontations between General Sibley and Colonel Canby, the orchestrated humanitarian tragedies led by Gen. James Carleton and the struggles of doomed tribal leaders Narbosa, Manuelito and Barboncito.

Along the way, we meet an ever-growing cast of larger than life side-actors as well: the violent former Methodist pastor, John Chivington, known as The Fighting Parson; the Irish-American spy James “Paddy” Graydon who turned two mules into suicide bombers; Colonel John Slough whose men hated him so much they tried to kill him with a howitzer in the middle of a battle; and in the middle of all of it, was inevitably Kit Carson.

Carson was born in Missouri, but left home at an early age to become a fur trapper, explorer, and guide on the Western frontier. His early life felt like the real-life version of Boone Caudill from AB Guthrie’s novel The Big Sky, so much so that I can’t help but guess that Guthrie used Carson as part inspiration for his doomed hero. Eventually linking up with Fremont (they met on a steamship), Carson becomes a loyal guide to the ambitious explorer as they make multiple expeditions throughout the West. Fremont would publish his findings as a series of books (with ample help from his wife, Jessie Benton) popularizing both the Oregon Trail as well as Carson himself.

Carson would go on to become a celebrated courier, traversing the country carrying vital communications for the United States government that he couldn’t himself read (he was, much to his lifelong shame, illiterate.) In doing so, he would link up with Kearny’s Army of the West as they made their way from New Mexico, where they toppled the Mexican government in Santa Fe in a bloodless occupation. Alongside Kearny, he would fight in numerous battles including the Battle of San Pasquel, an encounter that is rendered in stunning, page-turning fashion by Sides.

After being decimated in the battle by Californio lancers (one of the most riveting moments of the book), Carson sets off on a rescue mission to enlist reinforcements for Kearny’s troops who are surrounded on a lonely hillside. He, along with two others, sneak past enemy lines in the dead of night, and travel, shoeless in Carson’s case, all the way to the California coast, some 28-miles away, linking up with US Admiral Robert Stockton and nearly 200 sailors and marines that would prove pivotal in saving Kearny’s starving troops back on Mule Hill.

Blood and Thunder is crammed with breathtaking stories like these. It makes for a hugely entertaining, though completely substantive ride through history. I am honestly in awe of Sides’ writing. It might be the only book I’ve read thus far that didn’t appear to have a single misstep. Even though the book is a jam-packed 500 pages, it never once felt bogged down or tedious. I can truly say I enjoyed every minute of it.

Of course, by the closing chapter, events become increasingly dark. Carson, relatively sympathetic to Native tribes throughout his life (he married two American Indians and lived among the Utes), becomes complicit in the near total annihilation of the Navajo and Mescalero Apaches as they’re starved and terrorized, driven to their disastrous fate at the Bosque Redondo reservation.

Elsewhere, the California gold rush unleashes a tidal wave of swarthy chancers from every corner of the globe, Mormons slaughter a band of settlers in cold blood at Mountain Meadows, and the once wide-open frontier appears to be increasingly overrun with what Sides’ refers to as, “outlaws, charlatans, religious zealots, opportunists, schemers, boosters, (and) empire builders.”

In an ironic twist of fate, Sides ruminates, Carson had “fouled his own nest, luring to the West the very people he loathed.” At its heart, this is a deeply American story, laced with heroism, ambition, triumph and tragedy and it’s beautifully, brilliantly told in these pages.