Friday, July 10, 2015

Blood and Thunder: An Epic of the American West by Hampton Sides

Many Americans know little about the history of the American Southwest, other than the false impressions we have gotten through cowboy movies. In some of our minds, the fight for the Alamo was part of the Mexican-American war; “Manifest Destiny” was a righteous ideology justifying the absorption of western lands by the United States; the Indians were savages; and Kit Carson gets jumbled in with those other buckskin-wearing frontiersmen, Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett. The actual history of the area and its people is far more complicated and interesting than these stereotypes would make it seem. Blood and Thunder: An Epic of the American West by Hampton Sides is a well-researched, detailed, and entertaining history of the territory taken from Mexico by President James K. Polk as a result of the Mexican-American War. Basically a biography of Kit Carson-- hunter, trapper, explorer, guide, U.S. Army officer and both friend and foe of Native Americans—this book sets Carson’s life in the context of the greater American experience. And a violent and bloody experience it was, as emigrants from the East struggled to wrest New Mexico, Arizona, California and Colorado from the control of the indigenous people and residents still loyal to Mexico.  Later, after the discovery of gold in California and Colorado, and still later the Civil War, additional factions contributed to the turbulence in the area. Carson was at the center of much of the action. He lived in the vast wilderness west of the Missouri River from the age of sixteen and, although illiterate, could speak English, Spanish and various Native American languages. He became the go-to man when Santa Fe Trail merchants or the U.S. Army needed a scout or guide. He assisted John C. Fremont’s exploration of California. He was a scout and messenger for General Kearney, the first U.S. Army officer in the newly acquired territory. He was an agent for peace and war with Native American tribes, particularly the Navajo. And he was an officer in the Union Army, fighting in little known battles of the Civil War fought in New Mexico. The life of Kit Carson and the story of New Mexico are intertwined and filled with contradictions: cruelty and kindness, courage and cowardice, nobility and dishonor.  Blood and Thunder is fascinating reading, relaying an American history we should all be aware of.