Blood and Thunder: The Epic Story of Kit Carson and the Conquest of the American West, by Hampton Sides ★★★★
Hampton Sides masterfully assembles a picture of Kit Carson that is worth remembering. This book is the story of the life and times of Kit Carson. Carson was a short, not terribly muscular man, illiterate, yet succeeded in becoming a legend in his time. Many contemporary books about Carson were fiction paintings a super-human person, exactly what he was not. Yet, Kit Carson was a man most deserving of the highest honor. He left home at a young age, not wishing to be bound by an apprenticeship. He became a trapper in the wild west, where he learned various Indian languages as well as French and Spanish. His trapping experience and Indian language fluency allowed Carson to eventually serve as a mountain guide. He was greatly responsible for blazing the Oregon Trail. He also guided military missions in California and was as responsible as anybody in helping California gain freedom from Mexico. Numerous were his touches with death throughout his life. Kit Carson fought tirelessly to defend the Indian from thoughtless military action, though he served as a military guide to put down Indian misdeeds, eventually even acting as an Army colonel to quell Indian rebellions. Sides is fair in his treatment of the Indian nations, neither idolizing them or turning them into heroic innocent savages, nor of picturing them as subhuman beasts. Kit Carson seemed to show better balance than most regarding public policy toward Indian affairs.
This book is a riveting story of Kit Carson, a most amazing person. It is also the story of the US siege and conquering of the Southwest United States. Untold by Sides were the many eventual battles that would be fought to finally subdue the Indian tribes. Carson interacted with many other well-known characters, including Presidents Polk, Lincoln, Johnson, and Grant, as well as Fremont, Kerny, Sheridan and Sherman. He was well known (and often friends) of many of the great Indian chiefs at the time. Based out of his home in Taos, New Mexico, Carson seemed to be called away for duty more often than he was able to stay home. He had eventually fathered six children and adopted Indian kids. Sadly, both his wife and he died within a month apart, leaving penniless orphans to the care of distant relatives. Side stories in this book included glimpses into the Mexican campaigns, the western aspect of the Civil War, the numerous pre-civil-war Indian battles, the American conquest of California, most of Arizona and New Mexico, as well as the numerous attempts to find something useful to do with the land of New Mexico. This book was a delightful reading experience, though the interweaving stories often left the reading to be a little choppy. I’m not sure what Hampton Sides could have done to prevent that. If you hold an interest in American history, then this is a fair, even-handed recounting of the Wild Southwest and Kit Carson.
Thanks, Ken – a very interesting review. I didn’t know of Carson’s role in the origin of the Oregon Trail. Origins are important.
Long ago, I bought some books about the American West from the U. of Oklahoma Press – mostly Texas cowboy books, but others more closely related to this book. They are
Great Surveys of the American West, Richard A. Bartlett, U. of OK Press, 1962.
High Mountains and Deep Valleys: The Gold Bonanza Days, Lew and Ginny Clark, Western Trail Publications, 1978, ISBN 0-931532-05-1
This book is about the SW Basin Range country: east of the Sierra, west of the Amargosa, north of the Mojave, and south of the Humbolt.
Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, Sessions S. Wheeler, Caxton Printers, Caldwell, ID, 1985.
Oregon’s Great Basin Country, Denzel and Nancy Ferguson, Maverick Publications, Bend, OR, 1982.
All of these books have photographic illustrations, mostly monochrome (black & white).
Kit Carson indeed was a remarkable person. His history sometimes borders on the unbelievable.