It is possible to study history by studying the lives of certain key people in history. One of the key people in American history, at least in the history of the American West, is Kit Carson. An illiterate early pioneer, Carson was a mountain man trapper who joined the Army of the West on its 1846 invasion of Santa Fe and what became New Mexico, Arizona, California and Nevada. He remained in the west his entire adult life, participating in the Bear Flag revolt that led to California statehood and in the decades long battle between the Navajo nation and the United States. Along the way, he fought in the western most battles of the Civil War and became an American legend, in spite of his mixed feelings about the publicity he received.
In his book Blood and Thunder, Hampton Sides covers as much of Carson’s life as it’s possible to cover. Carson dictated an autobiography but left behind little record of his own life to contradict the novelizations of it that eastern publishers were cranking out to sell to a public anxious for stories of the wild west. Sides is able to go into detail about Carson’s life by going into detail about the lives of those who knew him and those who participated in the same struggles he did. This makes Blood and Thunder a comprehensive account of America’s expansion into the southwest.
This focus on people who knew Carson is not without its downside. While the people Mr. Sides discusses are interesting, few people in the American West of the 19th century could help but be interesting, they are not Kit Carson. When the book strays from its main subject, which it does often for entire chapters at a time, it becomes less interesting, at times even a big of a slog. The other problem with a book focusing on Kit Carson is that he is not an entirely sympathetic character. It’s difficult to come up with truly heroic people when looking at the history of the American West. Carson was certainly a man who deserved much admiration, but he also deserved much scorn. The Bear Flag Revolt, which led to California’s independence from Mexico began with a double murder. What was done to the Navajo nations, as well as to many of the other tribes dealt with in Blood and Thunder, leaves little to admire in those who fought them.
This leads to my main problem with Blood and Thunder. While I do not think Mr. Sides is in any way attempting to whitewash Kit Carson or to write an uncritical heroic account of America’s westward expansion, I kept thinking how differently this story would be portrayed had it been written by a Native American scholar, or by a Mexican one. Mr. Sides does discuss things like Carson’s scotched earth policy against the Navajos which led to the deaths by starvation of 1000’s of non-combatant men, women and children. He even mentions, briefly, the fact that after end of the Civil War, many whites in New Mexico, including Carson, kept Native Americans as slaves in their own households. Mr. Sides book does a fair job of balancing the heroic history so many readers want with the reality of what went on on the ground, but only a fair job.
This review first ran on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B.. I thought I’d find something about American history to re-publish here for the Fourth of July. When I read about American history, I tend to focus on the west, California in particular, so I didn’t have anything about the revolution. I do think Sarah Vowell’s new book on Lafayette looks good.