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Blood and Thunder: An Epic of the American West

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A Magnificent History of How the West Was Really Won - a Sweeping Tale of Shame and Glory

In the fall of 1846 the venerable Navajo warrior Narbona, greatest of his people’s chieftains, looked down upon the small town of Santa Fe, the stronghold of the Mexican settlers he had been fighting his whole long life. He had come to see if the rumors were true—if an army of blue-suited soldiers had swept in from the East and utterly defeated his ancestral enemies. As Narbona gazed down on the battlements and cannons of a mighty fort the invaders had built, he realized his foes had been vanquished—but what did the arrival of these “New Men” portend for the Navajo?

Narbona could not have known that “The Army of the West,” in the midst of the longest march in American military history, was merely the vanguard of an inexorable tide fueled by a self-righteous ideology now known as “Manifest Destiny.” For twenty years the Navajo, elusive lords of a huge swath of mountainous desert and pasturelands, would ferociously resist the flood of soldiers and settlers who wished to change their ancient way of life or destroy them.

460 pages, Hardcover

First published October 3, 2006

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Hampton Sides

24 books1,140 followers

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 1,441 reviews
Profile Image for Matt.
935 reviews28.6k followers
June 7, 2018
This is how history should be written. This is the kind of book that spoils you for other books.

Hampton Sides’ Blood and Thunder is a sprawling account of the opening of the American southwest. It starts in 1846, with American soldiers arriving in Santa Fe, and ends roughly around the time of the First Battle of Adobe Walls in 1864. The two decades in between are stuffed with drama, horror, and heartbreak. All the stuff that used to fill the dime-store “blood and thunders” that lends this book its tongue-in-cheek title. You have General Stephen Watts Kearny taking the Army of the West on one of the longest marches in U.S. Military History. You have the underrated political genius of James Knox Polk and his ambitious continental designs. You have the Mexican-American War that Polk orchestrated, as fought in New Mexico and California. There are battles and massacres, explorations and discoveries, triumphs and tragedies.

This is a sometimes-wildly digressing story, hopping manically from one place to the next, like my kids on Christmas morning. (And on Halloween, Easter, their birthdays. Pretty much any day involving candy). One moment you’ll be reading about James Henry Carleton investigating the Mountain Meadows Massacre; the next you’ll be with soon-to-be Sand Creek villain John Chivington as he’s fighting the Confederacy at Glorieta Pass. It’s enough to give you whiplash, but the good kind of whiplash, like when you turn away from your video game to see your kids doing something cute.

Despite the overstuffed nature, Sides keeps things manageable by utilizing two backbones to carry the narrative. The first is famed hunter/trapper/scout/soldier Christopher “Kit” Carson. The second is the sad story of the Navajo Indians whose “long walk” to their reservation on the Basque Redondo is a tale redolent of the “Trail of Tears” yet oddly unremembered today. These storylines provide a moral framework for the rest of Sides’ story.

In some ways, this is a very old fashioned book. There are enough battles (from San Pasqual to Canyon de Chelly) to satisfy someone looking for a military history. It also relies heavily on the “great man” style of history. There are perceptive biographical sketches of the aforementioned Kearny and Polk (who Sides argues might be the most efficient and effective US President), as well as explorer John C. Fremont, politician Thomas Hart Benton, and Union General Edward Canby. Over them all towers the diminutive Carson, who Sides rightly finds the perfect embodiment of all the grim contradictions found in many of the men who helped open the West. Carson was kind and humane, except when he unleashed his terrible, lethal rage. He treated with the Indians, respected them, knew their customs and traditions, yet could mutilate the body of a warrior he’d just killed without batting an eye. He was on the forefront of a racial conflict, yet loved and married both an Arapaho woman named Singing Grass, and a Hispanic woman named Josefa. He was illiterate, yet spoke more than half a dozen different languages.

Yet this is also a very modern book. Sides writes in an incredibly inclusive style that seeks a diversity of viewpoints. There are a lot of white males, as might be expected (see the preceding paragraph), but there is also significant space devoted to Navajo leaders such as Narbona and Manuelito. You are given the opportunity to see things from their perspective, as they are forced to leave their ancestral homes for a reservation they're meant to share with long-time enemies. Sides also spends time with diarist Susan Magoffin, as well as Fremont’s able and intelligent partner, Jesse Benton Fremont. He strives to fill in the blanks of Carson’s wives, who elude us through a lack of primary documents. There is not a perfect 50-50 split, of course; I doubt that's possible with extant sources. The fact that Sides makes an honest effort, indeed goes out of his way to find other voices, goes a long way with me.

More than that, Sides is interested in the cultural context. He is clearly riveted by the intricate customs and practices of the Navajo, and spends a good deal of time exploring and explaining their worldview. What’s more, Sides uses this information to amplify the historical record. For instance, after Narbona’s death, he describes Navajo funeral rites. This has the double effect of giving you a better understanding of the Navajo people, while providing an idea of how Narbona was probably laid to rest.

The best part of all – yes it keeps getting better! – is that Sides is an excellent writer. He is a naturally gifted storyteller with a deep sympathy for his historical subjects. This is a vanishingly rare book that connects you with the past in a tactile way. I dare you not to be moved by the final agonies of Kit Carson, dying from an aortic aneurysm a month after his beloved wife. (His last words fitting for a man who straddled cultures: “Doctor, compadre, adios!”). He has an unerring eye for details both profound and small, whether dealing with Navajo death taboos or James K. Polk’s excruciating urinary stone surgery.

Sides seamlessly combines effortless prose, competent research, and astute judgments. It melds the old way of historical writing with the new, to create a marvelous hybrid. Sides gives you the “blood and thunder” of the West while maintaining a moral clarity of vision. He is not out to deliver harsh verdicts or to elevate undeserving heroes, but he can recognize a calamity when it’s looking him in the face. He is absolutely comfortable in the ethical ambiguities of America’s westward expansion, navigating the many, many competing impulses animating the men and women of this story.

This book represents an ideal for me. A work that is both exciting and introspective, that is both sharply incisive and generously big-hearted. It’s not an easy balance to strike, and it’s worth reading when it happens.
Profile Image for Lorna.
719 reviews417 followers
December 16, 2018
Blood and Thunder: The Epic Story of Kit Carson & the Conquest of the American West by Hampton Sides was a powerfully written and meticulously researched tale of the American West primarily from the early nineteenth century through the Civil War when President Polk's vision of Manifest Destiny was the ideological vision of the United States of America sweeping from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Having grown up in Colorado, New Mexico and California, I loved this book not only for its rich history but for its vivid descriptions of the southwest.

"They all had Spanish names and had had them since before the pilgrims sailed to Plymouth Rock: The Sandias. Manzanos. Ortiz. Jemez. Los Cerillos. Sangre de Cristos. San Mateos. Atalaya. Some seemed so close they could plucked as effortlessly as pendulous fruit, others more than a hundred miles off, thin blue phantoms rising from the Navajo country in the hazy west."

"The sagebrush gave way to cornfields and sheep pastures and then scattered houses, and finally the men dropped down to the somber capital--the Royal City of the Holy Faith of Saint Francis of Assisi. Although it had a fabled name with a venerable history--it was founded in 1609--Santa Fe was not a town that sought to impress anyone, numbering at most seven thousand inhabitants."

But at the heart of this saga is Christopher "Kit" Carson who was an integral part of this story. "There was something uncanny about Carson, in the way he popped up from the shadows and impressed his name on the scenes of history. . . . he did have a curious knack for making himself present at the critical instant. Whenever an expedition was in trouble--real trouble--he was there to bail it out."

It was also the chilling tale of the Navajo nation who found themselves unwilling participants in the last stages of Manifest Destiny. "It was not a single migration, but a series of them. . . But taken all together, it was a forced relocation of biblical proportions, one of the largest in American history--second only to the Trail of Tears of the Cherokees."
Profile Image for Michael.
1,094 reviews1,537 followers
April 20, 2013
Great narrative history account of Kit Carson's later years in Santa Fe that encompasses the twisted threads of the several tribes residing in the area, the longstanding Mexican settlements, the growing numbers of American settlers, and the U.S. Army operating under the mandates of Polk's Manifest Destiny.

Overall Carson is portrayed sympathetically as a complex character marked both by a love of Native Americans (he married one) and by skill in fighting bands who carried out violent incursions against settlers. An important part of the narrative is an accounting of the pathway that led him as a regional administror to accede to the tragic eviction of the Navaho from their sacred mountains to a barren reservation on the plains. The consequence was such a major loss of life that the event has been likened to a second "Trail of Tears" (Cherokee eviction from the South to Indian Territory--later Oklahoma).

A well written history that reads like a novel--what more can we ask for.
Profile Image for Mikey B..
1,005 reviews374 followers
November 7, 2018
This is an exquisitely written book. All comes alive – the differing personalities and cultures, the never ending clashes between Spanish/Mexican Americans and native Americans (Navajo, Ute, Apache). Above all we get wonderful portraits of the landscapes of the Southwest United States (present day New Mexico and Arizona). It is a diverse terrain that is beautifully stark and unforgiving; so unlike the lush green land that the newly arriving American settlers and soldiers from the East were accustomed to. But it was home to the many Native American tribes, who had been there for centuries, and the Spanish/Mexicans for over two hundred years.

This book covers the life span of Kit Carson (1809 - 1868) and the abundant events surrounding his unique life. Manifest Destiny swept in. The brutality that already existed was augmented by the western expansion of the United States government. They wanted this land and the Pacific Coast outlets; they ran roughshod over any of the inhabitants of this region to attain this goal. All was accomplished under President James K. Polk during his 4 year term (1845 -1849).

This was aided by men like Kit Carson. He was an intrepid mountain man who served as guide to the initial explorers and then the United States Army. We are also provided with remarkable views of Navajo life and the Spanish/Mexican American settlements that dotted the Southwest U.S. Very tragically Kit Carson was instrumental in the devastation of Navajo life. He led army forces that destroyed the crops of the Navajo Nation and reduced them to a subsistence and starvation level.

The Indian tribes were simply overwhelmed by the move west of the Anglo-American settlers, migrants, and armies. As is the case to this day when a nomadic people encounter a superior technological society with a numerically greater population, their culture and way of life alters permanently and they become marginalized in a land where they were previously dominant.

This book is remarkable in capturing the many different historical nuances of this time period. It is a highly engaging history full of the diversity of the era.
Profile Image for Max.
347 reviews335 followers
December 2, 2017
Sides depicts an icon of the western frontier, the exploitation of the land and subjugation of Native Americans. Kit Carson’s life follows the frontier’s fortunes, from his early days as a fur trapper to his role leading three Fremont expeditions to his exploits in the Mexican War and his chronicled battles with the Indians. Throughout, Carson’s skills, integrity, loyalty and unerring sixth sense were so prodigious that he seems the stuff of fiction. However, soft spoken standing only 5’4” with a slight build; he belied his characterizations in 19th century dime novels. While it is easy to view Carson as a willing tool in the slaughter of the Indians, Sides portrays Carson as a proponent of fair treatment who tried to prevent their total destruction.

Escaping as a teenager from a bonded apprenticeship in Saint Louis in the 1820’s, Carson became one of the last generation of mountain men, trapping beaver in the unexplored western plains and Rocky Mountains. When the beaver population was depleted, Carson put his knowledge of the country to use as a guide. Serving the Fremont expedition in its trek over the Oregon Trail, he first earned notoriety from the praise of the famous general. While in California his bravery in the fight against Mexico earned him more accolades as he went on to serve General Kearney. He fought for the Union in New Mexico in the Civil War and later led US forces against the Indians most notably defeating the Navajo with a scorched earth policy reminiscent of Sherman that forced them onto reservations.

Illiterate, Carson learned to speak fluent French, Spanish and numerous Indian languages. He was a man of immense practical knowledge with a deep appreciation of the land and of its native inhabitants. Carson seems to have been caught up in history as much as he made it. His pragmatism embodied a fatalistic sense of the future of Native Americans who he both fought and admired. Carson acknowledged that the white man initiated the conflict. But he believed that the Indians’ way of life made it impossible for them ever to coexist peacefully with whites. Thus he felt that reservations were the only way they would survive.

Race did not matter in Carson’s personal relationships. His first two wives were Indians, his third and last was Mexican. He loved his first wife, Singing Grass, an Arapaho who gave him two children. His second marriage to Making Out Road was short-lived. She divorced him in the Indian way by simply placing all his belongings outside the Teepee. He also loved his third wife, Josefa, from an established Taos family and converted to Catholicism for her. She gave him eight children. Singing Grass and Josefa both died from infections following childbirth. Carson died a month following Josefa’s death and was laid beside her in her still fresh grave.

Sides gives us a gritty account of this remarkable man, the transition of the West from unexplored frontier to the white man’s domain and the Indians’ demise. He shows us the abject cruelty that permeated the conflicts. He describes in graphic detail the slavery, torture, brutal killings, wanton destruction of homes and livelihoods practiced by Hispanics, Anglos and Native Americans alike. Sides writes crisply with a smooth flow and flourish that makes this history engaging and his book a fast read. Just be prepared for the sad, disturbing reality.

A good prequel to this slice of history is Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage covering the Lewis and Clark expedition showing us the land, mountain men and Indian life before Carson’s time. A good compliment is Gwynne’s Empire of the Summer Moon describing the white man’s conflict with and the demise of the Comanche in a strikingly similar story to that of the Navajo.
Profile Image for Joy D.
2,064 reviews239 followers
January 16, 2019
One of the best narrative histories I’ve read in recent years, Hampton Sides’ impressive work cuts through the legends and myths that have developed around Kit Carson, provides a balanced view of his personality and, in the process, draws a vivid picture of what life was like in the 1820’s – 1860’s in western America. Carson became famous during his time, but shunned celebrity. He was unschooled but spoke many languages. He was seen both as a hero and villain, depending on perspective. This book explores his complex personality, fierce loyalty, quiet demeanor, and decisive actions. Almost like an 1800’s version of Forrest Gump, Carson had a knack for being at the center of significant historical events. Sides focuses on Carson’s remarkable life as a focal point and common thread in conveying the often-brutal history of the American West, covering the panoramic drama that shaped the history of the region.

I gained an appreciation for the personalities involved – not only Kit Carson, but also John C. Fremont, James K. Polk, Stephen Watts Kearny, Edward Canby, Thomas Hart Benton, Jessie Benton Fremont, James Henry Carleton, Navajo leaders Narbona, Manuelito, and Barboncito, and a host of others. This book covers Carson’s many roles as a trapper, scout, explorer, soldier, and family man. It never strays too far from his life in relating historic events. It covers a vast swath of history: the expansion of the United States into current-day California, Oregon, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico, the Mexican-American War, the American Civil War battles in New Mexico, and the internecine clashes with the Navajo and other tribes. A significant portion is devoted to the encroachment of white civilization on the aboriginal people, as well as related salient issues such as reservations, relocation, and attempts to change their customs and ways of life.

I particularly enjoyed the author’s writing style, which flows artfully and elegantly. His descriptions of the terrain are stunning. He has a gift for telling a compelling story while imparting historic facts. The structure of this book is like a dog herding sheep, shifting among different perspectives, but keeping the multiple storylines moving along. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in gaining a better understanding of American western expansion and corresponding impact on its people, land, and culture.
Profile Image for Chrissie.
2,780 reviews1,458 followers
May 8, 2021
This review is not a summary of the events discussed in the book itself. Instead read the book to learn of America’s expansion westward to the Pacific in the middle of the 1800s and of fascinating details about Native American customs and beliefs!

The further you get into the story the better and better it gets.

Here is what I liked:

- The atrocities committed by both sides, those by the Indians and those by the conquering Americans, are presented without bias.
- These atrocities are factually presented, but also in a moving, manner.
- The events are supplemented with interesting details that add depth.
- The atrocities committed upset the reader, and they should do just that.
- The book both teaches and yet is not dry.
- Learning about different Indian tribes and their respective customs was fascinating.

Here is what I had trouble with:

- Unexplained jumps are made between chapters which lead to confusion, maybe more so in an audiobook listening. Yes, you are soon straightened out, if you listen very carefully, but this is annoying. It demands both patience and sometimes rewinds. You can be thrown into a new chapter where you have no idea who the people are!
- There is an abundant use of "maybes", "perhaps", "possibly", "it is thought", "it was said to have", "it must have"....and yet if the facts are not known for sure how else should the author express himself! Still, I didn’t enjoy this.
- Sorry, but even Hampton Sides captivating prose, doesn't prevent me from falling asleep when listening to military stratagems. There are battles galore; they are NOT my favorite theme.
- What exactly IS the central theme of the book? Is it a biography of Kit Carson(1809-1868)? Is it about the opening up of the West? Yes, to both of the above, but its central focus is the history of what happened in New Mexico during the Mexican War and the Civil War in relation to the Indians in this area, the Spanish settlers long residing in this same area and the invading Americans infused by their belief in “Manifest Destiny” - the land was theirs for the taking! The history is woven around Kit Carson’s role in both wars and in the subjugation of the Navajos. You definitely learn a lot of history and you leave the book with an unbiased, realistic understanding of who Kit Carson really was, not just the heroic figure of the "Blood and Thunder" dime novels so popular in the 1800s.

Don Leslie narrates the audiobook. His narration is clear and his tone attempts to enliven the battles with excitement. This works sometimes.

This is a heart-rending episode of American history, one that deserves to be read by all. In this book history is easily swallowed, yeah, maybe even the battles. The book is very, very good. I highly recommend it. What I loved most was learning about Native American beliefs and the gritty truth of the injustices/atrocities committed against them.
Profile Image for Jim.
370 reviews90 followers
November 26, 2015
This is a truly outstanding book...history that reads like fiction; my favourite kind! As the title suggests, the book details the conquest of the American West. Of course conquering the West was virtually synonymous with subjugating the American Indian, which is what this book is really about.

Kit Carson does hold the story together, being involved from the first chapter to the last, but it is a Kit Carson I was not expecting to meet. I anticipated a larger-than-life brawling, drinking, Injun scalpin' mountain man: instead, I learned that Carson was a family man, an Army officer, a Freemason. He was a sober and shy introvert whose word was his absolute bond. This book does a good job of outlining his past and detailing his achievements, but Carson came up short of my expectations somehow. I don't think it was the writing that shortchanged him, I just think that Carson came out as human and therefore flawed just like the rest of us. In one encounter with Mexicans he was unhorsed and his rifle broken, essentially sidelined while his comrades in arms clashed with the foe at close range. On another occasion, the kidnapped settler's wife he attempted to rescue was murdered before he could overcome the raiders that took her. Full points for effort, but everything Carson touched seemed doomed.

What really made the book work for me is that I learned a lot about the American westward expansion, which really amounted to the virtually unopposed absorption of a large piece of property belonging to another sovereign state a la Iraq and Kuwait. Mexico must still be pissed off! And the Indians! I am still giddy over the wealth of knowledge that was imparted to me by this book! Mr Sides gives them all their due, but the Navajo get the Royal treatment, mostly because they were Carson's special relocation project. This is where the man lost a lot of my respect although I suppose you could say he was only following orders....we heard a lot of that line in 1945. But Mr Sides is sympathetic to the Native American tribes, and has really researched the heck right out of them. I learned for example, that captured Navajo were retained as slaves for some time after the Emancipation Proclamation. I was also surprised to learn that the Navajo are likely originally Canadian as their language and appearance (and, apparently, DNA) match that of tribes in the Canadian north.

One bit of info I intend to take with a grain of salt...on page 353 Mr Sides comments about Carson's being petitioned into a lodge of Freemasons: "tough Western stalwarts wearing funny hats and chanting mantras in a dark hall,". I don't know if the author is taking a cheap shot to try to make a group look silly or if he's been watching too much of the Loyal Order of Water Buffaloes on The Flintstones, but nor group of Freemasons I have encountered has worn headgear and chanted mantras. Just sayin'...

That minor observation aside, this book is really worthwhile. I mined the vast bibliography and came up with a lot of titles dealing with the Navajo, and I will be looking into those when time permits. And I am sure that this is not the last Hampton Sides book that I will be reading.

Profile Image for Joe.
337 reviews80 followers
February 25, 2021
I am not an Old West aficionado but I do like a great history book and Blood and Thunder is all of that - at times reading like a novel, i.e. engaging.

The book chronicles the American Southwest from the 1820’s through the Civil War. Kit Carson is the central character – who seemingly knew everyone and how to get anywhere during that time - he disappears and reappears as the story is told.

The author also chronicles the Mexican War, the tales of mountain men and explorers, the Gold Rush and a host of other adventures and misadventures that could only come out of the American West.

The central drama is the destruction of the Navajo nation. Before you sigh and go “Oh Boy”, this is not a 150+ year old editorial. The author portrays the heroism, tragedy, good intentions gone bad, ignorance and even the general public’s apathy as this drama unfolds in a very even-handed manner. The facts speak for themselves – good and bad. Highly recommended.
Profile Image for Lawyer.
384 reviews841 followers
July 16, 2011
Hampton Sides is a wonderful writer of history. "Blood and Thunder" details the continuing conflict between the Navajo tribes and the successive occupants of New Mexico from its original occupation by the Spanish, through the Mexican government and finally the United States.

In addition to covering this lengthy cultural conflict, Sides weaves the biography of Kit Carson and his significant involvement in the New Mexico Territory. The title of Side's book is drawn from the term "Blood and Thunder" which was a popular name for sensationalized pulp novels portraying the lives of those individuals who caught the imagination of the American public during its westward expansion. Carson was the topic of many of them. He had little regard for this literary phenomenon of his generation, considering them over blown and untruthful.

Sides' book provides a treatment of the Navajo wars reminiscent of S.C. Gwynne's excellent "Empire of the Summer Moon," which detailed the American conflict with the Comanche Indian bands occurring from Oklahoma into Mexico. Both are commendable and highly readable accounts of this turbulent historical era.

Of course the book could not be complete without the story of the development of the system of Indian Reservations. Naturally, this volume focuses on that created for the Navajo bands and the common belief of American authorities that each tribe was a nation held together by a head man who spoke for all members of the tribe. This misconception was the fundamental basis for the failure of so many Indian treaties.

Another reason to pick up Sides' book is his excellent recounting of American Civil War battles and skirmishes occurring in the New Mexico Territory. As in each of his books, Sides captures the unique personalities of the men and women who lived through the times.

Hampton Sides consistently produces well researched works of American history without resorting to the academic tediousness found necessary by some authors whose names I will not mention here. Bottom line--history doesn't have to be boring. When Hampton Sides writes it, it isn't. Highly recommended.
Profile Image for Steve.
820 reviews238 followers
September 29, 2008
If you don’t know much about Kit Carson, or his life and times, Hampton Sides’ Blood and Thunder is probably a fine place to start. Carson was one of those rare historical figures whose life would intersect, numerous times, with important moments, and people, in American history. Primarily, Sides focuses on Carson’s role with the whole Manifest Destiny movement, which was initiated by President Polk in the 1840s. Still, this is an enormous chunk of history that literally covers the entire continent. But Sides handles this huge sweep well, supplying numerous mini-biographies on various figures that historians usually don’t spend a lot of time on (such as the often-drunk Confederate General Sibley, or New Mexico Governor Charles Bent). I found these “side trips” wonderful, adding texture to the overall story of Carson’s life. There were a few times when I felt Sides went a little too far in his historical renderings. For example, I found the funeral of Navajo leader Narbona to be a recounting that arises primarily from Sides’ imagination. I have no doubt that Sides captured the ritual correctly, but Sides makes it sound like a first hand accounting, complete with what participants felt and thought. There were also few other bumps along the way. For some reason Sides repeats himself numerous times, giving the impression that the book’s chapters were written independently, and that there was no editorial attempt to smooth out these repetitions. Still, in general this is a very well written book, with some fine descriptive writing that brings dramatic events, colorful people, and beautiful landscapes to life. A great read, from which I learned a lot.
Profile Image for Kurt.
569 reviews55 followers
August 27, 2016
Only very few books I have read would qualify as being so good that I couldn't wait to finish yet at the same time caused me to dread coming to the end of such an exhilirating experience. Blood and Thunder is definitely in that elite class.

The history of the southwestern United States from approximately 1800 to 1870 is the underlying theme of this book. Embedded within, however, is the complete biography of the fascinating Kit Carson and a complete description of the experiences of the Navajo people during that pivotal time period. Many other historical people and events are well described including John Fremont and the Mexican War.

Blood and Thunder is a perfect example of how interesting history is and how it can be presented to the masses in ways that will excite and educate at the same time. Everyone should read it.
Profile Image for Numidica.
386 reviews8 followers
October 14, 2022
This is history as it should be written, with rigorous attention to facts, but with a novelist's talent for drawing in the reader. Hampton Sides tells the story of the US acquisition and "pacification" of the Southwest using the story of Kit Carson's remarkable life as its central thread. This is a part of US history in the Southwest with which I was mostly unacquainted, from the mountain man era of the 1820's and 30's to the Mexican War to the post-Civil War era.

One reason I'm doing this review a little at a time is I am helping take care of my grandchildren this week, and that experience colors my view of the story of the US "conquest" of the West. Also, I have hiked one of the "sky islands" of northern New Mexico near the key area of Santa Fe with my son, and as a person interested in forest ecology, that left a strong impression on me; the micro-climates above 7,500 feet in the mountains there give rise to beautiful Ponderosa pine forests that are filled with wildflowers and hummingbirds in the summer; above 9,000 feet, one enters a magical Alpine environment of aspens, spruce and fir trees, and from about 11,000 feet on up the trees become smaller to stunted, but even so, the tops of the mountains are green without a tree-line. Finally, having served in the Army, I appreciated Sides' depiction of the small units of troops tasked with enforcing the often benighted policies of the US Government, and how the actions of those units were dramatically affected by the integrity and intelligence of the particular local commanders.

It is interesting and telling that in Americans' initial contact with the tribes of the Southwest, most of the reports from individuals (mostly soldiers) were positive, like a young Lieutenant's comment about how honest and hardworking the Pima Indians were, or the description of a first meeting with the Navajo, in which the soldiers and Navajo traded clothes and bartered for various objects after enjoying a feast held by the tribe. Kit Carson was no exception to this record of positivity; he had lived among various tribes and spoke several of their languages, and his first wife was an Arapaho woman, Singing Grass, who was reportedly the love of his life. In the Mexican Southwest, the Spanish and then Mexican settlers had reached a sort of stasis with the Navajo and other tribes - there was mutual raiding by each side, but the borders of the Navajo Nation were not seriously challenged by the Mexicans. The victory of the US in the Mexican-American War changed everything, and the Santa Fe Trail became a major thoroughfare for those heading to California, and this brought the increasing instances of settlers' conflict with tribes along the trail to the attention of Washington. And so the Army was directed by Congress and multiple Administrations to get the situation under control, probably in words about as general as that.

One thing I was completely unaware of was that the westernmost battle of the Civil War was fought at Valverde in the vicinity of Santa Fe by the US Army against a ragtag Confederate force from Texas commanded by a habitually drunk "general". The Union forces under General Canby wisely conserved their strength while seeking out the Texans' baggage train, which they captured and burnt, leaving the Texans to straggle back to Texas, a journey which left most of them dead from starvation, dehydration, and Indian attacks. During the main battle, Kit Carson commanded a US Army regiment which distinguished itself in the fighting.

After the Civil War, the number of white settlers increased dramatically, along with atrocities against the tribes. A sometime Methodist minister and Colorado Militia Colonel named Chivington carried out a despicable massacre at Sand Creek, which Carson described in bitter terms to his Army superiors, with the recommendation that Chivington be tried for murder. The very idea of attacking the Arapahos and purposely killing babies and their mothers makes me nauseous, especially since this week I'm a caregiver for little children, and it raised Carson to a fury when he heard of it. The idea quickly spread among the Army leaders that the tribes must be physically separated from white settlers to prevent trouble, and so Carson was dragooned into leading the effort to move the Navajo and other tribes to a remote outpost, Bosque Redonda. This was the beginning of the reservations that were the successors to the Oklahoma "Indian Territory". Carson succeeded in inducing the Navajos to move, but he was ultimately privately ashamed of what had transpired, since the approach to "persuading" them was to burn their crops and kill their livestock, and ultimately the Navajos had a choice of moving to Bosque Redonda or starving. After Carson's death, and the removal of the martinet commander who drove the Navajo relocation, General Sherman of Sherman's March fame met with the Navajo leaders, was moved by their tale of suffering, and he directed that they be given land in their traditional area. Not perfect, but better.

It is hard to see how the outcome in the Southwest could have been much different, given the pressure from Washington to aid settlement of whites in the West, but the US has much to answer for in its actions there. So much has been written on that topic, and I'll not add to the pontifications except to say that with wise commanders and Indian Agents, the results could have been so much better for the Navajos and other tribes. There were several examples of these, and it is tragic and shameful that the Chivington model seemed ultimately to win out. Kit Carson was saddened by the reduction of the proud peoples of the Native American tribes, but he was a realist about the direction things were moving, and he seems to have believed the establishment of reservations was the least bad choice. His role was a tragic one, considering his personal honesty in dealing with the tribes.
Profile Image for David Eppenstein.
699 reviews152 followers
November 5, 2020
My knowledge of the history of our Western expansion and, in particular, our dealings with Native Americans is very limited. In the last year I've taken steps to correct that deficiency by reading a few excellent histories in that subject area. This book does a great deal to help with my ignorance. It is an excellent treatment that is both engaging, well written, and thought provoking. Its focus is primarily on Northern New Mexico and the Four Corners area and while it is a history of that area it is also a rather full biography of Kit Carson. One of the reasons I enjoyed the book was because my wife and I have enjoyed a few vacations in this area. It is always fascinating to read about how places that you've visited had a role in the history of that area. In any event this book, like others I have recently read illustrates what a sad period of our history this is. The clash of two cultures and the search for a reasonable solution. On the one hand the primitive and violent Native American people that had no written language, little art, no architecture and absolutely no authoritative governing structure. These people had a way of life as hunter-gatherers and raiders that was unchanged for unknown numbers of generations. Opposing them were the encroaching Whites who were vastly more advanced technologically but were not so far removed from their primitive natures that it couldn't be resorted to in short order. Neither side had any understanding of the other and resort to violence was the usual result of this ignorance. Carson seems to have a better insight than most based on his years of association with various Indian tribes. His epiphany, however, occurs only after decades of exploits bathed in blood and scalps. The truth is that this culture clash was an example of cultural Darwinism. Unless the Native population could adapt and evolve to meet the changing times they were doomed to extinction. Of course the Indians abhorred change and revered the "Old Ways" and their traditions so change could only come by force. After reading this book I started to wonder how our native peoples might have evolved had the whites left them alone; if Gene Roddenbury's invention of "Star Trek's" Prime Directive had been in force and adhered to. Of course the same speculation could be made for the people of sub-Saharan Africa as well. But that was never to happen. The European tribes evolved more quickly and in different ways and overran the planet infecting these less advanced cultures who either joined the parade or got stamped into the earth. Unfortunately, that was the fate of the Native Americans. If there was a more reasonable solution to be had at that time I can't see what it might have been.
Profile Image for Wayne Barrett.
Author 3 books107 followers
August 22, 2016


If you liked Cormack McCarthy's 'Blood Meridian' you'll love this non-fiction account of America's expansion into the west.
Having been born and raised in California, I recognized many of the names mentioned in this tale because they are the names of cities, counties, etc. Stockton, Kern, Freemont, and of course, Carson City. And now I know the history of the names attached to these places I grew up with.
Agree or disagree, Manifest Destiny is part of our history and Hampton Sides did a superb job in relaying the story in all its grandeur and gore but did so without unnecessarily romanticizing the event. The character focused on more than any other here was the legendary Kit Carson. I grew up knowing the name but if asked would probably not have been able to tell you the first thing about him. As it turns out, I think I would say the man was greater and more influential than Crockett, Boone, or any of the other well known western explorers of that time.
If you follow Hollywood and dime-store novels throughout history you will notice times when White Man was depicted as the good guy and the rest savages. And in more recent years, just the opposite. What I appreciated in this telling is that we see mankind in this event from a realistic, unbiased standpoint. Whether Anglo, Mexican or Indian, there were good people and there were bad people. There were great accomplishments and there were feats of pure evil and brutality... on all sides.
If you want to learn something, something told from an honest pen and yet still entertaining then I suggest this book on your reading list.
Profile Image for Emily.
706 reviews2,045 followers
January 2, 2017
I loved this book. It's one of the most engaging, creatively told works of nonfiction I've ever read. Hampton Sides tells a cohesive and propulsive story that takes you from the opening of the American west in the 1820s through the Long Walk of the Navajo after the Civil War.

The focus is somewhat on Kit Carson, whose (frankly incredible) life somehow spans most of the interesting events happening west of the Mississippi from 1820 on, from the Fremont expedition to the conquest of California to the Navajo wars. He's an illiterate farm hand who becomes a colonel and then a general in the US Army, who knows French and several Indian languages, whose fame grows so quickly that he becomes the subject of "blood and thunders": novels that were precursors to the modern western and involved Carson single-handedly saving women from Indians and winning hand-to-hand combat with bears. The crazy thing about Kit Carson is that, while the blood and thunders were mostly exaggerated (putting him at over six feet tall), his actual accomplishments weren't that far off. In the battle of San Pasqual, Carson breaks the blockade of the US forces by walking over 12 hours, in the dark, barefoot, across a field of prickly pear, through the Mexican sentries into San Diego, where he calls for reinforcements. In another episode, he tracks a particular Indian tribe and makes a bet on the exact hour when they'll find the camp. (He wins, but is hesitant to say so because he puts the time at 2:00 and they arrive at 2:14.) He's a man full of contradictions, as Sides explores, someone who is respected by various Indian tribes, has an Indian wife, and speaks their languages, but can also be brutally retaliatory for little cause.

Along with Kit Carson, Sides weaves in an array of equally fascinating personalities, including the Navajo chief Narbona, the egotistical explorer John Fremont (with his wife Jessie described as "the better man of the two"), the dour James Polk, and many more who make up the story of the southwest. Given the scope of the book, there's a new person introduced on every page, which makes Sides's talent for characterization vital. He has the gift of making someone memorable within a few sentences:

One of the officers leading this sprinting column was Maj. John Milton Chivington, a formidable man who would soon become one of the most notorious figures in the American West. Originally from Ohio, the forty-one-year-old Chivington was a Methodist preacher who brimmed with a sort of muscular Christianity. As a "circuit rider" traveling about the lawless and violent West, he came to view himself not only as a pastor but also as a one-man vice officer--God's own enforcer. Once, in Nebraska City, he took it upon himself to destroy the entire liquor supply of a saloon that had, by a perfectly legal deed, located itself in an abandoned church. A shocked witness demanded to know by what authority he could seize and destroy another man's property. Chivington replied: "By the authority of almighty God!"

Impossible to forget (and also so so funny, until Chivington massacres an entire Indian village with no cause). There's an another army officer who appears twice, about 200 pages apart, who speaks Arabic and runs an experiment to see if camels will be suitable for the American army in New Mexico. On his second appearance, Sides says, "Remember the camel guy?" Yeah! I DO remember the camel guy. It's a real skill, and is so important for a book of this scale.

Most of the action in the book centers around New Mexico, specifically Taos and Santa Fe, and a running theme is the race relations between the whites, Mexicans, and Indians (Navajos and Apaches) who uneasily coexist. There are many good men who could have turned the course of history in a different direction and who meet their end too soon, like Governor Bent (scalped in his own home in a rebellion) and Harry Dodge (dies in a raid while positioned as the Indian officer for the Navajo), and many men who should have met their end before wreaking havoc on the southwest, like James Carleton (responsible for the death of thousands of Navajo to meet his vanity project). This is all new history to me and is fascinating. Something I had never considered was that the Civil War came to New Mexico - in the 1860s, the Confederate army attempted to take Santa Fe and proceed to the Colorado gold fields, where they would fund the rest of the war effort (??). In their way was a Union army made up of New Mexicans and Indians, who fought not because of a Union they'd rather do without but because the Confederate army came from Texas, and their hatred of Texans surpassed any tension they had with one another. In another weird twist of fate, the Union and Confederate commanders were at West Point together, and one was the best man in the other's wedding (!!). I mean, you can't make this shit up.

There are many different and distinct tribes that are mentioned throughout the course of the book, and Sides takes care to distinguish between the peaceful Pueblo and the more defiant Navajo. The Navajo get the most page time, particularly through the lens of the leader Narbona. His death is genuinely heart-breaking. I had a hard time reading the last hundred pages of this book; if you have read anything about Native American history in the 1800s, you know how the story ends. (If you have not read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West and you live in America, get it together.) I was not familiar with the Long Walk of the Navajo, where the American army moves thousands of Navajo hundreds of miles outside of their ancestral homeland and attempts to settle them as farmers. Of course, thousands of Navajo die. I was sincerely surprised and happy when, at the end of the failed agricultural experiment, the Navajo get to go back - the reservation is placed between their four sacred mountains and they return home.

I would highly recommend this book to anyone who has a passing interest in the American west, American imperialism, Native American history, or engaging nonfiction in general. Sides is such a gifted writer that I'm going to read his other books, even though the topics don't interest me as much. It's also worth mentioning that I read this book over a road trip in New Mexico and Arizona, which was a great way to do it. It means that when you're in the Palace of the Governors in Santa Fe looking at Manuel Armijo's chair, you can vividly imagine all 300+ pounds of Manuel Armijo fitting in that chair.
Profile Image for Steve.
944 reviews140 followers
April 27, 2018
All I can say is that I'm glad that this wasn't the first Hampton Sides book I read. That's not meant to be particularly negative, but, while I did enjoy this book, and I'm glad I read it, I've really enjoyed some of his other stuff - some newer, but at least one older. I think of Sides as one of my most reliable favorites, and his Ghost Soldiers is one of my all-time favorite pieces of military history, so maybe I just set the bar too high. I dunno.

There a lot of good history here - it's a treasure trove of interesting tidbits, and it's nicely assembled, but it never fully seized my attention. I picked this up ages ago, and then put it aside. (I was unwilling to give up on it because it was Sides, but it didn't grab me like his other stuff.) Then, when I picked it up again, I found I enjoyed it enough to keeping working through it, but that was about it ... even late in the book, I never really got sucked into it ... I found it easiest to digest mostly in (uniquely) small doses. (I realize that plenty of folks read, enjoy, and savor books in just this manner, but ... um ... it's just not my style.)
Profile Image for Fred Forbes.
989 reviews48 followers
October 25, 2015
Remember the old Tonight Show when Ed or Johnny would drop a factoid and the other would reply "I.did.not.know. that!"? Found myself doing that a lot as I read this even though I thought I knew a good bit about this historical period. Details related to the Mexican War, Western settlement, Civil War, Indian Wars, and the Fremont expeditions I thought I had down but was continually impressed as the story emerged. Kit Carson I was only slightly familiar with but sure know him a lot better now. Fascinating material, told from a variety of viewpoints and perspectives and written in a novelistic style that held my attention. If my history books were this well done in my school days I think I would have been a heck of a lot better at staying awake. Great book by Sides, one of my favorites of the year.
Profile Image for Joyce.
1,709 reviews32 followers
July 22, 2019
5 stars

This book is a comprehensive and in-depth study of Christopher “Kit” Carson; his life and times. Mr. Sides has obviously done exhaustive research into not only Carson, but the settlement and growth of the West as well. His detailed book touches on several well known subjects of the West from the ill-fated Donner party, the wars with Mexico to the Civil War and the eventual attempt to subdue and “conquer” the Native Americans. While the book mainly discusses the Navajo tribes, it also touches on the other Native tribes as well. Thus the reader learns a great deal about the Navajo and their legendary leader Narbona. He was a peace-loving chief who tried his best to get along with the soldiers. There were those in his tribe who violently disagreed with his policies, however. Chief among them was his own son-in-law. Narbona was widely respected though, not only among his own people, but among other tribes as well.

The book discusses the various tribes that inhabited the plains, their customs and beliefs. It was some of these beliefs that got the Americans (as they are termed in the book), in trouble with the Natives. While there was one or perhaps two well meaning Americans who dealt with the Natives, by and large they were hard men who did not even try to understand their way of life.

The reader learns about the travails and hardships of traveling across the West from Missouri and other places in the East all the way to California. Soldiers who knew nothing about the area set out to conquer the Mexican army and annex California and all lands east for the United States of America.

Kit Carson plays a part in many exchanges with the Natives. He was married to a young Native woman who gave him a daughter. Essentially a shy man who spoke little, he was very decisive in his actions. He was clever, could not stand bullying and had a fiery temper when provoked. He traveled with some of the big names in history such as Fremont, Bent, Kearney and so on, but made his home near Taos in what is now New Mexico. He had a lifelong embarrassment about being illiterate. He can to hate the way of life in the East. He preferred the outdoor life he had chosen for himself when he left Missouri as a young boy and became a trapper and mountain man. When trapping petered out, he became a scout and soldier with the US Army. Although he was a great friend to the Navajo, his eventual actions led to their downfall and devastation.

This is a very excellent book. I believe it is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the settling of the West and the tragedy of the Native Americans. It is reminiscent in some ways to Larry McMurtry's writings, it is wholly non-fiction. Mr. Sides is not a dry author. He makes history interesting and engaging. The book doesn't just quote facts and figures, but tells the reader about the people. We get to learn about who they were apart from their actions; their fears, their weaknesses and interests.
Profile Image for Dave.
708 reviews18 followers
October 14, 2017
An excellent book of southwestern America history - about 1820 to 1870. Author Hampton Sides weaves the narrative around the life of Christopher ('Kit') Carson and the Navaho Indian tribe. The book jacket provides a very nice and concise description of "Blood & Thunder", so I will not repeat it here.
This is the second nonfiction history book by Hampton Sides I've read ("In the Kingdom of Ice" being the other). He writes superbly, I can't recommend him enough. His pacing, language, attention to interesting details, and story telling ability are all first-rate. He obviously makes use of excellent primary and secondary sources. I'll be following and eagerly reading more of author Hampton Sides' work.
Profile Image for Sweetwilliam.
158 reviews57 followers
December 2, 2017
I loved it. This book meanders much like my favorite book of all time the Son of The Morning Star. If you are curious to understand how the American SouthWest was founded this is a must read. The detail about the Navaho was very interesting and sad. The fact that Indian and Mexican were like Arab and Jew was an eye opener for me.
Profile Image for Patrick Gibson.
818 reviews68 followers
June 12, 2009
When the Pulitzer for fiction was handed out in 2006, I was adamant it had been given for the wrong book (“March”). “Blood and Thunder” should have had the honor hands down. I was actually angry over this. The clarity of thought and expression in this chronicle goes way beyond your ordinary history of the West. Not just a biography of Kit Carson, though he is used as the fulcrum which balances western expansionism with Native Americans (primarily the Navajo), this is a comprehensive discourse on immorality of Manifest Destiny and the second genocide on this continent by Christian hordes. Yet it is fair—explaining equal arguments for actions incurred.

The author gives a great deal of thought and description to the warrior Narbona. In fact he lavishes wonderful character descriptions to all of the Indian leaders. It is, perhaps, this very equanimity in the writing that gives the book such a powerful presence.

Before reading “Blood and Thunder” I was a Kit Carsonphobe. I would tell people not to visit his home or grave. I felt the need to enlighten visitors to Santa Fe and Taos on the villainy of the man. I would not take people to Fort Sumner and the Bosque Redondo. I was a bit extreme in my denunciation but I wanted people to know Carson was not the hero of mythmaking pulp novels of the 19th century (known as ‘Blood and Thunder’s’).

I’ve tempered my insubordinate spirit on poor Mr. Carson—mostly because of this book. While I still despise the whole concept of Divine Right (xenophobia is what it is), the author’s insight into the political nightmare in Washington after the Civil War helps place a great deal of what happened in perspective.

This is much more than an unfathomable story told on an epic scale. The descriptions of the land, the culture of the Dine (Navajo) and the sheer panorama of the New Mexico land where the drama played out is described with passion and exuberance.

The author even writes poetically on mundane subjects—for example here is a wonderful little toss off paragraph on bells (which are still BIG deals in Santa Fe):

“On the night of September 24, 1846, bells rang over the city, incessantly, crazily, as they always did when something was afoot. From the six churches they clanked and clanged, filling the streets with a maddening metallic din. The Santa Feans loved their bells and used them to announce every occasion—weddings, masses, even races and fandangos. Their sound was far from dulcet, for most of the bells were decrepit and cracked, some having been forged centuries earlier in Castille and shipped by galleon across the wide ocean and then hauled nearly two thousand groaning miles north from Mexico on the desolate wagon road, the Camino Real, which long served as the town’s only umbilicus to the civilized world. Through their long sojourns, the bells had been splashed with brine, dropped in silty arroyos, and pecked by bullets. They had seen revolts and massacres, and had endured several centuries of a steady faith’s ringing in the extremes of a high desert clime. Even though the bells were tarnished and streaked with verdigris, they remained the pride of the town, enduring relics from a time when the crown of Spain reigned as the greatest power on earth.”
Profile Image for David Crow.
Author 2 books893 followers
August 15, 2020
Having grown up on the Navajo Indian reservation, I knew a great deal about Kit Carson, the Long Walk, and other aspects of Navajo history. But Hampton Sides added tremendously to the story and made this book a page-turning adventure. I didn’t want it to end. Sides is a gifted historian and a great storyteller. Masterful.
Profile Image for Karen.
325 reviews23 followers
May 3, 2009
Overall I enjoyed this book. Colorful description of Kit Carson and the American West. I can only imagine how the Native Americans, especially the Navajo, would describe Carson and his ilk, though.
Profile Image for Simon Robs.
438 reviews95 followers
May 21, 2019
A thoroughly researched and elegantly recorded history of the American frontier west in conjunction with biographical portrait of Kit Carson and those around him both friend and foe.
Profile Image for Peter Tillman.
3,682 reviews345 followers
April 28, 2023
I should go back and write a real review of this one. But reread it first! I think it's my favorite Hampton Sides -- perhaps because it covers my home ground. Sides and I lived in the same exurb of Santa Fe at the time (Eldorado), and he gave an enthusiastic book talk at our little public library, which had been built the year before. Plenty of good reviews here. You can believe them.

A Kit Carson tidbit: a year or so later, we heard a Navajo lady give a talk on her new book, an illustrated kid's history of the Long Walk. She said she was taught by her grandmother to spit every time she said Kit Carson's name! 🤠

Currently rereading, Jan 2023. It's slow going, so far. Not sure I will continue.
Stalled & returned to library, early APR 2023. I'm done. I'll leave it at a 4.5 star rating.
Profile Image for Sonny.
445 reviews32 followers
January 12, 2021
Blood and Thunder is the story of the opening of, and conquest of, the American West from the days of the mountain men in the early 1800’s to the clash of three cultures. As the frontier moved west, trappers and hunters moved ahead of the settlers, searching out new supplies of beaver and other skins. The hunters and trappers formed the first working relationships with the Native Americans in the West.

— “As the forerunners of Western civilization, creeping up the river valleys and across the mountain passes, the trappers brought smallpox and typhoid, they brought guns and whiskey and venereal disease, they brought the puzzlement of money and the gleam of steel. And on their liquored breath they whispered the coming of an unimaginable force, of a gathering shadow on the eastern horizon, gorging itself on the continent as it pressed steadily this way.”
— Hampton Sides, Blood and Thunder

Following the mountain men, there came unstoppable waves of humanity driven by dreams of gold and land, spurred on by the belief that the United States was preordained to expand from the Atlantic coast to the Pacific coast. In the 1840s, this conviction was given the name Manifest Destiny. But the West would not be secured without conflict with the Mexicans who had lived there for several hundred years. After Texas was annexed 1845, President James K. Polk found a reason to declare war on Mexico after it turned down his offer to buy California and New Mexico—a war the United States won handily. Three years later, the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo reduced the size of Mexico by half and the United States had gained California, Nevada and Utah, as well as parts of New Mexico and Arizona. The problems were only beginning, however. The Americans were confronted with the tensions that often confront occupying forces:

— “The longer [they] stayed, the more the people resented them - not only for the central fact of their conquest, but for the thousand little insults and daily humiliations committed by an uncouth foreigner who considered himself, in every possible way, superior.”
— Hampton Sides, Blood and Thunder

The American situation was made all the more difficult in that they had to contend with the bitter hatreds between the Mexicans and the Indians, especially the Navajo. The Navajo did not have the reputation as being warlike, but this would change under the pressure created by the U.S. Army. The Navajos proved to be the more difficult problem. It was not that they did not want peace. Not being able to read or write, they had no understanding of the terms that the Americans wished to impose. Agreements would be reached, only to have the Navajos return to stealing horses and cattle from the locals. In frustration, the Americans determined to drive them into reservations, which they judged the best means to control and 'civilize' them. The Americans entered the sacred Navajo lands in Canyon de Chelly. It was a campaign of devastation; the army destroyed thousands of acres of crops and cut down or burned the Navajos beloved peach trees. In the Long Walk in 1864, the Navajos were forced to leave their territory and be resettled in the Bosque Redondo, hundreds of miles from their homeland. This was the brainchild of Brig. Gen. James Carleton, who put it succinctly:

— “They have fought us gallantly for years on years; they have defended their mountains and their stupendous canyons with heroism; but at length, they found it was their destiny, too, to give way to the insatiable progress of our race.”

By the end of the book, I came to loathe Gen. James Carlton, a self-righteous prick:

— “…the Weekly New Mexican fairly screamed good riddance to ‘this man Carleton, who has so long lorded it amongst us.’”
— Hampton Sides, Blood and Thunder

Yale-educated Hampton Sides (Ghost Soldiers) has a reputation as one of the best narrative historians in America today. In Blood and Thunder, Sides has diligently studied original documents and contemporary accounts and turned up some engrossing tales. He has a talent for creating thumbnail sketches of the characters involved. They are simultaneously comprehensive and concise. One example is his portrait of Stephen Watts Kearny, commander of the Army of the West:

— “On innumerable occasions he had smoked the pipe with Indians, learning their manner of speaking, their penchant for metaphor; he once flattered a Sioux chief by complimenting him on the ‘soaring eagle of your fame.’ During a council with Oglala Indians, he heartily partook of the local delicacies — boiled dog and blood-tinged river water from the paunch of a buffalo.”
— Hampton Sides, Blood and Thunder

There are equally good sketches of John C. Fremont; the murderous cleric and later Maj. John Chivington; Charles Bent, the first governor of New Mexico; the Navajo leader Manuelito; and the diarist Susan Magoffin. But the two primary characters are the great Navajo leader and warrior, Narbona, and “Kit” Carson, a larger-than-life frontiersman and soldier who became a myth in his own lifetime. Narbona was more than 80 years old when he was killed by American troops after the leader had come to discuss peace terms between the Navajo and the Americans. Carson seemed to be involved at every key stage in the American conquest of the West. Sides paints Carson as a complex figure, both daring and pitiless.

— “He was the prototype of the Western hero. Before there were Stetson hats and barbed-wire fences, before there were Wild West shows or Colt six-shooters to be slung at the O.K. Corral, there was Nature’s Gentleman, the original purple cliché of the purple sage. Carson hated it all. Without his consent, and without receiving a single dollar, he was becoming a caricature.”
— Hampton Sides, Blood and Thunder

Comprehensive, poignant and impressive, Blood and Thunder may be the best history of the American West since Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.
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