Blood and Thunder
An Epic of the American West
Praise for Blood and Thunder
“Kit Carson’s role in the conquest of the Navajo during and after the Civil War remains one of the most dramatic and significant episodes in the history of the American West. Hampton Sides portrays Carson in the larger context of the conquest of the entire West, including his frequent and often lethal encounters with hostile Native Americans. Unusually, Sides gives full voice to Indian leaders themselves about their trials and tribulations in their dealings with the whites. Here is a national hero on the level of Daniel Boone, presented with all of his flaws and virtues, in the context of American people’s belief that it was their Manifest Destiny to occupy the entire West.”
—Howard Lamar, Sterling Professor Emeritus of History, Yale University and editor of The New Encyclopedia of the American West
“The story of the American West has seldom been told with such intimacy and immediacy. Legendary figures like Kit Carson leap to life and history moves at a pulse-pounding pace—sweeping the reader along with it. Hampton Sides is a terrific storyteller.”
—Candice Millard, author of The River of Doubt
“Hampton Sides doesn't just write a book, he transports the reader to another time and place. With his keen sense of drama and his crackling writing style, this master storyteller has bequeathed us a majestic history of the Old West.”
—James Bradley, author of Flags of Our Fathers and Flyboys
“Blood and Thunder is a big-hearted book whose subject is as expansive as they come. Hampton Sides tackles it with naked pleasure and narrative cunning: In his telling, the vast saga of America’s westward push has a logical center. The dusty town of Santa Fe becomes the nexus around which swirl the fortunes and strategies of a mixed set of serious overachievers, from Kit Carson, the original mountain man, to James K. Polk, the enigmatic president whose achievements, in the dreaded name of Manifest Destiny, were almost biblical in scope. Sides is alive to the exuberance and alert to the tragedy of the taking of the West.”
—Russell Shorto, author of Island at the Center of the World
“For a huge percentage of us immigrant Americans (those whose ancestors arrived after 1492), Hampton Sides fills a gaping hole in our knowledge of American history—a vivid account of how ‘The New Men’ swept away the thriving civilizations of the Native Americans in their conquest of the West.”
"BLOOD AND THUNDER is a balanced, thoughtful summary of the American conquistadors in the 19th century Southwest. Hampton Sides has re-created violent events and such inflammatory figures as Kit Carson without bias. Carefully researched, thoroughly enjoyable."
-Evan S. Connell, author of SON OF THE MORNING STAR, CUSTER AND THE LITTLE BIGHORN
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.
Hampton Sides’s extraordinary book brings the history of the American conquest of the West to ringing life. It is a tale with many heroes and villains, but as is found in the best history, the same person might be both. At the center of it all stands the remarkable figure of Kit Carson—the legendary trapper, scout, and soldier who embodies all the contradictions and ambiguities of the American experience in the West. Brave and clever, beloved by his contemporaries, Carson was an illiterate mountain man who twice married Indian women and understood and respected the tribes better than any other American alive. Yet he was also a cold-blooded killer who willingly followed orders tantamount to massacre. Carson’s almost unimaginable exploits made him a household name when they were written up in pulp novels known as “blood-and-thunders,” but now that name is a bitter curse for contemporary Navajo, who cannot forget his role in the travails of their ancestors.
Praise For Blood and Thunder: An Epic of the American West…
“Riveting . . . monumental . .. . Not only does Blood and Thunder capture a pivotal moment in U.S. history in marvelous detail, it is also authoritative and masterfully told.”
—The Washington Post Book World
“Stunning. . . Both haunting and lyrical, Blood and Thunder is truly a masterpiece.”
—Los Angeles Times
“We see a panorama and a whole history, intricately laced with wonder and meaning, coalesce into a story of epic proportions, a story full of authority and color, truth and prophecy . . . Sides fills a conspicuous void in the history of the American West.”
—N. Scott Momaday, The New York Times Book Review
“From the lean crisp descriptions of the characters to the sights, sounds and smells of the trail, this is a crystal clear picture of the West.” —San Antonio Express News
Doubleday, 9780385507776, 480pp.
Publication Date: October 3, 2006
About the Author
Conversation Starters from ReadingGroupChoices.com
- Were you familiar with the Navajo wars before reading Blood and Thunder? How do the book's historical details compare with what you previously believed about the West?
- The contradictions in Kit Carson's personality make him an alluring figure. How was Carson able to embrace so many aspects of Native American culture, even marrying two Indian women, but nonetheless lead campaigns that crippled them? To whom (or what) was he most loyal?
- What was John Fremont's essential quest in exploring the West? What spurs all explorers to pursue risky journeys?
- What do the biographical details in chapter six indicate about James K. Polk? What might have stoked his determination to claim the West? How did he manage to keep military leaders motivated, despite Polk's ambiguous leadership style?
- Is American literature's love of the "noble savage," inspired by characters such as Fremont and his pathfinder Carson (chapter nine) a thing of the past? Who are the heroes in new fiction of the twenty-first century?
- How did the post-colonial unrest in Mexico affect U.S attempts to purchase and conquer the West? What racial hierarchies were in place among Hispanic and Indian populations there? What is the current legacy of these conflicts?
- Is the underlying concept of Manifest Destiny still used to justify violence around the world? What did Carson's words and actions reveal about his understanding of divine will?
- What does Carson's illiteracy, paired with his knowledge of numerous languages, say about him? What distinguishes the power of the written word from the power of the spoken word, as evidenced by Carson's enthusiasm for an epic poem by Lord Byron? Is a society truly literate if its members are not versed in more than one language?
- Did the Texas Confederates believe they were different from (or even superior to) the Confederates fighting closer to the Mason-Dixon line? What were the stakes for both sides as the Civil War played out in the West? How did the reasons for this war compare to the reasons behind Native American warfare and raids (such as the Comanche raids on dwindling resources at the end of chapter seventeen)?
- Why was Carson able to scorn generalizations and see Native Americans as individuals? What made him resistant to the hubris of men like General Carleton? How would you have responded if you had been a witness to the both death of Navajo chief Narbona (which closes chapter thirty-two) and the brutalization of Ann White (depicted in chapter thirty-five)?
- In what way was the landscape a "warrior" in Blood and Thunder (as in the Washington Expedition's encounter with Canyon de Chelly, depicted in chapter thirty-four)? How have various populations perceived the landscape of the West, from ancient populations to modern-day tourists?
- Discuss the promises that were made to Mexicans and Indians by Americans such as General Kearny. Why did so many of the treaties and pacifist proclamations prove to be hollow? How was this lack of concern for credibility justified?
- What did Carson seek in a wife? What prevented him from being more involved in the lives of his children? Did his first child, Adaline, fare better or worse than his other children, who were raised with less structure?
- How did you react to the scorched-earth tactics that forced the Navajos to begin their doomed migration? How would you categorize these tactics of war? Why has the Navajos' Long Walk, until now, been less well known than the Cherokees' Trail of Tears?
- The book's title is derived from the rousing "blood-and-thunder" pulp novels that made Kit Carson a caricature. Were fictionalized versions of his life harmful? Is exaggerated storytelling a necessary component of most cultures? Why have some Native Americans rejected historical and linguistic evidence for their global migrations, preferring to maintain dramatic myths instead?
- Why did Kit Carson die in poverty? What does it say about Carson that his estate comprised considerable debt—owed to him by others? What are the appropriate means of measuring a life's accomplishments?
- What was the ultimate fallout of the history contained in Blood and Thunder? Where do Indian and American identities now stand, in response to each other?
- How would Kit Carson advise contemporary America on diplomacy and fighting terrorism? How did he balance the need to win allies with the need to be perceived as a fearsome warrior?
- How did Kit Carson's ideas about American Indians evolve over the course of his life?
- Do Americans still have an emotional investment in believing that the "winning" of the west was a glorious, even heroic endeavor? How does the real story of western conquest differ from the one we were taught in grade school?
- During its first war of foreign aggression, the United States seized many thousands of square miles of territory from Mexico. How should this historical fact shape the current debate over Mexican immigration‚ especially considering that the states most keenly affected by the immigration controversy (California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas) are the very states the United States appropriated from Mexico?