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The Epic Story of Kit Carson and the Conquest of the American West

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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.


Chapter 1 

Jumping Off

In the two decades he had lived and wandered in the West, Christopher Carson had led an unaccountably full life. He was only thirty-six years old, but it seemed he had done everything there was to do in the Western wilds--had been everywhere, met everyone. As a fur trapper, scout, and explorer, he had traveled untold thousands of miles in the Rockies, in the Great Basin, in the Sierra Nevada, in the Wind River Range, in the Tetons, in the coastal ranges of Oregon. As a hunter he had crisscrossed the Great Plains any number of times following the buffalo herds. He had seen the Pacific, been deep into Mexico, pushed far into British-held territories of the Northwest. He had traversed the Sonoran, Chihuahuan, and Mojave Deserts, gazed upon the Grand Canyon, stood at the life-leached margins of the Great Salt Lake. He had never seen the Hudson or the Potomac, but he had traced all the important rivers of the West--the Colorado, Platte, Sacramento, San Joaquin, Columbia, Green, Arkansas, Gila, Missouri, Powder, Big Horn, Snake, Salmon, Yellowstone, Rio Grande.

Carson was present at the creation, it seemed. He had witnessed the dawn of the American West in all its vividness and brutality. In his constant travels he had caromed off of or intersected with nearly every major tribal group and person of consequence. He had lived the sweep of the Western experience with a directness few other men could rival.

At first glance, Kit Carson was not much to look at, but that was a curious part of his charm. His bantam physique and modest bumpkin demeanor seemed interestingly at odds with the grandeur of the landscapes he had roamed. He stood only five-feet four-inches, with stringy brown hair grazing his shoulders. His jaw was clenched and squarish, his eyes a penetrating gray-blue, his mouth set in a tight little downturned construction that looked like a frown of mild disgust. The skin between his eyebrows was pinched in a furrow, as though permanently creased from constant squinting. His forehead rose high and craggy to a swept-back hairline. He had a scar along his left ear, another one on his right shoulder--both left by bullets. He appeared bowlegged from his years in the saddle, and he walked roundly, with a certain ungainliness, as though he were not entirely comfortable as a terrestrial creature, his sense of ease and familiarity of movement tied to his mule.

He was a man of odd habits and superstitions. He never would take a second shot at standing game if his initial shot missed--this, he believed, was "bad medicine." He never began a project on a Friday. He was fastidious about the way he dressed and cleaned any animal he killed. He believed in signs and omens. When he got a bad feeling about something or someone, he was quick to heed his instincts. A life of hard experience on the trail had taught him to be cautious at all times, tuned to danger. A magazine writer who rode with Carson observed with great curiosity the scout's unfailing ritual as he prepared to bed down for the night: "His saddle, which he always used as a pillow, form[ed] a barricade for his head; his pistols half cocked were laid above it, and his trusty rifle reposed beneath the blanket by his side, ready for instant use. You never caught Kit exposing himself to the full glare of the camp fire." When traveling, the writer noticed, Carson "scarcely spoke," and his eye "was continually examining the country, his manner that of a man deeply impressed with a sense of responsibility."

When he did speak, Carson talked in the twangy cadences of backwoods Missouri--thar and har, ain't and yonder, thataway and crick and I reckon so. It seemed right that this ultimate Westerner should be from Missouri, the Ur-country of the trans-Mississippi frontier, the mother state.

Out west, Carson had learned to speak Spanish and French fluently, and he knew healthy smatterings of Navajo, Ute, Comanche, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Crow, Blackfoot, Shoshone, and Paiute, among other native tongues. He also knew Indian sign language and, one way or another, could communicate with most any tribe in the West. And yet for all his facility with language, Kit Carson was illiterate.

Although he was a mountain man, a fraternity legendary for swilling and creative profanity, Carson was a straight arrow--"as clean as a hound's tooth" as one friend put it. He liked poker and often smoked a pipe, but he drank very little and was not given to womanizing. He was now married to a Hispanic girl from Taos, Josefa Jaramillo. Slender, olive-skinned, and eighteen years his junior, Josefa possessed "a beauty of the haughty, heart-breaking kind" according to one smitten writer from Ohio who got to know her, "a beauty such as would lead a man with the glance of the eye to risk his life for one smile." Only fifteen years old when she married Carson, Josefa was a bit taller than her husband. She was a dark-complected, bright-eyed woman whom one family member described as "very well-built, and graceful in every way." Cristobal, as Josefa called him, was utterly devoted to her, and to please her family, he had converted to Catholicism.

Especially now that he was a married man, Carson gave off none of the mountain man's swagger. "There was nothing like the fire-eater in his manner," wrote one admirer, "but, to the contrary, in all his actions he was unassuming." An army officer once introduced himself to Carson, saying, "So this is the distinguished Kit Carson who has made so many Indians run." To which Carson replied, "Yes, but most of the time they were running after me." His sense of humor was understated and dry, usually delivered with a faint grin and a glint of mischief in his eyes. When amused, he was prone to "sharp little barks of laughter." He spoke quietly, in short, deliberate sentences, using language that was, according to one account, "forcible, slow, and pointed, with the fewest words possible." A friend said Carson "never swore more'n was necessary."

Yes, Christopher Carson was a lovable man. Nearly everyone said so. He was loyal, honest, and kind. In many pinpointable incidents, he acted bravely and with much physical grace. More than once, he saved people's lives without seeking recognition or pay. He was a dashing good Samaritan--a hero, even.

He was also a natural born killer. It is hard to reconcile the much-described sweetness of his disposition with his frenzies of violence. Carson could be brutal even for the West of his day (a West so wild it lacked outlaws, for no law yet existed to be outside of). His ferocious temper could be triggered in an instant. If you crossed him, he would find you. He pursued vengeance as though it were something sacred, with a kind of dogged focus that might be called tribal--his tribe being the famously grudge-happy Scotch-Irish.

When called upon to narrate his exploits, which he did reluctantly, he spoke with a clinical lack of emotion, and with a hit man's sense of aesthetics. He liked to call his skirmishes pretty--as in "that was the prettiest fight I ever saw." He spoke of chasing down his enemies as "sport." After participating in a preemptive attack--others called it a massacre--on an Indian village along California's Sacramento River, Carson pronounced the action "a perfect butchery."

By the macabre distinctions of his day, he was regarded not as an Indian killer but as an Indian-fighter--which was, if not a noble American profession, at least a venerable one. But Carson did not hate Indians, certainly not in any sort of abstract racial sense. He was no Custer, no Sheridan, no Andrew Jackson. If he had killed Native Americans, he had also befriended them, loved them, buried them, even married them. Through much of his life, he lived more like an Indian than a white man. Most of his Indian victims had died in what he judged to be fair fights, or at least fights that could have gone the other way. It was miraculous he was still alive: He'd had more close calls than he could count.

Because Carson's direct words were rarely written, it's hard to know what he really thought about Indians, or the violence of his times, or anything else. His autobiography, dictated in the mid-1850s (and turned into a biography by a tin-eared writer who has charitably been described as an "ass"), is a bone-dry recitation of his life and leaves us few clues. It was said that Carson told a pretty good story around a campfire, but his book carefully eschews anything approaching an insight. His refusal to pontificate was refreshing in a way--he lived in a golden age of windbags--but at the same time, his reticence in the face of the few big subjects of his life was remarkable. He was, and remains, a sort of Sphinx of the American West: His eyes had seen things, his mind held secrets, but he kept his mouth shut.


Christopher Houston Carson was born in a log cabin in Madison County, Kentucky, on Christmas Eve of 1809, the same year and the same state in which Lincoln was born. A year later the Carson family pulled up stakes and trekked west from Kentucky to the Missouri frontier, with little Christopher, whom they nicknamed "Kit," facing forward in the saddle, swaddled in his mother's arms. The Carsons chose a spot in the wilderness near the Missouri River and hacked their farm from a large tract that had been part of a Spanish land grant bought by the sons of Daniel Boone, prior to the Louisiana Purchase. It was known indelicately as "Boone's Lick," for the salt deposits that attracted wild game and which the Boone family successfully mined. The Boones and the Carsons would become close family friends--working, socializing, and intermarrying with one another.

Kit was a quiet, stubborn, reliable kid with bright blue eyes. Although he had a small frame--a consequence, perhaps, of his having been born two months premature--he was tough and strong, with large, agile hands. His first toy was a wooden gun whittled by one of his brothers. Kit showed enough intellectual promise at an early age that his father, Lindsey Carson, dreamed he would be a lawyer.

Lindsey Carson was a farmer of Scotch-Irish Presbyterian stock who had lived most of his young life in North Carolina and fought in the Revolutionary War under Gen. Wade Hampton. The elder Carson had an enormous family--five children by his first wife and ten by Kit's mother, Rebecca Robinson. Of those fifteen children, Kit was the eleventh in line.

The Boone's Lick country, though uncultivated, was by no means uninhabited. Winnebago, Potawatomi, and Kickapoo Indians, among other tribes, had lived around the Missouri River Valley for many generations, and they were often aggressively hostile to white encroachment. For their own safety the pioneers in the Boone's Lick country had to live huddled together in cabins built near forts, and the men tended the fields with armed sentries constantly patrolling the forest clearings. All able-bodied men were members of the local militia. Most cabins were designed with rifle loopholes so settlers, barricaded within, could defend themselves against Indian attacks. Kit and his siblings grew up with a constant fear of being kidnapped. "When we would go to school or any distance away from our house," Kit's sister Mary Carson Rubey recalled years later, "we would carry bits of red cloth with us to drop if we were captured by Indians, so our people could trace us." Rubey remembered that, even as a little boy, Kit was an especially keen night watchman. "When we were asleep at night and there was the slightest noise outside the house, Kit's little brown head would be the first to bob up. I always felt completely safe when Kit was on guard duty."

One day when Kit was four, Lindsey Carson went out with a small group of men to survey a piece of land when they were ambushed by Sac and Fox Indians. In the attack, Kit's father was nearly killed. The stock of his rifle was shot apart and two fingers on his left hand were blown off. Another man in the party, William McLane, fell in the fight and, according to one vivid account, his Indian attackers cut out his heart and ate it.

Despite many incidents like this, some Missouri tribes were friendly with the settlers, or at least found it pragmatic to strike alliances and keep the peace. As a boy, Carson played with Indian children. The Sac and Fox tribes frequently came into the Boone's Lick settlements and carried on a robust trade. From an early age, Carson learned an important practical truth of frontier life--that there was no such thing as "Indians," that tribes could be substantially and sometimes violently different from one another, and that each group must be dealt with separately, on its own terms.


Before settlers like the Boones and the Carsons arrived, the country along the Missouri River, like so much of North America, was heavily forested. To clear land for planting, pioneers would sometimes "girdle" trees--cutting deep rings around the trunks--to deaden them. But the most expeditious way for farmers to remove dense thickets of timber was to set them afire. One day in 1818, Lindsey Carson was burning the woods nearby when a large limb broke off from a burning tree, killing him instantly.

Kit was only seven at the time, and his life would be profoundly changed. Although some of Lindsey Carson's children had grown up and moved out of the house, Rebecca Carson still had ten children to raise on her own. The Carsons were reduced to a desperate poverty. Kit's schooling ceased altogether, and he spent his time working the fields, doing chores around the cabin, and hunting meat for his family. As Carson put it years later, "I jumped to my rifle and threw down my spelling book--and there it lies."

Briefly, Kit became a ward of a neighbor. Then in 1822, Kit's mother remarried, and the obstreperous boy soon rebelled against his new stepfather. At age fourteen, Kit was apprenticed to a well-known saddler named David Workman in the small settlement of Franklin, Missouri. The boy hated this close and tedious shopwork. For nearly two years he sat at his bench each day, repairing harnesses and shaping scraps of hide with leatherworking tools. Because Franklin was situated on the eastern end of the newly cleared Santa Fe Trail, Workman's clientele largely consisted of trappers and traders, and the shop was often filled with stirring tales from the Far West. This bedraggled tribe of men in their musky animal skins and peltries must have impressed the young boy mightily, and one senses how the worm of his imagination began to turn. Sitting miserably at his station with his shears and his awls and his crimping tools, transfixed by the bold stories of these feral men, Kit began to dream of Santa Fe--the name signifying not so much a specific place as a new kind of existence, a life of expanse and possibility in fresh precincts of the continent.

From the Hardcover edition.
Hampton Sides|Author Q&A

About Hampton Sides

Hampton Sides - Blood and Thunder

Photo © Gary Oakley

Hampton Sides is an award-winning editor of Outside and the author of the bestselling histories Hellhound on his Trial, Blood and Thunder and Ghost Soldiers. He lives in New Mexico with his wife, Anne, and their three sons.

Author Q&A

In conversation with Hampton Sides, author of BLOOD AND THUNDER

How did you come to this story?

I never in a million years thought I’d write a Western! But five years ago, I went to the national cemetery here in Santa Fe where I live. It’s a mini-Arlington, with those immaculate white gravestones of veterans who fought in Vietnam, Korea, World War II, and on back. In the oldest and least visited part of the cemetery, you find men who died fighting “the savages.” Just rows upon rows of soldiers who perished in the Indian Wars. And I thought, these men probably had the same good qualities we celebrate in other soldiers from other wars. They were brave. They did their duty. But they fought in a war we now consider immoral. I stood there wondering, who were they? And how should we honor their sacrifice? I decided to write about the early Indian wars of the western frontier, in what I call the “pre-West.” It was an interesting time when the Western clichés had not yet solidified. There were no stage coaches or Stetson hats, no Colt six-shooters or cattle drives. America was just beginning to make its imprint.

How did you get from there to your central character, Kit Carson?

That was easy–all narrative roads led to this one man, the ultimate “pre-Westerner.” Out here in the West, Carson is like a jack-in-the box. Towns, rivers, and forests are named after him–not to mention dry cleaners, RV parks, and don’t-tell motels. The capital of Nevada, Carson City, bears his name. I had thought of him as a fictional character, a fabled gunslinger, or a stage character in a Wild West show. Little did I realize, the real Carson was far more interesting and far more important. This guy got around! He did everything there was to do in the West, and knew everybody. He was a fur trapper, buffalo hunter, scout, explorer, tracker, transcontinental courier, rancher, soldier, Indian agent–and finally a general. He did it all.

Why should we care about Kit Carson now?

Carson is one of those pivotal folk figures who invite reexamination. He was the “field agent” of Manifest Destiny, the guy who more than any other individual personified the American expansion into the West. Throughout most of the 1900s, historians who wrote about Carson and his times were emotionally invested in the idea that the western conquest was a glorious adventure led by a generation of mythically self-reliant pioneers. Then, by the 1960s, the pendulum had swung in the other direction. Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee and other histories painted the western expansion as a thoroughly shameful episode. All white pioneers were murderous land thieves; all Indians were noble environmentalists shrouded in golden mist. Now the pendulum has swung back to the middle, I think, and it’s possible for us to see the life of a controversial figure like Carson with the clarity of some dispassion.

Carson is the main character of Blood and Thunder, but is he the villain or the hero?

Both. By most classical definitions, Carson was heroic. He trekked unimaginable distances into dangerous wildernesses. He was modest about his exploits. Time and time again, he rescued people without expecting pay or recognition. He had physical grace and a sense of chivalry. He pulled stuff off you wouldn’t believe. Like some medieval knight, he was repeatedly called upon to slay dragons for the kingdom. The problem was, those “dragons” were often Native Americans. Carson played a key role in some of the more unfortunate collisions between the United States and the American Indian. Many Native Americans think of Carson as a genocidal maniac, right up there with Custer and Sheridan. A Navajo friend of mine told me, “We think of Kit Carson the way Jews think of Hitler.”

Was he really as bad as that?

I understand why the Navajos hate the man who conquered their nation. But for his day, Carson was quite enlightened on the subject of Indian policy. Back then, even sophisticated thinkers like Mark Twain were calling for their extermination. Carson had lived among Indians his whole life. He spoke seven Indian languages. His first wife was Arapaho. He knew first-hand that exposure to the white man was wiping the Indians off the map. And so he came to believe that the only alternative to their demise was to create reservations where formerly nomadic tribes could learn to live self-sufficiently without contamination from whites. Although it was tragically mishandled and horribly patronizing in its premise, that’s what Carson’s final campaign was about: To move the Navajos to a place where they could be “civilized” as an alternative to their own extinction.

If Carson isn’t the villain of Blood and Thunder, who is?

Brigadier General James Henry Carleton, Carson’s superior. He was the real architect of the Navajo campaign and just an absolutely insufferable prig. A stout New England Calvinist, he believed the Navajos had to become Christian farmers overnight. Carleton insisted that a Navajo reservation would not work anywhere on Navajo land–the entire tribe had to be rounded up and force-marched 400 miles to a place he had personally selected on the windswept plains near Texas. The Navajos called the resulting forced relocation “The Long Walk” and still talk about it as though it happened yesterday. Their migration was on a scale second only to the Trail of Tears of the Cherokee Indians. More than one-third of the Navajo people died in exile at this horrible place. If anyone was responsible for this tragedy, it was General Carleton.

Do you see resonances between Carson’s times and today?

In grade school we were taught the USA “never invaded a foreign country for land.” That’s just nonsense. The Mexican War, our first war of foreign intervention, resulted in an unbelievable expansion of our national domain. In 1846, an American army, guided by Kit Carson, marched across the continent and took most of the American West–just plain stole it! Suddenly we found ourselves nation-building in a mountainous desert, trying to make sense of this complicated patchwork of cultures and religions. We justified the conquest by saying we were spreading democracy to a benighted place. We believed our new subjects would welcome us as deliverers. It was all going to so easy! But we soon realized that we had no understanding of how intricate the cultures were. It was a cauldron of conflict, and yet we had pledged ourselves to the dangerous and expensive task of bringing it all under control. We were intensely naïve and intensely brutal. All of this seems very familiar to me.

Another fascinating resonance, for me, has to do with the current controversy over illegal immigration from Mexico. I think it’s interesting that the frontline states in this debate–California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas–are the very states we stole from Mexico. The people who get so bent out of shape about the Hispanicization of America conveniently forget that we crossed their borders long before they crossed ours. We forfeited our right to get worked up over this issue. Conquerors can’t be outraged!

Why did you choose to focus on the Navajos?

The Navajos are the largest tribe in the United States, living on the largest reservation. Yet most Americans know next to nothing about their relationship with the U.S. government. The popular conception of the Indian wars tends to focus on the Plains Tribes, particularly the Sioux. I thought this story begged for greater attention. Not only that, but Carson’s war against the Navajos–and their linguistic cousins, the Apaches–was couched in ways very similar to today’s war on terrorism. The Navajos and Apaches were often described as “terrorizing’ the countryside. They were successful raiders who stole women and children and livestock. And yet they were hard to catch. They lived in the shadows, in remote desert country riddled with canyons and caves. They were everywhere and nowhere–and they drove the military crazy.

What’s the image on the cover?

It’s a photogravure plate taken a hundred years ago by the famous photographer, Edward S. Curtis. Entitled “Before the Storm,” it’s a sepia-tone of Apaches on horseback in the mountains of the Southwest. Curtis was an extraordinary man who went around the West making pictures of Native Americans–the “vanishing race,” he called them. He was wrong about that of course–Indians have endured–but the traditions and lifeways he captured on film have changed dramatically.

Blood and Thunder also concerns the Civil War. How did you manage that in a Western?

It’s a little-known fact, but there were two extremely fierce Civil War battles out west, both of them fought in New Mexico. Kit Carson was there as usual, right in the middle of the action. He fought valiantly on the side of the Union. A rebel army of more than 3,000 soldiers had come up the Rio Grande from Texas, with an eye on seizing the goldfields of Colorado and eventually re-conquering most of the West for the Confederacy. It seemed like a quixotic mission, but the Texans actually succeeded in taking Santa Fe and hoisting the Rebel flag over the capital before they were finally repulsed. It was an important campaign. History would have played out very differently if the Texans had succeeded.

Are there similarities between Blood and Thunder and your last history, Ghost Soldiers?

When I finished Ghost Soldiers, people kept suggesting other World War II stories for me to write. But I was done with that war. I wanted to try another history that was radically different in place and time. Oddly enough, though, as I started this book, I found there was a compelling similarity in the story arc. As with Ghost Soldiers, the story of the Navajo conquest takes the form of a brutal siege, a surrender, a forced march, and a long captivity that ends in a bittersweet return home. As for stylistic similarities, much like Ghost Soldiers, I’ve tried to be inventive with the narrative structure, employing as much scene-painting and cross-cutting as possible, with different time-lines that inch closer together and finally intersect. And I’m afraid the “gross-out factor” is similarly high. The story of the “winning” of the West is every bit as brutal as Bataan–it’s violence on a Hobbesian scale. And so instead of samurai-style beheadings and tropical diseases, you have scalpings, corpse mutilations, Indian massacres, and extremely disgusting diets. People who liked the more gothic aspects of Ghost Soldiers will not be disappointed here.

How did you research this book?

It was an adventure keeping up with Kit Carson. I tried to go most everywhere he went, and that means pretty much the entire west. I drove the Santa Fe and Oregon Trails. I spent a lot of time on the Navajo Reservation, and in Taos, Carson’s home. I bounced around to a lot of old frontier forts– Bent’s Fort, Sutter’s Fort, Ft. Leavenworth. And of course, there was a lot of archival work to do–from Yale University to the Huntington Library. It kept me busy for five years.

Where does the title come from?

The first “Westerns” were cheaply produced pulp novels, almost like comic books, called “blood-and-thunders.” Starting in the late 1840s, Kit Carson appeared as the hero in many dozens of these blood-and-thunders. The publishers used his name and fictionalized his exploits without his permission and without paying him a cent. And ironically, because he was illiterate, Carson couldn’t even read these atrocious books that bore his name. He hated them, both for their wild inaccuracies and for the cheesy celebrity status they conferred on him without his consent. In his own lifetime, he became a kind of action figure hero. These hyperbolic books raised expectations that he spent the rest of his life trying to live down. I chose it as a title, because at its essence, this book examines the tension between the glorious myth and the brutal reality of Carson’s West.

From the Hardcover edition.



“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
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book

“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

The introduction, discussion questions, suggestions for further reading, and author biography that follow are designed to enhance your group’s discussion of Hampton Sides’s Blood and Thunder.

About the Guide

In the summer of 1846, the Army of the West marched through Santa Fe en route to invade and occupy the Western territories claimed by Mexico. Fueled by the new ideology of “Manifest Destiny,” this land grab would lead to a decades-long battle between the United States and the Navajos, the fiercely resistant rulers of a huge swath of mountainous desert wilderness.

In Blood and Thunder, Hampton Sides gives us a magnificent history of the American conquest of the West. At the center of this sweeping tale is Kit Carson, the trapper, scout, and soldier whose adventures made him a legend. Sides shows us how this illiterate mountain man understood and respected the Western tribes better than any other American, yet willingly followed orders that would ultimately devastate the Navajo nation. Rich in detail and spanning more than three decades, this is an essential addition to our understanding of how the West was really won.

About the Author

A native of Memphis, Hampton Sides is editor-at-large for Outside magazine and the author of the international bestseller, Ghost Soldiers, which was the basis for the 2005 Miramax film, The Great Raid. Ghost Soldiers won the 2002 PEN USA award for nonfiction and the 2002 Discover Award from Barnes & Noble, and his magazine work has been twice nominated for National Magazine Awards for feature writing. Hampton is also the author of Americana and Stomping Grounds. A graduate of Yale with a BA in history, he lives in New Mexico with his wife, Anne, and their three sons.

Discussion Guides

1. 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?

2. 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?

3. What was John Fremont’s essential quest in exploring the West? What spurs all explorers to pursue risky journeys?

4. 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?

5. 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?

6. 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?

7. 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?

8. 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?

9. 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 Pecos resources at the end of chapter seventeen)?

10. 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 both the death of Navajo chief Narbona (which closes chapter thirty-two) and the brutalization of Ann White (depicted in chapter thirty-five)?

11. 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?

12. 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?

13. 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?

14. 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?

15. 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?

16. 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?

17. 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?

18. 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?

19. How did Kit Carson’s ideas about American Indians evolve over the course of his life?

20. 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?

21. 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?

Suggested Readings

Jonathan Raban, Bad Land: An American Romance; Sally Denton, Faith and Betrayal: A Pioneer Woman's Passage in the American West; Louis S. Warren, Buffalo Bill's America; Alvin M. Jr Josephy, Lewis and Clark Through Indian Eyes: Nine Indian Writers on the Legacy of the Expedition; T.J. Stiles, Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War; Sally Denton, American Massacre: The Tragedy at Mountain Meadows, September 1857; Stephen E. Ambrose, Crazy Horse and Custer: The Parallel Lives of Two American Warriors; H.W. Brands, The Age of Gold: The California Gold Rush and the New American Dream; T.R. Fehrenbach, Comanches: The History of a People; John Ehle, Trail of Tears: The Rise and Fall of the Cherokee Nation; Tom Dunlay, Kit Carson and the Indians; David Roberts, A Newer World: Kit Carson John C Fremont And The Claiming Of The American West
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