Monday, January 8, 2007

Blood and Thunder by Hampton Sides

Kit Carson has been a part of my memory since my earliest reading. His name echoes through history as the most resourceful of the mountain men, buffalo hunters, guides to explorers, and Indian killers, but this hagiographic character had no flesh and blood reality to me until I read this masterful book. In Blood and Thunder Sides uses Kit Carson as the lynchpin to explore the westward expansion of the 1840’s and 50’s as John C. Fremont and Stephen Watts Kearney moved west to add New Mexico, Arizona and California to America’s possessions, thus fulfilling James K. Polk’s ambition to make the United States into a truly continental nation. He then details the destruction of the Navajo, Apache, and Comanche tribes by the westward expansion as well as the military and political forces supporting it.

Kit Carson early on left his childhood home in Missouri. His parents both dead, he left a youthful apprenticeship to head west with the mountain men. During the period from the 1820’s to the early ‘40’s, Carson became one of the most celebrated of these independent and brave men who first explored the plains, deserts, and mountains of the west in search of beaver hides to sell to furriers in the east. Their storied annual get-togethers became the focus for the early dime novels. Soon Carson’s ability and his renown led army explorers like Steven Watts Kearny and John C. Fremont to hire him as guide and advisor. Through their exploits his own fame spread.

The events generally known as the “Indian wars” emerge in Blood and Thunder as the tragedy we now understand them to be. At Polk’s insistence and through the Mexican War, America had vastly increased its size, becoming a continental nation. Americans moving west had increased from a trickle to a flood, encouraged by the availability of land and then turned into a westward frenzy by the discovery of gold in California. The major victims of this westward movement and sense of manifest destiny were Mexico, which lost half its land area and the Indian tribes, which were rendered powerless and, eventually, nearly extinct by disease and greed. Sides helps us to understand the extent to which this movement was abetted by the total cultural misunderstanding the parties managed to share. Concepts such as property, government, law, contracts, ownership, and nation were totally incomprehensible to the Indians. Americans moving west had no understanding for the complex spiritual and cultural life which had existed in the plains and deserts of the west for hundreds, if not thousands of years. The collision of theses different ways of understanding the world could only end in tragedy for the natives.

Carson’s name became a household word through the “blood and thunder” dime novels written by eastern authors, many of whom never had met Carson and who constructed these tales from whole cloth. Since many of his exploits were at least as epic as the fictional stories made of his life, this is a shame, but Carson was illiterate and unable, as well as constitutionally unwilling, to tell his own story. His character was such that had he had the literary ability, he likely would have been too reticent to tell it anyway. Nevertheless his actual skill coupled with his national fame made him an ideal person to, eventually, lead the effort to subdue the Navajo designed by the nearly monomaniacal General James Carleton. The effort, envisioned and promoted by Carleton and unfortunately enforced by Carson, to settle the Navajo far from their home territory at a place in New Mexico called Basque Redondo resulted in the near destruction of Navajo culture and the deaths of nearly a third of their number.

As Carson aged, the man who followed the dictates of official government representatives in the mindless destruction of the Indians to make way for the westward settlement of whites became increasingly uncomfortable with the results of these wars. At once recognizing the necessity of subduing the Indians and the tragedy of this movement, Carson found himself caught between social movements over which he had little control. Sides tells this story with compassion for the Indians, balanced admiration for Carson, and just censure for the mindless bureaucrats and greedy entrepreneurs who assured that no mutual accommodation could be made. He also delineates the elements of Indian life and culture which helped to make either assimilation or accommodation impossible.