My ignorance sometimes appalls me. The first time I visited Santa Fe –in my 40’s, old enough and educated enough to know better–I was astounded to see that the city had been founded ten years before Plymouth Rock felt the tread of a Pilgrim’s foot. I knew the Spanish had been nosing around Mexico and the Southwest since the 16th Century, but had no notion they’d done anything permanent. Well, they had. And in 1826 young and orphaned Christopher Carson of Missouri sauntered down the Santa Fe trail on his way to becoming a legend in his time and ours.
Hampton Sides takes the title of Blood and Thunder from one of the sensational novelettes of the day purporting to relate the true exploits of the heroic mountain man. It’s a good description not only of his fictional exploits, but of his actual deeds, which were indeed numerous and implausible to ordinary mortals. “Blood and Thunder” a poor description of the man himself, however. An understated, wiry, little guy, he was apparently incapable of braggadocio or self-promotion. He had a laconic, wry turn of speech that epitomizes the taciturn but spot-on phrasing of our classic western literary hero. Like the one he uttered when someone asked him if a compatriot of his might have been guilty as suspected of cannibalism during John Fremont’s disastrous fourth expedition. “During starving times,” Carson responded, “no man walks in front of Bill Williams.”
I appreciate the art with which Hampton Sides put his subject’s life and character in context. Unlike the Marco Polo bio I read recently (Dec. 28 comments) Sides gives us not only a chronology of Carson’s life and deeds, but the feeling and texture of his time and place. He never launches an episode without backstory and character descriptions of other important players in the narrative. And just when you think you might be hearing a bit too much about Kearny or Fremont or Carleton or Stockton and too little about Kit, here he comes back on stage and you see clearly not only his actions, but their source and influence–how he got there and where he went. It takes great artistry to weave such a plethora of information and characters into a coherent story, and Sides makes the tale not only coherent but thrilling and suspenseful.
Mostly, the Carson Sides gives us was a good guy whose reputation for courage and compassion and pioneering skills is well-deserved. He was trilingual, though illiterate. He lived and married and reproduced both among the Indians and the Mexicans before Manifest Destiny brought the hordes from the east. Still, he was a staunch unionist who–like most of the Indians themselves–fought mercilessly when his side was attacked. He had one daughter by the first love of his life, a Blackfoot woman named Singing Grass. He took her back east (Missouri) for her education. He served as guide for John Fremont on three of his four expeditions and probably had at least as much to do with their success as Fremont himself. He fought valiantly and effectively as a Colonel against an invasion of Texas confederates in the beginning (1862) of the Civil War. [Didn’t know about that one, did you?] Unlike some other of his contemporaries, he deserves all the passes and lakes and cities that are named after him.
Perhaps the sole black mark on his record were his battles against the Navajos, who were among the fiercest resistors against U.S. and Mexican incursions into their lands. His sad role in The Long Walk, the Navajo version of the Cherokee Trail of Tears, taints his legacy. Despite the fact that he truly believed most of the troubles between Indians and whites were caused by whites and that a reservation was the best protection the Natives could be given, he knew the assigned area could not sustain the population and so contributed directly to the death by disease and starvation of thousands. (They were eventually moved back to an area in their own homeland under the order of none other than William Tecumseh Sherman.)
Carson was a good soldier, though, and he actually became, to his embarrassment, a general by the end of his life. I learned a good deal, among other things, about James Polk, for whom I had only the phrase “Manifest Destiny” and knowledge of his preemptive provocation of the Mexican war to hang on his name before this. I like him less now than I did before. Like our history of the western conquest a bit less, too.
Blood and Thunder is among the very best pieces of western history I have ever read and a biography of the highest caliber. Pick it up. You won’t put it down till it’s over. Then go visit Santa Fe and Taos. It’s still wild enough there to imagine it happening all around you.