From Lewis and Clark’s 1804 expedition up the Missouri and to the Pacific until the Massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890, Americans poured into the West, settling the wild country. In the middle of this epic transformation, and the brutal struggle it encompassed, was the legendary Kit Carson. Born in 1809, Carson grew up in Missouri on the edge of the frontier and headed into the Rockies at the age of 16 as a mountain man. For the next 42 years, Carson roamed the West as a trapper, guide, rancher, and soldier. Blood and Thunder by Hampton Sides not only follows the life of Kit Carson but also chronicles the historic events and people that surrounded him and this remarkable period of America.
Carson began his Western adventures during the final stages of the mountain man era during the 1820s. The mountain men were the first white men to explore the Rocky Mountains and live among the Indians. They trapped beaver, which was shipped East and made into hats. These men had to develop extensive wilderness skills in order to survive the elements as well as the Indians who often preyed upon them and took their lives. Kit Carson mastered these skills, which benefited him for the rest of his life. Although uneducated and illiterate, Carson became fluent in several Indian languages as well as Spanish. He had an almost photographic memory regarding terrain and geography, and he was keenly adept in determining when to fight and when to pull back.
When the beaver trade bottomed out in the 1830s, Carson was hired by John C. Fremont for his first expedition to map and describe the Oregon Trail in 1842. This expedition was a success, and upon returning, Fremont wrote a report to Congress that was reprinted and distributed throughout the East. The movement of the nation was to the West, even though much of it did not yet belong to the United States. Fremont’s report became quite popular, making Kit Carson’s name renown. Dime novels, magazines, and newspapers amplified these reports, creating Carson into a legend in his own time.
Carson guided Fremont on two more expeditions to California and Oregon and then assisted Gen. Stephen Kearny during the Mexican-American War, 1846-48. One of Carson’s most famous exploits occurred when Kearny’s forces fought the Mexicans at San Pasqual, California. The Mexicans outnumbered Kearny’s men and had them surrounded. In the middle of the night, Kearny sent Carson and two other men to get help from San Diego 25 miles away where additional U.S. soldiers were stationed. In order to stay quiet and slip through the enemy lines, the three men took off their shoes. They lost the shoes and had to proceed through prickly pear and cactus barefooted — eventually making it to San Diego the next day. Two hundred mounted soldiers came to Kearny’s rescue the following evening.
At the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, Carson joined the Union Army as a lieutenant and later was promoted to colonel leading the 1st New Mexico Volunteer Infantry. The Volunteers fought Confederate forces at the Battle of Valverde, which they lost, but later pushed the Confederates out of New Mexico. With the Confederates gone, Carson was ordered to wage a campaign against the Navajo Indians. Using scorched earth methods of destroying crops and livestock, Carson and his forces left the Navajos with no choice but to surrender or starve.
Following the Navajo campaign, Carson spent his latter years as commandant of Ft. Garland in Colorado, assisting with government relations with the Ute Indians. He helped the Utes by taking some of their chiefs to Washington, where they petitioned their needs to the president. In 1868 Carson died of an aneurysm at the age of 58.
Blood and Thunder does a wonderful job of telling the story of Kit Carson as well as the incredible people who were his contemporaries, such as Narbona, the famous Navajo leader; Sen. Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri, the architect of Manifest Destiny; and Gen. James Carleton, who ruthlessly relocated the Navajos. It also narrates the story of a young nation relentlessly expanding to the Pacific, swallowing whatever came before it.