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Blood and Thunder – the Story of Kit Carson
This excellent book of western history replete with details about Native American tribes and the collision of two cultures, by Hamton Sides, author of Ghost Soldiers, is a whopping 557 pages, chock full of historical facts swirling mostly around the life of the legendary scout, Kit Carson. It is a masterful job.
Sides weaves a multitude of little-known facts into his book, such as the details about the great Navajo chief, Narbona, whose long white hair stood in stark contrast to his dark skin. He was a big man, over six feet six inches tall, very intelligent, and in his early days, a warrior unequaled. He was the clear leader of the Dine.
The author does an excellent job of telling Kit Carson’s story, but in the telling of his story, Sides also gives mini-biographies of dozens of well known figures who cross the path of the famous scout, including the famous John Fremont, son-in-law to the gregarious Senator Thomas Hart Benton, the man who was behind the idea of “Manifest Destiny.” Fremont and Carson would bond naturally, and the story of Kit Carson and his guiding of Fremont to California is a magnificent tale, packed with details seldom read today.
Sides tells of General Stephen Kearney (who would command the “army of the West), providing a fact-filled tapestry of the man’s life, woven into the book chronologically. Kit Carson’s life and Kearney’s would intersect, and together, they would have many adventures, including some fierce fights. Kit Carson would travel with this man as his scout all the way to California.
Diaries and old documents about Kit Carson litter the Landscape of this book
Sides taps into journals, diaries, and hundreds of old documents to assemble facts, stories, and educated ruminations all showing the real characters involved in the settling of New Mexico, from before the time Kearney claimed it for the United States, to the final days of war with the Indians (mostly, the Navajo and the Apache). Larger than life characters pop in and out of the scenes in the book at appropriate times, delivering their lines as recorded by history, and performing their parts exactly as they had so long ago. No fancy dressings, no disguised or muddled retelling of the facts. Sides gives the facts like a miner presenting his findings of gold to the assayer. The reader is allowed to weigh those facts and reach his or her own conclusions about their meaning.
He gives some excellent details of the short-lived attempts by the South, Texans mostly, to take over New Mexico during the Civil War, and the part Kit Carson played in that brief battle. He provides incredible details into the telling of the stories, which reveals the hundreds of hours of pouring over an incredible array of historical documents, books and other material.
Sides gives a multitude of historical vignettes, little pictures of people and events, in such rich detail, that it almost reads like a novel. As mentioned, these people fade in and out of the book, and the background on these individuals is marvelously rich with detail. The book is entertaining, but is also extremely illuminating. He has managed to compress hundreds of hours of research into a compact, richly layered book that will leave the reader wanting more. It’s a book that will definitely be re-read by many, and referenced often.
Susan Magoffin, General Stephen Kearney & Kit Carson
One such vignette is his telling about Susan Magoffin, wife of James Magoffin, an ambassador of sorts. They’d traveled with Kearney in his march to claim New Mexico (a somewhat secretive mission ordained by President Polk which would involve Kit Carson). The trip was arduous and she miscarried enroute. We later see life in New Mexico through this articulate and strong woman’s eyes. She gives some great details, and as Siles states: “[I]t is through her diary that we have our most vivid descriptions of the conquering general.” (Kearney).
Siles states that Susan must have viewed Kearney as a father figure. “He took her on horseback tours of the city [Sante Fe], accompanied her to mass, gently remonstrated her for her peccadillos.” He writes that Magoffin found the general to be “candid and plain spoken, very agreeable in conversation. He conducts himself with ease, and places himself at my command to serve me when I wish. United States General No 1 entirely at my disposal! He speaks to me more as my father would do than anyone else.”
It is minutia like this that fills the pages of this book. It is, without doubt, one of the richest treasures of western literature any reader could hope to find. Hamton Sides is one of the finest chroniclers of history in the world and Blood and Thunder is a booming accolade to his efforts. You’ll come away with a different perspective of Kit Carson than the mere “legend” history has hung upon him. He was “the real deal,” and earned the respect of Indians, Congressmen, Soldiers and Generals. Kit Carson was an incredible man, complex, yet simple and plain. Sides showed the facets of Kit Carson’s personality and character with a deft hand.
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