Wednesday, 04 July 2012 15:56

Blood and Thunder

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Blood and Thunder by Hampton Sides

Anchor Books, 2007

Review by Arthur Scott


   This book is billed as “The epic story of Kit Carson and the conquest of the American West.”  The title comes from some of the “dime novels’ sold about kit Carson in the 19th century. The cover somewhat gives that impression. However this book is very well researched with impeccable sources. Most are primary sources with a few verified secondary sources. The author states that he spent several years and travelled 20, 000 miles in his car from coast to coast. The narrative is long, 575 pages, but covers Carson’s life from birth his birth in Madison County Kentucky in 1809 to his death at Ft. Lyons, Colorado in 1868. This book is MUCH more than the story of Kit Carson, it is, on fact, a detailed history of the most tumultuous years of the US. This period includes President Polk’s imperialistic war with Mexico for the sole purpose of expanding US territory, the dragging of what is now New Mexico into the United States from Mexico, the Civil War, and the Indian Wars.


   From my boyhood reading, I pictured Carson as a John Wayne type and bigger than life in a coonskin cap. In fact he was a small man in stature and soft spoken. He became the only illiterate US General in history. He is Sides depicts him as a person of strange contrasts. He was afraid of horses and always rode mules. He killed innumerable Indians but his first wife, who died of complications of childbirth, was Arapaho. His second wife was Hispanic yet he scouted for General Kearny’s “Army of the West” whose job was to force the Mexicans into submission and defeat.  During the Civil war he was with the Union Army yet he had no strong opposition to slavery. He believed the only way to save the Navajo people was to place the entire Dine population on a reservation. And yet one in three Dine died while on “The Long Walk” or while imprisoned at the Bosque Redondo. In the conquest of the Dine, Carson followed the “scorched earth” policy of General Sherman, burn the hogans, destroy food stores, and trample all crops.

   A couple of surprises to me were:

   The average Mexican (New Mexican) did not want to become part of the United States with allegiance to a government whose laws and language they did not understand. General Kearny built the imposing Ft Marcy not only as a protection against Indian or Mexican raids and protection for the vital Santa Fe Trail but also to remind the ex-Mexican citizens of the US military might.

   How ingrained the institution of slavery was in New Mexico. Before the Spanish conquest the Apache, Navajo and Comanche raided Pueblos and one another to get slaves. The Spanish conquerors in New Mexico followed the model of Pissarro, Cortes and De Soto. That is to claim the land, colonize, and use indigenous people to provide labor. The Mexican revolution won independence from Spain but nothing really changed.

Mexican slave traders continued a lively trade. A slave market was located in Taos.

   Sides quotes Susan Magoffin, a nineteen year-old brude from the east travelling with her husband, a freighter on the Santa Fe Trail, while attending a party given for General Kearny before his departure from Santa Fe, that she was shocked by the immodest (by eastern standards) dress of the Mexican women and how one grand women had an Indian slave that knelt on all fours to provide his mistress with a human footstool during the dancing.

   After the Civil War, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation freeing all slaves. US Senator James R. Doolittle of Wisconsin travelled west to investigate both the Sand Creek Massacre and the Bosque Redondo. He was shocked to find that several thousand Navajos were serving as slaves or peons through out the New Mexico Territory – almost one third of the tribe. “In Santa Fe alone there were more than five hundred Navajo servants working in Spanish and Angelo homes. It was New Mexico’s dirty little secret Doolittle was finally absorbing the uncomfortable truth that the United States, having fought a bloody war in large part to banish the evil of chattel slavery, still had slavery flourishing in various pernicious forms in the West.”

   In my opinion this book is a good read for anyone interested in a well researched history of the 1800’s United States and New Mexico land grab from the indigenous peoples. Or the true life story of one of our most noted frontiersman.




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