Every year when I was a child my family would drive from Salt Lake City 10–12 hours south to Belen, New Mexico to visit my grandmother. I remember watching the landscape transform from wide mountainous valleys to stark desert. The terrain was fascinating and forbidding at the same time. We passed through the Navajo Nation reservation without any idea how they came to be there. Recently I read a wonderful book, Blood and Thunder by Hampton Sides, that answers this question by detailing the American conquest of the southwest and the Navajo in particular. Here are a few thoughts on the book.
One of the things I love about Blood and Thunder is that it treats the Navajo as a real actor in their own story, not as hapless victims of westward expansion. They were certainly on the losing end of Manifest Destiny but the author treats them with dignity, as a people with their own animosities and frustrations, as well as virtues. It’s a more complete picture than what I remember learning in school, which is not much, and seems like real life.1
Blood and Thunder’s main protagonist is Kit Carson, a larger than life figure, with a storied life. It was greatly embellished in dime novels, but what he actually did was still astonishing. He:
- Ran west from his Missouri home
- Became a fur trapper who scouted for Fremont’s exploration of the Oregon trail
- Fought in the war with Mexico in California
- Acted as courier between Washington DC and western armies
- Fought Indians
- Fought for the Union in the Civil War in the war’s westernmost battles
- Led the final, and first successful, campaign against the Navajo
- Managed the first reservation where the Navajo were relocated before finally retiring and enjoying his growing family for a short time before passing away from an aortic aneurism.
As the borders of the United States were being finalized it’s pretty amazing how many important events Kit Carson personally saw.
Culture of the Southwest
One of the things that’s amazing about the southwest is its rich cultural heritage. Blood and Thunder gives some fascinating background to explain the different historical forces that combine to create this unique region of the United States.
Blood and Thunder is my kind of book, and I would recommend it to anyone intested in the tumultous history of America’s conquest and colonization of the west. It’s a great read.