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Blood and Thunder: An Epic of the American West
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Blood and Thunder: An Epic of the American West

4.2 72
by Hampton Sides

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Praise for Blood and Thunder

“Kit Carson’s role in the conquest of the Navajo during and after the Civil War remains one of the most dramatic and significant episodes in the history of the American West. Hampton Sides portrays Carson in the larger context of the conquest of the entire West, including his frequent and often lethal encounters


Praise for Blood and Thunder

“Kit Carson’s role in the conquest of the Navajo during and after the Civil War remains one of the most dramatic and significant episodes in the history of the American West. Hampton Sides portrays Carson in the larger context of the conquest of the entire West, including his frequent and often lethal encounters with hostile Native Americans. Unusually, Sides gives full voice to Indian leaders themselves about their trials and tribulations in their dealings with the whites. Here is a national hero on the level of Daniel Boone, presented with all of his flaws and virtues, in the context of American people’s belief that it was their Manifest Destiny to occupy the entire West.”

—Howard Lamar, Sterling Professor Emeritus of History, Yale University and editor of The New Encyclopedia of the American West

“The story of the American West has seldom been told with such intimacy and immediacy. Legendary figures like Kit Carson leap to life and history moves at a pulse-pounding pace—sweeping the reader along with it. Hampton Sides is a terrific storyteller.”

—Candice Millard, author of The River of Doubt

“Hampton Sides doesn't just write a book, he transports the reader to another time and place. With his keen sense of drama and his crackling writing style, this master storyteller has bequeathed us a majestic history of the Old West.”

—James Bradley, author of Flags of Our Fathers and Flyboys

Blood and Thunder is a big-hearted book whose subject is as expansive as they come. Hampton Sides tackles it with naked pleasure and narrative cunning: In his telling, the vast saga of America’s westward push has a logical center. The dusty town of Santa Fe becomes the nexus around which swirl the fortunes and strategies of a mixed set of serious overachievers, from Kit Carson, the original mountain man, to James K. Polk, the enigmatic president whose achievements, in the dreaded name of Manifest Destiny, were almost biblical in scope. Sides is alive to the exuberance and alert to the tragedy of the taking of the West.”

—Russell Shorto, author of Island at the Center of the World

“For a huge percentage of us immigrant Americans (those whose ancestors arrived after 1492), Hampton Sides fills a gaping hole in our knowledge of American history—a vivid account of how ‘The New Men’ swept away the thriving civilizations of the Native Americans in their conquest of the West.”

—Tony Hillerman

"BLOOD AND THUNDER is a balanced, thoughtful summary of the American conquistadors in the 19th century Southwest. Hampton Sides has re-created violent events and such inflammatory figures as Kit Carson without bias. Carefully researched, thoroughly enjoyable."


A Magnificent History of How the West Was Really Won—a Sweeping Tale of Shame and Glory

In the fall of 1846 the venerable Navajo warrior Narbona, greatest of his people’s chieftains, looked down upon the small town of Santa Fe, the stronghold of the Mexican settlers he had been fighting his whole long life. He had come to see if the rumors were true—if an army of blue-suited soldiers had swept in from the East and utterly defeated his ancestral enemies. As Narbona gazed down on the battlements and cannons of a mighty fort the invaders had built, he realized his foes had been vanquished—but what did the arrival of these “New Men” portend for the Navajo?

Narbona could not have known that “The Army of the West,” in the midst of the longest march in American military history, was merely the vanguard of an inexorable tide fueled by a self-righteous ideology now known as “Manifest Destiny.” For twenty years the Navajo, elusive lords of a huge swath of mountainous desert and pasturelands, would ferociously resist the flood of soldiers and settlers who wished to change their ancient way of life or destroy them.

Hampton Sides’s extraordinary book brings the history of the American conquest of the West to ringing life. It is a tale with many heroes and villains, but as is found in the best history, the same person might be both. At the center of it all stands the remarkable figure of Kit Carson—the legendary trapper, scout, and soldier who embodies all the contradictions and ambiguities of the American experience in the West. Brave and clever, beloved by his contemporaries, Carson was an illiterate mountain man who twice married Indian women and understood and respected the tribes better than any other American alive. Yet he was also a cold-blooded killer who willingly followed orders tantamount to massacre. Carson’s almost unimaginable exploits made him a household name when they were written up in pulp novels known as “blood-and-thunders,” but now that name is a bitter curse for contemporary Navajo, who cannot forget his role in the travails of their ancestors.

Editorial Reviews

If you're a fan of nonfiction narratives that crackle with excitement and energy, this rip-snorter of an epic history by Hampton Sides (Ghost Soldiers) is right up your alley. Sides takes a story we think we know well (the 20-year battle for Navajo territory in America's relentless pursuit of Manifest Destiny) and turns it upside down. What shakes out are a series of unlovely facts that defy myth, confound stereotypes, and fly in the face of hallowed historical traditions. At the center of this violent, blood-soaked history stands the iconic figure of Kit Carson, an infuriating mystery of a man who understood and even respected the Navajo but betrayed them anyway. A riveting account filled with colorful, flawed characters neither wholly heroic nor villainous, Blood and Thunder is a must-read for both students and casual observers of American history.

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
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6.40(w) x 9.58(h) x 1.55(d)

Read an Excerpt

Blood and Thunder

By Hampton Sides

Random House

Hampton Sides

All right reserved.

ISBN: 0385520131

Chapter One

Chapter 1

Jumping Off

In the two decades he had lived and wandered in the West, Christopher Carson had led an unaccountably full life. He was only thirty-six years old, but it seemed he had done everything there was to do in the Western wilds-had been everywhere, met everyone. As a fur trapper, scout, and explorer, he had traveled untold thousands of miles in the Rockies, in the Great Basin, in the Sierra Nevada, in the Wind River Range, in the Tetons, in the coastal ranges of Oregon. As a hunter he had crisscrossed the Great Plains any number of times following the buffalo herds. He had seen the Pacific, been deep into Mexico, pushed far into British-held territories of the Northwest. He had traversed the Sonoran, Chihuahuan, and Mojave Deserts, gazed upon the Grand Canyon, stood at the life-leached margins of the Great Salt Lake. He had never seen the Hudson or the Potomac, but he had traced all the important rivers of the West-the Colorado, Platte, Sacramento, San Joaquin, Columbia, Green, Arkansas, Gila, Missouri, Powder, Big Horn, Snake, Salmon, Yellowstone, Rio Grande.

Carson was present at the creation, it seemed. He had witnessed the dawn of the American West in all its vividness and brutality. In his constant travels he had caromed off of or intersected with nearly every major tribal group and person of consequence. He had lived the sweep of the Western experience with adirectness few other men could rival.

At first glance, Kit Carson was not much to look at, but that was a curious part of his charm. His bantam physique and modest bumpkin demeanor seemed interestingly at odds with the grandeur of the landscapes he had roamed. He stood only five-feet four-inches, with stringy brown hair grazing his shoulders. His jaw was clenched and squarish, his eyes a penetrating gray-blue, his mouth set in a tight little downturned construction that looked like a frown of mild disgust. The skin between his eyebrows was pinched in a furrow, as though permanently creased from constant squinting. His forehead rose high and craggy to a swept-back hairline. He had a scar along his left ear, another one on his right shoulder-both left by bullets. He appeared bowlegged from his years in the saddle, and he walked roundly, with a certain ungainliness, as though he were not entirely comfortable as a terrestrial creature, his sense of ease and familiarity of movement tied to his mule.

He was a man of odd habits and superstitions. He never would take a second shot at standing game if his initial shot missed-this, he believed, was "bad medicine." He never began a project on a Friday. He was fastidious about the way he dressed and cleaned any animal he killed. He believed in signs and omens. When he got a bad feeling about something or someone, he was quick to heed his instincts. A life of hard experience on the trail had taught him to be cautious at all times, tuned to danger. A magazine writer who rode with Carson observed with great curiosity the scout's unfailing ritual as he prepared to bed down for the night: "His saddle, which he always used as a pillow, form[ed] a barricade for his head; his pistols half cocked were laid above it, and his trusty rifle reposed beneath the blanket by his side, ready for instant use. You never caught Kit exposing himself to the full glare of the camp fire." When traveling, the writer noticed, Carson "scarcely spoke," and his eye "was continually examining the country, his manner that of a man deeply impressed with a sense of responsibility."

When he did speak, Carson talked in the twangy cadences of backwoods Missouri-thar and har, ain't and yonder, thataway and crick and I reckon so. It seemed right that this ultimate Westerner should be from Missouri, the Ur-country of the trans-Mississippi frontier, the mother state.

Out west, Carson had learned to speak Spanish and French fluently, and he knew healthy smatterings of Navajo, Ute, Comanche, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Crow, Blackfoot, Shoshone, and Paiute, among other native tongues. He also knew Indian sign language and, one way or another, could communicate with most any tribe in the West. And yet for all his facility with language, Kit Carson was illiterate.

Although he was a mountain man, a fraternity legendary for swilling and creative profanity, Carson was a straight arrow-"as clean as a hound's tooth" as one friend put it. He liked poker and often smoked a pipe, but he drank very little and was not given to womanizing. He was now married to a Hispanic girl from Taos, Josefa Jaramillo. Slender, olive-skinned, and eighteen years his junior, Josefa possessed "a beauty of the haughty, heart-breaking kind" according to one smitten writer from Ohio who got to know her, "a beauty such as would lead a man with the glance of the eye to risk his life for one smile." Only fifteen years old when she married Carson, Josefa was a bit taller than her husband. She was a dark-complected, bright-eyed woman whom one family member described as "very well-built, and graceful in every way." Cristobal, as Josefa called him, was utterly devoted to her, and to please her family, he had converted to Catholicism.

Especially now that he was a married man, Carson gave off none of the mountain man's swagger. "There was nothing like the fire-eater in his manner," wrote one admirer, "but, to the contrary, in all his actions he was unassuming." An army officer once introduced himself to Carson, saying, "So this is the distinguished Kit Carson who has made so many Indians run." To which Carson replied, "Yes, but most of the time they were running after me." His sense of humor was understated and dry, usually delivered with a faint grin and a glint of mischief in his eyes. When amused, he was prone to "sharp little barks of laughter." He spoke quietly, in short, deliberate sentences, using language that was, according to one account, "forcible, slow, and pointed, with the fewest words possible." A friend said Carson "never swore more'n was necessary."

Yes, Christopher Carson was a lovable man. Nearly everyone said so. He was loyal, honest, and kind. In many pinpointable incidents, he acted bravely and with much physical grace. More than once, he saved people's lives without seeking recognition or pay. He was a dashing good Samaritan-a hero, even.

He was also a natural born killer. It is hard to reconcile the much-described sweetness of his disposition with his frenzies of violence. Carson could be brutal even for the West of his day (a West so wild it lacked outlaws, for no law yet existed to be outside of). His ferocious temper could be triggered in an instant. If you crossed him, he would find you. He pursued vengeance as though it were something sacred, with a kind of dogged focus that might be called tribal-his tribe being the famously grudge-happy Scotch-Irish.

When called upon to narrate his exploits, which he did reluctantly, he spoke with a clinical lack of emotion, and with a hit man's sense of aesthetics. He liked to call his skirmishes pretty-as in "that was the prettiest fight I ever saw." He spoke of chasing down his enemies as "sport." After participating in a preemptive attack-others called it a massacre-on an Indian village along California's Sacramento River, Carson pronounced the action "a perfect butchery."

By the macabre distinctions of his day, he was regarded not as an Indian killer but as an Indian-fighter-which was, if not a noble American profession, at least a venerable one. But Carson did not hate Indians, certainly not in any sort of abstract racial sense. He was no Custer, no Sheridan, no Andrew Jackson. If he had killed Native Americans, he had also befriended them, loved them, buried them, even married them. Through much of his life, he lived more like an Indian than a white man. Most of his Indian victims had died in what he judged to be fair fights, or at least fights that could have gone the other way. It was miraculous he was still alive: He'd had more close calls than he could count.

Because Carson's direct words were rarely written, it's hard to know what he really thought about Indians, or the violence of his times, or anything else. His autobiography, dictated in the mid-1850s (and turned into a biography by a tin-eared writer who has charitably been described as an "ass"), is a bone-dry recitation of his life and leaves us few clues. It was said that Carson told a pretty good story around a campfire, but his book carefully eschews anything approaching an insight. His refusal to pontificate was refreshing in a way-he lived in a golden age of windbags-but at the same time, his reticence in the face of the few big subjects of his life was remarkable. He was, and remains, a sort of Sphinx of the American West: His eyes had seen things, his mind held secrets, but he kept his mouth shut.


Christopher Houston Carson was born in a log cabin in Madison County, Kentucky, on Christmas Eve of 1809, the same year and the same state in which Lincoln was born. A year later the Carson family pulled up stakes and trekked west from Kentucky to the Missouri frontier, with little Christopher, whom they nicknamed "Kit," facing forward in the saddle, swaddled in his mother's arms. The Carsons chose a spot in the wilderness near the Missouri River and hacked their farm from a large tract that had been part of a Spanish land grant bought by the sons of Daniel Boone, prior to the Louisiana Purchase. It was known indelicately as "Boone's Lick," for the salt deposits that attracted wild game and which the Boone family successfully mined. The Boones and the Carsons would become close family friends-working, socializing, and intermarrying with one another.

Kit was a quiet, stubborn, reliable kid with bright blue eyes. Although he had a small frame-a consequence, perhaps, of his having been born two months premature-he was tough and strong, with large, agile hands. His first toy was a wooden gun whittled by one of his brothers. Kit showed enough intellectual promise at an early age that his father, Lindsey Carson, dreamed he would be a lawyer.

Lindsey Carson was a farmer of Scotch-Irish Presbyterian stock who had lived most of his young life in North Carolina and fought in the Revolutionary War under Gen. Wade Hampton. The elder Carson had an enormous family-five children by his first wife and ten by Kit's mother, Rebecca Robinson. Of those fifteen children, Kit was the eleventh in line.

The Boone's Lick country, though uncultivated, was by no means uninhabited. Winnebago, Potawatomi, and Kickapoo Indians, among other tribes, had lived around the Missouri River Valley for many generations, and they were often aggressively hostile to white encroachment. For their own safety the pioneers in the Boone's Lick country had to live huddled together in cabins built near forts, and the men tended the fields with armed sentries constantly patrolling the forest clearings. All able-bodied men were members of the local militia. Most cabins were designed with rifle loopholes so settlers, barricaded within, could defend themselves against Indian attacks. Kit and his siblings grew up with a constant fear of being kidnapped. "When we would go to school or any distance away from our house," Kit's sister Mary Carson Rubey recalled years later, "we would carry bits of red cloth with us to drop if we were captured by Indians, so our people could trace us." Rubey remembered that, even as a little boy, Kit was an especially keen night watchman. "When we were asleep at night and there was the slightest noise outside the house, Kit's little brown head would be the first to bob up. I always felt completely safe when Kit was on guard duty."

One day when Kit was four, Lindsey Carson went out with a small group of men to survey a piece of land when they were ambushed by Sac and Fox Indians. In the attack, Kit's father was nearly killed. The stock of his rifle was shot apart and two fingers on his left hand were blown off. Another man in the party, William McLane, fell in the fight and, according to one vivid account, his Indian attackers cut out his heart and ate it.

Despite many incidents like this, some Missouri tribes were friendly with the settlers, or at least found it pragmatic to strike alliances and keep the peace. As a boy, Carson played with Indian children. The Sac and Fox tribes frequently came into the Boone's Lick settlements and carried on a robust trade. From an early age, Carson learned an important practical truth of frontier life-that there was no such thing as "Indians," that tribes could be substantially and sometimes violently different from one another, and that each group must be dealt with separately, on its own terms.


Before settlers like the Boones and the Carsons arrived, the country along the Missouri River, like so much of North America, was heavily forested. To clear land for planting, pioneers would sometimes "girdle" trees-cutting deep rings around the trunks-to deaden them. But the most expeditious way for farmers to remove dense thickets of timber was to set them afire. One day in 1818, Lindsey Carson was burning the woods nearby when a large limb broke off from a burning tree, killing him instantly.

Kit was only seven at the time, and his life would be profoundly changed. Although some of Lindsey Carson's children had grown up and moved out of the house, Rebecca Carson still had ten children to raise on her own. The Carsons were reduced to a desperate poverty. Kit's schooling ceased altogether, and he spent his time working the fields, doing chores around the cabin, and hunting meat for his family. As Carson put it years later, "I jumped to my rifle and threw down my spelling book-and there it lies."

Briefly, Kit became a ward of a neighbor. Then in 1822, Kit's mother remarried, and the obstreperous boy soon rebelled against his new stepfather. At age fourteen, Kit was apprenticed to a well-known saddler named David Workman in the small settlement of Franklin, Missouri. The boy hated this close and tedious shopwork. For nearly two years he sat at his bench each day, repairing harnesses and shaping scraps of hide with leatherworking tools. Because Franklin was situated on the eastern end of the newly cleared Santa Fe Trail, Workman's clientele largely consisted of trappers and traders, and the shop was often filled with stirring tales from the Far West. This bedraggled tribe of men in their musky animal skins and peltries must have impressed the young boy mightily, and one senses how the worm of his imagination began to turn.


Excerpted from Blood and Thunder
by Hampton Sides Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

A native of Memphis, HAMPTON SIDES is editor-at-large for Outside magazine and the author of the international bestseller Ghost Soldiers, which was the basis for the 2005 Miramax film The Great Raid. Ghost Soldiers won the 2002 PEN USA Award for nonfiction and the 2002 Discover Award from Barnes & Noble, and his magazine work has been twice nominated for National Magazine Awards for feature writing. Hampton is also the author of Americana and Stomping Grounds. A graduate of Yale with a B.A. in history, he lives in New Mexico with his wife, Anne, and their three sons.

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Blood and Thunder 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 72 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I am not a history lover but I could not put this book down! Hampton Sides is so thorough in organizing all the insighful facts of this story yet keeps it so very human and interesting. It would floor me over and over again leaving me reading passages of it out loud to my family. I had thought of Kit Carson as a sort of made-up cowboy figure. His story, and those that surrounded him, needs and deserves this masterful retelling. It left me thankful for my own life yet in awe of the wildness and hardship that much of the United States was formed within. Sides does a great job of giving equal time and admiration for both the Indians and the early settlers. I love how messy and complicated it all is. A must read!
Strongmedicine More than 1 year ago
Kit Carson seemed to be everyplace. Everytime there was a desparate situation, Kit Carson showed up just in the nick of time and did an extraordinary deed to save the day. And the charming part of the story is that Kit Carson himself thought he was just "doing his job". Great insight into the Indian tribes, the Mexican history of New Mexico. The amazing story is Carson riding a mule from California to Washington to deliver documents to the President and then riding back.... three times!! A heroic story told very well.
glauver More than 1 year ago
Hampton Sides is the rare writer who writes both literature and history in the same book. He is also balanced, fair, and sympathetic to both his Indian and white subjects. it would be easy to condemn kit Carson, General Carleton, or many of the others involved in the Navajo debacle but Sides refrains. He resists the temptation to place 21st century values on 19th century frontiersmen and native Americans. I found myself comparing Blood and Thunder to Son of the Morning Star, another western classic. Even though it sometimes tries to cover too much ground, any serious reader of history will be rewarded by a trip through its pages.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book reads like a good novel. It is well researched and documented. The author is intellegent: I thoroughly enjoyed his vocabulary and command of the English language. His view was well-balanced glorifying neither the white settlers, the hispanic settlers, nor the natives. Excellent. I will seek more books by Hampton Sides.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Kit Carson: a dedicated soldier and man who loved the Native American way of life. He was at the forefront of much that changed the American West. This book gives a great history of the man and the orders he carried out but I would have liked to read more about his personal life. A great beginning to learning more about Kit Carson. Now I want to read more about the other side of the story: especially from the perspective of the Navaho and Manuelito. I think it's terrible what our ancestors did to the Native Americans but exciting history to read about nonetheless.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I found this book to be well written and an easy read. It contains a vast amount of information on the so-called taming of the Southwest. Any student of American western history will enjoy the book. However, as a bio of Kit Carson, I found the treatise lacking. The first part of the book contains less information on Carson and more on the travels of Fremont, more history involving Kearny and more insight into the Navajo headman Narbona. Carson seems but a minor actor on the big stage. And then he disappears altogether. For about 50 pages (starting on page 246), you can only find one mention of Carson and that in passing. Later in the book, during the battle for Fort Craig, the details of the actions on both sides are well documented. Yet Carson is treated in an anecdotally and chronologically poor way. While the author leads us into the battle near Fort Craig, which took place in 1862, we are presented with two stories of Carson in Albuquerque years earlier, another about an 1853 trip to California, an oral history dictated in 1856, another 1853 story, and finally information on Carson’s activities in the 1850s before we can get back to the battle in 1862. The last part of the book does contain much more information on Carson and the campaign against the Navajos. But if you are interested in the Carson story, start reading on page 411, or better, try another book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Hampton Sides's Blood and Thunder is the most comprehensive and balanced account of Native America (particularly Navajo) - U.S. Army interaction that I know of. I reread it and give it as gifts.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Great way to get a lot of historical information in an entertaining way.
Jawjam More than 1 year ago
This book was recommended by several of the Doctors that I work with and their wives. Also several couples at church recommended it. My Husband is reading it 1st as he received it for Christmas from me and I will read it next. He is enjoying all the history of the area we live in that is in the book. It is amazing how far these people traveled in an age when travel was not simple. Great History novel!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I didn't realize this was 553 pages. It's mind boggling all the action seen in Kit Carson's life and the travels he made throught Indian country in those hostile times. It truly depicts the personalities, the arrogance and downright stupidity of some of the army brass attempting to administer conquered territory. They are much better at fighting than monitoring and overseeing conquered people, be they Mexicans or American Indians. I highly recommend this book as historical information to all of you.
DavidS-Albuquerque More than 1 year ago
Hampton Sides goes out of his way to praise Thomas Dunlay in his acknowledgements as well he should. The book is almost a twin of Dunlay's "Kit Carson and the Indians", published by the University of Nebaraska Press in 2000. Page after page and source after source apes Dunlay's work. In fact, Sides' last page in his book is almost the same as Dunlay's (sans Chapter on Conclusion) and it seems to me that he may have even got the title of his book from reading Chapter 1, page 13 of Dunlay's book. There is no new information presented here save for a few hearsay details given by Navajo informants. I was very disappointed to have wasted my reading time on something that I already read back in 2000.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
wonderwomanLC More than 1 year ago
Outstanding piece of historical work. Sides has entered the company of Ambrose and McCollough.
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Suspect and Blades den.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book was great not just because of the amazing story of Kit Carson but also on westward expansion. A must read for any history buff.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Very well written, and if you like stories about the opening of the West, this is you're kind of book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
freej2k More than 1 year ago
Mr. Sides gives a lot of detail about the westward expansion of the U.S. This book goes beyond facts and figures. He gives a lot of details about the people involved and the possible thoughts that drove them to make their (sometimes fatal) decisions. I highly recommend this book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Very informative, very engaging and a very entertaining and easy read.
Mosso More than 1 year ago
Hampton Sides can really tell a story that keeps you reading. Lots of action and drama. Kit Carson was a remarkable person!