Blood And Thunder: An Epic Of The American West, by Hampton Sides
This book’s title comes from a sort of popular sort of adventure fiction that made historical people like Kit Carson out to be immensely brave and fantastically successful fighters. The book is a narrative history, albeit one that does not feel it necessary to pursue events on a chronological basis. Instead, this book feels more like an attempt to encourage someone to turn this story into a film. I’m not sure if the author is consciously doing this, but the way that the film cuts back and forth between different characters, spending a lot of time on Kit Carson and on those he was loyal to, as well as a lot of time on the noble but doomed Navajo leaders like Narbona and Manuelito and General Carleton, whose exile of the Navajo to the Bosque Redondo is compared with the Trail of Tears and results in the death of thousands of Navajo in an area that proved to be wildly unsuitable for agriculture and massive settlement at the time. The fact that the story includes parts of two wars only makes the scope more epic, and the desire to enshrine Carson and others as parts of an epic story of American imperial expansion and the way that it ended the liberty of a tribe whose origins in the northern regions of Canada and Alaska are still denied by the Navajos to this day.
This book is about 400 pages long and divided into three parts and 46 chapters. The first part of the book begins at the period of the Mexican-American War where the American efforts to take over New Mexico and California for the Union ended up involving the American passage through areas that the Navajo had long claimed as their own. The author tries to play up the power and menace of the Navajo in the face of American provocations but also shows Americans getting away with a lot because the Navajo were outgunned pretty seriously. The second part of the book then looks at the broken land that resulted from American dominance and the inability of the Navajo to cope with the way that the Americans strongly favored the Latino population in the longstanding conflict. Finally, the book ends with a discussion of the Civil War and its impact on the Navajo and other tribes, leading them to be pushed into a reservation that saps their willingness to live while ending with a supposed victory of having a reservation in one’s own homeland, where the Navajo generally remain to this day. All of this is told from both the Native and American perspectives with a look at the violence that marked this world on all sides.
One of the more unusual aspects of this book is the way that it relates to other books. Having read nearly simultaneously three books on the same precise period of American history in the west, it is fascinating to see historians talk about different peoples as being the greatest threats to American dominance of the West. It is perhaps unsurprising that contemporary writers would want to celebrate the heathen past of first peoples and paint them as mighty adversaries of the Americans and Spanish empire, but the result is frequently contradictory. For while this book celebrates the nomadic Navajo-Dene peoples as being brave opponents in a remote area whose might had ground down the Spanish empire in Mexico (despite the fact that it was a rather even fight until the Americans showed up and that Navajo slaves were common in New Mexico), other books are fulsome in their praise of other native peoples with similar trajectories of power and a similar inability to ultimately cope with American demographic and military strength. Is it an intentional misunderstanding that playing up the power and foreignness of native tribes justifies the harshness that was undertaken against them by Americans of the 19th century? It would appear strange that historians would be unaware of this.