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Western history, as lived by notorious Kit Carson

Hampton Sides, author of `Blood and Thunder,' found moral ambiguity but a larger story in the frontiersman's life.

February 11, 2007|Deborah Baker | Associated Press Writer

TAOS, N.M. — Sitting in the spare, chilly front room of the house that Kit Carson bought for his 14-year-old bride, writer Hampton Sides pondered the complexity of one of the West's most famous frontiersmen.

At once hero and villain, Carson was by all accounts modest and kindly -- and a cold-blooded killer.

He couldn't read or write, but was fluent in Spanish and French and spoke multiple Indian languages.

He lived among American Indians his whole life and twice married Indian women, yet he led the U.S. military's brutal, scorched-earth campaign against the Navajos.

He was a devoted husband and father, but rarely was around this three-room adobe home -- now a museum -- that he bought for Josefa Jaramillo when she became his third wife in 1843.

"There's a lot of moral ambiguity in his life story.... Trying to reconcile the different parts of his personality was very frustrating for me," said Sides, author of the recently published "Blood and Thunder: An Epic of the American West," (Doubleday).

Sides set out to write about the "Long Walk," as the Navajos call their forced relocation and imprisonment in eastern New Mexico in the mid-1860s.

But he became fascinated with Christopher Houston Carson, a runaway who left Missouri at age 16 on the Santa Fe Trail and became a fur trapper, scout, explorer, transcontinental courier, Indian agent and military officer -- a general, ultimately.

"I realized that his life ... mirrored the expansion of the American West," Sides said.

Not the West of the cowboy cliches Sides grew up with, but an earlier West: where French and Spanish were spoken more often than English, where men were more likely to drive sheep than cattle, and where sturdy, sure-footed mules were the transportation of choice.

The book "grew backwards in time ... and became a story about the whole West," said Sides, who lives in Santa Fe and did much of his writing in a local coffee shop.

Carson became known to the American public through the pulp fiction called "blood and thunder" novels, which turned him into a heroic caricature.

In his extensive research, Sides found the historical figure in some ways complicated and in others quite simple.

"He's the kind of guy that gets an order and does it. He's not introspective," said Sides, a Yale University graduate who is an editor at large for Santa Fe-based Outside magazine.

Slight and stringy-haired, uneducated and unassuming, Carson was a consummate outdoorsman with a temper that could be ferocious and an ability to adapt to a world that was quickly changing.

Throughout his life, "it seems like just as one career is ending, another one begins -- and he serendipitously moves on to the next phase," Sides said.

"Blood and Thunder" is an account of the conquest of the West, and Carson is at the center of it. The author calls him "a field agent of Manifest Destiny" -- the popular notion that the United States had a mission to expand westward to the Pacific.

Carson and the other mountain men, Sides writes at the beginning of the book, "whispered the coming of an unimaginable force, of a gathering shadow on the eastern horizon, gorging itself on the continent as it pressed steadily this way."

Sides' epic tale follows Gen. Stephen Watts Kearny's march with his Army of the West from Missouri to California, and chronicles the long struggle to control the vast new territory as Mexicans and Indian tribes -- particularly the Navajos under the great leader Narbona -- fought to keep their lands.

Carson -- fresh from commanding New Mexico volunteers fighting for the Union in the Civil War -- led an expedition in 1863-64 against the Navajos.

He burned their fields and homes, confiscated or killed their livestock, and even destroyed their pots and baskets.

Starving Navajos surrendered, and nearly 9,000 of them made the 400-mile walk to Bosque Redondo for a miserable, ill-fated incarceration that killed one-third of them.

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