Book Review | Blood and Thunder: An Epic of the American West by Hampton Sides

The history of the American Southwest isn’t a story that gets told along with the marquis narratives of American history. Unlike the American Revolution, the founding era, the Civil War, or World War II, where it is relatively easy to find excellently produced and superbly written book-length accounts of historical events and figures, you have to look harder to find good records of the Mexican-American War and the subsequent subjugation of the Navajo.

By some measures this is odd. The historical moments in American history that result in the most ink spilled on the most pages tend to involve instances where Americans engaged in a clash of civilizations and won, and in so doing these moments become those that define the character of the nation. In many ways, this is exactly what happened in the Southwest. Yet, this is a part of our history that gets glossed over. This isn’t to say it has been ignored. From spaghetti westerns to the novels of Cormac McCarthy and at all levels of culture in between, this is a part of the American Experience that has played an outsized role in creating a national mythology that we are all familiar with. Yet for some reason we prefer the fictionalized, mythologized, and dramatized versions of this part of our history over the actual history itself.

Maybe this explains why I enjoyed Blood and Thunder: An Epic of the American West as much as I did. As I read it, I had the constant thought that Cormac McCarthy probably consulted the same primary sources in writing Blood Meridian as Hampton Sides did in writing Blood and Thunder. As is often the case when I find a good history book, I also wanted to take a road trip to visit many of the places discussed in the book. Sign me up for good road trip through the Four Corners area.

This book is historical non-fiction at its best, and the following topics are explored pretty thoroughly:

  • The life of Kit Carson. It wouldn’t be fair to say that this book is a biography of Kit Carson because there is a lot of information that doesn’t involve him. However, it does follow the history of the Southwest from the early days of the trappers up to the final pacification of the Navajo by General Sherman. Coincidentally, this history overlaps beat for beat with the life of Kit Carson, and he was a key player in almost every event of significance. Imagine the way that our current culture mythologizes someone like Steve Jobs, and you will get a pretty good idea of the role Kit Carson played in the national consciousness circa 1830-1870. While he isn’t the focus of much attention now, he is a pivotal figure in American history and worth getting to know better.
  • The role of the Navajo people in American history. This wasn’t a full history of the Navajo. They’ve been around for a while. This is a history of the Navajo in the era of Manifest Destiny. Their story is told mostly through a focus on Narbona, one of their greatest warriors. There was a lot of information here that was new to me, and it opened my eyes to a lot of things.
  • A good history of the Mexican-American War. America’s history is filled with consequential wars that played significant roles in forging the national identity. This is one of those wars and the consequences of this war are very much with us today. Even if you like American history, the Mexican-American War is probably one of those events where you need to fill in some gaps. The good news is that it is a fascinating series of events, and this book has a pretty good summary of it all.
  • A good history of the Civil War in the West. As someone who currently lives in Virginia, where you can’t drive five minutes without passing by some significant landmark, road, or monument with a connection to the Civil War, it’s often forgotten that the American Civil War was fought on a continental scale. I was not aware of some of the battles that took place in New Mexico nor the strategic significance they bore, but now I am. Also, it was the military’s footprint during the Civil War that consolidated American power over this otherwise poor and far-flung region.
  • The presidency of James K. Polk. He was one of those presidents that you have to go looking for information about him. He’s not on any money. He wasn’t a founding father. The story of his election, and how he executed his self-imposed single term in the office is fascinating stuff. He doesn’t fit the mold of your typical historically consequential president, and he is overshadowed by many others. Nevertheless, when you look at his record, he left an enormous impact. It’s a controversial record – with his conquering of Mexico and setting the stage for the Civil War (Lincoln meteoric rise to power was started through his opposition to Polk’s policies) – but this is a guy who came in with a plan of what he wanted to do, did it in less than four years, then walked away into the sunset. I like history the most when it gives me interesting new frames of reference for understanding the present, and I can’t say for sure whether the Polk presidency provides more answers or questions when it comes to trying to make sense of the current state of the presidency, but it is a good intellectual exercise nonetheless.

I gave this book five stars on Goodreads, and I listened to it in audiobook format. I’ll give five stars to any book that keeps me as interested and engaged as this book did. This is non-fiction. It is dry. I still never found myself with wandering thoughts while listening to it.

With that said, I do have one minor complaint. The book is regionally focused first-and-foremost on the history of New Mexico. There are detours to California, Arizona, and Colorado – and to a lesser extent Utah and Wyoming. With that said, there is a noticeable dearth of mention of Mormon settlers. There is a section devoted to the Mountain Meadows Massacre, and I can see why the author chose to limit his scope to exclude the Mormon settlement of the West. However, you can’t tell the full story of how the West was won during the years of 1830-1870 while only mentioning Mormons in passing.

Blood and Thunder: An Epic of the American West Book Cover Blood and Thunder: An Epic of the American West
Hampton Sides
Nonfiction, History

In the summer of 1846, the Army of the West marched through Santa Fe, en route to invade and occupy the Western territories claimed by Mexico. Fueled by the new ideology of “Manifest Destiny,” this land grab would lead to a decades-long battle between the United States and the Navajos, the fiercely resistant rulers of a huge swath of mountainous desert wilderness.In Blood and Thunder, Hampton Sides gives us a magnificent history of the American conquest of the West. At the center of this sweeping tale is Kit Carson, the trapper, scout, and soldier whose adventures made him a legend. Sides shows us how this illiterate mountain man understood and respected the Western tribes better than any other American, yet willingly followed orders that would ultimately devastate the Navajo nation. Rich in detail and spanning more than three decades, this is an essential addition to our understanding of how the West was really won.