Point of No Return

Reviewed by Jeffrey Lent
Sunday, October 29, 2006


An Epic of the American West

By Hampton Sides

Doubleday. 460 pp. $26.95

W ith Blood and Thunder , Hampton Sides has taken an implausibly broad canvas of time, people and events and created a brilliantly realized portrait on an epic scale. The United States conquest of the Southwest involved territory ranging from St. Louis to Mexico City and California, as well as a large array of principal figures. Sides has wisely chosen Christopher "Kit" Carson and Santa Fe as the human and geographical touchstones.

Carson was the consummate frontiersman, who had traveled widely across the West as a trapper, scout and adventurer long before the events of the Mexican War brought his abilities to the attention of the U.S. military. Illiterate but fluent in five Indian languages as well as Spanish, he'd had two Native American wives before marrying into an old Spanish family from Taos. Carson, who seems often to have been at the right place at the right (or wrong) time, had a deep understanding of the complex clash of cultures taking place. And yet his ultimate devotion to duty and patriotism earned him an enmity among the Navajo that extends to the present day. In Sides's depiction, Carson was a humble loner who became an unflinching killer when circumstances or superiors demanded it.

The center of events, in many ways, was Santa Fe, the old Spanish territorial capital almost forgotten by the authorities in Mexico City, more or less functioning under self-government often at the expense of the settlers and natives. It was also the long-sought terminus of the famous trading trail bearing its name, believed by the United States to offer the best possible route to California and the Pacific coast. In truth, it was more symbolic than anything else: a dusty backwater of an empire under collapse, whose occupants were subject to routine raids from a number of tribes.

President James Polk entered office with one absolute intention: to extend the western boundary of the territorial United States to the Pacific Ocean. While not the author of the concept of Manifest Destiny, he was the first president to initiate military action under that theory. There's no doubt Polk inaugurated the Mexican War with little or no basis beyond his own will. At that point, the native peoples of the region were considered by the authorities to be little more than noisome pests to be easily dispatched with on the way toward an audacious land-grab from Mexico.

How wrong they were.

The Navajo warrior Narbona was in his 80s when the U.S. Army straggled in from the east, and he watched them come. His age and great wealth, measured largely in herds of horses and flocks of sheep, along with his long experience through peace and war with the Spanish settlers, placed him in a position of influence within an intricate, matrilineal, clan-driven tribe. To what degree he understood the role of chieftain that the Americans thrust upon him can't be known. It appears he accepted at least the premise in an effort to educate the Americans about Navajo culture and concepts of land ownership and use. At the same time, he was quietly determined to maintain the Navajo way of life.

Briefly, it appeared there might be hope for both sides, but Narbona was shot to death by a U.S. trooper who believed one of Narbona's warriors had stolen a horse. With the death of this wise man, all possibility of avoiding open warfare vanished. The Navajo faded back into the vast desert mountains and canyons of their homeland, leading to a protracted and fruitless series of expeditions against them that became successful only after the United States, led by Carson under the command of Gen. James Henry Carleton, initiated a scorched-earth policy. This finally culminated in the Navajo surrender and the infamous Long Walk to a barren redoubt in eastern New Mexico, where the defeated tribe began a disastrous period of disease and confinement.

Although the campaign against the Navajo anchors Blood and Thunder , Sides also details a panoply of events surrounding the Mexican War and its aftermath. These include the taking of California from the Spanish and British, as well as the ill-fated and short-lived Bear Flag Rebellion; the last of the famed rendezvous of the mountain men at Green River, Utah; and the bedraggled Confederate army's failed attempt to extend the Confederacy into the Southwest. There was a constant undercurrent of outrage and barbarity on all fronts and among all principal parties, Americans, Spanish, Mexican and Indian. Toss in accounts of a number of explorers, fortune-seekers, scoundrels, politicians, inept military adventurers, madmen and fools, and it all begins to sound like a collaboration between Cormac McCarthy and Federico Fellini.

But this is neither film nor novel. The truth of history is often fickle and difficult to determine, and Sides demonstrates his awareness of this with a riveting narrative focus. Like the authors of many other recent works of popular history, Sides dispenses with footnotes but offers an exhaustive bibliography that underscores the scope of this monumental undertaking. Not only does Blood and Thunder capture a pivotal moment in U.S. history in marvelous detail, it is also authoritative and masterfully told. ยท

Jeffrey Lent's novel "A Peculiar Grace" will be published next year.

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