SCOTT SIMON, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.
Without the West, the United States might have been more like Belgium, an interesting place bordering a single ocean, home to several cultures, and sharing a continent with a number of other states struggling to develop a democracy. But the acquisition of the West made America into a transcontinental power. It became a country straddling two oceans, and filling with immigrants from Asia and Latin America as well as Europe.
In a time when people in many parts of the world often unapologetically cited divine inspiration as their guide, the vista of the American West made many Americans believe that they had a manifest destiny to subdue and civilize. The story of that conquest - its bravery and cold bloodedness, savagery and majesty - is told in Hampton Sides' new book, Blood and Thunder: An Epic of the American West.
Mr. Sides, whose last book was the bestselling Ghost Soldiers, joins us in our studios.
Thanks so much for being with us.
Mr. HAMPTON SIDES (Author, Blood and Thunder: An Epic of the American West): Thanks for having me, Scott.
SIMON: Kit Carson is the figure that kind of brings the narrative thread through. How did it become Kit Carson?
Mr. SIDES: Well, he was probably the most famous citizen from my home state, New Mexico; the Kit Carson National Forest and villages named Carson. And of course Carson City, Nevada is named after him. He was sort of like this Zelig character who seemed to be everywhere and know everyone, and sort of every facet of his life intersected with the winning of the West.
SIMON: It would be possible to cite, for example, the popular Penny Press fictions that were written about him that made him a household name and a hero.
Mr. SIDES: He was far more interesting than his sort of fiction. I mean, he was a mountain man, an explorer, a soldier, a general. And he was a fictitious character in the sense that he was written about, all of these terrible, these atrociously bad books, a kind of precursors to the modern Western that were called blood and thunders. And I would dare you to read them. I mean, they're just terrible, but I did read two or three.
Invariably, Kit Carson is depicted as this amazing and, you know, intrepid, and also eloquent guy who it was said that he killed two Indians before breakfast. And of course that was considered a good thing back then. They never actually bothered to find out anything about the real guy. He never got any money from this. He didn't give his consent. And he hated these books. But the biggest irony for Carson was that he couldn't read them. He was illiterate, and therefore this caricature was something that he couldn't control it.
SIMON: I want to get you to read a section of your book about Kit Carson, if you could and kind of set the context for us.
Mr. SIDES: Yeah, there's a passage in the book where Kit Carson sort of comes face-to-face with his own myth. He's very uneasy about that when he does learn this. Ann White was woman who was kidnapped on the Santa Fe Trail by Hickoria Apache Indians. And Carson sort of got the call to go in, to follow the trail and hopefully to find her and rescue her.
Carson spotted something. About 200 yards from the campsite, a figure was sprawled on the hard-baked plain. The men rode over to inspect and found, to their dismay, that it was the corpse of an American woman. Ann White had been shot through the heart with a single arrow. She was perfectly warm, Carson said.
SIMON: And while going through the remains of that encampment, the soldiers discover something.
Mr. SIDES: One of the soldiers discovered a book that the White family had evidently brought with them from Missouri, a paperback novel starring none other than Kit Carson. Almost certainly, it was Charles Avaral's blood and thunder, Kit Carson: The Prince of the Gold Hunters. This was the first time that the real Kit Carson had come in contact with his own myth.
At first he vaguely amused by this colorful novel, but then he began to think of Ann White. He imagined her reading it while enduring her miserable captivity. In Averill's story, Kit Carson finds the kidnapped girl and saves the day, fulfilling his vow to her distraught parents back in Boston. But in this instance the real Kit Carson had failed to avert a disaster. He feared Averill's fiction may have given Ann White a false hope. The White murder would haunt Kit Carson for the rest of his life.
SIMON: How do we explain that Kit Carson was married to two Indian women, that he spoke a number of Indian languages, that he in a sense lived for much of his life as people did in those days in Indian communities, and yet he also had an awful lot of Indian blood on his hands?
Mr. SIDES: Well, I mean I think that contradiction is a big part of the book. It's something that I was never able to fully understand and reconcile, but you know, the important thing with Kit Carson is to go back to his times and to realize the context that he lived in. And I mean it was a very - very, very rough neighborhood and it was very - it was a neighborhood in which sort of tribal loyalties mattered. I mean he didn't think about American Indians in sort of the abstract. He thought about specific tribes - like the Arapaho, the Cheyenne and the Utes were all sort of allies of his and had always been. He always fought against the Blackfeet and the Comanches, and then later in life the Navajos.
Culturally we've gotten to a place now where - at least I hope so - that we can view a story like this not in monolithic terms, in the sense of, you know, maybe right after the Carson period the early biographers had this sort of emotional investment in believing that the conquest was this glorious adventure, swashbuckling heroes, Indians were bad, you know, soldiers good. Then I think the pendulum kind of swung in the other direction and we came to see that there was much that was shameful about this. So therefore every soldier was bad and every Indian was like a noble environmentalist.
But we couldn't really see these people, either one of those two ends of the pendulum swing, we couldn't really see them as human beings. And I'm hoping now that we're getting to a point, a kind of a maturity where we can see these nuances and understand it for what it was.
SIMON: Now, let me ask you about the man identified as the most famous and distinguished Navajo of his time, Narbona; 80-years-old at the time of your narrative.
Mr. SIDES: Narbona was an old man and he had seen many, many wars against the Mexicans and going back to the Spanish. And he was tired of war and he was impressed by the Americans. He had made a secret journey to Santa Fe to see what was going on there. The Americans had built a tremendous fort there called Fort Marcy, and he was terrified by what he saw and realized there was no fighting these guys. He called them the new men. And he was probably the single best hope for peace, to avert the coming Navajo wars.
But the very first expedition of Americans into Navajo country encounters Narbona. He's an elderly man with arthritis and long white hair. He's on a blanket out in a field and there's an argument that breaks out over a stolen horse. The next thing you know, the artillery's brought out and Narbona is killed. And then he was scalped by one of Washington's soldiers. So the greatest leader of the Navajo is not only killed but mutilated. It did not set the American/Navajo relations off to a good start there. The tables had turned.
SIMON: James K. Polk is not often accounted as one of the more impressive persons ever to be president of the United States. And I guess in a sense your book doesn't put him on a new list. But your book does remind us of how much the contours of the United States trace back to his presidency, and that war with Mexico that he chose to make something else.
Mr. SIDES: He was an amazing president, actually, one of the most efficient, most effective presidents in U.S. history, the 11th president of the United States, the president during the Mexican War. He was remarkable for one thing, which was that he decided that he would only serve one term and he honored that vow. So his presidency had this sense of deadline. He wanted to do great things, mainly expand the national domain. He was land hungry, willing to risk fighting Great Britain over Oregon, and he wanted to fight Mexico over California and Texas and New Mexico. But what's remarkable is that he pretty much achieved everything he set out to achieve. And he's now quite an obscure president, and yet he really presided over sort of the forcible period of manifest destiny, when the nation expanded by one-third.
SIMON: You seem to wind up thinking that Kit Carson was obviously a symbol of events, but felt lost in those events himself. He didn't set them into motion.
Mr. SIDES: I think I came to the conclusion that his contradictions and his ambiguities in his own life really mirror the ambiguities in the whole Western expansion. Because it was a glorious adventure in many ways. And it was an unbelievably shameful act as well. And it's all there in his life story.
SIMON: Hampton, thanks very much.
Mr. SIDES: Thanks for having me, Scott.
SIMON: Hampton Sides. His new book is Blood and Thunder: An Epic of the American West. You can read excerpts from Blood and Thunder at our Web site, npr.org.