Within the space of just three decades, monumental episodes of exploration and expedition, politics and violence, including the mapping of the Oregon Trail, the acquisition of California, and the Mexican-American and Civil wars, forever changed the history of the United States and the shape of the American West. And one man, an illiterate trapper, scout, and soldier, was there for it all: Kit Carson.
In his book Blood and Thunder: The Epic Story of Kit Carson and the Conquest of the American West, author and historian Hampton Sides follows Carson as a through-line in this extraordinary period. Today on the show, Hampton and I discuss how Kit Carson became a living legend through embellished accounts of his heroics, and yet undertook real-life exploits that were nearly as unbelievable as the tall tales told about him. We explore how Carson joined the grizzled fraternity of mountain men in his youth, and the wide array of skills that helped him excel as a trapper. We discuss how Carson then parlayed those skills into becoming a scout on expeditions that took him from St. Louis to California, over the Rocky and Sierra mountains, and all throughout the wild, rugged West. Hampton shares how these expeditions turned Carson into a national celebrity and what this frontiersman thought of his fame. Hampton also unpacks Carson’s complex relationship with American Indians, and how he respected and adopted the ways of some tribes, but fought against others. We end our conversation with why he decided to become an officer in the Union Army during the Civil War, his initially reluctant and then brutal campaigns against the Navajos, and his legacy.
Resources Related to the Episode
- Hampton’s previous appearance on the show: Episode #510 — The Greatest Battle of the Korean War
- AoM Article: Legends of the Northwest — Mountain Men
- AoM Podcast #203: The Real Life Most Interesting Man in the World
- Polk by Walter Borneman
- AoM Article: How to Track a Human
- Imperfect Union by Steve Inskeep
- Long Walk: A History of the Navajo Wars by Lynn Bailey
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. Within the space of just three decades, monumental episodes of exploration, expedition, politics, and violence, including the mapping of the Oregon trail, the acquisition of California and the Mexican-American civil wars, forever changed the history of the United States and the shape of the American West. And one man, an illiterate trapper, scout soldier, was there for it all, Kit Carson.
In his book, Blood under Thunder: The epic story of Kit Carson and the conquest of the American West. Author and historian Hampton Sides follows Carson as a through line in this extraordinary period of American history. Today on the show, Hampton and I discuss how Kit Carson became a living legend through embellished accounts of his heroics, and yet undertook real life exploits that were nearly as unbelievable as the tall tales told about them. We explore how Carson joined the grizzled fraternity of mountain men in his youth and the wide array of skills that helped him excel as a trapper.
We discuss how Carson then parlayed those skills into becoming a scout on expeditions that took him from St. Louis to California over the Rocky And Sierra mountains and all throughout the wild rugged West. Hampton shares how these expeditions turned Carson into a national celebrity and what this frontiersman thought of his fame.
Hampton also impacts Carson’s complex relationship with American Indians, in how he respected and adopted the ways of some tribes and yet fought viciously against others. And we end our conversation with why he decided to become an officer in the Union Army during the Civil War, his initially reluctant and then brutal campaigns against the Navajos, and his legacy today. After the show’s over, check out our show notes aom.is/carson. Hampton joins me now via clearcast.io.
Alright, Hampton Sides, welcome back to the show.
Hampton Sides: It is good to be with you.
Brett McKay: So we had you on a couple of years ago to talk about your book, On Desperate Ground, which was about the greatest battle of the Korean War, the Chosin Reservoir, brought you back on ’cause I wanna talk about a book you wrote, it’s almost 13 years ago, and I think you started it even back in 2002. It’s called, Blood and Thunder, and it’s about the famed trapper, mountain man, scout soldier, Kit Carson. I’m curious. What drew you to Kit Carson as a subject?
Hampton Sides: Well, Blood and Thunder isn’t really a biography of Kit Carson. It’s using Kit Carson as a through line to tell a much bigger story. And what drew me to Kit Carson was that this one man, in the span of one lifetime, went everywhere, did everything, knew everybody, somehow intersected with history in this consequential way, and enabled me as a writer to tell this bigger story of the conquest of the American West.
In a single generation, the western third of the continent became the United States. What’s amazing about Carson is that even though he wasn’t a general, West Pointer, a writer, a big time politician, he was essentially a nobody, an illiterate frontiersman, he knew everybody. And when you start charting the big events of Manifest Destiny and the conquest of the West, somehow or another, he was there.
He was always there. Or if he was not there, he missed it by five minutes. His best friend was there, or his wife was there, or his… So it’s a great through line to write about this much bigger story, which is really what I was interested in, because I had moved to the West. I moved here to Santa Fe, and I was looking for a big canvas kind of story to sink my teeth into, try to understand this land out here and how it became part of the United States.
It’s really then becomes the story of Native Americans, it becomes the story of Spanish Americans, the mountain men, who were mostly French, and these sort of spiral of events that led to finally, the Mexican-American War, and also the Civil War, which most people don’t realize there were actually some pretty consequential battles that took place here in the West during the Civil War.
So it’s got all these different chapters and episodes, but that through line that keeps returning is this one man who is very controversial. He was an Indian lover and he was an Indian killer. He married into… His first wife was Arapaho, his second wife was Cheyenne. He spoke six or seven different Indian languages. But he also fought against different tribes, and especially he’s famous for his conquering the Navajo and leading them on their notorious long walk.
I was drawn to that part of Carson’s life too. The fact that he was so controversial, so conflicted, has sort of this deep love and appreciation for Native American culture, but also fought against Native Americans in big ways that still have ramifications today.
Brett McKay: When I read this book, I was like, “This is just… It’s epic.” The stuff that happened in a short amount of time from the 1840s ’til the 1860s, it’s mind-boggling how much happened. I think what we’ve been going through in the past decade here in the modern age you think, “Oh man, things are just going so fast.” But like big changes, monumental changes happened in a matter of years back then.
Hampton Sides: Yeah, yeah, well, especially during the Mexican-American War, when President Polk took office, he cast his eye west and he decided he wanted all of it. He wanted the Oregon Territory, which is… Oregon and Washington now. He wanted California, which was nominally part of Mexico, that was kind of semi-independent.
He wanted the New Mexico territory, which was part of Mexico, and he wanted Texas and everything in between. He wanted ports on the Pacific. He wanted this relatively small country to become an empire, and he wanted it all in one fell swoop, and he got it all during the Mexican-American war. It was a brutal and relentless land grab.
It was pretty shameful in many respects, but he achieved what he sought out to do. After one term in office, he went home to Tennessee and in a few months, he was dead. James K. Polk came out of nowhere and achieved what he said he was going to do, and suddenly, the United States had grown by about the size of Continental Europe. [chuckle]
Those events that led to all that just happened so fast and furious, and it’s so hard to even keep track of them all and all the different characters. But one person just kind of treads right through the middle of it, and that’s Kit Carson. And that’s why he became such an interesting kinda connective tissue for this larger story.
Brett McKay: Well, let’s look at the life of Kit Carson, and along the way, we can talk about some of these big events that he was involved with, in American History. So we’ll start of when he was born. What was America like when Kit Carson was born?
Hampton Sides: Well, he was born in Kentucky, but moved very soon thereafter to Kentucky. And there was this slow but steady march westward to find untouched land. And he was part of that movement. His parents were. He was distantly related to Daniel Boone and these were true frontiersman. They moved to Missouri.
But beyond Missouri, it was wilderness. And the notion was that sort of the middle third of the country was gonna be set aside for the Native American tribes, many of whom had been forcibly relocated during the Trail of Tears and other forced relocation sagas like that. But then beyond the plains, there was this whole other part of the continent that was not very well understood. Part of it was part of Mexico, part of it was just wilderness that had not been mapped or explored very much.
And then you finally get to the Pacific Coast and you get different continental powers that are vying for, and interested in controlling, particularly the Pacific Northwest. The British are interested in it and have lots of little tentacles in that part of the world. The Russians are still trapping and exploring up around Alaska and working their way down the coast. California was part of Mexico, and by extension, part of the greater Spanish Empire.
So everyone had their eyes on this great prize of the virgin far West, and the United States was beginning to express its interest in having all that. And so, Carson’s family moved from Kentucky to Missouri. That was the end of the line. St. Louis was the gateway to wilderness, and there was a trail that was formed from Independence, Missouri to Santa Fe, known as the Santa Fe Trail. And that was kind of the one little tentacle where there was some trade and there was expeditions west.
And Carson as a young boy, his father died when he was eight, and his stepfather, he butted heads with his stepfather, and he wanted to get the hell out of his home environment. He became an apprentice to a saddle-maker. But then he started hearing these stories about these mountain men, these people out west that came west on the Sante Fe Trail and went into the mountains and trapped beaver.
There was a tremendous amount of money to be made doing that. It was an adventurous life, it was a dangerous life, but he wanted to be part of this fraternity of greasy grizzled old mountain men, and he ran away. When he was about 16, ran away to Santa Fe and really never looked back.
He went up into the mountains, up around talus, and slowly but surely worked his way into this fraternity of men and became in the end, one of the most famous mountain men of all. So that’s how he got his start in the West, trapping beaver, which was an incredibly valuable asset really because, for some reason, people back in London and Paris and New York had decided that a beaver hat was the finest hat you could have. [chuckle] It was a fashion statement.
And so really, these men became so proficient at trapping beaver that beaver became nearly extinct in many parts of the West. But along the way, they learned how the rivers… How the drainages flowed, the big rivers, the little rivers. They learned essentially, if not formally, to map the West, at least to get around, sort of made a mental map of the West.
And these mountain men, with all this knowledge of this territory that was otherwise unexplored, then went on to become scouts and guides in various topographical expeditions into the West. So this was valuable information that they had, and Carson was proved to be the very best one of all of the mountain men, to make that transition from trapping beaver to guiding formal expeditions into the West.
Brett McKay: One thing you talk about, and you quote people who talked about, the skills that Carson had. He was just in any situation in the West and the wild, he could handle himself. What were some of the skills that he was famous for, that he had?
Hampton Sides: It wasn’t any one thing that Carson had that made him so competent at what he did. It was kind of a panoply of skills. He knew when to fight, he knew when to bluff, he knew when to negotiate, he was cool under pressure. He was really… He was a great horseman, although most of these guys didn’t have horses, they had mules. They really trusted their mules, and they would say, “The horse won the West.”
It actually was no horse, it was a mule that won the West. But Carson was good with a knife, he was good in a fight, he was an expert marksman, a good hunter, he was a decent cook, he was a, just somebody you wanted on your side, and when you’re out in the wilds. It’s kind of extraordinary, given how many scrapes he got into with different Native American tribes over the decades, that he lived to fairly ripe old age in those days and died of natural causes. He somehow knew where to be, and had a sixth sense for when to fight and when to avoid a fight.
He also had a really remarkable… Even though he was illiterate, a remarkable gift for language. He was fluent in Spanish, he was fairly fluent in French, and he knew multiple Native American languages and sign language. So he was great at communicating. All the different expeditions to remark about that, that he was the guy that came forward and figured out what was going on and communicated with the local tribes and was able to negotiate whatever it is they wanted or needed at the time. So those are some of his… Those are some of his skills.
He certainly had a temper, and if you riled him, he would not back down, he was ferocious and he was relentless, and he would pursue you. And I guess that’s his other famous skill, was pursuing people. He was an amazing tracker and would sometimes track a fugitive or an… In one famous case, a woman who had been kidnapped for days and days and days across the mountains and the plains.
He could read, you know, read the signs on the ground and was quite famous for this skill. Which is really almost a mystical skill, to look at the grass and try to determine how old a particular footprint is. I don’t know how people do that, but he was apparently phenomenal at that skill.
Brett McKay: Well, and it was during his time as a mountain man where his complex relationship with Native Americans began. This is when he married, I think he has married two Native American women during this time.
Hampton Sides: Yes, his first wife, Singing Grass was Arapaho, and a lot of people say that those were his happiest years was when he lived with her tribe, her band of Arapaho Indians, and really live more like an Indian than a White guy, than an Anglo. Had two children with her. Unfortunately, she died in childbirth. He raised their children and along the way, married a Cheyenne woman, that marriage did not work out very well. It ended in what they call the “Cheyenne divorce”, where she basically kicked him out of her teepee.
But all this is just to say that he was somebody who respected and found a lot of power in Native American traditions and language and lived with great respect for certain Native American tribes. There were other tribes that he seemed to spend much of his life fighting against, and maybe foremost among those were the Blackfeet and also the Comanches and at sometimes the Kiowas.
So he didn’t really look at Native Americans in a monolithic way, like Indians out there, he was very specific in his allegiance to certain tribes, and his often lifelong antipathy to other tribes. So it’s very interesting. His third and his final wife was Spanish, came from an old Spanish family in Taos, Josefa Jaramillo. And so he then sort of just organically morphed again into kind of like a Spanish guy.
He spoke Spanish, he converted to Catholicism. He raised his kids to speak Spanish and as Catholics and lived in Taos, and viewed himself as allied, aligned with Spanish, New Mexico, which of course, they’ve been there for hundreds of years. So it’s interesting this guy just keeps kind of like a zelig figure, he keeps kinda changing into whatever, and he’s like a cat who had nine lives.
So, he went from being a mountain man to being a rancher, to being a scout and a hunter, and then he became… Finally, joined the regular army, the Union Army, and fought against the Confederates in several battles. And then became, at the end of his life, he became a brigadier general, so he…
And there’s a couple of other incarnations I just skipped over, like a cross continental courier, he rode to Washington to give messages, and he was, you know, he was a scout and he was a guide, and he was so many other things. So he had this real talent for sort of rebooting himself. As soon as one lifestyle seemed to dry up or one set of opportunities evaporated, he would just recreate himself anew.
Brett McKay: Well, so as a trapper, he started to make a name for himself, but like where this, where he became like almost a living legend was when he became the scout for Fremont, John Fremont. So for those who are not familiar, who was John Fremont and why was he exploring the West?
Hampton Sides: Yeah. Well, John C. Fremont was a botanist and a cartographer living in Washington, very talented, very ambitious young man, very good looking dude, ladies seemed to think he was extremely handsome and dashing. He had… His ambition really knew no bounds, he was all those things I mentioned, but he really wanted to be President someday.
Like a lot of ambitious young men, he married a woman who was the daughter of a very, very powerful man. This man was Senator Thomas Hart Benton from Missouri, one of the architects if not the principal architect of Manifest Destiny, John C. Frémont knew that Benton was his ticket to get to where he wanted to go which was to explore the West, map the West and then somehow use his fame and celebrity to catapult it into a political career.
Well, it worked out pretty much the way he envisioned it, he married Benton’s daughter, Jessie Frémont, who was herself just a remarkable woman, who was educated pretty much the way if the senator had had a son, this is the way he would have educated his son. She didn’t go to finishing school or anything like that, she got a rigorous education and was just a very shrewd political creature herself. And they became… John C. Frémont and Jesse became kind of like Washington’s original power couple.
He would go on these expeditions and come back, and she would do most of the writing, because she was a very talented writer and understood the PR aspect of all this. It’s like one thing to go and describe a bunch of plants and the topography and try to do it in a scientific fashion, but those reports that Frémont wrote were rather dull and rather dry.
She would take these reports and turn them into great stories that became bestselling books and that ensured her husband’s fame and fortune. In these books, Frémont was a dashing hero, but perhaps even more dashing a hero as depicted in those books was Kit Carson. And that’s really how Kit Carson became famous, it seems like on every page Carson was doing something daring, something bold. That he was plucky and resourceful and got the expedition out of innumerable scrapes.
So Carson kinda owed his fame to John C. Frémont and Frémont’s wife, Jesse. Carson however, didn’t understand that celebrity, he didn’t like that celebrity. He was a pretty shy and awkward guy, he didn’t understand why people back east seemed to know his name. He had spent his youth trying to get away from America and suddenly he was this almost like a action figure hero.
He became then the subject of all these pulp novels that were written really bad, most of them very bad novels but they were kind of precursors to what we now call “a western” and often Kit Carson was the star of these books, the protagonist. Somehow they turned him into 6-foot-8 blonde, blue eyed, alien viking or something.
And he was like 5’4, not particularly handsome, shy and awkward around the ladies, he just didn’t… They turned him into something else, a kind of a caricature, and he spent much of his life trying to live that caricature down or trying to understand it. He didn’t get any money from these books, they didn’t get his permission to use his name. The ultimate irony was he couldn’t read these books, ’cause he was illiterate, so he had to have other people read to him these exploits that were completely…
Carson had an amazing life and he did amazing things, but of course that wasn’t good enough for these novelists who had to exaggerate. It would say like, “Kit Carson would kill two Indians before breakfast,” which presumably was a good thing back then, considered a good thing. It really set up this mythology that Carson spent the rest of his life trying to live down.
But all of it goes back to Frémont’s expeditions which Benton, Senator Benton was instrumental in commissioning, they left from St. Louis, there was three main Frémont expeditions. So Frémont’s expeditions west really were important historically, because he charted and mapped the Oregon Trail, which was then a very crude and dangerous throughout west towards the northwest, across the Great Plains.
And after his books came out, books that were largely written by his wife, this kind of ignited this Great Migration of pioneers and people said, “Well, maybe it’s not so dangerous, so let’s all… “, then en masse began to migrate west along the Oregon Trail. So this is an instance in which cartography and exploration led directly to settlement on a big scale, all part of a master plan of Benton and the others who wanted, really wanted the United States to be a continental empire, from shore to shore, from sea to shining sea.
And it basically worked. The first act of occupation and settlement is first exploration, and Frémont led those early expeditions and Carson was his guide. Their friendship is also a very interesting dynamic in the book, is that these two guys were kind of codependent, Frémont and Carson, two people who seemed to really need each other.
Carson very self-reliant guy but also very conscious of the fact that he was illiterate, that there was a whole world back east of educated people, powerful people, that he was curious about. Frémont was quite educated and Carson seemed to defer to him in many ways. When Frémont asked him to go do something, sometimes a very unsavory thing, Carson would do it. He was dutiful to a fault.
Frémont, meanwhile, he needed a guide, he needed somebody that really knew the West, he needed someone who was really proficient in all those skills of survival in an extreme environment that Carson already had, having been a mountain man for all those years.
So these two men very much were, I guess in modern parlance we’d say they were codependent, or they very much relied on each other, and they did remain friends for the rest of their lives. So it’s an interesting part of Carson’s life is the extent to which he identified with Frémont and needed Frémont somehow to… Almost like a father figure that Carson seemed to need to have.
Brett McKay: Going back to that, the celebrity in the books that were written about Carson, and one of the most poignant moments in the book is when you describe… This is after, I think… This is during… After the Civil War, when he was basically fighting Native Americans, there was a family of settlers, they were kidnapped. White, was their last name?
Hampton Sides: Yeah, yeah.
Brett McKay: Yeah and Carson went to go hunt her, find her from these… I think it was a Native American tribe that kidnapped her. And he found her, but she was already dead, but amongst her possessions, she had a book about Kit Carson who came and saved people. That was just one of those moments, he couldn’t live up to the legend.
Hampton Sides: Yeah. That is a famous story, and it’s 100% true. It’s almost… It’s fabulous, like something that seems like it is a made up story, but it is true. He got the assignment essentially to go find this woman who had been kidnapped by Hickory Apaches on the plains, and he spent nearly a week tracking her across the state plains, and he found her, but unfortunately, she had been killed.
As you say, in her possessions, they found the very first Blood and Thunder book, these horrible pulp westerns, and in that book, in that particular story, he was the protagonist. And the weird plot line of the book was that he had gotten the assignment to go find a woman who’d been captured and kidnapped by Native Americans, and he went and found her and saved the day and won her back and brought her back to her family.
That’s in the novel, but he couldn’t in real life live up to that legend. Of course, he couldn’t read the story either. Someone read it to him, and he was like… It was like the first time that he ever became aware of his own legend, that he was some kind of mythological figure back east, that these novels… And of course, this was the first of many of these terrible novels.
But it is an amazing story. Ann White was her name. You can’t make this up, her name was White. She’d been coming down the Santa Fe trail with her family. All the men in her group were killed, but she and her African-American slave and her daughter, her baby daughter, were kidnapped, and so, yeah, it’s just one of…
This is the thing. Tracking down stories about Kit Carson is just, it’s a full-time job. It kept me busy for years and years because there are just so many of them. Many of them are false, many of them were exaggerated, but just as many of them are true. It’s like if something like that happened in my life, I would say that was like probably the biggest thing that ever happened to me, the most…
Well, he had dozens and dozens and dozens of those kinds of stories, all in one life. So it really is kind of an extraordinary thing to think about, just all the episodes and incarnations, and just tall tales that actually prove to be true that happened to this one man.
Brett McKay: So we talked about, so he was a scout for Frémont. The expeditions to California, that eventually morphed into the Mexican-American War. There was some crazy stuff in that chapter, of insurrections going on and just nutty stuff. The Mexican-American War happened. Carson got roped into that. He started working with… I think it was Kearny was the general of the army in the West?
Hampton Sides: Right.
Brett McKay: Started fighting in the Mexican-American War. But then after the Mexican-American War, Carson continued to be a soldier, and he actually became an officer for the Union army during the Civil War.
Hampton Sides: He was rather reluctant to do that, and it was kind of complicated in the sense that he was originally from Missouri and most of his brothers had sided with the Confederacy, and why he decided to become Union officer is kind of interesting, but he did. And one of the many reasons he did is because there was an army coming from Texas to try to claim New Mexico and Colorado for the Confederacy. Spanish New Mexicans for generations and generations had had this fear and loathing of Texans. In some senses, we still do.
Brett McKay: Tejanos, you gotta watch out for the Tejanos.
Hampton Sides: Right, the Tejanos. So he was able to recruit very quickly, a pretty large army of Spanish New Mexicans that he commanded and fought against those Texans when they came up the Rio Grande at a place called Valverde, a really important battle, and one that I think most Americans don’t even know happened at all. And after the Texans were sent back to Texas where they belong, Carson, here he was still in the Union army, and he basically wanted to go back to Towson, be with his wife and family.
But a general by the name of Carlton came along and said, “No, well, we’re on a war footing now, why don’t we now go after some of these tribes that keep attacking the settlements along the Rio Grande?” The wandering tribes, the raiding tribes, and foremost among those, at that time, were the Navajo, the Diné.
And this general, Carlton, came up with this plan to round up all the Diné, one of the largest tribes even then, and certainly now, in America, and move them to a reservation on the Pecos River, where they could be watched and where they could be taught to be sedentary Christian farmers, completely rewire their society.
Because they were… What they really were, were semi-nomadic sheep herders and moving over a huge piece of land. The Diné country was just massive, all over the Four Corners region of what we call the Four Corners now, of the United States. And when General Carlton came up with this ambitious plan to sort of rewire the Navajo, he decided that he had to have Carson to actually lead it. And Carson tried to resign. He didn’t really want any part of this. He said he had joined the Union Army to fight Texans, not Native Americans.
But in the end, he signed on and he thus began really the chapter of his life, the episode of his life, for which he is now widely reviled and hated by Native Americans, and hated for just the ferocity of this scorched-earth campaign that he led into Navajo country, to break their spirit, break their back, break the back of their nation, and to march them to this kind of like a prison camp on the Pecos River.
This is probably what he’s most famous for now, and his long life with many twists and turns, comes down to one of the last chapters of his life, the Navajo campaigns.
Brett McKay: And I thought was… This was happening during the Civil War. What I thought was interesting is that most people think, after the Civil War, the Union Army, they started the American Indian Wars. Sherman was a big part of that. This was the precursor to that.
Hampton Sides: Yeah, well, Carson found that it was almost impossible to fight the Navajo, that they didn’t fight pitched battles. They would raid and retreat, raid and retreat. Navajo country is so wrinkled and full of canyons, and they would just disappear. They would vanish into this massive wilderness.
And so, the only way Carson could fight them, was to starve them to death, was to kind of… Even before Sherman led his scorched-earth campaign across the American South, Carson was doing this and perfecting it, burning every corn field, destroying every orchard, slaughtering every sheep, every cow, every horse that they came across. Poisoning water sources, destroying salt sources. Literally starving the Navajo, slowly but surely, to death. This is one of the reasons why the Navajo, they never forgot and they never forgave.
It’s like it happened yesterday, because it really had a psychic effect. Because not only were they being attacked, but it was their very land, their sacred land was being attacked. Carson proved to be very good at this. He didn’t wanna do it. He tried to resign several times, but once he signed on, he was brutal. And it worked, because in 10s and 20s, and then finally by the hundreds and thousands, the Navajo surrendered and they went on their long walk.
This experiment on the Pecos River did not go well. They hated it. They were miserable. They refused to plant their crops. They didn’t wanna become Christian farmers. [chuckle] They wanted to go back to their beloved Land. And after the Civil War, actually Sherman, who you mentioned, does come out to negotiate some treaties and decides that this experiment was an abject failure.
And the Navajo, after much discussion, they decided to return them back to their homeland. Which is one of the very rare instances in our history, where no one apologized, but they admitted the failure of relocating a people forcibly, and they actually returned them to their ancestral lands, which is instead of Oklahoma or some other place, hundreds of miles, thousands of miles from where they actually are from.
So the Navajo were returned in this, another long walk, but a joyous one, back to the Diné country, where they are now, the largest reservation in the country, and one of the largest Native American tribes in the country. Carson, like I’ve said several times, he was illiterate. We don’t really know what he thought and felt about all of this.
I think he felt… There are some indications that he certainly felt reluctant to do it in the first place, and then he felt… Obviously, he recognized that it was a failure, that it didn’t work. And many, thousands of Navajo died, there was outbreaks of different diseases, and it was just a great tragedy that didn’t really need to happen. Again, Carson was kind of at the center of it.
But he did spend the rest of his life, really quite directly advocating on behalf of various Native American tribes and establishing treaties, with particularly… He was very close to the Utes and went all the way to Washington, with a group of Ute elders and negotiated a treaty that was quite successful and led to a creation of their own sovereign lands.
But this Navajo campaign, I think just remained a stain on his career for the rest of his life, and really is the thing that he’s most famous for, all these many years later.
Brett McKay: Yeah. I thought it was… You said how Carson, he… Ever since he was a trapper, the way he looked at Native Americans, he viewed Native Americans as Native Americans viewed Native Americans. It’s like instead of a White person, a European, at the time would think of Native Americans as a monolithic and they’re all the same, Carson understood, no, they all think they’re the best people. Like the Comanches are the people, or the Utes are the people, and every other tribe, and Carson kinda had that world view as well.
Hampton Sides: He did, he did, and to his credit, I think that he is in a completely different class of figures in the American West. This was no Sheridan, this was no Chivington, famous for his massacres, this was no Custer. This was a guy who really actually understood a lot about Native American life and saw that most of these clashes that were happening out in the West were happening because White settlers, White miners, Mormons and missionaries were changing the West and encroaching on Native American territory.
He hated what was happening, and I think maybe on some level, he understood that he himself had brought this on by virtue of leading those expeditions to the West, and he had sort of fouled his own nest. Because he’d loved the American West, and the pristine West that he roamed over when he was in his 20s as a mountain man had been ruined by igniting these mass migrations of Europeans, Anglo-Americans.
So in his later years as he’s negotiating treaties and giving testimony to Congress, you see a very different Carson. He’s quite contrite. He hates what has happened to the West, and he hates… There’s just a lot of… Of course, don’t forget the Gold Rush, which he actually is thought to have played a bit of a role in himself.
He may have… He was transmitting some messages to Washington, and in one of the saddle bags, it’s thought that the very first mention of gold being found in California was in one of those saddle bags. So even the Gold Rush, he may have helped ignite. I think the real tragedy of Carson’s life story is that he kind of ruined his own paradise in one lifetime.
Near the end of his life, the transcontinental railroad has come, and the Old West that he knew is over, and it’s a whole different world when he died in 1868.
Brett McKay: Hampton, where can people go to learn more about this book and the rest of your work?
Hampton Sides: Obviously, anywhere where books are sold, but I always encourage people to go to independent bookstores, which are struggling and suffering during this pandemic. Or my website, which leads you to all kinds of information, which is hamptonsides.com.
Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, Hampton Sides, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Hampton Sides: I’ve really enjoyed it. Thanks so much.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Hampton Sides, who talked about his book, Blood and Thunder: The Epic Story of Kit Carson and the Conquest of the American West. It’s available on amazon.com and book stores everywhere, and you find out more information about his work at his website, hamptonsides.com. Also check out our show notes at aom.is/carson. You can find links to our resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.
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