Writer offers balanced history
May 5, 2007
The way Hampton Sides tells it, the legendary Christopher "Kit" Carson stood an unassuming 5’4" as a grown man in the mid-1800s, and was an illiterate, loveable man, "loyal, honest and kind" and "a good Samaritan a hero, even."
On the other hand, Sides recognizes Carson was also a "natural born killer brutal even for the West of his day (a West so wild it lacked outlaws, for no law yet existed to be outside of)." A man who studied American Indians, could communicate with most tribes, but who was known to call one massacre of an Indian village a "perfect butchery." And, for a man who could neither read nor write, he was one of the most written about persons of his day: a main character in popular pulp dime novels known as "blood and thunders" and mentioned by Herman Melville in "Moby Dick." A household name.
"He’s probably the most famous person in New Mexico, where I live. I kept seeing his name everywhere. He’s kind of this jack-in-the-box of the West and I started to wonder, ‘well, who was this guy?’" Sides recalls.
"Answering that question kept me busy for five years. He’s just one of those people who intersected with everybody, did everything, is loved and hated and controversial, and really, just an interesting character for a book."
Wednesday, the Friends of the Park City Library will invite Sides to its annual spring membership roundup luncheon at Silver Lake Lodge to speak about "Blood and Thunder," his non-fiction novel about Carson and the history of the bloody battles that shaped the American West in the 1800s.
Though there are plenty accounts of Carson and the defeat of the Southwest’s Navajo nation including an autobiography dictated in the mid-1850s Sides says he found few presented a balanced perspective.
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Sides says older biographers of the West were "too emotionally invested in the idea that these were all great swashbuckling heroes and ignored the idea that it was a bold land grab and that the Native American tribes had been living there for a millennia." They presented Carson as a great champion of Manifest Destiny; like "an action hero who could do no wrong," he says.
Newer historians of the 1960s and 1970s, swung the pendulum too far in the other direction, Sides argues, depicting every solder as a killer and every Native American as uniformly good and environmentally correct, and almost so noble, "it’s painful to read those histories."
As part of his research, Sides interviewed Navajos about the stories of the Long Walk, when Carson rounded up Navajos from their homeland in 1864 and marched them hundreds of miles to a reservation at Fort Sumner. After four years of internment, a third of the Navajos at the reservation died, Sides says, largely because of a shortage of resources.
"It’s the biggest thing that ever happened to the Navajos as a people. It was a shock to the system of this whole tribe," Sides explained in an interview with The Park Record. "It was the first time they were forced to think of themselves as a single nation, because, prior to the Long Walk, they really were decentralized collection of sub-tribes who happened to speak the same language."
Sides says at the time, the United States thought it was a way to end the Navajo’s raiding culture and slave trade, where women and children were stolen and sold. The U.S. believed people could be moved anywhere, he says, and that these issues could be solved "overnight."
Acquiring the Mexican territory in the Southwest, the U.S. felt it was pursuing its "Manifest Destiny" the concept that the country had a divine right to occupy North America coast to coast according to Sides.
Times have since changed, but Sides reflects that he can perceive a similar "brutality and naivete" in the current U.S. administration and its foreign policy, more than 130 years later.
"The United States conquered the West, and found the conquest very easy at first, only to find out the occupation was much harder, bloodier, and expensive," he says. "We gobbled up this semi-arid kingdom we knew nothing about, intending to bring democracy to a benighted race, only to find out we didn’t know anything about this place with complicated, unfamiliar cultures and religions All of that seems really familiar to the Iraq situation. We went in, thinking people would welcome us with open arms and we’ve since found the occupation is really tough business."
Sides calls the Long Walk a national tragedy.
Yet in "Blood and Thunder" Sides observes that the United States men behind the tragedy, like Carson, viewed themselves as Indian-fighters, and not as killers. "If [Carson] had killed Native Americans, he had also befriended them, loved them, buried them, even married them," Sides writes.
It’s recognizing Carson’s human nature — his irreconcilable inconsistencies — that gives Sides a new story to tell about one of the most well-known figures in the American West.
"Carson had all these qualities that are frustratingly contradictory and hard to reconcile, but that made him all the more interesting to me I hope that now the pendulum has swung back in the middle and [these historical figures of the West] can be presented as people both good and bad and more complicated and ambiguous, " Sides says. "That’s what I tried to do."
A winner of the 2002 PEN USA Award for nonfiction, "Blood and Thunder" follows Side’s World War II novel "Ghost Soldiers," which was made into a film in 2005 called
"The Great Raid." He is currently a contributing editor for Santa Fe-based Outside Magazine.
The Friends of the Library will host its annual Spring Membership Roundup Luncheon at Silver Lake Lodge on Wednesday, May 9. Doors open at 11:30 a.m. and the Western -style buffet lunch will begin at noon. Sides book, "Blood and Thunder" will be on sale at Dolly’s in advance as well as at the event. Tickets which include FOL yearly membership are $35 and are on sale through May 7 at noon. Pick them up from any board member or at the Park Avenue library.