By N. SCOTT MOMADAY
Published: October 29, 2006
After the journey of Lewis and Clark through the wilderness of the American West, a venture that might seem to us tentative, imperiled and pursued against all odds, there came unstoppable waves of humanity (and inhumanity), driven by dreams of gold and empire, and sustained by a certain sense of the inevitable, a conviction given the name Manifest Destiny. “Blood and Thunder” is the story of the quest for, and conquest of, the American West. It is, as we know, the most romantic of stories, and arguably the most cherished of America’s myths.
Early on, Hampton Sides writes of the mountain men:
“As the forerunners of Western civilization, creeping up the river valleys and across the mountain passes, the trappers brought smallpox and typhoid, they brought guns and whiskey and venereal disease, they brought the puzzlement of money and the gleam of steel. And on their liquored breath they whispered the coming of an unimaginable force, of a gathering shadow on the eastern horizon, gorging itself on the continent as it pressed steadily this way.”
This cryptic passage might serve as a bare-bones synopsis of the book. Sides, the author of the best seller “Ghost Soldiers,” has a talent for encapsulation. His thumbnail sketches of character are comprehensive and concise at the same time. There is, for example, a wonderful portrait of Stephen Watts Kearny, who commanded the Army of the West, in which the whole man appears to be contained and defined in a kind of verbal line drawing: “On innumerable occasions he had smoked the pipe with Indians, learning their manner of speaking, their penchant for metaphor; he once flattered a Sioux chief by complimenting him on the ‘soaring eagle of your fame.’ During a council with Oglala Indians, he heartily partook of the local delicacies — boiled dog and blood-tinged river water from the paunch of a buffalo.”
We see this quality of revelation again and again. There are equally telling sketches of the ambitious John C. Frémont; Maj. John Chivington, the murderous parson; Charles Bent, first the owner of Bent’s Fort and then the governor of New Mexico, and his great adversary, Padre Antonio Martínez, the enigmatic cura of Taos; the Navajo leader Manuelito; the diarist and correspondent Susan Magoffin; and many more. Sides gives us fresh, multifaceted pictures of the Taos revolt and the epic march of the Colorado Civil War volunteers. The cast of characters is large and the landscape vast. We see a panorama and a whole history, intricately laced with wonder and meaning, coalesce into a story of epic proportions, a story full of authority and color, truth and prophecy, a story that is uniquely ours.