Within the space for just three decades, monumental episodes of exploration and expedition, politics and violence, including the mapping 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.