Saturday, May 19, 2012

Joint Musings: Lions of the West, Chapter 8 - Kit Carson

Lions of the West
 A couple of months ago, Kari from Five Borough Books asked me to read Lions of the West:  Heroes and Villains of the Westward Expansion with her and participate in a blog discussion about the book.  I jumped at the chance, not only because I wanted to get even more in-depth on this historical era, but also because Kari is really pretty awesome. 

Lions of the West presents short biographies of eight men who were integral to the process of America expanding west across the North American continent.  Kari and I chose to discuss each man in-dept over the course of a few weeks.  We started the discussion here with the chapter on Thomas Jefferson.  Below is our discussion of Kit Carson, one of the West's greatest scouts.  As you can see, we are both suffering a bit of Mexican War fatigue with this book, but we hope you enjoy the below discussion, anyway.  Hopefully, it piques your interest enough to delve more into American history and understand the complex relationships that existed, and continue to exist, between so many different cultures.

Kit Carson:  Taking Boone’s Trace to the Pacific

Kari:  I think Kit Carson’s chapter could’ve been interesting, because it was sort of a nice break from all the shenanigans of the Mexican War that Morgan has been focusing on for so long. I say “could’ve” because I think I’ve lost some steam on reading this book; the saga of Mexico really took it out of me! Therefore, I feel my attitude has been negatively affected.

Aarti:  Oh, I definitely agree.  I think Carson had an interesting upbringing and he sure had an impressive mustache.  But I, too, was exhausted with the book by this point.

Kari:  Anyway, Carson’s chapter did introduce us to a new character of the west—the mountain man. I know Davy Crockett is probably more strongly identified as a rugged outdoorsman than Carson, but Carson is the real deal.

Aarti:  I completely agree, mostly because I inevitably associate the “West” with... well, west of me (in Illinois), and Davy Crockett doesn’t really qualify under my very rigid definition.  Carson qualifies very well, though, especially as he was a scout.  I keep imagining him with his ear to the ground, listening for a buffalo stampede.

Kari:  He explored from a thirst for adventure; he walked into danger instead of the other way; he was the living symbol of the fearless, intuitive, brilliant outdoorsman that discovered the west. I thought it fascinating reading about just how much knowledge he had stored in his head. He knew the native language of many Indian tribes, and the mountainmen even developed their own dialect and way of speaking. It’s hard to imagine a time in this country when there wasn’t one universal language. I know there was in the eastern states, but think about how difficult it must have been to communicate in the unchartered territory of the west, inhabited by so many different groups of people!
Aarti:  I really enjoyed hearing that, too!  I loved that they created a hybrid language of English and Native languages, complete with animated gestures, I’m sure.  I imagine it to be even more fun to hear than Creole, so I’m pretty bummed that it no longer exists.  You’re so right, too, that English could very well not have been the dominant language in many of these places- so many people who spoke Spanish and other European languages must have been there.  And I’m not sure when the Chinese began immigrating, but maybe that language had a presence, too, by then.  It must have been so diverse, culturally.
Kari:  However, as we’ve learned by now, Mexico is involved with everything in this book, and Morgan can’t get through a chapter without talking about it in great depth. Not gonna lie—I started to skim a bit getting through these parts. But the impression I got from it was that Carson was a success on the battlefield strictly because of his “wilderness smarts” (yes, that is the West’s version of “street smarts”). And that’s a huge difference from Winfield Scott’s story that we just read.

Aarti:  Ugh, I know!  I feel like a rebellious tween.  Now that I know that Morgan is obsessed with the Mexican War and insidiously inserts significant amounts of military maneuvers into every chapter, I HAVE NO DESIRE to read about it.  

Your point is a good one.  I do think Carson succeeded because he enjoyed what he did, and was very good at what he did.  He seems to have been made to live in the era he lived in, and he defines it so completely in my mind.  He was totally in his element in the Wild West, and I don’t thnk he would have been happy being the farmer or the businessman that was perhaps the norm at the time.

Kari:  I was most interested in Morgan’s final musings on Carson in which he was compared to Jefferson, a man opposite from Carson in nearly every way imaginable. Morgan said: “Kit Carson shared Thomas Jefferson’s romantic vision of the West, of a republic washed by the waters of two oceans. Like Jefferson, Carson was willing to make extreme sacrifices for the service of his country.” After reading how zealous the Americans were on expansion, I’m frankly surprised that this country doesn’t take up the entire continent; it seems ocean borders would be the only thing strong enough to contain Americans who just kept moving and outright taking. It really makes you think about how the development and history of this country would be different were all Native American tribes united as a “nation” that could put up a fight.

Aarti:  As we’ve said before, I think Morgan drank a little too deeply from the Jeffersonian outlook on the American west.  Apparently, Jefferson wanted us to be a huge, agrarian country that didn’t bother with excessive commercial enterprises.  Well... I think we all know that didn’t happen, or at least, it didn’t last.  I, too, am surprised that America isn’t much bigger than it is, but I suppose after the Civil War, we had other things to focus on.  I am not sure how history would be if it had gone differently.  This is one of those fascinating “What if?” points of history.  What if the Indians hadn’t helped the first settlers, and they had all died and no new colonists came?  Then maybe it would be a system of trade, rather than a system of ethnic cleansing and annihilation.  Or maybe, it all would have ended the same, anyway....

1 comment:

  1. What a great way to read and blog about a book. I'd love to do this myself.

    And very interesting comments esepcially about the romantic vision of the West. I just finished an overview of Chicano history, Occupied Territory, by Acuna, which presents the Mexican War from the perspective of Mexicans living in the land taken. It is anything but battle plans and very negative about our "destiny" to own the continent. Part of why we didn't take Mexico was that the people weren't white. I should have a review up soon.


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