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Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History by S. C. Gwynne

March 22, 2012

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This book is actually two parts—the history of the Comanche Indian tribe, and the biography of Quanah Parker, the last chief of the Comanche. To understand the latter, you need the former, but both are great stories in themselves.

The Comanche were the most fearsome of the American Indian tribes. Popular narratives of American Indians range from the black-and-white cowboys vs Indians tv specials, in which the Indians played the villains, attacking the whites and kidnapping their women, to the more romantic notions of the noble savage: peaceful, refined and in tune with nature, cruelly driven out by invading white settlers. As it usually does, the truth lies somewhere in between.

Unlike their agrarian counterparts to the east, the Comanche did not raise crops. They hunted, primarily buffalo. They were expert horsemen, unlike anything American or Mexican settlers had ever seen. Unlike all conventional cavalries of the time, the Comanche fought while mounted. Riding at full gallop, they could hang off the side of their horse, shielding themselves from attackers, and launch accurate volleys of arrows from under the horse’s neck. American soldiers marveled at the adroitness of the mounted Comanche, able to pick up full-grown, wounded comrades laying on the ground, again at full gallop. And while the soldier wielding the cumbersome and inaccurate musket—the weapon when U.S. soldiers first began to regularly encounter the Comanche—took a minute to fire two rounds, a Comanche warrior was able to fire one arrow, then accurately unleash five more before the first had reached its target.

It is not surprising, then, that the Comanche were greatly feared, not only by American soldiers, but by settlers who were often attacked with spectacular brutality, mutilated, raped, tortured and dismembered. To a certain extent, Mexico welcomed America’s westward expansion because it provided a buffer between them and the fearsome Comanche nation. The Comanche were nomadic, with loosely associated bands roaming a range that stretched from central Texas north to present-day Colorado and Kansas and west to present-day New Mexico. They could cover great distances at a time and often conducted their raids by moonlight (giving birth to the terrifying phrase “Comanche moon”). Those who ventured into Comanche territory ran the risk of being killed outright, or potentially falling victim to another cruel Comanche tactic—horse theft. Bands of hunters, traders and other white men traveling through Comanche territory sometimes woke to find that their horses had gone missing in the night. And a man without a horse in the inhospitable American plains rarely had long to live.

It was also common for the Comanche, when conducting raids, to kidnap young children and raise them as slaves or, less common, as part of the tribe. This later scenario was what happened to Cynthia Ann Parker, a nine-year-old Scots-Irish girl whose family and settlement neighbors were massacred in front of her. She, however, was adopted by the tribe and eventually married a Comanche chief. For 24 years, she lived as a Comanche until, with much fanfare and tabloid hubbub, she was “rescued” by the Texas Rangers and returned to civilization where she spent the last ten years of her life refusing to adapt to her new life (John Ford’s classic film, The Searchers, is believed to be based primarily on Cynthia Ann Parker’s story).

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Cynthia Ann Parker with Prairie Flower, one of her three children. 1861.

Parker had three children with her Comanche husband. One of those children, Quanah Parker grew up to be the greatest, and last, Comanche chief. It should be noted that the Comanche were not an organized, homogenous group. They had nothing resembling a central government or linking hierarchy between the bands. In fact, when the U.S. government started making treaties with the Comanche, this point often led to misunderstandings. One chief might sign a treaty, which the U.S. government would expect all Comanche to honor, but other chiefs would ignore it, seeing it in no way binding for their band. So to say Quanah became a Comanche chief does not mean he ruled over all Comanche. But his band was the largest, for a time the most fearsome and in the end the last holdout against the U.S. government.

Because of this, it is surprising to read how quickly Quanah made the change from “savage” Indian chief to well-mannered statesman. When he finally surrendered and agreed to the demands of the U.S. government, he quickly adopted white customs, wore white man’s clothing (though he kept his hair in long braids) and became the liaison for the Comanche on the reservation. Although a few Comanche believed Parker had sold out, most held him in high regard. White society certainly did—Parker became friends with Teddy Roosevelt and often gave speeches on behalf of and about American Indians.

What is to be made of this period of American history? The legends of the battles between the plains Indians and the U.S. Army, or the plains Indians and the Texas Rangers are an integral part of the American mythos. Any boy growing up between 1950 and 1990 had a quaint cowboys and Indians set in his toy chest. A less pleasant but more accurate truth, one more akin to a Cormac McCarthy novel, is on display here. The west was brutal. Although it is politically incorrect to call them “savages,” the Comanche were undeniably savage. But what they faced was equally savage. After the first wave of settlers came the U.S. Army, with orders that, over time, became explicitly genocidal. If the Indians do not surrender, kill them. And as the U.S. soldiers and Texas Rangers adapted their fighting techniques by adopting Comanche-style guerilla warfare, the Comanche were forced to retreat. Technology also played a role, with the Colt revolver giving the white soldiers a decided advantage.

But perhaps the most devastating blow to the Comanche was the near extermination of the buffalo. In ten years starting in 1873, commercial buffalo hunting destroyed the vast buffalo herds, the main food source of the Comanche. The American buffalo is a famously stupid animal. One member of a herd might fall dead, and unless the other buffalo nearby witnessed a clear attack, they would remain in place and continue to graze. This made it ridiculously easy for a single buffalo hunter, armed with a powerful 50-caliber rifle, to kill literally thousands of buffalo at a time. Although no official records were kept, it has been estimated that as many as 100,000 buffalo were killed on some days in those ten years. This, more than anything, spelled an end to the Comanche lifestyle.

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A mountain of buffalo skulls waiting to be ground for fertilizer. Mid-1870's.

Empire of the Summer Moon is a small slice of the “Old American West.” But it is a well-told and important slice, one at the heart of a central American mythology. It’s hard to read the account without a complicated mix of emotions. Horror at the violence and brutality. Wonder at the pace of change that came to this continent (Quanah Parker, in his fifty-nine years, went from living an ancient nomadic lifestyle to witnessing the industrial revolution from the comforts of his own eight-bedroom house). And a deep, aching nostalgia for the freedom and adventure of the pure, inviolate, open Great Plains.

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