Friday, February 1, 2019

Empire of the Summer Moon - a book review

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.

Given a choice between historical fiction and actual history, I prefer history every time. Fiction wastes too much space trying to make a story out of something that is already a story in its own right. James A Michener’s Texas can hardly compare to T.R. Fehrenbach’s Lone Star: a history of Texas and the Texans. The latter was far more interesting and informative. 

After wading through the four books of the Lonesome Dove series, enjoyable as they were, as mentioned in a previous blog, I was not at all happy with their historical accuracy. Fortunately, I had in my collection of unread cheaply purchases eBooks a superb history of the Comanche nation, Empire of the Summer Moon.

I suggest you click the link above and look for a review by William Thomas, a historian, who writes a far better review than I can. Reading reviews by people who know the history themselves is always very enlightening. For example, if you click in the link to the Fetterman Massacre by Dee Brown and scroll to a reviewer named Matt, you will learn far more than by reading the book.

The story of the Comanche begins with the horse. The Spanish horse arrived in North America in numbers in the late 16th century.  It was ideally suited to the Western Plains. It was light, small and tough, could live on sparse grass and go long distances between waterholes. The Spanish were unsuccessful in keeping the horse from falling into the hands of the Native Tribes. The Apaches were the first to acquire them but never acquired a real horse culture.  A revolt of the Pueblo Indians in New Mexico in 1680 temporarily drove the Spanish out, leaving behind thousands of horses which made their way to the Great Plains and multiplied rapidly.

Comanche warrior
The horse and the knowledge of how to use it spread with astonishing speed through the midcontinent. In 1630, no tribes anywhere were mounted. 25 By 1700, all Texas plains tribes had them; by 1750, tribes of the Canadian plains were hunting buffalo on horseback.

The horse turned the Plains Tribes from paupers to princes. The buffalo had supplied all their needs when they were on foot and now they could hunt easily and follow the buffalo herds as they migrated.  Horses became currency and stealing horses and making war on weaker neighbours for more hunting area became their version of participatory Monday Night Football. The Comanche excelled in adapting horse technology, including horse breeding quicker and better than neighbouring tribes. No other tribe could out ride or outshoot them. The horse was their main trade item and the means to get to the customer.

Comancheria and surrounding Tribes c 1830-1850
In the late 17th century the Comanche began moving southward out of the foothills of the Wind River country and in 1706 mounted a raid against Taos, New Mexico, which was the first that Europeans even knew they existed. The Comanche kept the Spanish and French out of Texas and drove their mortal enemies, the Apache, south and west of the Pecos River.  At their peak between 1830 and 1850, Comancheria covered part of 5 states and about 240,000 square miles.

Mexico, having achieved independence from Spain, invited American settlers to Texas, to take the Comanche heat off themselves. Settlers flooded into Texas, settling the more fertile eastern Texas first and then slowly moving west. It didn’t take long to run into the Comanches who fiercely defended their territory from all comers. A warrior could fire 20 arrows accurately from the back of a running horse in the time it took to reload a muzzle-loading rifle which had to be done standing on the ground. They were ferocious fighters and could not be beaten until the advent of the repeating revolver and rifle, allowing the Texas Rangers and US Army to fight on horseback.

Texas frontier showing US Army forts
Comanche culture was ideal for a hunting and warring nation. It was loosely knit with no fixed hierarchy and no major rituals such as the Sun Dance. Decisions were made democratically but individual band members were not bound by them. Chiefs were elected but had no absolute control, something which was greatly misunderstood when it came to signing peace treaties.  And peace treaties were signed but could never specify enforceable boundaries between Comanche and Settlers. The author points out that soldiers could protect the settlers from the Comanche but to turn on and kill white Americans in defense of the Indian was never going to happen.

In a botched “Treaty Negotiation – Captive Exchange in Austin in 1838, several Comanche chiefs were massacred.  In 1840, in revenge Buffalo Hump (yes, he existed, just not as told in Comanche Moon) led a revenge raid on Victoria and Linnville, all the way to the sea. Raid after raid on settlers and settlements left bloated bodies and burning houses. Settlers kept coming and Comanches kept pushing them back. The full moon in spring and summer, known as the Comanche Moon, brought terror to the settlers as that was when the warriors swept down on them in the night.

In 1833 the Parker clan built a fort about 240 km west of the Louisiana Texas border which at that time was far ahead of other settled areas.  A number of families began farming there.  In 1836, the Parker Fort was raided by Comanches.  Several men were killed and women and children were taken captive, including 9-year-old Cynthia Ann Parker who became the most famous captive.

Cynthia Ann Parker and daughter Prairie Flower
The book devotes several chapters to raids and the treatment of captives, much of it taken from first-hand accounts of women who were ransomed or escaped.  Men were killed, many tortured in unimaginable ways, women were raped and killed or taken captive to be used as slaves, infants and small children were killed, young children were most often taken captive and raised by various families. Captives might be sold to other tribes or bands or held for ransom. Occasionally the captives became known as “Loved Captives” and be treated as family members.  Cynthia Ann was one of those.  She adapted and adopted Comanche ways, fell in love with and married a Comanche war chief, Peta Nocona, with whom she had three children, the oldest of whom was Quanah who would go on to fame as the last great Comanche war chief.

She refused to be rescued. Her uncle, James Parker, searched for her and other captives from the Parker raid over 8 years. His search became the basis for Alan LeMay’s book The Searchers which in turn became the iconic John Wayne movie of the same name. Cynthia Ann was the only one he never found when he gave up in 1844. She was seen two or three times after that but all attempts to ransom her were refused.  She had no intention of going back. However, in 1860, she was captured in a raid on her village by Rangers and soldiers in which her husband was killed. She and her young daughter were forcibly returned to relatives in East Texas. Her daughter died a few years later and Cynthia Ann starved herself to death in 1871.

Llana Estacado showing the escarpment on the east side
Quanah survived and as a young man, led the last of the Comanche bands who lived far from whites, in the Llana Estacado or Staked Plain, high flat grasslands in west Texas and east New Mexico, from which they were eventually driven.

Empire of the Summer Moon describes the seemingly inevitable destruction of the Comanche nation from diseases such as smallpox and cholera, from the slaughter of the buffalo herds on which they depended for food and from the relentless encroachment on their land by whites, backed by the Rangers and US Army.  The last holdouts, under Quanah Parker, are forced onto reservations in Indian Territory (Oklahoma).  At first, they are given a large area but even that is taken away from them and they are left with 160 acres each.

I was left with an overwhelming feeling of sadness for a great people who lived according to their lights and were extinguished by another great people who lived according to theirs.

Quanah Parker


  1. I read every book about her and Quanna and the commanches from the time I was about 10..don't know why it was so fascinating to me but still am. I even have friends (years ago) that were supposed to be related to them. I loved this.

    1. It was a wonderful book. The Plains Indians always fascinated me. From the Crow, Blackfoot and Sioux all the way down to the Comanche

  2. Any truthful tale of indigenous people, no matter where they are, is never a happy tale. There is much my race should be ashamed of. The treatment of Native Americans is at the top of the list.

    1. As one of our Prime Ministers said to one of your presidents, "You shot yours, we starved ours".

  3. Thanks - I didn't realize that the Pueblo Revolt was such a big part of the reason for wild horses in the West. There are some we see on the highway between Santa Fe and Albuquerque.

    1. That was revealing to me also. Horses escaping or stolen a few at a time could never have allowed the rapid spread of the mustang across the Plains.


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