“Empire of the Summer Moon” by S. C. Gwynne


Pretty interesting history of the Comanche during the Texas-Indian wars, and also a sort-of biography of Cynthia Ann Parker and her son, Quanah.  Cynthia was kidnapped in a raid on her family’s frontier fort when she was 9 years old.  The Comanche sometimes adopted white children “into the tribe” and this is what happened with her.  She became a Comanche and eventually married a chief.  Nearly 25 years later, she was “rescued” (and her husband killed) by whites and reunited with family members.  She was regarded as a little crazy because she kept trying to escape back to the Comanche!  Kind of sad as it is pretty obvious that she wasn’t going to fit in / didn’t want to fit in, and never did.

Cynthia’s “rescue” happened when Quanah was 12.  He escaped, but never saw her again.  He became a mighty war chief, organizing all sorts of raids himself against the hated Texans.  Eventually, the warring came to an end for two main reasons: the slaughter and subsequent scarcity of the buffalo made survival very difficult, and the persistent efforts of the US Army in the 1870s under Mackenzie.  On the reservation, Quanah adapted to the white man’s life as completely as his mother did to the Comanche.  He became a skilled negotiator and businessman, chiefly through managing access to Comanche land by cattle ranchers.  (Some of these activities sound similar to mob “protection rackets” where a large group of Indians would approach ranchers and say how much of a shame it would be if all their cattle went missing, but they would help protect them … for a small fee.)  The Comanche looked to him for leadership, and he was known for generosity in feeding all comers and helping them out in his Star House.

Some other things I learned / thought were interesting:

  • The Comanche are described as having a very simple and war-like culture.  The were a stone age band of buffalo hunters and master horsemen who brutally attacked and tortured other Indians.  The author explains that because Plains Indians were 4000 years late to agriculture compared to the West, they were that much further behind in the “tech tree” (to frame it in a Civ-like manner).  They were very violent and didn’t have a set of familiar morals and so a lot of the things they thought nothing about seemed really horrible to the settlers (and to us today).  Like choking a 7-week old infant, then tying rope around his neck and having a horse drag him through prickly cactus.  Or bringing a 15 year old white girl prisoner, with visible scars of her torture (cut off/burned nose) on a San Antonio trading/peace negotiation trip.  They had no idea that such a sight would outrage the Texans.
  • The Spanish and later Mexicans were plagued by the Comanche just as the Americans later were.  Comancheria is a big reason why Mexico never really extended north beyond Texas.  It didn’t help the Spanish that the neighboring Apache, themselves persecuted by the Comanche, tried to put the Spanish in situations where they would be in the path of the warring Comanche, and not the Apaches.  eg. The San Saba massacre – they persuaded the Spanish to set up a mission in “Apache homeland” but actually it was in Comancheria.
  • James W. Parker, Cynthia’s uncle – shady, yet fascinating character.
  • Backwards Indian policy: many tribes noticed that in treaties (which were silly since they never really understood them, and which no band’s chief could ever make binding over any other band), they often got lots of food and other gifts.  But, if they did nothing, they were ignored (at best.)  So they raided intensely in the summer, then signed a treaty in the fall to get food for winter.  Meanwhile, the “good” Indians who did not raid got nothing.  Those on reservations were even denied their annuity payments, since they went to compensate the settlers who had been raided.  There was every incentive for the Indians to reject reservations and just raid settlers.
  • Just a few years after joining the reservation, Quanah and others got permission to go out on a last buffalo hunt in 1878.  It’s not known if they planned it to be a regular event or not; it turned out to be the first and last because there weren’t any more buffalo!  The Comanche were astounded to not find any buffalo for 100 miles, in areas where previously they had never been out of sight of a buffalo.  There were even cattle ranchers in sacred Palo Duro Canyon.  (The canyon and the Caprock Escarpment sound like some interesting geography – would like to see someday.)


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