"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
Towards the end of S.C Gwynne’s mesmerizing "Empire of the Summer Moon," Quanah Parker explains to a friend named Miller how “the white man had pushed the Indian off the land.” Quanah, a Comanche warrior who had surrendered to the U.S. government in 1875, directs Miller to sit on a cottonwood log. "Quanah sat down close to him and said 'Move over.' Miller moved. Parker moved with him, and again sat down close to him. ‘Move over,’ he repeated. This continued until Miller had fallen off the log. 'Like that,' said Quanah."
In truth, the forty-year battle between the Comanche and the white man for control of the Great Plains and Texas was not so antiseptic. Gwynne, the former executive editor of Texas Monthly, details the atrocities perpetrated by each side in living color; to do otherwise would be dishonest. But while this is a non-fiction book about war, it is equally a book about two nations trying to control their destinies by whatever means necessary. In Quanah Parker, Gwynne has found the perfect vehicle for telling that story.
The saga begins in 1833 when 30 oxcarts carried "an extended family of religious, enterprising transplanted easterners known to their neighbors as the Parker Clan” from Illinois to Texas. “The deal they were offered seemed almost too good to be true,” writes Gwynne. “In exchange for meaningless promises of allegiance to Mexico (of which Texas was still a part) several Parker family heads were each given grants of 4600 acres.” This was prime real estate—heavily timbered, with meadowlands, springs, creeks, and plenty of fish and fowl.
Because the property was on “the absolute outermost edge of the Indian frontier, ”the Parkers built a one-acre fort around their new homes. It didn’t work. In May of 1836, a band of Comanche and Kiowa warriors attacked. Within minutes, the Indians had killed five men, wounded two women, and taken another two women and three children captive. Among those kidnapped was Cynthia Ann Parker, a blue-eyed nine-year-old.
Such a foray was not unusual for the Comanche, who had long used brutal tactics to repel anyone—Anglos, Mexicans, or other tribes-- encroaching on what they considered their rightful territory. Gwynne makes a compelling case for the book’s subtitle; by almost all accounts, the Comanche were indeed “the most powerful tribe in American history.”
This wasn’t always so. The Comanche crossed the land bridge from Asia to America between 11,000 and 5000 BC. Gwynne describes them as “short, dark-skinned, heavy-limbed, squat-legged and ungraceful” and says that in the millennia that followed their migration, “They grubbed and hunted for a living using stone weapons and tools.” The approximately 5000 members of the tribe—divided into several bands--traveled on frames pulled by dogs. They killed buffalo by setting prairie grass on fire and stampeding their prey over cliffs or into pits. Writes Gwynne: “They were primitive even by primitive standards."
And then? “What happened to the tribe between roughly 1625 and 1750 was one of the great social and military transformations in history,” writes Gwynne. “Few nations have ever progressed with such breathtaking speed from skulking pariah to dominant power.”
The Comanche had a four-legged creature to thank for this transformation. In the sixteenth century, the first conquistadors in Mexico had brought horses from Spain. When the Pueblo tribe in New Mexico rebelled in 1680, the fleeing Spaniards abandoned their steeds. The horses multiplied in the wild, and so did the number of Indian riders. “The horse gave them what must have seemed to them an astonishing mobility,” writes Gwynne. “It allowed them, for the first time, to fully master the buffalo….Hunting skills quickly became martial skills. Tribes who learned to hunt on horseback gained an almost instant military dominance….” They were transformed from “poor foot soldiers into dazzling cavalrymen.”
Cynthia Ann Parker quickly assimilated into this Comanche culture. Treated like other young Indian girls, she embraced the tribal ways. But while she put her past behind her, the Parkers could not forget her. Her uncle James spent eight years looking for her. Director John Ford would immortalize this story in his classic 1956 western, 'The Searchers,' starring John Wayne and Natalie Wood. But where Wayne found Wood, James never found his niece.
Cynthia Ann, known as Nautdah, married a Comanche chief named Peta Nocena. They had three children, including Quanah, who was born in 1848. By then, the white man had worked hard, but with little lasting success, to push the Indians off the metaphorical cottonwood log and realize America’s manifest destiny. Settlers poured into Texas and the Great Plains, but many retreated in the face of savage attacks by the Comanche and other tribes (a savagery often matched by the U.S. Army and civilians).
In the mid-1840s a band of Texas Rangers did win some battles in their effort to move the Comanche out of the way so white Americans could move westward. They enjoyed better results than their predecessors because they were able to fight on horseback rather than by dismounting to fire their rifles. They owed their horsemanship to their leader John Coffee Hays (one of many well-drawn, colorful characters in the book). They owed their marksmanship to Samuel Colt, whose revolver allowed them to shoot multiple times before reloading. But the Mexican American War (1846-1848) diverted the Rangers’ attentions from the Indians to our neighbors to the South.
The Comanche were still causing havoc in 1860, when Peta Nocena and about fifteen other Indians were surprised by the Rangers and soldiers from the Second Cavalry. The chief was killed and Nautdah was captured. Returned to the world of the Parkers, she resisted all efforts to “civilize” her and led an unhappy existence until her death in 1870. She never again saw her children.
Twelve-year-old Quanah was with his parents during the deadly fight, but escaped. Gwynne does a masterful job of chronicling the warrior’s remarkable life over the next fifty years. He rose to become a chief whose savvy and savagery were admired and feared. But in 1875, as the U.S. finally came to dominate the Comanche thanks to better firepower, more men, and the virtual extinction of the buffalo on which the Comanche depended, Quanah surrendered peacefully.
"If, as F. Scott Fitzgerald suggested in the early twentieth century, there are no second acts in American lives, then Quanah was the exception to the rule,” writes Gwynne. While his mother chose not to fit into the world from which she was taken as a child, Quanah “would take the white man’s road. He would leave the glories of the free life on the plains behind.” Once on the reservation, he became the only man ever to hold the title Principal Chief of the Comanche and lobbied Congress for fairer treatment for Native Americans. But he also conducted business with white ranchers, sat on the local school board, moved into a big house, got a telephone and car, appeared in the first two-reel western movie, and dined with Teddy Roosevelt. He was, says Gwynne, “the most successful and influential Native American of the late nineteenth century….What Quanah had that the rest of his tribe in the later years did not was that most American of traits: boundless optimism."
A few months before his death in February 1911, Quanah spoke to an overflow crowd at the Texas State Fair in Dallas. “I used to be a bad man,” he said. “Now I am a citizen of the United States. I pay taxes same as you do. We are the same people now."
Steve Fiffer, co-author of "A Season for Justice: The Life and Times of Civil Rights Lawyer Morris Dees.