If you’re looking for something more substantial than just a “summer read,” but something so well written and so compelling you can’t put it down? Try, “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.
Sounds like a snoozer, you say? Not a bit of it. The writing is superb and the story is compellingly, masterfully told, in part because Mr. Gwynne doesn’t fall into the “Dances with Wolves” trap of sentimentality. Comanches were a savage, brutal warrior culture that lived on the buffalo and lived for the joy of raiding and killing neighboring tribes and stealing their horses (Comanche wealth and tribal status depended on the number of horses one had, not to mention the number of scalps taken.) They enjoyed killing and took great delight in torturing their victims. They often captured and kept their opponent’s young children to raise as their own (or later marry) or kept them as slaves. They gave no quarter to anyone and expected none for themselves. They were the finest horsemen the world has ever seen.
And that extraordinary skill, plus the remarkable western mustang, gave them the ability to strike deep into enemy territory then disappear back into the trackless plains. As a result, they were absolute rulers of the southern buffalo plains from Kansas down through the high plains of the west Texas Llano Estacado, to the fertile hill country near Austin, and down into New Mexico and northern Mexico. The Comancheria was their domain, nobody entered it without deadly risk, and anybody foolish enough to live near its border (and own cows and horses) was always at risk. The term “Comanche Moon” was no romantic Hollywood notion. Their war parties covered vast distances at night and on the frontier a full moon was not a time for romance and wonder; it was a time for sick dread, bolted doors and nightmare fear. And by such tactics, they stopped the westward movement of Americans in a bloody 40-year-old guerilla war.
They also loved their families, went to extraordinary lengths to protect them when attacked, and grieved terribly when they were killed. And killed they were, meeting often equally brutal settlers, savage Texas Rangers, and revenge-fueled Army units. Both sides in this brutal war of attrition were equally duplicitous, often equally savage and equally uncomprehending of the other’s reality.
Then came the buffalo hunters, who for both economic reasons and with support of Washington Policy that understood that a buffalo culture couldn’t survive without the buffalo, wiped the plains clean of the great beasts. And then sealed their fate as a culture at the hands of Captain Ranald Slidell Mackenzie (who Gwyne refers to as “the anti-Custer”) under orders to take the fight to the heart of the Comancheria to carry out the policy of pacification that was, in effect, the final solution.
Into this history, in the last dying years, came Cynthia Ann Parker, captured as a child, raised by and later married to Chief Peta Nocona, she gave birth to three children, one of them, Quanah Parker, who would later become famous as a leader of the last battles of the dying Comanche nation. Cynthia, re-captured as an adult and returned to her white family, spent many of her last years trying to escape and return to the plains. In her was to be found the American trope of the “White Squaw,” a theme of miscegenation, “savage” sexuality, and titillating incomprehension layered over with romantic nonsense. Add in her “half-breed” son, a tall, handsome, skilled warrior and you have the stuff of American legend.
Like all stories of the meeting of indigenous cultures with more technically advanced ones, this one is ultimately a tragedy. But, in the case of the Comanches, one with a terrible irony: Being a brutal raiding warrior culture resulted in making blood enemies among the surrounding tribes. When the whites came, there was no end of equally skilled Indians to serve as trackers and scouts and guides for the Army. The movies have often portrayed these Indians as “traitors” to their own kind. It was nothing of the sort. It was payback. And it ultimately proved to be permanently lethal.
And ultimately elegiac: “Who was she, in the end? A white woman by birth, yes, but also a relic of old Comancheria, of the fading empire of high grass and fat summer moons and buffalo herds that blackened the horizon. She had seen all of that death and glory. She had been a chief’s wife. She had lived free on the high infinite plains as her adopted race had in the very last place in the North American continent where anyone would ever live or run free. She had died in deep pine woods where there was no horizon, where you could see nothing at all. The woods were just a prison. As far as we know, she died without the slightest comprehension of what larger forces had conspired to take her away from her old life
“One thinks of Cynthia Ann on the immensity of the plains, a small figure in buckskin bending to her chores by a diamond-clear stream. It is late autumn, the end of warring and buffalo hunting. Above her looms a single cottonwood tree, gone bright yellow in the season, its leaves and branches framing a deep blue sky. Maybe she lifts her head to see the children and dogs playing in the prairie grass and, beyond them, the coils of smoke rising into a gathering twilight from a hundred lodge fires. And maybe she thinks, just for a moment, that all is right in the world.”