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
(Scribner, 384 pages, $27.50)
On May 19, 1836, a Comanche raiding party swept down on the frontier settlement of Parker’s Fort in northern Texas, killing five adult men and carrying off two women and three children, including nine-year-old Cynthia Ann Parker. This event had a significant effect on Texas history over the next 75 years, as is outlined in S.C. Gwynne’s Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History. The book is both a biography of Chief Quanah, and a history of the Plains Wars and following reservation period.
The Comanches were the fierce Cossacks of the Southern Plains. Their mastery of the horse in the 17th century enabled them to dominate the regional geopolitical landscape. They halted northward Spanish expansion from New Mexico and westward French incursions from Louisiana. Their dark forays ranged from the Arkansas River to deep into Mexico. They drove the Apaches off the Texas plains and into the New Mexico-Arizona mesa country. Their boldness sent them to attack Taos, New Mexico, in 1706, and the following decades saw continued savage harassment of the pueblo communities. Raids on Mexican haciendas netted horse herds numbering in the thousands. For two centuries the Spanish, then Mexican, and finally the American presence was mostly powerless against them. The raiding parties traveled at night, and to this day a full summer moon in Texas is called a “Comanche Moon.”
Cynthia Parker was raised by the Indians, eventually marrying a chief, Peta Nocona. Like most white captives taken at a tender age, she became totally immersed in Comanche culture, even losing her ability to speak English. Despite her ultimate status as the “White Queen of the Comanches,” her life was one of abject drudgery as women did all the “blood and grease” work to maintain a nomadic culture based on buffalo hunting — every day a struggle for survival. She was “rescued” against her will 24 years later in 1860 by a force of Texas Rangers (the Rangers were the first to deal effectively with the Comanches by adopting their surreptitious tactics) commanded by Sul Ross, a future governor of Texas. By then Cynthia had given birth to three children: a daughter named Prairie Flower; and two sons, one nicknamed “Peanuts,” and the other the legendary Quanah Parker. The skirmish (in Texas history known as “The Battle of Pease River”) that liberated her left her only with her daughter — her husband was killed, her two sons escaped and were left to their own devices.
Quanah, born 1848, grew up to be a warrior, and — like his father — eventually a chief. He mastered hunting, riding, and fighting skills at a young age. By his twenties he was a participant in Comanche opposition to white settlement on the Texas plains. In 1871, when the U.S. Army first encountered him in a skirmish on the Brazos River, he was a calculating young chief, known for bloodthirsty raiding to avenge his family’s tragic dislocation, which haunted him. Unbeknownst to him, Cynthia Parker died of influenza in 1870 after a decade of living unhappily with a series of white relatives. His sister Prairie Flower had died of pneumonia in 1864, still a child.
Quanah’s tenacious struggle continued for four years as outside forces converged on the Comanches. White settlers filled the Texas river valleys (the Brazos, the Guadalupe, the Rio Grande). Buffalo hunters scoured the plains killing literally millions of bison, newly valuable for their hides due to modern tanning methods. And Washington in the post-Civil War era could again turn its attention to the “Indian problem” hindering western expansion. Oddly enough, at the time California was already a state and the Pacific coast settled. But the Great Plains and Rockies remained wild and unsettled, a great gap in American Manifest Destiny.
But a two century-long mounted war culture made the Comanches fierce adversaries. Superior horsemen, they were masters of lightning-strike guerrilla tactics. Not only did they travel easily at night, but they excelled at evasion. At Blanco Canyon in 1871 Quanah deftly avoided engaging a large force commanded by General Ranald Mackenzie by constantly dividing the fleeing Indians (including women and children and a large horse herd), leaving the noted Civil War veteran confused and furious. Mackenzie wouldn’t make the same mistakes three years later when he commanded three thousand troops converging on the Comanches in five columns from that many directions.
The Comanches’ final defeat occurred at Palo Duro Canyon in the Texas Panhandle in 1874 during the so-called Red River War. Though Quanah himself was not present, Mackenzie attacked a large village and inflicted heavy losses. Escaping Indians were sentenced to a fugitive starving winter as Mackenzie captured thousands of pounds of stored buffalo meat and intentionally shot 1,400 horses, thus copying George Custer’s tactics against the Cheyennes on the Washita River in 1868. The surviving Comanches eventually succumbed to relentless military pressure and severe winter weather, small pockets surrendering throughout the winter of 1874-’75, with Quanah himself bringing his band to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, in June 1875.
Only 27 at the time, Quanah lived long after his surrender, prospering in the cattle business on the Oklahoma reservation, his youth and half-white status easing the transition. He seemed to understand and adjust to the great change that had come to the Comanches. He had at different times a total of eight wives and fathered 24 children, his polygamy a sore spot with government bureaucrats and missionary types who dealt with him as the primary Comanche leader. He built a large home (its prized possession a photograph of his mother Cynthia taken in Fort Worth following her return to the white world) to accommodate this extensive household.
With varying degrees of success, the previously nomadic Comanches settled down to become farmers and ranchers. For Quanah, it must have been bittersweet, considering his family history and former free life on the plains. That way of life was only a vivid memory in his later years. He entertained the likes of President Teddy Roosevelt at his dinner table, and made many trips to Washington to advance Comanche interests. At his death in 1911 he could be thought of as the Nelson Mandela of his people.
Former Time and Texas Monthly editor S.C. Gwynne has written a fine book for those interested in both the Plains Indian Wars and Texas history in general. The story is gripping, dramatic, and steeped in a history both specific and universal.
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