Friday, May 05, 2017

Empire of the Summer Moon

I haven't been around blogger much since April, but I have a few books I've read that I should review (whether or not I get around to all of them is debatable).  This was a book I read for a men's book club I'm in.  It was interesting.  


S. C. Gwynne, Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History (New York: Scriber, 2010), 371 pages that include an index, notes and a bibliography.  Aloes included are plates of photos, book group discussion questions and an interesting chapter in Gwynne’s new book on Stonewall Jackson.


The relationship between Native American tribes in the American West changed dramatically in the 17th Century with the rise of the Comanche.  Prior to the Spanish colonization of Mexico, horses were unknown in the Americas.  Over time horses that escaped Spanish farms and missions or were abandoned from expeditions began to breed and flourish in the high grasslands to the east and south of the Rocky Mountains.   Although most tribes learned to domesticate horses, utilizing them for transportation, the Comanche learned to fight from the horses.  Their strategy changed the power structure as a formerly non-important band of Native Americans began expanding their territory in what is now Texas, along with parts of Oklahoma, eastern Colorado and northern New Mexico.  They pushed out Sioux, Paiute, Apaches and other tribes and their fierceness keep the Spanish and later the Mexicans from their territory.  This book tells their story along with the story of early Texas history.
After independence from Spain, the Mexican government found itself at struggling with its northern territories.  Its missions in Texas were often being attacked by Comanche raiding parties, which eventually led to the Mexicans inviting American farmers into the area in hopes that they might create a buffer from the Comanche.  What happened, instead, is that the Americans would seek and eventually gain independence from Mexico and form a new country, Texas, which then had to deal with the Comanche problem.   

The Comanche were a warring tribe.  Their life consisted of raids, buffalo and horses.  They did not settle into permanent villages but constantly moved.   Unlike their northern neighbors, the Sioux and Cheyenne, the Comanche didn’t wear colorful bonnets of feathers, preferring a cap with buffalo horns.  The women did the hard work, setting up camp and cooking and preparing the killed buffalo.  The men were warriors and were fierce.  They were brutal to their captives, whether from another tribe or Anglo-settlers, often torturing both men and women.  Sometimes children would be spared and brought into the tribe, especially because the low birthrate among Comanche women (which probably came from their constant time on horses), but children of enemies were also often killed.

Gwynne tells the story of the rise and fall of the Comanche by framing it around the Parkers, an early Texas family that set up a settlement in West Texas adjacent to Comanche territory.  In the middle of a day in 1836, while the men were in the fields, a band of Comanche approached their homestead.  At first they seemed friendly, then they began to kill and took as captives several women and children.  One of the girls was Cynthia, who was nine.  She witnessed the murder, rape and torture of several other family members.  She would grow up among the Comanche and eventually marry one of the leading warriors.  Their son (a half-bred), would be the last great warrior of the Comanche and the only Comanche to be chief over the whole tribe (the Comanche tended not to have a hierarchical structure as they lived in bands and when someone wanted to lead a “war party” he would recruit from the various bands enough warriors who would look to his leadership for that event). 
Later, Cynthia and her Native American daughter would be recaptured, but she never fully integrated back into American culture.  The author points out that she had the misfortune to be “adopted” into two different cultures that were alien to what she knew (first into the Comanche life when she was nine and later back into a culture in which she’d forgotten when she was an adult). 

In addition to the Parker family, the book focuses on Cynthia’s son, Quanah.  He led the last of the war parties and, when he realized that he could never hold back the white settlers and with the buffalo gone, led the tribe into a treaty.  While on the reservation, he made a good life for himself as he raised cattle, but he was also very generous and when he died wasn’t wealthy.  He was also a showman who enjoyed hosting guests to his home, which was quite the change from the young warrior that was feared by the U. S. Army along with other tribes.

Gwynne makes that case that technology eventually bought about the Comanche downfall.  While the Mexicans and early American settlers tried to fight with muskets and long rifles, these were not very good weapons for close combat with a mounted enemy.  The Comanche warrior could shot 30 arrows in the time a person could reload a musket.  But just like the horse gave them an advantage over other tribes, the use of repeating pistols and rifles brought an advantage first to the Texas rangers (who fought like the Comanche, from the saddle) and later to the United States Army.   He also notes that the Comanche downfall was inevitable as their warrior culture wasn’t adaptable in a changing world.   
The two key groups at keeping the Comanche in check according to Gwynne were the Texas Rangers (who fought like the Comanche) and Ranald Slidell MacKenzie.  MacKenzie, an army general, was much more successful but less known than Custer, another graduate from his era at West Point.  Sadly, after serving on posts in the West, he ended his life in a mental institute. 


This was a fast read.  Gwynne is a journalist and his writing reflects his ability to tell a story. Some of the parts about the Comanche treatment of captives may cause the squeamish nightmares, but overall I found the book fascinating.  

24 comments:

  1. This sounds very interesting and is one I may put on my wish list. I don't think I would have made a very good pioneer.

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  2. A fascinating history I'm sure. We treated native Americans so poorly, and none worse than Trump's hero Andrew Jackson who swore he'd kill every Indian if he could.

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    1. Jackson's policy does come to play here because the Eastern Natives were farmers who lived in villages and moving them into Oklahoma set them up as easy targets for groups like the Comanches.

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  3. Interesting about horses, as well.

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  4. It doesn't happen too often but I actually read this book a handful of years ago. I've read a number of books on various Indian tribes over the years and they all are pretty sad stories. I wonder if 200 years from now historians will look back at this era and tell a sad tale as well.

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  5. Sounds like an interesting history of the Comanche. I would be especially interested to read about some of the individuals (such as Cynthia). Seeing how things were from the individual's viewpoint provides a unique perspective.

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  6. My husband used to teach adult upgrading on our near by reserve (100 km driving one way) ... smiles ... anyway, we attended quite a few of their annual pow wows upon invitation ... the first one I saw, reduced me to tears ... as have much respect of the culture they have left, friend Sage ... Love, cat.

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  7. ... "reservation" I meant to say ... sorry, am just a lil immigrant and don't speak English ... smiles ... cat.

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  8. Clausewitzs' writings and theories were those prime in military academies pretty mush up to WW1, and some would say thay had a up tick during Vietnam and the latest insanity in the middle east.
    But one of his massages harped back to the Die Bello Gallico and how JC played in France, then Gall.
    The only way to defeat a mobile light cavalry is to deny supply and squat on his territory. Meaning you forced him to live off the land and forced famine upon his people by preventing planting in sequential years.
    It's one of the things the Indian Bureau did, that even to this day hasn't been corrected, they removed protein, a very large proportion from their diet and replaced it with carbohydrates.

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  9. Books like this are interesting. It's interesting to get a feel for what it must have been like back then.

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  10. Very interesting. Always appreciate your reviews. Thanks.

    Greetings from London.

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  11. My dad is a fan of Indian art and culture. I think I just found the perfect Father's Day gift. Thank you! (Would it be wrong to read it myself before I gave it to him?)

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  12. My dad is a fan of Indian art and culture. I think I just found the perfect Father's Day gift. Thank you! (Would it be wrong to read it myself before I gave it to him?)

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  13. Sounds like an interesting book. Have you read Germs, Guns and Steel? If not, you might find it worth the read. It speaks on a broader level about the rise and fall of social groups in relation to, among other things, technology.

    I read your comment on my blog today about tomatoes. I haven't used milk and un-sulfured molasses. Do you pinch back the first flower cluster on your tomatoes? That makes the plant shorter and increases their flower clusters according to Tomato Bob.

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  14. Books like this one are very interesting to read, and this sounds very good.
    I like it when you say "This was a fast read.  Gwynne is a journalist and his writing reflects his ability to tell a story"

    All the best Jan

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  15. Interesting! I’ve never heard of this book, but I remember learning about the Comanche in Colorado history class in high school.

    Aj @ Read All The Things!

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  16. Fascinating! Native history is too often glossed over in the telling of our country's story. This book sounds most enjoyable.

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  17. Sounds really interesting. I've got to have a look at this.

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  18. This is right up my alley! Thanks for the review. I'm going to try and find it.

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  19. Oh, I've been wanting to read this one for ages! I loved Gwynne's biography of Stonewall Jackson, Rebel Yell, and ended up reading (and loving) his book about the Air Raid offense in American football - a subject I wouldn't have thought anyone could interest me in! This one sounds just as fascinating as the Jackson book... thanks for the reminder. Must push it up my priority list...

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  20. Definitely adding this to my list. So glad to have read this review today. Thanks for sharing.
    ~Jess

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