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Empire of the Summer Moon

Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American HistoryEmpire 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

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

About a month ago I watched the prequel to the Lonesome Dove series-Comanche Moon. I would rate the three-part series 3 out of 5 stars. It wasn’t great, but it was good enough to watch all three episodes.

One of the things I look for in a series like that is how historical is it. Since much of the series dealt with the Texas Rangers, pre-Civil War, and their interactions with the Comanches (and Mexican bandits) I have to admit that I knew little.

So, I was surprised when the Comanche chief (played by Wes Studi and one of the most interesting of the characters in the series) Buffalo Hump gathered together a large Comanche force and attacked Austin, Texas! Since I’d never heard of this I did a little research to see if it really happened.

The TV series that inspired me to do some research.

The TV series that inspired me to do some research.

What I found was a reference to 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. I bought it and frankly had a hard time putting it down.

Quanah Parker is the thread that the book revolves around but the book is about much more than that.

The backdrop is what the author refers to as Comancheria, an area encompassing modern Texas, Oklahoma, parts of New Mexico, parts of Old Mexico, southern Colorado and southern Kansas. At the height of Comancheria (1836) approximately 20,000 Comanches in five major bands roamed free in their empire victimizing their neighbors, the Apaches, the Utes, the Navaho and any other tribe within range (except the Kiowa who were in alliance with the Comanche) as well as the Mexicans and Texans.

Comanche warrior in later years with buffalo head dress and a Winchester "Yellow Boy" Model 1866.

Comanche warrior in later years with buffalo head dress and a Winchester “Yellow Boy” Model 1866.

The heartland of Comancheria. Raids would go well beyond the borders of this area.

The heartland of Comancheria. Raids would go well beyond the borders of this area.

Gwynne is an exceptional writer and he tells their story well, detailing the formidable military power the Comanches were and how they achieved that status. One US military observer rated the Comanche horse warriors as the finest light cavalry in the world and Gwynn gives the reader plenty of examples to make the case.

We tend to think that the Texans and Mexicans would have had an advantage with their gun powder weapons over the Comanches with their bows and arrows. Prior to the advent of repeating rifles, post-Civil War this simply was not true.

Pre-Civil War weapons were single-shot muzzle-loading weapons that took time to reload, a difficult thing to do mounted in the middle of a battle. It was so difficult that the Texans who fought the Comanches probably the most often, fought dismounted, a serious mistake against Comanches who were excellent horse archers and could get off five arrows to a Texan’s single shot.

After giving the reader the fascinating background of the Comanche, Gwynne begins to weave the story of the Parkers into the bigger story of the Comanche Empire of the Summer Moon.(Summer Moon refers to the Comanche habit of raiding in the summer by the light of the moon. The term “Comanche Moon” is still used in Texas to describe a bright summer moon.)

Back in 1836, shortly after the famous Battle of the Alamo during the Texas War of Independence against Mexico, the Parker family moved to the frontier fringes of civilization. They built a family fort in Comancheria which was a direct challenge to the warlike Comanches.

The fort was certainly a good idea because it negated the Comanches mobility and Comanches would rarely attack a fixed position held by determined men whose long range rifles had the advantage.

Well, on May 19th, 1836, ten of the sixteen men of the Parker clan were out in the cornfields. Eight women and nine children were inside the fort, but the armored gate was left wide-open. The remaining men were unarmed. Clearly, the Parkers, despite the fact they built a fort perceived little danger. They were horribly wrong despite the fact that the Comanches were known to be raiding near-by.

The best known picture of Cynthia Ann Parker and her toddler daughter Prairie Flower at her breast-a highly usual picture for the 1860's when it was taken. A "white" woman would never have been pictured like this. Even though Cynthia was white she clearly looks Comanche. Prarie Flower wold die a few years later of disease devastating Cynthia and her last link to her Comanche way of life.

The best known picture of Cynthia Ann Parker and her toddler daughter Prairie Flower at her breast-a highly unusual picture for the 1860’s when it was taken. A “white” woman would never have been pictured like this. Even though Cynthia was white she clearly looks Comanche. Prairie Flower wold die a few years later of disease devastating Cynthia and her last link to her Comanche way of life.

On the morning of the 19th a large band of Comanches rode up to the fort. Rachel Parker, age seventeen, guessed they were “friendlies” another bad mistake, common enough though since telling one Indian from another must have been a challenge. It was probably safer to pray for the best but arm yourself for the worst until you knew for certain what you were up against.

The raiding party consisted of Comanches and Kiowas and into this large group of fierce warriors walked Ben Parker, one of the six men in the fort. Ben was certainly brave, but also foolhardy.

The raiders said they wanted a cow to slaughter and directions to a water hole even though their mounts were dripping wet clearly indicating the Indians knew exactly where they were. Ben said no to the cow offering instead other food. Remarkably, Ben went back into the fort and spoke to his brother Silas about how ridiculous the Comanches demands were regarding the water hole. Even more remarkably Ben gathered up some supplies and went back out to give them to the raiders even though Silas warned against it!

Silas was on to something and some of the Parker clan but not all tried to make a get-a-way while the remaining men (not all) decided to make a stand although not a not a one was armed at the time.

Ben Parker meanwhile was surrounded by the Comanches and horribly killed probably scalped while still alive. Silas would die too as would others in the ensuing chaos.

Typical Comanche warrior of the 1830's. Few would have firearms and instead relied on lance and bow.

Typical Comanche warrior of the 1830’s. Few would have firearms and instead relied on lance and bow.

This was only the beginning of the horrors inflicted on the Parkers.

Gwynne does not pull any punches when he describes what happens to victims of the Comanches nor what the Texans did to Comanches once the tide of war began to turn. To say that frontier warfare was brutal is to understate just how brutal.

The Comanche culture dictated brutality to captives (most of horse tribes were the same but Comanches were among the worse of the worst). They tortured the captive men to death, killed babies that cried too much and gang-raped captive women, sometimes to death, although they frequently made women and older children captive. They had been doing this for years and their targets more often than not were other Indians, notably the Lipan Apaches who they nearly exterminated. What happened to the Parkers was par for the course and as barbaric as what the Comanches practiced on fellow Indians (and they on them when they had the chance).

Cynthia Ann Parker was a nine-year-old girl who was taken captive at the raid. She witnessed all that happened to her family. Cynthia Ann would spend the next twenty-four years as a Comanche eventually becoming a wife of a Comanche war chief. She would give birth to three children, one of whom was Quanah Parker, a half-breed who would rank along with Sitting Bull, Red Cloud, Crazy Horse and Geronimo as one the Indians who gave the US Army the hardest time in the 1870’s.

The movie The Searchers starring John Wayne and Jeffrey Hunter is modeled loosely on the Cynthia Ann Parker story. The movie does capture the fact that the Comanches often took women and children captive and sometimes they became fully integrated into the tribe.

The movie The Searchers starring John Wayne and Jeffrey Hunter is modeled loosely on the Cynthia Ann Parker story. The movie does capture the fact that the Comanches often took women and children captive and sometimes they became fully integrated into the tribe.

Cynthia was “rescued” in 1860 as the tide began to turn against the Comanches. But the fact is, by then, she did not want to be rescued and her story became a double-tragedy as she is forced to live among the whites and the culture she had long forgot.

Quanah was twelve when his mother was “rescued” and father killed. His rise to war chief among the Comanches was remarkable for the fact he was a half-breed and after his father was killed a no-body among his band, the Quahadi Comanches (the word Comanche means “people”).

Quanah was whatever else one might say about him was courageous, had a mind for strategy and tactics and as it turns out in the story a pretty savvy pragmatist and successful business man once the Comanches were forced to the reservation in present day Oklahoma.

To say any more about this book would only serve as a spoiler and I don’t want to do that.

I thought I knew something about the Indian Wars but Empire of the Summer Moon opened my eyes to much more. The book is rich in detail and packed with human interest stories regarding all the major players and many minor ones as well. The amount of research the author did was massive as the bibliography illustrates.

As for Buffalo Hump and the raid on Austin, it never happened.

What did happen is that Buffalo Hump a chief among the Comanches did mange to assemble a rather large “army” of Comanches. The raid that Buffalo Hump led is known in Texas as the Great Linville Raid and it took place in 1840.

Buffalo Hump had a vision of driving the Texans into the sea. He led a force of 1,000 Comanches south of San Antonio killing and looting along the river lines that led to the Gulf of Mexico. The river part is in the TV series. In the TV series the town being destroyed by the rampaging Comanches is Austin, but historically it’s probably Victoria and/or Linville.

The Comanches rode through the surprised town of Victoria first, killed at least a dozen people before being driven off by rifle fire. Instead of closing in for the kill immediately which they could have done, the Comanches settled for looting concentrating on the horses and mules, the criteria for wealth among the Comanches. The Comanches did attack again but the delay had given the residents time to build barricades turning the town into a fort and thus discouraging the Comanches from getting to close to the long rifles of the Texans.

Weighed down by horses and other loot the Comanches led by Buffalo Hump made their way back to Comancheria. The name "Buffalo Hump" does not refer to the hump of a buffalo but has a sexual connotation. White sensibilites of the time would not report how the chief really got his name.

Weighed down by horses and other loot the Comanches led by Buffalo Hump made their way back to Comancheria. The name “Buffalo Hump” does not refer to the hump of a buffalo but has a sexual connotation. White sensibilities of the time would not report how the chief really got his name.You’ll have to read the book to find out.

The Comanches departed with two thousand horses and a young black girl who presumably became part of the tribe like Cynthia Ann had four years earlier.

The Comanches continued their ride of terror, following Buffalo Hump’s vision all the way to the sea and small town of Linville on the coast.

The town’s residents panicked (rightly so) and fled to boats in the harbor but not all got away. The usual was the killing of all the men and the gang-raping of all captive women.

While the residents fled the Comanches discovered the town’s warehouses and that’s when the real looting took place. They took all they could carry of the white man’s goods and then burned the town as the sea-borne residents watched helplessly. The town would never be rebuilt.

Buffalo Hump then lost control of his “army.” The fact of the matter is the Comanches were always, in those days, more interested in raiding and loot, than driving the Texans into the sea. It wasn’t until later than some of the Comanches realized they were in a fight for survival and a fight to keep to the old ways.

So, at this point, the Comanches decided to pack it in a return to their sanctuaries and cash in on the loot something they always had done primarily with the Comancheros of New Mexico.

They were dogged all the way back by the aroused Texas militia fighting the Battle of Plum Creek along the way. Among the pursuers were some Texas Rangers and after a war chief was killed the mounted Texans actually charged the Comanches rather than fight in the old dismounted fashion. This began a shift in the tactics of fighting of Comanches. The advent of the Colt revolver by the time of the Mexican War (1846-48) that the Texas Rangers would purchase in quantity (the US Army would not, rather shortsightedly) would eventually shift the balance of military power into the hands of the Texans. The repeating rifle (the Henry and Spencer would seal the deal by 1866).

Jack Hays is one of the most famous Texas Rangers. In this contemporary drawing he is leading a charge with a Tonkawa ally, Chief Flaco. The Tonkawa's were historical enemies of the Comanches and served as scouts and warriors both to the Texas Rangers and later with the US Army. The Tonkawas were as brutal as the Comanches and were cannibals to boot.

Jack Hays is one of the most famous Texas Rangers. In this contemporary drawing he is leading a charge with a Tonkawa ally, Chief Flaco. The Tonkawa’s were historical enemies of the Comanches and served as scouts and warriors both to the Texas Rangers and later with the US Army. The Tonkawas were as brutal as the Comanches and were cannibals to boot.

The raid was however, from the Comanche point-of-view a success. Only a few hundred head of horses were recovered.

Comanche raids would continue until 1874, many led in the later years by Quanah Parker. Quanah was eventually beaten by Ranald S. Mackenzie, a contemporary of George Armstrong Custer. Ironically, Custer would become famous for losing the biggest disaster on the plains and Mackenize would be forgotten for being the most successful of the Generals who fought the plains tribes.

This book is history how it’s meant to be written.

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, 2010)

Twenty-two chapters, 371 pages including notes, bibliography and index

View all my reviews

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