Book Review: Empire of the Summer Moon

May 23, 2017

 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


Cynthia Ann Parker, the blue-eyed daughter of settlers on the farthest edge of the Texas frontier, was nine years old when her family’s fort was raided by a band of Comanche Indians. Five men in her family were killed, scalped, and mutilated. Two of her aunts were captured, raped in front of Cynthia Ann, and kept as slaves. Cynthia Ann and her brother were adopted into the tribe, where her brother later died.


This young girl’s story captured the imagination of white Americans everywhere, particularly after one of her aunts was ransomed back and published a detailed diary of her experiences. The orphaned child’s extended family spent years searching the plains for her, hoping to buy her back as well. At long last, she was discovered, only to find that she was happily married to a war chief and had borne three children. She had completely forgotten English and refused to return to her family—incomprehensible to the white settlers, who knew what atrocities she had witnessed.


Several years later, Cynthia Ann’s husband was killed in a battle with Texas Rangers, and she was captured with her daughter Prairie Flower (pictured together below) and returned to her family. Cut off from her two sons and what had become her people and her way of life, Cynthia Ann desperately attempted to escape again and again, but she failed each time and never saw her sons again. Quanah, her second son, rose to become the last great war chief of the Comanche tribe.


In this finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, Gwynne uses the tragic story of Cynthia Ann and her mixed blood son Quanah as a framework for the greater tale of the epic and violent clash of cultures that occurred when the inexorable westward tide of white settlers crashed on the shores of the Comanche domain. When the whites arrived, the Comanches had subdued twenty other tribes to hold sway as the unquestioned rulers of the vast plains of Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Kansas, and Oklahoma.


The Comanche had not always dominated the plains. It wasn’t until Spaniards introduced horses to North America that they discovered their strength. “Few nations have ever progressed with such breathtaking speed from skulking pariah to dominant power,” writes Gwynne. The Comanche mastered the wild mustang like no other tribe, and their prowess gave them a strategic advantage over the buffalo and other Indians, one they did not waste. Even the firepower of the white man was no match for a mounted Comanche. It was not until the whites also learned to fight from the back of the horse that they slowly began to impose their will on the Comanches, but the brutal, bloody war lasted four decades.


Any account of the conflict between Indians and settlers is fraught with pitfalls. There are the early history books that portray the expansion of white civilization as a glorious undertaking. There are the romantic narratives that stereotype Indians as noble and peaceful savages perfectly in tune with the universe. There are the Westerns that treat the conflicts between whites and Indians as a hero-making sport.


Gwynne does well to avoid the traps. He doesn’t shrink away from detailed descriptions of the violence on both sides. The Comanches were never a peaceful tribe. Theirs was a warrior culture long before the settlers arrived. They had a fearsome reputation for raiding other Indian tribes, killing men, women, and infants, scalping and often mutilating their corpses. Captives were routinely tortured, gang raped, and enslaved. Captive children—whether Indian, Mexican, or Anglo—were frequently adopted into the tribe to provide labor and replenish the population losses caused by frequent battles. In fact, modern genetic studies have shown that the Comanche bloodline is the least “pure” of any Indian tribe.


The whites, on the other hand, were driven by an unshakeable faith in Manifest Destiny, the belief that they were entitled to lands that were already inhabited by another people. They attempted first to domesticate the Comanches and turn the hunter gatherers into farmers who lived peaceably on small plots of land, freeing up the vast ranges for white settlers. When their efforts failed spectacularly, resulting in the bloody deaths of hundreds of settlers at the hands of Comanche raiders, they turned to Plan B: deliberate and systematic extermination, which often rivalled the Comanches for brutality. It was Plan B that finally won out, and by the end of the long war, fewer than three thousand remained of the tribe that had once number twenty thousand strong.


Gwynne’s best work comes in the smaller stories: detailed portraits of colorful characters—Texas Rangers, U.S. Army soldiers, and Comanche war chiefs—and riveting descriptions of individual battles. The historical sections are harder going—lengthy discussions of what territory the Comanche controlled in what period of time, of how many bands they were divided into, and the like. I like to learn something when I read, but I don’t like to work too hard at it.


It’s difficult to judge whether Gwynne’s account is biased toward one side or another without reading many more books on the same subject, but there is some evidence by which to judge his work. First of all, the book concludes with fifty pages of references. Gwynne has clearly done his homework.


Secondly, Gwynne worked for many years as a journalist with respected publications, including a stint as senior editor at TIME magazine. He is experienced in sorting the facts from lies, legends, and exaggeration.


Thirdly, Gwynne uses a lot of adjectives: shocking, savage, ruthless, brutal, astonishing. Serious works of history typically shy away from this kind of language in order to avoid layering the author’s opinions over the facts. The colorful language makes for a much more interesting read, and doubtless it was a deliberate choice on his part, but it does open the door to bias.


Fourthly, other readers of the book frequently accuse him of bias—toward both sides. Some feel his portrayal of the Indians was too harsh, while others feel he was unfair toward the whites. It’s a good sign that you’ve been fair when everyone involved is equally offended!


On the whole, I found Empire of the Summer Moon to be superbly written, highly educational, and occasionally riveting. Verdict: Recommend for history lovers, Texans, and anyone interested in the plains Indians and the expansion of the American West.

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