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Empire of the Summer Moon

Updated: Aug 24, 2018

Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History, was written by S.C. Gwynne and narrated by David Drummond. It is available on Audible.com, and is a 15 hour and three-minute production. As the title suggests, it gives accounts of both the rise and fall of the Comanche Indians, as well as its most famous figure, Quanah Parker.

Comanche Rise to Power:

Prior to any Europeans landing in the New World, the Comanches lived in the remote Wind River Valley of modern day Wyoming. Often called squatty and short-limbed, this mountain tribe existed as a small hunter-gatherer band of little consequence by pre-Columbian standards. That all changed with the Spanish conquest of the Americas, when the Comanche and other plains tribes first encountered the colonial horses brought from Spain. This relatively small, rugged breed of horses from the dry, rocky region of Iberia was the perfect mount for the expansive plains of North America. Brought north through Mexico by Spaniards, other Indians, and wild intuition, the introduction of the horse would forever transform the Comanche from simple mountain gatherers to one of the most powerful mounted warrior cultures the world has ever known.

Empire of the Summer Moon opens by setting the stage of the western frontier in the early 1830s. On one side was an Anglo culture that viewed westward expansion as nothing short of God’s Almighty Will, their “Manifest Destiny”. On the other side was a warrior culture built upon several hundred years of mounted warfare who viewed any trespass onto their traditional hunting grounds as acts of open aggression punishable by death. The Americans already had a record of obliterating native tribes through violence, disease, and deception, while the Comanches reigned as supreme conquerors of other horse tribes, including the Apache, Tonkawa, and Ute. The frontier clash was akin to an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object.

Throughout the next 4 decades, a large swath of the plains would undergo vast changes that presented continual challenges to the Comanche way of life. From the 1830s to the 1860s, the population of Texas climbed from around 16,000 non-native inhabitants to over 600,000, while the number of cattle rose from about 100,000 to over 4 million. Occurring in tandem with these increases was the great buffalo slaughter, which saw the relentless killing of over 31 million of the Comanche's primary food source. Add to these challenges the onslaught of white man’s disease and the constant deployment of militias of every sort and scale against them, and one begins to have an idea of just what these lords of the plains were up against.

Frontier Tension:

The book exemplifies the mounting tension on the frontier by detailing many of the battles and skirmishes that dominated the period. One such instance occurred in San Antonio in 1840. Known as the Counsel House Fight, it began when Texas Secretary of War Albert Sydney Johnston issued a decree commanding Comanches to bring in all the Anglo captives in their ranks, or risk severe retaliation. In response, a group of about 60 Comanche, 30 of which were male warriors, came to San Antonio to discuss peace. It began as a friendly occasion, with the Comanches engaging in festive trade with the townspeople of San Antonio. The mood took a sharp turn, however, when the Anglo settlers saw a well-known Comanche captive named Matilda Lockhart, who had been kidnapped near the town that now bears her sure-name. Accounts from that fateful day report that the girl had been badly mistreated, with bruises and cuts all over her, and even a portion of her nose burned off.

Within minutes of the settlers seeing the poor girl, the peace talks devolved into an all out, barroom-style western brawl, as men, women, and children took up arms against one another. Reports tell of a Comanche boy no more than 10, using a toy bow, replaced his flimsy wood arrow with a flint-tipped one and put it directly through the heart of a local district judge. The brawl soon turned into a turkey shoot, however, as the outnumbered Comanche were picked off while desperately trying to escape across the San Antonio River. Historians have suggested that had the 1840 San Antonio peace talks gone better, the Comanche wars of the late 19th century may have been largely avoided.

Another instance typical of Anglo-Comanche hostility also occurring in 1840 was the Battle of Plum Creek. It all began when the famous war chief Buffalo Hump claimed to receive a dream-vision while hunting on the high plains of the Llano Estacado. In his vision, he saw the Comanches driving the Taibo (white people) into a great sea. Being a well-respected chief with powerful “medicine”, Buffalo Hump was able to recruit 1,000 Comanche men, women, and children to help live out his vision. They struck out to the southeast, raiding and killing settlers along the way. While he did manage to drive the residents of now-abandoned Linnville, Texas, into the Gulf of Mexico, Buffalo Hump's campaign soon devolved into a more traditional Comanche raiding party. Their goal turned from fulfilling the Chief's vision to capturing the largest amount of livestock and plunder they could before escaping north back to Comancheria.

It was during their return to home that the Battle of Plum Creek occurred. Bogged down by over 3,000 head of various stolen livestock and countless pack-mules loaded down with looted goods, the party was unable to practice the various means of stealth, deception, and trickery that normally trademarked Comanche escape. Instead, they were a slow moving target through enemy land where every tree and boulder seemed to conceal an Anglo posse with vengeance on its mind. On August 12, 1840, they encountered the largest of these group at Plum Creek, Southeast of Austin: a conglomerate of Texas Rangers, enemy Tonkawa Indians, and local militias led by Texans Mathew Caldwell, Edward Burleson, and Ben McCulloch. While the Texans touted the battle as a victory, modern historians offer a different conclusion. It is not thought that the Comanches endured calculated losses in order to escape north with perhaps the largest raiding haul in the Tribe history. They may have suffered several casualties and lost a third of their booty, but the raid overall was an epic success by Comanche standards.

The Parkers of Texas:

The book then goes on to describe the life and times of the famous Parker clan of Texas. With a family history in Texas including politicians, preachers, ranchers, scoundrels, and drunkards, this group is perhaps best known for a daughter named Cynthia Ann, the mother of Quanah Parker. She and several family members were kidnapped from the Parker homestead in May of 1836 near present day Groesbeck, Texas and the Navasota River. Though several Parkers were taken captive, the 9 year old Cynthia Ann was the only one not to succumb to Comanche life or be ransomed back to Anglos (some as far away as Santa Fe). After her tribal acceptance, Cynthia Ann married the powerful leader Peta Nacona and bore him many children, including Quanah.

By all accounts, Cynthia Ann loved her husband and considered herself thoroughly Comanche. This made life especially difficult for her when she was “rescued” from her native existence at the Battle of Pease River on December 18, 1860. During this battle, Texas Ranger Captain Sul Ross and rancher Charles Goodnight led the charge that killed Cynthia Ann’s husband Peta Nacona and drove away her sons Quanah and Peanuts. Ross would later become a Civil War General and Texas Governor, while Goodnight would go down as perhaps the most famous cattle baron of Texas history. Painted in dark buffalo blood and draped in a buffalo robe, Cynthia Ann was almost shot herself by a battle-livened Sul Ross. Having forgotten how to speak English, she resorted to shouting “Americano” and “Me Cindy Ann” to avoid the Ranger’s bullets.

After her recapture, the life of Cynthia Ann was a largely bleak affair. Having lost her husband and children, and being fully indoctrinated into Comanche culture, she was unable to return to a normal Anglo existence. She was brought into Austin in early 1861, just in time to hear the aging Statesman Sam Houston lobby as a lone voice against Texas Secession in the Civil War. At one point during the Secession Convention, Cynthia Ann mistook the lively debates for her own trial and fled the capital screaming. Compounding Cynthia Ann’s problem was a family constantly taking advantage of her. One uncle took her to Austin to lobby the legislature for a stipend of money and land as her legal guardian, while a cousin prodded her to take him to live with the Comanches in order to avoid the front lines of the Civil War. After several attempts to return to Comancheria, Cynthia Ann died in 1871 in the East Texas woods, far from her true plains home.

Life of Quanah Parker

The book's final section describes the life of Quanah Parker and the succumbing of the Comanche to a reservation existence. Much like the campaign against Apache Chief Geronimo farther to the south, Quanah and his band were relentlessly hunted and forced to carry out a guerilla campaign against the Federal troops assigned to corral them to the Fort Sill Reservation. Dubbed the Red River War, Captain Ranald “Bad Hand” MacKenzie led several units, including the Buffalo Soldiers of the 24th U.S. Infantry, and later the 4th U.S. Calvary, against Quanah and his band of Quahadi Comanche. As the anglo population increased, the buffalo decreased, and MacKenzie stepped up his efforts, Comanche life became less and less sustainable. After demoralizing routes at the Battles of Blanco Canyon and Palo Duro Canyon, the Comanche finally succumbed to mounting adversity and reported to the Fort Sill Reservation in Oklahoma in 1875.

Known as an eternal optimist and opportunist, Quanah did surprisingly well in the white man’s world. He became a sort of Comanche Lawyer-Statesman, aggressively negotiating lease-terms of Comanche land, arguing complex Indian legislation, and constantly lobbying for better Reservation schools. By the time of his death in 1911, he had appeared in movies, owned stock in the Quanah Acme & Pacific Railroad, and even participated in the inaugural parade of President Theodore Roosevelt. Ironically, his nemesis-turned-friend “Bad Hand” MacKenzie suffered a more tragic feat. After being assigned to a military court in San Antonio and retiring to a farm in Boerne, Texas, Bad Hand rapidly descended into chronic alcoholism and insanity. Though never clearly understood, his condition is thought to be one of the earliest cases of untreated combat-induced PTSD. He died in the care of family in New Jersey at the young age of 48.


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