"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 (Scriber, 384 pages, $27.50)
Late in the 17th century an obscure Shoshone-speaking band of Native Americans fled their homeland in the Wind River mountains of Wyoming, coming out onto the plains of eastern Colorado in flight from attacks by Crows, Sioux and Blackfeet who were supplied with guns by the French in Canada. They traveled on foot, leading dog travois which carried their possessions, consisting mostly of shabby tepees, shreds of deer-skin clothing, some bartered or traded cooking utensils, and their bows and arrows.
A century later these people, commonly known as the Comanche — most likely from the southern Ute "Kohmatse," meaning Enemy — numbered perhaps 40,000 and ruled a prairie empire that stretched from the Pawnee lands of northern Kansas, through what is now western Oklahoma, all of northern and central Texas, and much of New Mexico. S.C. Gwynne's reliably told and well-illustrated "Empire of the Summer Moon" recounts much of the history of this remarkable group of people, focusing, however, on the years of warfare with Texans which commenced around 1830.
Although much has been written about the Comanche wars of the 19th century, Gwynne focuses on the saga of Cynthia Parker, a young girl kidnapped by the Penateka band of Comanche from her home near present-day Fort Worth and taken to live among the Indians for many years. Remarkably, Cynthia Ann Parker married a Comanche war leader, fathered two boys, and became a Comanche in every way. Her older son became the famous Quanah Parker, one of the most famous, capable, dynamic and interesting Native Americans in history. When returned to her family after the Civil War, Cynthia Ann Parker wanted no part of her white captor's culture and died unrequited.
What made the Comanche was the horse, which they encountered as part of pueblo culture in northern New Mexico. Comanches were the only American plains Indians to master the art of horse husbandry, breeding huge herds and stealing more when they needed stock. Some bands owned as many as 20,000 head. They were the only Indians to fight from horseback (whites and Indians alike rode to battle, dismounted, and then fought) and became, in their time, the greatest light cavalry in the world, greater even than the Mongol Asians who were their direct ancestors.
Unlike other Indians, they fought and raided at night — hence the term Comanche Moon. They were known for their skillful torture techniques and for the fact that they often raped captive women before killing them, enslaving them, or selling them back.
The Comanche, at least at first, escaped white man's diseases because they shunned all contact with him. They made no treaties. They fought, and eventually rolled back, the Texas frontier which became, for at least 50 years, a borderland of burning ranches and ransacked towns. As a warrior society, they were democratic, proud, aloof, cruel and extremely self-sufficient. Their alliances were few, though they did ride and fight with the Kiowa or Plains Apache and traded with New Mexicans who came to be called Comancheros.
They fed and clothed themselves on the buffalo, killed Mexicans as far south as the Sierra Madre, and terrorized the Apaches, driving them into the harsh Arizona desert. When Americans in the East were riding trains and enjoying the benefits of indoor plumbing, Comanche bands were painting their faces black, singing all night, and eating buffalo livers and hearts raw.
Gwynne's book is a dynamic read, especially for those who know little of Comanche history. It will come as something of a surprise that these people — hardly a tribe as much as a loosely federated collection of 14 or 15 disparate bands — were far fiercer, hardier, more dangerous and menacing than the reknowned Sioux and Cheyenne. And the story of the Parker kidnapping is a dramatic one.
This material has been told before of course, much more completely in books like T.R. Fehrenbach's "Comanches: The Destruction of a People," which, for western history buffs, is the mother's lode of Comanche anthropological, historical and cultural information. In fact, much of the research, terminology and background material in Gwynne's book seems directly dependent on Fehrenbach's classic, down to the phrase (War to the Knife) taken as a chapter heading for "Empire of the Moon." And the story of the Parker kidnapping is well-trod ground.
However, "Empire of the Summer Moon" is well-made, with a number of interesting photographic plates, as well as a competent bibliography that should stimulate further reading. As it stands, the book is a competent popular history.