Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Book Review: S.C. Gwynne's Magisterial 'Empire Of The Summer Moon'

The desert wind would salt their ruins and there would be nothing, no ghost or scribe, to tell any pilgrim in his passing how it was that people had lived in this place and in this place had died.
The horses weren't much to look at in comparison to the immense steeds ridden by the royalty and cavalries of England, France and Germany. They were light colored and small, barely 14 hands high with concave Arabian faces and tapering muzzles. But they were smart and fast and did not need grain-heavy diets and frequent waterings.

This was the Iberian mustang that Hernán Cortés brought to the New World in the early 16th century, and it prospered in Mexico. As the Spanish conquests spread, so did their horses, but the indigenous tribes that the Spanish subjugated showed little interest in learning to ride them. Besides which, they were prohibited from doing so.

It was not until the 17th century that the Apaches of New Mexico began to adapt themselves to the horse. It was even later that the Comanches, long disparate and primitive bands of hunter-gatherers, would master the mustang, master the demanding skill of horse breeding, and in doing so master the buffalo.

This was one of the great social and military transformations in history and the Comanches become in effect a Native American superpower. They ruled over 26 million square miles of the lower Great Plains and 20 other tribes with a political and economic deftness and were so ferocious that it took thousands of American troops and militiamen 40 years to finally subjugate them.

This is one of the two major back stories to S.C. Gwynne's Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History, a 2010 book that tells in masterful style the story of the battle between the Comanches and white settlers for control of the West. The other back story is the epic saga of the pioneer woman Cynthia Ann Parker and her mixed-blood son Quanah (photo, upper right), who became the last and greatest Comanche chief.

I have read a goodly number of great history books. There are Battle Cry of Freedom (McPherson), The Seven Pillars of Wisdom (Lawrence), American Prometheus (Bird and Sherwin) and Fire in the Lake (Fitzgerald) to name but a few of the best, and Empire of the Summer Moon belongs in that magisterial pantheon.

* * * * *
It is a temptation to forgive the Comanches for their savagery because the whites who settled in Texas and elsewhere in the Comanche empire were equally ruthless, but the Indians were warlike by nature and were warlike long before Columbus made the scene, and this was especially so west of the Mississippi.

Gwynne writes that:

"This sort of cruelty is a problem in any narrative about American Indians, because Americans like to think of their native aboriginals as in some ways heroic or noble. Indians, were, in fact, heroic and noble in many ways, especially in defense of their families. Yet in the moral universe of the West -- in spite of our own rich tradition of torture -- a person who tortures or rapes another person or who steals another person's child and then sells him cannot possibly be seen that way. Crazy Horse was undoubtedly heroic in battle and remarkably charitable in life. But as an Oglala Sioux he was also a raider, and raiding meant certain very specific things, including the abuse of captives. His great popularity -- a giant stone image of him is being carved from a mountain in South Dakota -- may have a great deal to do with the fact that very little is known about his early life. He is free to be the hero we want him to be."

Gwynne, however, does not take sides and it grates (on me, anyway) that General George Armstrong Custer, whose troops were decimated by the Sioux at Little Big Horn, has iconic status primarily because of some deft public relations by his widow while until now Quanah, a hunter and raider of staggering skill, has largely been a footnote.

* * * * *
Empire of the Summer Moon opens with the May 1836 Comanche raid on the Parker homestead near present-day Dallas. These Illinois pioneers represented the leading edge of white westward expansion, and the Comanches made quick work of the clan, killing most of the men and taking captive two women and three children, among them nine-year-old Cynthia Ann Parker.

Gwynne explains that Parker was not killed because the Comanches needed women to keep their buffalo economy going and their birthrates were abysmally low because of miscarriages prompted by life in the saddle. The child was hustled away to Comancheria, a beautiful if hostile high plains region where she was welcomed into a band, probably the Nokoni Comanche.

Parker found life in Comanche camps to be anything but darkness and devastation.

Colonel Richard Irving Dodge, one of the first Americans to observe the Comanches close up, wrote that he "is a noisy, jolly, rollicking, mischief-loving braggadoccio, brimful of practical jokes and rough fun of any kind."

Women, of course, were second-class citizens, and captive women had even fewer rights. Parker's mother was the sexual slave of her master and anyone he chose to share with with, and a maltreated servant of her master's women.

* * * * *
The Comanches did not defeat the Spanish, their initial white foes, so much as render them irrelevant by making them prisoners in their own missions and presidios, their attempts to attract colonists and convert Native Americans abject failures, and Gwynne writes that "their carefully calibrated system began to break down" the further north they pushed from Mexico City. The 80,000-strong Spanish army stayed in the south and was mainly used against the Mexican people.

Next came the Texas settlers, who compared to the Spanish were tougher, meaner and willing to take huge risks to secure their little pieces of frontier paradise.

None of them were meaner than Mirabeau Buonaparte Lamar, who assumed the presidency of the infant Texas Republic in 1838, two years after the raid on the Parker homestead and a time when relations between the Comanches and settled had reached the boiling point.

One of Lamar's first acts was to move the state capital from the swamps of Houston to Austin, the edge of Cherokee country. Another was to rally Texas around the extinction, or at least the expulsion, of the Comanches.

There followed a series of clashes in which neither side got the upper hand. Then in 1839 Buffalo Hump, a Comanche chief, had a vision: The Texans would be driven into the sea.

On August 1 of that year a thousand Comanches rode down from their hunting ground toward the towns and settlements of the blackland prairie of south-central Texas. By the time the raids were over, the Comanches had swept the entire region from San Antonio to Matagora Bay of horses while burning several towns and killing dozens of people.

"The sheer number of horses," Gwynne writes, "you can think of in modern terms as sequences of one-thousand-dollar bills deposited into your checking account."

* * * * *
This eye-for-an-eye warfare continued for years, and then in 1846 Cynthia Ann Parker, who would become known as the legendary "White Squaw," gave birth to a son and named him Kwihnai ("Eagle"), which means that Quanah was a nickname. His father, Peta Nocona, was a war chief. Parker gave birth to a second son two years later whom she named "Peanuts" because of her childhood love of the legume, and a daughter Toh-tsee-("Prairie Flower") the year after that.

White views of Parker were colored by the belief that there was no such thing as Indian culture.

"It's all Tristan and Isolde," Gwynne writes. "Cynthia Ann is seen failing in love, wandering through fragrant, flower-strewn fields, discussing the prospects of connubial bliss with her warrior swain, and so forth."

Quanah was 12 when his mother was taken by Texas Rangers in an 1858 raid in which his father was killed in hand-to-hand combat. He and Peanuts were able to escape. Meanwhile, Cynthia Ann, who was "rescued" along with her daughter, would spend the last 10 years of her life trying to escape back to her adopted people, and it was obvious -- although not to the whites with whom she returned to live -- that the tragedy of her life was not her first captivity but her second.

Quanah became a full-fledged warrior at age 15 and began raiding white settlements to avenge his mothers capture and father's death. And, because it was the Comanche way, to take large numbers of horses.

Because of his mother's genes, he was large and long-limbed, and at 6 feet was much taller than the average Comanche, as well as stronger. "He also was strikingly handsome," Gwynne writes, "fully dark-skinned Comanche but with piercing light gray eyes that were as luminous and transparent as his mother's. . . . He was also, as he would prove conclusively later in life, extremely intelligent."

It was a pivotal time in the history of the southern Great Plains. Whites began arming themselves with the new repeating rifles and revolvers, countering the Comanches' once superior bow-and-arrow and flexible lance weaponry, and the Army later employed lethal mountain howitzers and later still deadly Spencer rifles. Railroads also began popping up. The Iron Horse made mass buffalo slaughters and the transportation of their valuable hides to Eastern markets profitable and the Comanche empire began to crumble. What the white man couldn't do his diseases -- including measles, whooping cough, influenza, syphilis and most especially cholera -- did.

There was something else as well: With the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, the Mexican republic ceded all lands north of the Rio Grande, which along with the earlier Louisiana Purchase filled in much of the continental U.S.


"The problem for the Comanches was that, where once they existed as a buffer between two huge land empire, they now stood directly in the way of American nationhood."

For all intents and purposes, the Comanches would have been subdued in the 1850s and not two decades later had it not have been for the profound incompetence of Washington bureaucrats in charge of Indian affairs who wanted just wanted the problem to go away, and the inefficiency of the U.S. Army troops sent to replaced the Texas Rangers, who had effectively copied Comanche horse-borne tactics and then began gaining the upper hand with the new six-shot Colt .45 revolver.

"Over a decade, [the Army] managed to engineer a retrogression of astounding scale and proportion," Gwynne writes. That took the form of dragoons, heavily mounted infantry who rode horses to the scene of battle but fought dismounted. And more often than not were slaughtered.

* * * * *
When Cynthia Ann Parker died of influenza in 1870, the Army had nearly subdued the Comanches and would have done so a few years earlier had it not been for the Civil War. Many bands signed treaties with the white man, but not Quanah, who eventually joined and then led the Quahadi ("Antelope Eaters"), which became the largest Comanche band in the waning days of the tribe's empire.

The last great peace conference was held in October 1867 at a campground at Medicine Lodge Creek 75 miles south of the present site of Wichita, Kansas. (See sidebar.) Under the terms of the treaty signed at the end of the conference, the Commanches and Kiowas were restricted to a reservation of 2.9 million acres. The land was huntable and arable with decent water resources, but it was tiny when compared to the 240 million acres the Comanches controlled at the height of their empire.


"Medicine Lodge provided the framework for the last great betrayal of the Indians by a government that had betrayed and lied to Native American tribes more times than anyone could possibly count. . . . Shockingly, Medicine Lodge had not provided for Indian rations, and so the government had nothing to give them. Nor did it have any of the promised annuity goods.

"The Indians were disgusted, and furious. They believed that the white men had lied to them. They were also hungry, because it [now] was winter and they had counted on government food to help them get through the hard season."

Within two years two-thirds of the Comanches, Quanah among them, had left the reservation and resumed raiding.

* * * * *
The last gasp of the Comanches came in the harsh winter of 1873-74 when there arose among the tribe a medicine man, magician and in all likelihood a con man known as Isa-Tai. This 23-year-old had a vision of a new order on the plains that would restore the Comanches to their former glory. He soon expanded his evangelism to include the Cheyenne, Kiowa and other tribes, and with Quanah at his side -- the magic man and the tough man -- they roused the Comanche nation into a frenzy of hope and expectation.

The modus operandi was to be revenge raids on Texas that would begin with white buffalo hunters, who were slaughtering the beasts by the millions with their powerful, long-range Sharps rifles, then the Tonkawas, who had defected to the white side and become scouts for the Army, and finally white settlements.

But Isa-Tai's magic did not hold and the Comanches were repelled after attacking a buffalo hunter compound at Adobe Wells, where the Comanches had been repulsed in 1864 by a force led by the legendary Kit Carson.


"The effect on the Indians was devastating. It was not so much the carnage -- fifteen were killed that day and many more wounded -- as the shocking failure of Isa-Tai's magic. That was the first great demoralizing blow. The second was the wounding of Quanah, who was rescued by his people and brought out of the range of the buffalo guns."

The massive revenge scheme spooled out over the ensuing weeks as Comanches, joined by a few other tribes, destroyed wagon trains, stations and settlements from Texas into southern Kansas. These predations exhausted the last of the white man's patience and ruined forever the arguments of the peace advocates. A protracted Army offense against the tribes commenced and by the time it was over there were fewer than 3,000 Comanches alive and only a few hundred hunter-raiders.

Quanah and what remained of his band surrendered to Colonel Ranald Slidell Mackenzie, a brilliant Indian fighter, on June 2, 1875, near Fort Sill, Oklahoma, and Quanah was informed of the death of his mother. Mackenzie was normally ferocious, but he admired the Quahadis and when he learned they were giving up he wrote his commander, "I shall let them down as easily as I can." And he did.

There commenced a remarkable friendship between the colonel and the chief. While the reservation was a shattering experience for the Comanches, Quanah -- who now called himself Quanah Parker -- decided to take the white man's road.


"Just as important, he would strive to lead his often recalcitrant, retrogressive tribe down that road. . . . He would remake himself as a prosperous, tax-paying citizen of the United States of America who dressed in wool suits and Stetson hats and attended school board meetings. And he would try to haul the rest of the Comanche nation along with him. . . . Quanah saw the future clearly. On the high and wild plains he had been a fighter of jaw-dropping aggressiveness; now he would move just as resolutely from the life of a late Stone Age barbarian into the mainstream of industrial American culture."

* * * * *
The last Comanche chief drew his last breath on February 23, 1911. He was about 65 years old.

Gynne concludes Empire of the Summer Moon noting that:

"Quanah never looked back, an astonishing feat of will for someone who had lived in such untrammeled freedom on the open plains, and who had endured such a shattering transformation. In hard times he looked resolutely forward toward something better. That sentiment appears, obliquely, on his gravestone, which read:

Resting here until day breaks
And shadows fall
And darkness disappears,
Is Quannah Parker, the last chief of the Comanches

"His school-educated daughter probably wrote it, based loosely on a verse in the song of Solomon, a book of the Old Testament that settlers, among them his forebears, carried with them into the lethal West, where Stone Age pagans on horseback once ruled the immemorial land. Quanah would have been pleased."

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