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

November 1st, 2010

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In the tradition of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, a stunningly vivid historical account of the forty-year battle between Comanche Indians and white settlers for control of the American West, centering on Quanah, the greatest Comanche chief of them all.S. C. Gwynne’s Empire of the Summer Moon spans two astonishing stories. The first traces the rise and fall of the Comanches, the most powerful Indian tribe in American history. The second entails one of the most remarkable narratives ever to come out of the Old West: the epic saga of the pioneer woman Cynthia Ann Parker and her mixed-blood son Quanah, who became the last and greatest chief of the Comanches. Although readers may be more familiar with the tribal names Apache and Sioux, it was in fact the legendary fighting ability of the Comanches that determined just how and when the American West opened up. Comanche boys became adept bareback riders by age six; full Comanche braves were considered the best horsemen who ever rode. They were so masterful at war and so skillful with their arrows and lances that they stopped the northern drive of colonial Spain from Mexico and halted the French expansion westward from Louisiana. White settlers arriving in Texas from the eastern United States were surprised to find the frontier being rolled backward by Comanches incensed by the invasion of their tribal lands. So effective were the Comanches that they forced the creation of the Texas Rangers and account for the advent of the new weapon specifically designed to fight them: the six-gun. The war with the Comanches lasted four decades, in effect holding up the development of the new American nation. Gwynne’s exhilarating account delivers a sweeping narrative that encompasses Spanish colonialism, the Civil War, the destruction of the buffalo herds, and the arrival of the railroads—a historical feast for anyone interested in how the United States came into being. Against this backdrop Gwynne presents the compelling drama of Cynthia Ann Parker, a lovely nine-year-old girl with cornflower-blue eyes who was kidnapped by Comanches from the far Texas frontier in 1836. She grew to love her captors and became infamous as the "White Squaw" who refused to return until her tragic capture by Texas Rangers in 1860. More famous still was her son Quanah, a warrior who was never defeated and whose guerrilla wars in the Texas Panhandle made him a legend. S. C. Gwynne’s account of these events is meticulously researched, intellectually provocative, and, above all, thrillingly told. Empire of the Summer Moon announces him as a major new writer of American history.


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History Books In the tradition of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, a stunningly vivid historical account of the forty-year battle between Comanche Indians and white settlers for control of the American West, centering on Quanah, the greatest Comanche chief of them all.S. C. Gwynne’s Empire of the Summer Moon spans two astonishing stories. The first traces the rise and fall of the Comanches, the most powerful Indian tribe in American history. The second entails one of the most remarkable narratives ever to come out of the Old West: the epic saga of the pioneer woman Cynthia Ann Parker and her mixed-blood son Quanah, who became the last and greatest chief of the Comanches. Although readers may be more familiar with the tribal names Apache and Sioux, it was in fact the legendary fighting ability of the Comanches that determined just how and when the American West opened up. Comanche boys became adept bareback riders by age six; full Comanche braves were considered the best horsemen who ever rode. They were so masterful at war and so skillful with their arrows and lances that they stopped the northern drive of colonial Spain from Mexico and halted the French expansion westward from Louisiana. White settlers arriving in Texas from the eastern United States were surprised to find the frontier being rolled backward by Comanches incensed by the invasion of their tribal lands. So effective were the Comanches that they forced the creation of the Texas Rangers and account for the advent of the new weapon specifically designed to fight them: the six-gun. The war with the Comanches lasted four decades, in effect holding up the development of the new American nation. Gwynne’s exhilarating account delivers a sweeping narrative that encompasses Spanish colonialism, the Civil War, the destruction of the buffalo herds, and the arrival of the railroads—a historical feast for anyone interested in how the United States came into being. Against this backdrop Gwynne presents the compelling drama of Cynthia Ann Parker, a lovely nine-year-old girl with cornflower-blue eyes who was kidnapped by Comanches from the far Texas frontier in 1836. She grew to love her captors and became infamous as the "White Squaw" who refused to return until her tragic capture by Texas Rangers in 1860. More famous still was her son Quanah, a warrior who was never defeated and whose guerrilla wars in the Texas Panhandle made him a legend. S. C. Gwynne’s account of these events is meticulously researched, intellectually provocative, and, above all, thrillingly told. Empire of the Summer Moon announces him as a major new writer of American history.
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  1. Timothy E. Green
    November 2nd, 2010 at 13:18 | #1

    Rating

    First, Gwynne’s book booms with rhetorical crescendos, especially the language of super-grandiosity: “most hostile,” “most remote, primitive,” “most violent and warlike on the continent,” “at the edge of the known universe,” “a vast, trackless, and featureless ocean of grass.” Many of these phrases paint the Comanches or the Quahadis in the most extreme colors. I’m never clear, in the view of the horrid deeds of Anglos, why the Comanches are the “hostiles.” Why are they the “savage” ones? Or, if we are all savage, then why use such a meaningless, undifferentiating term at all?

    Gwynne’s research is extensive, and I appreciate the fact that he has actually walked the earth of which he writes–the Pease River Battle area and others. However, unlike Pekka Hamalainen’s The Comanche Empire, Gwynne’s book does not reflect the insights of Spanish and Mexican historians and historical records. Though he probes beyond the conventional sources into Comanche life and biography, his tone still betrays an ethnocentric bias reminiscent of Walter Prescott Webb (The Texas Rangers) and T.R. Ferhrenbach (Comanches). This betrayal, for me, occurs most tellingly in his bibliographical note: “[Walter Prescott Webb's] work on the Texas Rangers remains definitive.” This is absurd. Webb relies on the Rangers’ own accounts to tell their story. Surprise, then, that the Rangers are such tough, resolute patriots. Gwynne should check into the views of Americo Paredes and others before canonizing Webb as the definitive source on the Rangers. The “rinches” were certainly not heroic to most Mexican Americans. And any “definitive” account should, I would think, exhaust all possible perspectives.

    Again, I share Gwynne’s fascination for the Comanches. I grew up near the headwaters of the Pease River (though the “headwaters” barely amount to a trickle any longer), and I have come to empathize (from reading of them and walking where they walked) with the Comanche life along the Caprock Escarpment and on the Llano Estacado. Too often Gwynne’s fascination lapses into grandiose diction, always urging our spines to tingle at the immensities, vastnesses, and horrors. I, too, think the Comanches played a significant role as a kind of “empire” in the southern plains. But the case must be made in clear interpretation and plainsong, not shrill insistence. And I think it’s time to stop calling American Indians “hostiles” or using the word casually (with “savage”) as an adjective. Any proud people surrounded by enemies and threatened with extinction will become hostile, I assume. And the enemies and their threats of extinction are quite hostile, too.

  2. Claire Singer
    November 4th, 2010 at 10:54 | #2

    Rating

    Whatever Hollywood version of the winning of the Old West is in your head, read Empire of the Summer Moon for the real story. The human drama of the kidnapped white girl who grew up to be the wife of a Comanche chief and the mother of the last great chief is just the locus for the historical, geographical, and political perfect storm of the nineteenth century Great Plains. It’s sad and amazing.

  3. R. Hardy
    November 5th, 2010 at 07:16 | #3

    Rating

    Everyone knows the story of Custer; history remembers that name because of his horrendous defeat in a war against the Indians, a war that despite his defeat the Indians eventually lost. So, if you remember Custer, tell me this: who is Ranald Slidell Mackenzie? It’s not fair; the two were fighting Indians around the same time, but Custer went down to defeat and fame while Mackenzie proved himself “the most brutally effective Indian fighter in American history” and is unknown. That is the assessment of S. C. Gwynne, a Texan, journalist, and editor whose previous book was about the corrupt global bank BCCI. His current one is worlds away from that: _Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History_ (Scribner). You may well not have heard of Quanah Parker, either, but he was an Indian leader at least as remarkable as the more famous Sitting Bull or Geronimo. So Gwynne’s insightful book restores two forgotten American leaders to their rightful places in history, with a focused view on the most complicated and vicious of the battles between the tribes and the settlers who were moving in on them. This is a vital, moving account of an important part of American history that we have too often allowed just the movies to tell us about.

    The start of the book is an 1836 Comanche raid on the homestead of the Parker family, near where Dallas is today. Nine-year-old Cynthia Ann Parker saw Comanche warfare, with rapes and mutilations as standard practice, when she was taken captive. The Comanches took girls captive because they helped the tribal work force; the men would wage war and hunt buffalo, but the women had all the work of turning the huge animals into meals and robes. When she was recaptured in 1860, she had been fully integrated into the tribe and did not wish to be rescued away from it. People were dumbfounded by her; no one could believe a Christian girl could voluntarily remain a pagan woman. But she had borne a son to a husband, a tribal chief. The boy, Quanah, was twelve when his mother was taken away. He continued the pattern of raiding white settlements, and he was an exceptional warrior. He became the greatest chief of the Comanche, and would have spent a successful lifetime on the plains if it weren’t for a problem of timing. The settlers never seemed to learn permanently the war tactics of the Comanches, and once they did learn them, they forgot them because distractions like the Civil War came up. The settlers did, however, have one thing the Comanches never had: technological progress. Gwynne shows that the Colt revolvers in the hands of the Texas Rangers, and then the repeating rifles in the hands of Mackenzie’s troops, overpowered any horseback archery the Comanches could achieve. Railroad technology, however, took the buffalo away. Gwynne writes, “Killing the Indians’ food was not just an accident of commerce; it was a deliberate political act.”

    Colonel Mackenzie was a wounded Civil War hero who took command of the cavalry in the Comanche area in 1871. Mackenzie was ruthless, hard on his troops but harder on the Comanches. Unlike many of his predecessors, however, Mackenzie respected his enemy and learned the Comanche way of doing things. He and Quanah formed a remarkable friendship after Quanah’s surrender, and he was to give Quanah insight into the ways of the whites. Mackenzie was to have troubles in his future, descending into madness. Quanah, however, was to have a spectacular second act. He was by nature smart, cheerful, and cooperative. No longer the warrior, he became a prosperous cattleman. He became friends with Teddy Roosevelt. He helped establish the Native American Church that uses the peyote cactus in its religious rituals. He wanted to try everything: had had one of the first home telephones in his region, he liked traveling, and he had a bit part in the first western movie ever made, _The Bank Robbery_. He had more than his share of financial problems, but they all derived from his generosity and his refusal to stand by when any of his people were in need. When he died in 1911, he had led his tribe through the most momentous of changes and was beloved by them, and he had the full respect of the whites that had been his blood enemies. His astonishing story is but one facet within Gwynne’s larger tale of the Texas frontier in the nineteenth century, a must-read for anyone who is interested in the conflicts between settlers and Indians, or anyone who has watched too many westerns.

  4. Angel Fire
    November 6th, 2010 at 16:29 | #4

    Rating

    What a fantastic book this is. In honest, sometimes brutal, yet always unbiased prose, Mr. Gwynne presents a period of history that has been glossed over, especially in movies and school history books. He brings the period of Texas expansion into Indian lands to life in a way that made me feel I was right there with both the settlers and the Comanches and provided many thought-provoking moments throughout. I highly recommend this book and look forward to any future histories Mr. Gwynne may write.

  5. Edward J. Quigley
    November 7th, 2010 at 01:06 | #5

    Rating

    I bought this book planning to read it after finishing The Man Who Ate His Boots (hardcover also from Amazon). That was a mistake because as the cliche goes I could not put it down. And that’s because the author’s narrative is superbly crafted, his action scenes beautifully drawn, his timing perfect.

    Here’s a sample: “Blanco Canyon would give the U.S. Army its first look at Quanah. The author then quotes Captain Carter’s firsthand description of “the young war chief in battle…”‘A large and powerfully built chief led the bunch, on a coal black racing pony. Leaning forward upon his mane, his heels nervously working in the animal’s side, with a six-shooter poised in the air, he seemed the incarnation of savage, brutal joy. His face was smeared with black warpaint, which gave his features a satanic look…a full length headress or war bonnet of eagle’s feathers spread out as he rode…he was naked to the waist, wearing simply leggings, moccasins and a breechclout. A necklace of beare’s [sic] claws hung about his neck….’ After quoting Carter’s description, the author finishes the picture — “Moments later, Quanah wheeled his horse in the direction of an unfortunate private named Seander Greeg and, as Carter and his men watched, blew Gregg’s brains out.”

    This is not to mention the insightful political and geographic detail plus the absorbing story of the Comanche’s singular mastery of the mustang introduced into the high plains by the Spanish.

  6. TX Dog Lady
    November 7th, 2010 at 05:39 | #6

    Rating

    Wonderful book. Mr. Gwynne has made characters from Larry McMurtry’s books come alive – Buffalo Hump, Charlie Goodnight, and you can see Gus and Call in the Rangers. I highly recommend this book to everyone. Who doesn’t know the story of Quanah Parker and his white mother. I live in Texas and I am finding out things about this state that I didn’t know. I definitely recommend this book.

  7. Robert Busko
    November 9th, 2010 at 07:42 | #7

    Rating

    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 is an eye opening account of an often overlooked era of this country’s history. S. C. Gwynne is a consummate researcher and storyteller displaying the love of his topic.

    Gwynne manages to tell this multilevel, multifaceted story in a riveting manner. Relating history is a difficult task to do well. Very few authors seem to have the ability to relate history is a manner that makes it interesting and then manages to hit all the high spots. The late Barbara Tuchman did it well as did Stephen Ambrose and David G. McCullough. High praise for Gwynne? Yes, and well deserved.

    Empire of the Moon examines the forty year battle waged by the Comanche nation against the constant encroachment of pioneers from the young United States. They had fought off the Spanish, French, and Mexican invaders, rolled back the Apache Nation and did a pretty good job in forestalling the American invasion. But the relentless push of westward settlement eventually won out. It is the attention to details and the development of the principle characters that makes Gwynnes book unique. This is especially true in how he deals with the young Cynthia Parker, the white girl taken captive and raised as a Comanche. She disappeared after this but eventually adopted the Comanche way of life, married a chief and became the mother of Quanah Parker, the center for Gwynne’s book. Gwynne must have had access to new resources since he presents new details to the reader (new to me, anyway). At the risk of being obvious, the story of Cynthia Parker makes the purchase and reading of this book worthwhile by itself. But then the story of her son, Quanah will captivate you.

    Quanah perhaps killed more Americans than any other Native-American. However, the closing years of his life, after he fought the good fight, he raised cattle, ran for the school board and attended the 1905 inauguration of Teddy Roosevelt as a personal guest of the President. Astounding!

    As an amateur historian, I’ve concentrated on other areas of American history, especially focusing on the Sioux and Northern Cheyenne as they relate to the Little Bighorn. Empire of the Summer Moon is a new area of interest and thanks to Gwynne I will continue to read.

    I highly recommend Empire of the Summer Moon.

    Peace always.

  8. C L
    November 10th, 2010 at 23:35 | #8

    Rating

    Mr Gwynne has written a masterpiece. It is the story, first, of a deadly land: Endless miles of grassland with no shelter and almost no water. People died from the heat, thirst, lightning strikes, and simply from getting lost and giving up hope in an enormous area, every acre so alike in appearance that it was like looking at the water of an ocean. The primary story is of the people who wanted this deadly land and who were willing to kill for it. The Spanish. The Mexicans. The Apaches. The Comanches. The Texans. All of these people were tough and stubborn. They believed in vengeance and they went after it.

    Mr Gwynne does not take sides. He describes the ruthlessness and savagery of all involved, he tells what happened and allows the reader to make his own decisions and retroactively take whatever side he wants to. But Gwynne does more than tell of people’s violence. He shows the same people at home, caring and fun loving.

    Chief Parker, Cynthia Parker, Ranger Hays, Colonel Mackenzie, and several others were fascinating people and Gwynne makes them real to our modern eyes. It is evident that he admires them all, for their toughness and their determination and their courage. After reading this excellent book, most of us will admire them all, too.

  9. Dr Frank
    November 11th, 2010 at 21:50 | #9

    Rating

    This is a riveting story of the Comanche Indians, centering on the character of Quanah Parker. Parker’s life spanned the time from when the Comanches were the Lord of the Plains, dominating an area stretching from Kansas to northern Mexico, to their virtual eradication. Once among the fiercest of Comanche warriors, in his later years Parker was devoted to succeeding in the white world, which he did. Parker was the son of Cynthia Ann Parker, who was taken captive as a young girl and became so enculturated as a Comanche that she was unable to readjust to white society when she was eventually “rescued.”

    Gwynne does a remarkable job rendering the Comanche society. The Comanches’ rise to power resulted from their becoming master horse riders. Their society was devoted entirely to warfare, and they neither gave nor asked for mercy. It was a kill-or-be-killed world. Although the whites were merciless in their efforts to destroy the Comanches, they had little choice. President Grant’s efforts to establish more peaceful relations came to naught, because neither white settlers nor the Comanches were willing to co-exist. Peace came only when the Indians were vanquished.

    Gwynne’s account also tells the story of the various white men who were instrumental in defeating the Comanches. Particularly arresting is his portrayal of Ranald S. Mackenzie. Gwynne’s opening chapter focusing on Mackenzie is titled “The Anti-Custer,” because Mackenzie was the polar opposite of Custer in almost every way. It is one of the ironies of history that Custer achieved fame by being defeated while Mackenzie, described by Gwynne as “the man who would destroy the Comanches and become America’s greatest Indian fighter,” is virtually forgotten.

  10. Steven A. Peterson
    November 12th, 2010 at 22:50 | #10

    Rating

    This book surveys the role of the Comanche in the western plains. The centerpiece of the narrative is the war Chief, Quanah, and his mother, Cynthia Ann Parker. But the story begins long before that.

    First, this is the chronicle of the Comanche. It really begins with the access to horses, scrawny but tough, coming from Spanish mounts. The Apache, the Comanche, and others adapted to the new resource and began using the horses for mobility, hunting, and warfare. The Comanche, according to the book, adopted them more thoroughly than other native Americans (including Apaches) for combat, learning to shoot their arrows while riding their mounts. Apache, for instance, would ride to the point of combat and then fight dismounted–a serious disadvantage against Comanche. Their tactics and their ferocity gave Comanches control over a huge range of land. Often allied with Kiowa, the Comanche established a bastion of strength, as the book details it (referring to it as Comancheria).

    Second, the narrative highlights the relationships between Europeans (Spanish, French, Americans, Texans) and the Comanche. The style of fighting by Spanish and later Mexican troops gave the advantage to the rapidly moving Comanches. The book explains this nicely. Later, as Texas became an independent country and later a state, Texans, too, did not handle Comanche well. Only as Texas Rangers became more mobile and armed with six shooters did they begin to have success.

    Third, this book is personalized, given a human element, by reference to Cynthia Ann Parker, who was part of a family attached by Comanches. Some were killed, some escaped, and some were captured. She was one of those captured. She later became a wide of a powerful war chief. One of her children was Quanah, who later became an important war chief among the Comanches. We learn of Comanche life, to some extent, by the life of Cynthia, the work that she carried out. Later, she was “rescued” when a polyglot force of soldiers, Rangers, and others attacked the camp where she was living. She was “freed” from her captivity, although she appears to have been pretty miserable for the rest of her life among Texans.

    After her death, the narrative follows her son’s career. The book traces Quanah’s life, from lonely orphan to brave to war chief. We also learn of those who tried to quell the Comanches, with the major figure here being the Civil War general (now much lower in rank), Ranald Mackenzie. We learn how the Americans began to turn the tide against the Comanches. We also learn, after the Americans triumphed, how Quanah was still able to have a major role to play among Comanches. He even gained a certain respect from Americans. An interesting comparison of his later life with that of Geronimo is instructive.

  11. Hondo
    November 13th, 2010 at 12:02 | #11

    Rating

    I bought this book after reading an enthusiastic review in the New York Times Book Review section, but I find that the review was highly inflated. In the early chapters the “breathless” prose runs ahead of the subject matter, leaving one to wonder what the excitement is all about. More disturbing, however, are the frequent errors of fact–mostly simple ones such as that Quanah and a war party started from their camp in Santa Fe, rode east to San Angelo and then south to San Antonio. Cannot this author read a map? Worse is that the author not only has used few primary sources but that he bypasses the work of sound historians and relies instead on “histories” written by novelists and other journalists. A good story, but poor history.

  12. D. Miller
    November 13th, 2010 at 14:57 | #12

    Rating

    Gywnne shows a lot of passion as well as writing chops in this great narrative. He describes some of the interesting characters from Texas History – Ross, Hays, Goodnight, Isa Tai, Cynthia Ann, Walker and especially Mackenzie and Quanah with entertaining strings of adjectives. His opinions are strong, but he doesn’t fall into sounding angry, worshipful or overly judgmental. He also has a clear way of describing battle scenes, explaining the importance of tactics, luck, experience and technology for a given engagement. An especially strong set of paragraphs is when he speculates on why Cynthia Ann preferred the life of a Comanche to a settler, describing the world of magic and simplicity of the aboriginal. The only weird thing I can’t resist mentioning is that Gywnne, in his encapsulation of the Civil War, calls Gettysburg a draw (huh?). Anyway, I highly recommend this to Old West history buffs, like myself.

  13. Mario
    November 15th, 2010 at 18:04 | #13

    Rating

    As I was reading “Empire of the Summer Moon” I kept asking myself “would I recommend this book to my friends?” The answer is a yes with some conditions.

    1) It’s a sad story

    2) It’s difficult to sympathise with the Comanches

    3) It’s even more difficult to sympathise with the white settlers.

    But it’s a well researched book about a part of the American West I was just vaguely familiar with.

    Ultimately it’s another chronicle of the march of “civilization” and it’s subjugation of less advanced cultures.

  14. Donald McLeod
    November 15th, 2010 at 20:00 | #14

    Rating

    If you admire John Ford’s movie, The Searchers, as much as I do you will be fascinated by this book and

    surprised to learn that the movie was based on events that comprise some of the subject matter of this book.

    Beyond that, the book is superbly compelling in its own right. This book is a historical treasure.

  15. Judge21
    November 15th, 2010 at 20:44 | #15

    Rating

    A fascinating, well-researched narrative, this book will soon be found on mandatory reading lists for college American history courses. I was disappointed at first because I thought I had purchased a historical novel similar to McMurtry’s “Lonesome Dove.” What I discovered was a historical masterpiece unburdened by political correcteness and apologist fantasy. The native American was brutally bloody and paganly spiritual. That they were treated savagely by whites does not whitewash the truth: at their point in civilization, they were savages, beautiful and harsh, especially the Comanches. There are too many astounding revelations for me to recount. Quite simply, if you have even a passing interest in American heritage, you must read this book.

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