S.C. Gwynne has written one of the best books about Native American history ever written – “Empire of the Summer Moon” – the story of the end of the Comanche civilization as well as the story of Cynthia Ann Parker and her son Quanah, the last great warrior chief of the Comanche. I painted this watercolor of him from a photograph taken when Quanah was 58 and well past his prime. But you can still see the face of the warrier in him.
If you are at all interested in what really happened in the American West as two culturals collided and battled, essentially, to the death, across the vast central plains of the continent then you have to read this book.
It’s the story of how the Comanches held sway to a much larger degree than most of us ever realized. Having risen from relative obscurity prior to the arrival of horses, the Comaches flourished as they mastered the art of war with horses to become the most feared and dominating forces to ever fight on horseback.
The Comanches terrified the other native tribes and, when white settlers started to appear, they tortured, raped, and kidanpped – and by so doing, halted the advance of white men for the better part of two centuries. One of the great things about the book is that Gwynne stays away almost entirely from taking moral positions. He leaves it to the reader to puzzle over the barbarism on both sides of the conflict.
“Comancheria”, their territory, stretching from Texas to Colorado to the north and from New Mexico through central Oklahoma, was impenatrable. Settlers learned the hard way to not go in there. If they tried to settle, they would encounter a “raid”, often during a full moon in the middle of the summer – thus the title of the book – “Empire of the Summer Moon”.
During one such raid in the early 1800s in Texas, a young girl named Cynthia Ann Parker was caputered. Most of her family was wiped out. So it was that this young girl became adopted into the Comanche tribe. As a young woman, she marired Peta Nocona, a chief. The story of Cynthia Ann Porter formed the foundation for The Searchers, the John Ford movie, starring John Wayne.
She gave birth to Quanah Parker, who grew up to be the last leader/warrier of the Quahadi “Antelope” band of the Comanche people in their, ultimately fruitless, attempt to hang on to their land and their way of life. But what an amazing effort they put in to remain free.
Quanah is only a boy when his mother, Cynthia Ann, is re-captured by her original race. She had no desire to return to a culture she had entirely forgotten – she had become a Comanche in every sense but blood. Because of her desire to escape from what had become her white “captors” she was essentially held hostage until the end of her life by her own native people. A Comanche she had become and would always be it seems.
The dual stories of the Comanches as a people and the story of Cynthia Ann and her son, Quanah Parker, make for one of the most facinating true stories ever written.
He turns out to be military strategist with almost no peer. Outnumbered and outgunned, he time and time again outfights and outfoxes the soldiers who pursue him and his people – and more than once turns superior white calvary forces from pursuers to the pursued.
From terrifying and brutal warrier, Quanah ends up, miraculously, making the transition to effective and peaceful leader. He is a genius at making deals with the white ranchers who covet what’s left of Comanche land holdings to graze their cattle herds. HIs clever deal making ends up making him quite affluent for his time. He even rides in the inaugural parade for Teddy Rosevelt.
The first thing he asked when he finally surrenderd after all his years of fighting, was what happened to his mother – he kept the photograph of his mother holding his sister, Prarie Flower, above is bed the rest of his life.
We can thank S.C. Gwynn for a very well researched, thoroughly entertaining, and insightful book. It belongs among the best books ever written about the history of the clash between native peoples and the tidal wave of immigrants to the American West.