Saturday, November 26, 2011

Empire of the Summer Moon

Congratulations to the author, Empire is a Pulitzer Prize Finalist!

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
Scribner, 371 pgs
From my personal library
Rating: You Should Really Read This Book!

The Comanches were elemental; earth, air, fire and water. They had no use for a sophisticated civil society, no use for a pantheon of deities, no use for towns or villages. The Comanches were nomads but they did have a home. They inhabited the awesome buffalo plains of a vast land that was not yet a country. I choose "inhabit" deliberately. One of its definitions is "to fill," and that is what the Comanches did. They filled that place and time, not in numbers for the Comanches were never more than 20,000 or so, but in perfect partnership with them.

Empire is S.C. Gwynne's third book, his first book of American history, and I am very impressed. He has impeccable credentials: bureau chief, national correspondent and senior editor for Time from 1988-2000 and executive editor at Texas Monthly. Accordingly, Empire is carefully researched and strictly noted, which we appreciate of course, but just as important for me is his wit and clarity. He does not allow any of the characters, Indian, Anglo, Mexican or otherwise, to pull any punches in his book. He calls "shenanigans."

In 1836 Comancheria stretched from Northern Mexico into what would become Colorado and Kansas. The Comanches had turned back the Spanish, Mexicans, Apaches and many others, from their homelands. In this year General Santa Ana turned Texas into a country and it did not take long for whites to come pouring in after promises of cheap land. The Parker clan settled near the present town of Mexia, just east of Waco, and built an elaborate homestead known as Parker's Fort. On May 19 at 10 in the morning a band of Comanches rode up to the gate. The fight lasted about 30 minutes, by the end 5 men were dead, 2 women wounded, and 2 women and 3 children kidnapped. One of these children was a little blond-haired, blue-eyed girl of 9 years, Cynthia Ann Parker. Her name has gone down in history as the most famous Indian captive of all. More about her later.

The white settlers were in the throes of Manifest Destiny, believing that all of the land even unto the Pacific belonged to them. God was invoked with predictable results. The Comanches were defending their lives and homes against a foregone conclusion. I do not want to romanticize them and turn them into pets. The Comanches were thieves, most notably of horses. They were terrifying warriors. Many historians believe that the Comanches on horseback were the most lethal light-cavalry ever seen. They shot, stabbed, lanced, mutilated, kidnapped, raped and scalped. The whites did their own murdering and mutilating. They were also thieves, entering into bad-faith "treaties,"stealing land, time and time again. But I believe the most vicious, cynical strategy in this war was the whites' unconscionable, cynical, deliberate whole-sale massacre of the buffalo. The Comanches' lives were based on the buffalo, without them they would not survive. The war waged between the Comanches and whites lasted from approximately 1836 until the last band of Comanches rode onto reservation land in 1875, the few remaining warriors led by Chief Quanah Parker.

 Chief Quanah Parker was the son of Cynthia Ann Parker and Chief Peta Nocona. Cynthia Ann assimilated into the Comanche world, married a chief and gave birth to Quanah and his sister Prairie Flower. She lived with her Comanche family for 24 years until she was captured and kidnapped yet again, this time by Texas Rangers. She did not want to go back to the white world, family or no, trying to escape on a regular basis. Cynthia and her baby daughter were taken from Quanah when he was just 12. They would never see each other again and each mourned the loss for the remainder of their days.  

Quanah is legendary. We Texans learn about him in school. He was physically imposing, taller and heavier than the average Comanche. He was a warrior remarked upon and respected by his people, other tribes, the Texas Rangers and the U.S. Army. Quanah was fearless in battle and a brilliant strategist. In 1874 the federal government reached the end of its rope with the Comanche raids on Texas settlers. Colonel Ranald McKenzie was brought in by the U.S. Army to bring them in or kill them trying. Colonel McKenzie was a bold, disciplined and talented officer. He and Quanah Parker were well matched. The battle between the two lasted for a year.

Quanah was not only a military leader, he was also a political leader. He understood by the summer of 1875 that the remaining band of Comanches, his band, must surrender to McKenzie because not to do so would have been a betrayal of the welfare of his people. Quanah proved to be every bit as capable a leader on the reservation. He fought for land, leasing rights, hunting rights, annuities, religious rights. He built a 10 room house on the reservation where he welcomed President Teddy Roosevelt. In the last years of his life he searched for members of his white family. They allowed him to bring his mother's remains to the reservation where he buried her in the Comanche cemetery. Not long after Quanah was buried beside her.

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  1. This is an amazing review! Your insight and enthusiasm makes me want to read more!

  2. As a teacher of Texas history, I have always been fascinated with the Comanche Indians. I, too, have read this book and very much enjoyed Michelle's review, as it echoed all of the feelings I had while reading this well researched book about a brutal, yet loving people. I find Quannah Parker to be one of the most intriguing men of Texas history. Well done!!

  3. Omg, this book is great and the review is spot on. Go forth and read.