Empire of the Summer Moon (Book Review)


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

“In one sense, the Parker’s are beginning and the end of the Comanches of U.S. history.”

The clash between the Comanches and Westward bound settlers in Texas. S.C. Gwynne creates a panoramic view of the place, the people and the era. This book covers a wide range of topics including the rise of the Comanche, Westward expansion, the creation of the Texas Rangers, the life of the most famous white captive Cynthia Ann Parker and her son, the last chief of the Comanche’s Quanah Parker and ultimately the fall of the Comanche  and Quanah’s adoption of the settlers ways.

The events of the book are set off in 1833 when John Parker moves his family from Illinois to Texas in return for a large plot of land. Parker’s Ranch would be setup past the  traditional western front of settlement. In the 1830’s the Comanches were by far the most feared Native American nation on the southern plains. Their territory was protected by savage acts of gore as well as the finest horseback combat strategies known in history. These two characteristics would captivate and terrorize the people of East Texas, the area known as Comancheria, including the Parker family.

“When the Pueblos pushed out the Spanish from New Mexico, the horses were abandoned, thus thousands of mustangs ran wild into the open plains that closely resembled their ancestral Iberian lands. Because they were perfectly adapted to the new land, they thrived and multiplied. They became the foundation stock for the great wild mustang herds of the Southwest. The event has become known as the Great Horse Dispersal. The dissemination of so many horses to a group of thirty plains tribes permanently altered the power structure of the North American Heartland.”

The Parker’s made treaties with the local Native American nations in an attempt to assure peace. The Parker’s had no way of knowing how many nations of Native Americans surrounded their recently acquired land. They also didn’t know that the Comanches were in a long standing war with the Texas Rangers, who would spend time at the Parker’s Fort.

“It is one of history’s great ironies that one of the main reasons Mexico had encouraged Americans to settle in Texas in the 1820s and 1830s was because they wanted a buffer against Comanches, a sort of insurance policy on their borderlands.”

Reconstruction of Fort Parker (Postcard 1950)

On the morning of May 19, 1836 there was a was a large war party of Native Americans lead by the Comanche. The nation’s of Comanche, Caddos, Kiowas and Witchitas approached the Parker’s land, one single member leading the way with a white flag. The Comache’s were not there to surrender, they were there to raid the Parker’s land and to take captives and kill the men. The successful raid included the capture of two women, three children and killing of five of the men. The family patriarch, the 77 year old John Parker, was one of the men murdered, his genitals cut off and his head scalped during the raid.

One of the children captured was 9 year-old Cynthia Ann Parker, daughter of one of the men killed during the raid. She would become the wife of the Comanche chieftain Peta Nocona. They would have a children together, one would grow up to be one of the final war leaders of the Comanche, Quanah Parker.

The book follows Cynthia Ann’s adoption of Comanche life, her capture by the Texas Rangers and her unhappy life away from her Comanche family. Gwynne follows the rise of Quanah, the war leader, who would live to take vengeance for the capture of his mother. Quanah would lead the Comanche and continue raids through 1875, when he had a vision that convinced him to lead his people to the reservation.

Quanah Parker

The cornering of the Native nations onto reservations would ultimately force Quanah and the Comanche to hang hang up their war-centered traditions and spend more time on the reservation. The cross contamination of different nation’s cultures and traditions, plus those of the whites, would shape the end of Quanah’s life. From his days as a young warrior to his days of hosting President Roosevelt during a hunting trip, Quanah sits in the center of a changing a country, culture and people for better or worse.

This was a great read from start to finish. The story is sad in many respects, but tells a captivating story with many interesting detours along the way. Highly recommended to anyone with an interest in the West, Native American and pioneer relations or general American History of the 19th century.

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