Empire of the Summer Moon
Rest here until day breaks
And shadows fall
And darkness disappears
Is Quanah Parker, the last chief of the Comanches.
Epitaph on Quanah Parker’s gravestone
When civilizations clash conflict and death often ensue. Such was the case with the collision between white settlers and the aborigines of the central plains of North America. The Indian Wars produced the stuff of legend—George Custer, the 7th Calvary, Sitting Bull, and the Little Big Horn; George Crook, Tom Horn, and the Apache renegade Geronimo; Jack Hays, Ranald Mackenzie, Sul Ross, and the Comanche chief Quanah Parker.
Custer’s Last Stand and the tireless efforts to track down and capture Geronimo in the mountains of southern Arizona and northern Mexico are better known in popular history, but the Comanche raids in Texas and the almost magical cat-and-mouse game played by Quanah with American troopers in the west Texas plains was just as daring and dangerous as any in the history of the American west. And thanks 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 that history is finally getting the recognition it deserves.
Gwynne’s book strikes a needed balance between the histories of white American settlers and native American occupiers. Anglos were not always civilized in their dealings with the native population, especially when it came to honoring treaties, nor were they necessarily racists looking for every possible means to exterminate Indian populations. For good or ill, white settlers in Texas in the decades from the 1830s to the 1870s believed in Manifest Destiny—the ever expanding greatness of the American republic. And since expansion could only occur westward, native populations had to either adapt or be made to adapt. Thus was the clash of civilizations. Nevertheless, Indians were not simply noble savages. Sometimes they were indeed savage—grotesquely so—more times than not among neighboring tribes and occasional within their own tribes; sometimes they were indeed noble, to many white captives whom they adopted and married, and particularly to their families.
In this complexity of human desires and demands, Empire of the Summer Moon offers no sentimentality of simpler times lived on the Texas plains, for settlers or Indian alike. Life was spartan, hard, and dangerous. And Gwynne paints that portrait in all its grim detail.
He interweaves the larger history of America’s greatest horse tribe, the Comanches, with the intimate history of one Texas family, the Parkers. Most Texans know something of the story of 9-year-old Cynthia Ann Parker, abducted by Comanches from her family settlement, raised as a Comanche woman, and mother of the greatest Comanche chief, Quanah. But few know the story of her life after she was recaptured by American soldiers and never allowed to return to her Comanche family. It is a story of well-intended but ultimately foolish decisions that led to heartache. In the pen of Gwynne, it is a story told with sensitivity and feeling; a fitting eulogy for a woman who lived a life of tragedy.
Gwynne also takes up the tale of her orphaned son, Quanah, who, after the death of his father and capture of his mother, was a virtual outcast in his tribe. During his formative years, as he grew into manhood, Quanah was a nomad among an already nomadic life, settling down only after the Comanche way of life had disappeared along with the buffalo they so desperately depending on.
It was during his reservation years in Oklahoma that Quanah reached the apex of his power and fame, not as a Comanche warrior, though he was a brave and fierce one, but as a servant and leader of his people. Francis E. Leupp, a federal agent who investigated accusations against him, had nothing but praise for the Quanah.
If ever nature stamped a man with the seal of leadership she did it in his case. Quanah might have been a leader and a governor in any circle where fate might have cast him—it is in his blood. His acceptability to all but an inconsiderable minority of his people is plain to any observer, and even those who are restive under his rule recognize its supremacy. He has his followers under wonderful control, but, on the other hand, looks out for them like a father.
As a native Texan and lover of Texas history, I appreciated Gwynne’s treatment of Texas’s land, her people, and the story of one of the most fierce tribes ever to ride across the Texas plains. Regardless of where your interests lie—in Texas history, the American west, the Indian wars, or Native Americans—you’re knowledge is incomplete unless and until you read Empire of the Summer Moon. Gwynne’s masterful narrative doesn’t disappoint.