Book review: "Empire of the Summer Moon"

Ages ago, I picked up S.C. Gwynne’s 2010 book “Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History.” I think I’d seen a positive blurb on it being nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction, and so picked it up to get an Amazon order up to SuperSaver shipping status. Then it sat around on my bookshelf, gathering dust, until a week or two back I heard an NPR interview with Gwynne about the book.

This inspired me to pick it up and finish it off last week.

Briefly, the book is a history of the Comanche people of west Texas, with a particular focus on the fall of the Comanches, one of the last tribes to fall to the westward expansion of the United States. Gwynne combines accounts from archaeology and ethnography with records by Spanish, Mexian, Texan and American officials and soldiers who came up against the Comanches over their centuries in the spotlight.

And per Gwynne, it was quite the spotlight. The reason the Spanish colonial advance north out of Mexico stopped, Gwynne argues, was military conflict with the Comanches. Similarly, Comanche raids stopped the Texas frontier for decades – and even, at times, rolled it backwards.

The secret to the Comanche success, Gwynne argues, is that they were among the most perfect cavalry in world history – his comparison is to the Mongols. The Comanches got that way, he says, by being almost singularly focused on hunting warfare. They didn’t have the art or rituals of other Native American tribes. Instead, Comanche males spent their time focused on learning how to ride, to shoot bows, to hunt buffalo, and to kill humans.

This was combined with knowledge of tracking, the West Texas terrain, and mobile warfare. Gwynne describes multiple failed attempts by white soldiers to invade Comanche territory, thwarted by the supremely mobile Comanche cavalry, who would strike in the night, steal all the horses and ride away, leaving the invading column trapped on foot in the wide open plains.

The Comanches were such masters of mounted warfare, Gwynne argues, that they held a vast territory secure against the Spanish, Mexican, Texan and American advances despite very small populations. Even at their peak, the Comanche were numbered in the tens of thousands, and they were still a devastatingly potent military force with as little as 4,000 people. The population never got large, Gwynne argued, because the mobile, violent lifestyle of the Comanches resulted in high mortality rates (from wartime casualties) and low birthrates (caused by all that bouncing around on horseback).

Because of this demographic double whammy, the Comanche would adopt people into the tribe. And it’s this practice that occupies the other half of Gwynne’s book: a tale of the half-white Comanche chief Quanah Parker, and his abducted white mother, Cynthia Ann Parker.

Both people are fascinating stories. Cynthia Ann was kidnapped in a brutal Comanche raid as a child, adopted into the tribe, and eventually became a chief’s wife. She refused several times to be returned to white society and, once recaptured, kept trying to escape back to the Comanche people she had come to love.

Quanah is notable for being the last Comanche chief to surrender and go onto the reservation, as well as for trying harder than any other Comanche chief to “walk the white man’s road” once on the reservation – Quanah built an American-style house, became a rancher, wore a suit (though keeping his hair long and braided Comanche-style) and hosted dignitaries such as Theodore Roosevelt.

Where “Empire of the Summer Moon” falls just short for me is that the Parkers’ stories – especially Quanah’s – don’t quite manage to carry the book by themselves. This isn’t Gwynne’s fault – Quanah seems to have been a genuinely fascinating character, but his early life has only sporadic historical documentation. He enters the historical record only when he encounters whites, resulting in brief flashes scattered over a decade – the raid where Quanah’s father was killed and mother recaptured; the later raid where Quanah, by now a chief, led his entire village on a brilliant fighting retreat that evaded a superior force of white cavalry that was more mobile than the fleeing villagers; the Second Battle of Adobe Walls; Quanah’s surrender.

The result of this paucity of documentation is that Gwynne never quite proves his contention that Quanah was among the greatest of the Comanche chiefs prior to entering the reservation. On the reservation, his flame seems to have undoubtedly burned brightly. But on the high plains, while the fragments of information suggest Quanah’s brilliance, I couldn’t help but feel disappointed – and to wonder the degree to which Quanah’s prominence owed more to good press later in life.

He certainly had plenty of that. As a half-white chief, the son of a mother whose own background as “the white squaw” had been well-known, as a Native American who seemed to exemplify what whites wanted to see in Indians (a certain nobility, but also an affirmation of the superiority of the white way of life), Quanah had his admirers. But Quanah’s reservation period occupies a single chapter of the book, an epilogue to the more general focus on the Comanche tribe.

That tribal history – along with the history of the white efforts to fight the Comanches – is more fascinating. I’ve been more exposed to the history of the Indian Wars on the northern plains – Little Bighorn, Wounded Knee, etc. – even before I moved to South Dakota. So much of this was new to me. Particularly fascinating was the segment (worth a book on its own) on John Coffee Hays, the Texas Ranger who Gwynne contends revolutionized frontier warfare.

Hays learned from the Comanche about cavalry tactics, tracking and how to fight and survive on the high plains, he seized on Samuel Colt’s multi-shot revolvers as a perfect cavalry weapon and used an unshakable courage to rout his enemies.

I’m not sure the degree to which this aside on Hays was historically accurate. But Gwynne argues that an oversimplified (but generally accurate) description of Hays’ impact would be that “before Jack Hays arrived in San Antonio, Americans in the West went about largely on foot and carried Kentucky rifles. By the time he left in 1849, anybody going west was mounted and carrying a holstered six-shooter.”

(The six-shooter is such a perfect cavalry weapon because it combines the portability of the bow-and-arrow, which could be used while galloping, with the simplicity and ease-of-use of the rifle, which requires much less training than the bow. Being able to shoot multiple times before reloading is also of particular importance in anti-cavalry warfare, because when the Comanche are charging, you don’t have time to reload.)

From a broader perspective, “Empire of the Summer Moon” is making an argument with some political overtones. When discussing colonialism and imperialism by white powers over indigenous people, wherever in the world, moral arguments can be hotly contested. Per one argument, European empire swept over the globe because Europeans, by virtue of their culture, were BETTER than the colonized – more adaptable to technology, more pluralistic, more free, what-have-you. Another argument holds that European colonialism was marked not by European cultural superiority but by their being particularly BAD people – by conquering, exploiting and deceiving the natives, by brutal massacres on trusting villages, by underhanded tactics like breaking treaties and biological warfare (the infamous smallpox blankets).

Gwynne advocates a third point of view: a “we’re all human” approach. He concedes, for example, the savageness and deception with which whites on the frontier often approached Native Americans, the casual racism, the slaughters of civilians, etc. But he argues against valorizing the Indians – the Comanches, Gwynne argues, were just as brutal as the Texans or Americans or Spanish. Stories of Comanches massacring villages, raping women, cutting down civilians, scalping anyone they could were not legends but facts, Gwynne writes. During the height of the wars between the Comanches and the Texans and Americans, both sides engaged in political violence against civilians, a form of psychological warfare. In both cases it worked – by striking a terrible fear into American settlers, the Comanches provided a fierce disincentive to settle on the Texan frontier as long as they still retained striking power. And by destroying the Comanche villages, American soldiers ultimately destroyed the ability of the Comanche people to continue their resistance.

Between these three views, where does the truth lie? I’m more prone to the humanist view, that no culture has a monopoly on either virtue or brutality. But I can see validity in the other two, which are ultimately arguments for a greater importance in cultural divisions.

(Aside: I once got into an argument with a professor in my French study abroad program, who asked the class what relative importance we placed on universal human traits, cultural traits and individual traits in determining how people acted. The question came after a long lesson on the importance of culture, and the “right” answer was clearly to overwhelmingly credit culture. I instead argued that culture was a relatively minor factor compared to traits that humans share in common, and the individual variation between any two people you meet on the street. It was the beginning of a moderately uncomfortable semester-long relationship.)

Despite my criticisms of certain aspects of “Empire of the Summer Moon,” I still highly recommend it. It’s a window on a fascinating era of history, a singular people in the Comanches, and their rise to heights of startling power and fall to destitution over the course of half a century, all well-written with strong characters throughout to anchor the story.