This stunning historical account of the forty-year battle between Comanche Indians and white settlers for control of the American West was a major New York Times bestseller.
In the tradition of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, a stunningly vivid historical account of the forty-year battle between Comanche Indians and white settlers for control of the American West, centering on Quanah, the greatest Comanche chief of them all.
S. C. Gwynne’s Empire of the Summer Moon spans two astonishing stories. The first traces the rise and fall of the Comanches, the most powerful Indian tribe in American history. The second entails one of the most remarkable narratives ever to come out of the Old West: the epic saga of the pioneer woman Cynthia Ann Parker and her mixed-blood son Quanah, who became the last and greatest chief of the Comanches.
Although readers may be more familiar with the tribal names Apache and Sioux, it was in fact the legendary fighting ability of the Comanches that determined just how and when the American West opened up. Comanche boys became adept bareback riders by age six; full Comanche braves were considered the best horsemen who ever rode. They were so masterful at war and so skillful with their arrows and lances that they stopped the northern drive of colonial Spain from Mexico and halted the French expansion westward from Louisiana. White settlers arriving in Texas from the eastern United States were surprised to find the frontier being rolled backward by Comanches incensed by the invasion of their tribal lands. So effective were the Comanches that they forced the creation of the Texas Rangers and account for the advent of the new weapon specifically designed to fight them: the six-gun.
The war with the Comanches lasted four decades, in effect holding up the development of the new American nation. Gwynne’s exhilarating account delivers a sweeping narrative that encompasses Spanish colonialism, the Civil War, the destruction of the buffalo herds, and the arrival of the railroads—a historical feast for anyone interested in how the United States came into being.
Against this backdrop Gwynne presents the compelling drama of Cynthia Ann Parker, a lovely nine-year-old girl with cornflower-blue eyes who was kidnapped by Comanches from the far Texas frontier in 1836. She grew to love her captors and became infamous as the “White Squaw” who refused to return until her tragic capture by Texas Rangers in 1860. More famous still was her son Quanah, a warrior who was never defeated and whose guerrilla wars in the Texas Panhandle made him a legend.
S. C. Gwynne’s account of these events is meticulously researched, intellectually provocative, and, above all, thrillingly told. Empire of the Summer Moon announces him as a major new writer of American history.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
A NEW KIND OF WAR
CAVALRYMEN REMEMBER SUCH moments: dust swirling behind the pack mules, regimental bugles shattering the air, horses snorting and riders’ tack creaking through the ranks, their old company song rising on the wind: “Come home, John! Don’t stay long. Come home soon to your own chick-a-biddy!”1 The date was October 3, 1871. Six hundred soldiers and twenty Tonkawa scouts had bivouacked on a lovely bend of the Clear Fork of the Brazos, in a rolling, scarred prairie of grama grass, scrub oak, sage, and chaparral, about one hundred fifty miles west of Fort Worth, Texas. Now they were breaking camp, moving out in a long, snaking line through the high cutbanks and quicksand streams. Though they did not know it at the time—the idea would have seemed preposterous—the sounding of “boots and saddle” that morning marked the beginning of the end of the Indian wars in America, of fully two hundred fifty years of bloody combat that had begun almost with the first landing of the first ship on the first fatal shore in Virginia. The final destruction of the last of the hostile tribes would not take place for a few more years. Time would be yet required to round them all up, or starve them out, or exterminate their sources of food, or run them to ground in shallow canyons, or kill them outright. For the moment the question was one of hard, unalloyed will. There had been brief spasms of official vengeance and retribution before: J. M. Chivington’s and George Armstrong Custer’s savage massacres of Cheyennes in 1864 and 1868 were examples. But in those days there was no real attempt to destroy the tribes on a larger scale, no stomach for it. That had changed, and on October 3, the change assumed the form of an order, barked out through the lines of command to the men of the Fourth Cavalry and Eleventh Infantry, to go forth and kill Comanches. It was the end of anything like tolerance, the beginning of the final solution.
The white men were grunts, bluecoats, cavalry, and dragoons; mostly veterans of the War Between the States who now found themselves at the edge of the known universe, ascending to the turreted rock towers that gated the fabled Llano Estacado—Coronado’s term for it, meaning “palisaded plains” of West Texas, a country populated exclusively by the most hostile Indians on the continent, where few U.S. soldiers had ever gone before. The llano was a place of extreme desolation, a vast, trackless, and featureless ocean of grass where white men became lost and disoriented and died of thirst; a place where the imperial Spanish had once marched confidently forth to hunt Comanches, only to find that they themselves were the hunted, the ones to be slaughtered. In 1864, Kit Carson had led a large force of federal troops from Santa Fe and attacked a Comanche band at a trading post called Adobe Walls, north of modern-day Amarillo. He had survived it, but had come within a whisker of watching his three companies of cavalry and infantry destroyed.2
The troops were now going back, because enough was enough, because President Grant’s vaunted “Peace Policy” toward the remaining Indians, run by his gentle Quaker appointees, had failed utterly to bring peace, and finally because the exasperated general in chief of the army, William Tecumseh Sherman, had ordered it so. Sherman’s chosen agent of destruction was a civil war hero named Ranald Slidell Mackenzie, a difficult, moody, and implacable young man who had graduated first in his class from West Point in 1862 and had finished the Civil War, remarkably, as a brevet brigadier general. Because his hand was gruesomely disfigured from war wounds, the Indians called him No-Finger Chief, or Bad Hand. A complex destiny awaited him. Within four years he would prove himself the most brutally effective Indian fighter in American history. In roughly that same time period, while General George Armstrong Custer achieved world fame in failure and catastrophe, Mackenzie would become obscure in victory. But it was Mackenzie, not Custer, who would teach the rest of the army how to fight Indians. As he moved his men across the broken, stream-crossed country, past immense herds of buffalo and prairie-dog towns that stretched to the horizon, Colonel Mackenzie did not have a clear idea of what he was doing, where precisely he was going, or how to fight Plains Indians in their homelands. Neither did he have the faintest idea that he would be the one largely responsible for defeating the last of the hostile Indians. He was new to this sort of Indian fighting, and would make many mistakes in the coming weeks. He would learn from them.
For now, Mackenzie was the instrument of retribution. He had been dispatched to kill Comanches in their Great Plains fastness because, six years after the end of the Civil War, the western frontier was an open and bleeding wound, a smoking ruin littered with corpses and charred chimneys, a place where anarchy and torture killings had replaced the rule of law, where Indians and especially Comanches raided at will. Victorious in war, unchallenged by foreign foes in North America for the first time in its history, the Union now found itself unable to deal with the handful of remaining Indian tribes that had not been destroyed, assimilated, or forced to retreat meekly onto reservations where they quickly learned the meaning of abject subjugation and starvation. The hostiles were all residents of the Great Plains; all were mounted, well armed, and driven now by a mixture of vengeance and political desperation. They were Comanches, Kiowas, Arapahoes, Cheyennes, and Western Sioux. For Mackenzie on the southern plains, Comanches were the obvious target: No tribe in the history of the Spanish, French, Mexican, Texan, and American occupations of this land had ever caused so much havoc and death. None was even a close second.
Just how bad things were in 1871 along this razor edge of civilization could be seen in the numbers of settlers who had abandoned their lands. The frontier, carried westward with so much sweat and blood and toil, was now rolling backward, retreating. Colonel Randolph Marcy, who accompanied Sherman on a western tour in the spring, and who had known the country intimately for decades, had been shocked to find that in many places there were fewer people than eighteen years before. “If the Indian marauders are not punished,” he wrote, “the whole country seems in a fair way of becoming totally depopulated.”3 This phenomenon was not entirely unknown in the history of the New World. The Comanches had also stopped cold the northward advance of the Spanish empire in the eighteenth century—an empire that had, up to that point, easily subdued and killed millions of Indians in Mexico and moved at will through the continent. Now, after more than a century of relentless westward movement, they were rolling back civilization’s advance again, only on a much larger scale. Whole areas of the borderlands were simply emptying out, melting back eastward toward the safety of the forests. One county—Wise—had seen its population drop from 3,160 in the year 1860 to 1,450 in 1870. In some places the line of settlements had been driven back a hundred miles.4 If General Sherman wondered about the cause—as he once did—his tour with Marcy relieved him of his doubts. That spring they had narrowly missed being killed themselves by a party of raiding Indians. The Indians, mostly Kiowas, passed them over because of a shaman’s superstitions and had instead attacked a nearby wagon train. What happened was typical of the savage, revenge-driven attacks by Comanches and Kiowas in Texas in the postwar years. What was not typical was Sherman’s proximity and his own very personal and mortal sense that he might have been a victim, too. Because of that the raid became famous, known to history as the Salt Creek Massacre.5
Seven men were killed in the raid, though that does not begin to describe the horror of what Mackenzie found at the scene. According to Captain Robert G. Carter, Mackenzie’s subordinate, who witnessed its aftermath, the victims were stripped, scalped, and mutilated. Some had been beheaded and others had their brains scooped out. “Their fingers, toes and private parts had been cut off and stuck in their mouths,” wrote Carter, “and their bodies, now lying in several inches of water and swollen or bloated beyond all chance of recognition, were filled full of arrows, which made them resemble porcupines.” They had clearly been tortured, too. “Upon each exposed abdomen had been placed a mass of live coals. . . . One wretched man, Samuel Elliott, who, fighting hard to the last, had evidently been wounded, was found chained between two wagon wheels and, a fire having been made from the wagon pole, he had been slowly roasted to death—‘burnt to a crisp.’ ”6
Thus the settlers’ headlong flight eastward, especially on the Texas frontier, where such raiding was at its worst. After so many long and successful wars of conquest and dominion, it seemed implausible that the westward rush of Anglo-European civilization would stall in the prairies of central Texas. No tribe had ever managed to resist for very long the surge of nascent American civilization with its harquebuses and blunderbusses and muskets and eventually lethal repeating weapons and its endless stocks of eager, land-greedy settlers, its elegant moral double standards and its complete disregard for native interests. Beginning with the subjection of the Atlantic coastal tribes (Pequots, Penobscots, Pamunkeys, Wampanoags, et al), hundreds of tribes and bands had either perished from the earth, been driven west into territories, or forcibly assimilated. This included the Iroquois and their enormous, warlike confederation that ruled the area of present-day New York; the once powerful Delawares, driven west into the lands of their enemies; the Iroquois, then yet farther west into even more murderous foes on the plains. The Shawnees of the Ohio Country had fought a desperate rearguard action starting in the 1750s. The great nations of the south—Chicasaw, Cherokee, Seminole, Creek, and Choctaw—saw their reservation lands expropriated in spite of a string of treaties; they were coerced westward into lands given them in yet more treaties that were violated before they were even signed; hounded along a trail of tears until they, too, landed in “Indian Territory” (present-day Oklahoma), a land controlled by Comanches, Kiowas, Araphoes, and Cheyennes.
Even stranger was that the Comanches’ stunning success was happening amid phenomenal technological and social changes in the west. In 1869 the Transcontinental Railroad was completed, linking the industrializing east with the developing west and rendering the old trails—Oregon, Santa Fe, and tributaries—instantly obsolete. With the rails came cattle, herded northward in epic drives to railheads by Texans who could make fast fortunes getting them to Chicago markets. With the rails, too, came buffalo hunters carrying deadly accurate .50-caliber Sharps rifles that could kill effectively at extreme range—grim, violent, opportunistic men blessed now by both a market in the east for buffalo leather and the means of getting it there. In 1871 the buffalo still roamed the plains: Earlier that year a herd of four million had been spotted near the Arkansas River in present-day southern Kansas. The main body was fifty miles deep and twenty-five miles wide.7 But the slaughter had already begun. It would soon become the greatest mass destruction of warm-blooded animals in human history. In Kansas alone the bones of thirty-one million buffalo were sold for fertilizer between 1868 and 1881.8 All of these profound changes were under way as Mackenzie’s Raiders departed their camps on the Clear Fork. The nation was booming; a railroad had finally stitched it together. There was only this one obstacle left: the warlike and unreconstructed Indian tribes who inhabited the physical wastes of the Great Plains.
Of those, the most remote, primitive, and irredeemably hostile were a band of Comanches known as the Quahadis. Like all Plains Indians, they were nomadic. They hunted primarily the southernmost part of the high plains, a place known to the Spanish, who had been abjectly driven from it, as Comancheria. The Llano Estacado, located within Comancheria, was a dead-flat tableland larger than New England and rising, in its highest elevations, to more than five thousand feet. For Europeans, the land was like a bad hallucination. “Although I traveled over them for more than 300 leagues,” wrote Coronado in a letter to the king of Spain on October 20, 1541, “[there were] no more landmarks than if we had been swallowed up by the sea . . . there was not a stone, nor a bit of rising ground, nor a tree, nor a shrub, nor anything to go by.”9 The Canadian River formed its northern boundary. In the east was the precipitous Caprock Escarpment, a cliff rising somewhere between two hundred and one thousand feet that demarcates the high plains from the lower Permian Plains below, giving the Quahadis something that approximated a gigantic, nearly impregnable fortress. Unlike almost all of the other tribal bands on the plains, the Quahadis had always shunned contact with Anglos. They would not even trade with them, as a general principle, preferring the Mexican traders from Santa Fe, known as Comancheros. So aloof were they that in the numerous Indian ethnographies compiled from 1758 onward chronicling the various Comanche bands (there were as many as thirteen), they do not even show up until 1872.10 For this reason they had largely avoided the cholera plagues of 1816 and 1849 that had ravaged western tribes and had destroyed fully half of all Comanches. Virtually alone among all bands of all tribes in North America, they never signed a treaty. Quahadis were the hardest, fiercest, least yielding component of a tribe that had long had the reputation as the most violent and warlike on the continent; if they ran low on water, they were known to drink the contents of a dead horse’s stomach, something even the toughest Texas Ranger would not do. Even other Comanches feared them. They were the richest of all plains bands in the currency by which Indians measured wealth—horses—and in the years after the Civil War managed a herd of some fifteen thousand. They also owned “Texas cattle without number.”11
On that clear autumn day in 1871, Mackenzie’s troops were hunting Quahadis. Because they were nomadic, it was not possible to fix their location. One could know only their general ranges, their hunting grounds, perhaps old camp locations. They were known to hunt the Llano Estacado; they liked to camp in the depths of Palo Duro Canyon, the second-largest canyon in North America after the Grand Canyon; they often stayed near the head waters of the Pease River and McClellan’s Creek; and in Blanco Canyon, all within a roughly hundred-mile ambit of present-day Amarillo in the upper Texas Panhandle. If you were pursuing them, as Mackenzie was, you had your Tonkawa scouts fan out far in advance of the column. The Tonks, as they were called, members of an occasionally cannibalistic Indian tribe that had nearly been exterminated by Comanches and whose remaining members lusted for vengeance, would look for signs, try to cut trails, then follow the trails to the lodges. Without them the army would never have had the shadow of a chance against these or any Indians on the open plains.
By the afternoon of the second day, the Tonks had found a trail. They reported to Mackenzie that they were tracking a Quahadi band under the leadership of a brilliant young war chief named Quanah—a Comanche word that meant “odor” or “fragrance.” The idea was to find and destroy Quanah’s village. Mackenzie had a certain advantage in that no white man had ever dared try such a thing before; not in the panhandle plains, not against the Quahadis.
Mackenzie and his men did not know much about Quanah. No one did. Though there is an intimacy of information on the frontier—opposing sides often had a surprisingly detailed understanding of one another, in spite of the enormous physical distances between them and the fact that they were trying to kill one another—Quanah was simply too young for anyone to know much about him yet, where he had been, or what he had done. Though no one would be able to even estimate the date of his birth until many years later, it was mostly likely in 1848, making him twenty-three that year and eight years younger than Mackenzie, who was also so young that few people in Texas, Indian or white, knew much about him at the time. Both men achieved their fame only in the final, brutal Indian wars of the mid-1870s. Quanah was exceptionally young to be a chief. He was reputed to be ruthless, clever, and fearless in battle.
But there was something else about Quanah, too. He was a half-breed, the son of a Comanche chief and a white woman. People on the Texas frontier would soon learn this about him, partly because the fact was so exceptional. Comanche warriors had for centuries taken female captives—Indian, French, English, Spanish, Mexican, and American—and fathered children by them who were raised as Comanches. But there is no record of any prominent half-white Comanche war chief. By the time Mackenzie was hunting him in 1871, Quanah’s mother had long been famous. She was the best known of all Indian captives of the era, discussed in drawing rooms in New York and London as “the white squaw” because she had refused on repeated occasions to return to her people, thus challenging one of the most fundamental of the Eurocentric assumptions about Indian ways: that given the choice between the sophisticated, industrialized, Christian culture of Europe and the savage, bloody, and morally backward ways of the Indians, no sane person would ever choose the latter. Few, other than Quanah’s mother, did. Her name was Cynthia Ann Parker. She was the daughter of one of early Texas’s most prominent families, one that included Texas Ranger captains, politicians, and prominent Baptists who founded the state’s first Protestant church. In 1836, at the age of nine, she had been kidnapped in a Comanche raid at Parker’s Fort, ninety miles south of present Dallas. She soon forgot her mother tongue, learned Indian ways, and became a full member of the tribe. She married Peta Nocona, a prominent war chief, and had three children by him, of whom Quanah was the eldest. In 1860, when Quanah was twelve, Cynthia Ann was recaptured during an attack by Texas Rangers on her village, during which everyone but her and her infant daughter, Prairie Flower, were killed. Mackenzie and his soldiers most likely knew the story of Cynthia Ann Parker—most everyone on the frontier did—but they had no idea that her blood ran in Quanah’s veins. They would not learn this until 1875. For now they knew only that he was the target of the largest anti-Indian expedition mounted since 1865, one of the largest ever undertaken.
Mackenzie’s Fourth Cavalry, which he would soon build into a grimly efficient mobile assault force, for the moment consisted largely of timeservers who were unprepared to encounter the likes of Quanah and his hardened plains warriors. The soldiers were operating well beyond the ranges of civilization, beyond anything like a trail they could follow or any landmarks they could possibly have recognized. They were dismayed to learn that their principal water sources were buffalo wallow holes that, according to Carter, were “stagnant, warm, nauseating, odorous with smells, and covered with green slime that had to be pushed aside.”12 Their inexperience was evident during their first night on the trail. Sometime around midnight, above the din of a West Texas windstorm, the men heard “a tremendous tramping and an unmistakable snorting and bellowing.”13 That sound, as they soon discovered, was made by stampeding buffalo. The soldiers had made the horrendous mistake of making camp between a large herd of buffalo and its water source. Panicked, the men emerged from their tents in darkness, screaming and waving blankets and trying desperately to turn the stampeding animals. They succeeded, but by the smallest of margins. “The immense herds of brown monsters were caromed off and they stampeded to our left at breakneck speed,” wrote Carter, “rushing and jostling but flushing only the edge of one of our horse herds. . . . one could hardly repress a shudder of what might have been the result of this nocturnal visit, for although the horses were strongly ‘lariated out,’ ‘staked,’ or ‘picketed,’ nothing could have saved them from the terror which this headlong charge would have inevitably created, had we not heard them just in time to turn the leading herds.”14
Miraculously spared the consequences of their own ignorance, the bluecoats rounded up the stray horses, broke camp at dawn, and spent the day riding westward over a rolling mesquite prairie pocked with prairie-dog towns. The latter were common in the Texas Panhandle and extremely dangerous to horses and mules. Think of enormous anthills populated by oversized rodents, stretching for miles. The troopers passed more herds of buffalo, vast and odorous, and rivers whose gypsum-infused water was impossible to drink. They passed curious-looking trading stations, abandoned now, consisting of caves built into the sides of cliffs and reinforced with poles that looked like prison bars.
On the second day they ran into more trouble. Mackenzie ordered a night march, hoping to surprise the enemy in its camps. His men struggled through steep terrain, dense brush, ravines, and arroyos. After hours of what Carter described as “trials and tribulations and much hard talk verging on profanity” and “many rather comical scenes,” they fetched up bruised and battered in the dead end of a small canyon and had to wait until daybreak to find their way out. A few hours later they reached the Freshwater Fork of the Brazos, deep in Indian territory, in a broad, shallow thirty-mile-long valley that averaged fifteen hundred feet in width and was cut by smaller side canyons. The place was known as Blanco Canyon and was located just to the east of present-day Lubbock, one of the Quahadis’ favorite campgrounds.
Whatever surprise Mackenzie had hoped for was gone. On the third day the Tonkawa scouts realized they were being shadowed by a group of four Comanche warriors, who had been watching their every move, presumably including what must have seemed to them the comical blunders of the night march. The Tonks gave chase, but “the hostiles being better mounted soon distanced their pursuers and vanished into the hills.” This was not surprising: In two hundred years of enmity, the Tonkawas had never been close to matching the horsemanship of the Comanches. They always lost. The result was that, while the cavalrymen and dragoons had no idea where the Comanches were camped, Quanah knew precisely what Mackenzie was doing and where he was. The next night Mackenzie compounded the error by allowing the men the indulgence of campfires, tantamount to painting a large arrow in the canyon pointing to their camp. Some of the companies blundered yet again by failing to place “sleeping parties” among the horses.
At around midnight, the regiment was awakened by a succession of unearthly, high-pitched yells. Those were followed by shots, and more yells, and suddenly the camp was alive with Comanches riding at full gallop. Exactly what the Indians were doing was soon apparent: Mingled with the screams and gunshots and general mayhem of the camp was another sound, only barely audible at first, then rising quickly to something like rolling thunder. The men quickly realized, to their horror, that it was the sound of stampeding horses. Their horses. Amid shouts of “Every man to his lariat!” six hundred panicked horses tore loose through the camp, rearing, jumping, and plunging at full speed. Lariats snapped with the sound of pistol shots; iron picket pins that a few minutes before had been used to secure the horses now whirled and snapped about their necks like airborne sabres. Men tried to grab them and were thrown to the ground and dragged among the horses, their hands lacerated and bleeding.
When it was all over, the soldiers discovered that Quanah and his warriors had made off with seventy of their best horses and mules, including Colonel Mackenzie’s magnificent gray pacer. In west Texas in 1871, stealing someone’s horse was often equivalent to a death sentence. It was an old Indian tactic, especially on the high plains, to simply steal white men’s horses and leave them to die of thirst or starvation. Comanches had used it to lethal effect against the Spanish in the early eighteenth century. In any case, an unmounted army regular stood little chance against a mounted Comanche.
This midnight raid was Quanah’s calling card, a clear message that hunting him and his Comanche warriors in their homeland was going to be a difficult and treacherous business. Thus began what would become known to history as the Battle of Blanco Canyon, which was in turn the opening salvo in a bloody Indian war in the highlands of west Texas that would last four years and culminate in the final destruction of the Comanche nation. Blanco Canyon would also provide the U.S. Army with its first look at Quanah. Captain Carter, who would win the Congressional Medal of Honor for his bravery in Blanco Canyon, offered this description of the young war chief in battle on the day after the midnight stampede:
A large and powerfully built chief led the bunch, on a coal black racing pony. Leaning forward upon his mane, his heels nervously working in the animal’s side, with six-shooter poised in the air, he seemed the incarnation of savage, brutal joy. His face was smeared with black warpaint, which gave his features a satanic look. . . . A full-length headdress or war bonnet of eagle’s feathers, spreading out as he rode, and descending from his forehead, over head and back, to his pony’s tail, almost swept the ground. Large brass hoops were in his ears; he was naked to the waist, wearing simply leggings, moccasins and a breechclout. A necklace of beare’s claws hung about his neck. . . . Bells jingled as he rode at headlong speed, followed by the leading warriors, all eager to outstrip him in the race. It was Quanah, principal warchief of the Qua-ha-das.15
Moments later, Quanah wheeled his horse in the direction of an unfortunate private named Seander Gregg and, as Carter and his men watched, blew Gregg’s brains out.
© 2010 S. C. Gwynne
Table of Contents
1 A New Kind of War 1
2 A Lethal Paradise 12
3 Worlds in Collision 23
4 High Lonesome 36
5 The Wolf's Howl 53
6 Blood and Smoke 73
7 Dream Visions and Apocalypse 89
8 White Squaw 102
9 Chasing the Wind 119
10 Death's Innocent Face 128
11 War to the Knife 151
12 White Queen of the Comanches 173
13 The Rise of Quanah 194
14 Uncivil Wars 207
15 Peace, and Other Horrors 222
16 The Anti-Custer 235
17 Mackenzie Unbound 250
18 The Hide Men and the Messiah 258
19 The Red River War 274
20 Forward, in Defeat 288
21 This was a Man 308
22 Resting Here Until Day Breaks 316
What People are Saying About This
"Gwynne doesn't merely retell the story of Parker's life. He pulls his readers through an American frontier roiling with extreme violence, political intrigue, bravery, anguish, corruption, love, knives, rifles and arrows." -The New York Times
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Empire of the Summer Moon includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Empire of the Summer Moon is a stunning historical account of the forty-year battle for control of the American West and of one of its most remarkable narratives: the century-spanning saga of the pioneer woman Cynthia Ann Parker and her half-white son Quanah, who became the last and greatest chief of the Comanche.
TOPICS AND QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
- In chapter four, Gwynne compares the Comanche warriors to the Celts, and later, in chapter five, to the Spartans. Both were war-driven cultures that prided themselves on being more fearless than their opponents. Can you think of any other historical cultures that remind you of the Comanche? Do you think it is fair to identify this tribe solely based on their ability to wage and win wars?
- A journalist by trade, Gwynne maintains impartiality throughout the book. Although it is difficult not to sympathize with the Comanche and their ultimate fate, they were notorious for their extreme violence toward all who stood in their way. How are you able to reconcile the savagery of the tribe with their nobility? Does this moral dichotomy even need to be reconciled, or is it wrong to apply modern standards of ethics to the Comanche?
- John Coffee Hays, nicknamed “Capitan Yack,” was one of the first military officers to successfully adopt the Indian style of warfare and briefly managed to level the battlefield against the Comanche. Hays and the Texas Rangers of the 1830s and 1840s created a blueprint for success that was then forgotten for decades until Ranald Mackenzie and others relearned it. Do you think if the Hays style of fighting had been adopted immediately, the struggle would have lasted as long as it did? Why or why not?
- The story of Quanah and his second wife, Weckeah, is a wonderful anecdote that displays the courage and determination for which Quanah would later be famous. What other qualities do you think made Quanah such a great leader? Was he at a disadvantage for being from a mixed heritage? Or did this quality play a role in his rise through the Comanche ranks?
- Cynthia Ann Parker’s story is a fascinating case study in cultural assimilation. The true tragedy of her life was her second stint in captivity following her “escape” from the Comanche (p. 181). Why do you think Cynthia Ann Parker had so much trouble reassimilating into “white” culture? Do you think Sul Ross would have brought her back as a captive had he known the final outcome?
- Ranald Mackenzie is presented as a counterpoint to the infamous George Custer in chapter sixteen. Mackenzie proved himself at West Point, then in the Civil War, and he won more than his fair share of battles against the Comanche. Considering this, why do you think history remembers Custer rather than Mackenzie?
- Consider how history would have changed if the Spanish and French had been more successful in fighting the Comanche. If the Comanches hadn’t repelled the Spanish and French advancement, would America have become the country it is today?
- Isa-tai—a medicine man, a magician, and a con man according to Gwynne (p. 264)—was both a blessing and a curse to the Comanche. Together, he and Quanah rallied the warriors necessary to spring a revenge raid on the Texans. Although Quanah is remembered as the last great Comanche chief, how much do you think Isa-tai contributed to Quanah’s status? Would Quanah have been able to rally as many warriors into battles without Isa-tai? Do you think Quanah and the Comanche would have ultimately been better off without Isa-tai?
- Surprisingly enough, Quanah was able to adapt to reservation life. Still, he lived as only a Comanche would be allowed to, with eight wives and twenty-four children. As Gwynne writes, Quanah “existed . . . in the weird half-world of the reservation” (p. 302). What do you make of Quanah’s peaceful surrender and his “second life” on the reservation? Were you surprised by his ability to balance both his captivity and his role as an assertive Comanche leader?
- The scene toward the end of the book when Quanah and his fellow Comanche are allowed off the reservation for a buffalo hunt is heartbreaking. There are no buffalo to be found, and they are reduced, instead, to hunting cattle. This poignant failed attempt to recapture a vital piece of Comanche identity just a few years after surrender begs the following questions: Would the Comanche have been forced to give up their way of life even if they had not engaged in war? Would they eventually have been rendered obsolete because of their inability and unwillingness to adapt to the ever-modernizing world around them?
- Did you know the true origin of the phrase Comanche Moon before reading Empire of the Summer Moon? What other misconceptions about the Comanche or the history of the West did Gwynne help to dispel with this book?
- In the final chapter of the book, Gwynne writes about Quanah’s legacy: “The contrast could not be greater with his more famous neighbor, Geronimo” (p. 314). He goes on to explain that while Geronimo was not well liked by Indians on the reservation and died a drunk and a gambler, Quanah is remembered as one of the last great Indian chiefs. Do you think we will still remember Quanah one hundred years from now? What do you think his lasting legacy will be?
ENHANCE YOUR BOOK CLUB
- Listen to S. C. Gwynne talk about the research that went into Empire of the Summer Moon and his writing process in an interview he did with Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air. You can download a podcast for free from iTunes or read the transcript on NPR’s website. The episode originally aired on June 23, 2010, and is called “Comanche Nation: The Rise and Fall of an ‘Empire.’ ” Or, visit http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.phpfistoryId=127930650 to listen.
- Schedule a screening with your book club of one of the handful of movies devoted to the Comanche Indians. The most critically acclaimed is Budd Boetticher’s Comanche Station. Another movie, Comanche, a 1956 offering from George Sherman, features an actor playing the role of Quanah Parker. There is also a 2010 documentary produced by the History Channel titled Comanche Warriors. John Ford’s The Searchers is one of the greatest westerns ever made and is based on the stories of Cynthia Ann Parker and her uncle James.
- If you really want to run your book club in true Comanche style, prepare a feast of buffalo meat! There are a number of great cookbooks devoted to buffalo meat recipes, as well as numerous websites. ComancheBuffalo.com is a good place to start. If possible, purchase meat that is grass fed and organic. Be thankful that you don’t have to skin the hide yourself to prepare the meat!
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
There's no story like a true one and one that rings so loud as 'Empire of the Summer Moon" is hard to find. It is a fascinating look into the "new" world's treatment of Native Americans and equally Native American's treatment of "new" world settlers. It is an astonishing tale of hardship and loss and horrific brutality. Ultimately it reminds us - tells us - that there was a 300 plus year war to claim this land, one that annihilated entire civilizations and while doing so completely defined the story. "Empire of the Summer Moon" re-tells that story in all of its complexity. A must read for anyone interested in the history of the United States and the culture and world of the people who lived here prior to their destruction.
I found this book well researched and fascinating. I didn't want to put it down. Recommended to anyone who has an interest in this subject matter.
Although non-fiction, this book is easily as good a read as most any fiction you can think of. It tells an enormously complex tale, spanning at least hundreds of years, yet ties everything together nicely using the interlocking stories of Cynthia Ann Parker and her son, Quanah Parker, and that of a Ranald Slidell Mackenzie, a U.S. Army Officer. As other reviews have pointed out, the book tells both sides of the story, warts and all. The broader story of the Comanche people is spun throughout the narrative, as well as that of the American frontier. The nature of the warfare on the frontier - both Indian and Spanish/Mexican/Texan/US Government - and its evolution, is one of the most interesting aspects of the story: how geography influenced strategy & tactics, how changes in technology influenced both sides, and how business interests played a part. If the book has a flaw, it is simply that it raises so many interesting points along its course that I want to know more. As it was, I finished it in 4 days, but that was mainly because I was continually googling this or that. I guess the big question, in the end, for me, is "Was the destruction of the Comanche way of life inevitable?" Of course, this book does not answer that question, since it is probably unanswerable. It also does not offer a judgment on the reservation system (although it does judge the operation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs). All in all, one of the better history books I've ever read - not quite Barbara Tuchman, but in the same ballpark.
The scenes range from horrifying to humorous to heartbreaking. If the words "Llano Estacado" mean anything to you, you will be enthralled. I often heard fragments of Comanche and Cavalry lore when I was growing up, so I think S.C. Gwynne has done a marvelous thing--sifting, measuring, and packing so much into just one book. My hope is that many will read it, share it, and keep the stories alive for the next generation.
Having spent much of my life living and traveling over the area where Quanah Parker led his Comanche warriors, this new book by S.C. Gwynne fascinated me. I knew much of the story of the Parker clan and the capture of 9-year-old Cynthia Ann in 1836, but Gwynne's research sheds new light on the details of her life as well as the decades long clash between the lords of the plains and the Texas settlers. He allows the reader to see the mentality of both sides of this long war. The book flows smoothly and I only wish it had been a bit longer.
I enjoy reading history usally accounts from WWII to the present day, but this book caught my eye, so I stepped out of my comfort zone & bought the ebook for my nook. Yes there is a time line like a guide taking through the years fom the early 1800's to the death of Quanah Parker in 1911. The historical account read like a novel & you felt like you were drawn into that world to witness the horrors from both cultures & how they really never tried to figure each other out. Prsonally I had learned so much of what I didn't know about the Plains Indian & their life & how the U.S. government dealt with the Indians in general. I am glad to have read it & thave learned something from our U.S. history.
My interest in this book was heightened by the fact that my Parker Great Grandfather was also from Coles County, IL where the other Parker's lived. But my research in the Cole's courthouse led me to believe that there were two Parker families in Coles County and even though my Grandmother said we were related to Cynthia, it most likely is not true. The interesting thing about this book, is that most of it happened less than a hundred years before my birth. Lots of excellent history in this book that describes how the Comanches ruled much of the Southwest. Quanah knew when the end was near and rode into Ft. Sill on his own. He never looked back at his old life and adapted to the new life at Ft. Sill. In lots of ways he was a business man, diplomat and a good politician and better then any other Indian Chief at adapting to the new life at Ft. Sill and often got his way with the military and Washington politicians. As another poster stated, Quanah's character is described in detail in th last 75 pages or so. Most of the book describes their early success as horsemen of the plains that won them lots of battles concentrating on stealing horses from soldiers before starting a battle and therefore were a good match against the army of those days until modern weapons finaly got the upper edge. Tons of footnotes, so you might consider buying the printed book rather than the NOOK version unless you are adapt at returning to where you left off.
Although the subject matter intrigued me, I was less impressed by the actual book that I hoped I'd be. It's solid, and often interesting, but there is far less in it about Quanah Parker -- son of captured white woman Cynthia Ann Parker and a Comanche chief -- than the sub-title leads one to believe. Rather, Gwynne focuses on the Comanche's prowess as warriors -- albeit, in his words, pagan, stone-age warriors -- and their decades-long war against the encroaching whites. He also spends a good deal of time on how the Comanches were the first of the Aboriginal people of America to master the horses first introduced by the Spanish. Gwynne certainly exposes the brutal violence of all sides in the Plains warfare. There are no moral heroes here. And, while I am glad this isn't another book about First Nations peoples that reduces them to the equivalent of happy little wilderness elves, I was made slightly uncomfortable with the in-depth descriptions of Comanche torture methods as recounted by white survivors. The problem is not that these things did not occur, but that there is no balancing voice from the other side. I can't help but wonder what a survivor of the U.S. Army raids, or the Texas Ranger raids, or any of the ad hoc raids that took place might have revealed about the depth of white savagery, which I can help but suspect was equal. The problem is twofold: of course, neither the Comanches nor the other nations left written reports, on one hand; and on the other, there were virtually no survivors to spread tales even if they had. Still, what Gwynne does tell us is enough to make the reader shudder. I'm saying only that it is virtually impossible to give a truly balanced view in light of the paucity of Native accounts. No matter how well-researched a book is -- and this is very well researched -- the writer is at the mercy of what's available. There is also perhaps some unintended irony here, which I mention only because of how obvious I found it: If the settlers/ranchers/pioneers could not be held back by the US government from seeping into Comancheria, then the way present day Texans complain about border crossers seems risible. Even if, as Gwynne suggests, the government had no intention of stopping them, seeing their inexorable march westward as part of Manifest Destiny, it's still a huge boulder of irony. As I said in the beginning, there is surprisingly little about the Parker family here. Their story becomes a framing device for the rest of the book, which is a mind-numbing recitation of battles, raids and atrocities on both sides, yet it is in these sections (and there are a few more scattered throughout) that I felt most engaged. Cynthia Anne is a remarkable figure and her life is tragic in many ways. Particularly poignant are the sections when Gwynne describes her grief at being 'rescued', torn from her Comanche loved ones and returned to a society she never adjusted to. Then, too, given what Gwynne does tell us in the last few pages of the book about Quanah Parker and his life on a reservation after the destruction of the Comanche nation, and the buffalo (a heart-wrenching section), I was left wanting more. Quanah lives in a large house, is unusually generous and obviously brilliant, even earning the admiration of President Teddy Roosevelt. In the final analysis, it was the human story, and not the battle-litany, which moved me.
Unbelievable book. Fascinating research and facts. Can't put this book down! Highly recommend this book! We included this book in our summer reading list of books as we recently visited the book store, a summer tradition, to gather up all of our pics for our summer reading list. This includes books for myself, my husband, kids and nieces and nephews. We also buy some books as birthday presents for others so they can join in on our discussions, like the aunts and uncles and grandparents. We have a mini book club where we discuss our books as we all read along. We all read several books so as the reading goes along there are a lot of books to review. The kids have found a wonderful book called, Smitty's Cave Adventures. They all love thrilling action-adventure books and this one is full of mystery and intrigue! From a parental point of view, Smitty's Cave Adventures also has a good moral overtone. Even the girls wanted to read this book and they all concluded that this is their favorite book so far!
This book seemed to be well researched and drew on many different sources! However, in my opinion, the author repeated himself too much, especially in the early chapters, an example being his repeated description of the horsemanship skills of the Comanches! Also, the author jumps around in the chronology of this story so much that it's difficult to follow! I would personally have liked to see the story unfold from beginning to end (more or less) than to have it jump backwards and forwards so much!
I guess I would be reading more about Quanah instead it was more a history of the Comanches, which is great but not what I had intended to read.
FROM THE VERY FIRST PAGE TO THE LAST , THIS IS THE GREATEST READ THIS SUMMER. I CAN NOT TELL YOU HOW I LOVE THIS BOOK FOR ITS RESEARCH, ITS HONESTY AND NOT HOLDING BACK. THIS BOOK IS NOT FOR THE FAINT OF HEART. ANYONE UNDER 18YRS OF AGE SHOULD NOT READ THIS BOOK NOR ANYONE WHO IS PREGNANT NOR SPIRITUAL , FOR IF YOU KNOW YOUR HISTORY AND KNOW ABOUT THE "COMANCHES" THEN YOU KNOW WHAT THEY ARE CAPABLE OF. I GIVE THE WRITER "THUMBS" UP ON THIS ONE. IF ONLY ALL NON-FICTION AUTHORS COULD FOLLOW YOUR RULE OF THUMB(NO PUN INTENDED) ON WRITING A BOOK THAT WOULD KEEP A PERSON WANTING MORE AFTER EVERY PAGE.IT DOESN'T NEED TO BE GRUESOME NEITHER JUST IN THE WAY ITS WRITTEN WOULD DO IT.I READ A BOOK TITLE" THE NIGHT STALKER" ( CAN NOT REMEMBER THE AUTHOR) BUT AT THE END WHEN THE TOWNSPEOPLE WERE RUNNING AFTER RICHARD, I WAS OUT OF BREATH, THAT'S HOW GOOD A WRITER HE WAS. BUT GRUESOME AND "COMANCHE" GO TOGETHER HAND IN HAND. NOW MY ONLY HOPES IS THAT THEY WOULD DO A MOVIE OF THIS BOOK. THANK YOU!
It seems to me this is simply a re-write of T.R. Fehrenbach's book: Comanches..., with a little dash of Cynthia and Quannah Parker thrown in. Given that impression, I question giving credit to Gwynne for "thorough research."
Excellent and balanced portrayal of the clash between whites and Comances. The author brings history alive with his presentation of the forces and individuals involved, particularly the talented and remarkable Chief Quanah. Easy to read yet rich and thought provoking.
The author gives you an excellent insight into the daily life of the Commanches, their history, their strengths and weaknesses, and the impact of the U.S. western expansion on their culture.
I found the life of Quanah Parker after the "Trail of Tears" events and its aftermath just as fascinating as his life as a free Comanche warrior and chief. It was an amazingly detailed life, not just of Comanches and their history but of many other tribes. I found it worthy of reading even though it is not written as a novel but more of a factual report. There are many excerpts from letters and newspaper articles and even books published by family members of Quanah's mother. I found these fascinating. it seems to be very well researched. If you want to read a detailed account of American history, this is one to get.
This is a spectacular and totally absorbing book. Don't read the reviews; read the book. The background (not a review): My interest in this book was spurred by an incidental visit to the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian (Customs House, 1 Bowling Green, NY, NY). Before leaving the museum, keenly aware of my ignorance of American Indians and regretful I hadn't visited the museum (or learned more) sooner, I found this book in the museum shop. I bought the e-book (for my new Nook, of course!) that day (easily portable while travelling), and was completely absorbed -- I am now determined to learn more, from published first-person accounts and -- with luck -- similarly wonderfully crafted histories.
Although I knew that settling the west was a violent and difficult task this book gives the reader an in-depth understanding of the long and difficult history. I don't agree with the review that considered this book "too biased". I felt that the book revealed the the passion, frustration and desire for revenge that was inevitable in both the settler and native american communities.
I found this book to be both interesting and informative. I recommend it to anyone interested in this subject matter.
If you have read "Patriots" by A.J. Langguth, you will enjoy this book. Gwynne tells the story of American expansionism and the conflict this created with the Southern Plains Horse-culture. You get to know the remarkable hero-villains, who made this history worth the telling. Both sides and the middle of the conflicts that occurred are detailed along with an eye to 1900's American political realities that cast the inexorable circumstances that bring us to what is today. I for one, could not put this book down!
A totally absorbing story of the Indian wars in the southwest, more than the story of Quanna Parker, although that is the thread that keeps the book focused. The violence administered against the "white man" is almost understandablle but incredibly cruel. The only time I've read of such atrocities they were connected to the concentration camps of World War 2. The book would have been easier to follow if it were written in chronological order. Nonetheless, any American history buff will find it very interesting.
Provides real insight into the Comanche Nation and the westward expansion of the United States. Tough times, tough people and inevitable tragedy for the Comanche and their life source the Buffalo. Great historical context, but reads like a fictional novel.
If you're interested in Native American History, do NOT skip this book. Well researched (and documented). Author does an excellent job.
It's a book where once you've started reading it, you hate to put down. I found the details of specific locations pertaining to raids, treaties, camps and the events that took place there, interesting and entertaining. A lot of them were in my backyard! I had no idea, until I read this book, how powerful the commanches were. I hope you like it too.
History and a great story all in one !The comanche's and white settlers were certainly a tough breed of survivors in a cruel time and conditions. The American Manifest Destiny had more than one perspective that was shown,but not forced on the reader. Make up your own mind circumstance by circumstance and events.