The rise and fall of the Comanche empire

I recently finished a remarkable book, 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, a Texas newspaperman.

He told a story that is compelling in itself, and raises important questions about how we think of the American past.

empire-of-the-summer-moon200The Comanche were some of the fiercest warriors who ever lived.  Numbering only 20,000 at their peak, they dominated the southern Great Plains for 150 years or more.  They terrorized other Indian tribes, including the Apache, and they repeatedly defeated the armies of Spain, Mexico, the Texas Republic and the United States.

The Comanche were originally a obscure tribe of hunter-gatherers, pursuing the buffalo while afoot in what is now eastern Wyoming.  Their life was transformed by their encounter with wild Spanish mustangs.  Seemingly overnight, they became master horsemen.

The transformation is an example of the adaptability of human nature and a refutation of the recurring notion that the customs of different ethnic groups are genetically determined—unless you assume that the Comanche had a latent horsemanship gene all along.

A six-year-old Comanche could ride bareback.  A young warrior could slip off a galloping horse, handing on by a heel behind the horse’s body while shooting 20 arrows a minute at an enemy.  Comanche could ride hundreds of miles in a day.  No enemy, Indian or white, could match their range or, until the invention of the Colt revolver and Spencer and Sharp repeating rifle, their firepower.

The Comanches were anarchists—masters of the art of not being governed.  No Comanche ever took orders from a Comanche policeman, judge, priest or employer.   Comanche war chiefs were chosen by consensus and followed voluntarily.  No Comanche chief had the power to command another Comanche to obey.

They were savagely cruel.  They raped, tortured, mutilated and killed their enemies, both Indian and white.  While this was the practice of many North American tribes, it also was Comanche policy.  The Comanche realized that terrorism was a deterrent to the spread of white settlement.

The reason the Mexican government invited Anglo-American settlers into their territories was to serve as a buffer between the Comanches and Mexico proper.   These settlers became the Texans, who were the fiercest of the white settlers, as the Comanche were the fiercest of the Plains Indians.

The Texans also were brutal by today’s standards.  But then again, by their standards, people like me are weak and cowardly.  By the standards of today, both settlers and Indians possessed astonishing fortitude and courage.   I do not believe that I could stand up to hardship, pain and danger that they took for granted.

Humanitarianism was not a Comanche concept.  The only Spaniard who dealt successfully with them was Don Juan Bautista de Anza, governor of New Mexico, who in 1779 led an expedition into Comanche territory and wiped out a Comanche village—men, women and children—and then called a council of peace.

He offered to respect the Comanche right to their hunting grounds and to engage in trade, if they would refrain from raiding New Mexico.  This agreement was kept as long as the Comanche were a free people.  Under Spanish, Mexican and U.S. rule, New Mexico were safe from Comanche attack, and Spanish-speaking traders out of Santa Fe, known as Comancheros, were the only non-Comanche who could travel safely to Comanche lands.

It was impossible to defeat them until the invention of the Colt revolver and the Sharp and Spencer repeating rifle, which gave the Texas Rangers and the U.S. cavalry overwhelmingly superior firepower.  Even so, the Comanche held out for decades more.

Much of Gwynne’s book is organized around the story of Cynthia Ann Parker, who was kidnapped by the Comanche at the age of nine, and her half-breed son, Quanah Parker, who became the last great Comanche chief.

The Comanche frequently adopted young children, both Indian and white, of families they massacred, and they became full-fledged members of the tribe.  Cynthia Ann adapted to Comanche life and became the wife of a chief.  She was “rescued” against her will and never was happy living among her blood relatives.

S. C. Gwynne

S. C. Gwynne

The saga of Cynthia Ann inspired John Ford’s great movie, The Searchers.

Quanah Parker became a warrior at age 15 and a chief at age 21—an unusually young age.  It also was unusual for a half-breed to become a chief.  He was a skilled tactician, a persuasive leader and a brave, strong and ruthless fighter.

But the Comanche cause was hopeless by the time he began his career.  Only 3,000 survived, of whom 2,000 had already surrendered.

Even so, they might have held out longer than they did except for the systematic slaughter of the buffalo, which was the product not only of greed, but of policy.   The U.S. Army correctly regarded the killing of the buffalo as a means of depriving the Comanche of sustenance.   They also systematically slaughtered the Comanche horse herds, depriving them of their mobility.

The Comanche wars ended when Quanah, too, surrendered in 1875 at age 27.  There is a sad passage in the book in which Quanah Parker, after having settled on the reservation, got permission to take his people out on one last buffalo hunt.   They found no buffalo, only bleached bones across the prairie.

He had a successful second career as a reservation Indian.   Instead of lamenting the loss of the free Indian way of life, he tried to negotiate the best deal he could for the remaining Comanche—for example, getting the best terms he could for leasing of tribal lands to ranchers, or organizing an Indian school district when Comanche children were mistreated at majority-white schools.

He lived in a house, wore wool suits, was fascinated by machinery and entertained white celebrities such as Theodore Roosevelt.  But he wore his hair in long Indian braids, kept his multiple wives (eight in all) and revitalized the peyote cult.   It is another example of the capacity of human beings to adapt to radical change.

The saga of Quanah Parker and the Comanche is a reminder that the Anglo-American settlement of the continental United States was ethnic cleansing.  I wrote a post arguing that the average white American derived no material benefit from black American slavery.  It would be ridiculous to try to make that argument in regard to the taking of the American Indian lands.

But I can’t find it in myself to regret these historical events, nor to condemn my forebears, since I enjoy the fruits of their conquest.  I could point out that the Comanche themselves had no qualms about taking over territory or driving out other tribes.  But if this is a normal historical process, where does it stop?  Can it stop?

Gwynne did full justice to his subject.  His book is as readable as a good novel.  It is based on meticulous research, connecting disparate sources of information, and familiarity with the places he describes.   I highly recommend Empire of the Summer Moon.


National Public Radio interview.

HistoryNet interview.

Austin American-Statesman interview.

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2 Responses to “The rise and fall of the Comanche empire”

  1. Gunny G Says:

    Reblogged this on BLOGGING BAD w/Gunny G ~ "CLINGERS of AMERICA!".


  2. Chico Says:

    I would guess this process will not have a chance of stopping as long as it is considered “normal”.


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