Friday, June 05, 2015

Empire of the Summer Moon by S.C. Gwynne

Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History

The book is pretty much what the subtitle says it is. The Comanche’s rise wasn’t recorded, but their interactions with the Spanish were, and the story goes on from there.

Spoiler Alert (given away by his picture on the cover): the Comanches lost and wound up on reservations. It was there that Quanah became officially the chief of the previously independent bands. He was not born yet for the peak of Comanche power, but was a clever and efficient leader during their decline, and afterwards as well.

The Comanches came to power when horses became available. They were like a cavalry Sparta in the plains: war and buffalo and horses were their pillars—they couldn’t exist without them. Their standard practices of war took no account of civilians or surrender—rather like the West’s most heinous practices. But with bow and arrows and amazing horsemanship they could easily outfight the Spanish musketeers, and infantry, and US cavalry. And because they could cover so much distance in a raid (eating their extra horses if they had to), they were impossible to find or stop. At least until Walker and Colt got together. Then the Texans could fire more than 3 shots to a Comanche’s 20-30 arrows.

After the Civil War the Feds eventually got around to recovering the land lost to the Comanches, and taking the war to their homelands. In one battle they were introduced to a gun that fired twice: howitzers firing explosive shells. They were driven back with losses, but promptly returned and attacked dispersed, having quickly learned not to congregate in any formation to give the howitzer any good targets.

Hard riding from childhood apparently increased both sterility and miscarriages, so they often captured young children to become members of the tribe. One was Cynthia Ann Parker: Quanah’s mother. She was rescued later, but was never content and early on often tried to escape back to her tribe and remaining two sons.

I was missing some chunks of Texas and of Plains Indian history; this helped fill the gaps. And though the US government’s duplicity and corruption is quite clear, there aren’t any Noble Savages to be found either. On the contrary: there was, in the end, only one possible way to deal with the war-loving Comanches—fight them until they gave up.

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