The title of S.C. Gwynne’s book Empire of the Summer Moon refers to the Comanche preference to raid farms and settlements during the summer when the moon was full. In fact, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, settlers in Texas referred to a full moon as a “Comanche Moon,” and they learned not only to dread the summer nocturnal attacks, but also to shelter in place with arms at the ready. Gwynne’s excellent history explores the brutal last few decades of terror on the American frontier and the subsequent end of the Comanche tribe as a force on the North American high plains. The focus of Gwynne’s book is Quanah Parker, the last wartime Comanche chief, who ironically was the son of Cynthia Parker, the daughter of a Texas family who was kidnapped at age nine near present-day Waco and brought up by the Comanche. Quanah was the son and grandson of chieftains of the Nokoni band of Comanche, which operated in present-day Oklahoma and Texas, following the great southern herd of buffalo which numbered in the tens of millions in the mid-19th century. Quanah went on to become the head warrior of the Quahadi band of Comanche. Eventually all remaining Comanche groups banded together as their numbers dwindled, and Quanah was viewed as the undisputed leader. After surrendering, the Comanche were moved to a reservation at Ft. Sill, OK where Quanah lived out his days in relative peace. Gwynne’s story is complex and open to differing interpretations. Certainly, the story of the American conquest of the native tribes is brutal and sad. But no less brutal was the way the Comanche conducted warfare against all of their enemies. As Gwynne points out, the Comanche drove other southern plains Indians south and west. So merciless on their enemies were they, that at one point they forced the Apache to seek shelter behind the walls of Spanish missionaries in present day New Mexico in the 18th century. The Comanche engaged in psychological warfare, often torturing and killing in ways that bely description on paper. When the Anglo settlers arrived in the early 19th century, they hit a barrier across central Texas. Suffice it to say, there was never any serious chance of peace between the Comanche and the U.S. government. Gwynne describes the rise of the Texas Rangers in the 1840s-50s and some of their early leaders such as Capt. Jack Hays, who went after the Comanche in the same way they went after the Anglo interlopers: hard and without mercy. After the Civil War and the return of Federal troops to Texas in 1867, Col. Ranald Mackenzie pursued the Comanche relentlessly, destroying the last band’s winter camp in Palo Duro Canyon in 1874. Interestingly, Mackenzie was one of the few Union officers willing to lead black soldiers in the field, and he did so in his rout of the Comanche, employing troopers of the 24th Infantry—also known as the Buffalo Soldiers—and Black Seminole scouts from the 4th Cavalry. The ultimate kryptonite for the Comanche however was no single man or army, but the decision to go after what General Sheridan termed the Comanche’s “commissary.” When hunters had destroyed the last of the great buffalo herds, the Comanche and all other plain Indians were finished. Many reviewers will be quick to condemn Gwynne’s book as the glorification of what amounted to genocide by the U.S. government. But because it was wrong does not mean that it did not happen, and that it shouldn’t be discussed. Gwynne employs considerable skill (and research) to paint an accurate picture of the Comanche in Texas. And anyone who lives in Texas or who has had the opportunity to visit the Llano Estacado will enjoy Gwynne’s beautiful descriptions of the region as it once was.
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