Much as I would have loved to review this very excellent book at length, I will give that ambitious notion a pass. I just read Empire of the Summer Moon by S.C. Gwynne for my book club. During the animated discussion at our last meeting, the majority opinion was that the book is a great read and also that it disabused us of many of our previously held beliefs about Native Americans and their relationship with the white settlers who displaced them from their territories and hunting grounds. Even my Texan friends were surprised by their faulty knowledge of various Indian tribes, the character and motivations of the early western settlers, the Texas Rangers, the role of the federal government in formulating wrong headed and dishonest Indian policies and the individuals whose cunning, bravado and fighting skills decided once and for ever, who would rule the western plains and deserts of America. Gwynne's account of the tumultous early history of Texas and surrounding western regions would be a useful (and interesting) addition to high school and college history text books. Compared to the popular and brash narrative of the west which is often clouded by self serving myths, biased reporting and outright falsehoods, Empire of the Summer Moon is detailed, well researched and contains a wealth of little known but vital information about the conquest of American Indians, specifically the fearsome Comanches who dominated the prairies of west Texas.
For example, my fellow readers and I had no clue that :
- The expression Comanche Moon is associated with great fear and impending disaster and that it is not a romantic meteorological phenomenon.
- The Apaches were not the most accomplished horsemen among the Plains Indians and they could not actually fight on horseback as Hollywood westerns would have us believe.
- Members of different Indian tribes killed each other in far greater numbers than the casualties they inflicted upon their European conquerors.
- West Texas was where the longest, most decisive battles between Indians and white Americans took place. The struggle for supremacy lasted more than four decades.
- Plains Indians met the horse in the late 1600s or early 1700s. By 1750, the new horse culture turned the existing hierarchy of Indian tribes on its head. The Comanches, once the lowliest among the western nomadic tribes, mastered the Spanish mustang in a way not seen since Chengiz Khan's Mongol warriors galloped across the steppes, changing the course of north American history and dictating which white European "tribe" would eventually come to occupy southwestern states like Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Texas.
- The Indians and their white adversaries were equally brutal in their tactics of dealing with the enemy. The Indian raiders' habit of torturing and raping women horrified Europeans but little compunction was shown by the other side when it came to burning women and children to a crisp while routinely setting Indian villages on fire. Scalping of victims was originally a peculiar Indian custom. As the conflict in the west lingered, the European raiders too became adept at this gruesome battleground sport.
- White settlers were solely responsible for the wholesale slaughter of the American buffalo (to near extinction) although Plains Indians had hunted them extensively for centuries as their main source of food, shelter and clothing.
- The Indian tribes often took captives from other tribes, as also from white communities during raids. Some they brutalized and used as virtual slaves. Pre-pubescent children between the ages of 7 - 11 on the other hand, were frequently adopted and treated as part of the tribe. Many kidnap victims, like Cynthia Ann Parker, longed forever to return to their Indian communities after they were rescued and returned to their biological families. Cynthia's seventeen year old pregnant aunt Rachel Plummer too was abducted in the same raid. But being an adult woman, she experienced a far more brutal treatment than did the nine year old Cynthia who was adopted by the Comanches. After a captivity of nearly 22 months, Rachel was able to escape and join her family. She wrote an account of her life as a captive of the Comanches - the first of such narratives ever published in Texas.
- Cynthia Ann Parker's bi-racial son Quanah Parker (pictured on the cover), a handsome, fearless and brilliant warrior-chief was the last significant holdout against the inevitable white domination of America. He too would eventually come to accept his fate of diminished circumstances, living his retirement years in Oklahoma, bargaining shrewdly with whites for as much advantage as he could garner for his family and his tribe. Quanah adjusted to the white man's ways with considerable optimism and intelligence without ever compromising his pride and hertiage. He became friends with many white ranchers, farmers, politicians and military men including Ranald Mckenzie who pursued and captured him. He became the natural leader of not just the Comanches but most other reservation Indians trusted by white and native Americans. To his dying day, he made sure that no Comanche who came to his doorstep requiring assistance would go back disappointed.
- Some less well known frontier figures like Jack Hays, Sul Ross and Ranald S. Mckenzie played far more critical roles in deciding the outcome of the conflict between Native Americans and European settlers than did rash, bumbling adventurers like George Armstrong Custer and popular folk heroes like Kit Carson. (Carson, unlike Custer, was basically a decent guy who understood and respected his enemy)
Author S.C. Gwynne's superb writing style benefits further from his balanced journalistic approach to history. There is not a whiff of the "noble savage" sentimentality in his description of Indian life. Even though he recognizes the harsh and brutal nature of many tribes, the author is at the same time unequivocal about the tragedy of their eventual plight in the face of European aggression and expansionism. He is honest and even handed in describing the ruthlessness of the hostilities between the native and newer Americans, a conflict which was not only a clash of widely disparate world views but also a fight to death for territory and political control. In the end, Gwynne leaves us with no doubt that the price of realizing America's Manifest Destiny was paid overwhelmingly by the continent's aboriginal inhabitants, both in terms of human lives as well as spirit.
By the late 1860s when the US was recuperating from its own horrific civil war, the Indian Question was targeted for a final solution. The government had concluded that Indians were not to be trusted to live peacefully among white settlers. They were to be segregated in reservations, the biggest one being in the territory of Oklahoma. In 1867 a "peace council" between several Indian tribal leaders, many from rival tribes, and the representatives of the US government was held near Wichita, KS amidst much pomp and show. (Note that white Indian hunters, Texas Rangers and government soldiers routinely used warring Indian tribes against each other. Tribes like the Utes, Tonkawas and Apaches scouted for Europeans and fought side by side with them against their rivals such as the Comanches and the Kiowas, the fiercest horse tribes and the last of the Indians to be tamed.)
Decimated in numbers, their buffalo herds depleted, white settlements encroaching inexorably into their territory, the Indian tribes knew by this time that they were about to lose the autonomy to roam and hunt freely in centuries-old familiar grounds. The outcome of the council was a foregone conclusion and both sides knew it. But the Indians still made their voices heard, more out of pride and desperation than any real hope. There last ditch but futile appeals by Indian chiefs to the Great White Father to be allowed to hold on to their traditional way of life amidst the prairie plains, the caprock, canyons, streams, springs and bluffs of the southern plains - a long corridoor between the 98th meridian near San Antonio and the eastern edges of the Rocky Mountains running north up to Kansas and Colorado and south down to the Mexican border. Here is the poignant and extraordinarily candid perspective of one of the Indian spokesmen, Ten Bears, an aging Comanche chief:
"My heart is filled with joy when I see you here as the brooks fill with water when the snows melt in the spring; and I feel glad as the ponies do when the fresh grass starts in the beginning of the year ...
My people have never first drawn a bow or fired a gun against the whites. There has been trouble between us ... my young men have danced the war dance. But it was not begun by us. It was you who sent out the first soldier...
Two years ago I came upon this road, following the buffalo, that my wives and children might have their cheeks plump and their bodies warm. But the soldiers fired on us... so it was upon the Canadian. Nor have we been made to cry once alone. The blue-dressed soldiers and the UTes came out from the night... and for campfires they lit our lodges. Instead of hunting game they killed my braves, and the warriors of the tribe cut short their hair for the dead.
So it was in Texas. They made sorrow in our camps, and we went out like the buffalo bulls when the cows are attacked. When we found them we killed them, and their scalps hang in our lodges. The Comanches are not weak and blind like the pups of of a dog when seven sleeps old. They are strong and far-sighted, like grown horses. We took their road and went on it. The white women cried and our women laughed.
But there are things which you have said to me which I do not like. They were not sweet like sugar, but bitter like gourds. You have said that you want to put us on a reservation, to build us houses and make us medicine lodges. I do not want them. I was born under the prairie, where the wind blew free and there was nothing to break the light of the sun. I was born where there were no enclosures and everything drew a free breath. I want to die there and not within walls. I know every stream and wood between the Rio Grande and the Arkansas. I have hunted and lived over that country. I live like my fathers before me and like them happily.
When I was in Washington the Great Father told me that all the Comanche land was ours and that no one should hinder us in living upon it. So, why do you ask us to leave the rivers and the sun and the wind and live in houses? Do not ask us to give up the buffalo for the sheep. The young men have heard talk of this, and it has made them sad and angry. Do not speak of it more. I love to carry out the talk I get from the Great Father. When I get goods and presents I and my people feel glad, since it shows that he holds us in his eye.
If the Texans had kept out of my country, there might have been peace. But that which you now say we must live in, is too small. The Texans have taken away the places where the grass grew the thickest and the timber was the best. Had we kept that, we might have done things you ask. But it is too late. The whites have the country which we loved, and we wish only to wander on the prairie till we die."
We know how it all ended for the Indians, the plaintive appeal at the peace council notwithstanding. Here is an excerpt of the book in the New York Times and a short review in Dallas Morning News. I highly recommend Empire of the Summer Moon to anyone interested in the history of the Plains Indians and the glory days of the Comancheria before the empire dissolved into the undistinguishable fate of all Indian tribes - life on the reservation.
(One interesting note about Cynthia Ann Parker, the White Squaw, as she came to be known in Texas after her rescue by Sul Ross. She appeared to have forgotten English, but spoke fluent Spanish and of course, the Comanche language. She would appear dull, distracted and sad when surrounded by English speakers but came alive and spoke intelligently and decisively when addressed in Spanish or Comanche. She had named her oldest son Quanah (fragrance, in Comanche) and her youngest child, a daughter, Prairie Flower. But her second son with whom Quanah escaped the raid by Sul Ross' cavalry, was named "Peanuts.")