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

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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.

371 pages, Hardcover

First published March 25, 2010

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S.C. Gwynne

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 4,557 reviews
Profile Image for Anna-Liisa.
4 reviews4 followers
December 6, 2011
I quit reading this book after the fourth chapter. As it is one of the most racist books I have ever read, I am baffled by the glowing reviews it receives. For your consideration:

"Thus the fateful clash between settlers from the culture of Aristotle, St. Paul, Da Vinci, Luther, and Newton and aboriginal horsemen from the buffalo plains happened as though in a time warp--as though the former were looking backward thousands of years at premoral, pre-Christian, low-barbarian versions of themselves."

Oh really? Then there's this gem:

"Making people scream in pain was interesting and rewarding for [the Comanche], just as it is interesting and rewarding for young boys in modern-day America to torture frogs or pull the legs off grasshoppers. Boys presumably grow out of that; for Indians, it was an important part of their adult culture and one they accepted without challenge."

Wow. Just, wow. You'd think we'd be a little more forward thinking nowadays than Andrew Jackson was in 1833:

"My original convictions upon this subject have been confirmed by the course of events for several years, and experience is every day adding to their strength. That those tribes can not exist surrounded by our settlements and in continual contact with our citizens is certain. They have neither the intelligence, the industry, the moral habits, nor the desire of improvement which are essential to any favorable change in their condition. Established in the midst of another and a superior race, and without appreciating the causes of their inferiority or seeking to control them, they must necessarily yield to the force of circumstances and ere long disappear."

Then there's Gwynne's boldfaced claims that are, as far as I can tell, backed up with little to no research. My favorite is his claim that the great Pueblo revolt in 1680 was "very likely" the result of the Pueblo Indians being upset that the Spanish were not doing a good enough job of protecting them from the Apaches. Absolutely no citation to any authority. I don't claim to be an expert in this area of history myself, but that sure was not the impression I got when I was at the Taos Pueblo earlier this year. It sounded to me like it was more the brutal oppression at the hands of the Spanish, but whatever.

The worst part is that I had a sinking feeling that the author was going to decide that Quanah Parker was alright at least partially because he was half white. Maybe the author would have proved me wrong, but I just couldn't stomach all his talk about the uncivilized, stone age, savage Comanche who were, according to the author, dirty even by Indian standards. Zero stars.
Profile Image for William Thomas.
1,231 reviews2 followers
January 8, 2013
As a historian, I will rarely give a general or popular history more than 3 stars. Much the same way I will never say 'an historian'. And no matter the amount of research that goes into popular history, it hardly ever seems to merit so much praise. And that is because it answers no questions, asks no new questions, puts forth none of its own theories, and has no one singular hypothesis. This book, although a fantastic, sweeping history of the Comanche, it is not a work to be discussed as academic history.

The most irritating part of the book is the history of Quanah Parker himself. The most bold and interesting history comes from the first half of the book, up until the introduction of the Hays Rangers.

What the book does is prove that the Comanche were, without a doubt, the most powerful tribe in American history. But this is not a new idea, as most historians would agree that the Comanche dwarfed all other horse tribes in the West in terms of accumulated wealth- an idea that, before the white man, was unknown to the Comanche. Once they mastered the horse, they ascended quickly from Gollum-like scavengers, a group of hyenas picking up the scraps of others, into the most feared Indians in America.

Part of the reason that Western Indian tribes were so feared comes from their lack of domesticity. They did not farm or keep animals for slaughter. They had to hunt on the plains and badlands because farming was not an option. The development of the land in the West around Oklahoma, Texas, Wyoming etc was one of the reasons for the Dust Bowl, and by extension, the Great Depression. These lands were not fit for farming, and the plains tribes understood this. However, Americans flooded the land and used all the technology at hand to turn the l;and into life-bearing plots. But I digress. The Comcanche and Apache and Lakota and Sioux were far more aggressive in the West than thier Eastern counterparts due in fact to their need to hunt in order to sustain their way of life on the plains.

But this subject is never touched upon in this book. It never puts forth an actual hypothesis. It never answers questions, but instead gives us fact after fact. And while that is useful and entertaining, especially in this case, it does little to advance our actual knowledge of the 'why's'.

I do congratulate [EDIT] (the author of) this book for not balking at the violence inherent in the Comanche. Too often historians will shy away from the amoral acts of an Indian tribe in order to preserve the idea of a noble savage. In this, we are treated to detailed accounts of Comanche torture. Cutting off the toes, the fingers and genitals of Spaniards, Americans and other frontiersmen, and stuffing them into their owners' mouths was common practice. Letting hot coals burn through a captive's abdomen was another torture technique often applied. There seemed no end to their torture ingenuity. And Gwynne does not make this a symptom of Europeans in America. Gwynne does not say that this was a practice only developed after the Europeans came and brought war upon the land. Which is in fact a fallacy. War between tribes was never bloodless. It was never so pretty or noble. It was always petty and savage. And to think that the white devil unleashed something sinister within the Indian upon their arrival is no more than PC demonizing and pandering to the modern day tribes.

Overall, the book will give the average reader insight into the frontier they did not possess before reading it. It is filled with facts- like the development of the Colt, the relationship between Eli Whitney and Samuel Colt, the Hays Rangers, the torture techniques of Comcanches, the destruction of the Apaches, the transformation of the Comanche from the 1600's- that will entertain and often disgust. But all in all it is well worth the read.
Profile Image for Matt.
918 reviews28.3k followers
December 12, 2020
“The Indians drove down into the valley with a fury. Quanah recalled later that the horses were moving at a gallop, throwing dust high in the air, and that some of them tripped on the prairie-dog holes, which sent men in feathered headdresses and horses rolling over and over in the semidarkness. At the settlement [of Adobe Walls] they crowded around the buildings, firing their carbines at windows and doors. Inside, the buffalo men barricaded themselves as best they could, piled up sacks of grain, and found that they were fairly well protected behind two-foot walls of sod. Sod would not burn, either, which would have offered the Indians an easy victory. The attackers flattened themselves against the walls. Quanah backed his horse into one of the doors, trying unsuccessfully to break it down, and later climbed up on the roof of one of the buildings to shoot down at the occupants. At one point, he picked up a wounded comrade from the ground while seated on his horse, a feat of strength that astounded the men inside the buildings. In the early minutes of the fight both sides were using six-shooters. For the white men inside, the fury of the attack was terrifying. The buildings were full of smoke; people were shouting and screaming; the air was full of singing lead…”
- S.C. Gwynne, Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History

According to author S.C. Gwynne, the Comanche Indians were the strongest, most militarily successful American Indian Tribe in history. At their peak of power, they controlled a territory spanning some 240,000 square miles, and they guarded that land fiercely, pushing back the Spaniards, the Mexicans, and the Texans, before slowly giving ground to the relentless westward push of the United States.

Despite their prowess (Gwynne calls them the world’s best light cavalry) and their occasional appearance in western films (such as John Ford’s famed The Searchers), the Comanches have long existed in the shadow of better known tribes, especially the Lakota of the Northern Plains. Indeed, when Michael Blake’s novel Dances With Wolves was adapted for the large screen, the story was transplanted from Texas to the Dakota Territory, and the Comanches became the Sioux.

Gwynne’s Empire of the Summer Moon is an energetically narrated epic that seeks to give the Comanches their due credit. In just over three hundred pages, he attempts to portray the whole tragic sweep of the tribe’s history, from their earliest days as a mountain people, to their dramatic apotheosis as the mounted lords of the Southern Plains. To do this, Gwynne tethers the story to the near-unbelievable life of Quanah Parker, the “Last Chief of the Comanche.”

Though Gwynne uses the term loosely, the Comanches were an “empire” in the very literal sense of the word. They came from the Wind River region in present-day Wyoming, and slowly migrated toward the south. For a long time, they were at the mercy of other tribes, until, in an ultimately bitter irony, the Spaniards – and their horses – arrived on the scene. Brilliantly adapting the horse to their lifestyle, the Comanches grew into a potent martial and political force. They nearly annihilated certain tribes – such as the Apache and the Tonkawa – made treaties with other tribes, and consolidated their holdings into a roughly delineated land known as Comancheria, which comprised portions of present-day Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Oklahoma, and Kansas.

When Spain was kicked out of North America following the Mexican Revolution, the Mexicans took drastic actions to create a buffer between their northern provinces and Comancheria: they invited Americans to emigrate into Texas.

We all know how that turned out.

This is the point where Gwynne’s tale really starts. On May 19, 1836, just months after the fall of the Alamo, nine-year-old Cynthia Ann Parker was taken from her home by Comanche Indians, after a brief, bloody fight. Eventually, she was adopted into the tribe, married chief Peta Nocona, and gave birth to children, including Quanah. Quanah later became a famed warrior, clashing with Randal Mackenzie and leading the attack against buffalo hunters at Adobe Walls in 1874. Among the last of the free Comanches, Quanah was finally forced to surrender in 1875. Thereafter, he began a remarkable second life as a celebrity, living in a huge house with his many wives and children, hosting soldiers and presidents, and gaining and losing a small fortune.

In a relatively short book, it is pretty amazing how much ground Gwynne is able to cover. He sketches out the pre-Colombian history of the Comanches, gives us a glimpse of their culture, covers the battles, raids, and massacres between Comanches and Texans (including the Council House Massacre, the Linnville Raid, and the Battle of Plum Creek), provides sharp portraits of the major players (Cynthia Ann, Quanah, and Colonel Ranald Slidell Mackenzie), and also integrates the role of technology into the proceedings (for example the advent of the Colt Revolver and the Sharps .50 caliber greatly sped the Comanches’ demise).

Empire of the Summer Moon is, in other words, a marvelous combination of many genres. It is a captivity narrative, a multi-person biography, and a military history. Gwynne does all these things extremely well. He is a really good writer. This is one of those rare history books where the prose is actually worth mentioning, at least in a positive sense. The descriptions of battle leave you with the stink of gunpowder in your nose. There are certain points when Gwynne uses his prose in combination with his insights into the participants – especially the mirror-twinned lives of Cynthia Ann and Quanah, who were both forced to leave their settled existences and live in spheres not of their choosing – that Empire of the Summer Moon reaches extremely rare heights. At its best, this book is among the best.

Unfortunately, Empire of the Summer Moon is not always at its best. There are tonal inconsistencies here that simply had me scratching my head. Chief among these is Gwynne’s apparent insistence on using terminology borrowed from sociological tracts of the early twentieth century. I actually kept a list of the questionable adjectives that Gwynne used to describe the Comanches, including “low barbarian,” “precivilized,” “primitive,” “culturally primitive,” and – of course – “savage.” He is also obsessed – truly obsessed – with referring to the Comanches as “Stone Aged,” as though he were referring to The Flintstones rather than an outnumbered community of hunter-warriors that managed to hold back three different empire-nations for hundreds of years.

This is not to say that Gwynne is entirely an ignorant, culturally insensitive throwback - he just talks like one sometimes. Indeed, I think he makes a real effort to at least imagine what the life of a Comanche man or woman would have been like. He is also keenly aware of the overarching framework of American-Indian relations, resulting in hundreds of broken treaties, and dozens of major assaults on Indian encampments. This is no apologia for westward expansion.

That makes it all the more regrettable that he finds the Comanches “simple” because they didn’t have priests or warrior societies or complex political structures. The problem, as always, is that when you try to define “civilized,” you run the risk of treating your own life, systems, and values as the norm, and comparing everyone else to that standard. It’s a false comparison, especially when that standard is by no means superior. For example, I found it extremely jarring when Gwynne confidently asserts that the Comanches were barbarians, but then goes on to laud the annihilationist policies of Mirabeau Lamar, and to come strikingly close to fetishizing the Texas Rangers for their ability to unleash unrestrained violence.

While Empire of the Summer Moon can be distracting in its word choice, Gwynne generally keeps his sympathy with the Comanches, especially the dynamic Quanah.

Quanah is a novelist’s dream, a man who lived during a time of enormous, violent transition, who was born on the plains to near-infinite freedom, and who died in a huge two-story clapboard house in the early twentieth century, in an age of automobiles and airplanes. He was a freedom fighter, and a killer, but when he saw the game was up, he pivoted with notable agility and optimism. Quanah Parker and his mother both lived on the borderlands, straddling two races, two cultures, and two very different trajectories. For Cynthia Ann, it became too much, and the misfortunes of her fate are Shakespearian in their contours. Quanah, on the other hand, was somehow able to unite his divided selves, to live as both a Comanche and an American, and to succeed in both worlds.
Profile Image for Arah-Lynda.
337 reviews524 followers
February 6, 2017

The desert wind would salt their ruins and there would be nothing, no ghost or scribe, to tell any pilgrim in his passing how it was that people had lived in this place and in this place had died.
            Cormac McCarthy

The date was October 3rd, 1871.  Six hundred soldiers and twenty Tonkawa scouts had bivouacked on a bend of the Clear Fork of the Brazos, about one hundred and fifty miles west of Fort Worth, Texas. Though they did not know it at the time their presence marked the beginning of the end of the Indian wars in America.

The chosen agent of this destruction was a West Point Graduate and civil war hero named Ranald Slidell Mackenzie.  Mackenzie was a difficult, moody, implacable young man.  The Indians called him No-Finger Chief or Bad Hand because his hand was gruesomely disfigured from war wounds.

The nation was booming.  In 1869 The Transcontinental Railroad was completed, linking the industrialized east with the developing west.  Only one obstacle remained, the war- like  Indian Tribes who inhabited the Great Plains.

Mackenzies objective was clear.  He was there with his troops to kill Comanches.  Of those, the most remote, primitive and hostile were a band of Comanches know as the Quahadis.  LIke most Plains Indians the Quahadis were nomadic and led by a fierce and brilliant young Chief named Quanah.  Quanah was too young for anyone to know much about him except that he was reported to be ruthless and very clever.  But there was something else, he was a half-breed, the son of a Comanche chief and a white woman.

In fact Quanah’s mother had long been famous, because she had refused on repeated occasions to return to her people.  Her name was Cynthia Ann Parker, a daughter of one of early Texas's most prominent families.  Nearly 40 years earlier in 1836,  she had been kidnapped  at the age of nine by a Comanche war party.   It is this forty year period that Gwynne uses as the backdrop for his narrative.  

And he does not pull any punches when describing the brutality of the Comanche war raids.  It was typical for all white men to be killed and scalped, some captured alive suffered a slower, more tortuous death.  Captive women were gang raped, many tortured and killed but some, if they were young would be spared.  Babies were invariably killed in horrific ways, while preadolescents were often adopted by the Comanche or traded to other tribes.  

Comanche territory during this period essentially covered the Southern Great Plains, including large chunks of New Mexico and Colorado as well as Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas.  The migrating white man or Anglo-Americans had a difficult  time getting their heads around this, accustomed as they were to tribes in the East who travelled by foot.  The Comanche on the other hand were not only mounted but were the undisputed masters of horsemanship.  Their wild mustangs were fast and they had many, allowing fresh mounts as required, all of which meant that their striking range was huge.  They were not only able to travel large distances at an alarming speed but they were also highly skilled at waging war while mounted.  Their quiver typically held twenty arrows as opposed to the weapons of the white man who in the early days  had to dismount, load, aim and then fire.  Even more time was required to reload.  They simply did not stand a chance against the Comanche who were equally adept at stealing their horses once they had dismounted.

Meanwhile, in an effort to stop the raiding and killing,  government authorities were making treaties with the Plains Indians.  Treaties as it turned out that neither the Indians or the Government had any real intention of honouring.   It astounds me that later, when many of the Plains Tribes surrendered and agreed to relocate to the white man’s reservations, they were held accountable and punished for breaking those same treaties that the white man so frequently broke themselves.

The Texan solution to the Comanche's  superior ability to fight was to recruit young, single men with a taste for open spaces, danger and raw adventure, whose only purpose would be to hunt and kill Plains Indians, most notably the Comanche.  They soon became known as Texas Rangers.  Sadly though, these young recruits were not supplied with much of anything else, no uniforms, provisions, weapons, training or barracks.  They organized themselves and were largely answerable to themselves. The only thing the government reliably provided was ammunition. As a result many young lives were lost.  The ones that survived were a rough bunch, that drank hard and liked fighting and killing.  It was remarkable then that this group of unmanaged, ruthless ruffians gave its full and unswerving allegiance to a quiet, slender, twenty-three year old by the name of John Coffee Hays.  He was the uber ranger, the one everyone wanted to be like and in time, the one the Comanche feared.  Hays soon realized that the only way to fight the Comanche was to fight like them, mounted and able to fire their weapons while riding.  

Still the war raged on and in time an even more devastating plague came to the Great Southern Plains in the form of the “white” buffalo hunters.  The buffalo were the Comanche's primary food source, while their hides were treated and used to provide shields, blankets and clothing.  The Comanche hunted buffalo for sustenance, killing only as many as they could use.  The “white” buffalo hunters killed for profit, taking the hides and leaving the rest of the carcass to rot.  It was not uncommon for each hunter to kill hundreds daily.  It did not take long for the once prolific herds to vanish from  the plains, thereby unalterably compromising the Comanche way of life.

Woven throughout this narrative is the story of Quanah Parker, half Comanche, half Texan, and Chief of the Quahadis.   The Quahadis were the one tribe that never signed a treaty with the white man and their Chief, Quanah was never defeated in battle.  He eventually led his people to the reservation and remains a legend as  the last great Chief of the Comanche nation.  I leave you and this way too long review with this actual historic description of the young war chief in battle.

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 war paint, 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 bear’s claws hung about his neck…..Bells jingled as he rode at headlong speed, followed by the leading warriors, all eager to out-strip him in the race.  It was Quanah, principal war chief of the Qua-ha-das. (Captain Robert G. Carter)

Highly Recommended !
Profile Image for Lyn.
1,867 reviews16.5k followers
February 4, 2020
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, first published in 2010, tells the entertaining and informative, somewhat scholarly account of the Comanche tribe.

Gwynne uses the histories of Cynthia Parker (the historic inspiration for Natalie Wood’s character in John Wayne’s The Searchers and the Mary McDonnell character Stands With a Fist in Kevin Costner’s film Dances With Wolves) and her son Quanah as a vehicle to further explore the larger, pre-historic anthropology of this bellicose tribe.

Horses and horsemanship are the central components of the Comanche story, some historians and even concurrent observers equated them more with other horse cultures such as the Mongols, Tartars or Magyars than with other Native American tribes. Other ethnographers and anthropologists have compared the warlike Comanche with the culture of ancient Sparta or of the ancient Celts and Vikings.

Though probably mostly historically accurate and fairly objective, and certainly sympathetic to the history of the Comanche people in the 1800s, this book is written from the Anglo-American perspective and rarely wholeheartedly embraces the culture of the Comanche. Brutally and graphically violent (probably necessary considering the context) this reminded me of Larry McMurtry’s The Berrybender Narratives and even Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West - not for the squeamish.

1 review
September 16, 2011
I bought this at the airport, it looked like a good read. A chapter or two in the language and stereotypes became really disturbing. His version of human history, summed up in two pages is just bizarre.The language, and long discredited concepts that Gwynne prattles along with are apalling."Higher civilizations", of which the Plains Indians were "three to four millennia behind". And oh yes, the Native Americans were "premoral, pre-Christian, low-barbarian versions" of Europeans. And of course they were, "savage, filthy, wore their hair long" according to the insightful Gwynne. As for Native religion, there was "no tendency to view the world as anything but a set of isolated episodes, with no deeper meaning." Wow. Once again thanks for your insight Mr. Gwynne. His sources for the nature of the Comanches, and of Native Americans in general consist almost entirely of the accounts and opinions of 18th and 19th century European's, of whom most were directly involved in the seizing of Native lands and the extermination of Native peoples. This book would have surely been a best seller in 1910, when the stereotypes and ignorance that Mr. Gwynne puts forth were yet to be discredited, but for it to have been published in 2010, and to have received many positive reviews and very little critisism is both disturbing and astounding.
Profile Image for Montzalee Wittmann.
4,559 reviews2,312 followers
July 21, 2017
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 is full of great research and racism. This book has only a tiny, tiny mention about Quanah. This book is very misleading by the title and blurb. It should be called, "How the Horrible Redman was Subdued by Mighty Whiteman". Only once did it mention how James Parker, the head man that thought it would be a great idea to build a home in the middle of Indian territory while there were many events of attacks. A home far from anyone else and further than anyone else had gone. James was a man that had killed 4-5 Indians but he didn't call it murder because they were Indians. He was a corrupt man in other ways, too many things to bring up here. This is the only thing brought up against a white man and it was brief. A true Whitewash book. The book was good at the research but too bad the facts he presented was all one sided. If it was a history book, why not show both sides? If it was about Quanah, how about tell us about him? That is why I got the book! What a waste of my time! It just made me mad. I almost stopped several time but I wanted to finish so I could review it. The one star review is for research, and it doesn't let us give a no star option. Going in my worse-book-ever file.
Profile Image for Lawyer.
384 reviews831 followers
October 23, 2014
Sam Gwynne's History of the Spanish, the Texans, the Americans and the Comancheria

 photo SCGwynne_zps5da6721a.jpg
Sam C. Gwynne attended Princeton and Johns Hopkins Universities. He's spent most of his life as a journalist. He spent almost twenty years as a correspondent, bureau chief, and Chief Editor for twenty years. Gwynne's work has appeared in the New York Times, Harpers, California, Texas Monthly, among other publications. Gwynne was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction for Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History. Gwynne lives in Austin Texas with his wife and daughter. His most recent book is Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson.

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First Ed., Scribner, New York, New York, 2010

Popular American histories focus their attention on the Native Americans of the High Plains. George Armstrong Custer remains an icon of glorious defeat. S.C. Gwynne does a great service in providing us with Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History. Although Gwynne's bibliography shows a great amount of previous literature regarding the Comanche, his work will acquaint those of us unfamiliar with Indians of the Southern Plains with the Comanche Indian Nation.

To actually call the Comanche an Indian Nation is a misnomer. They were a band of loosely associated nomadic bands that ranged from Colorado to Eastern New Mexico, Oklahoma, and down through the Panhandle of Texas all the way to the outskirts of present day Austin and San Antonio. The land they occupied was named Comancheria by the Spanish. The Comanche had no central political or social organization. War chiefs were chosen strictly on the basis of an individual's ability to recruit followers and successfully raid their opponents for horses and captives.

 photo Comancheria_zps04b5ca09.jpg
The land known as Comancheria

The Spanish, Mexicans, and Texans were all taken by surprise by the ferocity of Comanche attacks. The Comanche were the first Native American opponents of all the aforementioned to fight from horseback. The Comanche consistently out-maneuvered not only the Indian tribes they had previously dominated but also European and American colonists.

Gwynne offers captivating portraits of individuals frequently left out of histories of the American West. While early history of the Comanche remains much of a mystery, Gwynne brings the Comanche into sharp focus from 1830s Texas until their ultimate surrender in the late 19th Century.

Students of Texas history will discover unsettling policies of government leaders during the time of the Republic of Texas that was nothing short of an extermination of the Native Americans. Although the Comanche was their true opponent, early Texans showed a lack of discernment in implementing the Republic's policies, attacking tribes who were peaceful or had already chosen to follow the "white man's road." My wife, a native Texan, was completely unaware of much of the Republic's actions against the Indians, as these incidents were completely left out of her school texts from elementary school through college.

Do not consider Gwynne's work or this review to be a replication of the sorrow recounted in Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West. The Comanche were brutal in their attacks on any opponent. The Comanche subjected those they defeated in battle to torture and mutilation. Captured infants were routinely murdered, being of no immediate use to the band. Women were routinely repeatedly sexually assaulted and mutilated. Those women who were not murdered were enslaved to increase the female workforce in the band. They were also passed to their captor's relatives and friends as sexual objects. Many did not survive their captivity. Those who were either rescued or purchased back from the Comanche ultimately were outcasts in white society.

On occasion, white captives were adopted by the band who took them away from their homes and families. Such is the case of the best known captive of the Comanche, Cynthia Ann Parker. Cynthia Ann was captured when she was nine. She was adopted by the band who captured her. She married a Comanche known as Peter Nocona and gave birth to three children, one who would grow to become the principal war chief of the Comanche, Quanah Parker.

 photo CynthiaAnnParker_zpsccfae302.jpg
Cynthia Ann Parker was kidnapped at age nine by a Comanche war band in 1836. Her family was killed. She was adopted by the tribe, ultimately marrying Comanche brave Peter Nocona. She gave birth to three children, including Quanah Parker, the last free Comanche Chief until his surrender. Cynthia died of influenza in 1871, after several unsuccessful attempts to return to her Indian family.

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Peta Nocona, Chief of the Quahadi Comanche Band, married Cynthia Ann Parker, fathering three children by her, including Quanah Parker. The date of his death is disputed. According to some he was killed in an attack by Texas Rangers at the battle of Pease River in 1864. According to son Quanah, Rangers did not kill his father, but he died of wounds several days later that he had received in fighting with Apaches, not the Rangers.

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Quanah Parker was born in 1845. He was never named principal war chief by the Comanches although he did fight as a warrior at the battle of Adobe Walls along with Apaches. He surrendered in 1875 and was named Chief of the Apaches by the United States Government. He died in 1911.

The Parker family story was the inspiration for Allen Lemay's western masterpiece "The Searchers," subsequently filmed by John Ford in 1956, starring John Wayne and Natalie Wood. Although both book and movie were highly acclaimed, the story told there comes nowhere close to the dramatic truth of the history of the Parker family.

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It's an iconic American film, but the truth overwhelms one of Hollywood's best.

Gwynne's work is a complex story of a lesser known era in American history. It is a story worth knowing. Gwynne tells it well. I would encourage anyone interested in expansion of the American frontier to read it. One not fully familiar with Texas, Oklahoma, and New Mexico geography would be well served to have maps readily available to appreciate the range of the Comanche travels and the speed in which they achieved it.

Highly recommended. This is a solid Five Star read.

Profile Image for Vanessa.
63 reviews
May 31, 2011
Other reviewers' claim that this is an unbiased historical account is laughable. This is yet another telling of a war written by those who won it. Gwynne states that he constructed the book using "a large number of firsthand accounts from the era." The firsthand accounts written are naturally all of settlers and the military, and all of them appalled and offended that anyone could dare attack them and deny the greatness of Manifest Destiny. The books and articles referenced in the end are, as far as I can tell, predominantly written by non-Natives. There isn't even a reference section for interviews, and no respectable book written about Native culture or a tribe should at no point reference interviewing tribal members about their own history!

The author repeatedly makes frustrating unreferenced assumptions that he passes on as fact. These assumptions certainly make the book a more entertaining read, but that doesn't make it true. The descriptors that Gwynne uses are far from historically accurate. He describes Comanche culture as stone aged, barbaric, totally disorganized and lacking in any sort of theism. Basically devoid of any substance or intelligence. I might be more inclined to believe him if he actually referenced some Comanche sources in this regard. Additionally, those are loaded terms with heavy implications. He refers to Quanah's peyote "cult." A cult?

It is not that I feel that this book needs to be some huge exploration of Comanche culture. But given that it is supposed to be about Comanche history, it should offer far more insight about the actual people rather than looking at them almost exclusively through a settler's lens. For example, within just a few pages, Quanah transforms from being a bloodthirsty war chief to a master negotiator who agrees to move his people to the reservation. Yet there is no exploration or real insight about that significant change.

As I started the book, I was intrigued by the deep and personal accounts of the settlers, an interesting story worth telling and hearing. But the missing voice of the Comanche people in a book purportedly written about them became too deafening a silence, and I eventually was frustrated enough to write this review.

Profile Image for Edward.
362 reviews910 followers
December 6, 2021
Empire of the Summer Moon is a brutally honest and graphic re-telling of the history of the greatest Native American tribe in the history of America - the Comanches.

“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.”

My reading this year has brought about a new wave of interest of mine - the Wild West. From reading wonderful books such as The Sisters Brothers and Blood Meridian, I moved on to Butcher's Crossing, to True Grit which led me to reading The Son by Philipp Meyer. The Son included this fascinating band of Native Americans which has since led me onto a complete discovery of this period of history. It was only a matter of time until I began to read non-fiction on this area once it captured my imagination. From watching a podcast by Joe Rogan and his guest S.C Gwynne I knew I had to read this, and Empire of the Summer Moon really was the phenomenal read that I expected.

“Abandoned by the Spanish, thousands of mustangs ran wild into the open plains that resembled so closely their ancestral Iberian lands. Because they were so perfectly adapted to the new land, they thrived and multiplied. They became the foundation stock for the great wild mustang herds of the Southwest.”

S.C. Gwynne takes us along on a journey throughout history, from the first footsteps of the Spanish in Mexico in the 15th Century, to the last days of the Comanches in the early 20th Century. The author’s prose was captivating, readable and accessible, so much so that I would recommend this book to anyone hoping to learn more about this period, or anyone looking how to write readable non-fiction. There was no academic stuffiness (?) or a shyness that strays from the honest facts. Indeed, it is quite the contrary, where the brutal history of this tribe is told in extreme details that I can imagine some readers would balk at. However, if you’ve read Blood Meridian then I imagine you’ll find this telling no more horrific.

“The result, the Walker Colt, was one of the most effective and deadly pieces of technology ever devised, one that would soon kill more men in combat than any sidearm since the Roman short sword.”

I feel like this book is not the simple overview that I have seen many reviewers say. To me, and by no means am I an expert in this area, it felt like an incredibly detailed telling of the Comanches history. There were anecdotes in every corner, a deep study into 1st hand sources, an intensely exciting bibliography and individual facts that really added depth to the whole book. It follows an impressive structure as it tackles the history of the tribe as well as honing in on a story within it - one about the Parker family. This mini-story felt extremely fitting to be acknowledged in such details as this family’s story echoes the entire Comanches life, from the capturing of prisoners and raiding, to the living within the tribe, to the last chief and the sad days of the reservations.

“In one sense, the Parkers are the beginning and end of the Comanches in U.S. history.”

This book really opened my eyes and showed me just how little I knew about anything of this period. It is full of sadness, horror and grief and so it’s not the happiest of reads. It is teaming with death and torture, but told in a deeply resonating way. The only gripe I encountered was where the author would describe in detail how a band of Comanches would attack and destroy a white settlement, but simply refused to describe a white attack on a Comanche settlement. It took something away from the telling for me as it happened a couple of times.

“There was no such thing as a horse Indian without a buffalo herd. Such an Indian had no identity at all.”

4.5/5 - an entirely readable and eye-opening telling of Comanche history. It is horrifying, heartbreaking and absolutely fascinating. Apart from a few niggles, I thoroughly enjoyed it and would recommend to anyone and everyone interested in this period of history.
Profile Image for Michael.
1,094 reviews1,509 followers
October 14, 2018
A great combination of history and biography in the play of Manifest Destiny in the American conquest of the Great Plains. The emotional challenge of this read for me is how to accommodate an admiration of a tribe of never more than 10-20 thousand succeeding in halting their colonizers for two hundred years (first the Spanish and later the Mexican, Texan, and American nations) while not judging them over the inhumanity of their methods. They were nomadic but defended their buffalo lands against all comers. Every battle called for death to all warriors, torture and mutilation of all adult male captives, and dispatch of any infants with quick a death. Women were raped and beaten, and their children were either adopted, enslaved, or held for ransom. This all-in approach to enemies was nothing personal against white invaders, but a tradition applied equally to their generational foes: the Apache, Tonkawa, Navaho, and Ute tribes.

This is what happened to the Parker clan in 1836 at their foolish settlement at a site about 90 miles south of Dallas. Though they built a walled fort, when the Comanches attacked most of their 16 adult men were in the fields and the gate was left open. Three men and two women were brutally killed and three children and one woman was carried off, including one Cynthia Ann Parker, age 9, who was adopted and assimilated into the tribe. Details of the raid and treatment of the captives were provided by the memoirs of the “woman” Rachel Parker Plummer, who was 17 when captured with her infant and subsequently recovered (the subject of the iconic move “The Searchers.”

Later, as a grown woman, Cynthia became famous when recaptured with her baby daughter in a brutal cavalry raid while skinning buffalo and loading meat as the wife of a chief. Her defiant resistance to return to white cultural ways captured the imagination of the American public. She refused to speak English and perpetually tried to run away to her people, eventually dying of pneumonia. A different kind of fame arose when it came out that her mixed race son, who at age 12 escaped during the raid and grew up to become the brilliant warrior and leader of the reclusive Quahadi band of the Comanche, Quanah Parker.

The Comanches were unbeatable due to their complete adaptation to the horse for warfare and hunting and effectively making a whole economy out of breeding, stealing, and trading in horses,. The fleet Iberian horses brought in large numbers to the continent by the Spaniards in the early 17th century (with a lineage from the steppes of Central Asia) were well suited for the arid grasslands of the West and Great Plains. The horse allowed the Plains Indians to follow the buffalo herds and chase them down for the kill using lances. While most tribes took to use of this imported gift, including adoption of the technology of bridles, bits, and saddles, the Comanche became special geniuses at fighting on horseback. According to Gwynne:
They resembled less the Algonquins or the Choctaws than the great and legendary mounted archers of history: Mongols, Parthians, and Magyars.

"Feats of Horsemanship", by George Caitlin

Until the appearance of the Colt 45 repeater pistols, soldiers or the voluntary force of Texas Rangers going up against the Comanche with single-shot rifles or muskets all had to fight on foot. The Comanches, pure poetry in motion, could fire up to a dozen arrows at full gallop in the time it took for their enemies to reload. They were especially adept at hiding along the side of the horse using a strap and firing arrows under their steed’s neck. Thus, their artistry of first stealing or running off the horses of their opponents was the first step to doom for any but the largest and most intrepid forces throughout the 18th century and half of the 19th. But by around 1858 when the Texas Rangers took up Colt weapons and punitive expeditions of the Army in the 1860s brought small howitzers with exploding shells into battle the equation of advantage to the Indians reversed.

Sometime around 1700, the Comanches, who called themselves Nermernuh (“The People”), moved from present day Wyoming out onto the southern plains. After driving out the Apaches and other tribes, their domain, called the Comancheria by Santa Fe traders, comprised about 240,000 square miles, comprising most of western portions of present day Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas and parts of eastern New Mexico and Colorado. Their heartland was the Llano Estacado in the Texas Panhandle, which is a high plain of oceanic grassland broken by rocky outcrops at an elevation of up to 5,000 feet. For a long time after Coronado’s passage through there it was “as unknown a region to Americans as unexplored regions of Africa.”

Comanche lands known as the Comancheria

The Comanche attack on the Parker fort could be seen as the opening salvo of a 40-year war between the tribe and the American nation. The year of the Parker attack, 1836, coincided with Mexican General Santa Anna’s total victory at the Alamo and his later execution of about 350 captured Texans at Goliad. That success had the side effect of making many martyrs and strengthen the resolve of the onery Texans. General Sam Houston’s victory and subsequent treaty marked the birth of the Republic of Texas. Nationhood was supposed to be a temporary phase before joining the United States, but U.S. leaders were worried that pushing statehood might provoke a war with Mexico and the issue of adding another slave state into the Union was a political hot potato. Left on their own to deal with the Comanches, the Republic chose to develop a volunteer cadre of Texas Rangers with the mission to exterminate the Comanche by any means possible. They are the heroes of many fictional tales of the West (e.g. McMurtry’s “Lonesome Dove” saga and Phillipe’s “The Son”), but in fact their typical illiteracy meant that most of their skirmishes with the Comanche went unrecorded. Also, they usually numbered about 100 or less at any particular time.

The Civil War led to a substantial depopulation of the Army forts throughout the West, allowing the raiding of the Comanches to escalate with impunity. About a third of the tribe by then had been moved to a joint reservation in Indian Territory with their friends the Kiowa and, ironically, their enemies the Apache. The Comanche used the reservation as a home base to stage raids on other reservation tribes and white settlements in Texas. By 1864, their raids on the new Navaho reservation in New Mexico Territory and U.S. supply caravans for them led the military commander for the region, General Charleton, to send Colonel Kit Carson on a first major punitive raid into the Comancheria. In the Battle of Adobe Walls, he boldly led 330 soldiers and 72 Apache and Ute scouts into an attack on a Kiowa hunting camp near the top of the Texas Panhandle. Over time an estimate of about 3,000 Comanches and Kiowa from neighboring camps were recruited into the battle, and only the shock and awe of two mountain howitzers saved his bacon and allowed him to escape the fate of Custer at the hands of the Cheyenne and Lakota Sioux in 1876. Though no victory, the precedent of this incursion can be seen as the beginning of an escalating campaign which in seven years would result in a final defeat of the Comanche nation. General Ranald Mackenzie was a key player in this campaign, starting with his leading a force of 3,000 cavalry into the Llano Estacado region. It failed because most of his horses were driven off, but survival with little loss still stood as a form of victory.

Another contributor to Comanche defeat was the near extermination of their food source, the buffalo. The completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869 was a not only a massive stimulus to settlers pursuing cattle ranching, but an open door to an industry of white buffslo hunters due to ready shipment of hides to eastern markets. An estimated 31 million buffalo were slaughtered between the end of the 1860s and 1881. This more than anything else contributed to demoralization and willingness to submit to reservation life by Comanche holdouts.

Once Quanah committed to his fate of defeat, he blossomed into a properly civilized leader for his tribe and successful partner with the white victors. He wangled ways of beating the corrupt federal administration of the reservation at their own game, such as in lucrative income from grazing rights. He build a mansion in the Wichita Mountains to house his large family of eventually nine wives and many children. Though not a very spiritually inclined tribe, he became one of the founders of the Native American Church and the use of peyote in their sacrament and vision quests.
This book is well orchestrated and covers a lot of ground in its relatively short length. It is not quite as eloquent and moving as my favorite history of the Indian wars, Hampton Sides’ “Blood and Thunder”, which focuses on Kit Carson and the Navahos. This book included a nice collection of photos, although Quanah was so reclusive there are none of him until his reservation days. The mystery is finally revealed for me on the remarkable success of his essentially Stone Age tribe in holding out so long in the face of the unstoppable force of American settlement and control of the West. A personal connection to the book for me comes from my growing up in Oklahoma and living for a period in my youth in the Hill Country of Texas. It was great to get a human and respectful angle on a tribe so dreaded and subject to tales that make them out to be evil savages (e.g. the infamous “Blue Duck” character in McMurtry’s saga).

Comanche faces (Wiki)--Quanah is in the center
Profile Image for Jennie.
596 reviews37 followers
October 9, 2013
This book is not about Quanah Parker, his mother, or the Comanche. It's really about How the White Man Conquered the Savage, Primitive, Warmongering Barbarians.

My complaints about this book are many, but I'll try to keep it simple.

Mainly, it's because a "history" written in 2010 contains things like this:

There were no witnesses to this great coming together of Stone Age hunters and horses, nothing to record what happened when they met, or what there was in the soul of the Comanche that understood the horse so much better than everyone else did. Whatever it was, whatever sort of accidental brilliance, whatever the particular, subliminal bond between warrior and horse, it must have thrilled these dark-skinned pariahs from the Wind River country.

Throughout the book, "Indians" are described as savage, primitive, and "low-barbarian." Oh - and Indian.

I found it disingenuous of Gwynne to describe in detail the massacre of Cynthia Ann Parker's family and her capture, then acknowledge his description as "needlessly bloody." He describes most of the Comanche raids in those "needlessly bloody" details, including what seems like every rape, scalping, and disembowelment, but white men's raids on "Indian" villages (the Sand Creek Massacre being the one notable exception) get a brief tally of this many killed/this many captured.

Gwynne's writing style is just annoying, filled with "What happened next was one of the greatest/worst/most...." or "No one knows why...." This isn't a story being told around a cowboy campfire. Give me some facts and let me decide, thank you very much.

Then there's this description of Quanah:

He was also strikingly handsome: fully dark-skinned Comanche but with a classical, straight northern European nose, high cheekbones, and piercing light gray eyes that were as luminous and transparent as his mother's. He somehow looked completely Indian without looking Asiatic, and could have served as a model of how white people thought a noble savage ought to look....

"Indian" voices appear once in awhile, as if Gwynne suddenly remembered the part that comes after the colon in the book title. Most of this book is told in a very, very strongly white voice.

I'll leave you with this, perhaps the "best" quote from this book, and then I'm going to quietly toss it in the Goodwill pile, after which I will dance the dance of joy that I never have to look at this again:

...Rachel became entirely Comanche. She shed her pioneer clothing for Indian buckskins, and, though she does not comment on it, would have been as filthy and bug-ridden as any of the Comanches, who were notable even among Indians for their lack of hygiene.

So there you go. Enjoy.
Profile Image for Jon Donley.
3 reviews1 follower
March 20, 2011
As a native Texan who grew up in the former Comancheria, and whose family (both white and native) has deep roots there, I've always been fascinated by the blood-feud between Texans and Comanches. I was once an editor for Ted Fehrenbach, and admire his classic on the Comanches, and found this to be an excellent, well-told companion piece. Ironically Comanches were the proximate cause of Texas developing into the home of its most implacable foes, as Spain desperately recruited Anglo Americans to stand as a buffer between New Spain and the Indian Nation that was its most dangerous foe. And there was irony on the other side, too, Spain lost its territory (and much more besides) to the "human buffer" that had been thrown to the Comanche lances.

The book does a great job of painting the big picture of the history of the Comanches' ascent, invasion and conquering of its desired homeland, and in setting up the coming clash with the Texans. It always seemed to me that the reason the Comanches and Texans were such bitter enemies were that they were so much alike. Both were fighting for a homeland, neither intended to let anyone stand in their way, and both were capable of almost unthinkable savagery.

The story of Quanah, which is threaded through the book, but is actually only central to the last act, was a great, honest portrait of a man worth knowing.

One episode of the story of the Comanches is missing from the book, as it is from most tales of the conflict. In at least one case, the Comanches early on made a lasting peace agreement with the whites. In the mid-1840s, the founder of Fredericksburg learned that he'd been scammed into purchasing land for his German settlers that just happened to be located deep inside Comanche territories. In scouting out the territory, he found himself confronted with what was described as thousands of Comanches, whose campfires surrounded his camp.

Fortunately though, the Germans, who were by temperament much different from the English-Gaelic settlers of the north-Central Hill Country, came to a peace agreement with the Comanche chiefs, including Buffalo Hump, that allowed them to live there unmolested. In the mid-1990s, the descendants and relatives of those German settlers (including at least one from Germany) met in Fredericksburg with a large group of Comanches from Oklahoma - including the tribal leader and a granddaughter and great-granddaughter of Quanah Parker. There was a powwow celebrating the 150th anniversary of this treaty, which is the only one known to have never been broken by either side in the troubles between whites and Indians.

This is a great read.


(note that I bought the Kindle version)

Profile Image for Max.
343 reviews309 followers
July 29, 2014
Hard hitting, rugged and raw history that feels chillingly authentic. Neither the white man nor red man comes out well in this retelling of the brutal collision of the Comanche and relentlessly expanding America. I was quickly disabused of any idyllic notions. Well written, detailed and informative, highly recommended for anyone who wants to know how the West was really won.

Odd and End Thoughts:

GR readers seem to be hotly divided as to whether Gwynn’s depiction of the Comanche is racist or simply tells it like it was. I fall into the latter group. That nomadic hunter gatherers were ruthless is hardly unusual. I enjoyed Gwynne’s notion of a time warp. Equating Herodotus’ view of the ancient Celts to the Anglo view of the Comanche, he sees the nineteenth century Celt (Scotch-Irish) now encountering a version of himself from centuries past. This book definitely strikes a nerve in some. These reactions may say as much about how non-native Americans view themselves and their legacy as the Comanche.

I seem to remember from school that the white man killed all the buffalo thereby starving the Indians out of their native existence. But in Gwynne’s account, the plains Indians had been decimated and the remaining few interred on reservations before the wild buffalo were exterminated, albeit just before.

Interestingly, Cynthia Ann Parker who had been captured by the Comanche at the age of 9 was adopted by a Comanche family and married a Comanche chief could never adapt back to life in white America when taken back by her relatives at the age of 33. She always tried to run away to return to her hardscrabble Comanche life and nomadic home in the wilds of the plains. However her son Quanah by her Comanche husband Peta Noconah born and raised in the Comanche tribe to become a warrior chief, after surrendering to reservation life when 27 was not only able to adapt to the white man’s ways, but prosper and achieve prominence and respect in the Anglo world.

For an eye opening look at a Hollywood makeover, compare a picture of the real Cynthia Ann to her as portrayed by Natalie Wood as the character Debbie in the John Wayne movie, The Searchers, which is based on Cynthia Ann’s uncle’s attempts to take her back from the Comanche.



Sorry, couldn't make the HTML work for me to show the above images.

1,072 reviews104 followers
December 21, 2022
How the West Was Lost

If S.C. Gwynne isn’t a writer who can spin history into a colorful, action-packed tale, I’ll eat my sombrero. Though I think we can call it “popular history”, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t well-researched and full of interesting material. The Comanches came to the southern plains from what is now Wyoming before the Europeans arrived on the Great Plains of America. Male life among them was almost solely hunting buffalo and fighting. The women did the rest. As permanent warriors, they eventually eliminated, drove off, or subjugated all the others on the southern plains in what is now Texas and Oklahoma, with parts of New Mexico, Kansas, and Colorado thrown in. Their methods were not pretty, to say the least. They also traded with peoples further away, and then, when the Spaniards arrived in the 16th century, alternately traded with and raided them too.
When the Anglo-American settlers arrived to begin settling the then-Mexican territory of Texas, the Comanches thought they could deal with them in the same way—killing, raping, burning in order to drive them off. It didn’t work. There were just too many whites who had a great hunger for land, even if it belonged to somebody else. The Comanches didn’t think of land as something you could own. They lived off the buffalo herds that stretched out of sight. They also had no overall leaders, but were divided into bands. This lack of unity undid them along with the rising weapon technology among the whites and the fact that no matter how many kids they had, they couldn’t outnumber the flood of Europeans. At the beginning, the Comanche bow and arrows were superior to the whites’ rifles, which fired only one bullet in the time the Comanches could fire 10 arrows or more. The Comanches rode better than almost anyone in the world and were masters of guerrilla tactics. Slowly, over 45 years, though, the whites overcame the Comanches with their guns, their diseases, by their massacre of millions of buffalo.
Alongside the main history you can follow the story of a very interesting man---Quanah Parker, son of a white woman who, though kidnapped, chose to live with the Comanches and was married to a Comanche leader. Quanah fought the whites till the bitter end, but then seamlessly adopted much of the white way of life. He became friends with the American general who had hunted him for years. So, even if the Comanches never had an “empire” as we usually understand the word (I mean, it implies an “emperor” when they didn’t even have a chief), they did control a big piece of what is now the USA, but lost it in the same way that all the other Native Americans lost their lands. Treaties meant nothing, deals came and went. Neither side believed the other. What the Comanches had done to other tribes in the past was now done to them. Let’s call it by its right name. Genocide. But I’m afraid genocide is not rare in human history. So, this book is the story of a particular genocide amongst all of them that took place in North America after that Genoese fellow landed in the Bahamas and thought he’d reached India. It’s a pretty ugly story.
Profile Image for Greg.
138 reviews3 followers
June 25, 2012
Wow! Was this written in 1908? I was surprised and very disappointed by this book. I was taken in by the author's very good writing. The way he writes is so engaging and it reads better than most history books I've read.

There were two things that bothered me about the book. First, were the inaccuracies. I'm not as well read in the History of the American West as many people, but I was finding common mistakes, especially when he was talking about other tribes.

What bothered me more was the fact that I felt I was reading something written by someone a hundred years ago. With the amount of effort and research was involved I was disappointed that the author still depicted the Comanches without any depth. He acknowledges that they were brutal (which they were) but offers no reason, just the fact that brutality is synonymous with lack of civilization. He also glosses over the brutality of American settlers and the American army, which is ironic considering how detailed he described the Comanche attacks on American settlers.

The real problem is the author could not get out of the 19th century ethnocentric view of Indigenous Americans. I just shake my head that he still puts Native Americans in the outdated perception that the path to civilization is by turning nomadic communities into farmers, and therefore Native Americans were at the "earliest" point of this continuum.

Sadly, I think this book is getting lots of awards. I was hoping for someone who wouldn't rely on hollow assumptions and actually delve into this really interesting part of American history. I guess that's too much to ask.
Profile Image for Chrissie.
2,737 reviews1,469 followers
August 28, 2020
This is a very good book; it is well researched and chock-full of information, but I only liked it. That is why I am giving it three stars.

Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History looks at the situation of the Comanches in 1836, starting at the Fort Parker Massacre. It follows them through to the demise of their last chief in 1911. This massacre can be seen as “the beginning of the end” of both the Indian Wars in America and of the Comanches. The book follows all those touched by the May 1836 massacre, the subsequent kidnapping and rescue attempts of the five of the Parker clan who were captured--Cynthia Ann Parker (9 years), her younger brother John Richard Parker, her cousin Rachel Parker Plummer (17 years) with her infant son, James Pratt Plummer, and aunt Elisabeth Kellogg. Fort Parker is near present-day Groesbeck, Texas.

Cynthia Ann lived 25 years with the Comanches, married Chief Peta Nocona, and gave birth to three children, including son Quanah Parker, who would become the last Chief of the Comanches. At the age 34, she was recaptured by the Texas Rangers and forcibly returned “home”. The question is what was home then? She missed her children and the Native American way of life and never readjusted to white society again.

Rachel Parker Plummer wrote of their captivity--Rachael Plummer's Narrative Of Twenty-One Months Servitude As A Prisoner Among The Comanchee Indians. Published in 1838, it was an immediate hit, sought after abroad and in the States.

As the events are told readers learn about the Col. Ranald S. MacKenzie exploits both during the Civil War and then during the Indian Wars, the repercussions the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848 had on Indian affairs, the Gold Rush of 1849, the development of weapons such as the Walker Colts, Spencer Carbines and the Sharps Big 50s, the birth of the Texas Rangers and the Dragoons, the extinction of the buffalo, Native Americans’ susceptibility to and contagion by cholera, measles, malaria, whooping cough and syphilis, the expansion westward of settlers and the ever increasing demand for more land, the Dawes Act of 1887 followed by the Jerome Act of 1892--all of which had significance for the fall of the Comanche nation and all Native Americans.

The book is comprehensive and detailed. The battles between different tribes and white settlers are many and are studied in minutia. Is there a balanced presentation of the white versus the red point of view? Pretty much, but in the wording one senses the author’s admiration of those few who were able to outwit and conquer the Native Americans. I noticed this particularly in reference to Texas Ranger John Coffee “Jack” Hays, for whom the author has only words of praise. I felt the author to be exhilarated by the battles. I just wanted these episodes to end. The atrocities committed on both sides are presented.

The audiobook is read by David Drummond. The tempo is uneven. At times he reads way too fast. The Parker clan is large, and when numerous names are thrown at you ten a second, it is impossible to keep them straight. Drummond fails to lower the speed when the text becomes complicated; he accelerates instead! Every time he sped up, I needed him to slow down! I do NOT recommend listening to the audiobook. Many times, I had to rewind, to re-listen, to understand what was being said. Read the paper book instead. The audiobook includes a PDF file that provides a clear map of the cities, rivers, battles and places spoken of in the book. It is handy to glance at as you listen to the book.

Related reading:
*Ride the Wind is a book of historical fiction about Cynthia Ann Parker.
*Follow the River (4 stars)
*Blood and Thunder: An Epic of the American West (4 stars)
*Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West (4 stars)
Profile Image for Clif Hostetler.
1,076 reviews711 followers
November 29, 2016
Comanche history and culture is the focus of this book. The subtitle of the book markets itself as a biography of Quanah Parker, but he doesn't show up until the final fourth of the book.

Starting with the pre-columbian history the book describes the revolutionary change brought about by the advent of horses on the plains. It enabled the Comanche who had been culturally among the lowliest among the tribes to transform into being the invaders from the north. They were a branch that had separated from the Shoshoe of Wyoming that moved into the region of Texas displacing the Ute, Pueblo, Navaho, and Apache from their ancestral lands. They seem to have been the most successful Indian tribe at taking advantage of the horse by becoming skilled as mounted warriors.

The Comanche were the principal opponents of the Spanish as they set up missions in the northern part of old Mexico. The Spanish and later the Mexican government came to accept the Comanche as a protective buffer from French—and later American—encroachment from Louisiana territory.

The beginning of what this book refers to as a forty year Comanche War begins in May 1836 with the attack of the Parker Clan settlement in east Texas. Five men were killed, two women wounded, and two women and three children were taken captive. Among those kidnapped was Cynthia Ann Parker, a blue-eyed nine-year-old. She grew up among the Comanche, married a chief, and had several children one of whom was Quanah who became the legionary leader of the tribe in the latter years of the "Comanche War."

Ever since the book Bury my Heart of Wounded Knee I've been inclined to be sympathetic with the cause of the American Indian as they resisted the white settlers taking away their land. Empire of the Summer Moon shifts this dynamic by making all sides in the conflict look evil. The horrifying atrocities of the Sand Creek Massacre are portrayed together with the nauseating torture Comanches inflicted on their captives. I was surprised to learn that the Comanche inflected their cruelty on their Indian enemies as well. Readers with low tolerance for descriptions of violence should avoid this book.

The final quarter of the book tells of the exploits of Quanah Parker. Quanah emerged as a dominant figure in the Red River War, clashing repeatedly with Colonel Ranald S. Mackenzie. With whites deliberately hunting American bison, the Comanche's primary livelihood, into extinction, Quanah finally surrendered in 1875 and peaceably led the Quahadi to the reservation at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. In his years on the reservation Quanah became successful businessman/politician, got himself appointed "principal chief" of the Comanche by the US governement, and even became an acquaintance of Theodore Roosevelt. He died in 1911.

The book has a chapter about the Medicine Lodge peace conference of 1867. I found that of special interest because I have attended, in my younger days, several of the modern day pageants held by that community to commemorate that event. I found the adjectives used by the author to describe the event to be interesting. (Underlined emphasis below is my addition.)
Such beatific urges toward peace, combined with relentless and brutal raiding by comanches in Texas and the Indian Territory led to the last and most comprehensive treaty ever signed by the Indians of the southern plains. The conference that spawned it took place in October 1867 at a campground where the Kiowas held medicine dances, about seventy-five miles southwest of the present site of Wichita, Kansas. The place was known as Medicine Lodge Creek. The participants were members of a U.S. peace commission and representatives of the Comanche, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Kiowa, and Kiowa Apache tribes. The conference was the last great gathering of free Indians in the american West. The event was magnificent, surreal, doomed, absurd, and bizarre, and surely one of the greatest displays of pure western pageantry ever seen. Nine newspapers sent correspondents to cover it.
Some of the speeches given by the Indian Chiefs at that conference provide a melancholic, poignant, and eloquent summary of the situation of the plains indian tribes at that time in history. The following link is to the speech by Ten Bears, a Comanche chief.

As much as a third of the Commanche tribe was not represented at the council. Quanah was a member of one of the Comanche bands that was not present, but ironically Quanah himself was present as a young eighteen-year-old because he happen to be visiting a Cheyenne group at the time.
Profile Image for Tim.
589 reviews
September 2, 2015
Every now and then one runs across an historical non-fiction book that is breathtakingly enlightening.

Commancheria - the millions of acres of treeless plains encompassing northern Mexico to present day Nebraska, the land of the 5 principal bands of the Commanches, a culture centuries behind the development of the eastern Indian tribes, and intertwined with the buffalo herds. Commancheria - a region so forcefully held by the Commanches that the westward tide of Anglo-Saxon expansion was held at a standstill for nearly 30 years at the 98th meridian. The Commanches drove out other indian tribes - Apaches clear into New Mexico, Cheyenne to the north, and chose to be at war with eastern Indians and whites alike. They were close to the last of the major plains indian groups to surrender, and one group that faded even further under reservation life - not interested in adapting to the dominating culture.

The author does not spare the reader details of the warlike nature of these people, nor does he condemn or romanticize the tragedy from hindsight. No quarter was asked by this group, nor any given, and S.C. Gwynne admirably refrains from heavy handed opining on the rights and wrongs of the long-running conflict.

In that sense, this book is refreshing for its candidness, lack of sugar coating, and its scope - fitting in the broad clash of European and Native American cultures which we are familiar with, but tying it into the Texan/American collision as well as inter-tribal warfare. He details the emergence of the Texas Rangers and why, the vacuum created by the civil war, the individual of Quanah Parker, who was the son of an abducted white woman and a band leader of the Commanches, tactics of warfare, the buffalo hunters who perhaps killed off the hopes of any Commanche band to live even on a restricted basis as they had in the past.

An excellent read of the Southwest plains history of the US.

Profile Image for Faith.
1,846 reviews516 followers
May 29, 2020
I got to the fourth chapter of this book and I found the author’s portrayal of Native Americans, not just the Comanches, paternalistic, ethnocentric and offensive on many levels. He may be accurate in describing the facts, but I’m going to get my facts from someone else.
Profile Image for El.
1,355 reviews503 followers
June 6, 2013
I didn't really need to read this book because I've seen Pocahontas and remember very vividly this whole song. Reading this book was sorta like reliving that song and that's a damn shame.

Aside from how freaking white this book is, and not even commenting on the occasional racist undertones (or overtones), it's just not even that great of a book. The subtitle leads the reader to believe that this will be about Quanah Parker when in reality that played such a small part of whatever it was Gwynne was blathering on about. It was fact after fact after boring fact, and I don't think I learned much of anything new outside of the very few facts he included about Quanah himself. Everything else was stuff I already learned in high school history classes that told the same story from the same whitebread perspective.

Then, just as I was feeling confident that the book was almost over and I could relax again, Gwynne went and started talking (briefly) about the Native American Church which Quanah influenced. So, okay, this could be interesting, I don't know a whole lot about it, so I woke up a bit. And then this happened: "[Quanah] had to fight to keep prosecutors away from his peyote cult."


Religion vs Cult. 'Nuff said.

"The white man goes into his church and talks about Jesus, but the Indian goes into his tipi and talks to Jesus." Quanah Parker

I'm not going to sit here and pretend that there was any innocent party involved in this violent and horrific part of American history, and no one should. But this book is just one more reminder of how much attention the white experience has received.

I cannot understand how this was a Pulitzer nominee. Unless Pulitzers are just like Grammys and are based on word-of-mouth and is just a popularity contest.

In the end I give this 2 stars, not because I thought it deserves 2 stars, per se, but because the wee bit of information that actually involved Quanah Parker was interesting and was the sole reason I wanted to read the book. But even those parts were a stretch.

Profile Image for Casey.
574 reviews29 followers
April 29, 2021
Amazing book. Hard to put down. As a born-and-raised Texan and former resident of the Texas Hill Country, I'm astonished at how little I knew of the Comanches that roamed the area, and of Quanah in particular. (In spite of my seventh grade Texas history class, way back in the '60s. No surprise.) Now I want to read more. And will.
Profile Image for Leo.
4,304 reviews384 followers
May 8, 2022
In theory this book could have been great. It's definitely an interesting subject and something I really wanted to learn more about. However words used and descriptions and so on felt, unnecessary and very I'll placed to say the least. I will not read by this author after this as I can safely say I did not enjoy it. But I will try to find other non fictions touching this subject or similar. It's rare that I regret not reading reviews before finishing a book but it some cases it would have helped
Profile Image for David Ober.
28 reviews
November 26, 2013
Popular history is a strange genre that often seems suspended between genuine academic rigor and amateurish quackery. For every book of popular history written by a well regarded historian and aimed at educating the general public, there are at least a hundred written by a layperson that, even if he or she does the appropriate amount of footwork, usually ends up reproducing antiquated historical narratives. While a professor of history might understand how to read nuance into old sources, an amateur too often takes the word of a writer from the past at his or her word. S. C. Gwynne’s book on the Comanche’s, Empire of the Summer Moon, is just such a book. Gwynne’s lack of understanding of the past causes him to repeat racist tropes from the 19th century that have no place in the modern day.

I knew little about Empire of the Summer Moon when I picked it up, except that it provided a lengthy history of the Comanche tribe alone with a recounting of the raid of the Parker family homestead, an incident that would go on to influence the John Wayne and John Ford film The Searchers. While reading the book, however, something seemed off. There was a certain leering quality to the way in which Gwynne described Comanche violence. There’s nothing inherently wrong about describing Native-American violence against white settlers. Across the centuries and over the course of many wars between whites and Native-Americans, atrocities were of course committed on both sides. But Gwynne often presents these acts of violence with little historical context, especially early on, and more troubling he continually returns to the word “savage.” While he applies the term to the violent actions of the Comanche and not necessarily to the Comanche themselves, the word has such a charged racist history that it would have been best to avoid.

But I soon realized that the language and the manner in which Gwynne decontextualized Comanche violence presaged a shockingly racist book. Even after this early warning sign, I continued to read, expecting popular history to offer its usual Eurocentric bias. But as I got deeper into the book, Gwynne’s racist attitudes became even more prevalent. The attitudes and beliefs that Gwynne espouses about the Comanche people are almost certainly relics of the 19th century, and it became a fascinating, if at times deplorable example, of how 19th century discourse has survived into the 21st century.

Like many writing in the 19th century, Gwynne represents the Comanche as a chronological throwback, an image of Europeans translated back into time. In recounting the impact that the introduction of the horse would have on the Comanche, Gwynne writes of the “astonishing change” that occurs because of “what this backward tribe of Stone Age hunters did with the horse” (28). You can see from Gwynne’s language how he moves from what he believes are merely descriptive terms, like the use of savage to describe incidents of violence earlier on in the book, to pejorative, qualitative language, like the term “backwards” in the above excerpt. This pattern repeats itself again and again in the book. It is an intriguing example of how racism simmers underneath Gwynne’s writing until it finally reaches a full boil and settles down once again.

Gwynne further explains that despite the Comanche ability to incorporate horses into their culture, “[t]hey remained relatively primitive, warlike hunters; the horse virtually guaranteed that they would not evolve into more civilized agrarian societies” (31). Here, in language that is oddly reminiscent of how some English spoke of the Irish’s dependency on potatoes during the potato famine, Gwynne points to the horse as a detriment, preventing the Comanche from becoming farmers (which should be read as assimilating to white American culture). Any cultural development that does not eventually lead to Anglo-American style agriculture and socio-political institutions are perceived as headed in the wrong direction.

While Gwynne manages to acknowledge Comanche skill at riding, he simultaneously robs them of the ability to reason when discussing the Comanche horse culture. Discussing the shrouded introduction of horses into Comanche country, Gwynne writes, “Whatever it was, whatever sort of accidental brilliance, whatever the particular, subliminal bond between warrior and horse, it must have thrilled these dark-skinned pariahs from the Wind River country” (32). Relying on the assumption that Comanche human beings must have had some kind of mystical relationship with their horses, Gwynne can only imagine that the incorporation of horses into Comanche life and subsequent technological development to tame and breed horses must have been “accidental.” It never even occurs to Gwynne that the Comanche could possibly observe the natural world around them and logically manipulate both nature and their own society in order to better fit their own needs.

Gwynne never provides a full and complete image of contemporaneous white culture. He seems mostly concerned with comparing military technological and tactical differences between American settlers and whites (like a lot of popular history, Gwynne is often obsessed over military matters to the exclusion of the social, cultural, and economic). He decries how the Comanche treat their women, which is certainly fair enough. But he never notes that because of coverture laws, women in antebellum America had the legal status of property. He lingers on images of Comanche violence, but nowhere does he discuss the fact that American settlers in Texas were importing slavery and its systemic sins of forced labor, torture, rape, and extra-legal execution. Nowhere does he mention that the violence of slavery imposed by whites dwarfed the violence committed by the Comanche on almost every level.

It’s truly incredible how racist discourse from the 19th century influenced Gwynne’s writing. He even uses the term “barbarian” in what is presumably an anthropological sense. This is an outdated term popularized in the sciences by Lewis H. Morgan, John Lubbock, and Frederich Engels, all 19th century scientists. The continued use of this single word long past its expiration date characterizes Gwynne’s writing and mindset. At one point he defends his project by noting that we shouldn’t pretend as if American-Indians were naïve innocents who lived in a perfect state of nature. I agree. And if Gwynne were more familiar with academic research about Native-Americans, then he would realize that the image of Native-Americans as a culture of Adams and Eves has been out of fashion for decades. I also don’t think the alternative to describing Native-Americans as pure innocents is to resurrect racist ideas from hundreds of years ago.

If Gwynne’s book were just an isolated piece of poorly written popular history, then there wouldn’t be too much of a story here. But S.C. Gwynne’s Empire of the Summer Moon was actually a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. This means that a large number of journalists not only did not see a problem with the racism of Gwynne’s text, but they believed that this was the sort of historical work worth celebrating. If nothing else, Gwynne’s book and its apparent success is an instance of discourse’s inertia. We like to think that language and ideas are always changing, moving forward and, ideally, improving. But the inertia of discourse suggests that backwards concepts from the past will remain with us unless there is a strong concerted effort to push against them.

Profile Image for Porter Broyles.
424 reviews40 followers
October 22, 2019
An area of American history that I struggle understanding are those surrounding the “Indian Wars” of the mid to latter half of the nineteenth century. Too often books on the subject are either pointedly biased or lack sufficient context to understand the subject.

They introduce the conflicts between Native American Tribes and the United States as if they could be understood in isolation of any other event or time period.

S.W. Gwynne’s book does not do that. Gwynne does not start the book in the mid-nineteenth century when the Comanche’s and US are up in arms. He starts his book by talking about the evolution of the Comanche Tribe as it was affected by the weather, animal migration, Spanish/Mexican expansion, other tribes, and the United States. He does not present the arrival of the United States in Comanche land as the US’s virgin foray with native tribes, but rather a two hundred year-long culmination of interaction with different Native American Nations.

Gwynne discusses many of the historical instances that intentionally or unintentionally paved a path that lead to one of the longest most brutal wars in American history.

I found this to be one of the best introductions to the Indian Wars I’ve encountered.

When I was about 50% done with the book, I read some of the reviews, and was shocked. While the book has a 4.15 Goodreads rating, a surprising number of people (especially those with the most up votes) had comments decrying the book as racist and portraying racial stereotypes.

One of the questions for the book is, How does a book that routinely describes Indians as "savage" and "uncivilized," contrasted against brave settlers that are the victims of "indian violence," get published in the 21st century?

So, I finished the book with these objections in mind.

Yes, there is some bias in the book, but Gwynne discusses this in various places. For example, while discussing Peter Nocona, he talked about how Nocona’s utilization of guerilla tactics against a larger better armed military is not seen (and was not perceived at the time) for the military genius that it was. That had Nocona been white, his historical record would be significantly different.

While he talks about “savages” and “uncivilized” he is careful to ascribe those to the attitudes of the time and to how different people felt. But Gwynne laments the fact that the historical record and reporting of events is jaded. While he may cover atrocities committed by the Comanche’s, he does not let the Texan Rangers or U.S. Military off the hook. He calls them out for their atrocities as well.

Gwynne talks about the racism that existed in the period. When talking about Cynthia Ann Parker, he notes how in a 24 year period she witness the slaughter, rape, and scalping of those around her twice---but that it was the second time (when white troops ‘rescued’ her from the Comanche’s) that left the deeper scar.

He talks about the inherent racism that permeated the period and made it impossible for those around her to believe that a white woman would want to return to the savages unless that person was insane. The racism that in the mid-nineteenth century allowed newspapers to circulate a picture of her breast feeding her child---a photo that for the social norms of the period would have been seen as pornographic had society seen her a white woman. (He discusses how National Geographic publishing nude men and women for years because they were uncivilized---a phrase that he uses, but in context to the understanding of period.)

Gwynne’s book often discusses how the United States ideas of Native Americans---and the Comanche’s in particular---lead to numerous failures. For example, the United States built several large forts in Texas to fight the Comanche’s and stationed infantry units there. Comanche war parties rarely confronted military units in the open and never attacked the fort. Comanche’s would literally march pass forts on their way to battle. If the assigned infantry units chose to come and out fight, the Comanche’s would simply ride away. Rarely (early on) would the US Military or Texas Rangers get to choose the place and time for battles because the Comanche’s were the world’s greatest light cavalry.

The book is not perfect. There are times where Gwynne sometimes ascribes purity of motives for various people that I wonder if the evidence exists to support the claim or his own biases are ebbing out, but for the most part, I think he did a very good job at introducing the subject.
Profile Image for Jim.
182 reviews34 followers
November 5, 2020
I love books that upend the conventional wisdom of American history, and Gwynne does it here with his look at the history of the Comanches.

It was always my belief that in the 1800s Americans didn't care about the Native Americans, and saw them as savages who had to be stopped from raping and raiding and murdering at all costs. And that it wasn't until many decades later that we all looked back on the treatment of Native Americans with shame at what had happened, and that Native Americans were the victims of this encroachment on their land.

In reality, most of 1800's America (at least the America east of the Mississippi) thought that the problems between white settlers and Indians were the fault of the white settlers. Most US citizens and almost all of Congress believed the answer to stopping the violence was to leave the Indians alone and stop bothering them.

But as it turns out, neither that view or the conventional modern view are correct. The fact is that there was no possible way for peace between the Native Americans and white settlers because Native American culture was 4,000 years behind. Their actions seemed “savage” because they genuinely were.

Page 46: "The discovery of agriculture, which took place in Asia and the Middle East, roughly simultaneously, around 6,500 BC, allowed the transition from nomadic, hunter-gatherer societies to the higher civilizations that followed. But in the Americas, farming was not discovered until 2,500 BC, fully four thousand years later and well after advanced cultures had already sprung up in Egypt and Mesopotamia. This was an enormous gap. Once the Indians figured out how to plant seeds and cultivate crops, civilizations in North and South America progressed at roughly the same pace as they had in the Old World. Cities were built. Highly organized social structures evolved. Pyramids were designed. Empires were assembled, of which the Aztecs and Incas were the last. ... But the Americas, isolated and in any case without the benefit of the horse or the ox, could never close the time gap. They were three to four millennia behind the Europeans and Asians, and the arrival of Columbus in 1492 guaranteed that they would never catch up. The nonagrarian Plains Indians, of course, were even further behind."

"Thus the fateful clash between settlers from the culture of Aristotle, St. Paul, Da Vinci, Luther, and Newton and aboriginal horsemen from the buffalo plains happened as though through a time warp - as though the former were looking backward thousands of years at premoral, pre-Christian, low-barbarian versions of themselves."

This is a view that has caused many of the reviews to label the book as racist, but I never got that sense. There wasn't any heroism on either side and the facts just turn out to be trickier than we like sometimes.

Two of the most interesting parts were the parts about horses and buffalo:

Horses - The story of how the plains Indians ended up with the horse - "The Great Horse Dispersal" - was great, as was the story of how those horses changed the Comanches' way of life.

Buffalo - I knew that the huge American buffalo population completely disappeared during the late 1800s, but I had no idea how quick it happened. High-powered rifles showed up on the plains in 1871. The buffalo were gone by 1874. Millions and millions were killed, and nobody in the plains complained. Why? Partially because buffalo-hunting fed the economy. Mostly because everyone in the plains knew that once the buffalo were gone the Indians would be too.
Profile Image for Brian.
7 reviews12 followers
January 2, 2015
So far I am extremely disappointed in this book . I picked it up after Having finished " Bury my heart at wounded knee " (amazing novel) and similarly was expecting a more honest , transparent view of the Indian American wars . However so far the labels savage , primitive And violent have all been assigned to the Comanches. Gwynne highlights the violence toward settlers without explaining that these same settlers were stealing native lands with no restraint much less remorse. They were also driving the buffalo to near extinction but Gwynne attributes this to "profound change" by "opportunistic men". Gwynne is so quick to demonize the comanches but neglects to reveal that Slavery was alive And well in texas. Texas was notorious for harsh oppression towards blacks , and mexicans. Moreover In 199th century Texas women were legal property of their husband. Hence they were often abused and lived lonely lives. Not so much with the Comanches but with numerous other tribes women who had been kid napped by natives and later CHOSE to stay with their captors! There is a famous painting of an exchange between Delaware indians and settlers and the children of the settlers refuse to return to their former Lives! Furthermore Gwynne dares to make the case that historians have " often refused even to Acknowledge that the white women had been victims of abuse ". Nothing could be further from the truth , American historians will often emphasize so called merciless attacks from Indians and always seem to ignore that the u.s army openly attacked and slaughtered whole villages filled with women and children . Sand creed Massacre , The murdering of navajo women in children in a slanted horse race, and wounded knee come to mind, however it is very convenient of Gwynne to not expand on topics of white brutality which categorized the Indian American wars . I challenge those who praise this story to read primary native sources to understand this situation in a better light. All the sources complied by Gwynne come from white settlers. Lastly Gwynne fails to acknowledge that Red Clouds "Ogala Siox" was the first nation to militarily defeat the United States on the field of battle, forcing them to sign a peace treaty. This happened in 1868, and is well documented, which can be clearly seen in the fact that tensions came to a breaking point over such treaties in the take over of wounded knee in 1973. Instead Gwynee makes the ludicrous claim that the Comanche were the only ones with enough gall to resist the U . S government

Even worse are reviews claiming Gwynne remains neutral . On page 43 Gwynne clearly states "it is impossible for me not to make moral judgements about these people" he highlights Comanche violence and then judges them with vivid descriptions and strong accusations . In terms of the Parker family he claims they are "righteous, hard nosed, innocent " even says they played their sweet little fiddles at night painting a perfect picture of an innocent child dealing with a wild savage . It's disturbing so many love this book, I guess most are uneducated in the subject of American Indian wars and have personal bias dating way back to their ancestors . The fact this book became a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize highlights the issue westerners have with their own brutal history ; They refuse to be honest.
Profile Image for David Brickley.
3 reviews2 followers
August 12, 2012
This is a book that I think every American should read. In the beginning we came into this land and immediately began displacing all of the aboriginal peoples who had dwelled here for many centuries. Yet I would wager that almost nobody knows anything about those peoples other than what watching Wagon Train has showed them. Which leaves out anyone born later than 1960. This is all to say that this book does an excellent job of showing, with most excellent clarity, the dichotomy of a native people trying to live as they always had, coping (or not coping) with an unimagined influx of a completely other culture usurping their land and destroying their way of life. That's one aspect; the other is the daunting challenge that the westward flowing Americans (the white ones) faced as they impinged upon the established native tribes' territory and way of life. This author does an excellent job of laying out the case for both sides without handing down judgement of either side, all in a writing style that is more story-teller, ala Bernard DeVoto, than pedantic historian research paper. It appears to be extremely well researched, and through it all is the the very strong thread of the lineage of the Commanch warrior-chief Quanah, who was the embodiment of what was, and who became the embodiment of what was to be for the vanquished native Americans.

Profile Image for Christopher Saunders.
895 reviews846 followers
January 11, 2023
S.C. Gwynne's Empire of the Summer Moon is a sprawling, ambitious narrative of the Comanche clash with the United States in Texas, focusing on the fascinating figure of Quanah Parker. Gwynne's book is briskly written and energetic, fairing best when focusing on historical figures and specific events. He ably chronicles the development of Comancheria (hardly an empire as the title suggests, but a loose-knit collection of tribal bands that ranged across Texas), the Comanches' fearsome reputation among Spanish, Mexican and later American settlers and the alternately cruel and tender life under Comanches. Much of the book focuses on the infamous case of Cynthia Ann Parker, a white girl taken captive by Comanches who scandalized white society by resisting return to her Texan family. Parker gave birth to Quanah Parker, an ambitious, tough and determined chieftain who came to power in the 1860s, just as the end of the Civil War brought the United States government to seek their extermination. Gwynne contrasts Parker with his foes in the Texas Rangers, initially a paramilitary unit organized to protect the frontier against Comanche raiders, and Ranald Mackenzie, a brilliant but troubled young cavalry officer. Parker was ultimately defeated by the overwhelming force of Mackenzie's troopers. Until his death in 1911, Parker tried to accommodate himself to white-dominated society; he built a sprawling house, leased land to white farmers and hosted presidents and public figures, but also retained his dignity and independence. Thus, Parker became a symbol both of assimilation and of the indomitable power of Native resistance.

At his best, Gwynne offers a colorful account of the fall of Comancheria, full of colorful incident and larger than life personalities. Unfortunately, Gwynne often lapses into the blood-and-thunder attitudes of Western novelists, from passages of purple prose to racist stereotypes. Despite his efforts at seeming "objective" by nodding towards white atrocities, he comments, astonishingly, that "it's impossible to avoid making moral judgments against the Comanche." This licenses him to repeatedly brand the Comanche "inhuman," "Stone Age" "savages" who enjoy committing acts of violence. It's certainly fair to chronicle the violence committed by Comanches, including gruesome torture and rape of their enemies; but rather than inquire why such behavior developed in this society, he instead revels in the gory details and concludes, with little reflection, that Comanches were uniformly psychotic (a descriptor he never applies to the gnarliest white man). Gwynne frames this as a jab at "politically correct" authors who would deny or dismiss Native Americans' capacity for violence; indeed, he often seems to treat white violence as a reasonable response to Native depredations. Most readers won't condone the brutal tactics of Comanche fighters, but they hardly justify the Comanches' own displacement by an even more powerful and ruthless nation.

It would be easier to ignore this shortcoming, conscious or not, if Gwynne's book weren't released after much more thorough and evenhanded historians. Pekka Hämäläinen's impeccably researched The Comanche Empire, which makes heavy use of Comanche oral histories and written sources, provides a rich portrait of their culture without downplaying their violent war-making. Summer Moon, released three years later, relies on captivity narratives and secondary, almost-uniformly white sources - an approach that doesn't cut it. Gwynne's book serves as an engaging read for those seeking a meaty but undemanding historical narrative (hence the generous three-star rating). As a rounded, convincing portrait of frontier warfare and the Comanche people, Summer Moon falls well short of the mark.
Profile Image for Scottsdale Public Library.
3,223 reviews209 followers
June 22, 2021
This book is an exceptional, captivating read, chock full of well-researched facts about the rise and fall of the Comanche nation. The author successfully walks the line between informing with a vast breadth of information about the Comanches and history of the United States during their reign, and entertaining with vivid descriptions of battles, raids, and the plight Native American hostages, and, ultimately, the entire Comanche race. -Meagan M.

Cynthia Ann Parker was kidnapped at the age of nine by the Comanche, a Plains Indian tribe. Her son, Quanah Parker, became the last chief of the Comanches and this book is one of many written about his life. Empire of the Summer Moon is written in a manner that will raise questions in one’s mind about the hostilities between Native American tribes, their culture, land, and rights, and will keep you questioning long after you have put the book down. - Anna Quan Leon
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