Saturday, April 2, 2011

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

The story of Cynthia Ann Parker and her son, Quanah, is somewhat known in Texas where I live, but I doubt that it is much known in the rest of the country. It should be. One would hope that S.C. Gwynne's powerful book, Empire of the Summer Moon, which came out last year, and was one of The New York Times' 100 Notable Books of the Year, has made it more widely known.

Cynthia Ann Parker was a nine-year-old Anglo girl living on the frontier of Texas near present-day Dallas in May of 1836 when the Comanches swept down from the plains onto her family's fortified compound and overwhelmed the family. Several members of the family were brutally killed in the attack and two women and three children were captured.

The reality of such raids at the time was that men and infants generally were killed outright. Women and children were taken captive when possible. The women would be gang-raped and otherwise brutalized. They might become slaves to a Comanche family or they might be tortured to death. Torture-killing in the most gruesome manner possible was the order of the day when the Comanches were dealing with their enemies - Americans, Mexicans, or other Native Americans.

Children captives might be brutalized at first also, but then they were often adopted into the tribe. The Comanches were a hard-living lot, whose lives were mostly lived on horseback. This was not conducive to a high fertility rate and they always needed more bodies. Moreover, women were the ones who did the actual day-to-day work that kept the household fed, clothed, and sheltered. The men were hunters and warriors. They killed the buffalo, but then they washed their hands of it. Turning the buffalo, or other animals, into useful products was woman's work. Thus, nine-year-old Cynthia Ann Parker was probably seen as a valuable commodity. She was adopted by the tribe and in the ensuing years became, in every way that mattered, a Comanche.

Cynthia Ann never talked about her life as a Comanche, at least not to anyone who bothered to pass the information along, but other children captives who were later returned to their families did, and S.C. Gwynne details some of their stories in the book, to give us a glimpse of what might have happened to Cynthia.

What we do know is that she grew up and she married a warrior of high status and she had three children. The oldest was Quanah. Then came a son that she named Peanuts apparently because she fondly remembered eating the nuts as a child. Finally, she had a daughter who was named Prairie Flower. That was where things stood when Quanah was 12 years old and Prairie Flower was still a toddler at her mother's breast. Then Cynthia's world was shattered once again.

White troops raided the encampment where the family and the rest of the band were. Quanah's father, Cynthia's husband, was killed in the fight. Cynthia grabbed Prairie Flower and tried to escape, but she was caught by the troops and revealed to be a white woman. They "rescued" her and the little girl. They took Cynthia to see the body of her husband and so she knew that he was dead and her grief knew no bounds.

But where were Quanah and Peanuts? For all she knew, they may have been lying dead somewhere, too. The alternative was hardly better - two young, inexperienced boys lost on the Llano Estacado. They wouldn't stand a chance. Little did their mother know...

Quanah and Peanuts did survive. They tracked their way to a band of Comanches and reported what had happened to their family and the others. Quanah knew that his father had been killed and that his mother and sister had been taken and from that moment on, he burned with a desire for revenge.

The years after that were hard. Quanah went from being the son of a high-status family to being an orphan, a person of no status. Still, he managed to make his way in the world and slowly began to earn status of his own. Meanwhile, his "rescued" mother never gave up trying to escape and make her way back to the high plains that were her home to look for her children.

Quanah grew to manhood and took his vengeance on the white settlers, raiding them mercilessly, but it was the mid-nineteenth century now and things were changing in ways that would ultimately affect and finally destroy the empire of the Comanche. And it was an empire. It was a nation every bit as much as the United States or Mexico and it controlled a vast area of the middle of the continent. Outsiders entered that area at their peril.

By the 1860s, of course, the United States itself was torn apart and fought a bloody war with itself to determine if it would survive as a nation and what kind of nation it would be. When that war was finally settled, Americans turned west once more and soldiers hardened by the Civil War were sent there to rout the Indians and make the place safe for white settlers.

One by one, the plains tribes were subdued and brought to reservations. Finally, Quanah, though undefeated on the field of battle with the soldiers, could see that the tide of history was against him and his people and he led them to Fort Sill and became a "reservation Indian."

And then the second act of Quanah's life began. He remade himself from a feared war chief into a politician and advocate for his people. He studied the white people and learned their ways and learned to use those ways to provide for his people. He became a rich and influential man who hobnobbed with the elite of his day and became a friend to Teddy Roosevelt. (Yes, that Teddy Roosevelt!)

Quanah was his mother's son and he never forgot her. Soon after coming to the reservation, he had learned that she and his sister were both dead. In time, he began a search for her gravesite. He traveled to Texas and met some of his white relatives and found where she was buried. He had her remains moved to Oklahoma where she was reinterred on December 10, 1910. At her graveside, Quanah (who always insisted on being called Quanah Parker) spoke these words in broken English: "Forty years ago my mother died. She captured by Comanches, nine years old. Love Indian and wild life so well, no want to go back to white folks. All same people anyway, God say. I love my mother."

Quanah Parker lived three more months and then he joined his beloved mother, laid to rest at her side.

I cannot begin to give, in this brief review, the wealth of detail that Gwynne has included in this meticulously researched book. It is a tale not just of Cynthia and Quanah but of the continent as it was in the nineteenth century, a geopolitical history of the times. If you care about history or even if you just like a rousing good story, you will like this book. Read it!

No comments:

Post a Comment