S.C. Gwynne’s magnificent Empire of the Summer Moon hits as hard as literature can hit and offers history as a form of sublime entertainment. I believe the author wouldn’t take all the credit for his book’s success, since the subject matter — which is, as the subtitle tells us, the rise and fall of the nineteenth-century Comanche nation — is so fascinating, so packed with action, so rife with contradictions, so laden with heart-wrenching drama, and so existential in its meaning, the story pretty much writes itself.
Gwynne, however, deserves credit for leaving us hanging about how we should size up the Comanche today. This opens doors for various race-realist and ethnocentric interpretations of the Comanche and their savage wars against not just the whites, but against all their enemies. And if you weren’t a Comanche, you were most likely considered an enemy. As mysterious and perplexing as they were to the Texas Panhandle pioneers, as well as to the Mexicans and the Spanish conquistadors before them, the Comanche remain so today thanks in part to Empire of the Summer Moon.
What struck me most about Gwynne’s approach was how he exchanged a dignified academic pretense for a kind of campfire confidence which lends Empire of the Summer Moon the unsettling feel of a ghost story, only real. Real as dust and bones today, but much more real a century and a half ago when pioneers and ranchers in the disorganized and extremely penurious new nation of Texas had to contend with a ruthless and highly-competent stone-aged people upon whose land they were encroaching. You think you know what terror is? You do not know what terror is. S.C. Gwynne will tell you what terror is. Terror is finding three dozen sulky and heavily armed Comanche braves at your doorstep, intent on arson, rape, murder, and torture.
You tell the angels in Heaven you’ve never seen evil so singularly personified as you did in the face of the man who killed you.
I was reminded of this great line from the movie True Romance in the book’s first chapter when Gwynne describes the 1871 Salt Creek Massacre in North Texas, which could very easily have taken the life of the US Army Commanding General William Tecumseh Sherman. Ranald Slidell Mackenzie, whom Gwynne calls the “most brutally effective Indian fighter in American history,” surveyed the aftermath:
Seven men were killed in the raid, though that does not begin to describe the horror of what Mackenzie found at the scene. According to Captain Robert G. Carter, Mackenzie’s subordinate, who witnessed its aftermath, the victims were stripped, scalped, and mutilated. Some had been beheaded and others had their brains scooped out. “Their fingers, toes and private parts had been cut off and stuck in their mouths,” wrote Carter, “and their bodies, now lying in several inches of water and swollen and bloated beyond all chance of recognition, were filled full of arrows, which made them resemble porcupines.” They had clearly been tortured too. “Upon each exposed abdomen had been placed a mass of live coals…. One wretched man, Samuel Elliott, who, fighting hard to the last, had evidently been wounded, was found chained between two wagon wheels and, a fire having been made from the wagon pole, he had been slowly roasted to death — ‘burnt to a crisp.’”
Gwynne’s story begins in 1836 with the influential Parker clan establishing a homestead in perhaps the westernmost outpost of white civilization in the Great Plains. This was an extremely dangerous location, “. . .an open and bleeding wound,” as Gwynne describes it, “a place where anarchy and torture killings had replaced the rule of the law. . .” On May 19th, shortly after Texas gained its independence from Mexico, a large band of Comanches raided the Parker fort, killed five men, and abducted two women and three children. One of these children, Cynthia Ann Parker, became the most famous abductee in the history of the American West. Gwynne posits two reasons for this. One, her abduction outraged the Americans and gave rise to their forty-year war with the Comanche, which was — bar none — the most lethal indigenous threat to white civilization on the Great Plains. And two, she immersed herself in Comanche culture, married a Comanche, and gave birth to Quanah Parker, the greatest chief the Comanches had ever known.
Remember the abduction of the Natalie Wood character by Comanches in the John Wayne classic The Searchers? She was based on Cynthia Ann. Wayne’s character, the relentless searcher, was based on Cynthia Ann’s uncle, James Parker. Nearly a century after her death, her story still resonated with Americans, many of whom were only a generation or two removed from the Indian Wars, some of whom perhaps still remembered Quanah himself, who lived until 1911.
Despite his obvious respect for the Comanche, which borders at times on awe, Gwynne makes it clear early on what ferocious savages they really were:
The logic of Comanche raids was straightforward: All the men were killed, and any men who were captured alive were tortured to death as a matter of course, some more slowly than others; the captive women were gang-raped. Some were killed, some tortured. But a portion of them, particularly if they were young, would be spared. . . Babies were invariably killed, while preadolescents were often adopted by Comanches or other tribes. This treatment was not reserved for whites or Mexicans; it was practiced just as energetically on rival Indian tribes.
The last part about rival Indian tribes is important. The Comanche did what they could to exterminate many of them even before the whites came on the scene. The Tonkawas were a great example. This tribe had been slaughtered so many times by the Comanche that they grew to hate them and would cooperate with the whites as scouts and guides in order to take revenge on them. But before we pass judgment too harshly on the Comanche, Gwynne reminds us that the Tonks were also notorious cannibals. At one point, he outlines a scene of grotesque Comanche-on-Tonk butchery, which began when the Comanches discovered a band of Tonkawas roasting Comanche body parts for lunch.
I guess there was a reason why they called it the wild West.
The Comanche were not merely proficient in all aspects of violence and cruelty — they were also militarily formidable. And the way in which they became militarily formidable is utterly fascinating. Imagine a quirk of human evolution which selects a small population out of numerous genetically similar groups — all of which have average IQs in the 75-85 range with pitiful standard deviations — and endows that population and only that population with off-the-charts intelligence when it comes to horses, horsemanship, and mounted warfare. No other Great Plains tribe ever came close to the Comanche’s mastery of the horse — not the Tonkawa, not the Apache, not the Kiowa, no one. In fact, after the whites understood what they were up against in the Comanche (which took decades longer than it should have), they realized that these half-naked, warmongering, whoop-whooping savages constituted nothing less than the finest light cavalry in the world. One would have to go back to the Mongols of Genghis Khan to find their equal.
They alone became the masters of the Great Plains. They alone checked the northward expansion of the Spanish Empire. They alone pushed back the Manifest Destiny of the white man. And among them, the Quahadis, “the most remote, primitive, and irredeemably hostile” of the Comanche groups, “the hardest, fiercest, least yielding component of a tribe that had long had the reputation as the most violent and warlike on the continent,” stood virtually alone among all the North American tribes in having never signed a treaty with the white man. Ethnographers, who had been studying the Comanche since the 1750s, didn’t even know the Quahadis existed until 1872.
This alone is remarkable. But to consider that the Comanches possessed latent equestrian virtuosity in a part of the world that until recently did not even contain horses is astounding. Gwynne calls the Comanche acquisition of horses “an astonishing piece of transformative technology that had as much of an effect on the Great Plains as steam and electricity had on the rest of civilization.”
For more on exactly how adept and deadly the Comanche were on horseback, check out Gwynne’s riveting interview with Joe Rogan.
As it turned out, the only people tough enough, smart enough, and determined enough to defeat the Comanche were the American whites. But in 1836, it sure didn’t seem that way. The Comanches were waging an entirely new form of mounted warfare, and they had the home-field advantage. Whenever the whites challenged them on foot, in formation with swords or single shot weaponry, as they had done against each other back in Europe, they would get annihilated. The first group of whites to adapt to this fluid form of mounted warfare became immortalized in American lore.
Comanche power had long resided in sheer military superiority: the ability, man for man, to outride and outshoot the Anglo-Europeans. This had been true from the earliest days of Spanish rule. Now for the first time, came a serious challenge. It came in the form of dirty, bearded, violent, and undisciplined men wearing buckskins, serapes, coonskin caps, sombreros, and other odd bits of clothing, who belonged to no army, wore no insignias or uniforms, made cold camps on the prairie, and were only intermittently paid. They owed their existence to the Comanche threat; their methods, copied closely from the Comanches, would change frontier warfare in North America. They were called by many different names, including “spies,” and “mounted volunteers,” and “gunmen,” and “mounted gunmen.” It was not until the middle of the 1840s that they finally had a name everyone could agree on: Rangers.
One piece of technology that began to turn the tide in favor of the whites was the Colt revolver. It was a multi-shot weapon which could be aimed, fired, and reloaded easily on horseback and became a revelation on the Great Plains. The need for such a weapon saved inventor Samuel Colt from bankruptcy and inspired a revolutionary change in firearm technology. Gwynne describes how leading Rangers such as Jack Hays and Samuel Walker used the Colt to great effect in battles which were now becoming favorable to the Americans.
One reason for the long duration of the war with the Comanche was the interruption caused by the American Civil War. Neither side could afford to resist the Comanches and other Plains tribes while they were slaughtering each other at Shiloh and Gettysburg. During this time, the Rangers had effectively disbanded, and many of their lessons had been forgotten. Afterward, however, the whites finally resolved to end Comanche supremacy once and for all. After President Grant’s last-ditched peace policy failed (with its mild-mannered Quakers in charge), Sherman appointed Mackenzie to deal with this intractable threat.
By this point, the whites had expanded their technological edge, bringing Spencer carbines into the field. These weapons could fire twenty-seven rounds in a minute, could reload much more quickly than a Colt, and were accurate up to 500 yards. The Comanches could not compete with that. Furthermore, Mackenzie was a brilliant, no-nonsense commander who, despite being wracked with injuries from his time in the Civil War, was especially suited for fighting in such a sparse and unforgiving environment. Early setbacks against Quanah Parker, who had become a brilliant military leader in his own right, also proved that Mackenzie was good at learning on the job. The two became something like the Grant and Lee of the High Plains, and Gwynne evocatively details their military struggles on the field and their personal relationship after the Comanche’s inevitable surrender in 1875.
Gwynne’s handling of the life of Quanah Parker — as well as that of his abducted mother Cynthia Ann — deserves its own place in this review due to its wide-reaching ethnocentric connotations. Cynthia Ann was a white who went irreversibly native. She witnessed the murder of family members, the rape and brutalization of her fellow captives, and the mean, back-breaking drudgery of Indian life on the Plains, and yet later chose to remain with the Comanches when her white family reached out to her. While this poses a problem for ethno-nationalists, Gwynne’s treatment of her son does not. Quanah Parker is the only Indian Gwynne describes as highly intelligent. In the field, he fought with dashing and uncharacteristic heroism and was able to stymie the best the US Army had to offer for many years despite the latter’s growing edge in technology and resources. Could any single Comanche leader without a genetic connection to Europe have done the same? Gwynne doesn’t say, but he doesn’t shoot the question down either.
In this regard, Gwynne is both a mainstream academic bowing to political correctness. . . and not. The savagery and backwardness of the Comanche and other tribes cannot be ignored. He refers often to “civilization” as something that only the whites brought with them (which is a good, if imperfect, thing), and he certainly never professes anything approaching progressive egalitarianism or cultural relativism when comparing the New World whites to the Indians. In fact, Gwynne describes not only how the Comanche were thousands of years behind the Europeans in cultural development, but how they lagged behind the other Indian tribes as well.
Although he does romanticize the Comanches from time to time — notably, by waxing on about the freedom they enjoyed on the Plains, by referring to their appropriation of white culture (such as cotton clothing and brass teapots) as corruption, and by mourning their loss of identity towards the end of their struggles with the whites — he never takes an anti-white position either. Yes, he gives voice to legitimate Comanche complaints against the whites. Yes, he humanizes Comanches as “jolly, rollicking, mischief-loving” braggadocios when not at war. And yes, he invokes Herodotus when likening their savagery to that of the ancient Celts. But never does he state or even imply that the whites did not deserve their victory over the Comanche.
Gwynne presents the struggle between the whites and the Comanche as Samuel Huntington would: It was a clash of radically different, unassimilable civilizations. In ethno-nationalist conflicts like these, only one side can win, and every race or tribe involved must take their own side. As the Dissident Right saying goes, “Diversity + Proximity = War.” At its worst, the hatred was palpable on both sides, but especially on the side of the Comanche since they were fighting for survival instead of conquest. And Gwynne’s writing becomes almost unreadably poignant as he describes how the white practice of buffalo hunting did as much to subdue the Comanche as the Spencer carbine.
After the Battle of Palo Duro Canyon in September 1872, in which only four Comanches had been killed, Gwynne describes Mackenzie’s decision to do something novel with their captured horses:
After breakfast, Mackenzie gave the best of the horses to his scouts, cut out a few for his own use, and then ordered the others — more than a thousand — shot. Custer had shot horses on the Washita in 1868, but that was mere expediency, since his column was in grave danger of annihilation. Mackenzie now did it as a military tactic, a way to take away the Indian’s means of survival. It was a gruesome job, and it took time. . .
. . .Mackenzie had dealt them [the Comanche] a devastating blow. No one knows how many of them were camped in the village, but the number of lodges suggests perhaps a thousand. And these Indians now faced a terrible new reality. They were mostly afoot, without shelter, food, or clothing, facing winter on the high plains where the buffalo herds were being quickly thinned out by the hide men. They had been routed, in large number, from their last important hideout. Most of the Indians who escaped through Blanca Cita Canyon that day straggled back to Fort Still in the following weeks, thoroughly beaten and never to roam off the reservation again.
Less than three years later, Quanah Parker led the last remaining Comanches into Signal Station near Fort Still to formally announce their surrender. It’s tragic when torturers, murderers, kidnappers, arsonists, and gang-rapists get humiliated and starved into submission, isn’t it?
I ask because I do not know the answer. Thanks to Gwynne, I know the abject evil the Comanche were capable of. Thanks to him, I feel the contempt and hatred that white pioneers almost unanimously had for the Comanche scourge. Yet I cannot help respecting the military prowess of the Comanche. I cannot help but admire their fierce recalcitrance against the encroachments of a greater civilization. And I cannot help feeling a little sorry for them in the end.
Is this a natural feeling? When separated from a threat, completely denuded by thousands of miles and 150 years, it’s hard to keep the empathy from oozing out, isn’t it?
After settling on the reservation, Quanah became a leader there too, as well as a capable representative of Indian interests. As the years came and went, he not only grew prosperous (due to his various semi-legal business schemes and rackets), he also grew popular. And not just with his own people — the whites loved him too. He hobnobbed with Teddy Roosevelt. He traveled and gave speeches. He told funny stories. He adopted a couple of white children into his large family. In 1908, he even had a bit role in The Bank Robbery, the first two-reel Western movie. Apparently, when he surrendered, he meant it, and, at least according to Gwynne, comported himself for the rest of his life with all the dignity and pacifism appropriate for a defeated leader.
One can’t fault him for any of this, but we should remember that most likely Quanah Parker, when still an unreconstructed Comanche riding free on the Great Plains, engaged in murder, kidnapping, arson, torture, rape, and possibly gang rape. After surrendering, Quanah was always cagey about his past, never denying or admitting that he had committed any of these atrocities. But knowing the Comanche, I think it’s safe to say that he had. And yet we’re tempted to lionize him?
I don’t have an answer for this, and neither does S.C. Gwynne. But Gwynne, to his immense credit, includes a striking moment of white ethnocentrism towards the end of his book — and this may help, if not with the answer, then with the question itself:
Quanah also had a curious and noteworthy friendship with Teddy Roosevelt. In March 1905 he rode in an open car in Roosevelt’s inaugural parade in buckskins and warbonnet, accompanied by Geronimo, two Sioux chiefs, and a Blackfeet chief. (One of the people who witnessed that event was Robert G. Carter, the officer who had been ambushed by Quanah at Blanco Canyon and who still hated Quanah bitterly and did not understand why someone who had killed so many whites could march in such a parade.)
I can’t understand it either. And yet maybe I can. I don’t know if I can ever reconcile these contradictory feelings. But trying to, as I did while reading Empire of the Summer Moon, sends me along an infinite loop of hope, dread, and wonder — and I’m not sure I want to get off it just yet.
Could we possibly ask more from literature than that?
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