Criticism & Features

Year 2010: 30 Books

Gregg Barrios on “Empire of the Summer Moon”

By Gregg Barrios

Each day leading up to the March 10 announcement of the 2010 NBCC award winners, Critical Mass highlights one of the thirty-one finalists (to read other entries in the series, click here). Today, NBCC board member Gregg Barrios discusses nonfiction finalist S.C. Gwynne's Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History (Scribner).

You don’t have to be an aficionado of early dime novels or Western movies to enjoy S.C. Gwynne’s panoramic true-life tale of the rise and fall of the now nearly forgotten Comanche Nation, once the most powerful tribe in the Great Plains.

It is rare when a historical account can recreate one of the most remarkable narratives with such verve and authority. Gwynee relates this history in such a readable fashion you might forget you aren’t reading fiction.

Gwynne writes: “The Comanches were the richest of all plains bands in the currency by which Indians measured wealth––horses––and in the years after the Civil War managed a herd of some 15 thousand.”

They also were trained to ride and tame horses at an early age. This mastery led them to challenge other tribes “for the richest hunting prize: the buffalo herd.”

We learn that one of the main reasons Mexico encouraged Americans to settle in Texas was so that they could serve as a buffer against the Comanches.

A second and crucial narrative serves as the centerpiece of this majestic work of nonfiction. In 1836, Comanches kidnapped nine-year-old Cynthia Ann Parker, the daughter of Texas settlers. (John Ford’s The Searchers told part of that story).

The indelible and tragic portrait of a “white squaw” who would give birth to three children and later be “saved” by Texas Rangers and returned to a civilization she no longer considered her own. One of her children, the half-breed Quanah would become the last, great war chief (and later peacemaker) of the Comanche tribe.

“The kidnapping of a blue-eyed, nine year old, Cynthia Ann Parker in 1836 marked the start of the white man’s forty year war with the Comanches in which Quanah would play a leading role. In one sense, the Parkers were the beginning and end of the Comanches in U.S. history.”

This high drama is enhanced by the author’s meticulous research and access to autobiographical eyewitness accounts (Daniel Parker, Rachel Parker Plummer, James Parker, and of course Quanah himself).

Gwynne gives equal attention to the attempts by the US government and the Republic of Texas to stop the Comanches under Quanah’s leadership at any cost: The six-gun, the often foolhardy resilience of the settlers, and ultimately the extermination of bison herds by white buffalo hunters contributed more to the decline of the Comanche nation than the bluecoats, the railroad, or the Texas Rangers.

Quanah entered the twentieth century an active leader, a school board president, an actor in the first two-reel western movie The Bank Robbery, and a friend to Teddy Roosevelt.

He was also the prime mover behind the establishment of the peyote religion among the Plains Indians later known as the Native American Church. He was also its defender.

“The white man goes into his church and talks about Jesus, but the Indian goes into his tipi and talks to Jesus.”

Quanah’s final days marked the passing of an era. Months before his death, appearing at the Texas State Fair, he reminisced:  “I used to be a bad man. Now I am a citizen of the United States. I pay taxes the same as you people do. We are the same people now.”

Despite his eight wives, Quanah’s greatest love was for his mother. He had her remains moved from Texas to Oklahoma. Her photograph hung over his bed until his death.

Gywnne attributes the most American of traits to Parker: boundless optimism. The last and greatest chief of the Comanches never looked back––only forward.

In its own unique way, the accomplishment of Empire of the Summer Moon is in giving voice to the American native and its place in American history. It stands as tall as the historical novels of Larry McMurty and the Western films of John Ford. And like any good historian and storyteller, Gwynee’s serves a historical, literary feast that is so rich, we are left wanting more.

Click here to access S.C. Gwynne's author's page at Simon and Schuster. An excerpt from Empire of the Summer Moon can be read here.