Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches
Quanah Parker, the last Comanche war chief. Photo: Courtesy Library of Congress.
A surprising book about the wild and very bloody Texas frontier has sparked discussions in The New York Times, on NPR, in the Christian Science Monitor, and throughout fascinated corners of the country. If it feels like you’re experiencing the Western frontier with fresh eyes while reading Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History (Scribner, 2010), that’s because it’s pretty much the way S.C. Gwynne was seeing it while researching and writing his massively successful history of the Comanche Indians.
“One of the reasons that I was able to see this story the way I saw it was because I have the newcomer’s eye to Texas,” says Gwynne. “I came to Texas and went, ‘Holy cow, I didn’t know this.’ I knew outside of Texas almost no one knew about the subject, either.”
Gwynne is being typically modest. True, the Connecticut native has spent much of his life in the Northeast. But he’s been in Texas for 16 years now, and the business of covering politics and business for Texas Monthly and writing features for The Dallas Morning News has taken him all over the state.
“I do know Texas geography pretty well,” the 57 year old concedes.
That rare combination — newbie with a truckload of knowledge — made Gwynne the perfect guy to tell an old and mostly forgotten story in a spectacularly new way. Cowboys & Indians talked with Gwynne about rediscovering the Comanche Indians, their famed “White Squaw” Cynthia Ann Parker, and her half-Comanche son Quanah, last of the tribe’s great war chiefs.
Cowboys & Indians: You’ve received both praise and criticism for producing a revisionist history of the Texas frontier. Did you set out to do that?
S.C. Gwynne: I never thought about it. I have been a reporter for a long time. I’ve always tried to be unbiased. I didn’t think I was being extremely revisionist. I now see it and I get it. People read the book and say, “This totally changes my idea of the victimization of Indians. I don’t see them as victims anymore.”
C&I: Do you worry about less positive reactions to that?
Gwynne: Books like Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee ... that period of the ’60s and ’70s and into the ’80s you get a terrific focus on the victimization of Indians. There is no question Indians were victims with a capital V. Obviously, you look at the Trail of Tears and things that were done with them.
I hope my book doesn’t overbalance it. I point out that whites were just as nasty — more so in many ways. But from an objective perspective, the Comanches were a very powerful and war-oriented tribe and engaged in the destruction of Native American tribes for several hundred years. … It’s objectively true. I appreciate that I am revising history to some extent, but I didn’t set out to do it. I had no political motive.
Parker with one of his eight wives.
Photo: Courtesy Scribner.
C&I: Other than Cynthia Ann Parker and Quanah, who was the most interesting figure for you to write about?
Gwynne: Jack Hays. I believe he should be a household name like Davy Crockett. He was one of the greatest military heroes this country ever produced. He was the über Ranger. The guy who adapted the five- and six-shooter and figured out how to fight the Comanches.
C&I: Yet Hays is forgotten by many . ...
Gwynne: There’s a county south of Austin, Texas, named for Jack Hays — Hays County. In Hays County is Jack C. Hays High School, and the mascot of the team is the Rebels, the Hays Rebels. This is how much he is forgotten. I mean, excuse me, how about the Rangers? Hays was the Texas Ranger. The Rangers were formed in his image.
C&I: What was it about the Comanches that enabled them to dominate all other Southern Plains tribes?
Gwynne: Sometime between 1650 and 1700 — no one really knows — the Comanches got hold of the horse and went quickly from a tribe of little status to the most militarily powerful tribe on the continent. The interesting thing is the thoroughness with which they understood everything about horses. They were the only tribe to really master breeding. They carefully gelded their herds. Even tribes who became famous as powerful horse Indians — Arapaho, Sioux, Crow, Kiowa — even they didn’t have quite the ability. It’s a great mystery exactly why the Comanches were so much better.
C&I: You talk about buffalo hunting not simply as a commercial endeavor, but a willful political act. Explain.
Gwynne: Advances in technology, transportation, and the ability to tan hides created these enormous markets and profits for buffalo hides. But then military people realized that there was a political component to the buffalo trade. The life of a Plains Indian was entirely based on the buffalo — lodging, clothing, food, everything they had came from the buffalo.
People in Washington, D.C., realized the greatest slaughter of warmblooded mammals in history was underway. You get 31 million buffalo killed in Kansas alone. Somebody said, “Hmm, that’s interesting. Yes, we are running this species into extinction, but something else is happening and that is we’re taking away the Indians’ commissary.” Without the buffalo there’s no such thing as a Plains Indian.
The political will to stop what was going on vanished. They thought, Let’s encourage it. Let’s let it go on as a form of warfare against the Comanches and take away their food source. That was articulated as such by Gen. Philip Sheridan [then commander of the Military Division of the Missouri].
C&I: Did the Comanches understand that strategy was being used against them?
Gwynne: Two of the emotional moments I describe: when the Comanches are coming back through the Plains when they surrendered in 1875 with Quanah riding to the reservation and seeing the Plains filled with buffalo carcasses; then later the Comanches under him are allowed to go out on that one final buffalo hunt. They leave the reservation (with great ceremony) to hunt as they always did, and they never see a single buffalo.
C&I: Is this why Quanah more or less adopted white ways after resigning himself to the reservation?
Gwynne: At the end, Quanah is out with his traveling Comanches and there is nothing for them. Even if they had wanted to fight, there was nothing to fight for anymore. White men staked out pieces of land and fought over those. The Comanches weren’t about fighting for land. That’s one thing few white men ever understood. Buffalo was the property of the Comanches. They followed the migration. If you took it away it meant the complete destruction of the people.