Gwynne: Comanche Moon Brings Fear

Gwynne, Empire of the Summer MoonS.C. Gwynne.[1]2011. Empire of the Summer Moon. Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History. New York: Scribner.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

History fascinates me. As a kid, I must have read 20-30 books out of Fran Striker’s series, The Lone Ranger, not entirely aware that she wrote fiction rather than history.  But history, especially military history, is better because the individuals chronicled faced real challenges and preserved in the face of enormous odds.


In his book, Empire of the Summer Moon, S.C. Gwynne focuses our attention on a tribe of plains Indian that many people, myself included, know relatively little about. Writing about the year 1871, he reports:

“The hostiles were all residents of the Great Plains; all were mounted, well-armed, and driven now by a mixture of vengeance and political desperation. They were Comanches, Kiowas, Arapahoes, Cheyennes, and Western Sioux. For [Colonel Ranald Slidell] 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.”(3)

Colonel Ranald Slidell Mackenzie

Who was this Colonel Mackenzie? He was hand-picked by Army Chief William Tecumseh Sherman to restore order on the frontier after many failed attempts to make peace with the Indians. Mackenzie had graduated first in his class at West Point in 1862 and rose to the rank of brigadier general during the Civil War. Having been grievously wounded in the hand in the war, the Indians called him No-finger Chief or Bad Hand. He had never fought Indians previously, but he proved to be a quick study (2).

What was Special About the Comanches?

According to Gwynne:

“The Comanches adapted to the horse earlier and more completely than any other plains tribe. They are considered without much debate, the prototype horse tribe in North America. No one could outride them or outshoot them from the back of a horse. (Only in the movies did the Apaches attack riding on horses.) No tribe other than the Comanches ever learned to breed horses—an intensely demanding, knowledge-based skill that helped create enormous wealth for the tribe. They were always careful in the castration of the herd, almost all riding horses were geldings.”(32)

Until the manufacture of the Colt revolver in 1839 and the adoption of Comanche fighting techniques by a particular Texas Ranger captain, John Coffee Hays (138-145) a few years later, Comanches almost never lost a fight. Gwynne writes:

“…a Comanche warrior could loose twenty arrows in the time it took a soldier to load and fire one round from his musket; each of those arrows could kill a man at thirty yards.”(33)

Between the introduction of the horse by the Spanish in 1598 (29) and the beginning of settlement of white settlers in Texas in the 1830s, the Comanches drove the Apaches and many other Indian tribes out of the southern plains and halted the expansion of the Spanish north in Texas. Comanche warriors raided over a distance of four hundred miles, something unbelievable to observers at the time, and traveled at night under a full moon taking their adversaries by surprise, which led to term, “Comanche moon”.

Cynthia Ann Parker

Gwynne writes:

“The logic of Comanche raids was straightforward: All of the men were killed, and any men captured alive were tortured to death as a matter of course, some more slowly than others; the captive women were gangraped. Some were killed, some tortured. But a portion of them, particularly if they were young, would be spared (though vengeance could always be a motive for slaying hostages). Babies were invariably killed, while preadolescents were often adopted by Comanches or other tribes.”(19)

In 1836, Comanches raided a farm outpost in Texas, killed most of the family, and took nine-year old Cynthia Ann Parker and her seven-year old brother hostage. She later married a Comanche war chief and one of her sons, Quanah, became a famous war chief in his own right.

More generally, the Parker family became famous in Texas politics and helped start the Texas Rangers. Cynthia Ann became infamous on the frontier for having refused to be ransomed by her family. After being captured by soldiers, she spoke almost no English (but was fluent in Spanish) and resisted assimilation back into her Texas family.


 Gwynne, Empire of the Summer MoonIn his book, Empire of the Summer Moon, S.C. Gwynne writes the history of the Comanche tribe following the life and experiences of Cynthia Ann Parker and her son, Quanah Parker, one of the last Comanche chiefs to surrender to Mackenzie for resettlement on a reservation. In the course of the book, we learn the history of Spanish entry into North America, the settlement of Texas, the war with Mexico, the Texas Rangers, and much more. This book is a page turner that kept me up many nights. If you only read one book this summer, consider reading this one.


Gwynne: Comanche Moon Brings Fear

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