James Barasch | Barasch on Books
Published: Tuesday, March 13, 2012
Updated: Tuesday, March 13, 2012 08:03
This week “Barasch on Books” examines a subject underrepresented in serious history, reviewing renowned journalist S.C. Gwynne’s book “Empire of the Summer Moon.” Mr. Gwynne tells two stories: One is a vivid historical account of the bloody 40−year struggle between the Comanche Indians and American settlers for control of the West, and the other traces the life of Quanah Parker, a half−white Comanche who would become their last and greatest free warchief, and later, their most important advocate and representative to the American public. It is an emotional tale of heroic resistance, tragic defeat and triumphant resilience.
Though tribes such as the Lakota in the West and Iroquois in the East are perhaps better known, it was the Comanche tribes of the southern Great Plains who posed the greatest and longest lasting threat to the progress of American settlement. A predominately nomadic tribe with no concept of agriculture and no organized religion, the Comanche lived scattered over most of modern−day New Mexico, west Texas and southern Colorado. They rose rapidly to prominence with the introduction of wild horses by Spanish settlers and conquistadors in the mid−1600s. Their culture adapted easily to a life in the saddle: Comanche children became master bareback riders by the age of six and proficient archers at eleven. Wealth and social status were measured by the number and quality of horses a warrior owned.
So swift was the Comanche adoption of the horse, and so skilled were they with arrows and bone−tipped lances that their hit−and−run raids halted the imperial ambitions of Spain, Mexico and France. Then they extended their dominion over a vast territory that eventually included dozens of vassal tribes, an impressive feat considering that, even at the height of their power, the Comanches numbered no more than approximately 20,000 men, women and children.
American settlers who arrived in West Texas beginning in the 1840s found the frontier being pushed back by a powerful, fierce and implacable native tribe. Continuous Comanche raids on pioneer settlements throughout the mid−1800s galvanized the creation of the famed Texas Rangers and the Colt six−shooter, the iconic firearm of the American West, developed to fight the hard−hitting, agile Comanche. This technological superiority and the seemingly limitless supply of settlers slowly but surely pushed the Comanche back into their ancestral lands in the Llano Estacado of the Texas panhandle.
Among the final heroes of the Comanche was half−Comanche Quanah Parker, a determined warrior who, at the young age of 24, united the last remaining free Comanche bands in a brutal two−year struggle that ended in 1875 with the disastrous Second Battle of the Adobe Walls in North Texas. Quanah was as practical in defeat as he was determined in war. He convinced the remaining Comanche to voluntarily turn themselves over to the settlers and live on a reservation. For the next 36 years, he lived as a prosperous, responsible citizen, engaging in successful business enterprises and showing the way for his people to retain their dignity even in defeat. He never cut his hair or gave up his multiple wives, and he remained an articulate and outspoken advocate for quality reservation schools and government assistance.
He died in 1911, respected and esteemed by Americans and revered by his own tribe, who to this day honor him as “Quanah the Peacemaker.
Mr. Gwynne’s story is a powerful one of resistance, defeat and dignified reconciliation. It invokes great sympathy for the simple, Spartan and wholesome Comanche way of life without whitewashing its gruesome style of warfare. He commends both American and Comanche heroes with equal eloquence and evokes the wild, tempestuous majesty of the pre−pioneer Great Plains. The reader is left with a profound sense of respect for a noble people who fought honorably to defend their land and way of life. Rating: ****
James Barasch is a sophomore majoring in history, reachable at James.Barasch@tufts.edu.