Cynthia Ann Parker and Prairie Flower
Cynthia Ann Parker and Prairie Flower

In the 19th century, U.S. settlement of the western plains was held back for decades primarily by one Native American Indian tribe, the Comanches, who ranged over an area that comprises much of the present states of Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Colorado. For the most part today, their role in history has faded from national consciousness and many people living on former Comanche land have little idea of who they were.  But a new book about the Comanches and their last great chief, Quanah, is now a best seller.  Our correspondent spoke with author Sam Gwynne in Houston and filed this report about the book Empire of the Summer Moon.

In a recent appearance at Houston's Brazos book store, author Sam Gwynne addressed a question many people have asked him: Why did he embark on this study of the Comanches in 18th- and 19th-century North America?

"They were the answer to almost every question you wanted to ask about the history for two centuries in this part of the country," said Sam Gwynne. "Let me give you a few examples.  They were the reason that the Spanish empire's conquest of North America stopped right here - Comanches."

As Gwynne notes, this one tribe of about 5,000 buffalo hunters once dominated around 384,000 square kilometers of the lower Great Plains. The fierceness of the Comanches drove most other native tribes from the area, kept the French out of Texas, and later, in the 1820's, motivated the leaders of a newly independent Mexico to invite settlers from the United States to Texas, so that they might serve as a buffer against the Comanches.  In 1836, Texas won a war of independence from Mexico, but then the Texans spent another 40 years trying to deal with the Indians.

Sam Gwynne expanded on his view of this once-powerful tribe.  

"The Comanches were, I like to call them an empire," he said. "They were like Germany in the 19th century.  They were a powerful geo-political force.  They themselves were busy exterminating and driving other Native American tribes off the land for 200 years, just like the Americans were before they met."

The Comanches, as Gwynne describes them, were not physically impressive, but they were the most successful adapters of the horses that came on to the plains from Spanish herds in the late 17th century.  Theirs was a hunting and warrior society, and "Empire of the Summer Moon" recounts their brutality in shocking detail.  To them, Gwynne says, slowly roasting a captive over a fire or cutting off the nose of a captured female was a matter of routine.

"The Comanches gave no quarter to anybody," said Sam Gwynne. "If the Comanches caught you, they automatically killed all the babies.  They automatically tortured to death all the adult men and women.  They also did it to other Indian tribes who did it back to them.  This was not unique."

The Texans were the first white settlers on the plains to confront the mounted plains tribes, but they had little success until the formation of a group of rangers commanded by a resourceful young man named Jack Hays.  In June of 1844, Hays and his men defeated a much larger force of Comanches in the Texas Hill Country, using mounted charges and a new invention - the Colt revolver pistol.  Gwynne says this five-shot gun allowed the rangers to match the firepower mounted warriors could achieve with their bows and arrows.

"Jack Hays, in effect, fought Comanches by copying Comanche methods," he said. "That meant cold camps in the fields; that meant swimming beside your horse in freezing water; that meant keeping a scout out on a two-mile flank on either side of you at all times. He copied their methods.  He copied their method of fighting from horseback."

But, remarkably, later Texans forgot some of what Hays had learned, and the disruption caused by the Civil War gave Comanches a chance to assert their power again.  When the war ended in 1865, U.S. federal troops began pursuing the Comanches to stop their raids on settlements, but they had to re-learn all the methods Hays and his rangers had developed 20 years before.  The man who finally defeated the Comanches was Colonel Ranald MacKenzie, who also learned how to fight the Indians on their own terms.  The man who led the Comanches at that time, in 1875, was named Quanah, whose mother was a white woman.

The story of Cynthia Ann Parker is one of the saddest in the history of the American West.  She was taken captive by the Comanches at the age of nine, in 1836, and was adopted by the tribe.  She became so integrated in their life that she forgot how to speak English and, after she was re-captured by Texas Rangers in 1860, she continually tried to escape back to the Comanches. Many years later, Texans would learn that one of her sons from her marriage to a Comanche chief was the scourge of the frontier called Quanah.

But, as Gwynne details in his book, Quanah was also good at adapting.  Seeing the destruction of the buffalo herds and the expansion of industrialized society, Gwynne says the last great Comanche chief led his people to a reservation in Oklahoma and quickly learned how to prosper in this new setting.

"He was the most successful Indian of the reservation period," said Gwynne. "He was the wealthiest; he was the most influential.  He was the last and greatest chief of his tribe.  When the reservation came, he changed.  He became this thing that Americans are, which is optimistic and forward looking and things which many of his brethren were not."

Quanah, who had grown up as a part of a stone-age tribe, in terms of development, lived to see telephones, automobiles and motion pictures. He built himself a 10-room house on the reservation, where he entertained guests, both Indian and non-Indian, including President Theodore Roosevelt. Quanah never did see his mother again. Cynthia Ann Parker had died in east Texas a few years before his surrender. But he obtained a photograph of her and kept it with him the rest of his life.