Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Comanche Moon

I am finishing an incredible book about the finest cavalry force ever assembled. These lords of the plains successfully thwarted both the Spanish expansion from Mexico and French designs of moving west from Louisiana. These horsemen had an instrumental role in shaping our nation.

They ruled a dominion that encompassed over 240,000 square miles, basically the entire great plains including present day Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Kansas and Colorado. They were reputedly the most superb horsemen the world has ever seen.

Their nomadic range was said to have been eight hundred miles and these warriors were able to strike and lay waste to targets that were as far as four hundred miles away.

I speak of the Comanche Indians, the most fierce tribe ever seen on the American continent. The book is Empire of the Summer Moon; Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History, written by S.C. Gwynne. (Scribner)

I learned an incredible amount about our nation from reading this book, which I highly recommend to all. The Comanches kicked ass on all comers including Navajos, Utes, Blackfeet, Kiowas, Apaches, Tonkawa's (a cannibalistic tribe), Osages, Pawnee and a host of other tribes. Phenomenal battlefield tacticians. A young warrior was said to be able to loose five arrows before the first one hit the ground. On horseback.

These were not your romanticized noble indians of yore. They raped, tortured, murdered and practiced infanticide. They were the greatest horse thieves in history and they stole cattle too. And yet their captives (they had a practice of stealing young white and mexican children) loved them and rarely wanted to be repatriated back into their native culture.

The book chronicles the Comanche capture of nine year old Texas girl Cynthia Ann Parker and her subsequent marriage to a chief, Peta Nocona. She had three sons with him, including the famous war chief Quanah Parker. Their tale is fascinating.

The Comanches were finally subdued after four decades of war by a mix of factors including white man diseases cholera and smallpox, the demise of the bison, Texas Rangers, new gun technology (the Walker Colt and Spencer rifle, not to mention the Howitzer) and a surfeit of americans moving westward in a collision course. I think I have learned more from this book about our continent than any book I can remember reading.

I would like to offer a page from the book, page 5;

There was only one obstacle left; the warlike and unreconstructed Indian tribes who inhabited the physical wastes of the Great Plains.

Of those, the most remote, primitive and irredeemably hostile were a band of comanches known as the Quahadis. Like all Plains Indians, they were nomadic. They hunted primarily the southernmost part of the high plains, a place known to the Spanish, who had been abjectly driven from it as Comancheria. The Llano Estacado, located within Comancheria, was a dead flat tableland larger than New England and rising, in its highest elevations, to more than five thousand feet. For Europeans, the land was like a bad hallucination. "Although I traveled over them for more than 399 leagues" wrote Coronado in a letter to the King of Spain on October 20, 1541,"[there were] no more landmarks than if we had been swallowed up by the sea...there was not a stone, not a bit of rising ground, not a tree, not a shrub, nor anything to go by."

The Canadian River formed its northern boundary. In the east was the precipitous Caprock Escarpment, a cliff rising somewhere between two hundred and one thousand feet that demarcates the high plains from the lower Permian Plains below, giving the Quahadis something that approximated a gigantic, nearly impregnable fortress. 

Unlike almost all other tribal bands on the plains, the Quahadis had always shunned contact with Anglos. They would not even trade with them, as a general principal, preferring the Mexican traders from Santa Fe., known as Comancheros,

So aloof are they that in the numerous Indian ethnographies compiled from 1758 onward chronicling the various Comanche bands (there were as many as thirteen) they do not even show up until 1872. For this reason they had largely avoided the cholera plagues of 1816 and 1849 that had ravaged western tribes and had destroyed fully half of all Comanches.

Virtually alone among all bands of all tribes in North America, they never signed a treaty. Quahadis were the hardest, fiercest, least yielding component of a tribe that had long had the reputation as the most violent and warlike on the continent; if they ran low on water, they were known to drink the contents of a dead horse's stomach, something even the toughest Texas Ranger would not do. Even other Comanches feared them. They 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 fifteen thousand.  They also owned "Texas cattle without number."

Although I could nitpick with the author on a few literary points, you walk away with a major respect for the Comanches, even with a violent culture that is distant in so many ways from our western norms. Many times reading this I felt ashamed at our own western savagery towards the native peoples. You easily find yourself rooting for them. The author did a wonderful job. Read it and you will get a new perspective on our history.


Anonymous said...

It is one good book. I was struck by the resemblance between Comanche raiding parties and contemporary street gangs. There sure was diversity between tribal cultures of the day.

Ken Seals said...

thanks for the detailed review. i especially liked the map. I can just pick out Dodge City there. Dodge is located on the arKansas River, historically the northern extent of Coronado's exploration. The mascot of my alma mater, Dodge City College is the Conquistador.