Book Review: Empire Of The Summer Moon

Empire Of The Summer Moon:  Quanah Parker And The Rise And Fall Of The Comanches, The Most Powerful Indian Tribe In American History, by S.C. Gwynne

Having read a bit about the Comanches before, I was not surprised to see them viewed as an imperial power by the writer [1].  Yet the Comanche Empire is rather telling in that its peak strength occurred just before the moment of its collapse.  The author does not dwell on this, perhaps unsurprisingly, spending most of his time talking about that period where there is a great deal of external knowledge about the goings on of the Comanche but before their demographic situation led to a sudden decline.  If they are indeed the most power American Indian tribe in history, they were a paper tiger for all of the horror they inflicted on the territory at the edge of empire over the course of more than a century of power in the southern plains area.  At the moment they reached their greatest power they simultaneously provoked a response that, given their demographic weakness, would lead to their sudden removal from the plains and the settlement of those territories by Anglo-Americans.  If this book is of limited insight in exploring those mysteries it makes for a compelling read for those who appreciate a pro-Comanche perspective.

This book is a bit more than 300 pages and divided into 22 chapters.  The book begins with a discussion of the lethal warfare that the Comanche became experts in once they achieved mastery of horseback riding, becoming one of the elite horse nomadic tribes of the world (1).  Fairly soon the author brings his attention to the 19th century when the independence of Mexico and then Texas and then the expansion of the United States brought new captives into the Comanche and new enemies who were able to learn and counter the behavior of the Comanche as raiders.  The author spends a great deal of time talking about the internal politics of both the Comanche as its band system broke down in the face of demographic collapse as well as the problems of the Texas Republic, and it is only towards the end that the writer deals with the rapid fall of the Comanche immediately after the Civil War when its most serious opposition was no longer divided against itself.  The book then ends with a brief look at Quana Parker in captivity and the way that he and others sought to provide dignity within the bounds of surrender to the victorious Americans.

Like a few other tribes (the Sioux come to mind), the Comanche based their power on horsepower and raiding and having a base that was inhospitable to others, and their skills as nomadic raiders caused some serious problems for first Mexico and then the Texas Republic.  The weakness that both the Comanche and the Americans exploited simultaneously in the first half of the 19th century, though, put the two empires on a collision path and there was no question which would be superior when the Comanche themselves only numbered a few thousand people even as the United States became much more technologically advanced than any horse empire could deal with.  The author views this as a shame, and spends a great deal of time discussing the way that Quana Parker sought to defend the well-being of his people through the usual patronage politics in the aftermath of defeat and life on the reservation.  Given the brutality of the Comanche, though, I don’t tend to feel a sense of mourning that their raiding and depredations were ended, even at the cost of their own freedom.  Those who rape and pillage and destroy have no moral superiority over any empire who is strong enough to end their wickedness through coercive force.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American History, Book Reviews, History, Military History and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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