by S. C. Gwynne
The subtitle of the book is “Quanah Parker and The Rise and Fall of the Comanches, The Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History. ”
While the book details the capture of a white female child named Cynthia Parker, who would later marry one of the Comanche chiefs and would give birth to the most famous Comanche chief, Quanah Parker, the book delivers so much more. It gives background to the reader such that one comes away with a greater appreciation for the Quanah Parker story. I have read many history books on the American West in my day, but never have I read one that was so compelling, captivating, and so well done. Not only is this book chock-full of facts, but the facts are displayed in a way that while on the edge of entertaining, they are seen by the reader almost like one watches a painter paint a beautiful picture. In this case, Gwynne paints a picture of the Texas West during the time of the Comanche Indian nation’s absolute rule over that part of the West that is riveting.
I know a lot about the West and I know a lot about the Indians that populated the West. But, Empire of the Summer Moon gave me many, many facts that I did not know. I did not know, for example, the ferocity and savagery of the Comanche. Gwynne reveals a side of the Comanche Indian that was only truly known by the Indians themselves and those who were prey to frequent raids on white and Mexican settlements throughout Texas and Mexico.
The Comanche were the best light cavalry in the entire hemisphere, if not the planet. Gwynne says of the Comanche: “No one could out ride them or outshoot them from the back of a horse.”
When it came to fighting, the Comanche had no equal. They could do things from the back of a horse that was extraordinary. The author quotes George Catlin, one of the most famous artists of the old West, particularly his work depicting the various Indian tribes of the American West. Catlin wrote of the Comanche the following:
“Amongst their feats of writing there is one that has astonished me more than anything of the kind I have ever seen or expect to see in my life – a stratagem of war, learned and practiced by every young man in the tribe; by which he is able to drop his body on the side of his horse at the instant he is passing, effectively screened from his enemies’ weapons , as he lays in a horizontal position behind the body of his horse, with his heels hanging over the horse’s back… In this wonderful condition, he will hang whilst his horse is at fullest speed, carrying with him his bow and shield and also his long lance 14 feet in length.”
Gwynne notes that from this position a Comanche warrior “could lose 20 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 30 yards.”
It is no wonder that for decades the Comanche were unstoppable on the battlefield. There was only one force that ever defeated them and routed them, and that was only for a short time, and when that force was disbanded for a number of years, there was no one capable of pursuing and punishing the Comanche. That force? Capt. John Coffee Hays and his Texas Rangers. It was unfortunate for Texas that none of the higher-ups in Texas or in the American Congress or in the American military learned and emulated the tactics of Hays and the Texas Rangers. Capt. Jack, as he was fondly called by his men, was unique. He was the quintessential Westerner, the hero who would later be the model for thousands of Hollywood movies and countless dime novels.
Hays took his men and trained them to fight the Comanche using their own tactics. Gwynne does an excellent job in presenting well-researched facts about Hays and the Texas Rangers in those early years in the 1840s. He goes on to give great detail as to exactly what Hays did, including how the men were equipped and trained. He writes:
“Hays, in particular, paid a good deal of attention both to his Comanche foes and to his Lipon Apache scouts, learning from them how to ride, fight, track, make camp…Like Comanches, the Rangers often traveled by moonlight, navigating by river courses and the North Star, and dispensing with fires altogether, making cold camps and eating hardtack or other uncooked rations. Hays’s men sleep fully clothed and fully armed, ready to fight in a minute’s notice. They crossed rivers even in freezing weather, swimming by the side of their horses. None of this behavior had any precedent in American military history. No cavalry anywhere could bridle and saddle horse in less time than the Rangers.”
Hays took the fight to the Comanche and was able to beat them because of his work in training his men with their weapons, and in utilizing the tactics of the Comanche. But, he was a tactician at heart and Gwynne does a superb job at showing, in detail, the tactics employed by Hayes and the Texas Rangers that made them so successful. It was unfortunate that all of that training and all of that success was lost immediately on the resignation of Hays and the disbanding of the Texas Rangers for a few years.
I highly recommend Empire of the Summer Moon. It is the best book you could possibly find on the history of early Texas and the Comanche Indians.