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Comanche Chief Quanah Parker (Getty Images)

Comanche Nation: The Rise And Fall Of An 'Empire'

Jun 23, 2010 (Fresh Air)

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In 1836, a 9-year-old pioneer girl named Cynthia Ann Parker was kidnapped during a Comanche raid in North Texas. She was strapped onto the back of a horse and taken north, back into the Plains where the powerful American Indian tribe lived.

Parker became a ward of the chief and later, a full member of the Comanches. She eventually married a highly respected Comanche chief and gave birth to three children, including Quanah — who would grow up to become the last and greatest Comanche leader.

The story of Cynthia Ann and her son, Chief Quanah Parker, is told in S.C. Gwynne's book, Empire of the Summer Moon. Gwynne traces the rise and fall of the Comanche Nation against the backdrop of the fight for control of the American Midwest.

Gwynne tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross that he became interested in telling the Comanche story because of their integral role in preventing — and then opening up — the American West to white settlers.

"If you go back through Comanche history, you see that they were the ones who stopped the Spanish from coming North," he explains. "Why did the French stop coming west from Louisiana? Comanches. ... Here was why the West Coast and the East Coast settled before the middle of the country. Here was why there was basically a 40-year wait before you could develop the state of Texas or before other Plain states could be developed."


Interview Highlights

On telling the story of Quanah Parker and his mother

"I grew up in the Northeast and I moved to Texas about 16 years ago and I started hearing stories about Comanches and I really didn't know what a Comanche was. I think I had heard about Comanches in a John Wayne movie or something but I really didn't know who they were. When I started to read a little bit about them, I realized that they were just this enormous force — this enormous force of nature sitting in the middle of the North American continent who determined how the West opened."

On what the raid on the Parker fort was like

"This is what Indians did to Indians and this just happened to be Indians meeting whites. But the automatic thing in battle is that all the adult males would be killed. That was automatic. That was one of the reasons that Indians fought to the death. The white men were astonished by it but they were assumed that they would be killed. Small children were killed. Very small children were killed. A lot of the children in say, the 3-10 range were often taken as captives. The women were often raped and often killed. And all of the people in those settlements back in those years knew what a Comanche raid was — knew what a Comanche raid meant. ... And it's an interesting kind of moral question as a historian about Plains Indians or American Indians in general. You have to come to terms with this — with torture, which they practiced all across the West — and these kind of grisly practices that scared white people to death."

On rewriting history to leave out Native American atrocities

"There was even an attempt at one point to deny that Indians were warlike. Comanches were incredibly warlike. They swept everyone off the Southern plains. They nearly exterminated the Apaches. And you know, if you look at the Comanches and you look back in history at Goths and Vikings or Mongols or Celts — old Celts are actually a very good parallel. In a lot of ways, I think we're looking back at earlier versions of ourselves. We — being white European — did all of those things. Not only that but torture was institutionalized during things like the Counter-Reformation and the Spanish Inquisition and the Russian Revolution."

On how male Comanches became warriors

"The Comanches were kind of like the Spartans. Because of their incredible military mastery, which derived from the horse — they were the prototype horse tribe, the tribe that could do more with the horse than any other tribe could. Because of that, it was a military community and their old way of life was supplanted by the new way of life which mainly had to do with war. So they pretty much hunted buffalo ... and started war. And they were amazingly stripped down in that they didn't have social organization or religious organization. They didn't weave baskets. They had a very stripped-down culture. So within that culture the boys learned to hunt and ride at a very early age and they would become a warrior in their midteens."

How the slaughter of 31 million buffalo between 1868 and 1881 contributed to the downfall of the Comanches

"Their lives were built on two things, really — it was war and buffalo. All of the Plains Indians, once they got the horse from the Spanish, buffalo hunting became easier for them. It was their way of life. The buffalo hunting began as a simple market exercise. Hunters figured out they could get $3.50 a hide. Then they figured out they could ship these hides east on the new railroads. And they also figured out that buffalos were not smart enough to realize that if a buffalo next to the buffalo dropped, that there was something wrong. The buffalo had to see the source of the danger. So you'd have these people who would kill 3,500 buffalo in 28 days ... It occurred to the generals in the West, specifically [Philip] Sheridan and [William] Sherman, that by allowing the buffalos to be destroyed, they were creating the most efficient way to destroy Indians. And Sheridan had a famous quote. He said, 'You kill the buffalo, you destroy the Indian's commissary.' So it became political at the end. Yes, let's kill all the buffalos and then it's the end of Plains Indians because there is no Plains Indian without a buffalo."

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