Empire of the Summer Moon – Initial Thoughts

I’m a little over halfway through S.C. Gwynne’s book about the Comanche tribes rise and fall on the Great Plains: Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History

Here are some of my initial thoughts:

  • The Plains Wars were brutal and savage, more so than I thought. And both the US and the Plains Indians committed atrocities that, even by the standards of the day, were despicable. On the high plains of the Comancheria, war meant tearing into the soft underbelly of your enemy: kill men, women, children and the elderly; preferably in their sleep so they can’t fight back. These were simply the rules of engagement. Plains Indians did it to settlers, the US did it to Plains Indians, and Plains Indians did it to each other. This was not a great time to be alive on the American frontier, on either side.
  • The Plains Indian Wars were a clash of two fundamentally different notions of property. From the perspective of the average plains Indian and average white settler, neither side was acting rationally. To the Plains Indian, the open grasslands were hunting territory that was fought over and won from neighboring tribes. The plains supported game that supported the tribe. To the white settlers, it was unoccupied and unused land, because their notion of occupied, owned land was that of private property in the form of farms or ranches. When they settled this “unused land,” they were attacked, seemingly without provocation by bands of wild, savage Indians. They were simply hard working folk who wished to make a living in peace. To the Plains Indians, the settlers were making a declaration of war by intruding on their hunting grounds. In that day, such a provocation called for a violent response to drive the intruders off your land. The reason for this was that white settlement of the Great Plains eliminated wild game, thus destroying the tribes food source.
  • The Comanche were tough as nails. Seriously. These were people who learned as children how to hit a half dollar size target at 50 yards with a stone aged bow and arrow from underneath the neck of their horse at full gallop. These were people who lanced 2,000 pound buffalo from horseback and lived to tell the tale time and time again. They lived, breathed and ate warfare. On the Great Plains, their war ponies, which they bred from Spanish stock left over from the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, could outrun any horse the Americans could bring into the field. Their rate of fire, marksmanship, bravery, and tactics put them in the ranks of the greatest mounted cavalry the world has ever seen. If your enemy was a Comanche, pray he’s not on a horse when you meet him.
  • The Texas Rangers were equally tough, and defeated the Comanches in battle by adopting their tactics. Anytime the US ignored these tactics (and they did so frequently,) they were soundly defeated by the Plains Indians in hit and run raids and ambushes.
  • Treaties meant very little to either side. Even if one arm of the Federal Government was earnest in its intentions, another part felt free to simply ignore them as no one was able to stop settlers from heading west. For many of the Plains Tribes, treaties just meant getting a lot of free stuff to stop raiding for a little while. But band leaders had limited to no control over the band’s warriors, and certainly couldn’t reverse the centuries old warrior culture that was ingrained in Plains Indian life.

More later. I’ll be getting into the Reservation part of the story, and am eager to read about Quanah Parker and the beginnings of the Native American Church.


About Vince

I am a Tlingit, born and raised in Tlingit Country, and a proud member of the Tlingit Nation.
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