It’s May 1836 on the fringe of or perhaps just beyond American civilization west of the Mississippi.
It is here that the dense woods of the eastern United States fall away, replaced instead by millions of acres of land, much of it flat and dry. The American Great Plains, as we learned in elementary school. This space across Oklahoma, Kansas and what is now northern Texas is a vast and virtual unknown, yet American settlers from the east have slowly begun pushing into it, testing the boundaries of civilization.
The Parker family, a pioneering assembly families of individuals with the last name of – you guessed it – Parker, have built a small fort on the edge of this wilderness, with no close by trading stations, commercial enterprises, or for the most part – people.
A group of Indians appear at the half-guarded fort one day on horseback, and America is changed forever. This, or at the very least, a change of events is set in motion that hastens the demise of its free indigenous man. What takes place at Parker Fort can only be described by the crimes – the rape of Granny Parker, violent murders and dismembering of several men, and the abduction of women (one pregnant) and children. Empire of the Summer Moon is the story of one of the last truly free Native American Indian tribes, and whose downfall left the door wide open for American expansion west.
Of course Indians is a very broad term. The warriors who showed up at the Parker Fort that day are of the great Comanche Nation, the largest band of North American Indians west of the Mississippi. They are brilliant horsemen and buffalo hunters, well-organized despite their many factions, and shockingly violent in their behavior. Americans are about to find out what many other Indian tribes of the West as well as Spanish forces driving north from Mexico already knew – the Comanche are fearless and brutal.
The Comanche raped women, butchered small children, roasted enemies alive, tortured people indiscriminately, and of course – scalped their victims. Some of the stories in the book are difficult to read.
After the Parker’s Fort massacre, search parties were sent out for the missing women and children. Efforts were made to organize forces to attack the Comanche, but the problem is no one could find them. Once they disappeared into the Plains, they were as good as gone. Soon, the Texas Rangers would be born, a group consisting of young men in their 20s seeking adventure and violence by hunting Indians. They were moderately successful, but still for decades the Comanche would maintain control of their land, despite advancements from white settlers and buffalo hunters.
The buffalo are an intricate part of this story. The migratory Comanche tribe followed and depended on the them for everything – food, supplies, shelter, tools – and while they could slow the advancement of white people with sheer violence, they couldn’t slow the American buffalo hunters who quickly decimated the herds for great profit back East.
In the book there is of course, a plot twist. One of the Comanche tribes has a secret. A member of their tribe is a white woman. Not only is she this, but she’s married to one of the chiefs of the tribe, Peta Nocona. They have two sons and a daughter, and a seemingly functional relationship based on Comanche way of life – traveling, hunting, and celebrating. And violence.
That woman is Cynthia Parker, taken at the age of ten during the raid at Parker’s Fort. One of her and Peta’s sons, Quanah Parker who was half-white, who would go on to become the last great, free Comanche chief.
The book reminds you of what you already know, should you not choose to bury your head in the sand with regards to the United States’ genocidal history. Ultimately white Americans would move west, bring disease, destroy the buffalo herds, and force Indians onto reservations and into an American way of life. We know this.
But the Comanche were never peaceful people. Recall that it’s not only white people they slaughtered, it was the men, women and children of other Indian tribes, some of them peaceful. This cannot be overlooked. Comanche women had very difficult lives as something slightly better than slaves but certainly worse than anything that could be considered partners. Their people lived a difficult life and often died violently, also appearing disinterested or at least less than motivated to evolve their culture.
Maybe this is why they ultimately lost everything – their inability (or unwillingness) to adapt, instead trying only relive the lives of the generations that came before them. I enjoyed the book for the lesson in American history and the sharp reminder that an unknown enemy can cause even the greatest nation to fall.