If you have had the chance to view a map of North American Indian tribes prior to the formation of the United States, you may have been just as surprised as I was to see how many were in existence. The story of North America’s early inhabitants known simply as Native Americans, is deeply complex and ultimately tragic. In 2016, 20th Century Fox released Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant in which Leonardo DiCaprio assumed the role of real-life fur trapper and trader Hugh Glass (1783-1833). The film is hauntingly beautiful with a musical score that adds the right touch of emotion and suspense. Parts of the story are fictionalized but it is largely based on true events. The movie accurately portrayed life in North America in the early 1800s as the United States was continuing to expand well into Native American territories. The violence on screen is shocking but also an accurate depiction of the savageness in the battles that did occur. What is not shown in the film are the wars that had been taking place between tribes. The absence of widespread hegemony between tribes meant that territory was of the utmost importance and the threat of attack from enemies was constant. Some tribes were known to be more dangerous than others and none were as deadly and feared as the Comanches. Their large numbers and presence across large portions of land in the western half of North America made them a threat to anyone who ventured into parts unknown. In this spellbinding book, author S.C. Gwynne tells the incredible story of the Comanche Indians’ rise and fall, and the life story of their last big chief, Quanah Parker (1845-1911).
Before I proceed, I must warn readers that the book is not for the faint at heart. It is an unfiltered look into North America’s violent past and shatters any illusions about white settlers being welcomed with open arms by natives eager to accept the white man’s way of life. In fact, it was quite the opposite. The Comanches had no intention of living the “white way” and were content with their lives. And anyone who threatened that way of life or intruded upon it was fair game. The Comanches commenced raids upon white settlements and against other tribes, pillaging, and plundering. Readers sensitive to descriptions of violence will find some parts of the story difficult to accept. In 1836, the Parker family found themselves victims of the Comanches and during a raid, a nine-year-old girl named Cynthia Ann Parker (1827-1871) was kidnapped with her brother John Richard Parker (1830-1915) and integrated into the Comanche tribe. And as Gwynne explains, this act ignited a four-decade war between whites and the Comanches. And during those forty years, there was bloodshed, heartbreak and a Civil War that changed American history. The Comanches could not have known at the time that the young girl would have more of an impact on the future of their tribe than anyone knew. Gwynne drives home the point with this explanation:
“The kidnapping of a blue-eyed, nine-year-old Cynthia Ann in 1836 marked the start of the white man’s forty-year war with the Comanches, in which Quanah would play a leading role. In one sense, the Parkers are the beginning and end of the Comanches in U.S. history.”
As a primer to the main story, Gwynne provides thorough explanations regarding other tribes important to the story and the involvement of Mexico. The image of life that comes into focus is of one that was short and brutally hard. The introduction of diseases to native tribes decimated populations. Today, smallpox and cholera are well understood and prevented but in the early 1800s they were deadly killers. And those unfamiliar to these viruses almost always faced a certain death. As I read the book, I found myself speechless at times due to the descriptions of daily life. From one day to the next, nothing was guaranteed and the threat of violence from other tribes and bandits was always on the mind of many. And it is imperative to recall that at the time Parker was taken in May 1836, there were only twenty-four states in the Union. Territory west and north was unorganized and further south, the land was part of Mexico. Comanches fiercely roamed these territories and even made raids into what is now the State of Texas. And it is here that the story heats up as the Parker family is torn apart during the Fort Parker Massacre. Some readers might wonder if Washington should have expected such an attack. The truth is that there was much Washington did not know and Texas had been placed in a precarious position as Gwynne explains in this passage:
“Texas was thus left alone, broke and militarily punchless, for ten years to confront two implacable enemies: Mexico on the south, and the Comanche nation on the west and north. The fledgling country would never know peace. Mexican incursions persisted; the city of San Antonio was captured twice by large Mexican armies in 1842.”
The harsh reality is that Washington had no clear answer for the Indians and things in Texas were about to take a deadlier turn. The tragedy of the Parkers deeply concerned Texans and Washington but they were not the only settlers that suffered. Gwynne includes accounts of other settlers who met dark fates as they ventured into unknown territory. Raiding, pillaging, rape and scalping were the tools of the trade and the Comanches did not hesitate to use them. Because of the horrific acts of sexual violence, parents might want to use discretion should they decide to purchase this book for minors. What I learned about the Comanche raids on the settles and other tribes, is interesting for it shows the acrimony that existed between the natives, and it also explains why the U.S. Government had no choice but to find a way to turn the tide in the conflict with the Indians.
Following the massacre, the book is essentially two stories in one. The mission to find Cynthia and John Parker comes into focus but finding them would not be easy. And it is not until the entry of former Texas Governor Lawrence Sullivan “Sul” Ross (1838-1898) into the story that major success occurs. Finding the Parkers was a priority but dealing with the Comanches and other Indians became priority number one. In the process, thousands of men died at the hands of the Comanches. Troops and even the Texas Rangers had never faced a similar enemy and were at times lost in their approach. To drive home the point about the power behind the Comanches, Gwynne sums up their dominance and states that:
” Comanches fought entirely on horseback and in a way no soldier or citizen in North America had ever seen.”
Battles between whites and the natives increase in frequency and some notable figures appear whose names are cemented in American history such as Christopher Houston “Kit” Carson (1809-1868), Samuel Colt (1914-1862) and John Coffee Hays (1817-1883). Carson and Hays learned first-hand that the United States was not prepared to do battle with the Indias. Their opponents possessed skills and knowledge of the terrain that white settlers had not yet obtained. However, Colt invents an equalizer in the form of a weapon that became synonymous with the wild west. And as technology improves, the natives soon find themselves struggling for survival. Further, the United States later employed a powerful asset named Ranald S. McKenzie (1840-1889) who has largely faded into history. His story and later acquaintance with Quanah Parker are discussed here and provide an interesting back drop to the main story being told. McKenzie became integral to the battle against the Comanches but never gained the fame and recognition one would expect. His own tragic life story is revisited bringing home the horrors of war. Cynthia Parker does reappear in the story and her life is equally as tragic and also surreal. Her marriage to former Comanche Chief Pete Nacona (1820-1964) and their children was highly unusual and at the time that knowledge came to light, a majority of people could not believe it. But this is her story which includes separation from her birth family and integration on the Comanche nation which she remained loyal to for the rest of her life. Her son Quanah becomes the focus of the remaining parts of the book as he assumes the mantel over a tribe facing its own demise. But Quanah is not a fool and makes a surprising decision that had an enormous impact on the Comanches. His actions were not isolated but taken typically after all other options had been exhausted. It could be said that his actions sealed the fate for the Comanches.
It is easy to see the Comanches as bloodthirsty savages, but Gwynne is careful not to make that mistake. In fact, he does make himself clear that multiple factors were at play that led to the Fort Parker Massacre and conflict with the American Government. And there was horrific acts of violence committed by all asides. Ignorance of the native tribes and territorial boundaries undoubtedly added to the tensions that simmered. The Comanches wanted to live their way of life on land they believed was theirs. Their ancestors had lived on the land and they believed it was theirs for life. They were fine with their existence and did not desire to become “civilized”. White settlers and government officials often made the mistake of seeing the natives as “savages’ that needed to convert to Christianity and the ways of the white man. But what they did not understand is that the natives had no concept of that, nor did they want to. The Comanches committed unspeakable acts upon many but as shocking as it for me as New Yorker in 2021 to understand, for them it was life as they knew it. Violence played itself out over and over again across this continent and it was accepted by many and employed by others. It is unsettling but it is also part of the history that created the country I call home. S.C. Gwynne has done an incredible job here and this book is excellent. It may be hard to read at times, but this is the story of the Comanches that Americans should know.