In a dual review of S.C. Gwynne’s Empire of the Summer Moon and Nathaniel Philbrick’s The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull and the Battle of the Little Bighorn, Bruce Barcott wrote for The New York Times, “If Custer illustrates how the spotlight of history sometimes shines on the wrong actor, Quanah Parker exemplifies the more deserving who get left in the shadows.” That’s debatable. Quanah, the half-blood last chief of the Comanche nation, has hardly been forgotten. Publishers released two biographies of him in the 1990s. He appeared on the cover of the December 2007 Wild West, and his name pops up again in a feature story (“A Texas Cattleman & His Comanche Concubine,” by Richard Selcer) in this issue.
Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History had reached No. 6 on The New York Times best-seller list when Wild West caught up with author Gwynne before a talk and book-signing in Amarillo, Texas—near Quanah’s old stamping grounds. An admitted Yankee who has spent the past 26 years out West, Gwynne worked for Time and Texas Monthly and is now a reporter for The Dallas Morning News. He took time to talk about Quanah, the Comanches and his book (reviewed in this issue).
‘This guy’s this brutal warrior, and he leaves it all behind and reinvents himself in this remarkable way’
What led you to tackle Quanah Parker and the Comanche Nation?
I read a book by Walter Prescott Webb called The Great Plains. It’s a fantastic book. Webb is not a great writer in the traditional sense, but he’s workmanlike, and the material was brilliant. There was a piece of a chapter—it wasn’t even a whole chapter—where he asserted what [Rupert N.] Richardson had put forth in 1933 [in The Comanche Barrier to South Plains Settlement] of the Comanche barrier that determined how the continent settled itself. So I read this, and me being a Yankee, I didn’t know anything about Western Indians. That was the start of it. That got me to [T.R.] Fehrenbach [author of Comanches: The Destruction of a People], and that started me reading more.
Another thing that happened, too, was I came to Texas 16 years ago with Time. As a Time correspondent you’re all over the state, and as a Texas Monthly correspondent, which I was for 10 years, you’re all over the state, and in certain pockets people would tell you Comanche stories. A woman might tell me that her great-grandparents were both killed by Comanches.…This happened to me a lot.
There was another reason. There wasn’t anything [published] nationally since Fehrenbach. There were other biographies, little things about the Parker clan, small print runs, probably regional, probably mostly bought here. I said [to myself], Look, the average idiot in New York City has probably never heard of these guys, never heard of Cynthia Ann Parker. People in Texas might have, but Oregon, Washington, New Jersey, California and Florida? No, nothing. And not only that, I thought I could sell a book to editors who also knew nothing about this subject.
Has the perception of Quanah Parker changed since Zoe Tilghman’s 1938 biography or the 1990s biographies by Bill Neeley or William Hagan?
I don’t think so. I don’t really claim to be breaking new ground on Quanah. It comes down to your take on it. When you deal with this kind of history, the number of sources is limited in many, many ways. I was reading a biography of Winston Churchill recently, and you realize that this guy wrote 20 notes to his wife every day. Almost moment by moment of his life is chronicled. When you’re writing about native Americans, it’s sparse, so you take it where you can get it.
I did a lot of original research, particularly from interview projects done in the early 1930s, where I was reading and making up my own mind, but I don’t think I concluded anything differently from what Hagan did.
But Hagan focused primarily on Quanah’s reservation years. Your focus is earlier.
Nobody’s taken a whack at this. It’s an attempt to do the whole enchilada. Basically, it’s the rise and fall of the Comanche nation, the epic sweep with Parker-Parker-Parker—and then they merge with Quanah. It’s partly that I had Fehrenbach’s ambition. but I did it in a completely different way than Fehrenbach did. He devotes no time to the Parkers at all.
It’s a big epic sweep, part of it which I got from Richardson and Webb. I couldn’t let go of it. I didn’t want to let go because it was too cool. I wanted a big, sweeping story plus a little more intimate. I guess that’s what distinguished the book.
In The New York Times review, the writer basically said there are too many books about Custer and not enough about Quanah, and that more people should know about Quanah Parker.
I agree. I think he’s one of the greatest Americans I’ve ever heard of. He is such a remarkable man, and he does what so many great Americans have done in the past, which is he reinvents himself. He puts the past behind him. Who knows how many people he killed and in what ways he killed them? As I point out in the book, we know where the Kwahadis were raiding in the 1860s and early 1870s, and we know what those raids involved. Now, we don’t know what he did personally, but everybody was doing them, and maybe he was doing them, and they were extremely violent, extremely brutal raids, even by Comanche standards. So OK, this guy’s this brutal warrior, and he leaves it all behind and reinvents himself in this remarkable way.
There’s a striking line in the book: “There was never anything subtle about Quanah, either in war or peace.” How so?
He was just out there. At some point he decides these schools are all being done for white people, and Indians aren’t welcome, and he goes, “I’m gonna start a school district, and I’m gonna be president, and I’m gonna donate the land for it, and I’m gonna get it.” It’s so interesting that this guy who is the school board guy also recruited the [Indian] troops for [the 1874 Battle of] Adobe Walls. He was an aggressive personality but, from all accounts that I read, a nice aggressive personality. You wanted to do it for Quanah. You liked him.
The subtitle of your book calls the Comanches “the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History.” What about the Lakotas?
I view power as influence and the ability to change history. There’s really no significant contact of any time, militarily, before 1854 with the northern Sioux. They certainly did have their affect on history in those latter years, but the fact that the Comanches were the contact point for all these empires—Mexican, Spanish, French, Texan and American—nobody’s anywhere near them in that regard. It’s an accident of history that they happened to be sitting where all of these empires kept pushing, so that’s my argument. I’m looking in terms [of the Comanche Nation] almost as a European state in the 17th and 18th centuries.
What was Quanah’s relationship with Colonel Ranald Mackenzie?
A historian would like to have seen into that room. Mackenzie gave [Quanah] etiquette lessons, spent time with him, tried to find [Quanah’s] family, gave him jobs to do. There was clearly this relationship. Unfortunately, because of the nature of Mackenzie, he never said anything. Mackenzie would have been famous if he had only written the kinds of reports Custer did. Mackenzie’s reports were, “Went into field…killed Indians…end of report.” Of course, from Quanah you get anecdotal accounts, but hardly anything. It’s just frustrating.
How did Cynthia Ann Parker’s recapture by Texans affect Quanah, her son?
All we know is he loved her, and he missed her terribly, and that he tried to find her for many years. I think it’s touching. He was so fond of her, and she was dead by the time of Blanco Canyon [an 1871 Comanche-Army fight], but the fact that he kept that picture in his house, and the fact that he went to the trouble to get her body moved, got the U.S. government to pay for it—which is totally Quanah—that goes to this other side of Comanches. Everybody says they were just thugs and killers. They were tender.
A Comanche friend of mine says his people fought so hard because they loved their families. But he adds, “We can be overly argumentative.”
I just read this history of World War II and what the Japanese did, and it was absolutely no worse than what the Comanches did. What the Japanese did was the same as what the Comanches did. So was what the Vikings did. The problem was it was the collision of the premodern with the modern. The Sioux did pretty much the same thing. I tried to make that point in the book. You can’t single them out. Not only that, but we have very recent historical examples of civilized nations—not to mention uncivilized nations—doing all of these things.
What led to the downfall of the Comanches and other Plains Indian tribes in the 19th century?
Ultimately you had the Civil War. No one had seen that type of military force unleashed. So at some point after that the die is cast, and the guys running the show are these grim warriors who beat the South, [Ulysses S.] Grant, [William] Sherman, [Philip] Sheridan, and they are really grim warriors.
So you had disease, and the sheer U.S. military capabilities and the death of the buffalo. But to me, once the last buffalo is shot, there’s no such thing as a Plains Indian. There can’t be. What are they supposed to do? They are then forced to trade cattle for white man’s goods. That’s all they can do, and increasingly it was going to be harder for them to steal cattle. It’s the end of the Plains warriors.
You didn’t really need all the military capability that Grant, Sherman and Sheridan brought to bear, although that’s why I opened the book with Blanco Canyon. I thought that’s the significant moment where those guys go, “OK, enough’s enough. We’re sick of this crap. We’re taking our best soldiers from the Civil War and we’re going to get them.” At that point, once those three guys are focused, you don’t have much time.
Why did Quanah forever deny that the Texas Rangers who recaptured his mother also killed his father?
I think it was clear. It was incredibly embarrassing. [Quanah’s father, Peta Nocona, is] in camp with women, and he gets shot down by a bunch of ragtag Rangers? It’s really disgraceful. Not only that, but he loses an enormous amount of meats, skins.
How effective was Quanah as a leader during the reservation days?
Very effective. And the stuff he fought for, I believe, was the right stuff. Quanah had to fight for everything he got. He was political all the way. Quanah has really good at that. And fundamentally, I think the things he did were good and right.
What’s next for you?
One of the great revelations was Jack Hays, and one of the revelations was that Texans haven’t heard of this guy anymore. He becomes one of the great heroes of the Mexican War, but before that the material is so thin. It’s tough. I would love to figure out how to do Jack Hays as a full-length biography.