I came across this book in my local library. Not a new book but it doesn’t seem to have been mentioned on these boards.
I’m new to Comanche history and this book tells the story of their rise from the 1700s via their early acquisition of the horse and their mastery of mounted warfare. It describes their battles with the Spanish, Mexicans, settlers, Texas Rangers and US troops to their eventual move to the reservations in the 1880s.
The most powerful and influential tribe of the southern plains, even though they had virtually no political system and their five bands - bound by culture, language and tradition - usually acted independently of one another.
Quanah Parker, perhaps their greatest leader, and the only one who could really be said to the “Chief of the Comanche”, as opposed to a band, was the son of a white mother. He was the last to go onto the reservation. While he is mentioned in the book’s subtitle, this book is not all about him, fascinating though he is.
The story of his mother Cynthia Ann, captured by the Comanche at nine years old, is woven throughout, as is that of Col. Ranald Mackenzie who was probably the most successful of the white soldiers in the South. The contrast between his career and Custer’s is interesting.
When I come across a good book I buy it for my library. This one’s a keeper.
I agree. I am reading his book right now. The book has made me think a lot about Texas, the Great Plains, the Plains Indians and why things came out they way they did. I must say that the author of this book is an excellent writer. Many books that try to tell history can be hard to get through. But this person really knows how to write :-)
I have found myself thinking a lot about the introduction of horses from the Spanish - and how this changed everything on the Plains. What is amazing is the rapid change - how short a period of time from when the horses went wild and became mustangs ... to when they were adopted by many tribes and completely changed their transportation and warfare. When the horses first became herds of mustangs - there must have literally been an explosion in their numbers.
To all who have picked up "Empire of the Summer Moon":
Put it down. Now!
Back away slowly.
Take a deep breath.
Why do I say this? Because it's a piece of kwiitapU.
I have tried many times to write a formal review of it, but every time I get started, I have to, well, put it down, and back away.
I have tried to be objective. I really have. I have tried to ignore the fact that even tho my book, _The Comanches: A History_, is his second-most cited reference after Wallace and Hoebel (1952), it takes him almost 280 pages to spell my name right.
I really have tried to write a review. But I get bogged down in pointing out that he continually gets details wrong, mis-reads sources, mis-cites references. At times it seems as if each chapter had a different copy editor, with no one keeping track of continuity. Thus statements made in one chapter are contradicted in a later chapter.
The best I can say about it is this: Put it down. Walk away. Regret you ever picked it up. You have better things to do with your time.
[Last month, I was in Oklahoma to give a talk to the Comanche Nation College. I heard that Larry McMurtry has bought the film rights to EotSM. arrrgh]
I haven´t read this book... but I admit I wondered why the title sounds like a novel by Lucia St. Clair Robson.
I think it's cause he's riffing off of Hamilainen's _Comanche Empire_ meme. As I have said of the latter, Comanches were the dominant political force on the Southern Plains for almost 175 years. But to call the Comancheria an "empire," is, I think stretching the history to fit contemporary sensibilities.
Last Edit: Feb 26, 2013 15:45:11 GMT -5 by tkavanagh
I think that if you want to dispute the story in the book, your best approach is to go directly to the cited historical references. If these are incorrect - you need to explain why. The validity of the author's point of view depends upon those references. Therefore, that's why I am suggesting you tackle them. Or if you don't have time to deal with all of them, pick a few that you think have the greatest errors and carefully show why they are wrong. Or provide an alternative explanation that gives better insight into the behavior of the people described. Try to be patient and realize that one book does not set the "standard" for the truth. Most readers will understand that.
I have not come to the conclusion that the Commanche people are a bunch of "savages" after reading the book. But I have formed the opinion that warfare between the tribes, as well as between Native Americans and white people, was brutal and savage.
"But to call the Comancheria an "empire," is, I think stretching the history to fit contemporary sensibilities"
Hmmm. I don't know. I came to realize after reading this book that I did not know nearly enough about the Commanches at all. It seems apparent that few - if any - white people really took the time to understand the people. If their lands stretched from the southern Plains all the way down into Mexico ... it was a vast area. Perhaps they did not have the complex structure of a typical "nation" - but they sure were controlling an amazing amount of land. It's very interesting to think about what would have happened to the Commanches if the arrival of white people had been delayed for another 500 years. In principle, they could have developed into a major trading power.
Yes, I agree that “... if you want to dispute the story in the book, your best approach is to go directly to the cited historical references.”
The problem is, going "directly to the cited historical references" would be next to impossible for the novice reader. Let me give you two examples, one broadly general, one specific.
[The following is an edited excerpt from one of those reviews that I started but never finished.]
The presentation of citations/bibliography is most peculiar and inconsistent. It’s almost as if each chapter and notes were written and copy-edited separately, with little or no continuity from one to the next. In the notes, authors are sometimes given in full, then last name only. Buthe next chapter starts all over again. Richard I. Dodge is sometimes as “Richard I. Dodge,” sometimes as “Richard Irving Dodge,” sometimes “Colonel Richard Irving Dodge,” sometimes just Colonel Dodge. The bibliography itself is incomprehensibly divided into “Books,” “Articles,” “ Papers, Letters and Official Documents,” “Individual Letters,” and “Manuscripts and Archival Materials.” But no indication is given in the notes as to where to look for the full reference. This results in a number of works being listed in several sections, or in the wrong section. For instance, James Mooney’s 460-page Calender History of the Kiowa , is incredibly listed as an article, not a book . George Pettis’s account of the 1864 First Battle of Adobe Walls is listed twice, once as 1878, once as 1908, and the battle itself is once given as occurring in 1860.
One set of citations jumped out at me, for other reasons. They start in Chapter Five, note 12, “Almost all of what we know about Comanche -Spanish relations comes from official documents from the era.” Oh, really? You were expecting some other source?
Then comes, p 325, note 12: “Also helpful and interesting is Ralph Twitchell’s edited multi-volume compilation Spanish Archives of New Mexico [hereafter SANM; it was published in 1914 ].” Well, okay. I guess two volumes can be called “multi-” volume. But the clincher, a few notes later (same page, note 18) is this:
An excellent account of Serna’s successful 1716 expedition against the Comanches appears in Ralph Twitchell, [SANM] ... vol. 2, p. 301.
This just screamed out at me because I know that citation. I discussed it on page 65 of my book. Thus I knew this citation, and thus Gwynne's characterization, to be bogus. Others would not be so lucky.
Given the specificity of the citation to “[SANM] vol. 2, p. 301” one would expect that it is indeed a published reproduction, or translation at least, of archival materials.
Twitchell (1914), the SANM, is an index, a calendar, a list of documents in the SANM, not the documents themselves.
Moreover, the documents listed on page 301 of Vol 2 are from 1786 and 1787, not 1716 as in Gwynne. WTF?
Oh, here’s a possibility: the documents listed in Twitchell are given a number. Perhaps that “301” refers to a document, not a page.
Indeed, the entry for document T-301, which is on page 188 of Twitchell II is, in entirety:
301 VALVERDE y COSIO. August 11, 1719 Autos and diligencias in the matter of the campaign against the Yutas in the matter of their thefts and depredations in the province for which the governor called a council of war of the officials of the presidio and the citizens of experiences, etc. 20 f [folios].
Hmmm. Does not seem to be much there about Comanches. Moreover, its date is 1719, not 1716 as in Gwynne. Again, WTF?
It’s only once one gets into SANM T-301 (available on microfilm) do you realize that it does indeed contain a *summary* by Capt Serna of his 1716 campaign. But it is not an “excellent account” as Gwynne would have it. Moreover, it is a misleading summary at that. == That is about as far as I got in my review; I was just too depressed to continue. My copy of Gwynne is riddled with question marks, exclamation points, and underlinings. He may recount a good story, but a good history it ain't.
Clearly he claims to have read my *two* books on the Comanches: they are listed in his bibliography, although there are notes to only one. Yet just as clearly they did not sink in
Now, back to dt : “I came to realize after reading this book that I did not know nearly enough about the Commanches [sic] at all.”
There is one way to rectify that. Get _The Comanches: A History_. [This is not a profiteering plug: I get no royalties from it, they all go to the Indian Studies Research Institute at Indiana University.]
If you have any specific questions, I would be happy to try to address them.
tk Esimotsoraivo Consulting Anthropologist for the Comanche Nation of Oklahoma
Last Edit: Feb 27, 2013 7:21:39 GMT -5 by tkavanagh
tk ... I would be more than happy to read your book. I will order a copy. The one great benefit of Eotsm is that now I have become quite interested in the Commanches. :-)
From an academic viewpoint ... all your comments about the many references seem very valid. In fact, I am now wondering if S. C. Gwynne actually read all of these references, or merely listed them. It would be disingenous for the author to cite references and not really absorb what they are saying. However - the difficulty for you is that what S.C. Gwynne lacks in authenticity - is made up for by writing ability. The story is well told - which is what sells books.
To boil it down from the simple viewpoint of a reader ... it revolves around whether the details of the Parker raid and what the Commanche war party did to the Parkers are actually true. I assumed they were true - because the book decribes the brutal killings so matter-of-factly. But thinking about it ... some parts of that account could have been exaggerated for many reasons. No doubt there were many wild tales passed around the settlers in Texas at that time. So I may decide to go back myself and actually check how people knew what happened to the Parkers and the manner in which they died.
S. C. Gwynne does tell the story from one viewpoint - that of the white settlers. There is no mention of the events that happened to the Commanches immediately preceding the Parker incident, or anything that might have provoked the Commanche war party to a high level of anger. So yes .. .the book Eotsm does come with its own strong bias.
dT: "In fact, I am now wondering if S. C. Gwynne actually read all of these references, or merely listed them. It would be disingenous for the author to cite references and not really absorb what they are saying."
Ah, young padowan, tuebitsi, you begin to understand. Tracking citations back to their sources is a most important scholarly activity. But beware, be wary, that way lies madness. Hic sunt dracones.
"The story is well told - which is what sells books."
We may disagree on the "well" part of the telling, but I agree, unfortunately, that the telling is "what sells books."
And, BTW, the ethnonym is "Comanche"-- one 'm'.
Last Edit: Feb 27, 2013 7:22:47 GMT -5 by tkavanagh
I'm an academic myself - I teach at two universities, but not history. When I read for general interest and relaxation I don't find myself worrying overmuch about the validity of the documentary sources or naming errors in the footnotes. I read to learn something I didn't know about before, and if it's written as a good story, so much the better.
In that respect this book satisfied me quite well as a new reader to the topic and that's why I recommended it. If a portion of a book is a little wide of the mark, or some of the sources are misinterpreted, that's OK by me - that's history. But it is nice to know of some of the errors.
More important to me is that it tells a good yarn about something I know little about and gives me the opportunity to follow up with other books and sources if I want to. And I will with this one.
I have a library of books on the Napoleonic wars by a range or popular and academic authors. Often contradictory, sometimes controversial, occasionally plain wrong - but always fun and interesting. I could spend a lifetime picking holes in some of them but not being an academic historian I can leave it to those better qualified and just enjoy the ride!
Thanks for your comments TK and DT! Much appreciated.
I'm still reading Empire of the Summer Moon. I understand what tkavanagh is saying, and I will look at other sources with better historical accuracy soon. I think the book does have value - because it functions as an introductory piece. it gets people interested in the subjects. for readers who are not really familiar with comanche history at all, or the history of Texas in the 19'th century, this book does take the reader's attention to some very interesting events. in fairness to S.C. Gwyne I will say that his writing skills are very good and he does take the attitude of white people (esp. in Texas) to task in the book. the book does point out some of the harsh and extremely cruel behaviors that happened on the frontier (including with Indian tribes), but the author also points out the horrendous attitudes that existed amongst a majority of white settlers in those days. these strong biases, prejudices and hatreds need to be deeply appreciated when interpreting the Old West - otherwise we simply become engaged in historical revisionism. So speaking for myself, I find Empire Of The Summer Moon quite interesting - but mostly because it raises many questions in my mind that need answering. so the book is just a starting point for me. perhaps for a lot of readers it will be the start and the end - which may be more of a problem.
as an example of what I am talking about - just one example. i find myself really wondering what happened amongst the Comanche people that caused them to rise to such a high level of mastery of horsemanship. Many Indian tribes loved and revered horses. Many had very good riding skills. But the Comanches took this to a whole new level. It's a deep question that needs a really good answer. I don't see this as a trivial point. Let me give an explanation why. Looking at the history of the British Empire (nothing to do with Indian tribes) - they became great masters of the sea. Outstanding sailors. A lot of countries sailed boats - but the British really dedicated themselves to mastering the sea and everything to do with sailing. This vastly increased the power of their empire - because of the fantastic advantages it gave them in warfare and trading. We could say the same thing about the "Comanche Empire" - because really the Comanches were becoming a full-fledged empire. Their mastery of horsemanship and horse-borne warfare was bringing about profound changes in the power structure of the southern plains. So this is a very important subject - but needs a lot of development. The "Empire Of The Summer Moon" mentions this, but doesn't begin to address why exactly the changes occurred.
I've said this before, but much of this reads like a dusted down version of Fehrenbach's The Comanches: The Destruction of a People. Both authors seem intent to spell out in block capitals how brutal Comanche life was and then rub our noses in it for a fair number of pages. I guess it worked, because it was on the New York Times best-sellers list, wasn't it?
Neither book shies away from the duplicity of the whites (in and out of the region), but as an alternative, try Gary Clayton Anderson's The Conquest of Texas or Dr Kavanagh's :The Comanches: A History 1706–1875. I have no idea what Pekka Hamaleinen's book is like. Any opinions?
@ dt: "a high level of mastery of horsemanship." Um; good question. Ask yourself this: what is the evidence? Did the people who were making this assertion know what they were talking about? What were Comanches doing with all those horses? Eating them? How about selling them to Seminoles who sold them into St Louis?
@ grahamew: Yes, EotSM is watered down Fehrenbach. I think that's where Gwynne got his mistaken ideas about what's in T-301.
re: PH's book: its axe is in the other direction: see how great THE Comanches were. I emphasize the singular here because that's his approach: THE Comanches migrated out of Wyoming as a singular group, took a hard right turn at the Arkansas as a singular group, stayed there a while with the Utes (another singularity), and then moved as a singularity to the Plains. There is no internal variability, no need to discuss possible political-economic differences amongst them.
Anderson is an updated version of Liz John's _Storm's Brewed_. It bites off a lot, with the result that local group detail is lost.
"@ dt: "a high level of mastery of horsemanship." Um; good question. Ask yourself this: what is the evidence? Did the people who were making this assertion know what they were talking about? What were Comanches doing with all those horses? Eating them? How about selling them to Seminoles who sold them into St Louis?"
Good counterargument. I'll look into it some more. BTW, surely the trading of horses was very practical for them. Horses must have been an excellent commodity - what about trading to the Cheyenne and Lakota? :-)