Empire of the Summer Moon by S.C. Gwynne
The book tracks the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the creation of the Texas Rangers, and the closing chapter of Manifest Destiny in early Texas.
The Comanches, never numbering more than 15,000, kicked out the Spanish, Apaches, Mexicans and Texans from the Great Southern Plains, the better part of 5 U.S. States, from 1650 to 1850. They were the most powerful Indian Tribe in U.S. history.
Here are my favorite parts of this book, which was an exciting and engaging read from cover to cover.
“The Comanche horsemen who rode up to the front gate of Parker’s Fort [Texas] that morning in May 1836 were representatives of a military and trade empire that covered some 240,000 square miles, essentially the southern Great Plains. Their land encompassed large chunks of five present-day states: Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Kansas, and Oklahoma.”
“Comanches, meanwhile, carried a disk-shaped buffalo-hide shield, a fourteen-foot plains lance, a sinew-backed bow, and a quiver of iron-tipped arrows.The Comanches had been fighting this way for two hundred years. War was what they did, and all of their social status was based on it.”
“He would dance for hours, or days. He loved to gamble and would bet on anything. He loved to sing. He especially loved to sing his personal song, often written expressly for him by a medicine man. He often woke up singing and sang before bed.”
“Ranger John Caperton estimated that “about half the rangers were killed off every year” and that “the lives of those who went into the service were not considered good for more than a year or two.”
“The western part of Texas in those years was awash in young, reckless, single men with a taste for wide open spaces, danger, and raw adventure”
“The only thing the government reliably provided, in its wisdom, was ammunition.”
“Many were large, physically imposing men with thick, brawny arms, long hair, and full beards. Seen from the more civilized parts of nineteenth-century America, they occupied a place in the social order just this side of brigands and desperados.”
”They had learned the fundamental lesson of plains warfare: It was either victory or death.”
Early Texans and Manifest Destiny
“The vanguard of the America push westward were simple farmers imbued with a fierce Calvinist work ethic, steely optimism, and a cold-eyed aggressiveness that made them refuse to yield even in the face of extreme danger. They were said to fear God so much that there was no fear left over for anyone or anything else.”
“It is one of history’s great ironies that one of the main reasons Mexico had encouraged Americans to settle in Texas in the 1820s and 1830s was because they wanted a buffer against Comanches, a sort of insurance policy on their borderlands.”
“They hated Indians with a particular passion, considering them something less than fully human, and thus blessed with inalienable rights to absolutely nothing.”
“The Texans were not the Spanish of the Mexicans. They were tougher, meaner, almost impossible to discourage, willing to take absurd risks to secure themselves a plot of dirt, and temperamentally well suited to the remorseless destruction of native tribes.”
“They pushed as far into Indian country as their courage, or Indian war parties, would let them. Imagine the alternative: the U.S. government sending troops to shoot down God-fearing settlers who simply wanted a piece of the American dream. It never happened.”
“When the Pueblos pushed out the Spanish from New Mexico, the horses were abandoned, thus thousands of mustangs ran wild into the open plains that closely resembled their ancestral Iberian lands. Because they were perfectly adapted to the new land, they thrived and multiplied. They became the foundation stock for the great wild mustang herds of the Southwest. The event has become known as the Great Horse Dispersal. The dissemination of so many horses to a group of thirty plains tribes permanently altered the power structure of the North American Heartland.”
Walker Colt Revolver
“In the first phase of the Comanche wars, the Indians held all the advantages. When Texans arrived from the east, they brought with them their main firearm, the Kentucky rifle”
“No one knows exactly how these revolvers came into the hands of Jack Hays and his Rangers…the date is sometime in 1843…the same year Sam Houston disbanded the navy. The Indians now faced the prospect of being blasted from horseback by guns that never emptied; the whites could now fight entirely mounted. Colt asked Samuel Walker [a Ranger Captain], to help him with the design. The result, the Walker Colt, was one of the most effective and deadly pieces of technology ever devised… Hays had adapted a weapon no one else had wanted and had turned it into the ultimate frontier sidearm, one that soon changed the very nature of the experience of the American West.”
“Jack Hays: He was the greatest Texas Ranger, the one the Comanches feared most…It was said that before Hays, Americans came into the West on foot carrying long rifles, and that after Hays, everybody was mounted and carrying a six-shooter.”
This was a great read. Also recommended is Rebel Yell, his book on Stonewall Jackson. S.C. Gwynne does an incredible job detailing the weaponry, tactics, and geography of battlefields. When I was in Virginia I went to Manassas with his book in hand. I can’t wait to go to the Texas Panhandle with Empire of the Summer Moon.