Fresh Air Interview: S.C. Gwynne - Comanche Nation: The Rise And Fall Of An 'Empire' Quanah Parker, considered the greatest Comanche chief, was the son of Cynthia Ann Parker, a white pioneer woman kidnapped by a raiding party when she was a little girl. Their story — and the saga of the powerful American Indian tribe — is told by S.C. Gwynne in his new book, Empire of the Summer Moon.

Comanche Nation: The Rise And Fall Of An 'Empire'

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

If you're interested in Western movies or American history, I think you'll be very interested in the story my guest S.C. Gwynne is about to tell. His new book is about Quanah Parker, the last chief of the Comanches, which Gwynne describes as the most dominant and influential tribe in American history.

Quanah's mother, Cynthia Ann Parker, was a white woman who was kidnapped by the Comanche when she was nine in 1836, during a raid on her family's home in Texas. She became accepted by the Comanche as one of their own. When Quanah was 12, Cynthia Ann was recaptured by Texas Rangers, but she kept trying to return to the Comanches.

The new book "Empire of the Summer Moon" tells the story of Quanah and his mother, and tells the larger story of the rise and fall of the Comanches and how their dominance in the middle of North America determined how the American West was opened.

S.C. Gwynne is a former senior editor at Time magazine and former executive editor of Texas Monthly. He's now with the Dallas Morning News.

Sam Gwynne, welcome to FRESH AIR. So, let's start with the story of how Quanah's mother was captured by the Comanche when she was nine. I mean, the family lived in a fort on the outer edge of white settlements, about 90 miles from what is now Dallas. So they were very exposed. Why were they there?

Mr. S.C. Gwynne (Author, "Empire of the Summer Moon"): They were part of that kind of vanguard of Scots-Irish settlement that really, you know, in effect, was what eventually beat the Indians. But they were people who were determined. They were hard-nosed. They were predestinarian Baptists, and they settled, as you say, about 90 miles south of what is now Dallas.

It was the outermost edge of the frontier. What they didn't know when they built their fort in 1836 was that it was right at the point where this giant, 250,000-square-mile Comanche empire touched this nascent American empire. They were exactly at that point.

And so the Comanches raided the fort in May of 1836, killed a bunch of people, you know, killed five people. There were a bunch of people wounded. Some escaped, but five captives were taken. and one of those captives was the nine-year-old Cynthia Ann Parker, which became, in effect, the start of a 24-year-old captivity that she came to see not as captivity.

GROSS: You describe very vividly what the raid, what the Comanche raid on the Parker fort was like, and it's gruesome.

Mr. GWYNNE: Extremely.

GROSS: So I'm going to ask you to describe it, but first I'll say if you don't want to hear a gruesome description, this is your opportunity to tune out for maybe two minutes. Come right back.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: But, I mean, this is history. So - and I think it's very important and interesting history. So please describe what happened.

Mr. GWYNNE: Well, what happened was what happened in every plains Indian raid going back for centuries. In other words, it was - this is what Indians did to Indians, and this just happened to be Indians meeting whites.

But the automatic thing in battle is that all the adult males would be killed. That was automatic. That's one of the reasons that Indians fought to the death. The white men were astonished at it, but they were assuming - assumed that they would be killed.

The most - the small children were killed, very small children were killed. A lot of the, say, children in the, I don't know, three-to-seven or three-to-10 range were often taken as captives. The women were often raped and often killed. And so it was an extremely brutal - and it was when - all of the people in the settlements back in those years knew what it was, knew what a Comanche raid meant, which was the same as a Kiowa raid or an Arapaho raid or another kind of raid.

But they were grim. They were grisly. Captives were usually involved, you know. and it's an interesting kind of moral question that you have to - as an historian about plains Indians or about American Indians in general, you have to come to terms with this, with torture, which they did - which they practiced all across the West and, in fact, all across the East - and these kind of grisly practices that scared white people to death.

GROSS: I mean, you're talking not only about scalping. You're talking about various forms of mutilation, cutting off fingers and toes, gang...

Mr. GWYNNE: Torture by fire, torture by all sorts of different things - I mean, putting, you know, hot coals on your stomach. I mean, there were lots and lots of imaginative tortures that were, indeed, practiced by Indians all across the Americas.

GROSS: And this includes gang rape.

Mr. GWYNNE: It includes gang rape.

GROSS: And what I find provocative about this right now is that in American's attempt to reconcile the atrocities that Americans committed against Native Americans, a lot of the Indian story was maybe rewritten a little bit to leave out some of those atrocities.

Mr. GWYNNE: Oh, I think absolutely.

GROSS: I mean, after focusing so much on, like...

Mr. GWYNNE: Yes.

GROSS: know, cowboys versus Indians in Western movies, I think so many Americans felt bad about that kind of, like, good-guy-versus-bad-guy description when white Americans were responsible for so much bad stuff themselves, that maybe - are you suggesting in your book that history maybe got rewritten a little too much in terms of leaving out some of the atrocities that Native Americans did commit in those wars?

Mr. GWYNNE: Oh, I think so. I think that's a good point. And there was even an attempt at some point to deny that Indians were warlike. They were - Comanches were incredibly warlike.

They swept everyone off the Southern plains. They nearly exterminated the Apaches. They were warlike by nature. And, you know, if you look at, say, the Comanches, and then you look back in history at, for example, you know, Goths and Vikings or Mongols or Celts - or old Celts are actually a very good parallel.

In a lot of ways, I think we're looking back at earlier versions of ourselves. It was we - we, being white Europeans - did all of those things. Not only that, but torture was institutionalized in things like the Counterreformation and the Spanish Inquisition. It was part of, you know, the Russian empire. I mean, torture is not the exclusive province of the Indians.

But I think you're right. I think there was a certain wave of books, a certain type of book that wanted to kind of set the record straight in a different way. But yes, it was - life was extremely brutal, and it was extremely brutal on both sides. And in my book, I don't - I try not to take sides. The whites were perpetrators of some of the most astonishing massacres in history, but so were the Indians.

GROSS: So in this raid in which Cynthia Ann Parker was taken captive, how many people were killed, and who was taken captive?

Mr. GWYNNE: There were five people killed, and there were five captives taken. And the five captives were - there were two young adult women and three children, two boys, and then Cynthia Ann.

So they were the five, and they were kind of strapped to horses and, you know, taken north into the vast, you know, grassy wastes of the plains.

GROSS: Why were the women taken, and the children?

Mr. GWYNNE: The - as it turns out, what - well, if you can sort of look back on what happened to them, one of the captives, Rachel Parker Plummer - who became very famous because she wrote a memoir of 15 months of captivity - she was actually kind of taken on as a - what amounted to a slave.

And Indians, plains Indians, were buffalo-based, and they needed women, actually, to work buffalo hides. This was part of the economy. So that's what Rachel did.

Now, Elizabeth Kellogg, who was one - who was the other adult captive, was ransomed back within about three months. And that showed another way, or another reason for taking captive, is you can - there was a trade. There was a commerce in captives.

The three younger children were actually adopted into the tribe, and this was a very common Comanche practice. The Comanches were - they had high mortality rates among the men and low fertility rates among the women, and they actually needed people. So they were more or less indiscriminate in who they took in.

So there were Apache captives and Mexican captives and various types of captives that, you know, many of whom grew to become part of the Comanche tribe. Cynthia Ann was one of them.

So she was a loved - what I call a loved captive. She had a family. She became the ward of a chief. She became a fully fledged member of the Comanche community.

GROSS: So Cynthia Ann had three children, the oldest of which, Quanah, became one of the fiercest and most respected Comanche war chiefs. So how did he become a warrior? I guess, are you automatically a warrior if you're a male Comanche in that period?

Mr. GWYNNE: Oh, yes, you are. You were. The Comanches were kind of like the Spartans. They were - because of their incredible mastery - military mastery, which derived from the horse - they were the prototype horse tribe, the tribe that could do more with a horse than any other tribe could. Because of that, it was a military community and it was - their old way of life was supplanted by the new way of life, which was largely to do with war.

So they pretty much hunted buffalo, and so a Comanche male would hunt buffalo, and made war. And that's what they did. And they were remarkably stripped down in the sense that they didn't have elaborate social organization or religious organization.

They didn't weave baskets or do art. They had a very, very elemental culture. And so within that culture, the boys learned to hunt at a very - hunt and ride at a very early age, and then would become a warrior in their mid-teens. So he had kind of a, I guess, a normal rise, except that he was an exceptional warrior.

GROSS: Now, did being half-white affect his standing within the Comanche?

Mr. GWYNNE: It did. He - until he was 12, when his father was killed - an interesting event happened when Quanah was 12. Until that point, he was the son of a chief, a powerful chief, who would have had many horses and would have been, you know, wealthy in Comanche terms.

And then at the Battle of Pease River in 1860, when Cynthia Ann was recaptured, Quanah's father was killed. And now he was an orphan. His mother was back with white society, and his father was dead. And at that point, yes, he was - he paid a price for having white blood.

It probably stood him in good stead later in life after - in the reservation period, but then I think it was hard. And Quanah compensated for that, becoming probably the, you know, the most capable warrior of his era.

GROSS: Tell us the story of how Cynthia Ann was kidnapped back by white people in 1860, when Quanah was 12.

Mr. GWYNNE: This was an amazing story. When she - to back up to when she was kidnapped in 1836, in the 1840s, she was spotted a few times. And each time she was spotted, the people that saw were - usually Indian agents, tried to negotiate to get her back.

This is kind of a set piece on the frontier. You try to get the, you know, hostage, the captive back. Well, they figured out that she didn't want to come back, and she refused to come back. And this was the first kind of - her first fame was built on that. She was the white squaw who would not return.

Then, well, then, kind of, she sort of fades from memory in the '50s. She's no longer seen. Then in 1860, this extraordinary event happens. Her husband, Cynthia Ann's husband, Peta Nacona, is raiding just west of Fort Worth. He's leading these incredibly brutal raids, who had - that had a political purpose, which is basically to roll the frontier backward.

They're so brutal that the white men kind of get a posse together under a guy named Sul Ross - who was later governor of Texas, under another guy named Charles Goodnight, who was one of the more famous cattlemen later in Texas -and they pursue the Indians back to what amounts to the camp where Cynthia Ann and her husband are.

At that moment, most of the men were not at the camp, and so the Rangers attack and they kill everybody, including Quanah's father. And as Sul Ross literally is running down the last Indian and about to shoot, he realizes the Indian has a child, then realizes the Indian's a woman, and then realizes that the Indian has blue eyes.

And lo and behold, soon enough, they realize that he's recaptured the famous Cynthia Ann Parker, who indeed then becomes famous again for having been recaptured.

And it was curious because the, you know, the white men all that her - the tragedy of Cynthia Ann's life was that she had been captured the first time by the Indians.

In fact, the great tragedy of her life was that she was captured the second time by the whites, because she never adjusted. She tried to escape for the rest of her life and never adjusted. She had adapted once brilliantly to a foreign culture, but she couldn't do it twice.

GROSS: So where did she live?

Mr. GWYNNE: Well, after she was captured - well, the first thing that happened is they kind of, they took her to Fort Worth, and they literally put her up on a stand where people could come and gawk at her because she was such an object of curiosity.

She had her two-year-old, you know, half-white, Indian child with her, Prairie Flower. And she ended up at the - first at the house of her uncle near Fort Worth, and she kept trying to escape. And she, you know, mourned, and she wept, and she cut herself, and she - I mean, she simply was a lot to handle.

And so Isaac, that uncle, Isaac Parker, then moved her to another group of relatives and then onto - and then she was eventually moved to another group of relatives deeper into East Texas, away from the plains. She was always a handful. She eventually kind of settled down a little bit, but she never stopped trying to escape.

GROSS: Now, you write about how Cynthia Parker's attempts to escape the white world, after she was re-kidnapped into the white world, kind of challenged all of the assumptions that white people had about Native American life.

Mr. GWYNNE: That was one of the reasons I think - you know, I guess the reason she was the most famous captive of her era, you know, was the refusal to come back, first, therefore choosing this what the whites saw as kind of this subhuman, savage, you know, civilization over the, you know, Anglo-European civilization. There was that choice.

And then when - basically, trying to get back was a reaffirmation of that same desire, that she didn't want to be with her own culture, if you will, or her birth culture.

And yes, that was shocking. It was unusual. I mean, there are precedents for it. It did happen, but it didn't happen that often. And really, you have to go back at the way whites, particularly on the frontier, looked at Indians. They did not really regard them as fully human.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is S.C. Gwynne, who is the author of the new book "Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History." Sam, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk so more. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Sam Gwynne, who writes under the name S.C. Gwynne. His new book is called "Empire of the Summer Moon." It's about Quanah Parker, who was the last great Comanche warrior chief, and his mother, Cynthia Ann Parker, was a white woman who was kidnapped by the Comanches during a raid. And she was nine when she was kidnapped. She was re-kidnapped back by white people when Quanah was 12.

So when Quanah grew up and became a warrior, did he want revenge against the white people who had taken back his mother?

Mr. GWYNNE: Yes. No one burned hotter than Quanah did. Quanah was - Quanah later became, you know, famous during the reservation period as a very wealthy and successful and influential Indian, but he never talked about what he did.

We can sort of theorize the kind of raids he was on. We knew where the Comanches were raiding during the years when he was in his late teens and early '20s. The raids were particularly brutal.

He was known as a brilliant fighter of both Indians and whites. He was someone who was never defeated in battle, and it was sort of the source of his fame.

GROSS: To give us a visual image of what Quanah looked like, I want you to read something from your book that is from the journal of someone from the Army who fought against him. So granted, this is a very kind of biased description of him because it's from an Army person fighting against Quanah, but tell us who wrote this and then read the paragraph.

Mr. GWYNNE: Okay. The account is from a Robert Carter, who actually won the Medal of Honor for this fight against Quanah in 1871. And Carter wrote memoirs, a really extraordinary memoir, and it offers us one of the best looks at Quanah.

This particular description comes from the Battle of Blanco Canyon, where Quanah did something that I don't know that there's any precedent for in military history, where Quanah, in effect, took an entire village of 200 lodges and hundreds of people and women and children and dogs and led it on an escape from 600 mounted bluecoats. It was a piece of military maneuvering, as I said, I dont think it's ever been done before.

But anyway, this was the beginning - the beginning of that was sort of a battle, the beginning of that escape was a battle, and this is what Robert Carter is describing. He's describing actually Quanah, just at the moment that Quanah blows the brains out of one of his sergeants. So here we go.

(Reading) A large and powerfully built chief led the bunch on a coal-black racing pony. Leaning forward upon his mane, his heels nervously working in the animal's side, with six-shooter poised in the air, he seemed the incarnation of savage, brutal joy.

His face was smeared with black war-paint, which gave his features a satanic look, a full-length headdress or war bonnet of eagle's feathers, spreading out as he rode and descending from his forehead, overhead and back, to his pony's tail, almost swept the ground. Large brass hoops were in his ears. He was naked to the waist, wearing simply leggings, moccasins and a breechclout. A necklace of bears' claws hung about his neck. Bells jangled as he rode at headlong speed, followed by the leading warriors, all eager to outstrip him in the race. It was Quanah, the principal war chief of the Quahadas.

GROSS: So did Quanah go on raids, did he lead raids on white settlements that were as brutal as the raid on his mother's family?

Mr. GWYNNE: Absolutely. You have to understand that raiding is what mounted plains Indians did. That was their, in effect, the Comanche way of life.

They didn't, you know, they didn't really fight in the traditional way. They weren't - when they fought the white man, they did not usually, you know, draw themselves up in ranks of 1,000 with gleaming spears against - and charge. That really didn't happen.

Most of the warfare was what we would call sort of guerrilla warfare. These were attacks on ranches and things like that and settlements. So, yes, this is what Quanah did. The idea was to, was to improve your stock or increase your stock, you know, get more horses, eventually also cows. The idea was also to get scalps, and simply the way of Comanche life.

There was, you know, a traditional, you know, way of the raid was to, you know, go steal as many horses as you could and so forth. Eventually, it acquired more of a political cast. As the frontier swept westward through Texas, you know, the Comanches at some point realized that there was more to raiding than simply stealing cattle. They were making a political statement.

They were, in effect - you know, the more brutal the raids were, the more the frontier rolled backward.

GROSS: My guest is S.C. Gwynne. He'll be back in the second half of the show. His new book is called "Empire of the Summer Moon." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Im Terry Gross back with S.C. Gwynne, author of "Empire of the Summer Moon," about the rise and fall of the Comanche, which Gwynne describes as the most powerful Indian tribe in American history. His book focuses on the stories of the last Comanche chief, Quanah Parker, and his white mother, Cynthia Ann Parker, who became a Comanche after she was kidnapped at the age of nine during a Comanche raid on her family's Texas home.

Gwynne is former executive editor of Texas Monthly and is now with the Dallas Morning News.

Now, so you say between 1868 and 1881, 31 million buffalo were slaughtered and that that destroyed the source of Comanche wealth and food. So was that the downfall of the Comanche, the slaughtering of the buffalo?

Mr. GWYNNE: It was pretty much - you know, the Plains Indians, their lives were built - the Comanche's, their lives were built on two things, really - it was war and buffalo. And really, all of the Plains Indians, once they got the horse from the Spanish, you know, buffalo hunting became easier for them. It was their way of life.

The buffalo hunting began as a simple market exercise. I mean the hunters figured out that they could get $3.50 a hide. Then they figured out that they could ship these hides east on the new railroads. And they also figured out that buffalo were smart enough to realize that if a buffalo next to - the buffalo dropped, that there was something wrong. The buffalo had to see the source of the danger, so that you had these people who'd kill like 3,500 buffalo in 28 days and crazy numbers like that.

But it started that way but it ended up being a political act because the United States could've done something about that, probably. But it occurred to the generals in the West, specifically Sherman and Sheridan, that by allowing the buffalo to be destroyed, they were creating kind of the most efficient way to destroy Indians.

And Sheridan had a famous quote. He said, you know, you kill the buffalo, you destroy the Indian's commissary. So it became in a way political at the end. Yes, lets kill all the buffalo and then it's the end of Plains Indians because there is no Plains Indian without a buffalo.

GROSS: So how did Quanah decide to give up fighting and settle for a land deal with the U.S. government?

Mr. GWYNNE: Quanah, in 1875, after something called the Red River War, in which Quanah again evaded, miraculously evaded capture and didnt lose any battles, Quanah led the last of the Comanches, who were starving - and of course they were starving because there was no buffalo - the last of the starving Comanches, they were the last ones to surrender, in 1875. They came on to a reservation in Oklahoma.

Quanah, who had been, as I said before, like the hardest of the hard cases, the one who burned hottest for revenge against the whites, had sort of a revelation. His family lore says it was a vision with a wolf and an eagle in it. But something happened and changed and he decided he would walk the white man's road. And he decided it as he was coming into the reservation.

GROSS: What do you mean walk the white man's road?

Mr. GWYNNE: Well, he would become, in fact - you know, Quanah, the notion seems almost ridiculous of the bourgeois kind of Comanche, citizen Comanche, but that's what Quanah wanted to be. Quanah was going to, was going to walk the white man's road. In other words, try to learn the language, try to understand white man's business. He actually turned out to be a brilliant businessman, controlled rather a small cattle empire, outfoxed the whites at their own cattle leasing games, actually ran these kind of protection rackets for a while.

He was actually a brilliant businessman. But he - he just figured he would adapt and he would try to help his tribe adapt. And of, you know, of all the Indians in the reservation period, he was the wealthiest and most influential. And you know, he became a friend of Teddy Roosevelt and rode in his inaugural parade and so forth.

GROSS: So during this period, was he not only aware but did he make other people aware that he was half-white? Did he use that to work in his favor when trying to deal with white people?

Mr. GWYNNE: Everybody knew. That became known right after he - right after Quanah surrendered. He went into the commandant at Fort Sill and he told him, because what Quanah wanted to know was what had happened to his mother. Quanah's first question was: What happened to my mother? And that's how - in other words, as soon as that happened, everybody found out.

A book was written a few years later that if anybody did not know then, they learned who this guy was.

GROSS: And what had happened to his mother? Was she already dead?

Mr. GWYNNE: Yeah. Cynthia Ann leads this kind of miserable life, shuffled off to, you know, one Parker relative after another, pretty miserable. In 1864 she lost her daughter to influenza, this lovely little girl name Prairie Flower. In 1870 she herself died. And its not exactly clear how or why. She - some said she starved herself to death. Some people said she died of a broken heart. But either way, she never she never adapted. So that it was a tragedy, I guess part of that family tragedy, that Cynthia Ann died in 1870, and her husband did not I'm sorry, her son, Quanah, did not come in to surrender until 1875.

So he never saw his mother again, although he spent enormous efforts trying to find her and eventually did find her and eventually got the government to pay to ship her bones up to lie with his in Oklahoma.

GROSS: So how do you see American history differently as a result of researching this book?

Mr. GWYNNE: To me, the original reason I was interested was because it provided - the Comanches were kind of a history lesson. They were sort of here is how and why the middle of the country opened to white civilization. If you go back through Comanche history, you can see that they were, you know, they were the ones who stopped the Spanish from coming north. They have answer to that question. Why did the French stop coming west from Louisiana? Comanches. It was fear of the Comanches that caused the Mexicans to bring white Texas settlers into Texas, you know, to create a buffer between them and the Comanches, which eventually backfired, and of course Texas became a republic, and things like the Alamo and San Jacinto happened.

I mean they account for - you know, the Rangers and the six-gun and so many different things. And to me, to me, what I understood, what I came away understanding from the Comanches was that here is why the West Coast and the East Coast settled before the middle of the continent did. Here is why there was this enormous basically 40-year wait before you could develop the state of Texas or before other Plain states could be developed. So it was kind of a -its just this, to me, a great history lesson in how America settled itself, I guess.

GROSS: Sam Gwynne, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. GWYNNE: Well, youre welcome, Terry. I really enjoyed it.

GROSS: S.C. Gwynne is the author of the new book "Empire of the Summer Moon." You can read an excerpt on our website,

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