"There are men, in all ages, who mean to exercise power usefully; but who mean to exercise it. They mean to govern well; but they mean to govern. They promise to be kind masters; but they mean to be masters." Daniel Webster

Friday, January 20, 2012

Empire of the Summer Moon

This biography of Comanche leader Quanah Parker was nominated for a Pulitzer prize, and it certainly deserves it. It's well written, detailed and doesn't sugar coat either the Comanches or their conquerors.

Quanah was half white, the son of "white squaw" Cynthia Ann Parker. The story of Cynthia Ann's capture by Comanches and her uncle's five-year search for her was the basis of John Ford's film "The Searchers."

Contrary to many Westerns, only the Comanche and their allies the Kiowa fought from horseback. Other Plains Indians were what the Europeans called dragoons, horse-mobile infantry who fought on foot. And the Eastern Indians didn't even adopt the horse until they shortly before they were moved to reservations.

Quanah was the last and probably the most successful of Comanche war leaders. But after being forced onto the reservation, he remade himself as a very successful cattle rancher and businessman dealing with and often out dealing whites. He also outmaneuvered several older, more established Comanche leaders to get the federal government to recognize him as the principal spokesman for the tribe. The government later came to regret that since he became an effective, and relatively honest, leader who demanded he live up to their treaty obligations.

Quanah, who hated whites in his youth, later adopted several white orphans, dressed in white clothing and built what was then the largest house in Oklahoma. He owned one of the first automobiles in the state, had gas lighting installed before virtually anyone else in the state and just generally seemed fascinated by new technology. But he refused whites' demands he cut his hair, get rid of his many wives or stop spreading the peyote religion.

He became a national celebrity, even riding with Teddy Roosevelt in his inauguration parade. That was much to the disgust of residents of West Texas, many of whom lived through Quanah's raid where the lucky settlers were killed in battle. Those who survived faced torture and mutilation if they were men and gang rape and mutilation if they were women.

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