Paddock’s Picks: Empire of the Summer Moon

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 273 views 


Editor’s note:  Anita Paddock’s review of books we should read are scheduled to appear on the second and fourth Friday of each month. Enjoy.

review by Anita Paddock
[email protected]

I’ve been intrigued with the story of Cynthia Ann Parker and her Comanche son, Quanah, since my days of living in Texas and teaching junior high there, so it was just natural that I gravitated to this new book, “Empire of the Summer Moon.”

Cynthia Ann Parker was nine years old, and the daughter of one of the most prominent Texas families, when she was kidnapped in 1836, along with other family members, by a Comanche raiding party from her home at Fort Parker, some 90 miles south of what is present day Dallas.

She soon forgot her mother tongue, learned Indian ways, and eventually married a Comanche warrior, Peta Nocona. They had three children, the oldest being Quanah, followed by Peanuts (named because Cynthia Ann could remember eating peanuts around her cabin fire with her Parker kin), and Prairie Flower.

Cynthia Ann and her baby, Prairie Flower, were rescued in an Indian battle in which her husband was killed. Her son, Quanah, was only 12 at the time, and that was the last time he saw his mother.

Cynthia Ann hated living with various white relatives and tried her best to return to her Comanche family. The famous portrait of her, with short greased hair, sun weathered skin, and nursing her baby girl poignantly illustrated how a white woman looked once she was returned from Indian capture. Her baby died, soon followed by Cynthia Ann, and it was said she died of a broken heart.

The book and movie, “The Searchers,” is based on Cynthia Ann’s life. Two other fine books written by Arkansas author Doug Jones also tell the story of Cynthia Ann and Quanah.

In this fascinating book by an award winning journalist, S.C. Gwynne, we learn the history and fierceness of the Comanches, who have been called The Lords of the Plains. They were the best horsemen, the best marksmen with guns and bows, and the fiercest in combat. They defeated the Europeans, cowed the Mexicans, and completely took over the Southern Plains, and for a long time, terrorized the white settlers.

They pursued the buffalo, their source of food and sustenance, which roamed their lands known as Comancheria, the area encompassing Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Colorado, and parts of neighboring states.

The Comanches, whose wealth was measured by the number of horses they owned, were nomads, moving constantly. They had a low fertility rate, probably because the men spent so much time on horseback The Comanches needed captives to use as barter or to help with the work load.  The warriors went ahead, leaving the women to do the hard work of packing and unpacking.

Hunting and marauding were done by the men, and the women did the hard work like dressing a 500-pound buffalo after it was killed. The buffalo steaks were cooked over open fire or boiled in copper kettles. Everyone especially loved the liver and gallbladder. They would squirt the salty bile from the gallbladder onto the liver. If a female buffalo was giving milk, the Comanches would cut into the udder bag and drink the milk mixed with warm blood.

The women tanned the hides and made the robes.  They harvested the paunch and sinew and marrow. The work was bloody and messy, and the women would be covered with buffalo fat, blood, and tissue. They fashioned rugs, cooking utensils, axes, knives, tomahawks, bows, and moccasins from the dead animals — nothing was wasted.

Women captives were mistreated and gang raped by the men, and they weren’t treated much better by the women of the tribe. The Indian clothing was filthy and bug infected, and the Comanches picked lice off themselves and cracked them with their teeth. Each Indian camp had many dogs, and they followed the nomads wherever they went. They weren’t pets as we think of dogs now, but still essential as sentinels or food if things got tough.

Cynthia Ann Parker and her brother, along with other captives, entered this world of the Comanches in 1846. Bitter battles between the whites and the Comanches lasted 40 years, until Cynthia Ann Parker’s son, Quanah, the last chief of the Comanches, surrendered. At age 27, he was known as a fierce and charismatic warrior, a true killer, and the toughest of his generation. He killed many Indians and many white people in his short life.

Before surrendering and going to the reservation at Fort Sill, Okla., Quanah went to a mesa top to meditate and pray to the Great Spirit for guidance. He saw a wolf run off into the direction of Fort Sill, and he also saw an eagle that swooped down on him several times. He took this as a sign, and he and his remaining people left for Fort Sill, traveling slowly, seemingly to relish this last ride of freedom before they had to take up the white man’s world.

Life on the reservation was a shattering and humbling experience. The Comanches lined up each week to receive their allotments, which was half of what the soldiers got. But Quanah soon began to realize that survival meant taking the white man’s road. As the son of a white captive, he soon called himself Quanah Parker, after his mother. He learned some broken English, and he could talk himself through most any problem. He was naturally cheerful and gregarious, and he was taught white man’s manners by Col. Ranald Slidell Mackenzie, one of America’s greatest Indian fighters and the once bitter enemy of Quanah’s.

The last third of the book tells how Quanah parlayed himself into a prosperous cattleman who built himself a 10-room, two-story house. He had a total of eight wives and fathered 24 children. In 1910, after placing ads in Texas newspapers, he found out where his mother was buried. He arranged for her bones to be relocated to a cemetery near his home in Cache, near Fort Sill. He stood over her grave and said, “Forty years ago my mother died. She captured by Comanches, nine years old. Love Indian and wild life so well no want to go back to white folks. All same people anyway, God say. I love my mother.”

Three months later, Quanah Parker, the last Chief of the Comanches was dead. He was buried next to his mother.


Gale Mills always wanted her daughter, Anna, to love books as much as she did.

“We read all the classics,” Gale remembers, “but I just couldn’t light that fire under Anna.”

Instead, Anna took to Gale’s second love, photography, something for which Anna has a definite talent. In fact, Anna Mills Roberts, now the mother of four-year old Brooklyn, makes her living in photography. Anna and Brooklyn live in Fort Sill, Okla., and make frequent visits home to Fort Smith.

Grandmother Gale reports that Brooklyn loves to come to the Miller Branch Library, where she can check out her favorite books, “Good Night Moon,” and “I Love You This Much.”

Anna Roberts is scheduled to exhibit her photographs at the Miller Branch Library in May of 2011. She has promised to have pictures of the graves of Quanah Parker and his mother, Cynthia Ann. It will be an exhibit you won’t want to miss.  Especially if you read “Empire of the Summer Moon.”