Empire of the Summer Moon is not for everyone. It’s an elegiac paean to frontier America and the doomed struggle of Comanche Indians to maintain their way of life in the face of an unrelenting onslaught of white encroachment. It broadly encompasses the rugged bravado of American pioneers trying to fulfill their Manifest Destiny and the individual horrors of trying to eek out a life in a hostile world. It walks the delicate line between explaining how these disparate and dichotomous worlds clashed and parsing out why the conflict was inviolate. The aboriginal tribes committed very real atrocities against white settlers, who also meted out their share of cruelty and inexcusable behavior. Neither side had cleans hands in this conflict, and that is a difficult thing to recognize. For so long, we, as a people, dehumanized the American Indian – especially the Plains tribes. But we’ve also gone the other direction and almost deified them. The truth is far more complex, and often difficult to read about.
For all it’s vaunted attention to the long arc of history, this book is also remarkably specific and personal. While not strictly a portrait of Cynthia Ann Parker and her son, the last free Comanche warchief Quana Parker, their story is perhaps the most compelling and indelible narrative in a sea of ruthlessly evocative stories. Either, by themselves, lived a rich and storied life well worth a detailed look. Together, it’s amazing an epic mini-series hasn’t been made. Abducted as a child, Cynthia Parker eventually got adopted by Comanches, eventually becoming wife to one great warchief and mother to another. She would later get abducted once again, this time by white settlers trying to return her to the home of her birth. Unfortunately for her, they only ruined her life by taking her away from all that she knew and loved. She was, for a time, the most talked about person on the frontier. She was also, for a time, the most unhappy and misunderstood person on the Great America Plains.
In 1833, the frontier cut a swathe through the heart of the Texas republic, from approximately Fort Worth south to San Antonio, leaving practically the entire western half in the hands of the plains Indians – of whom the most dominant group was the Comanches. Into this dangerous and untracked country was a finger of land settled by a band of emigrants from Illinois. They had built a stockade fort, and were headed by the Baptist theologian Daniel Parker. Woefully unprepared for the dangerous frontier, the settlers paid the ultimate price in May 1836, when a party of Comanche and Kiowa warriors raided the fort. Five settlers were killed, and another five captured.
Cynthia Parker was one of these captives. A woman named Rachel Plummer was another, and her story stands out, here, as particularly gruesome. She wrote a memoir of her captivity that is invaluable to historians and anthropologists for its depiction of life among the Comanches prior to the destruction of their culture by war, loss of the buffalo, encroachment of white settlers, and disease. Her story is also remarkable because it brings to life the very real danger people (especially women) faced on the frontier in the mid-19th century.
Following her capture, Rachel witnessed the brutal rape of her grandmother, and the torture, murder, and mutilation of her grandfather. Pregnant at the time, both she and another woman were also raped. After her child was born, her captors decided the infant was slowing her too much. The threw him to the ground and strangled him, though she was able to revive him. When they discovered the baby was still alive, they tied him to a rope and dragged him behind a horse until his body was literally torn and unrecognizable. They then gave him back for her to bury. And these aren’t the end of her troubles. She became the slave of her captor’s wife and daughter, who spend months mercilessly tormenting her. Rachel finally broke down and tried to kill the daughter (and nearly succeeded), and then was attacked by the girl’s mother. Surviving, though burned, her situation improves somewhat, but she doesn’t attain freedom for nearly two years. After finally returning home, she gets pregnant, gives birth, then dies before turning 22. Her newborn child follows her to the grave shortly thereafter. Rachel Plummer’s final wish was to be reunited with her first son, but he remained a captive until 1842, three years after her death.
Seldom are we exposed to such horrific brutality, I can’t even begin to encompass how deeply this affected me. The story of Rachel Plummer isn’t singular in nature. The pregnant Martha Sherman, for example, was beaten, tortured, and raped by at least 17 Indian warriors before being brutally scalped and dragged into the Prairie to die, cold and alone. She was found crawling through the grass , skull exposed, only to die four days later after giving birth to a stillborn. Her seven year old son heard the events of his mother’s torment play out in front of him, and her husband was shamed and ruined for not saving her.
This is the stuff of nightmares.
But I think it’s all told with a respect and a poignancy that removes any potential exploitative feel. Gwynne isn’t writing about these events in vivid detail to demonize the American Indian or excuse the very real avarice and corruption among Americans, but to show how both sides brutalized one another in very real ways. By describing the real world consequences of conflict, he humanizes both sides and makes the cost of war and cultural genocide not only meaningful, but tangible.
This book is powerful, and the stories recounted here are more haunting than memorable.