Empire of the Summer Moon

Thursday, October 16th, 2014

Scott Alexander reviews Empire of the Summer Moon, about the Comanche Indians:

When Mexico took over from Spain and tried to colonize Texas, the Comanches beat them so soundly that they decided to get some “help” by inviting Anglo-Americans to come in and colonize, leading to the Texas revolt, the Mexican War, and so on. Through the first thirty years or so of American Texas, American control only extended through the eastern half of the state, with the western half being totally Comanche and almost totally unexplored. The border was so feared that places like Fort Worth, Texas were originally a line of actual forts intended to protect the Texans from Comanche raids.

These raids were probably the most disturbing part of the book. On the one hand, okay, the white people were trying to steal the Comanches’ land and they had every right to be angry. On the other hand, the way the Comanches expressed that anger was to occasionally ride in, find a white village or farm or homestead, surround it, and then spend hours or days torturing everyone they found there in the most horrific possible ways before killing the men and enslaving the women and children. Sometimes people were scalped alive. The women would usually be gang-raped dozens of times, and then enslaved, carried off to Comanche territory, and gang-raped some more. Children were forced to watch as their parents were raped and tortured and killed, or vice versa.

Their favorite pastime was to find a remote farm somewhere, ride in dressed in full war gear, communicate some version of “Oh, hi, I know what this looks like but actually we’re just stopping by, mind giving us a bite to eat?”, enjoying a lavish feast put on by extremely nervous settlers, and then saying “Very good, in exchange for this feast we give you a five minute head start”, then giving them five minutes to run away before riding them down and torture-killing the entire family in the manner described earlier.

On the other hand, the Comanches fit the classic pattern of hunter-gatherer civilizations of simultaneously being really mean to people outside the tribe while showing deep and heartfelt kindness to everyone within. We know this because sometimes if there were very young children, and the Comanches were feeling a bit low on headcount, they would capture the children and adopt them as full Comanches (after torture-killing the parents, of course) and some of these children would later grow up to write English-language books about their experience. But this practice definitely led to some awkward situations, and the book centers around one of them: the last great chief of the Comanches, Quanah, was half-white, the son of a Comanche chief and a Texan woman who had been captured when she was nine years old.

So there was a bit of traffic back and forth between America and Comancheria in the 19th century. White people being captured and raised by Comanches. The captives being recaptured years later and taken back into normal white society. Indians being defeated and settled on reservations and taught to adopt white lifestyles. And throughout the book’s description of these events, there was one constant:

All of the white people who joined Indian tribes loved it and refused to go back to white civilization. All the Indians who joined white civilization hated it and did everything they could to go back to their previous tribal lives.

There was much to like about tribal life. The men had no jobs except to occasionally hunt some buffalo and if they felt courageous to go to war. The women did have jobs like cooking and preparing buffalo, but they still seemed to be getting off easy compared to the white pioneer women or, for that matter, women today. The whole culture was nomadic, basically riding horses wherever they wanted through the vast open plains without any property or buildings or walls. And everyone was amazingly good at what they did; the Comanche men were probably the best archers and horsemen in the history of history, and even women and children had wilderness survival and tracking skills that put even the best white frontiersmen to shame. It sounds like a life of leisure, strong traditions, excellence, and enjoyment of nature, and it doesn’t surprise me that people liked it better than the awful white frontier life of backbreaking farming and endless religious sermons.


  1. Redneck Esq. says:

    The book’s a decent read too, although you get a whiff of the author’s sympathies at the end of the very first paragraph, which refers to the white settlement of the southern plains as a “final solution.” Best book I ever bought in an airport, nonetheless.

  2. Bob Sykes says:

    Some years ago, a couple of ecologists half-seriously proposed that Whites be removed from the northern plains and that the plains become a buffalo preserve, complete with buffalo-hunting Indians.

    This is not entirely stupid as the northern plains are being voluntarily depopulated, and the Indians are agitating for more free-roaming buffalo. Of course, such an eventuality would raise Holy Hell with highway and railway traffic, but maybe the roads and railways would be torn up as part of the plan.

  3. How did the Comanches live before Europeans brought horses to the Americas? What was their lifestyle like then?

  4. Bert E. says:

    The Comanche according to my understanding only invaded the southern plains after they obtained horses and developed the horse culture, pushing other tribes out of the way in a similar manner as they did to the whites that followed: warfare, murder, rape, torture, enslavement.

    Comanche and other war-like tribes were big-time slavers, too. They made slave raids into Mexico on a continuous basis and also bought other American Indians from tribes such as the Navajo. In that context the battles fought by Kit Carson can be seen from 150 years ago as an extension of the American Civil War.

  5. Pelekesi says:

    The Comanche were in a easy phase of subsistence. They had just mastered horse archery, so the buffalo were easy prey but hadn’t yet been hunted out. If they’d had a few hundred more years their life would have gotten a lot tougher.

    Unless the homicide or infanticide rate was really high amongst themselves, in which case you’d suppose they’d fail at keeping outsiders from taking over their land.

  6. Rollory says:

    David Yeagley (Bad Eagle) had some good articles about Comanches and their imperial period.

    They were basically the Mongols of North America. It was just their bad luck to have their acquisition of horses predate the presence of industrial firearms by only a short time.

    And, that same coincidence was the very good luck of everybody who wasn’t Comanche.

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