Monday, January 3, 2011

A book that changed my mind.

Every now and then I receive a gift which changes the way I think about history.
This Christmas I received a copy of S.C. Gwynne's "Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History."
Despite the very long title, the book is concise and focused on the story of the Comanche, a tribe whose humble beginnings on the western slopes of the Rockies never suggested the power the group eventually obtained, once they mastered an accidental gift from the Spanish: the horse.
Gwynne calls the tribe the best light cavalry of the world in its day.  The horsemanship and martial abilities of a mounted Comanche warrior astonished Spanish, Mexican, Texan, and finally American soldiers of the period.
It is true: the Comanche were the most powerful tribe in our region, with a territory that extended from here to the Great Plains. And they had a raiding range well beyond their "territory."  They could attack
and inflict terror well beyond the plains, driving their horses long distances at great speed, assault and raid, then disappear just as quickly.  Their treatment of enemies (which included other tribes as well as settlers), and especially those they captured, was awful, barbaric.  The cruelties they inflicted cannot be related here; they are too horrible.
Not only could they travel great distances, navigating by landmarks, they could do so at night, often under the light of a full moon.
In fact, it was probably a small group of Comanche who encouraged our community's founder, Joshua Brown, to abandon his first camp here and return to Gonzales.
A friend, who has since passed away, took me to the site of the permanent camp, the one from 1848. It's between the 800 and 900 blocks of Water Street in downtown Kerrville, where Ed Hamilton has made a little observation platform atop the ruins of the old ice plant. As we stood there that day, the wind blowing hard as we looked from the bluff down to the river below, my friend suggested the reason this second camp succeeded was its location.
He noted the site was high on the bluff, with ravines to either side (these ravines were later the stub ends of Earl Garrett and Tivy streets, at the river bluff). "It was a position that could be defended," my friend suggested.
Perhaps. It looks that way to me.
Reading Gwynne's book, though, made me think of the history of our community as a page or two in a larger story of the time.
About the time our first settler arrived here, the Comanche, especially those frequenting our area, were having health troubles. At the beginning of the 1840s they had been ravaged by smallpox. At the end of the 1840s, cholera. In fact, Gwynne's research suggests cholera may have wiped out half of the members of the Penateka, or "Honey Eater," bands of the Comanche, the groups that lived on the southernmost portion of the area controlled by the Comanche.
There is no doubt Joshua Brown had stumbled into lands controlled by Indian tribes, including the Comanche people, when he built his first camp here. It is true Brown's second camp was in a tactically better site, especially if the shingle makers had long rifles and could fire some distance at any attacking group of Comanche.
But it might also be true the Comanche, their numbers halved by disease, were unable or unwilling to attack Brown's camp, preferring instead to focus their remaining energies where the spoils were greater.
Brown's second camp may have survived simply because there were not enough healthy warriors available to wipe away the settlers, to punish them for their incursion into lands the Comanche formerly controlled.
And that's just one way "Empire of the Summer Moon" has changed the way I think about local history.
Gwynne's book is available at Wolfmueller's Books on Earl Garrett Street and by clicking here.
Until next week, all the best.
Joe Herring Jr. is a Kerrville native who is glad he was not a hill country settler during nights of the Comanche Moon. This column was originally published in the Kerrville Daily Times January 1st, 2011.

1 comment:

  1. Joe, I have a friend in San Antonio who is a direct descendant of Quanah Parker. Another famous name out of that family is Bonnie Parker. My dad got to see Quanah during one of the Indian parades up in Oklahoma before Quanah passed away. A ancestor of mine was Lt. Gatewood who was the calvery officer that they would send after Geronimo when they couldn't talk him back onto the reservation.
    Perry Reed


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