Comanches and Texans

The Panhandle of Texas is where I grew up some hundred years after the buffalo and the Comanche Indians reigned supreme. Boy Scouts performed Indian dances, but rarely did anyone mention the culture that preceded the cattlemen of the late 19th century and the oilmen of the 20th century. Two books and a movie review have awakened me to some extraordinary dramas that took place in the Panhandle before my time. All involve early Texas settlers captured by Comanches.

This summer The Son by Philipp Meyer swept through our family like a Texas prairie fire. Shelby, David, Steve and I have all fallen for this blazing story. Grittier than Edna Ferber’s Giant, more tightly focused than James Michener’s Texas, more brutal than Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dovethis is a book for all current and former Texans to read and argue about. The narrative begins in 1849, when Comanches raided a frontier settlement and captured Eli McCullough, and ends like a Wagner opera in 2012 at the family ranch near the Texas-Mexico border where Eli’s feisty granddaughter rules over an oil empire.  Some of the McCulloughs are tough and greedy; others, more sensitive, try to atone for the McCulloughs’ rapacity.  Texas oil’s contribution to victory in WW II, detailed in The Big Rich, is accurately related. But why isn’t Meyer’s book titled “The Daughter” or “The Sons“? Why is one descendent named Ulises? And how could a Yankee write such a damn good book about the Lone Star state?

Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History by S. C. Gwynne is a book Marjo and I heard about on NPR three summers ago when we were visiting the Cherokee Indian area of North Carolina. We had already read about the capture of Quanah’s mother Cynthia in Ride the Wind by Lucia St. Clair Robson and we had visited Palo Duro Canyon, one of the Comanches’ favorite retreats. Gwynne gives a broader, deeper picture of how Comanches lived and how they held off the American army longer than any other foes ever did.

On July 5, 2013, the Washington Post published a highly favorable review of a 57-year old western starring John Wayne, “The Searchers.” The film is being shown at a festival here. I didn’t see it when I was 12, but now that I’ve read Meyer’s and Gwynne’s books, I would love to see more than just this trailer.

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