S.C. Gwynne Enraptures Via Lonesome Dove Dreams and Comanche Conflict

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Most writers - even the successful ones - only fantasize about publishing a best-selling book, much less see their work translated onto the big screen by a team of Hollywood A-listers.

Both happened to S.C. Gwynne, author of the wildly popular Empire of the Summer Moon. Gwynne spoke to an overflowing crowd Tuesday night at an Arts & Letters Live event at the Dallas Museum of Art.

Gwynne's book traces the rise and fall of the Comanche during the 17th to the 19th century in a wide swath of the plains from Texas as far north as Nebraska. The tribe gained control of the plains by mastering horses brought over by the Spanish; eventually, they were subdued by a U.S. military force determined to open up the western frontier, no matter the cost.

"The one person I wanted to get my book to was Larry McMurtry," said Gwynne, a senior writer at The Dallas Morning News and former executive editor at Texas Monthly. Gwynne wanted a blurb from the Lonesome Dove author for the book jacket, but obtained something far better: a movie deal.

Last summer, McMurtry called asking if he could write the screenplay for a Warner Bros. film adaptation, with Scott Cooper of Crazy Heart directing. "My only demand is that my daughter plays a Comanche princess," Gwynne said. The Oscar-award winning writing team of McMurtry and Diana Ossana are working on a script due sometime in June, according to Gwynne.

A self-proclaimed Yankee, Gwynne was fascinated by the "nearness" of frontier history in Texas."There was also a lot of forgetting going on," he said. A desire to reintroduce legendary stories like those of Cynthia Ann Parker and her half-white, half-Comanche son Quanah to a wider audience drove him to write the book.

Gwynne uses the Parker family to frame the arc of Comanche dominance. Cynthia Ann was kidnapped by a band of Comanche as a child and raised in the tribe. She married chief Peta Nocona and was mother to three children, Quanah being the eldest. Cynthia Ann was forcibly returned to white civilization by a group of Texas Rangers who captured her.

Quanah, as the last great Comanche chief, would lead the tribe, decimated by disease and warfare, onto a reservation in Oklahoma, a mere fraction of the land the tribe formerly controlled. Through the Parkers, we learned the Comanche were a self-sustaining, domineering people characterized by cunning and extreme violence. They're the reason the central U.S. was the last area of the country to be settled, said Gwynne.

At the behest of moderator Brian Sweany of Texas Monthly, Gwynne regaled the audience with engaging anecdotes peppered throughout the book, including the Apache intrigue that led to the San Saba Massacre by 2,000 hostile Indians. The priests' murders cemented Spanish fear of the Comanche and tightened the tribe's hold on its territory. Sweany mentioned the ruins of the mission are still standing near a golf course in Menard County.

The audience Q&A - usually the cue to leave - began with an ambush by Nocona Burgess, a Native American artist from Oklahoma who claimed to be the great-great-grandson of Quanah Parker. Burgess challenged Gwynne's research, in particular Gwynne's decision not to interview Comanche descendants for Empire of the Summer Moon.

Gwynne explained he adhered to the historical record by consulting primary and secondary sources, including interviews in the 1930s with aging Comanches who lived in the latter half of the 19th century. Since early Native Americans didn't keep written records, Gwynne said gathering interviews with living descendants would amount to collecting family lore, not facts.

Case in point was their disagreement over the fate of Peta Nocona, Quanah's father and Burgess' namesake. Burgess believes Quanah's explanation that Nocona wasn't killed in the Ranger raid that netted Cynthia Ann Parker and her daughter Prairie Flower. However, Gwynne, who based his conclusions on accounts of Rangers at the raid, believes Quanah perpetuated the story to salvage his father's reputation as a warrior.

Whatever the truth, there's no denying the Comanche are entrenched within the deepest reaches of Texas history. As Burgess put it, "I always say the Comanche flag is the 7th flag over Texas."

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