Monday, September 30, 2013

"Mongols in America"

     I have often heard my friends lament that America did not have a medieval heritage like that of Western Europe. Although we were founded by western European powers, we might have had men with titles of Lord this or that, we did not have the history of knights or men-at-arms fighting great battles or sieges, with Catapults and Trebuchets flinging dramatic boulders at garrisons bravely defending their keep. But that is not to say we did not have an incredibly effective form of medieval combat that stymied Western European Colonial attempts.

    Anthropologists often will talk about a concept called parallel evolution. This is where disparate groups of humans often divided by large geographic distances or even epochs of time, develop similar technologies. The fate of the people who have tied their future to the development and nurturing of horses, allows for a certain set of variables that generally only differ in the actual time of the cultures development and their environment with which the people find themselves in.

    The Scythians were chronicled by Herodotus as one of the all time masters of what would later become the Southern Ukrainian and Russian steppes. Their descendants became the Sarmatians to the Romans and later in the early part of the Medieval world, the Alan people. The Parthians were another horse culture. We have the Magyar of Hungary. And later the bad boys of the XIII Century, the Mongols. Not to mention the Persians who were the bitterest of foes to the Mongols.

     All of whom developed a strong horse bow, mounted archer form of combat. Along with lancers and horsemen who would throw lariats at their foes so they could capture their enemies horse. It was a constantly changing fluid form of combat. It could be effective in the extreme. Mounted horse combat involves a large degree of deception coupled with the ability to cover large amounts of distance in a short time frame with the ability to communicate, while using the local terrain to your advantage. Until the advent of the Walker Colt Pistol, it was also one of the most effective forms of combat man has ever developed. It also goes a long way to explaining why Cavalry or mounted armoured vehicular combat has stayed with us in one form or another to this day.

Mongol Horse Archers, circa 1430
Wikipedia Public Domain

     Recently I was given a new book to read by my father. It is called Empire of the Summer Moon. By S.C. Gwynne. It is a vibrant read about the Comanche dominance of the Western American plains and what is euphemistically called the Comanche Empire. Gwynne tells how first the Spanish colonial efforts, later the French and even later still Texas authorities and settlers are defeated in combat by the Comanche bands.

    One of the things we need to clear up is the use of the word nation. The Comanche were a people, most of whom prior to 1680 were a part of the greater Shoshone ethno-group, Until they were able to get horses from the Pueblo Indians in their revolt against Spanish authorities. Shortly thereafter they quickly became a group with a separate identity on their own. But as a rule, they were not a nation. They were broken into several large groups or bands. They had leaders of the various groups, but the concept of a Chief was again something the white man placed upon them.

      Gwynne's retelling of the conflict with the Comanches is paralleled by his account of the Texas family named Parker. The Parker's built what could be called a palisade fort on the Texas frontier border not too far from what is the present day Dallas/Ft Worth Metropolis. In 1836 The Comanches along with several groups of Kiowas, Caddos and Wichita Indians attacked the fort. They killed several members of the Parker family and made off with Cynthia Ann Parker and her brother John Richard Parker. Cynthia Ann Parker was made a member of the Comanche band that had attacked her family. She eventually married a Comanche leader by the name of Nacona and had three children by him. One of who was  Quanah Parker, the last war leader of the Comanche.  

     Gwynne's telling of the four decade long struggle to conquer the Comanche details just how hard and brutal the war was. As much as we have seen movies like "Dances with Wolves" it was the defeat of the Comanche and not the Sioux which led to the development of the American West.

     The Comanches like the Mongols had been on a steep learning curve since 1680 when they received their first horse herds. The soon realized that mounted horseback archery and lance work were the most effective tools they had in their tool box. I won't give too many details about some of the battles chronicled in this book, but time and time again I am reminded of the tactics used by the Mongols in their invasion of Western Europe.

     If met with a large force, the Comanche would ride away, drawing out their enemies in long lines of running horses. they would fire Parthian Shots over the backs of their horses, to antagonize their opponents. When their enemies horses would begin to tire, they would suddenly wheel and begin liberally peppering their foes with arrow.-Several accounts in the book talk about white men firing off one shot to the Comanches five arrows.

     The Comanche were ultimately defeated by having their primary food source slaughtered almost into extinction. It should be noted the killing of the American Bison will go down as one of, if not the largest voluntary mass killings of a mammal in human history. The second force that caused their downfall was the emergence of XIX Century technology in the form of multiple shot firearms, coupled with a Government's iron will to see them either reduced entirely, or beaten to the point they would no longer have any influence or validity.

     I would give this book three out of five stars if I rated on that basis. It is my opinion that this is a good introductory offering into American History of the era. Although there is in my opinion too large of a reliance upon sensationalist newspaper accounts from the day and not enough of hard research. It is however a gripping read and one that I believe will keep you entertained.

-DS Baker

Here is the official website of author S.C Gwynne: 

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