How the Comanche won the west
How the Comanche won the west
Last Updated: 12:01am BST 29/06/2008
Raymond Seitz reviews Comanche Empire by Pekka Hamalainen
By the start of the 19th century, the Comanche tribe of Native Americans
had come to dominate all the southern plains of the present-day United
States. Comanche power stretched from the western frontier of
French-controlled Louisiana to the foothills of the Rocky Mountains and
from the waters of the Arkansas River to the northern provinces of
Spanish-controlled Mexico. The region today includes most of Texas and
Oklahoma, and all of New Mexico and the trans-Rio Grande down to Durango.
So vast was the territory and so complete the sway that Pekka Hamalainen,
in this scholarly and eye-opening book, asserts that Comanche dominance
deserves to be called an empire. Not an empire in the classic, Western
meaning of the word, with a central metropolis and demarcated frontiers,
but an empire in the sense of hegemony.
The tribe developed a military, economic and cultural cohesion that
rivalled the French and Spanish presence in North America and overwhelmed
the many other Indian tribes in the region. Only in the third quarter of
the century, when the post-Civil War United States began its real push into
the plains, did Comanche pre-eminence fall apart. But for more than 100
years, the Comanche were the 800-pound gorilla of the American West.
In the early 1700s, this small nomadic tribe migrated out of the
mountainous Great Basin and into the southern plains. Rarely have a people
and an ecology been so perfectly matched. The plains were a vast ocean of
grasslands, especially shortgrass, with a long growing season and
comparatively mild winters.
The region was home to perhaps a million wild horses and it touched the
northern frontier of Spanish New Mexico where wild and domesticated horses
could be easily traded. In a few brief years, the Comanche emerged as
prodigious equestrians, and the horse became both the reason and the
vehicle for Comanche expansion.
Moreover, these same grand grasslands hosted gigantic herds of bison,
perhaps three million at the time, and along with horse-trading, the meat
and hides of the bison constituted the foundation of the Comanche economic
network and their access to peripheral markets.
In exchange, they received cereals and maize as well as European
manufactured goods, most notably guns. And to supplement their income,
Comanche simply rustled horses, sending raiding parties deeper and deeper
into Spanish territory, and in league with comancheros (Mexican renegades),
often stealing from one rancher to sell to another.
Political conditions were also ripe for the Comanche ascendancy. The
borderlands of the southern plains formed the loose, amorphous fringes of
European expansion. Following the Seven Years War, the French lost interest
in North America and were then beset by turmoil at home. In 1803, Napoleon
sold the Louisiana Territory to the United States for a song.
The Spanish grip was equally feeble, a 'cartographic illusion', says the
author. With an exhausted treasury, Spain failed to establish settled
colonies north of the Rio Grande, and following the Mexican Revolution in
1821, Mexican authority in the region was even more theoretical. In fact,
the Mexican government, in the hope of creating a kind of buffer zone, made
the fatal mistake in 1825 of inviting American settlers into Texas.
As to Native Americans, the southern plains were sparsely occupied by the
semi-sedentary Apaches, so when the Comanche arrived they found themselves
in the middle of a quintessential power vacuum. And once on the backs of
their mounts, they filled it. Accumulating horses, and later mules, while
at the same time giving room for the great herds of bison to roam, created
a self-perpetuating dynamic in which the Comanche pressed further and
further outwards to control the life-giving grasslands.
As skilful bargainers and consummate diplomats, they played one weak
European power against the other, and they either subdued their Indian
neighbours or formed alliances with them. By 1800, the Comanche numbered
40,000; they dominated the trade routes of the vast American interior, they
were fearsome, mobile warriors, and their language was a lingua franca
throughout the region.
As pastoralists, the Comanche were by necessity a loose confederation of
sub-tribes. Dispersed across the plains, their temporary settlements were
chiefly organised around kinship. Raising and breeding horses, and killing
and curing bison, is labour-intensive work, and the Comanche were
Some of their captives were returned for ransom, but others became a
working underclass. In the winter, when the hunting and grazing season was
over, the Comanche came together in large assemblies, and it was in these
months of socialising and trading that tribal councils decided domestic
issues and foreign policies.
The unravelling of Comanche hegemony came quickly, brutally and inevitably.
Texas, first as an independent republic and then as a state of the Union,
filled up with ranchers who found the same grasslands ideal for longhorn
cattle. And the routes for driving the cattle to market ran straight
through Comanche territory.
Moreover, in the late 1860s, a drought in the higher plains decimated the
bison population, and even as the herds attempted to recover, buffalo
runners (responding to a demand for conveyor belts in eastern factories)
slaughtered what they could find. Following the American Civil War, the
federal government asserted its authority in the region and insisted the
enfeebled Comanche confine themselves to agrarian reservations. Those who
refused were beaten into submission. By 1880 it was all over.
Pekka Hamalainen is an Associate Professor at the University of California
Santa Barbara. Though occasionally he seems to stretch the point about
'empire', his research is impressively deep and his writing style is
fluent. Most importantly, and without any whiff of political correctness or
romanticism, he is surely right that historians of the American West have
been too Euro-centric in their perspective, and have tended to belittle or
ignore the rise and fall of the extraordinary Comanche.