It’s easy to think of the European arrival in North America as an unremitting story of Native American retreat. But as Finnish historian Pekka Hamalainen explains in The Comanche Empire, reality was more complicated.
Empowered by the European introduction of the horse and the gun, the Comanches did very well for a long time. In the century beginning around 1750, they became dominant in vast swaths of what’s now New Mexico and Texas. Their reach even extended into Louisiana and northern Mexico.
To quote from Frank McLynn’s review of Hamalainen’s book, “Although the word empire may be the author’s hyperbole, the Comanches ruled an extensive domain that worked on a melange of kinship ties, trade, diplomacy, extortion and violence.”
And in Hamalainen’s words, rather than being bit players in the American southwest, “it was Comanches, not Euro-Americans, who mastered the policies of divide and rule.”
The Comanches weren’t native to the region. Moving south from the Great Plains in the early 1700s, they displaced, among others, the Apaches.
The campaign to accomplish that displacement was both multidecadal and bloody. But a decisive point had been reached by the 1720s. The Comanches were increasingly dominant and the Apaches were pushed further south and west.
When they first came into contact with European artefacts – the horse, gun and iron tools – the Comanches proved very adaptable. It’s not a stretch to describe them as transformed.
Already possessed of a keen martial culture, they became especially formidable. The term “Spartans of the plains” has been applied to describe their combat prowess.
In addition, “reinventing themselves as mounted bison hunters, Comanches dramatically simplified and intensified their economy; few societies in history have relied so totally on a single food source, and few have experienced such a sudden increase in total caloric intake as the early 18th-century Comanches did.”
Unsurprisingly, their ranks soared. From a population that may have been as low as 1,500 in the 1720s, their 1745 and 1780 numbers are estimated at around 15,000 and 45,000 respectively.
Raiding was a critical part of the Comanche modus operandi. While horses and mules were prime targets, humans were also in the frame. The Comanches were enthusiastic slave traders and raids were a vehicle for acquiring inventory.
Although other Native Americans – such as Apaches and Navajos – were the most likely sources of this tradable human capital, Spanish and Mexican captives were desirable as “prospective high-value commodities.” Accordingly, the latter were likely to be “treated especially well.”
Abhorrent as all this is to modern sensibilities, Hamalainen notes that the Comanche approach to slavery was fluid rather than rigid. Yes, they could be very cruel and humans were certainly used as instruments of trade. However, captives might also be afforded varying degrees of integration into Comanche society.
Things began to turn sour in the mid-19th century. And when they did, Comanche power collapsed quickly.
There were several contributing factors.
Even before the white hunters arrived in large numbers after the American Civil War, the critical bison herds were under pressure. By the 1840s, the bison population had started to thin.
Part of the problem derived from the hunting activities of the Comanches and their allies. And part of it came from resource competition with the multiplying horse herds that they cherished so dearly.
As Hamalainen describes it, horses and bison have very similar dietary and water requirements. Put together in very large numbers, they were “ecologically incompatible species.”
Making matters worse, nature delivered one of its periodic blows. Drought struck in 1845 and, apart from a brief respite, persisted until the mid-1860s. The consequent disappearance of the lush grass was devastating for the bison herds.
Politics also played a key role.
The 1846 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo required that the Americans prevent raiding into Mexico, which meant policing the border. For the Comanches, who recognized no border, this was a problem. The U.S. military was starting to hem them in.
And then with the post-Civil War push for westward expansion, the army deployed the same relentless strategy that had been honed against the Confederacy. Through the application of superior numbers and technology, all opposition – including that of the Comanches – was ground down.
A fiercely adaptive warrior ethos wasn’t enough. Comanche power had run out of road.
Pat Murphy casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in our world. Never cynical – well, perhaps just a little bit.