The Comanche Empire (The Lamar Series in Western History)

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As Spanish, French, British, and U. The result was a colonial history that defies conventional wisdom. A longstanding notion has it that the course and contours of early American history were determined by the shifts in Euro- American power dynamics and the reactions of metropolitan headquarters in Madrid, London, Versailles, Mexico City, and Washington to those shifts.

The Southwest, however, is a striking exception. Metropolitan visions mattered there, but they often mattered less than the policies and designs of Comanches, whose dominance eventually reached hemispheric dimensions, extending from the heart of North America deep into Mexico. Indeed, Comanche ascendancy is the missing component in the sweeping historical sequence that led to New Spain's failure to colonize the interior of North America, the erosion of Spanish imperial authority in the Southwest, and the precipitous decay of Mexican power in the north.

Yet for all their strength and potential for expansion, Comanches never attempted to build a European-style imperial system. Unlike Euro-American imperial powers, Comanches did not seek to establish large-scale settlement colonies, and their vision of power was not direct rule over multiple subject peoples. They did not publicize their might with ostentatious art and architecture, and they left behind no imperial ruins to remind us of the extent of their power. Preferring informal rule over formal institutions for both cultural and strategic reasons, Comanches nevertheless created a deeply hierarchical and integrated intersocietal order that was unmistakably imperial in shape, scope, and substance.

The numerous Comanche bands and divisions formed an internally fluid but externally coherent coalition that accomplished through a creative blending of violence, diplomacy, extortion, trade, and kinship politics what more rigidly structured empires have achieved through direct political control: they imposed their will upon neighboring polities, harnessed the economic potential of other societies for their own use, and persuaded their rivals to adopt and accept their customs and norms. To understand the particular nature of Comanche imperialism, it is necessary to understand how Comanche ascendancy intertwined with other imperial expansions -New Spain's tenacious if erratic northward thrust from central Mexico, New France's endeavor to absorb the interior grasslands into its commercial realm, and the United States' quest for a transcontinental empire.

Comanches, to simplify a complex multistage process, developed aggressive power policies in reaction to Euro-American invasions that had threatened their safety and autonomy from the moment they had entered the southern plains. Indeed, the fact that Comanche territory, Comancheria, was encircled throughout its existence by Euro-American settler colonies makes the Comanches an unlikely candidate for achieving regional primacy. But as the Comanches grew in numbers and power, that geopolitical layout became the very foundation of their dominance.

Yet they never adopted such a policy of expulsion, preferring instead to have their borders lined with formally autonomous but economically subservient and dependent outposts that served as economic access points into the vast resources of the Spanish empire. The Comanches, then, were an imperial power with a difference: their aim was not to conquer and colonize, but to coexist, control, and exploit. Whereas more traditional imperial powers ruled by making things rigid and predictable, Comanches ruled by keeping them fluid and malleable.

New Mexico and Texas existed side by side with Comancheria throughout the colonial era, and though often suffering under Comanche pressure, the twin colonies endured, allowing Spain to claim sweeping imperial command over the Southwest. Yet when examined closely, Spain's uncompromised imperial presence in the Southwest becomes a fiction that existed only in Spanish minds and on European maps, for Comanches controlled a large portion of those material things that could be controlled in New Mexico and Texas.

The idea of land as a form of private, revenue-producing property was absent in Comanche culture, and livestock and slaves in a sense took the place of landed private property. This basic observation has enormous repercussions on how we should see the relationship between the Comanches and colonists. When Comanches subjected Texas and New Mexico to systematic raiding of horses, mules, and captives, draining wide sectors of those productive resources, they in effect turned the colonies into imperial possessions. That Spanish Texas and New Mexico remained unconquered by Comanches is not a historical fact; it is a matter of perspective.

In this book I examine the Comanche power complex as part of an emerging transatlantic web that had not yet consolidated into an encompassing world economy. Seen from this angle, the eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Southwest and Mexican North emerge as a small- scale world-system that existed outside the controlling grip of Europe's overseas empires.


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Comancheria was its political and economic nucleus, a regional core surrounded by more or less peripheral societies and territories whose fortunes were linked to the Comanches through complex webs of cooperation, coercion, extortion, and dependence. The world-system approach to history has often been criticized for being overly strict and mechanistic, which it is.

I have used its spatial language and metaphors selectively but also advisedly, fully aware that they convey a certain kind of rigidity and permanence. Viewed against the backdrop of constantly shifting frontiers of North America, the intersocietal space the Comanches occupied and eventually dominated was marked by unusually hard, enduring, and distinctive power hierarchies. This Comanche-centric world was by no means self-contained; it was anchored from its inception to the broader colonial world through the strong administrative and economic networks among New Mexico, Texas, northern Mexican provinces, and Mexico City.

But these institutional linkages often had less impact on the colonies' internal development than Comanche policies did; the troubled and convoluted history of New Mexico, Texas, Coahuila, and Nueva Vizcaya may have had as much to do with the Comanches as with the ebbs and flows of New Spain's imperial fortunes. In fact, the systemic connec tions between Comancheria and northern New Spain gave the Comanches a modicum of exploitative power over the Spanish empire as a whole.

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When New Mexico was founded at the turn of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it was expected to fuel Spain's imperial veins with raw materials and laborers, but by the eighteenth century the colony was leaking so much wealth into Comancheria that it could survive only by continuous financial backing from Mexico City. By subsidizing its far northern frontier, then, the Spanish empire in effect drained itself to feed and fend off an indigenous empire. Although I focus on a particular place in time in this book, my arguments engage in the broader debates about colonialism, frontiers, and borderlands in the Americas.

Over the past three decades, historians have conceived entirely new ways of thinking about Native Americans, Euro- Americans, and their tangled histories. Moving beyond conventional top- down narratives that depict Indians as bit players in imperial struggles or tragic victims of colonial expansion, today's scholarship portrays them as full-fledged historical actors who played a formative role in the making of early America.

Rather than a seamless, preordained sequence, the colonization of the Americas is now seen as a dialectic process that created new worlds for all involved. Indigenous societies did not simply vanish in the face of Euro-American onslaught. Many adjusted and endured, rebuilding new economies and identities from the fragments of the old ones. Indians fought and resisted, but they also cooperated and coexisted with the newcomers, creating new hybrid worlds that were neither wholly Indian nor European.

By foregrounding indigenous peoples and their intentions in the story of early America, recent scholarship has reinvigorated a field that only a generation ago was suffocating under its parochial and mythologizing tenets. Significant as this revisionist turn has been, it is not complete. Too often the alterations have been cosmetic rather than corrective. Historians have sanitized vocabularies and updated textbooks to illuminate the subtleties of colonial encounters, but the broad outlines of the story have largely remained intact.

With too few exceptions, revisionist historians have limited themselves to retelling the story of colonial conquest from the Indian side of the frontier. They have probed how Native peoples countered and coped with colonial expansion and have largely overlooked the other side of the dynamic-the impact of Indian policies on colonial societies. Such an approach reinforces the view of European powers as the principal driving force of history and tends to reduce indigenous actions to mere strategies of subversion and survival.

To recover the full dimension of Indian agency in early American history, we must once again reevaluate the intersections among Native peoples, colonial powers, frontiers, and borderlands.

The Rise and Fall of the Comanches

We have to turn the telescope around and create models that allow us to look at Native policies toward colonial powers as more than defensive strategies of resistance and containment 8. This book offers new insights into that effort, and it does so by questioning some of the most basic assumptions about indigenous peoples, colonialism, and historical change. Instead of perceiving Native policies toward colonial powers simply as strategies of survival, it assumes that Indians, too, could wage war, exchange goods, make treaties, and absorb peoples in order to expand, extort, manipulate, and dominate.

Instead of reading Indian dispossession back in time to structure the narrative of early America, it embraces the multiple possibilities and contingency of historical change. At its most fundamental level, it promotes a less linear reading of Indian-white relations in North America. After the initial contacts, when Indians usually held the upper hand over the invaders, the fate of indigenous cultures was not necessarily an irreversible slide toward dispossession, depopulation, and cultural declension.

As the history of the Comanches illustrates, almost diametrically opposite trajectories were possible. The history of Indian-Euro-colonial relations, as we today understand them, is inseparable from the history of the frontier, which forms another theoretical thread of this study. Over the past fifteen years or so, the frontier has made a forceful reentry into the very center of North American historiography.

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Recast as a zone of cultural interpenetration, the frontier is finding new relevance among historians who not so long ago had rejected Frederick Jackson Turner's frontier thesis as an ethnocentric and narcissistic rendition of the European takeover of North America. Instead of Turner's binary dividing line between civilization and savagery-or as seedbed of American virtues-historians have reenvisioned the frontier as a socially charged space where Indians and invaders competed for resources and land but also shared skills, foods, fashions, customs, languages, and beliefs.

Indian-white frontiers, new work has revealed, were messy, eclectic contact points where all protagonists are transformed-regardless of whether the power dynamics between them are evenly or unevenly balanced. This has brought the frontier closer to its rival concept, the borderland, which Herbert Eugene Bolton, the pioneering historian of Spanish North America, coined to challenge Turner's constricted Anglo-centric vision. Skepticism toward the nation-state as the main unit of historical analysis, a hemispheric vision, an appreciation of cultural and political mutability, and an emphasis on indigenous agency are the traditional strengths of borderlands history; today they are the strengths of frontier studies as well.

This book makes use of several insights of new frontier-borderland studies. On a microlevel, it shows how Comanches forged intimate small-scale, faceto-face markets with Euro-Americans, creating nascent versions of what Daniel Usner has called "frontier exchange economies," self-sufficient trade systems that mostly existed outside of the burgeoning transatlantic economy.

It describes how Comanches forced the colonizers to modify their aggressive ways and at the same time recalibrated some of their own practices to adjust to the EuroAmerican presence, engaging in the kind of process of mediation, mutual invention, and cultural production Richard White has called "the middle ground. And yet the new frontier-borderland studies can explain the world I am describing only partially. The Southwest depicted in this book is a violent and traumatic place where Natives and newcomers saw one another more as strangers and adversaries than as co-creators of a common world; it was only incidentally a place where frontier exchange economies or middle grounds could flourish.

When Comanches and Euro-Americans met to discuss such contentious and conceptually slippery matters as war, peace, reciprocity, loyalty, and justice, they sometimes relied on creative and expedient misunderstandings that were so fundamental for the creation of middle grounds, but more often than not, they understood each other all too well and generally did not like what they saw.

Euro-Americans deemed Comanches needy, pushy, oversensitive, and obstinate in their pagan beliefs, and in turn appeared greedy, arrogant, bigoted, and grotesquely boorish to Comanche sensibilities.

The Comanche Empire

In the end, most attempts at meaningful cross-cultural mediation crumbled against the insolence of EuroAmericans and the impatience of Comanches. Their foreign policy became less a matter of accommodating Euro- American expectations than rejecting, reforming, or simply ignoring them ". Viewed broadly, the Southwest under the Comanche regime becomes a case study of alternative frontier history. From a Comanche point of view, in fact, there were no frontiers. Where contemporary Euro-Americans as well as later historians saw or imagined solid imperial demarcations, Comanches saw multiple opportunities for commerce, gift exchanges, pillaging, slave raiding, ransoming, adoption, tribute extracting, and alliance making.

By refusing to accept the Western notion of sovereign, undivided colonial realms, they shredded Euro-American frontiers into their component parts- colonial towns, presidios, missions, ranches, haciendas, Native villages-and dealt with each isolated unit separately, often pitting their interests against one another.

In the colonial Southwest, it was Comanches, not Euro- Americans, who mastered the policies of divide and rule. Similarly, Comanches' assertive and aggressive policies toward EuroAmericans were only secondarily a borderland product. Comanches certainly benefited from their location between competing colonial regimes, but they had little in common with the Indians found in most borderland histories. Rather than marginalized people balancing between rival colonial regimes to enact minor alleviations in imperial policies, Comanches were key players who often forced the would-be colonizers to compete for their military support and goodwill and navigate their initiatives and intentions.

In character and logic, the eighteenthand early nineteenth-century Southwest was unequivocally a Comanche creation, an indigenous world where intercolonial rivalries were often mere surface disturbances on the deeper, stronger undercurrent of Comanche imperialism. In popular imagination, the American Southwest before the United States takeover in is a study in imperial failure. The overstretched and stiflingly bureaucratic Spanish empire, with its North American headquarters in Mexico City, had spread its resources too thinly across the Western Hemisphere to affix its northernmost provinces firmly into its imperial structure.

The French, while more resourceful than their myopic Spanish rivals, were too erratic and too preoccupied with Old World power politics, the British colonies, and Canadian fur trade to do anything imperially impressive with Louisiana or the western interior. The fledgling Mexican Republic was so fragile and fractious that it lost both New Mexico and Texas in less than three decades.

Reduced to a caricature, the Southwest of the mainstream view appears a medley of politically weak and isolated Native tribes, exhausted empires, and dysfunctional republics, a fragmented world ripe to be absorbed by Anglo Americans who alone possessed the imagination, drive, and means to subjugate and control vast regions. I start with a different premise-far from an imperial backwater, the Southwest was a dynamic world of vibrant societies, and Comanches had to suppress and absorb vigorous imperial projects to achieve dominance-and draw on a string of pathbreaking studies that have given the history of the early Southwest a new look.

Dismantling the long-standing stereotype of reactionary and unimaginative Spanish colonists, David Weber has demonstrated how high-ranking authorities in central Mexico and local officials in New Mexico, Texas, and Louisiana constantly and creatively modified the empire's frontier policies to extend Spanish claims and power into the heart of North America.

That same political and strategic dynamism, Weber has further shown, defined the Mexican Southwest, although the infant republic lacked the resources and expansionist ambitions of the Spanish empire. Ned Blackhawk has drawn attention to the Spaniards' enormous capacity to employ-and endure-violence in advancing their imperial interests. In revisiting the history of the Comanches, ethnohistorians like Morris Foster and Thomas Kavanagh have dispelled the stereotype of a simple hunting society by uncovering elaborate political systems, social institutions, trade networks, and pastoral herding economies.

Together, these and other new studies have demolished the old iinage of the Southwest as a world of innately passive peoples, frozen in time and disconnected from the main currents of American history. Historians have also begun to create new syntheses that illustrate how this rediscovered human ambition, energy, and ingenuity shaped the evolution of cross-cultural relations in the Southwest.

Gary Clayton Anderson has examined the region as a contested and culturally elastic meeting ground where many Native groups resisted conquest through ethnogenesis, by constantly reshaping their economies, societies, and identities. In a seminal study, James Brooks has recast the region as an ethnic mosaic connected by an intercultural exchange network that revolved around "kinship slavery" and blended indigenous and colonial traditions of servitude, violence, male honor, and retribution into a distinctive borderlands cultural economy.

With such insights, the Southwest is now emerging as a vigorous world of enduring social subversion where Natives and newcomers remained roughly equal in power and where familiar dichotomies of Indians and Europeans, or masters and victims, often became meaningless sa. I show how Comanches cooperated and compromised with other peoples but also argue that their relations with the Spaniards, Mexicans, Wichitas, and others remained grounded in conflict and exploitation. Comancheria's borders were sites of mutualistic trade and cultural fusion, but they were also sites of extortion, systematic violence, coerced exchange, political manipulation, and hardening racial attitudes.

The key difference between the existing studies and this book centers on the question of power and its distribution. According to Brooks's landmark Captives and Cousins, for example, the intricate patterns of raiding, exchange, and captiveseizure knitted disparate peoples into intimate webs of interdependence, equalized wealth distinctions among groups, and worked against the emergence of asymmetrical power relations. The Southwest he-and others-portrays was a place of nondominant frontiers where neither colonists nor Natives possessed the power to rule over the other.

My argument, in a sense, is more traditional: such actions as raiding, enslaving, ethnic absorption, and even exchange generally benefit some groups more than they do others. In the Southwest, moreover, that process toward inequality was a cumulative one. Once the Comanches secured their territorial control over the southern plains in the mid-eighteenth century, they entered into a spiral of growing power and influence that stemmed from their ability to extract political and material benefits from the urban-based societies in New Mexico, Texas, and the Great Plains ".

The conspicuous differences between earlier studies and this book rise from different conceptual framing and scaling. Recent works on Indian- EuroAmerican relations in the Southwest-as in North America in general- share a particular focus: they look at events through a local lens, stressing individual and small-group agency over the larger structural forces.

Suffused with subaltern interpretations, they tend to focus on the fringe peoples living on the frontiers' edges and trace how they engaged in cross-cultural dialogue and came together to form new hybrid communities, gradually shading into one another. Occupied with the local, the specific, and the particular, they are less concerned with the broader political, economic, and cultural struggles.

Hierarchies of power, privi lege, and wealth, while not ignored, are relegated to the background of the central story of cross-cultural cooperation and assimilation In this book, in contrast, I examine the inhabitants of the Southwest in larger aggregates. While recognizing that ethnic and cultural boundaries were often porous, I look at those peoples as they identified and understood themselves: as distinct groups of Apaches, Comanches, Spaniards, French, Mexicans, and Anglo-Americans.

With this shift in frame and focus, local arrangements may become somewhat blurred and lose some of their primacy, but the broader panorama opens a clearer view to the governing macroscale dynamics. It shows that the American Southwest, for all its wide-ranging cultural mixing, remained a polarized world where disparate ethnic groups clashed and competed bitterly with one another, where inequities of wealth and opportunity remained a tangible fact of life, and where resources, people, and power gravitated toward Comancheria. Besides adjusting the analytical scale, the reconstruction of Comanche power has entailed a basic visual reorientation.

Instead of looking at events from colonial frontiers inward-a traditional approach that inevitably ties explanations to contemporary Western biases-this book looks at developments from Comancheria outward. Viewed from this angle, Comanche actions take on new shape and meaning. Acts that previously seemed arbitrary or impulsive fall into coherent patterns with their own internal logic and purpose.

A foreign policy that previously appeared an opportunistic search for microlevel openings on whitecontrolled imperial frontiers now emerges as planned, synchronized, and domineering. They did not merely respond to political initiatives dictated from abroad, but actively sought and stipulated treaties. Far from being situational opportunists, they fused exchange, organized pilfering, and targeted destruction into a complex economy of violence, which allowed them to simultaneously enforce favorable trade agreements, create artificial demand for their exports, extort tribute payments from colonial outposts, and fuel a massive trade network with stolen horses, captives, and other marketable commodities.

Seen from Mexico City, the far north often seemed chaotic and unsettling; seen from Comancheria, it appears nuanced, orderly, and reassuring. Understanding Comanches' rise to power requires more than unearthing previously veiled patterns and structures: it also requires describing events and developments on Comanche terms. To capture the fundamental nature of the Comanche empire, we need to uncover meanings behind words, motives behind actions, strategies behind policies, and, eventually, the cultural order that drove it all.

This, however, is a daunting task because the available sources do not readily lend themselves to deep cultural analysis. Euro- American colonial records, the documentary spine of this book, address virtually every aspect of Comanche political economy from warfare, exchange, and diplomacy to material production, slavery, and social relations, but although the records are rich in depiction and detail, the picture they yield is nevertheless the one-dimensional view of an outsider.

Government reports, captivity narratives, travelers' journals, and traders' accounts tell us a great deal about Comanche actions but rarely shed light on the cultural motives behind those actions. Few contemporary observers possessed the analytical tools to understand the subtleties between Native and non-Native cultural logic, and even fewer possessed the ability-or the inclination-to write down what they learned. The available sources are thus almost invariably infected with gaps, accidental misreadings, and intentional misconstructions, leaving historians to work with material that is fragmentary at best and outright erroneous at worst.

In my endeavor to recover Comanche motives and meanings from the flawed evidence, I have employed an array of historical and ethnohistorical methods. I have prioritized accounts that recount, even in a mutated form, Comanche voice-while keeping in mind that that voice is recorded through a cultural colander and that it belongs often to privileged headmen, seldom to the poor and deprived, and virtually never to women and the young. I have cross-checked Spanish, French, Mexican, and Anglo-American documents against one another to create more stereoscopic and, arguably, more accurate portrayals of Comanche intentions and objectives.

Throughout the writing process, I have compared historical documents to ethnographic data, processing Euro-American-produced materials through an ethnohistorical filter. This has involved a cautious use of "upstreaming" whereby one works back from more recent and more complete ethnological observations to decipher practices and behaviors of earlier periods.

Even more reluctantly, I have sometimes relied on "side-streaming," deducing interpretations about Comanche cultural values from generalized models of Native societies of the Great Plains and other regions"S. This kind of methodological layering and rotation of viewpoints helps outline the broad contours of Comanche cultural order, but the resulting picture is still only an approximate one.

Regardless of their origin, all colonial records are marred with similar deep-seated biases, while upstreaming runs the risk of presentism, tainting analysis with a sense of static timelessness; it assumes that Native peoples and their traditions have somehow been immune to modernity and have somehow remained unchanged through centuries of dispossession, population loss, and cultural genocide. Side-streaming threatens to submerge unique Comanche traits under crude blanket definitions of Indians in general and Plains Indians in particular.

Shortcomings like these can produce what historian Frederick Hoxie has called "cookbook ethnohistory": complex cultures are collapsed into shorthand recipes, human behavior is reduced to a culturally or genetically determined reflex, and individual impulses become irrelevant. Taking a cue from Hoxie, I have embraced rather than downplayed the contradictory aspects of Comanche behavior. The Comanches depicted in this book were empire-builders who did not possess a grand imperial strategy and conquerors who saw themselves more as guardians than governors of the land and its bounties.

They were warriors who often favored barter over battle and traders who did not hesitate to rely on lethal violence to protect their interests. They were shrewd diplomats who at times eschewed formal political institutions and peacemakers who tortured enemies to demonstrate military and cultural supremacy. They were racially color-blind people who saw in almost every stranger a potential kinsperson, but they nevertheless built the largest slave economy in the colonial Southwest.

Their war chiefs insulted, intimidated, and demeaned colonial agents with shockingly brutal words and gestures, but their peace leaders spoke eloquently of forgiveness, pity, and regret, using elaborate metaphors and ritual language to persuade their Euro- American counterparts. Above all, the Comanches were not a monolith obeying an unyielding cultural code but rather an assemblage of individuals with different and sometimes conflicting personalities, interests, and ambitions.

They shared certain core values and objectives, but they also disagreed and quarreled over the methods, goals, and costs of their policies. The Comanche society, in short, was a complex one in which several standards of conduct coexisted simultaneously. Historian Bruce Trigger has explained Native American behavior from a slightly different angle than Hoxie by focusing on the underlying mental processes of learning, judging, and reasoning. This kind of cognitive reorganization, Trigger maintains, occurred at all levels of behavior but was most visible in those areas that relate more directly to Indians' material well-being-technology and power.

For Trigger, the outcome of colo nial contact was not a makeover of Native Americans into "universal economic men," nor was it an unyielding persistence of otherness. Following Trigger, I pay particular attention to the changes that occurred over time in the underlying principles of Comanche behavior. The introduction of horses, guns, and other Old World technology arguably prompted Comanches to view their place and possibilities in the world in a different light, while close political and commercial interactions with colonial powers exposed them to the logic and laws of European diplomacy and the market.

Comanches may have initially perceived European goods through the mold of their idiosyncratic traditions, but that did not prevent them from grasping the tremendous military and material advantages of horses, firearms, and metal-or from employing those advantages against Euro-Americans themselves. Similarly, like many other indigenous peoples, Comanches may have at first viewed the mounted, gun-using newcomers as all-powerful otherworldly beings, yet within years they learned to manipulate the Spaniards' all-too-human weaknesses to their own advantage.

Within a generation or so after the first contact, Comanches had learned to distinguish between the motives and methods of the different colonial powers and to exploit those differences to advance their own political and economic agendas. Grounded in utilitarian calculations of self-interest, such behavior was rational in the sense most contemporary Euro-Americans and later historians would have understood the term.


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And yet the yawning gulf separating Comanche and Euro-American cultural and mental worlds never disappeared-far from it. Regardless of their universal features, the actions and policies of Comanches remained embedded in a system of reality that was distinctly non-Western in nature. To the limited extent that it is possible to unveil the intentions that went into the actions of eighteenth- or early nineteenth-century Indians, it seems plain that the rationale of Comanche behavior remained worlds apart from that of Euro- Americans.

On the face of it, Comanche actions fell into unambiguous categories- trading, raiding, enslaving, and so forth-that were easily recognizable and understandable to contemporary Euro-Americans and modern historians alike. But the similarities are only skin deep; a more focused look reveals how Comanche actions time and again transcended familiar categories and defied easy labeling. Unlike Euro-Americans, Comanches did not separate trade from larger social relations but instead understood it as a form of sharing between relatives, either real or fictive.

They considered theft a legitimate way of rectifying short-term imbalances in resource distribution rather than an antagonistic act that automatically canceled out future peaceful interactions. They killed, waged war, and dispossessed other societies, not necessarily to conquer, but to extract ven geance and to appease the spirits of their slain kin through dead enemy bodies. Capturing people from other ethnic groups did not necessarily signify a passage from freedom into slavery but a move from one kinship network to another. Even gift giving, the leitmotif of American Indian diplomacy, contained what appears at least on the surface a striking contradiction.

Like most American Indians, Comanches considered gift exchanges a prerequisite for peaceful relations, yet they demanded one-sided gift distributions from Euro-American colonists, readily relying on violence if denied. They built a hierarchical intersocietal system with policies that were often geared toward securing gifts, conciliation, reciprocal services, and new relatives from peoples whom they may have considered as much kin and allies as strangers and enemies. Indeed, the fact that Comanches did things differently may well have been one of their greatest political assets.

Their ability to move nimbly from raiding to trading, from diplomacy to violence, and from enslaving to adoption not only left their colonial rivals confused; it often left them helpless.

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Western insistence upon uniformity in principle and action, a disposition that manifested itself most clearly in centralized state bureaucracies, rendered their policies slow and heavy-handed in comparison to Comanches' strategic fluidity. Euro-Americans compartmentalized foreign relations into distinct, often mutually exclusive categories and found it exceedingly difficult to deal with peoples who refused to recognize such categories.

Unable to dissect, classify, and comprehend the Comanches and their actions, colonial agents were also unable to contain them. Herein lay the ultimate paradox. While initially Comanches adjusted their traditions, behaviors, and even beliefs to accommodate the arrival of Europeans and their technologies, they later turned the tables on Europe's colonial expansion by simply refusing to change.

By preserving the essentials of their traditional ways-and by expecting others to conform to their cultural order-they forced the colonists to adjust to a world that was foreign, uncontrollable, and, increasingly, unlivable. The chapters that follow tell two intertwined stories. The other story looks at events from the standpoint of the Spaniards, Mexicans, Apaches, and others who variously competed and cooperated with the Comanches but ultimately faced marginalization and dispossession in the Comanche-controlled world.

These two stories are woven into a single narrative thread, which in turn is embedded within the broader framework of Europe's overseas expansion. This contextual approach shows how local, regional, and global forces intersected to shape Comanche expansion and how Comanches both suffered and benefited from fluctuations and contingencies in the emerging transatlantic world. Comanche expansion lasted for a century and a half, but it was not a linear, uninterrupted process. There were surges, lulls, retreats, and regroupings, and the Comanche power complex went through repeated mutations, many of them epochs unto themselves.

The chapters that follow are organized around those shifts and cycles, which both reflect and challenge the more traditional historical turning points in American history. They came to the plains from the west, slipping through the canyon passes of the Sangre de Cristo Range in small, roving bands.

Like so many other Native groups of the age, the Numunu moved to the great continental grasslands seeking new opportunities, to build a new way of life around the emerging ecological triad of grasses, bison, and horses. They were few in number, possessed little wealth beyond a handful of mounts, and seemed indistinguishable from their more prominent allies, the Utes. New Mexico's Spanish officials noted their arrival to the southern grasslands in and wrote it off as a minor event. Yet by midcentury, the Numunu, then bearing the name Comanches, had unhinged the world they had almost unnoticeably entered.

Despite its modest beginnings, the Comanche exodus to the southern plains is one of the key turning points in early American history. It was a commonplace migration that became a full-blown colonizing project with far- reaching geopolitical, economic, and cultural repercussions. The Comanche invasion of the southern plains was, quite simply, the longest and bloodiest conquering campaign the American West had witnessed-or would witness until the encroachment of the United States a century and a half later.

But the Comanche invasion was far more than a military conquest. As they made a place for themselves in the southern plains, Comanches forged a series of alliances with the adjacent Indian and European powers, rearranging the political and commercial geography of the entire lower midcontinent. Seen from another angle, the Comanche invasion was a momentous cultural experiment.

It brought destruction and death to many, but it also introduced a new, exhilarating way of life-specialized mounted bison hunting-to the Great Plains, irrevocably altering the parameters of human existence on the vast grasslands that covered the continent's center. Finally, Comanche arrival to the southern plains was a major international event: it marked the beginning of the long decay of Spain's imperial power in what today is the American Southwest.

The Comanche conquest of the southern Great Plains was a watershed event that demolished existing civilizations, recalibrated economic systems, and triggered shock waves that reverberated across North America. But Comanches were not the only expansionist people in the early eighteenthcentury Southwest; their invasion overlapped with, crashed against, and eventually benefited from three other sweeping colonizing campaigns. In , after several aborted colonizing attempts, Spain laid the foundation for a new outpost, Texas, on the southern edge of the Great Plains, thereby pinching the grasslands between the new colonial base and its older counterpart in New Mexico.

This expansionist thrust was a reaction to another imperial venture. Just as they faced the Comanche assault, the Apaches solidified their control over the entire southern grasslands by simultaneously annihilating and absorbing the last of the Jumanos, a once-prominent nation of hunter-traders that vanished from the historical record by Into this volatile and violent multipolar world came the Comanches, who found both ordeals and possibilities in its instability.

They suffered from the escalating disorder, which complicated their adaptation to their new homeland, and they frequently faced more than one enemy group on their expanding borders. But the advantages far outweighed the drawbacks. The confluence of several colonizing projects meant that their rivals were often preoccupied with other challenges and therefore unable to organize effective resistance or, alternatively, willing to negotiate and form alliances with the invaders.

Comanches also took advantage of the imperial rivalry between New Spain and New France, playing off the two powers against one another to extort concessions from both. In their quest to carve a living space out of a foreign territory, they had the inestimable advantage of invading an already colonized landscape where territorial arrangements were in a state of flux. And finally, Comanches arrived in the southern plains just as European technology-horses, guns, and iron tools-began to spread there in mass. As immigrants used to adjusting their ways to changing conditions, Comanches were able to harness the empowering potential of the new technology more fully than their Native rivals who tried to incorporate the innovations into their more established and more tradition-bound lifestyles.

Comanches were invaders who made a place for themselves on the southern plains by raw force, but they were also opportunists who exploited a chaos that was only partially their own making. Despite its far-reaching influence, the Comanche invasion of the southern plains has never been studied in a systematic fashion, and we understand its battles, protagonists, turning points, and underlying impulses only vaguely. Scholars have tended to sketch the invasion with broad, impressionistic strokes, which inadvertently has promoted the eighteenth- century view of Comanches as land-hungry militarists who randomly pushed ahead until reaching the natural limits of expansion.

In this chapter I will show, by contrast, that the Comanche conquest of the southern plains was a long and complex process that evolved through several stages and was fueled by a variety of forces ranging from geopolitics and commercial interests to defensive concerns and kinship politics. In traditional historiography, the early West stands alone, set apart from the East by its lack of high imperial stakes, climatic battles, and rich diplomatic history.

The pages that follow make clear that such things were an integral part of the colonial West as well. The Comanches entered recorded history in , when residents of Taos pueblo in the far northern corner of New Mexico sent word to the Spanish governor in Santa Fe that the village was expecting an imminent attack from Ute Indians and their new allies, the Comanches. The attack did not materialize, however, and the report, along with the people it introduced to written history, was soon forgotten. Two decades later, as Comanches made their presence felt across New Mexico's northern borderlands as fierce but elusive raiders, Spanish officials were fervently gathering information about them.

One of those officials was Brigadier Pedro de Rivera who, while inspecting New Mexico in , attempted to piece together a coherent account of these "very barbarous" people whose "origin is unknown. Rivera's terse report bears a startling similarity to modern academic views of Comanche origin. Most scholars today believe that the Comanches are part of the Uto-Aztecan-speaking people, who in the early sixteenth century occupied an enormous territory stretching from the northern Great Plains and the southern Plateau deep into Middle America.

This Uto-Aztecan supremacy was the result of two sweeping migrations and conquests that had began centuries earlier. Sometime in the early second millennium, large numbers of Uto-Aztecan speakers moved southward from a place they called Aztlan and the Spanish knew as Teguayo, somewhere in the deserts of the Great Basin or the Southwest.

They traced the arc of the Rocky Mountains and Sierra Madres into the central valley of Mexico, where they built the vast Aztec empire that in towered over most of Central America. At the same time as the ancestors of the Aztecs migrated southward, another branch of Uto-Aztecans, the Numic people, left their core territory in the southern Sierra Nevada and moved to the east and north.

A severe drought in the thirteenth century had vacated large tracts of the interior West, allowing the Numic people to expand into deserted lands. They drove east and northeast until, by , they dominated much of the southern Plateau, eastern Great Basin, and central and northern Rocky Mountains. This Numic expansion was spearheaded by the Shoshones, the parent group of the Comanches, who came to occupy much of the northeastern Great Basin all the way to the edge of the Great Plains.

They lived by a finely choreographed yearly cycle, combining hunting and fishing with intensive gathering. In winters, however, they often journeyed through the South Pass to the eastern side of the Rocky Mountains where, in a deep, well-wetted erosional furrow between the mountains and the grasslands, they found multitudes of bison, elk, and other big game to hunt as well as superb shelter against the cold. These seasonal migrations brought the Shoshones to the fringes of the plains but probably not beyond.

The dry period that had begun in the thirteenth century had plunged the plains' vast bison herds into a sharp decline, discouraging the Shoshones from entering. In fact, the decrease in animal populations was so drastic that most plains people had sought refuge from the bordering regions, using the grasslands only for seasonal hunts. Shoshones had built a flourishing and eclectic culture that belies the traditional image of the brutal, impoverished existence of Basin peoples; and yet over the course of the sixteenth century, they abandoned the Basin for the Great Plains.

This migration was apparently triggered by a climate change, the beginning of the Little Ice Age, which ended the long dry spell and brought colder temperatures and higher rainfall. As steady rains once again nourished the grasslands, allowing the ailing bison herds to recover, humans began to move back, first in trickles, then in masses. What followed was one of the greatest migrations in the history of North America. As if pulled into a vacuum, people flowed in from the Rocky Mountains, northern woodlands, and the Mississippi valley, turning the plains into an agglomeration of migration trails.

This human tide consisted mainly of groups that had lived on the plains before the great drought, but some of the immigrants were newcomers. Among those newcomers were the Shoshones. By midcentury a distinct branch of Plains Shoshones had emerged. Occupying the northwestern plains between the South Platte and upper Yellowstone rivers, these eastern Shoshones morphed into typical plains hunters who shaped their diet, economy, and culture around the habits of bison.

They lived as nomads, following their migrant prey on foot, moving their belongings on small dog travois, and sheltering themselves with light, easily transportable skin tipis. In hunting bison, they alternatively surrounded the animals, ran them onto soft ice or deep snow, or drove them off steep precipices. These communal hunts absorbed a lot of time and energy and required careful planning, but astounding returns rewarded the efforts.

The Vore site, a precontact buffalo jump near the Black Hills, contains partial remains of ten thousand bison, even though people used the site only once every twenty-five years or so. Hundreds of similar, if smaller, sites in the Shoshone range testify to a burgeoning economy and a flourishing way of life. But prosperity did not translate into stability.

Sometime in the late seventeenth century, the Shoshones suddenly splintered into two factions and left the central plains. Possibly seduced by larger and denser bison populations above the Yellowstone valley, the bulk of the people migrated onto the northern plains, where they were dragged into prolonged wars with the southward moving Blackfeet and Gros Ventres -wars that were still raging on when the first Canadian fur traders entered the northern plains in the os. They reemerged in the early eighteenth century in Spanish records as Comanches, one of the many Native groups living along New Mexico's borderlands.

It is not entirely clear why these proto-Comanches split off from the main Shoshone body, abandoned their lucrative bison-hunting economy on the central plains, and migrated several hundred miles into an unfamiliar territory, but pressure from other Native groups seems to have played a role.

In the late seventeenth century, the Apaches, up till then a minor presence on the central plains, began to build mud houses and irrigate fields along the region's river valleys. Apaches thrived in their new villages, which soon dotted the entire central grasslands from the Dismal to the Republican River, compressing the Shoshones' domain from the south and east and forcing them to extract subsistence from a shrinking realm.

The encroachment of Apaches may have also introduced European diseases, which caused devastation among the Shoshones, who had not yet been exposed to the deadly alien microbes. This kind of scenario is supported by Comanche and Shoshone traditions, which maintain that Comanches broke off from the parent group after a dispute over game and an assault by a smallpox epidemic. This sketch casts Comanches as exiles fleeing escalating violence in their homelands, but there is another possible motivation behind the separation from their Shoshone relatives: their southern exodus may have been an attempt to gain a better access to the Spanish horses that had just begun to spread northward from Spanish New Mexico in large numbers.

The Pueblo Revolt of i68o in New Mexico and the subsequent banishment of Spanish conquerors from the colony had left large numbers of horses to Pueblo Indians, who embarked on a vigorous livestock trade with the surrounding Indians in the grasslands and the mountains. Supplied by Pueblo traders, the ancient Rocky Mountain trade corridor carried horses northward, bringing the animals among the Shoshones around o. Boosted by their suddenly enhanced ability to move, hunt, and wage war, some Shoshone bands invaded the bison-rich northern plains; the others, the ancestors of the Comanches, followed the horse flow back to its ultimate source in New Mexico.

This scenario, too, is substantiated by the Shoshones who remembered that the Comanches "left them and went south in search of game and ponies. But while preventing clashes with the Apaches, that route took the migrants into the home territory of the powerful Utes, who ranged between the Sa watch Mountains in the west and the Colorado Front Range in the east.

The encounter between the two groups probably took place in the closing years of the century, and it marked the beginning of a relationship that would profoundly change them both. Yet the only clue to what actually occurred is a single word, kumantsi, the Ute name for the newcomers. By conventional reading, the word means "enemy," or "anyone who wants to fight me all the time," suggesting that the first contact was a violent one.


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However, a more recent interpretation holds that kumantsi refers to a people who were considered related yet different, and it suggests an encounter of another kind: rather than a clash between two alien peoples with sharp reflexes for violence, it was a reunion of two Numic-speaking peoples, who probably originated from the same Sierra Nevada core area, had taken different routes during the sprawling Numic expansion, and now, despite centuries of physical separation, found a unifying bond in their persisting linguistic and cultural commonalities io.

Building on those commonalities, Comanches and Utes formed by the early years of the eighteenth century a long-standing military and political alliance that remained an essential part of Comanches' power base until the mideighteenth century. Cemented by intermarriage and kinship ties, the alliance offered compelling strategic advantages for both. Utes were locked in an onand-off war with the Navajos over raiding and trading privileges in northern New Mexico and were eager to obtain Comanches' military assistance in their efforts to keep the numerically superior Navajos in the west and farther away from New Mexico.

Utes also needed Comanches' military aid in their conflicts with the Indians of Tewa, Tano, Jemez, Picuris, and Keres pueblos, who had seized Spanish weapons, armor, and horses during the Pueblo Revolt and encroached into Ute territory to hunt deer, elk, and bison. As the union solidified, Comanches turned their course west and crossed the Front Range into Ute territory.

Living with and learning from their Ute allies, they adjusted to their new homeland, an ecological patchwork that extended from the Great Plains-Rocky Mountain foothills ecotone across the densely forested Sangre de Cristo and Jemez ranges, featuring snow-covered alpine mesas, deep, glacier-carved valleys, spruce-fir, juniper, and pine forests, and semiarid grass and shrublands. The diverse environment supported an equally diverse economy. Utes and Comanches spent the fall, winter, and early spring in small bands, hunting ante lopes; trapping jack rabbits; and gathering berries, nuts, and Yampa roots.

In the spring, the scattered bands congregated into larger units and traveled eastward to the upper Arkansas River valley, where they hunted bison and lived as tipidwelling plains nomads. Summer was the main season for warfare and raiding, witnessing Ute-Comanche squadrons moving into Navajo country and northern New Mexico. Utes also introduced Comanches to New Mexican markets, and soon the two allies were regular visitors at Taos and San Juan where, under temporary truces, they bartered robes, meat, and Navajo slaves for maize, horses, pottery, and cotton blankets at great fall fairs.

Calloway, author of One Vast Winter Count: The Native American West before Lewis and Clark "Hamalainen not only puts Native Americans back into the story but also gives them-particularly the Comanche-recognition as major historical players who shaped events and outcomes. Added to basket. America, Empire of Liberty. David Reynolds. Paul S. Not In Your Lifetime. Anthony Summers. American Caesars. Nigel Hamilton. Che Guevara. Jon Lee Anderson. Benjamin Franklin. Walter Isaacson. The Battle for the Falklands.

Max Hastings. Team of Rivals. Doris Kearns Goodwin. Hugh Brogan. The American West. Dee Brown. The American Civil War. John Keegan. The Challenge. Andrew D. The Great Crash John Kenneth Galbraith. The Black Jacobins. Michael Wood. Careless People. Sarah Churchwell. Your review has been submitted successfully. Not registered? Forgotten password Please enter your email address below and we'll send you a link to reset your password. Not you? Forgotten password?



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