Read this shortly before my Mom died, when she was well into her final period of illness and invalidism. No matter how rich and well-connected you areRead this shortly before my Mom died, when she was well into her final period of illness and invalidism. No matter how rich and well-connected you are, you're never the same after losing your folks....more
This award-winning book announces its theme in its title. The Comanches, masters of the southern Plains and one of the most powerful of American IndiaThis award-winning book announces its theme in its title. The Comanches, masters of the southern Plains and one of the most powerful of American Indian nations, were an imperial power, capable of “impos[ing] their will upon neighboring polities” - including Europeans – extracting those neighbors' resources, and convincing “their rivals to adopt and accept their customs and norms” (p. 4). His study, author Pekka Hämäläinen argues, allows us to see Indians as a proactive, rather than reactive, force, capable of building their own spheres of influence, exploiting and manipulating Europeans as thoroughly as they did one another, and in the process contradicting our preconceived ideas about colonies and frontiers. The Comanche sphere of influence was, indeed, for a long period the most prosperous region in the southern American interior, and European colonies like New Mexico and Texas were merely its violent and unstable peripheries (pp. 1-17).
The Comanches were a Uto-Aztecan people who migrated to the Great Basin in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, acquired horses from the Utes, and moved again to the Texas plains after 1700. By 1740 their population had increased to 10,000, and they were able to prevail in wars against the Apaches for access to grazing land and the New Mexico trade fairs. At the latter, Comanches traded bison and human captives for firearms and carbohydrate-rich foods, the latter of which they needed to sustain their own fertility. They also developed trading connections with the French in Louisiana, via the Taovaya branch of the Wichita confederacy. Eventually, the Comanches compelled New Mexico to sign peace treaties (1752 & 1762), which freed them to drive the Utes out of New Mexico and expand into central Texas grasslands. There they “caved in” the Spanish presence by sacking the communities of San Saba and San Lorenzo (1758, 1766, quote p. 64). By the 1760s the Comanches' rich bison resources had allowed them to increase their population to 15,000 and gain a decisive edge over the agrarian Apaches (18-67).
After 1770 the Comanches developed trading connections with the British to the east and with Kansas, Iowas, and other Indian nations to the north. These trading partners served as sources of plant foods and metals. The nation directed its raiding toward New Mexico, which served them as a source of horses and captives, but they also continued to frequent the province's trade fairs and sell bison and slaves there. In the late 1770s, after smallpox weakened the neighboring Wichitas, the Comanches reduced them to “vassalage” (p. 96). The eastern Comanches also used raids to sever the commercial links between Spanish Texas and Louisiana, the former of which became another of their vassals. By the 1780s the Comanches had turned New Mexico and Texas into their own colonies, and their population had reached its historic maximum of 40,000 people, resting on a resource base of seven million bison. Comanche leaders used general political councils to achieve “macroscale political cooperation” between the nation's eastern and western divisions (68-106, quote 105).
Weakened by the smallpox pandemic of the early 1780s, the Comanches signed a treaty of alliance with New Mexico in 1786, accepting Spanish gifts and agreeing to a joint war against the Apaches. This was an alliance the Comanches dominated: they refused to settle in Spanish missions or end their raiding for slaves, and by the late 1790s they had ceased their joint campaigns with Spain (107-140). A couple of decades later, the Americans opened trade with the Comanches via the Red and Brazos Rivers. Southeastern Indian emigrants joined them by the 1830s. The Comanches sold the newcomers bison robes, mules, horses, and slaves of all races; their aggregate trade was worth up to $60,000 per annum. They turned the Arkansas River into a major trading conduit, and the Big Timbers became a trading fair attracting Crows, Mandans, Pueblos, and Saint Louis traders. Comancheria became a relatively safe and prosperous place, surrounded by Indian allies who adopted the Comanche language and dress and intermarried with them. The Comanches were now prestigious enough to project soft power, not just military force (141-180).
Moreover, the Comanches were able to impose an “alternative spatial geometry” (182) on the Spanish borderlands. Texas was their prime raiding zone and source of mules and horses; New Mexico was their colonial periphery; and their own “rancherias” on the Red, Brazos, and Arkansas Rivers became the principal trading centers of the southwest. New arrivals in the region had to reach accommodations with them: Anglo settlers in Texas initially (under Houston) tried to make peace with the Comanches, then, under Lamar, conducted a bloody and ruinous 3-year war with them that ended in a peace treaty and the cession of Texas lands to the Comanches. The nation's warriors then redirected their raids into the northern Mexican states, as far south as the Tropic of Cancer (221). In the 1830s Comanches created a settlement on Bolson de Mapimi in Mexico, and by the 1840s they were capturing and employing as slave laborers hundreds of Mexicans. Several provinces, following New Mexico's lead, bought off the Comanches with food and tribute, effectively turning these provinces into part of Comancheria. The devastation wreaked on northern Mexico by the Comanches made the region vulnerable to military takeover by the United States in 1846-47 (181-238).
Comanche society during these decades centered around horse herding; the nation owned about 100,000 horses by nineteenth century, This activity required considerable labor, which slaves and plural wives provided. Slavery never became a permanent “social death” for captives, but the status of women certainly declined in Comanche society. The ownership of horses and control of female labor allowed Comanche chiefs (or paraibos) to control the allegiance and labor of young men. (Some civil chiefs became so prosperous and fat they couldn't even ride horses!) Chiefs also controlled trade and organized inter-band councils that reinforced Comanches' unity and common “legal culture” (277). Comanches' winter camps, which were large and persistent enough that one may consider them as towns, reinforced these larger political structures (239-91).
The nation's decline began in the 1840s, when the bison herds began, despite Comanches' efforts at conservation, to show stress from overhunting and a prolongued drought. The Comanches drove Osages and southeastern Indian emigrants out of their homeland, but their expulsion of these peoples also severed their commercial ties. Growing malnutrition made the Comanches vulnerable to cholera and smallpox, which reduced their numbers to 10,000 by 1855. Gold-seeking white travelers and German farmers also depleted water and grass resources in the Arkansas Valley and southeastern Comancheria; the Comanches fought a war with the latter group from the late 1850s to the 1870s. The Civil War and an 1865 treaty with the United States gave the Comanches breathing space, and they were able to obtain enough cattle through raids into Texas and New Mexico to survive and renew old trading connections (292-320).
The Comanches based this revival on cattle raids and the use of Fort Sill reservation as a refuge – on, that is, the forbearance of the U.S. Army. In the 1870s that Army decided to subjugate the Comanches, attacking their camps, seizing their horses, and arming civilian hunters who decimated the southern bison herds. In 1874 cavalry cornered Comanche warriors under Quanah Parker and the prophet Isatai at Palo Duro Canyon, routing the Comanches and capturing 1,400 horses. The survivors surrendered in 1875 (321-41). The Comanche empire had been a real one, but it was based on exploitation of a fragile resource (bison) and on trading networks that, once shattered, proved hard to repair. Comanche power lasted for a century, but its decline became precipitous because the nation lacked the institutions that could have preserved some of its influence and prestige. In the long term, the Comanches' principal impact was to clear the way for the American conquest of the southwest (342-61).
Hämäläinen does note, however, that for 100 years Comanches were the most dynamic and successful society in the southwest, capable of obliging both Indians and Europeans to learn their language, pay tribute, and play by their rules. His book joins a proud new tradition of scholars, like Juliana Barr, Ned Blackhawk, James Brooks, Brian Delay, and Kathleen DuVal, who characterize the Trans-Mississippi West not as a frontier but as “native ground,” and who explain how Indians, rather than Europeans, set the rules of engagement there. The only flaw I can perceive in this masterful work is that Hämäläinen occasionally loses his footing when venturing into other parts of American history – e.g. his shallow discussion of Reconstruction (which he characterizes as the subjugation of the South) or his claim that France lost all of its American territory in 1763 (the Caribbean was a noteworthy exception). Fortunately, these are only minor flaws in an otherwise magisterial monograph....more