The Comanche Empire

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In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, a Native American empire rose to dominate the fiercely contested lands of the American Southwest, the southern Great Plains, and northern Mexico. This powerful empire, built by the Comanche Indians, eclipsed its various European rivals in military prowess, political prestige, economic power, commercial reach, and cultural influence. Yet, until now, the Comanche empire has gone unrecognized in American history.

This compelling and original book uncovers the lost story of the Comanches. It is a story that challenges the idea of indigenous peoples as victims of European expansion and offers a new model for the history of colonial expansion, colonial frontiers, and Native-European relations in North America and elsewhere. Pekka Hämäläinen shows in vivid detail how the Comanches built their unique empire and resisted European colonization, and why they fell to defeat in 1875. With extensive knowledge and deep insight, the author brings into clear relief the Comanches’ remarkable impact on the trajectory of history.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal

The age-old concept of fierce Comanche warriors as a military impediment to the conquest of the Spanish American Southwest has a long and influential history (e.g., Rupert Norval Richardson's The Comanche Barrier to South Plains Settlement). Hämäläinen (history, Univ. of California, Santa Barbara; ed., When Disease Makes History: Epidemics and Great Historical Turning Points) succeeds in introducing a new perspective on Southwestern history, mastering Spanish and Mexican historic resources to tell of a horse- and bison-based Comanche empire, Comanchería. He shows that the expansion and maintenance of Comanche range and trade networks between 1700 and 1875 occurred at the expense of other Indian nations and Spanish, Mexican, Texan, and American interests. Writing from intertwined ethnohistoric and Eurocentric views, the author credits this pastoral empire with New Spain/Mexico's steep loss of influence on the northern borderlands before the actual Mexican War of 1846-48 and argues that an appreciation of Comanche influence is needed to fully understand the history of the Southwest and Great Plains. Enthusiastically recommended for academic and public libraries.
—Nathan E. Bender

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300151176
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 5/19/2009
  • Series: The Lamar Series in Western History
  • Pages: 512
  • Sales rank: 255,111
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 1.40 (d)

Meet the Author

Pekka Hämäläinen is associate professor of history, University of California, Santa Barbara. He lives in Santa Barbara.

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Read an Excerpt

The Comanche Empire

By Pekka Hämäläinen

Yale University Press

Copyright © 2008 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-15117-6

Chapter One


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 1706 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. It set off a half-century-long war with the Apaches and resulted in the relocation of Apachería-a massive geopolitical entity in its own right-from the grasslands south of the RíoGrande, at the very center of northern New Spain. 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 eighteenth-century Southwest; their invasion overlapped with, crashed against, and eventually benefited from three other sweeping colonizing campaigns. In 1716, 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. At the turn of the century, France built a series of forts on Biloxi Bay and along the lower Mississippi valley, creating a springboard for what they hoped would become a great western empire stretching across the plains and beyond. And finally, as Spain and France jostled into position around the southern plains, a much longer history of conquest and colonization was culminating on the grasslands themselves. 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 1715.

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 1706, 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 1726, attempted to piece together a coherent account of these "very barbarous" people whose "origin is unknown." Rivera's remarks, covering only a few lines, make up the first ethnographic account of Comanches, who emerge as brutal, semi-naked slave raiders who "make war on all nations" and always travel "in battle formation." Rivera also learned, apparently from a Comanche captive, that their ancestors had begun their exodus to the New Mexican frontier from a land that lay three hundred leagues northwest of Santa Fe. In Spanish imagination, this put the Comanche place of origin in the fabled kingdom of Teguayo, a land of great riches and the birthplace of the Aztecs.

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 Aztlán 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 1500 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 1500, 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.

Gradually, Shoshones settled down and adjusted to the varied environment of the Great Basin, Rocky Mountains, and Great Plains. They lived by a finely choreographed yearly cycle, combining hunting and fishing with intensive gathering. They spent most of their time in the mountains and meadows of the semiarid Basin, camping beside lakes and marshes; hunting antelope, deer, and mountain sheep with bows and arrows; catching salmon in the Snake and Salmon rivers; and harvesting nuts, roots, and other wild foods. 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.

Building on their century-old tradition of seasonal transmontane migrations, more and more Shoshones filtered through the South Pass onto grasslands in the early seventeenth century, elbowing the Kiowas and other nations eastward to the Black Hills region. 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 1730s. A smaller faction headed south and disappeared from archaeological record for several years. 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 1680 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 1690. 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."

Once on the move, the proto-Comanches probably tracked the front range of the Rockies to the south, skirting the Apache villages on the open plains farther east. But while preventing clashes with the Apaches, that route took the migrants into the home territory of the powerful Utes, who ranged between the Sawatch 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. 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.

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 mid-eighteenth century. Cemented by intermarriage and kinship ties, the alliance offered compelling strategic advantages for both. Utes were locked in an on-and-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, Jémez, Picurís, 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. In return, Utes shared with Comanches their land, their horses, and their knowledge of the political and ecological intricacies of the Spanish borderlands.


Excerpted from The Comanche Empire by Pekka Hämäläinen Copyright © 2008 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments     vii
Introduction: Reversed Colonialism     1
Conquest     18
New Order     68
The Embrace     107
The Empire of the Plains     141
Greater Comancheria     181
Children of the Sun     239
Hunger     292
Collapse     321
Conclusion: The Shape of Power     342
List of Abbreviations     363
Notes     365
Bibliography     445
Index     475
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