Pekka Hamalainen’s The Comanche Empire serves as a well-written account that embodies the trend in Native American history to discard Euro-American biases of past scholarship and to place Indian agency at the center of the historical process. Hamalainen demonstrates how the Comanche accommodated to outside pressures in order to survive as coherent cultural entities, but goes further by showing how they not only adapted to new political and economic realities wrought by various imperial projects but also competed with and bested European and Euro-American powers in controlling the heartland of the North American Continent. In doing so. Hamalainen tells the story of expansion with a reversal of usual historical roles, in which Indians expand, dictate and prosper, and European colonists resist, retreat and struggle to survive.[i] This ambition leads Hamalainen to reveal that in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the Comanche turned the Southwest into a boundless resistant indigenous empire. This paper is intended to portray how the Comanche’s ecological base, monopoly of trade, ability to adapt to Western technologies and flexible social structure allowed them to invert projected colonial trajectory and bring much of the colonial Southwest under their sway and at the same time explain the failures of Spanish and Mexican colonialism and the nature and course of United States conquest.
The power of the Comanche cannot be understood without first playing on the importance of their ecological system of the horse, grass and bison complex. The abundant grasslands present in the environment they lived in made Comanche monopoly on horses and bison hunting possible. The horses’ ability to convert plant life into muscle power tapped into the seemingly inexhaustible pool of thermodynamic energy stored in the grasses. This in turn, led the Comanche to use horses as hunting tools to harness the enormous biomass stored in the bison herds.[ii] The horse served to both simplify and expand Comanche economy. The effectiveness of mounted hunting allowed the Comanche’s to dismiss their gathering system and switch to specialized bison hunting and horse herding. This resulted in a dual economy of hunting and pastoralism. Using this new economic system, the Comanche reared horses for part of the year, while following the bison herds the rest of the year. The semi-nomadic way they lived made it possible to control and exploit the environment of the Great Plains. The effective hunting of bison also insured both an adequate food supply consisting of protein and materials to make clothing and other essential needs. Through horses serving as both vehicles for travel and as commodities to be traded, the Comanche’s dominated long-distance trade networks and extended their raiding spheres far beyond their core area. This enabled Comanche’s to eliminate Spain’s edge on colonial expansion. By controlling trade, the Comanche’s dictated where resources were allocated, thus in effect brought Spanish colonialism under their control. It is also important to note that frequent raids deep into Spanish territory weakened the Spanish military that were ineffective in protecting Spanish settlements and Indian encroachment. The thinly colonized Hispanic lands had no way of halting Indian raiding parties that extracted their horses, and thus the Spanish submitted to becoming tributary subjects of the Comanche. The Hispanic peoples gave the Comanche gifts in return for leaving their herds alone. This tributary gift giving weakened the treasury of Spain and Mexico and forced them as subjects of the Comanche Empire.
As eluded to earlier, the Comanche ecological system enabled them to effectively form a monopoly on trade in the Southwest, which greatly expanded their power. Their horse economy also supported a thriving exchange economy. This exchange economy gave access to vegetables and grains as well as guns, gunpowder and metals.[iii]. Vegetables and cereals were collected through massive trade networks, which linked tribes of the east within the network of the Comanche empire. By allying with neighboring native groups, the Comanche’s ensured a system of trade and at the same time created a buffer between them and the expansionist Euro-American forces of the East. Comanche power in horse trade also enabled them to become strong trade partners with the expanding United States. In return for horses, the Comanche amassed expansive quantities of both guns and gunpowder. In a sense, it can be understood that United States trade with the Comanche played a major role in weakening Spanish power. Through the guns and firepower supplied by the United States, the Comanche successfully kept the Spanish at their will. Another major component in Comanche trade was their monopoly on the slave trade. While they raided Spanish lands for cattle, they did also for human capital. The Comanche used their slaves as trade collateral and also used them to work in their growing dualist economy. Slaves mainly worked in horse rearing and domestic chores and were sometimes adopted into the family. The taking of slaves both frightened and terrified Spanish settlers. The constant fear and ineffective way in dealing with them prompted many Spanish settlers to give up their lands and return to areas away from Comanche aggression.
Another way the Comanche’s maintained power in the interior of the United States, was the way the adapted to Western technologies, especially weapons, diplomacy and disease. With the use of the horse and adapting to western guns and firepower the Comanche were able to exert control over the Southwest. Western weaponry allowed the Comanche to not only mount a strong military force, but it also allowed for the efficiency of bison hunting. The horse and gun allowed efficient killing, reducing both time and effort.
In regards to diplomacy, the Comanche effectively exploited it to meet their needs. The Comanche were adept at drawing native nations into its sphere of commercialization. The movement west of native tribes because of encroaching American settlement and pressures of Indian groups caused an influx of people upon Comancheria territory. While a clash was inevitable and immediate, the Comanche soon invited the removed Indians to become middlemen who facilitated the movement of goods among the centers of wealth around them. By adapting other native tribes into their commercial realm, the Comanche refigured trade to distant markets but also surrounded Comancheria with important buffer zones against white setllement. These Indian alignments halted the encroachment of United States and Texas settlers who feared a massive joint tribal retaliation. Another aspect of the alliances with native tribes is that it opened Comancheria to open commercial trade with American markets. Thus, in abstract, the thriving trade zone of eastern Comancheria meant the removal of indigenous nations from the east Indian territory to the west could continue. Another way the Comanche used diplomacy in their favor was the fact that they did not recognize national boundary lines and legal obligations. Even though the Spanish and later Americans established boundaries denoting their territory. Comanche’s did not follow them. In their eyes, all land was free and available to whoever had the ability to use it. Thus they raided deep into Spanish territory. Likewise, even though the Comanche’s agreed to formal trade relations with the Spanish, the Comanche did not see the trade partnership in the same way. Comanche’s traded and dealt with whoever they could gain the most from and make the most profit. Trade agreements meant nothing to them and the Comanche a lot of the time doubled dealt with both the Spanish and Americans.
The Comanche also successfully adapted to diseases brought by western settlers. While the humid temperatures of the coast brought the indigenous there terrific population loss from western diseases, the dry air of the Southwest and Great Plains halted the spread of disease to an effect not as dramatic as other parts of North America. Another, more exploitative way the Comanche dealt with diseases was the practice of marrying and fornicating with western women. By fornicating with western women, the Comanche successfully produced offspring who were tolerant to western diseases. And while disease decimated the Comanche at first, over time they became tolerant of western diseases due to the increased numbers of racially mixed offspring.
One more basis of Comanche power can be understood through their flexible and adaptive social structure. Comanche society was very hierarchical. While the men hunted bison, went on raiding missions and controlled the household, the women and children reared horses and did domestic work. However, not just Comanche men enjoyed power. Slave men, also had the ability to rise up in the ranks and become warriors and hunters. Most male slaves taken by the Comanche were young boys, who could be raised and nurtured in Comanche ideals. Older men proved too much of a risk as they would likely never repel western ways which they have learned. As a society, the Comanche were also very mobile. Their hunting and pastoralist economy was unfit to foster large permanent settlements and thus they lived in a semi-nomadic way migrating in different times of the year to follow the bison herds and the fresh grasses to raise their horses. The lack of permanent settlement proved it difficult for another power to launch an attack on the Comanche that would cripple them. Because members of Comanche society were always separated and never cloistered, it was only possible to attack a portion of the empire and never inflict massive losses. The semi-nomadic structure of the Comanche thus made it difficult for the Spanish and United States to amount successful control over the Comanche Empire.
Politically, the Comanche Empire was distant but unified. All Comanche units or households lived distantly from each other. The semi-nomadic ways and need to raise horses allowed the Comanche unit to live fairly independently, with each unit or family containing a male that held power. Usually the most powerful male was the one that had multiple wives and could produce the most goods. While the Comanche were so distant from each other, in times of toil they could easily unite. All the heads of family would join together in a great joint meeting and discuss the problem at hand. All the males had equal power in the assemblies, and thus made decisions as a single polity or unified empire. This ability of the Comanche to unify and amass great forces greatly halted American and Spanish expansion, as they feared conflict with a massive Comanche force.
Lastly, while the systems, which constituted Comanche power made them, a superpower in the Great Plain and Southwest, they also led to the collapse of the Comanche Empire in the 1870’s-1880’s. The center of Comanche power caved in with the sharp declines of bison herds. The Comanche had exploited the land beyond its sef-sustaining ecological stability. There had simply been too many Comanches and their allies raising too many horses and hunting too many bison on too small a land base. The Comanche could not move to other lands because there whole economy relied on the grasslands. The Comanche ability to adapt and incorporate other groups into their empire eventually led to their demise. The incorporation of removed Indian groups, facilitated American expansion and led to increased competition over bison on which they ultimately were being killed faster than they could reproduce. When the bison fell, so did the Comanche Empire. The Comanche trade networks collapsed because they had no bison meat to trade and their whole lifestyle became unglued. Powerless with the collapse of trade, Comanche’s were placed in reservations by the fast encroaching Americans. There, the Comanche were forced to live permanently and could not continue to live the way they had for much of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The Comanche’s rapid decline, tells a great deal about the nature of their power system. They were not a tightly structured, self-sustaining entity but rather a system based on networks of power.[iv] The lack of centrality in Comanche Empire therefore allowed the decline to move rapidly and forcefully.