The Comanche Empire (The Lamar Series in Western History) - Pekka Hamalainen (Hamalainen) When I was growing up in eastern Missouri it was de rigueur that the man-children of the clan become Boy Scouts. Thus, despite little aptitude or interest, I was duly enrolled in the Cub Scouts and spent summer weekends attending den meetings and going on the occasional camping trip. (Don’t fear that this diversion is going to descend into horror stories about mental and physical abuse – happily my life as a Scout was quite banal. I never got beyond the Cub stage, truth be told, and my parents were “cool” with that.) I bring this episode in my life up because it was as a Scout that I first encountered the Native American. Admittedly it was a highly white-washed (there’s a loaded word!) version that stressed the most admirable aspects of Indian culture (at least “admirable” in Anglo eyes) and ignored the complexities and less savory history of relations between Indians and Europeans (and between Indians and Indians). It also tended to focus exclusively on Plains Indians, blinkering my perception of non-Plains tribes for the longest time. Subsequent reading (remember, I’m not the Grizzly Adams type) led me to other works sympathetic to the Native perspective. In particular I remember a YA biography of the Seminole chieftain Osceola (giving me the animus I bear toward Andrew Jackson to this day). It was a kid’s book so the more gruesome details of the war against the Seminoles didn’t figure in the narrative but I understood that the white man had been grossly unjust to the Indian. Even my fiction reading favored the Indian (or at least sympathized with their plight). I remember a book about the lost Roanoke colony (they were saved and incorporated into one of the local tribes); and Andre Norton wrote many novels with Native characters (The Sioux Spaceman, among others, and one (title unremembered) where, in an alternate Earth, there’s a powerful, modern Iroquois empire). All this prepared me to accept the great myth of our national epic with an appropriately jaundiced eye; all this prepared me to accept this wonderful book about a near-forgotten era in the history of the New World.

Despite a writing style that’s sodden with academic jargon (like “fundamentally a study of indigenous agency”), I’m giving this book four stars because of the intense pleasure I felt discovering a world and era I never realized existed and enriching my understanding of my country’s history. To be fair, Hamalainen’s language becomes less turgid once you get past the first chapter or so (he only relapses in the Conclusion but I’m all for forgiving him). This book is divided into eight chapters that cover an era from about 1700, when the Comanches arrived in the southern Great Plains with their then-allies the Ute, to 1874, when the tribes were finally confined to reservations by the US Army. The author chronicles the Comanches’ rise as the dominant power on the plains and their sudden, catastrophic collapse.

Before going on, I wanted to say that one of the strongest overall features of the book is that Hamalainen doesn’t ennoble or demonize anyone. The Comanches are not noble-but-doomed indigenes standing up to European imperialism; nor are they mindless savages futilely resisting the advance of modern civilization. They (and the other actors in our drama – Spaniards, Mexicans, Texans, Americans and other Native nations) are just human beings acting like human beings have acted for thousands of years. There are instances of noble and generous behavior just as there are instances of the most savage cruelty. That balance, for me, makes the book all the more convincing.

What follows are brief synopses and impressions gleaned from reading each chapter. If you’re interested in Hamalainen’s arguments and proofs, read the book yourself :-)

Introduction: If you can hack through the jargon, the Introduction sets up the basic arguments of the book. Thus: (1) The rise of a Comanche hegemony on the southern Great Plains (roughly from the Arkansas river south to the Rio Grande, and stretching c. 200 miles from the eastern face of the Rockies) foiled Spain’s (and Mexico’s) attempt to create a stable inland empire. (2) Again, we have an examination of a frontier zone as a region of flux and innovation similar to the situation along the Rhine in the Roman histories I’ve been reading lately. And (3), an examination of the character of Comanche imperialism and an analysis of why it failed in the face of US expansion.

The first five chapters - Conquest, New Order, The Embrace, The Empire of the Plains, Greater Comancheria - document the Comanches’ rise from just one of many tribes moving into the area in the 18th century to the zenith of their power in the first half of the 19th.

In the early 1700s, the first tribes that could be called “Comanche” wandered down out of Utah with the Utes, one of the first Native cultures to adopt the horse. “Comanche” is the Spanish form of a Ute word that probably meant “enemy” or “those guys who won’t stop attacking us” (I freely paraphrase here as I don’t have the reference in front of me but that’s the gist). Comanches called themselves numunu, which (as is often the case) simply means “The People” (cf. German deutsche).

Though Spain claimed northern Mexico and the southern Great Plains it could not colonize it nor even properly hold it, and the Comanches moved into the power vacuum. The Apache, the original, dominant power in the territory, were overmatched by the newcomers’ command of horses and their more cohesive political organization. This shouldn’t suggest that the Comanche had any form of government recognized by Western eyes nor that they had a conscious plan of expansion. To the Spaniards (and their American successors) the Comanche appeared as savage marauders without mercy, appearing out of the plains to murder and ravish. To most of them. Spain was fortunate in mid-century to have a man named Cachupin as the territory’s governor. He possessed an understanding of Comanche culture and sensibilities that allowed him to create a modus vivendi that gave the provinces of New Mexico room to prosper in (relative) peace. Not surprisingly, it was rare that a man of Cachupin’s quality occupied the post so Spanish/Comanche relations always hovered close to outright hostilities. Even under Cachupin, Hamalainen argues that the Spaniards made a fundamental error in believing that they were in control of the situation. Much like our own politicians in Washington, those in Mexico City and Madrid ignored the reality and the reports of their agents on the ground in preference for a world where their desires and power signified. It made for a delicate balance that only the ablest governors could maintain.

Spanish policy attempted to make the Comanche dependent upon them but the exact opposite occurred – the Spanish colonies became dependent upon the Comanche for their survival. This dependence became so great in New Mexico’s case that she had practically severed relations with the Mexican government. Texas’ case became so desperate, Mexico invited American colonists into the province.

Internally, Comancheria (the region dominated by the Comanche) could be divided into eastern and western halves, which developed differently and faced different challenges along their borders but which maintained unity via complementary trade and periodic general councils that met to deal with regionwide issues. Below these councils, Comanche political/economic society rested on nomadic rancherias of a few hundred souls (at their largest). Chiefs, called paraibos, ruled by common consent of the adult males. Warriors (sometimes from several rancheria) would organize under warchiefs for raids but such figures only commanded during the raid, they had no authority otherwise (though often paraibos in their own right).

In the 1820s, Spain disappeared as a factor in plains history to be replaced by a newly independent Mexico and a rapidly, aggressively expansionist US. For the moment, though, no one enjoyed an overwhelming advantage. Mexico’s position steadily eroded as it proved incapable of creating an effective presence north of the Rio Grande (and only a minimal one south of the river). The US’s attention was focused on lands beyond the Rockies – the plains were just a path to the riches of the far West. Without direct interference from the Americans, Comancheria continued to expand and tighten its economic stranglehold over the region. In 1840, no Comanche would have believed that in a little over a generation they would be a broken remnant dependent upon American generosity to survive.

Children of the Sun – the anthropology chapter: And one of the most fascinating. Comanche society was in a constant state of flux, balancing hunting vs. pastoralism, a market vs. a subsistence economy, localism vs. centralization, egalitarianism vs. inequality, the individual vs. the group and slavery vs. assimilation.

Two animals – the horse and the bison – were essential to creating and maintaining Comanche superiority. Hamalainen contends that the Comanche were the only Native culture to wholly devote itself to an equine-based, pastoral lifestyle. In the process, they sacrificed the “gathering” side of their previous hunter-gatherer existence, becoming dependent upon the more sedentary Native and European societies around them for goods (like metal tools and guns) and staple crops. In essence, the Comanches became the New World equivalent of the steppe tribes of Eurasia.

Becoming pure pastoralists brought about a significant change in the division of labor and a deleterious shift in women’s status: Boys tended the great horse herds; women maintained the households and provided much of the labor that converted horse and bison products into marketable goods; and men occupied themselves with scouting for pasture, taming feral horses, raiding and commerce (two sides of the same coin in Comanche eyes). Beyond relegating women to servility, the changeover to pastoralism also militarized Comanche society – a man’s worth depended upon his prowess in battle and his ability to secure and protect his wealth (i.e., horses). This chapter is all too short and I would have liked more information about Comanche society. Evenso, I haven’t touched upon the author’s discussion of slavery or the Comanche tradition of individualism and meritocracy that mitigated the strong pressure toward political centralization and economic stratification.

As the final chapters - Hunger and Collapse - show, by the 1830s, the Comanche had created a flourishing and stable polity that preserved much of traditional Comanche culture while accommodating the demands of “empire.” But it was supremely vulnerable to the disruption of its foundation – the horse and the bison. Comancheria’s tragedy was that its success sealed its doom. Access to the wealth generated by their trade monopolies led to larger populations and pressure to expand. Combined with treaties which allowed outsiders to hunt the bison, the Comanche fatally weakened the herds. A 20+ year drought beginning in 1845 broke the “empire.” The only reasons the Comanche didn’t succumb until 1874 was that America was distracted in the 1850s and 1860s with the slavery question and the Civil War and the rains returned in the mid-1860s. Comancheria enjoyed an “Indian” summer (sorry, couldn’t resist) but when the US government determined to eliminate the Comanche threat, it unleashed a total war against them (tactics perfected in the Civil War); Comancheria proved unable to survive the onslaught.

In a pattern repeated a few years later in the northern Great Plains, the final days of Comanche resistance were dominated by an apocalyptic religious movement that fell apart at the “battle” of Adobe Walls, when its leader (Isatai) fell to US Army-issue bullets. In 1874, all resistance disappeared and the remnants of the Comanche nation were herded into reservations and forced to give up their way of life, enduring second-class status in the triumphant American empire. This last point brings up a characteristic of Comancheria that I neglected to mention earlier: the Comanches’ Roman-like capacity to accommodate and assimilate. Like Rome, as long as Comanche partners adopted or accommodated Comanche culture, stable and relatively peaceful relations pertained. A far cry from America’s xenophobia. It still smacks of imperialism but of a “gentler” species. (And we shouldn’t forget that when neighbors couldn’t mesh with the Comanche, they suffered the savage raids the nation was known for.)

In concluding, Hamalainen asks, “Why the Comanches?” and comes up with 5 answers:

1. Geography favored horse breeding and bison hunting, and the Comanches were in the right place at the right time to exploit it.

2. Their timing was also fortunate in that they could play the Europeans off against each other to achieve hegemony.

3. Comanche culture was remarkably flexible and innovative.

4. The horse allowed Comanches to shift wholly to pastoralism, opening routes to wealth and the ability to dominate the trade routes across the plains.

5. Diseases which decimated more sedentary Native tribes had a smaller impact on the dispersed populations of Comancheria, and the Comanche were able to maintain a relatively larger population up through the 1840s.

This is only a snapshot of the wealth of information contained in this volume. Considering the rating I’ve given Comanche Empire it should come as no surprise that I highly recommend this book to the interested, especially as you don’t need a particularly deep background in Southwest American history.