The Comanche Empire Paperback – May 19 2009
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"'Cutting-edge revisionist western history... Immensely informative, particularly about activities in the eighteenth century.' Larry McMurtry, The New York Review of Books"
About the Author
Pekka Hämäläinen is associate professor of history, University of California, Santa Barbara. He lives in Santa Barbara.
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The author traces the Comanches from origins among the Shoshones, moving through Colorado and becoming allied with the Utes (other authors describe the Comanches as being forced out into the Great Plains by the Utes), acquiring horses and guns from Mexican traders, then spreading into Northern Texas and surrounding country. There they established a virtual "empire", or more accurately, a sphere of hegemony and influence, that extended into six US states and several states in Northern Mexico by 1840. This can be considered as a region controlled loosely by semi-nomads who would eventually face the problem of maintaining their "empire" through population growth in permanent settlements. (The reader should look for parallels to the Golden Horde on the plains of Southern Russia.) The Comanches did not always exterminate all other people in their sphere of influence, but rather used them for trade, a source of slaves, and goods acquired through war and negotiation.
The Comanche collapse came swiftly through a combination of factors, notably drought, disease, and the decimation of the Bison herds through natural causes and over-hunting. By the time they faced serious opposition from Americans (Texans), they were already in steep decline. But until 1840, Comancheria was ruled by the Comanches, taking what they wanted from people on their borders, whether Anglos, Mexicans, or other Indians.
The Comanches were not a benign people, frequently murdering, raping, and enslaving those who opposed them or simply had nothing else of use for the warriors to take. The author describes their society extremely well (much like the Apaches except for the roles of the horse and bison.) Their warrior society was able to undertake raids over 1,000 miles from the heart of Comancheria into Mexico, and even the Lipan Apaches were forced to migrate to escape annihilation. The author points out that the Comanches were fortunate in their timing in that they were able to build their empire in an area not particularly coveted by the Mexicans or Americans until a hundred years later. But his model of an expansionist Indian nation is in direct opposition to the paternalistic tomes normally emanating from academia, although it also fits to a large degree with the history of other aggressive tribes such as the Aztecs, Pohatans, Iroquois and Sioux (Lakota.)
This work is an easy read and stuffed full of facts not normally found in books on the Comanches, or for that matter, on any Indian tribe. All to often, the Indians are simply the enemy and described from the viewpoint of the settler or Army officer, or if the work is coming from academia, it's a discourse on victimhood and how the Indians were mistreated, cheated, and faced with genocide. This book shows them to be real human beings, warts and all, aggressive and defensive, merciful and cruel. There is much to learn here, and if the reader re-assesses his opinions and attitudes towards American Indians as a result, it is all to the good.
If the reader is interested in American history, buy and read this book. Its importance goes far beyond the Comanches.
A less-than-brief review by Frank McLynn in the Literary Review (it escapes me why the LR would ask a Brit to review a book by a Finn on America -- although he did write Villa & Zapate and Wagons West) (Google "Frank McLynn on the Commanche Empire) will give you a pretty good idea of the book's detail content, but be forewarned that some of McLynn's comments are wrong. The Comanches did not war against the Fox Indians and McLynn apparently does not understand the author's math in regards to the bison herd. 6.5 bison per person per year yields 260,000 animals taken if the Comanche and allied population is 40,000, not 20,000. His remarks about the required academic jargon for peer acceptance are correct however -- the author should have avoided the garbage so loved in the ivory towers in a book slated for wide dissemination. For me, the appearance of academic jargon at various times was this book's only flaw.
General readers interested in a new way of thinking about the Comanche and the history of the Southwest will enjoy this readable work. Scholars too will find much of use, including copious and meticulous citations and a good index. I highly recommend this work.
Some suggest the assertion that American Indians had power in colonial America is a novel and significant revision. I'm not so sure. Haven't scholars already constructed and dismantled the "imperial" Iroquois? Didn't George Hyde demonstrate half a century ago that the horse prompted a whole new set of power relations on the Plains between not only Indians and Europeans but also initially between different Indian groups? One is left to wonder where to draw the distinction between revision and "reinvention." The question isn't whether Indians had power; it's identifying in what instances they did or did not, and then accounting for the dynamism in power relations. In the end, the enduring persuasiveness I've found in Richard White's /Middle Ground/ and James Brooks' /Captives and Cousins/ is their ability to illustrate a mulivalent world in which power is variable across time and space and its various forms (political, economic, and cultural) aren't always congruent. White and Brooks capture this dynamism and complexity in a manner that recent revisionists such as Hamalainen don't. If power (who has it and who doesn't, etc.) is to be the center of the debate, then scholars need to be more explicit in delineating its various forms and explaining how it works over time.
This is a clearly written and well researched book, but I'm not sure its broad interpretive strokes really are so much innovative as they are fresh. If this topic interest you, I would recommend Gary Anderson's /The Indian Southwest/ and Brian DeLay's excellent if long /War of a Thousand Deserts/.
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.