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.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
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.
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.
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/.