Book review: The Comanche Empire
Hamalainen, Pekka. The Comanche Empire. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008.
This book will change your mind about how the West was won.
Hint: The Comanches got there first.
The Comanches arrived obscurely in the American Southwest in 1706. This book provocatively makes the case that the Comanches created an imposing Southwestern American empire that spanned 150 years. They blunted the 18th century colonial ambitions of the Spanish in Mexico and the French in Louisiana, and stalled the westward thrust of Americans and the U.S. government until the middle of the 19th century. A broad coalition of Comanche rancheria chiefs throughout the territory of Comancheria first dominated the Apaches, eventually turned against their Ute allies, and commercially or militarily subjugated numerous lesser tribes.
Comanches managed a succession of peace treaties and conflicts with the Spaniards and completely blocked their repeated efforts to extend colonial settlements northward from Mexico. The political, commercial and military supremacy of the Comanches was based principally on their success in adopting and adapting Spanish horses for efficient transportation, military power and a thriving and lucrative trade in horses throughout the Southwest.
Hamalainen's central argument invites—indeed it provokes—a reasonable dispute about the credibility of his claim for a Comanche empire. In classical political or geopolitical usage, the claim is untenable, at least in part; the Comanche empire had neither fixed borders, nor a single self-sustaining centralized supreme authority, nor a durable bureaucracy, nor a definitive political structure.
Nevertheless, the Comanches had a respected, recurring broadly representative council of chiefs that planned and organized extensive raids, trading and other commerce, and military operations. Their hunting, pasturing and trading territories had indistinct geographic borders that were never surveyed or adjudicated; Comanches never sought to occupy and permanently control any specifically delineated territory. Hamalainen says they were "conquerors who saw themselves more as guardians than governors of the land and its bounties." Nonetheless, the geographical extent of the their domains was well known, respected and enforced by the Comanches.
Each Comanche rancheria had its own geographic territory, rigorous socio-military culture and hierarchical organizational. The situational circumstances of Comanche military superiority, their control of trade and their ability through the decades to repeatedly impose and maintain obviously favorable terms in their treaty and trade agreements are undeniable evidence of the Comanches' extended dominance of terrain, physical resources, culture and commerce, and, not least in importance, the Spanish and French colonial enterprises that sought to compete with them.
For decades the Comanches set the terms of their success; no competing power could defeat them, and no Indians or Europeans could evade the Comanches' dominance in their domain. Thus, the Comanches created a de facto empire. Ultimately, they were marginalized by a combination of drought that constrained their bison hunting and weakened their pastoral horse culture, disruption of trade which limited their access to essential carbohydrate foodstuffs, epidemic disease that repeatedly reduced the Comanche populations, predatory bison hunting by the Americans in the early 1870s that wiped out this essential food resource, and, finally, by the irresistible tide of U.S. government-sponsored westward migration that pushed American citizens into Comanche territory.
Too bad the Comanches left no accounts of their own. It would be fascinating to hear this story in their own words.
Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.