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par John EMERSON
The period of Comanche domination of Texas, New Mexico, northern Mexico, and much of the American West between 1750 and 1850 is just a passing footnote in American and Mexican history, but it provides an interesting perspective on many important historical questions, notably the history of the Eurasian steppe and the role of violence in long-distance trade.
My information about the Comanches comes from Hämäläinen’s The Comanche Empire and Gwynn’s Empire of the Summer Moon. Of these two authors, Gwynn especially emphasizes the brutality of the Comanches, and Jared Diamond and others have recently revived the claim that life in prestate societies is usually bloody and violent. However, with a better understanding of the historical status of violence and of aristocratic men of violence in human history, the violence of the Comanches will be seen to have been pretty much normal. Completely secure in their home territory on the Llano Estacado in northwestern Texas, western Oklahoma, and neighboring areas of Kansas, New Mexico, and Colorado, the Comanches held Spanish New Mexico as a tributary vassal, raided northern Mexico and lowland Texas with impunity, and controlled trade in much of the American West, within which Comanche became the trade language. For many Native Americans in the West Comanche markets were the main source for the goods of European America, while for European America they were a source of such goods as buffalo robes, buffalo meat, and slaves, but especially horses : the Comanche territory included the best pasture in North America.
From the perspective of Asian history Comancheria seems very similar to the various small, short-lived nomad/Chinese states which would fill power vacuums in north China during the periods of division, passing from existence once a strong Chinese dynasty arose. A comparison can also be made as well the Bulgar and Khazar trade states that arose north of the Black and Caspian seas during the second half of the first millenium AD. These states were founded by nomad raiders akin to the Huns, but they eventually became nodes in a relatively peaceful trade network reaching from Greenland to China, the Middle East, and India, and ultimately to the Mongol trade empire that dominated half of Eurasia. These states were much larger and longer-lived than Comancheria, but they suggest a development trajectory which might have been possible under different historical circumstances.
Spain was the first of the Western powers to lay claim to Comancheria, but Spanish control of New Mexico and Texas after the 1680 Pueblo revolt was very insecure. Starting about 1720 the French (who claimed the Mississippi valley) challenged Spanish control, but in 1763 France lost almost all of its North American possessions and Spain acquired most of French Louisiana (the west bank of the Mississippi and points west). By this time, however, Spanish New Mexico was more or less under Comanche control and Spanish Texas was at the Comanches’s mercy, and the Spanish claim to Louisiana was virtually meaningless. In 1783 the British claims east of the Mississippi and south of Canada passed to the United States, and in 1803 France recovered Louisiana from Spain and immediately sold it to the US. However, the American claim was initially hardly more real than the Spanish claim had been, especially because the United States had to deal almost immediately with the British invasion of 1812. Whatever plans Spain had to gain control of its territory were ended by the Mexican Revolution of 1820, and the new Mexican state’s plans in that regard were quickly challenged by the rise of the Republic of Texas and by the Mexican War. The Mexican War was followed almost immediately by the Civil War, and in 1865 the victorious Union Armies had their hands full pacifying Texas, and for that reason signed a treaty favorable the Comanches. Finally, as soon as the Texans were quiet, the full power of General Sherman’s army was directed at the Comanches, and by 1874 their century of power was ended.
Despite the various European claims, during this period Comancheria controlled a large area and functioned as a state, signing treaties with the French in 1746, with the Spaniards in Santa Fe in 1754 and 1786, with Texas Republic in 1836 and 1843, and with the United States in 1865. These treaties were mostly favorable to the Comanches, since the Comanches were the stronger party up until 1865 (and in fact, according to a visitor, believed that they were the most powerful people in the world), they interpreted the treaties as they saw fit. This is the explanation for a puzzling and bothersome thing about Comanche behavior : How could they negotiate so reasonably at one moment, and then at a later time behave with appalling brutality ? There is really no mystery : the Comanches were the stronger party granting favors, and the westerners were their subject peoples, and from time to time imperialists have to get strict with their subjects. For the moment, it was the European-Americans who were the victims of unequal treaties unfairly enforced, as if Comancheria were a legitimate sovereign state like Spain, France, or England.
After the 1680 Pueblo revolt the Native American peoples had acquired horses, and the Comanches were the first to master their use. Very quickly they developed a pastoral way of life (complete with cavalry warfare) which sharply contrasted with their earlier hunter-and-gatherer lifestyle in the Great Basin. From their new homeland in the Llano Estacado they became the major power over a large area and remained so for most of two centuries. Their cavalry armies were almost irresistible and their raids could be horrifyingly savage, but (like the Vikings, the Mongols, the Venetians, the Hellenes, and 19th century Europeans) they were not merely raiders and plunderers, but also the center of a large trading network which included St. Louis, New Orleans, Santa Fe, Pembina on the Canadian border, and a number of smaller towns. Roughly speaking, they held Comancheria as their homeland, dominated the areas north and west of them as their sphere of influence, held the Santa Fe area as a vassal, and plundered Texas and North Mexico (possibly as a step on the way toward making them vassals too), and engaged in foreign trade at Pembina, St Louis, New Orleans, and a few other places.
Not only were the material culture and lifestyle of the Comanches similar to that of the Mongols and other Asian steppe nomads, so were their foreign relations : a diplomacy of shifting alliances, the alternation of sudden cavalry raids from a safe haven and peaceful trade, and the adoption of captive children to be raised as Comanches. The Comanches hunted buffalo rather than raising sheep, but all the evidence is that, even if the US Army had not destroyed their nation, they would eventually have been forced to shift from hunting to some sort of pastoralism. There is an old argument in anthropology about whether or not (and to what degree) cultures are formed by their physical environments and the kinds of economies that these environments make possible, and the development of Comanche nomadism seems to support the thesis that this influence is very considerable.