Best Defense

Comanche exceptionalism (II): How the tribe rose to dominate the Southwest

Once the Comanches’ food sources were secured in the mid-18th century, the tribe’s size exploded.


Once the Comanches’ food sources were secured in the mid-18th century, the tribe’s size exploded, Pekka Hamalainen writes in Comanche Empire.

The most important sentences in the book may be these two:

By reinventing themselves as mounted bison hunters, Comanches dramatically simplified and intensified their economy; few societies in history have relied as totally on a single food source, and few have experienced such a sudden increase in total caloric intake as the early eighteenth-century Comanches did. This in turn made possible a rapid and sustained population growth, the single most important factor behind the Comanchenization of the southern plains.

At their peak the Comanches owned more horses and mules “than all the other plains nomads combined.”

Things got even more interesting when the Comanches begin using their horse wealth to trade for English and French weapons. “Alarmed Spanish officials reported as early as 1767 than the western Comanches were better armed than Spanish troops.” Eventually, the province of Texas was frequently cut off from the rest of New Spain. “The province, for all practical purposes, had ceased to function as a Spanish colony.” New Mexico became even more Comanchenized.

In the 1840s, Comanche raids into Mexico reached almost to Mexico City. Northern Mexico essentially became a resource bank for the tribe. This eased the way for the Americans in 1846 — “The U.S. takeover of the Southwest was significantly assisted by the fact that the Comanches and Apaches had already destabilized Mexico’s Far North.”

Two interesting side notes:

— The tribe also became a major slaveholding entity. One reason the tribe may have wanted European women was that they could produce children with greater resistance to European microbes, he notes. Another was that the tribe members wanted to focus on raiding and have others do the labor intensive work of feeding and tending horses.

— The Comanches maintained a special elite assault force called “the Lobos.” They wore distinctive regalia and were never allowed to retreat, even when other warriors did so. After battles, dances were held with only unmarried women, who were given orders to satisfy any desire of the Lobos. In addition, they may have had a special group called “the Big Horses” who essentially were the tribe’s diplomatic corps, responsible for negotiating peace treaties.

The collapse came quickly. Smallpox epidemics wiped out thousands of tribe members. An industrial use was found for buffalo hides in the 1860s, and soon afterward the vast herds were wiped out, often with the meat left to rot on the plains. The tribe also was harried by the U.S. Army. The population, which in the 1780s  might have been around 40,000, dwindled a century later to around 1,500.

Image credit: George Catlin/Smithsonian American Art Museum/Wikimedia Commons

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at @tomricks1
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