Best Defense

‘The Comanche Empire’: A book that changed how I understand our history

Best Defense is in summer reruns. Here is an item that originally ran on November November 24, 2015.



Best Defense is in summer reruns. Here is an item that originally ran on November 24, 2015.

Earlier this year, Lance Blyth wrote a column here recommending 10 books to understand how American Indians adapted to the gun and the horse.

So far I’ve read two of them. I have to say that The Comanche Empire knocked my socks off. It changed my understanding of several things — how the U.S. expanded westward, why the Mexican War went the way it did, and why Texas is the way it is.

aThe author, Pekka Hamalainen, argues that the Comanches took advantage of the coming of the horse to expand from a tribe to an empire that covered most of today’s Texas and Oklahoma and part of Colorado and other lands. In addition, northern New Mexico and southeastern Texas became tributary vassalages. Moreover, he says, “the rise of the Comanche empire helps explain why Mexico’s Far North is today the American Southwest.”

One reason the Comanches rose is that they were lucky. They were close to Mexico and so could obtain horses. And the land they occupied, with open grasslands cut by well-protected river valleys, turned out to be perfect for raising herds of horses.

But they also were also “an extraordinarily adaptive people.” As they had moved eastward and then southward, they had learned new ways of living. Their culture was flexible and accommodating. They were able to assimilate other ethnic groups. “Beneath the martial surface were adaptable people who aggressively embraced innovations, subjecting themselves to continuous self-reinvention.” (Are you listening, U.S. military?)

So, he says, for about 100 years, from about 1750 to about 1850, they were “the dominant people in the Southwest,” able to manipulate the Spanish in Mexico almost at will. “The Comanche invasion of the southern plains was, quite simply, the longest and bloodiest conquering campaign the American West had witnessed.” They pushed the Utes westward and the Apaches southward. They had all the protein they needed, but needed access the New Mexican markets where they could trade meat and hides for maize, wheat and vegetables. “In essence … the Comanche-Apache wars were fought over carbohydrates.”

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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

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