The Comanche Empire
by Pekka Hämäläinen
Yale University Press, 500 pp., $35.00
Charles Goodnight, the great pioneering Texas cattleman, whose view of his fellow settlers (not to mention the human race) was seldom benign, once remarked that the appearance of a single Comanche could scare all the sorry white people out of ten counties. He himself traveled the vastness of the Comancheria—Comanche territory—at will, often alone but sometimes with the black cowboy Bose Ikard, for whom he wrote this epitaph:
Served with me four years on the Goodnight-Loving trail, never shirked a duty or disobeyed an order, rode with me in many stampedes, participated in three engagements with the Comanche, splendid behavior.
Prickly, impatient, never lost a day or night in any weather, immensely able, Goodnight reminds me a little of another Charles—De Gaulle. Though he eventually employed two of my uncles, I’m sure he would have included my grandparents in his scorn of anyone who let Comanche anxiety cause them to act prudently rather than aggressively, as he did.
My grandparents, fleeing the violence of postbellum Missouri, reached Texas in the 1870s, just as the Comanches were supposedly defeated, thanks chiefly to the young officer the Indians called Bad Hand, Ranald Slidell Mackenzie, who later went mad.
Finding themselves suddenly at the edge of the wide-open South Plains, with several of their eventual twelve children already in hand, my grandparents stopped, and stayed stopped for ten years. Like most of their fellow settlers, they found themselves doubting whether the Comanche defeat would really hold. Dared they really enter that emptiness that for long had been the Comancheria? True, Quanah Parker, the Comanches’ great leader, had taken a remnant of his people into Fort Sill in 1875, in effect surrendering. Many Comanches were already there. But, my grandparents asked themselves, was the long conflict really, absolutely over? What if some Comanche teenagers, bored in the teenage way, nostalgic for the old patterns, decided to lope south for a day or two and hack up some whites? After all a few Kiowa had done it in 1871, narrowly missing General Sherman in the process; the Kiowa went on doing it sporadically until 1879. What to do?
That was the question thousands of settlers on the South Plains had to ask themselves. My grandparents eventually went on another hundred miles. Had they moved more quickly we would own West Texas now; we don’t, but nobody got massacred, either.
The first serious study I read about the conflict between Comanches and whites on the South Plains was Rupert Norval Richardson’s The Comanche Barrier to South Plains Settlement, published in 1933. Professor Hämäläinen, in his brilliant restatement of Comanche history, acknowledges the barrier but insists, correctly, that it was only half the story: from their first appearance on the east side of the Rockies in the early years of the eighteenth century, the Comanches behaved aggressively throughout the Southwest. New Spain (later New Mexico), the upper Arkansas River basin, the eastern Apaches, the South Plains, Spanish (later …