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The Conquering Indians

1.

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.

C. Goodnight

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.1

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 Mexican) villages south of the Rio Grande, and, when they came, the Texans—all felt the impact of Comanche violence, and they all, at times, had to yield to it.

Charles Goodnight ignored the barrier and went where he wanted to go, often with herds of cattle, some of which the Comanches ran off. Late in his life a journalist, thinking to compliment him, told him that he had been a man of vision. “Yes, a hell of a vision!” Goodnight said, and he wasn’t using “hell” in an exclamatory way. In a raid on the camp of a chief named Peta Nocona—a raid that failed to capture either Peta Nocona or his soon-to-be-famous son Quanah—Goodnight, then a Texas Ranger, spotted a woman with blue eyes, who proved to be Cynthia Ann Parker, a captive for twenty-three years who had married Peta Nocona and borne him three children. With her daughter Prairie Flower she was returned to a people she didn’t know, who spoke a language she had long forgotten; first Prairie Flower died and then, self-starved and despairing, Cynthia Ann died too.

Her eldest son, Quanah Parker, who later became a Comanche chief, mourned her all his life. The three graves—Quanah, Cynthia Ann, Prairie Flower—are on the air base at Fort Sill, Oklahoma; beyond them lies the nearly endless American steppe, land the Comanches had contested since the early eighteenth century. Memory of the despair of Cynthia Ann probably formed part of the Hell of Goodnight’s vision. Scores of tragedies, some of which he witnessed, fleshed out the Hell. John Wilbarger’s Indian Depredations in Texas (1889) is probably the best Black Book on the struggle for the South Plains.

2.

These digressions, I know, may seem like an end run around Professor Hämäläinen’s The Comanche Empire: cutting-edge revisionist western history in every way. Another historian of the Comanches, Stanley Noyes, in Los Comanches: The Horse People, 1751–1845 (1993), mentions that he stopped his history when he did because the rest of the Comanche story is so well known. And another recent historian of the Comanches, Thomas W. Kavanagh, starts his book The Comanches: A History, 1706–1875 earlier than Stanley Noyes and goes on to Quanah’s surrender.

Myself, I think Professor Hämäläinen and Stanley Noyes and Thomas Kavanagh and maybe Gary Clayton Anderson (whose book The Conquest of Texas: Ethnic Cleansing in the Promised Land, 1820–1875 I reviewed in these pages2 ) are all singing in a choir composed mainly of themselves. Little about Comanche history is generally known, mainly because there aren’t many people who want to know it. Watching reruns of The Searchers, John Ford’s western made fifty-two years ago and set in Monument Valley, one of the few places in the Southwest, as far as I am aware, that the Comanches didn’t raid, provides most people with as much Comanche history as they want. However hard these admirable historians labor at making the Comanche ascendancy vivid, it’s still the Comanche dégringolade that most readers recognize.

Professor Hämäläinen’s book is much the most thesis-driven of the four, and the thesis is right there in the title. In his view there was a Comanche empire, a point he presses in nearly four hundred pages. His (to me) startling introduction, called “Reversed Colonialism,” makes the largest claims I’ve ever seen made for Comanche power. As a son of the Comancheria myself, they took me aback, which of course doesn’t mean that they’re wrong.

Here are samples of these claims, accelerating as the professor warms to his subject:

In the Southwest, European imperialism not only stalled in the face of indigenous resistance, it was eclipsed by indigenous imperialism.

And then:

For a century, roughly from 1750 to 1850, the Comanches were the dominant people in the Southwest…. To cope with the opportunities and challenges of their rapid expansion, Comanches created a centralized multilevel political system, a flourishing market economy, and a graded social organization that was flexible enough to sustain and survive the burdens of their external ambitions.

Blink a time or two and the reader might forget that the book at hand is about Comanches, rather than Microsoft.

And there’s more:

Comanches achieved something quite exceptional: they built an imperial organization that subdued, marginalized, co-opted, and profoundly transformed near and distant colonial outposts, thereby reversing the conventional imperial trajectory in vast segments of North and Central America.

That was the slider, here’s the fastball:

Comanches, moreover, did that during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the high tide of imperial contestation when colonial powers jostled for preeminence across North America. The colonial Southwest was a setting for several dynamic and diverging imperial projects that converged and clashed in unexpected ways. As Spanish, French, British, and US empires vied with one another over land, commerce, and raw materials, Comanches continued to expand their realm, profoundly frustrating European fantasies of superiority.

The result was a colonial history that defies conventional wisdom. A long-standing notion has it that the course and contours of early American history were determined by the shifts in Euro-American power dynamics and the reactions of metropolitan headquarters in Madrid, London, Versailles, Mexico City, and Washington to those shifts. The Southwest, however, is a striking exception. Metropolitan visions mattered there, but they often mattered less than the policies and designs of Comanches, whose dominance eventually reached hemispheric dimensions, extending from the heart of North America deep into Mexico.

Indeed, Comanche ascendancy is the missing component in the sweeping historical sequence that led to New Spain’s failure to colonize the interior of North America, the erosion of Spanish imperial authority in the Southwest, and the precipitous decay of Mexican power in the north. Ultimately, the rise of the Comanche empire helps explain why Mexico’s Far North is today the American Southwest.

And yet Professor Hämäläinen immediately goes on to say that the Comanches

never attempted to build a European-style imperial system. A creation of itinerant nomadic bands, the Comanche empire was not a rigid structure held together by a single central authority, nor was it an entity that could be displayed on a map, a solid block with clear cut borders.

All these statements seem to me to represent conclusions, and I might have been less inclined to question them if I’d read them at the end of Professor Hämäläinen’s almost four hundred pages of text. As it is, questions pile up: How can the Comanche empire be centralized and multilevel on one page while lacking a central authority on the next? Where, by the way, is the heart of North America—I was thinking it was somewhere around Iowa City. Were there Comanches in Oaxaca, marking off “hemispheric dimensions”? And as a personal quirk, perhaps, I’d have to say that I hope for a little metropolitanism with my empires; at least some excellent architecture gets left behind, as in Mexico City, Cuzco, Tikal, and the Temple of the Sun, just to consider the New World. The Anasazi people didn’t have an empire, just a society, but they did leave us Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde. The Comanches by contrast lived in disposable dwellings and left no architecture.

Even in my grandparents’ time the Comanches were still referred to mainly as torturing fiends, which, Wilbarger suggests, they sometimes were, a particularly repugnant practice being the public gang rape of captive women who were to be sold as slaves. Notwithstanding the experience of Cynthia Ann Parker and Peta Nocana, the status of their own women was extremely low. All this makes it not easy to think of them now as confident imperialists and shrewd market capitalists. Perhaps it’s merely the vocabulary of today’s revisionists that sometimes jars or clashes with my prairie-born way of thinking about Comanches.

I agree that Comanches were vigorous opportunists, who made the most of the weakness of colonial Spain, and France, and the fledgling Texans, when they came. But is this an empire? Or, conversely I suppose, why not call it an empire? The Comanches certainly did keep the Southwest boiling with conflict from the moment they appeared in the early eighteenth century to their defeat in the Texas panhandle in the 1870s. Certainly they vexed, fought with, defeated, or exploited virtually everyone they came in contact with. They early mastered the horse, which, both here and elsewhere, Professor Hämäläinen has argued was ultimately a mixed blessing, the fragility of the Plains ecosystem being what we now know it to be.

I supposed I just have a linearist’s preference for empires that can be displayed on a map, as they expand and shrink. The Comanches had many spheres of influence (that good old Paris Peace Conference term) and enjoyed supremacy in one place or another at given times. They were quick to exploit trade routes, exacting a kind of toll for traders along the Santa Fe Trail as soon as there was a Santa Fe Trail. And they invariably showed up at the big trade fairs in Taos and elsewhere—such fairs were the vivid predecessors of our own swap meets.

The Comanches spent fifty years successfully pushing the eastern Apaches west, but they didn’t eliminate the Apaches as a force to be reckoned with in the Southwest. Geronimo stayed out of US hands a decade longer than Quanah Parker and proved very aggravating to General George Crook, the American commander in many of the Indian wars.

Professor Hämäläinen is at his best when he traces the myriad Comanche trade patterns. The Comanches traded energetically with anyone who had anything they wanted, a practice particularly vexing to the Spanish:

The Americans, however, did not come as conquerors carrying guns, but as merchants carrying goods and gifts, and eastern Comanches eagerly embraced them as potential trading partners. The Comanches simply viewed the linkage between presents and politics differently from the Spanish. Gifts, Bourbon administrators argued, were contractual bonds that created a political bond, an exclusive bilateral union, whereas for Comanches the meaning of gifts was primarily of a social nature. Bourbon officials insisted that gifts should forbid Comanches from trading with foreign nations, but this was a narrow interpretation of loyalty and friendship that did not easily translate into the Comanches’ world view….

It certainly didn’t. One band of Comanches might be trading amicably in San Antonio while others were aggressively raiding in northern Mexico, taking slaves and horses that they would eventually trade.

The Comanches called themselves Nermernuh, or the People. T.H. Fehrenbach, whose Comanches: The Destruction of a People (1974) is still useful, mentions that one reason Comanche social organization has been little studied is because it was so loose as to barely make a Comanche society. They were patrilineal and saw that the incest taboo was strictly observed, but they lived short, hard lives and were so frequently on the move that they had no time to make pots or weave blankets. They lived in bands but were gregarious and felt free to change bands if they felt the urge. Decisions about where to trade or when to move camp were usually arrived at by consensus.

Professor Hämäläinen points out that once horse herds became a major source of capital, some tensions between Comanches as pastoralists and Comanches as hunter-gatherers developed, the two activities requiring somewhat different rhythms. Human history has taught us that no matter how abundant a natural resource—fish, grass, buffalo—may be, the human species is capable of rapidly laying it waste. Thousands of horses and millions of buffalo ate the rich grasses of the Great Plains near to depletion; the south Texas cattlemen who arrived with their herds in the 1870s were annoyed to find the plains already overgrazed.

The Comanches were not particularly interested in their own genealogy; it has been suggested that they liked having no history and no available folk memory. They appeared, they carried war to their enemies, their power waned, and when at the end a few white scholars came to ask them questions they did not have much to say. Fortunately the painter George Catlin got a few of them on canvas when he visited the Comancheria in 1834.

3.

Although I mainly disagree with Professor Hämäläinen’s thesis, I nonetheless found his book to be immensely informative, particularly about activities in the eighteenth century. Also I discovered that a whole new discipline in the aggressive empire of revisionist western studies had somehow slipped under my radar: frontier-and-borderland studies. Gary Clayton Anderson’s book The Conquest of Texas, which I mentioned earlier, may belong in this field. It has much to say about the Indians and the Mexicans being unimpressed by US claims that they must stay within borders. Invariably, they didn’t. The Comanches particularly must have found the notion of borders they were supposed to stay within weird at best.

In stating my doubts about the existence of a Comanche empire I did not mean to question or discount the fact of a Comanche ascendancy. Maybe it lasted about a century, between 1750 and 1850, as Professor Hämäläinen suggests; but even within that time span it was never unchallenged or absolute. For one thing there was the factor of disease. In the mid-nineteenth century came cholera, which weakened their leadership just as they needed to gear up for the final resistance. Smallpox, striking them first around 1780, decimated them as it did so many powerful tribes. Measles did some damage too. The thousands of Gold Rushers trooping across the Comancheria probably contributed to these epidemics.

Space had long been the Comanche’s sanctuary against white aggression. Not every Comanche band was up to the harsh life on the vast Llano Estacado (Staked Plain), which covered so much of northwest Texas and eastern New Mexico. But young Quanah Parker and his band of Kwahadas (Antelopes) were, and they thought no white force could ever follow them there. But then the American officer they called Bad Hand Mackenzie did follow them there; and that, really, was the end. In his sober conclusion to a fine work of history, Professor Hämäläinen allows that Comanche imperialism was mainly an ad hoc affair, based on their keen instinct for exploiting the weaknesses of their many opponents.

To a degree their fate resembles that of their fellow horse-riding Indians, who since the fall of General Custer in 1876 have been able to attract the attention of the hungry American media. Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, Red Cloud, and, locally at least, Quanah Parker are names some Americans might remember hearing.

Lords of the plain, the Comanches once were. The novelist Max Crawford wrote a fine novel about them, using Lords of the Plain as his title (1985), a book much admired by Ronald Reagan. One of the few things people who saw them in action agreed on was that the Comanches were amazing horsemen in an era when most of the other Plains Indians were also superlative riders. But lately, when my partners and I were looking for young Comanches to ride bareback in the big attack scene in the miniseries Comanche Moon, we were regarded with astonishment by the Comanche youth of today. Ride bareback? Us?

Young Comanches nowadays ride pickups, and maybe now and then a tractor. A little saddened, we went to Montana and the Dakotas for our bareback riders.

  1. 1

    Charles Goodnight can be glimpsed briefly in a six-minute silent film called Old Texas, which I believe is obtainable from the Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City. As I recall, he is picnicking—my goodness!—and has a reverie in which the Comanches lose Texas to the Texans.

  2. 2

    University of Oklahoma Press, 2005; reviewed in these pages September 21, 2006.

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