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  • The Wider World of the Handsome Man:Southern Plains Indians Invade Mexico, 1830-1848
  • Brian Delay, assistant professor of history

Fanny Calderón de la Barca loved a good story, and in 1841 people in Mexico City were telling stories about Comanches. Early in the year, the wife of the Spanish minister would have heard astonishing reports about an army of the Indians attacking Coahuila's state capital, Saltillo, and its surrounding towns, stealing sixteen hundred horses, taking two dozen captives, and killing one hundred and two Mexicans, including a former governor. Mexico City's press ran hundreds of stories on the north's indios bárbaros in 1841, and anyone claiming to have knowledge of them found an eager audience. Calderón met a colonel who thrilled her and her companions with "an account of his warfare against the Comanches, in which service he has been terribly wounded." The colonel considered them "an exceedingly handsome, fine-looking race," with remarkable resources in both trade and war. Calderón learned more from an old soldier covered in wounds from Santa Anna's ill-fated Texas campaign. The veteran evinced a "devout horror" of Comanches, and stated "his firm conviction that we should see [them] on the streets of Mexico [City] one of these days."1 [End Page 83]

Thanks to a surge in scholarship during the past fifteen years, we now have a sophisticated picture of the people who so transfixed the scarred soldier's "gaping audience." This recent work has enriched our understanding of Comanche ethnogenesis, economic activity, diplomacy, kinship, spirituality and ritual, gender relations and labor, honor, territorial expansion, captive-taking, hunting and pastoralism, and politics. But Comanche specialists have been curiously disinterested in what their subjects did below the Rio Grande. Though the recent work often acknowledges that Comanches and their allies increasingly seized horses and captives from Mexican settlements in the 1830s and 1840s, plains scholars have not examined these activities through the source material in present-day Mexico. Partly this reflects a more general tendency to read the modern border backward into history. It is also the case that the extraordinarily violent raiding campaigns of these decades fit poorly with the dominant themes in prereservation American Indian historiography—resistance to colonialism and, more recently, hybridity, interdependence, and mutual accommodation.2 [End Page 84]

By recovering links between the southern plains and northern Mexico we can deepen our understanding of both regions. Consolidating and extending a small but important body of scholarship about Indian raiding in northern Mexico with research in Mexican archival and periodical sources, I have built a database tracking Comanche–Mexican conflict. In many ways the data from the late 1820s through the 1840s reinforce what we have come to expect from this relationship—hostilities erupting in one place while commerce and cooperation continue elsewhere. At the same time it is clear that Comanche raiding expanded and contracted in sharply defined stages. Intriguingly, these peaks and valleys coincide with well-known geopolitical events on and around the southern plains. Read alongside the often thin evidence that exists for scholars to interpret Comanche activities north of the river from the mid-1830s through the early 1840s, Mexican sources reveal striking interconnections between raiding in Mexico and events unfolding on the other frontiers of the Comanches' wider world. By making peace with dangerous Indian and Texan neighbors over the course of a decade, Comanches and their allies obtained the security necessary to launch long-distance raiding campaigns into northern Mexico. Just as important, peace agreements produced new market connections that made campaigns increasingly lucrative. This realignment of frontier relationships reached maturation in the early 1840s, by which time southern plains men were traversing several Mexican states and fueling anxious conversation in Calderón's Mexico City.3 [End Page 85]

Like borderlands scholarship, the broader historiographies of the U.S. and Mexico in the nineteenth century stand to gain from better understanding links between the southern plains and the Mexican north. Despite the existing work on raiding below the river, the Indians of the southern plains remain all but invisible in the national literature of nineteenth-century Mexico. Similarly, the recent advances in Comanche scholarship...


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