- The Comanche Empire
In recent years, historian Pekka Hämäläinen has treated the readers of the Journal of American History and the Western Historical Quarterly to innovative studies of the Plains Indian equestrianism and the significance of the Comanche trade center on the southern Plains. In his new book, The Comanche Empire, Hämäläinen continues to impressively write about and conceive of Plains Indian and indigenous history. Rather than examining equestrianism or economy on their own rights, as he did in previous articles, Hämäläinen uses both themes to make a case for something that many scholars will find unexpected: an indigenous people creating an empire alongside that of European nation-states. Beginning in 1700, with their migration to the southern Plains, the Comanches used diplomatic ties and economic change to create an extensive empire, which encompassed parts of present-day Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas. The Comanches expanded and conquered these territories and then harnessed indigenous and European people living in these areas to their empire through trade and commerce. Beginning in the mid nineteenth century, environmental factors and the expansion of the United States ended the Comanche empire.
The initial Comanche conquest of the southern Plains occurred in three distinct phases. Between 1700 and 1720, the Comanches, in tandem with the Utes, ventured onto the southern Plains. The lucrative trade in horses and human captives lured these two tribal nations to the Plains, and they took advantage of the ecological advantages of the southern Plains. Between 1720 and 1760, the Comanches expanded into New Mexico and the southern Plains. By the 1770s, the Comanches had come to occupy the Plains of Texas. These phases of Comanche expansion relied on crucial economic and political choices. Comanches demanded access to grazing lands for horses, bison hunting territories, and slaves to fulfill important labor roles. Moreover, the expansion forced the Comanches into political alliances and conflict with their various neighbors on the southern Plains, including the Utes, Apaches, Pawnees, French, and Spanish. Interestingly, the shifting nature of Comanche diplomacy often brought them into conflict with previous allies, such as the Utes and New Mexico in the mid eighteenth century.
Between 1760 and 1780, the Comanches created a new order on the southern Plains. Facing new ecological restrictions, Comanches [End Page 342] divided into two larger political units: the Eastern and Western Comanches. The Eastern Comanches came to dominate the Texas Plains and the Western Comanches controlled much of what is now eastern New Mexico, from Taos to Albuquerque. Both groups underwent significant population growth in the late eighteenth century, probably reaching as high as forty thousand people in the early 1780s. Both groups created a fluid but organized political system, which enabled men like the famous Cuerno Verde to assume primary, but not total, political power within their nations. Finally, both Western and Eastern Comanches, despite their different environmental and economic orientations, forged national ties through trade fairs. These annual gatherings created opportunities for the Comanches to forge social and political bonds, which provided an overarching structure to the Comanche nation.
In the 1780s, the Comanche empire and Spain embraced one another in peace. However, both groups disagreed about the meaning of that peace. Spain wanted to harness the Comanches to their empire as vassals. Comanches, meanwhile, viewed their relationship with the Spanish as one of "brothers," or equals. Although the Spanish attempted to force the Comanches to adhere to their notions of political alliance, the Comanches forced the Spanish to abide by theirs. Discussions about the return of captives and Comanche conflict with Apaches, Utes, and Navajos indicated that the Comanches, not the Spanish, controlled and determined political alliances in the Southwest.
Beginning in 1800, Hämäläinen argues, Comanche and United States empires "co-evolve[d]" (p. 142). When Americans ventured onto the southern Plains and into New Mexico, they entered a world controlled and affected by Comanche expansion. Eastern and Western Comanches forged political and economic relationships with American traders (Bent's...