Author of The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire, etc.

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Book Review by C.M. Mayo

Pekka Hämäläinen

Yale University, 2008
ISBN 978-0-300-15117-6
Review originally published in Marfa Mondays Blog,
August 1, 2016

The cover of Pekka Hämäläinen's The Comanche Empire, of a ghost-white warrior with a trio of blood-red slashes down his cheek, is as arresting as the argument that, as it opens, the Comanches' was "an American empire that, according to conventional histories, did not exist."

In the United States public discourse conflates wildly heterogenous groups into easy categories— Native American, white, black, and so on and so forth— and then, with school board-approved narratives as mortar, we construct colossal political edifices. In their shadows, alas, many of us are blind to the complexities in our society and history. The complexities are riotous. And when we shine a light on but one of them— as Finnish historian Hämäläinen has in this brilliant study of Comanche hegemony— suddenly our easy categories and well-worn narratives may look strange, deeply wrong.

As those of you who follow this blog well know, I am at work on a book about Far West Texas, that is, Texas west of the Pecos River. Anyone who heads out there, especially to the remote Big Bend, hears about Comanches, e.g., they crossed the Río Grande here, they watered their horses there. But the Comanches, an equestrian Plains people who hunted the buffalo, were latecomers to the Trans-Pecos. They did not settle there; they trekked through it on the Comanche Trail (more aptly, network of trails) on their way to raid in northern Mexico. They returned driving immense herds of horses and kidnapped Apache and Mexican women and children in tow, for markets up north around Taos, New Mexico, and Big Timbers on the Arkansas, which garnered them metal tools, cooking pots, corn and other carbohydrates, textiles, and above all, guns and ammunition.

The Comanche were raiding south of the Río Grande as early as the 1770s, but their large-scale raiding in northern Mexico commenced in the 1820s, plunging deep into Chihuahua, Coahuila, Tamaulipas, Durango, Zacatecas and, in the 1840s, as far as Jalisco and the major central market and manufacturing city of Querétaro. This systematic "mass violence" which left the northern realm of the Mexican economy crippled and its people demoralized, turned it into what Hämäläinen terms "an extension of Greater Comanchería." Hence, by the late 1840s, when the U.S. Army invaded Mexico, what they were really invading was, to quote Hämäläinen, "the shatterbelt of Native American power." But this is to get ahead of the story.



The imperialists of the 19th century: wouldn't that be Yankees, the English, the French, the Spanish, the Portuguese, the Germans and Belgians and Dutch— "white" people, so-called? Hämäläinen's is an audacious argument: "In the Southwest, European imperialism not only stalled in the face of indigenous resistance; it was eclipsed by indigenous imperialism."

Specifically, from about 1750 to 1850, the Comanches aggressively expanded their territory to eventually dominate what we now call the Southwest. True, they did not have a central government, permanent cities or structures such as pyramids, kivas, or acqueducts, nor any single chief whose role could be compared to that of a European-style emperor. Moreover, as nomads for much of the year, their aim may not have been to conquer and colonize, but they were an identifiable group whose aim was to "control and exploit." As given by the Merriam-Webster's Dictionary, one of the definitions of "empire" is "an extensive territory or enterprise under single domination of control," hence, unnerving as it may strike some readers, Hämäläinen's use of the word is apt. He argues:

"[Comanches] manipulated and exploited the colonial outposts in New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, and northern Mexico to increase their safety, prosperity, and power. They extracted resources and labor from their Euro-American and Indian neighbors through thievery and tribute, and incorporated foreign ethnicities into their ranks as adopted kinspeople, slaves, workers, dependents, and vassals. The Comanche empire was powered by violence, but, like most viable empires, it was first and foremost an economic construction."

The Spanish, French, Mexicans and Anglo-Americans, as they contested the heart of the North American continent, were "restrained and overshadowed" by Comanches. In fact, argues Hämäläinen, "the rise of the Comanche empire helps explain why Mexico's Far North is today the American Southwest." Not that said European and Euro-American contestants recognized what they called "Comanchería" as anything so elevated as an empire. They considered the Comanches savages, indios bárbaros, requiring extermination or, failing acceptance of their invitation, a frog-march into "Christian civilization," Catholic or Protestant, end of story.

But here, in Hämäläinen, unfolds the many-chaptered story.


A Spanish report of 1706 is the first written mention of the Comanches, who called themselves the Numunu. With their then-allies, the Utes, they were preparing to attack Taos, at the mountainous edge of the Kingdom of New Mexico.

Sometime before, this nomadic Uto-Aztecan speaking people had broken away from the Shoshones, then in the central plains in present-day Wyoming, to head south, skirting the eastern edge of the Rocky Mountains, in search of game and horses.

Horses had arrived in Mexico in 1519 with the conquistadors and, along with the Spanish colonists, spread north. In New Mexico the Spanish prohibited indigenous Puebloan peoples' access to horses, but the corrals blew open, as it were, with the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, and horses and equestrian know-how quickly spread north across the plains.

For the Comanches, the horse changed everything, economically, militarily, and down to the marrow of their culture. With the horse, writes Hämäläinen, "In almost an instant, the world became smaller and its resources more accessible." On the one hand, the horse allowed the Comanches to more efficiently harvest the buffalo, which roamed in herds of tens of thousands on the shortgrass plains. On the other hand, the horse enabled them to fight and raid more effectively. And more: for the Comanches, horses served as a store of value, a signal of status, and a trade commodity.

Within a few decades, Comanches were specializing in hunting buffalo and stealing horses and taking captives, and trading these to provide for their other needs. While this allowed them to thrive— in 1740 Athanase de Mézières wrote, "They are a people so numerous and so haughty that when asked their number, they make no difficulty comparing it to the stars"— in reality, with an unsustainable resource base plus severe external shocks to come, they were on the rise of a Seneca Cliff.


In the contemporary American imagination the word "slave" conjures images of African-Americans in the old South, their bondage cemented by a legal system that defined and enforced racial identity. Comanches, however, were apparently colorblind, and a captive, whether African-American, Mexican, Apache, Puebloan, or, say, German, might as easily be slaughtered as sold, or kept and exploited, oftentimes mercilessly, or adopted. One child captive, Cynthia Ann Parker, kidnapped from her family's Texas frontier farm, ended up the wife of a leading Comanche chief, and mother of the incandescently famous chief, Quanah. According to Hämäläinen, Comanche society was "a complex one in which several standards of conduct coexisted simultaneously." Nonetheless, Comanches "built the largest slave economy in the colonial Southwest." Numbers are guess-work, however, based on multiple and diverse anecdotes.

Initially, in and around New Mexico, Comanches took captives as they warred on Apaches, Pueblo Indians, other indigenous peoples, and Spanish and mestizo colonists. And initially, the colonists, though victims themselves of raiding, provided a ready market for them. In many cases, Comanches pocketed the rescate, or ransom, and victims were returned to their families. Although since the mid-16th century Spanish law prohibited slavery, for the colonists of New Mexico, trading in Indian slaves was too lucrative to resist. Writes Hämäläinen, "In theory, these ransomed Indians were to be placed in Spanish households for religious education, but in practice many of them became common slaves who could be sold, bought, and exploited with impunity." By the late 18th century, large numbers of Apache and other Indian captives purchased from Comanches had been sent to the silver mines in Mexico and Caribbean tobacco plantations.

Comanche slaving began to change in the early 19th century when, smallpox having devastated Comanche and other Indian populations, Euro-American fur traders and other traders moved onto the plains. In response to richer trading opportunities, Comanches began to make greater use of captives to tend their larger horse herds and to scrape and prepare buffalo robes.

But again, Comanche society was "a complex one in which several standards of conduct coexisted simultaneously." There were several notorious cases of gang rape and torture-murder of captives, including of children, as well as several cases when captives, assimilated into the Comanche way of life and kinship networks, refused the opportunity to return to their original families.


Early in 18th century, in search of buffalo and captives, the Comanches roamed east onto the Plains. Empowered by the horse, and enriched by the bounty of the buffalo and both tribute from New Mexico and stolen horses and captives, throughout the century Comanches continued pushing east, north, west, and south on the Great Plains with what Hämäläinen calls "a vigorous diplomatic and commercial expansion, forging a far-reaching trade and alliance network that in time dwarfed Spain's imperial arrangements in North America."

By the 1750s, having displaced the Apaches, the Comanches controlled the western Great Plains below the Arkansas River. In 1762, when by the Treaty of Fountainbleau Carlos III took Louisiana off of Louis XV's map, writes Hämäläinen, "the transfer was, in effect, imaginary." The following year, the Treaty of Paris confirmed Spain's North American expansion, refining its border against what was now British territory to the east— again, ignoring the mammoth and dangerous reality of an expanding Comanchería.

But the Comanches did not settle permanently in any one place; they moved with the buffalo and, with lightning speed, towards raiding opportunities, primarily in New Mexico and other Spanish colonies. For the Spanish, already stretched thin in the north, then weakened by the wars for Independence that began in 1810, Comanche raids proved devastating. Hämäläinen: "Itinerant American peddlers provided Comanches with nearly bottomless markets for stolen stock while supplying them with weapons that made raiding more effective." The result: "Rather than New Spain's absorbing the southern plains into its imperial body, Comanches had reduced the Spanish borderlands to a hinterland for an imperial system of their own."


Spanish Texas, which lay north of the Nueces River and hugged the Gulf Coast into Lousiana, was subject to so many Apache, Comanche, Tawakoni, and other indigenous depredations of its missions, presidios, and ranches that it seemed it might not survive, never mind prosper. When he visited San Antonio in 1821, Stephen F. Austin described the whole country from the Sabine River west a "wild, howling, interminable solitude." To make a convoluted story short, by invitation of the Mexican government, Austin, now a Mexican citizen, would sign a contract as an empresario, receiving land in exchange for the commitment to colonize it. Mexico City's aim was to both counter Anglo-American colonization by effectively absorbing it qua Mexican, and, crucially, to establish a buffer between Apache and Comanche raiders and its other northern ranching and population centers. To give an idea of how urgent that latter project was, in 1825 over 300 Comanches arrived in San Antonio to settle in for six days looting the town.

By the 1830s, for fear of Indian depredations, the "Anglo" settlers or Texians, as they came to be known, had still refused to settle east of the Colorado River. South and east Texas, largely under Comanche vassalage, remained Tejano, and was so poor and terrorized that, writes Hämäläinen, "basic economic functions began to shut down." Farmers did not dare venture into their own fields or onto the roads.

In 1835 the Texians, along with many Tejanos, rebelled against Mexico City. The Texas Revolution is a foundational story told and retold in an overwhelmingly triumphalist literature, both academic and popular, emphasizing the manliness of the "Anglo" heroes of the Alamo, Goliad, and San Jacinto, and the weakness of the Mexicans under the cruel and corrupt Antonio López de Santa Anna. Hämäläinen's bucket-of-cold water revisionism:

"Texas independence may have been predetermined by geography— Texas was simply too far from Mexico City and too close to the United States— but the event can be fully understood only in a larger context that takes into account the overwhelming power and presence of the Comanches in the province in the years leading to the revolt."


The distance between what was then Texas and New Mexico was almost inconceivably vast and extremely perilous to cross. Even today at full speed on a major highway it takes eleven hours to travel from San Antonio, Texas to Santa Fe, New Mexico. Unsurprisingly, developments in 19th century Texas and New Mexico differed. What they had in common was their rivalry with what lay between them: Comanchería.

Texians, their ranks growing rapidly with ambitious and color-conscious immigrants from slave states such as Kentucky, South Carolina, Tennesssee, Virginia, and elsewhere, took a largely belligerent stance against the Comanches, while New Mexicans, increasingly isolated and impoverished, "looked to Comanchería for the necessities that kept them alive."

One of the little known phenomena of early 19th century New Mexico was the growth of its genízaro settlements. The word genízaro is the Spanish translation of Janissary, the early 16th century term for a kidnapped Christian boy trained to become a Turkish elite soldier. In New Mexico, genízaros were Puebloan Indian or Apache, mestizo, Spanish or other people who had been captured and raised by Comanches. Many retained close friendship and family ties to Comanches. Notes Hämäläinen, "The rise of genízaro settlements did not signify New Mexico's expansion into the Comanche realm but rather the colony's persisting gravitation toward the economic and cultural power of Comanchería."

This was when and where the "comanchero" commerce began to develop, and the "ciboleros," New Mexican bison hunters, emerged on the plains. Comancheros specialized in trading with the Comanches—and so meeting "the needs of two societies across a narrowing cultural gulf," one narrowing so quickly that, writes Hämäläinen, "[m]any nineteenth century observers found it impossible to differentiate ciboleros, comancheros, and Comanches from one another."

Comanchería's frontier with New Mexico then was a trading and tribute zone, while other frontiers were assigned to the collection of tribute, other types of trade, and raiding. Raiding depended in part on whether tribute was paid and that, in turn, depended in part on resources forthcoming— and often they were not— from Mexico City. By the 1830s, as Comanche raiding in Mexico stepped up, "New Mexicans had resigned themselves to purchasing peace from the Comanches, even if it meant inflicting death and suffering for the rest of northern Mexico." Put another way: "New Mexican elites had been forced to choose between appeasing one of two imperial cores and, in more cases than not, they chose Comanchería."



Having pushed the Apaches out of the southern Plains, in the 1830s, using Texas as a byway, Comanches now pushed the Apaches west and south out of some of the richest raiding zones of northern Mexico. The door had been left open, so to speak, for in the wake of two decades of war for its independence from Spain, then the bloody contests among monarchists, federalists, and republicans, Mexico did not have the material nor political resources to protect its northern frontier. But as Hämäläinen explains, the Comanches were drawn into northern Mexico not only by their own vitality, the clamor of young warriors seeking status in action and booty, but because of the "vulnerability of their power complex."

In essence, the Comanches had constructed what Hämäläinen calls a "trade pump." By thievery, they suctioned into the southern plains massive herds of horses and then, via trade with comancheros and others in New Mexico and around Big Timbers on the Arkansas, released them into the maw of what seemed an insatiable demand.

The vulnerability was that their "productive foundation"—Hämäläinen's euphemism for the territory they had been raiding— was becoming exhausted. Texas had been scoured of easy-pickings, and impoverished New Mexico was now locked into a tribute relationship.

Demand for horses had three wellsprings. First, northern Plains Indians such as the Arapahoe, Assiniboine, Blackfoot, Cheyenne, Crow, Pawnee, and Sioux, among others, needed horses for hunting, and to replenish the stock that could not survive or reproduce in the harsh winters north of the Arkansas River. Secondly, demand came from the Five Civilized Tribes (Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole) that had been forced out of the southeast United States and into Indian Territory by President Andrew Jackson's Indian Removal Act of 1830. Thirdly, demand came from pioneers, those heading from all points east into the fringes of the Plains and overland to California, Oregon, and Colorado. If a dollar was to be made, there were traders, such as the Bent Brothers and Holland Coffee, who would eagerly deal in horses stolen from Mexico. Texas officials even supplied Comanches with provisions, the better to speed them through on their way to and from Mexico.

From the 1830s Comanche raiding in Mexico became an annual late-summer migration, "a veritable industry"; "carefully planned and organized"; and "extraordinarily profitable." South of the Río Grande, in the rainy season when the grasses grew, the Comanches often camped in the plateau spanning parts of Coahuila, Chihuahua and Durango known as the Bolsón de Mapimí. Generations later, Mexicans have not forgotten the terror of the Comanches' "avalanche-like expansion." As Hämäläinen describes it:

"Sometimes in small parties, sometimes in big war bands, they moved from one target to another, living off the land while sacking ranches, haciendas, villages, towns, and mining communities. They drove off entire horse and mule herds; captured women and children; and butchered cattle, pigs, sheep, and goats for food. To suppress resistance, they killed Mexican men, burned houses, destroyed food storages, and slaughtered animals they could not take and did not need."

Shocking expanses of northern Mexican soon lay in waste, its farms and ranches abandoned. "The all-important Chihuahua road had become an Indian plunder trail, commerce was paralyzed, and mines languished unused."

By the end of the 1840s, the U.S. Army marched down through northern Mexico, encountering surprisingly little resistance, and in some cases, assistance, and occupied Mexico City itself. By the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, Mexico ceded to the United States territories that are today the states of Arizona, California, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and parts of Colorado and Wyoming. And here again, asserts Hämäläinen, it was "Native American expansion that paved the way for the Anglo-American one." The US-Mexican War was in fact, "a display of both United States and Comanche power."



The sixth chapter, sandwiched in between that on "Greater Comanchería" and "Hunger," the beginning of the collapse, is "Children of the Sun," wherein Hämäläinen offers a monograph-like examination of Comanche every day and seasonal life, family, social, military, political, and religious structure, including slavery and polygyny, and how these changed as trade expanded and the Comanches increasingly specialized in buffalo hunting and horse raiding. If somewhat lumpily placed in the middle of the book, "Children of the Sun" is a fascinating and illuminating chapter.

As the Comanches specialized in moving stolen horses and processing buffalo robes for trade, they also moved toward a more "highly structured and competitive warrior cult" and, for the extra household labor it could provide, polygyny. The latter reinforced the former, as young warriors, obstructed by older chiefs, found it difficult to accumulate horse herds and obtain wives. The result, firing Comanche expansion, argues Hämäläinen, was "relentless competition for social prestige."

This chapter also includes an intriguing albeit brief look at the Comanches' political councils, "massive, ordered, hierarchical and democratic all at once," which met at the high elevation points of Medicine Mounds, the Wichita Mountains, and the Caprock Escarpment, in the general vicinity of present-day Amarillo and Wichita Falls, Texas.


The United States en route to its Manifest Destiny, and the fall of the Comanches: it would seem that the one was the Juggernaut that rolled over the other. Hämäläinen is careful to underline, however, that "the American expansion did not trigger their decline"; by the end of the 1840s the Comanches' decline was already underway, and the cause was ecological.

The buffalo were being overhunted by Comanches and other indigenous peoples, many of whom had been granted hunting priviledges in Comanchería as part of trading agreements. Rising demand for buffalo robes—a new fashion— came from urban centers in the northeast; to satisfy it, many of the Indians newly arrived in Indian Territory took to mounted buffalo hunting. In addition to the Comanches, others, including ciboleros, and Arapahoe and Cheyenne hunters, brought into Bent's Fort— the main trading post near Big Timbers on the Arkansas—"tens of thousands" of robes. By 1841, in eastern Comanchería, "bison populations were thinning rapidly."

Yes, the "white" buffalo hunters came in with their buffalo guns to wipe out what was left of the herds—leaving a horrific photographic record of stupendous mountains of bones and hides—but that was later, primarily in the 1870s and early 1880s. In the 1850s, it was indigenous overhunting, combined with the destruction of the buffalos' prime winter riverine habitat by horses, and a sudden and severe onslaught of drought that had begun in 1845, that left the Comanches starving.

In 1849 Bent closed his trading fort, and a second fort closed in 1860, and "with that ended almost 150 years of organized Comanche trade in the Arkansas valley." With ever fewer buffalo to hunt, Comanches warred over hunting rights with ciboleros, the indigenous newcomers to Indian territory, and with Osages and Kiowas. From the east, immigrants to Texas, many from Germany, were settling in Comanchería, and from the west, in New Mexico, new settlers were establishing sheep and cattle ranches. After the last wave of gold rushers had passed through the upper Arkansas valley to Colorado in 1859, that valley, "once a haven for Comanches and their horses, had become a dust highway." In short, "the great Comanche trading empire had collapsed." And when it collapsed, the Comanches had lost their easy access to corn and other vegetables, guns and ammunition. When they tried to raid, the Texas Rangers and the U.S. Army went after them. And then, suffering from malnutrition, they were decimated by smallpox and cholera. Trading, raiding, and their own numbers collapsed. By 1860, it seemed the sun was setting on Comanchería.

 > See also Andrew C. Isenberg's landmark The Destruction of the Bison: An Environmental History, 1750-1920 (Cambridge University Press, 2000).

But then, in the mid-1860s, there came a "dramatic revival." The rains returned to the Great Plains and the buffalo herds rebounded, and in the chaotic aftermath of the U.S. Civil War, the Comanches renewed their lucrative practice of stealing horses, and now also cattle, and kidnapping women and children. Post-bellum Texas began to disintegrate.

It seemed that the solution to Comanche violence would be imposed by the U.S. Army under such as General William Tecumseh Sherman, famed for his March to the Sea and burning of Atlanta. It would, eventually, but in 1869, President Ulysses S. Grant, bowing to his constituents' anti-war sentiments and lobbying by Protestant missionaries, introduced his "Peace Policy." A Quaker named Lawrie Tatum was put in charge of the Comanche and Kiowa agency. Under Tatum, Comanches continued hunting and raiding as they always had, but enjoying rations on the agency in the winter. As Hämäläinen so originally puts it:

 "Comanches incorporated the reservation into their traditional yearly cycle as a kind of river valley: like river bottoms, the reservation provided food and shelter during the cold months, and like the river valleys, it never held the appeal of the open grasslands. Essentially a new resource domain, the reservation helped Comanches preserve their nomadic way of life on the plains rather than easing into a sedentary existence."

Tatum made a practice of ransoming Comanche captives, both American and Mexican, paying out as much as a hundred dollars each, then a staggering sum.

Tender-hearted Tatum could not last. For General Sherman and other veterans of the U.S. Civil War who had fought for the Union and the end of slavery, it was outrageous to permit Comanches to engage in stealing livestock and what amounted to slave trading on U.S. soil. In 1871 General Sherman was authorized to unleash war on the Comanche. But it was not by battles so much as strategic sabotage that the U.S. Army crushed the Comanches. Beginning in 1872, breaking the Medicine Lodge Treaty, the U.S. Army permitted the "white" hunters onto tribal lands. With powerful new long-range guns, they began an industrial butchery of what was left of the buffalo—and, as at the two battles of Adobe Walls, fought off and deeply demoralized the Comanches and their allies. With a string of forts and camps, U.S. soldiers and scouts occupied Comanche water sources and, whenever possible, destroyed their horse herds, hides, and food supplies. Over the course of what came to be known as the Red River War, the Comanches were harried off the plains and into the reservation in Indian Territory. In the autumn of 1874, U.S. Army surprised the last substantial holdout of Comanches in Palo Duro Canyon in the Texas Panhandle. Only three Comanche warriors died in that encounter, however the army destroyed over 1,000 of their horses and made a bonfire of their tipis and winter food stores, rendering them unable to survive outside the reservation. By the following June, the last of the free Comanches, including Quanah, surrendered at Fort Sill.

 > See also S.C. Gwynne, Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History. Simon and Schuster, 2010.


In his concluding chapter Hämäläinen coins the phrase: "The unanthropocentric barrier metaphor." He means the image served up by earlier historians, among them, Frederick Jackson Turner ("The Significance of the Frontier in American History") and Walter Prescott Webb (The Great Plains), of the Comanches as blood-thirsty savages, like the cacti and the mountain lions and the eagles, a part of the landscape, altogether representing, to quote Hämäläinen, an "essentially nonhuman impediment to the U.S. empire." In plain English: monsters in feathers blocking our way.

Beginning with Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show in the late 19th century, American and world culture have been bombarded with cartoon-like images of Comanches. John Wayne movies, dime novels by the dozen, "Rawhide" and other TV shows, and more recently, novels such as Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian continue the tradition of portraying Comanches as, to quote Hämäläinen again, "beastlike... on the other side of humanity."

To be sure, as far as the victims of their raids were concerned, the Comanches were not Sisters of Charity. Hämäläinen's point, and an enormously valuable one, is that "the unanthropocentric barrier metaphor" trivializes the Comanches both as a society and as historical actors. It blinds us to the existence of an entire civilization, its multifaceted rise, its decline, and its scorched-earth eradication.

It takes rare curiosity and steady focus to see the Comanches as historical actors when the most visible images of them are so romanticized, confections for another culture's self-aggrandizement and/or for-profit entertainment. In The Comanche Empire, Hämäläinen provides a masterful corrective, and more: he has shown the Comanches to have been "a penetrating cutural power" in the heart of the North American continent, and as such, absolutely fundamental to understanding the historical relationship between the United States and Mexico.