SPARTANS OF THE PLAINS: The Comanche Empire

Frank McLynn – Literary Review

Copyright Literary Review
SPARTANS OF THE PLAINS
The Comanche Empire
By Pekka Hämäläinen (Yale University Press 500pp £25)
At the beginning of the eighteenth century the Comanches were a small tribe of hunter-gatherers in New Mexico. Once they acquired the use of horses, in three generations they evolved into the ‘Spartans of the plains’ and provided the fiercest of all Native American resistance to the Anglo-Hispanic conquest of the American West. For a hundred years from 1750, the Comanches dominated New Mexico, Texas and even parts of Louisiana and northern Mexico. As Amerindians, the Comanches were even more impressive than the Aztecs or the Iroquois, for until the American Civil War they largely forced Europeans to bend the knee, and did so moreover when the European imperialist impulse was at its height. Although the word ’empire’ may be author’s hyperbole, the Comanches ruled an extensive domain that worked on a melange of kinship ties, trade, diplomacy, extortion and violence.
So why were the Comanches so exceptional among American Indians? Pekka Hämäläinen, a Finnish scholar of the American West, currently at the University of California, Santa Barbara, argues that, like the Iroquois, the Comanches were fortunate geographically, since their heartland was at once central and peripheral, and at the intersection of Spanish and Anglo spheres of influence. They were inventive and flexible, using a nuanced division of labour in everyday life and operating a dual economy of hunting and pastoralism; they had a unique ability to make use of the horse; and their culture enabled them to incorporate change better than other Indians. They depended on two animals, the horse and the bison, which in the early days were present on the Great Plains in vast numbers. They had 120,000 horses in their herds and access to another two million wild ones.
Hämäläinen’s most detailed scholarly labours concern the eighteenth century: he claims that by 1730 the Comanches had all their people on horses and had reached what he calls ‘the critical threshold of mounted nomadism’. The narrative, firmly based on admirable scholarship, shifts from warfare to diplomacy and back in the Comanche’s dealings both with the colonial Spanish (for in those days the white-occupied American West was wholly Hispanic) and with the other Indian tribes of the Great Plains – principally the Utes, Navajos, Apaches, Osages, Pawnees and Wichitas. With the exception of the Lakota (Sioux) and the Blackfeet, every western Indian tribe was linked to the Comanches’ informal ’empire’. Far from being bit players in the drama of the Spanish colonial empire, the Comanches, especially after obtaining guns from French traders in the 1740s, had the edge in the continuing conflict with ‘New Spain’. One single statistic is eloquent on the Comanches’ rise to dominance in the American Southwest. Their population, 15,000 in 1750, had ascended to 45,000 by 1780 because of their superior diet and plentiful food supply. Their heartland was the so-called Comancheria – an area covering the valleys of the Arkansas, Cimarron, Canadian and Red Rivers, plus all the plains of northern Texas, especially the Llano Estacado in the Panhandle.
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