The Comanche Empire by Pekka Hämäläinen

Pekka Hämäläinen gets right to the point: “This book is about an American empire that, according to conventional histories, did not exist. It tells the familiar tale of expansion, resistance, conquest, and loss, but with a reversal of the usual historical roles: it is a story in which Indians expand, dictate, and prosper, and European colonists resist, retreat, and struggle to survive.” (p. 1) Over the following 360 pages, Hämäläinen, who is Finnish and now teaches at Oxford after several years in the US, details how the Comanches changed from “a small tribe of hunter-gatherers living in the rugged canyonlands on the far northern frontier of the Spanish kingdom of New Mexico” to a complex polity that held northern New Mexico in thrall, farmed Texas for horses and captives, raided central Mexico to within 150 miles of the capital, displaced the Apaches, shaped relations among their northern neighbors such as the Cheyenne and the Pawnee, and traded on their eastern frontier with the French, Osage, Wichita, Americans, and others. By the early nineteenth century, the Comanche dominated the southern plains in an area stretching east-west roughly from Santa Fe to the Sabine River and north-south from San Antonio to the Arkansas River. Hämäläinen draws not only on written sources from across this realm but also on archeological evidence, with careful attention to environmental history and what its scholars have shown about the interplay among climate, horses and buffalo.

The Comanche Empire

Hämäläinen sums up their rise:

They were newcomers to the region, having fled the political unrest and internal disputes in their old homelands on the central Great Plains, and they were struggling to rebuild their lives in a foreign land whose absorption into the Spanish world seemed imminent. It was here, at the advancing edge of the world’s largest empire, that the Comanches launched an explosive expansion. They purchased and plundered horses from New Mexico, reinvented themselves as mounted fighters, and reenvisioned their place in the world. They forced their way onto the southern plains, shoved aside the Apaches and other residing nations, and over the course of three generations carved out a vast territory that was larger than the entire European-controlled area north of the Río Grande at the time. They became ‘Lords of the South Plains,’ ferocious horse-riding warriors who forestalled Euro-American intrusions into the American Southwest well into the late nineteenth century. (p. 1)


“For a century, roughly from 1750 to 1850, the Comanches were the dominant people in the Southwest, and they 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. At its core was an extensive commercial network that allowed Comanches to control nearby border markets and long-distance trade, swing surrounding groups into their political orbit, and spread their language and culture across the midcontinent. And as always, long-term foreign political dominance rested on dynamic internal development. 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.” (p. 2)

Hämäläinen not only shows the Comanches’ agency, he demonstrates that they were not peripheral to understanding the history of the Southwest in this period, they were central. It is the Euro-American groups that were at the periphery of Comanchería. “Comanches … fought and subjugated other Native societies, but more important to their ascendancy was their ability to reduce Euro-American colonial regimes to building blocks of their own dominant position. Comanches achieved something quite exceptional: they built an imperial organization that subdued, exploited, 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.” (p. 3) Most historical accounts center the designs of imperial capitals in Madrid, London and Versailles, or the actions of viceroys in Mexico City and presidents in Washington. “The Southwest,” writes Hämäläinen, “was a striking exception. Metropolitan visions mattered there, but they often mattered less than the policies and designs of the 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.” (p. 3)

I found it a fascinating and important story, one that Hämäläinen tells carefully, noting the limits of what his sources can show. He neither sugarcoats nor demonizes the participants, depicting all of them as people with their particular worldviews and interests. He is writing large-scale history, so while individual leaders make choices that reflect their personalities and experiences, and these choices in turn affect greater relations, The Comanche Empire is not a character-driven tale.

All of the peoples in the book are competing for land and resources, but they are often also dependent on one another for things that their home territories do not produce. When the Comanche completely adopted horses and changed from hunter-gatherers to a society devoted to hunting, they needed a new way to gain carbohydrates in their diet. That was part of their trade with the settlements of New Mexico in the west, or some of the Native nations in the east. The Comanche provided buffalo hides and meat that were in demand all around their periphery. The Comanche stole horses from Texas and traded them to their northern neighbors, who often had manufactured goods and weapons acquired from French and British traders who in turn sought furs from the northern plains. When the Spanish would only sell the Comanche inferior weapons, or none at all depending on policy emanating from Mexico City or Santa Fe, the Comanche turned to other parts of their trading networks, acquired them anyway, and raided Spanish settlements more fiercely in reprisal. Yet the Comanche never pushed the northern Mexican settlements all the way to destruction, something that would probably have been within their power several times. The Comanche preferred for the Texans and New Mexicans to do the work of raising horses, which the Comanche would later collect in raids or in tribute.

Hämäläinen also shows how conflicting Spanish and Comanche views on subjects such as conversion, oaths, treaties, kinship, gifts and property could spark deadly conflict but could also be used in constructive ambiguity to foster relations. He details how smaller settlements in Texas and New Mexico adapted to and sometimes adopted Comanche social practices, showing the attraction of empire. (There are occasional flashes of a very dry humor that I think of as Finnish. “Texas, in short, was disjointed, expansionist, volatile, and potentially self-destructive. Those were also the attributes of its Indian policy.” p. 214) “And yet the yawning gulf separating Comanche and Euro-American cultural and mental worlds never disappeared—far from it. Regardless of their universal features, the actions and policies of Comanches remained embedded in a system of reality that was distinctly non-West in nature. To the limited extent that it is possible to unveil the intentions that went into the actions of eighteenth- or early nineteenth-century Indians, it seems plain that the rationale of Comanche behavior remained worlds apart from that of Euro-Americans.” (p. 15)

The effect of the Comanche empire reaches into the present. “The decades of Comanche raiding in Texas and northern Mexico—which from the late 1820s coincided with increasing Apache pillaging in Sonora, Chihuahua, and Durango—had a lasting hemispheric legacy. The escalating violence left Mexico dangerously weakened during critical years in its history, for it overlapped with mounting U.S. pressure on Mexico’s borders. The consequences were disastrous to the fledgling republic: between 1835 and 1848, Mexico lost more than half of its territory to the United States. Historians have customarily attributed Mexico’s capitulation to the overt material and military superiority of the United States, but they have missed a crucial element: the Native American expansion that paved the way for the Anglo-American one. The U.S takeover of the Southwest was significantly assisted by the fact that Comanches and Apaches had already destabilized Mexico’s Far North. Apaches had devastated vast stretches of northwestern Mexico, but Comanches left the deepest imprint. In each major stage of its expansion, the United States absorbed lands that had been made ripe for conquest by Comanches, who themselves were not interested in direct political control over foreign territories.” (pp. 232–33)

There is much more in Hämäläinen’s history, which is crunchy and detailed but never tiresome. He includes about 100 pages of notes and bibliography for anyone who wants to follow along and check the work, or delve more deeply into details. By filling a gap in the common understanding of the history of this region, Hämäläinen opens the way for greater knowledge of how the Southwest came to be as it is.

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