SPARTANS OF THE PLAINS
The Comanche Empire
By Pekka Hämäläinen (Yale University Press 500pp £25)
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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.
Hämäläinen is very good on Comanche social structure. A polygamous sun-worshipping people, the Comanches based their society on an aggregate of individual rancherias, each containing about 250 people. Each of these had a leader, or paraibo, and an executive council, usually with a specialist war chief as well; paraibos controlled trade and diplomacy but left the fighting to the war chief. The hard work was done by women - Comancheria was a feminist's nightmare - and teenage boys, who did the herding and tended the flocks, leaving the adult males free to become warriors or even proto-capitalists. Although highly stratified, Comanche society permitted social mobility via prowess in warfare, and there was even a warrior elite, the Lobos, similar to the Spartiates among the Spartans. The weakness of Comanche society was that it was decentralised: like modern US political parties, which barely exist outside election year, the Comanche nation as such, when all paraibos gathered for a grand council, came into being only at times of extreme emergency, or when major campaigns or other innovations were contemplated. In economic terms Comanche society can be viewed as the transition from subsistence foraging to a market-oriented dual economy of hunting and herding, but it was always beset by the 'contradiction' that when nomads become an empire they must perforce become sedentary.
Hämäläinen's great achievement is to force a rethink about Mexican history from its independence from Spain in 1821 to its defeat by the United States in 1846-8. Every September the Comanches sent a major raiding force into northern Mexico, and some of these bands of plains Indians ended up exploring tropical jungles and snow-covered mountains. Their penetration of northern Mexico was astonishing, since they raided as far south as Guadalajara and Queretaro, just 135 miles north of Mexico City and one thousand miles away from the centre of Comancheria.
On several occasions the Comanches came close to destroying the Spanish (and later Mexican) position in Texas, only to be bought off by generous treaties and subsidies. The well-known story of Texas's breakaway from Mexico in 1836 and its history as the Lone Star state during 1836-48 had a Comanche dimension that is usually unmentioned. It was continual Comanche raiding that led Mexico to make the fatal mistake of opening Texas to American settlers in 1823. Hämäläinen has no time for the sacred myths of Texas. Sam Houston and his confrères justified their rebellion in 1836 by claiming that Mexico had not provided protection against Comanche raids, but in fact the American settlers in the east of the state stayed out of range of the Comanches; it was the Hispanics who suffered. Once independent, Texas under Houston tried to conciliate the Comanches but, when the opposition party under Mirabeau Lamar won the 1838 election, they instituted anti-Indian policies that led to vicious warfare between whites and the Comanches. The Comanches, meanwhile, continued to dominate and devastate northern Mexico. Hämäläinen argues that the area had already been convulsed by the Indians when the US forces crossed the border in their 'manifest destiny' war in 1846, giving them the easiest of passages to Mexico City.
By some indices the Comanches reached the apex of their power at just the moment, in the 1840s, when they began to collide with the US expansion westwards. Actually, smallpox and other diseases had already brought the Comanche population down to 20,000. And a whole host of factors seriously weakened them even before they inevitably came to blows with white settlers and the US government. Essentially the Comanches were overstretching their resources and habitat. They were killing more than 280,000 bison a year - the maximum loss the herds could sustain without imploding - and at the very time the great drought of 1845-50 was exacerbating the situation. Even worse, bison and horses were in competition for the same pasture and water, and if the bison moved farther west to new grasslands, they found these occupied by the sheep and shepherds of New Mexico. On the other hand, if the Comanches cut their horse numbers, they also cut down their military capacity. As everyone except a handful of Native American fundamentalists now accepts, the bison herds were in terminal decline even before the arrival of white hunters. There had originally been seven million 'buffalo' on the southern plains but by the 1860s, before the frenzy of the white bison hunters, half of these had already been killed by the Indians. Put simply, by the end of the 1840s there were too many Comanches raising too many horses and hunting too many bison on too small a land base. The writing was on the wall in other ways, too. While Comanche numbers had declined to 10,000 by 1850, the population of white Texas rose from 140,000 in 1847 to 600,000 by 1860s. Meanwhile, Arapahos and Cheyennes, pushed west by the expanding power of the Lakota, began encroaching on the Comanche heartland.
The end came suddenly. Faced with a shortage of bison, having lost access to firearms, maize and garden produce, and been forced to relinquish control of the long-distance trade routes into Mexico and across the Great Plains, the Comanches began literally to starve to death and in their weakened state to become prey to cholera, smallpox and other deadly diseases. In this terminal crisis, at the end of the 1850s they were engaged in warfare on three fronts, against the Fox Indians, the Texas Rangers and the Spanish buffalo hunters of new Mexico. Driven out of Texas by 1859, the Comanches were abruptly handed a lifeline when the American Civil War erupted. By 1865, with Texas on the losing side, the end of the drought on the Great Plains and a short-lived increase in bison numbers, the Comanches were able to enjoy a (literal) Indian summer. A new era of raiding in Texas partially restored the Comanche position there; in two years of devastation Texas lost 4,000 horses, 30,000 cattle and hundreds of human lives. But in 1871 the United States finally unleashed its military might on the Comanches. The US Cavalry wore down the enemy by dogging them so that they had no time to pasture and tend horses, hunt buffalo, dry meats or prepare hides. The coup de grace came when white buffalo hunters poured onto the plains. In just two years they slaughtered 3.3 million bison. The once proud Comanches ended up on tacky Indian reservations.
Hämäläinen's book contains powerful scholarship, original insights and some intermittently excellent narrative writing, but is, sadly, marred by faults all too common in academe. The modern academic is compelled by peer pressure to write prose spangled with jargon, academy-speak and gobbledygook. I suppose Hämäläinen is not to blame, because if he wrote in plain English, instead of larding his text with the rebarbative language used by his colleagues, they would doubtless accuse him of being a mere journalist. And so we get totally unnecessary discussion of various academic models - differential spaces, cultural hegemons. At one point Hämäläinen defines a horse as 'a transportation device that compressed spacial units into conquerable size'. The author is also confused and confusing about bison. Although it is clear that the decrease in this animal's numbers underlay the decline and fall of the Comanches, Hämäläinen does not explain how, if 280,000 buffalo was the maximum annual number that could be taken from a total of seven million when the Comanche population was 20,000, the crisis point was not reached much earlier when the Comanches had twice that number of mouths to feed. Yet the worst fault remains the jargon.
Frank McLynn is the author of over twenty books. His most recent, 'Lionheart and Lackland', is available in paperback from Vintage.