Posts Tagged ‘Great Plains’

The rise and fall of the Comanche empire

August 4, 2014

I recently finished a remarkable book, Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History, by S.C. Gwynne, a Texas newspaperman.

He told a story that is compelling in itself, and raises important questions about how we think of the American past.

empire-of-the-summer-moon200The Comanche were some of the fiercest warriors who ever lived.  Numbering only 20,000 at their peak, they dominated the southern Great Plains for 150 years or more.  They terrorized other Indian tribes, including the Apache, and they repeatedly defeated the armies of Spain, Mexico, the Texas Republic and the United States.

The Comanche were originally a obscure tribe of hunter-gatherers, pursuing the buffalo while afoot in what is now eastern Wyoming.  Their life was transformed by their encounter with wild Spanish mustangs.  Seemingly overnight, they became master horsemen.

The transformation is an example of the adaptability of human nature and a refutation of the recurring notion that the customs of different ethnic groups are genetically determined—unless you assume that the Comanche had a latent horsemanship gene all along.

A six-year-old Comanche could ride bareback.  A young warrior could slip off a galloping horse, handing on by a heel behind the horse’s body while shooting 20 arrows a minute at an enemy.  Comanche could ride hundreds of miles in a day.  No enemy, Indian or white, could match their range or, until the invention of the Colt revolver and Spencer and Sharp repeating rifle, their firepower.

The Comanches were anarchists—masters of the art of not being governed.  No Comanche ever took orders from a Comanche policeman, judge, priest or employer.   Comanche war chiefs were chosen by consensus and followed voluntarily.  No Comanche chief had the power to command another Comanche to obey.

They were savagely cruel.  They raped, tortured, mutilated and killed their enemies, both Indian and white.  While this was the practice of many North American tribes, it also was Comanche policy.  The Comanche realized that terrorism was a deterrent to the spread of white settlement.

The reason the Mexican government invited Anglo-American settlers into their territories was to serve as a buffer between the Comanches and Mexico proper.   These settlers became the Texans, who were the fiercest of the white settlers, as the Comanche were the fiercest of the Plains Indians.

The Texans also were brutal by today’s standards.  But then again, by their standards, people like me are weak and cowardly.  By the standards of today, both settlers and Indians possessed astonishing fortitude and courage.   I do not believe that I could stand up to hardship, pain and danger that they took for granted.

Humanitarianism was not a Comanche concept.  The only Spaniard who dealt successfully with them was Don Juan Bautista de Anza, governor of New Mexico, who in 1779 led an expedition into Comanche territory and wiped out a Comanche village—men, women and children—and then called a council of peace.

He offered to respect the Comanche right to their hunting grounds and to engage in trade, if they would refrain from raiding New Mexico.  This agreement was kept as long as the Comanche were a free people.  Under Spanish, Mexican and U.S. rule, New Mexico were safe from Comanche attack, and Spanish-speaking traders out of Santa Fe, known as Comancheros, were the only non-Comanche who could travel safely to Comanche lands.

It was impossible to defeat them until the invention of the Colt revolver and the Sharp and Spencer repeating rifle, which gave the Texas Rangers and the U.S. cavalry overwhelmingly superior firepower.  Even so, the Comanche held out for decades more.


Sub-zero on the Great Plains

December 23, 2011

Wonders of time-lapse photography

June 18, 2011