Tuesday, August 7, 2012
Pekka Hämäläinen, The Comanche Empire
The Comanche Empire is also, I thought, remarkably even-handed. The history of Indian-white relations is bitterly political, but maybe we have made some progress here, too. Histories written before 1960 usually showed Indians as obstacles to the inevitable white expansion, alternatively bestial or tragic. Then came the weeping stage, with books like Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee laying out at length the crimes of white men. Now, maybe, we can have histories that try to describe and explain what actually happened instead of weighing in for one side or the other. Hämäläinen says that his goal was to "restore agency" to Indians, that is, to show how they acted, and why, when confronted by white imperialists. He does a magnificent job.
The Comanche acquired horses and migrated onto the plains just after 1700, and by 1730 they were appearing regularly in Spanish colonial documents. Like the Iroquois in the northeast, they were able to use their position between colonial empires -- Spanish and French, then Spanish and British, then Spanish and American -- to carve out an Indian empire of their own. From the beginning their history on the plains was one of war and conquest. They began by driving the Apaches from the plains, in alliance with the Utes, then turned against the Utes and drove them off, too. They made alliances and broke them, launched wars and made peace, used a combination of trading and raiding to extract so many horses, mules, and captives from Texas that by the 1820s they had nearly destroyed the colony. It was this collapse, brought on by the Comanche, that led the Mexican leaders of Texas to open their borders to unlimited Anglo settlement, sealing their fate. The Comanches were not just victims of imperialism, but actors who shaped their own destiny.
See here for more on this material.)
The collapse of the Comanche state happened with stunning speed. I had always thought, rather naively, that populations of plains buffalo held up pretty well until white commercial hunters came along and slaughtered them. Not so. The Comanche way of life pushed the plains ecosystem to its limits. Not only were they killing unsustainable numbers of buffalo, their huge herds of horses competed with the buffalo for scarce winter forage in the river valleys, and herds of wild horses competed for grazing in the mountains. Comanche diplomacy worsened the situation, since they often granted tribal allies hunting rights on the plains as part of peace treaties. Eventually, more than a dozen allied tribes and even some Spanish New Mexicans were allowed to hunt on the plains. A severe drought in 1845 to 1850 brought on a terrible subsistence crisis. The Comanche were reduced to eating their horses and even making their clothes and tipis from horse skins. It was just at this time that the Comanches were trying to fight off an invasion of settlers from Texas, and in the midst of their famine they could not resist. They lost their precious unity, and some groups made peace while others tried to make war. They lost their allies and their power was broken.
The story of the Comanche is one that I am glad to know. It informs my understanding of American history in new ways. Hämäläinen's book tells this story well, if with a few too many words and a bit much jargon, and he shows the potential of the historian's new tools to rewrite major pieces of our past.