Review: The Comanche Empire

I don’t know much at all about the history of the American Southwest despite living in the region (broadly construed). I know the basic outline of Northeastern history much better.  I have been trying to improve this and when Patrick Wyman’s Tides Of History Book Club recommended Pekka Hamalainen’s  The Comanche Empire, I decided to pick it up.

Hamalainen sets out to upset readers conception of the Comanches.  In my case, that is easy – I don’t know much about them beyond recognizing them as Western Movie villains. My very limited understanding the history of this domain was informed by the conflicts between Spain, Mexico, France, and the US. Those players are here, of course, but most of the traditional narrative only recognizes the Natives as weather conditions.  Empire makes the situation clearer by animating the Comanches.

The traditional narrative of the region has gaps that become more visible as one considers them.  Some of those gaps include the factors that made Texas ripe for splitting from Spain and Mexico.  Why and how is Northern Mexico such easy pickings in the Mexican War?  What in the world is the story in New Mexico?  The answer to all of those is not “Comanches.”  But answers that don’t face the facts about the extent and power of these Natives are confusing and incomplete.  Empire fills in the negative space in the historical narrative.

The Comanches are interesting in their own right as well.  They are a powerful geopolitical player, as I mentioned above. The group  is also interesting in terms of their internal nearly federated government style.  Multiple loosely cooperating clans who share tribal customs and values are capable of combining efforts to remake their society and act effectively against technically more advanced states.

The Empire exists because they can change their way of life to move into the great plains, but they disappear as much because they cannot sustain the new style than because they are defeated in battle.  Explosive population growth without carefully husbanding resources – in this case horses and bison – failed catastrophically.  This is a cautionary tale worth significant ruminations.

The Comanches also traded in and supported themselves with slaves.  This was certainly a second fuse burning in their society, though the ecological failures seem to have gotten them first.

Overall Empire is an accessible introduction to a fascinating people.


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