Home / General / This Day in Labor History: September 28, 1874

This Day in Labor History: September 28, 1874


On September 28, 1874, the U.S. military defeated the Comanche in Palo Duro Canyon, south of modern Amarillo, Texas, largely by stealing their horse herds. This forced the Comanche to the reservations where they had refused to live by taking away the technology that defined their lives and their work. This was essentially the end of an entire way of labor for the Comanche and indicative of the importance of work to the conquest of Native Americans.

The Comanche were, up until the late 17th century, a relatively small tribe living primarily in Colorado and Kansas. This all changed with the advent of the horse. The Spanish had introduced horses into North America when they defeated the Aztecs after 1519. It became clear to Native Americans very quickly the huge advantage for both battle and work that horses could provide. The horses began moving north, largely following Spanish colonial expansion, but increasingly from horse thefts. That the Spanish largely left the horses to roam on their own made that easier. Certain indigenous cultures began valuing them for work and for war, others less so. One that truly committed to horse pastoralism was the Comanches, a group that split off from the Shoshones around 1500. The first time they appear in the written record was in 1706 when the Spanish recorded a group called the Comanches attacking Puebloan peoples.

The Comanches, like other peoples after them such as the Lakota, Cheyenne, and Crow, made a conscious decision to change their life and work cultures upon the acquisition of large horse populations. They became horse cultures, with this technology redefining their work, culture, and social structure. The horse allowed the Comanches to commit full-time to bison hunting, warfare, and raiding to replenish their population lost in war. But they weren’t operating in a vacuum. Like many indigenous peoples, the Comanche took to the Euro-American market economy keenly, seeking to offer their goods–bison skins–in exchange for the other things they needed, including guns, the food they no longer grew because they were in constant motion, pots, horses, etc. They also traded horses for these things, as their growing skills in horse-breeding made then desirable by everyone they traded with, including the Native Americans peoples to the north who began to do much the same as the Comanche had become horse cultures.

A new, gendered system of work developed with the transition to horses. By 1750, Comanche herds had grown large enough that they began moving around specifically to care for them. This meant they needed a large territory strictly for horse foraging, especially because the lack of water and need for wintering grounds limited the number of destinations that could sustain large herds, even for a short time. They began to look more like the Mongolians than other tribes in the United States. As is common in pastoral societies, strongly gendered notions of work developed. The daily herding of the horses was the world of teenage boys. Each boy, according to an 1849 account of a Comanche village, herded about 150 horses, with the most valuable of them rounded up each evening for a night watch and the others left to roam. Men were responsible for the decisions around the pastoral economy, such as when to move. They also were the warriors, which they saw specifically as an act of production, fueling a market-oriented pastoral economy with the necessary raw materials of horses, women, and children.


George Catlin painting of Comanches hunting bison

The status of women declined in Comanche society with the new emphasis on war and horses, both male realms. Women were responsible for raising children, cooking, processing bison meat, and constructing tipis. That grew to processing the bison skins for the Euro-American market and helping out with the horse herds. The practice of polygyny, a marriage system where men have multiple wives, grew rapidly with the horses as wealthy men began to acquire large horse herds and then needed women to process the bison and herding. In other words, marriage became a way to enlarge the labor pool (observers at the time noted that these wives were really servants) as well as introduced a sort of class-based division into Comanche society, as obviously not all men could do this. In many ways, Comanche polygyny and Southern slavery both were responses to labor shortages arising from market production that rested upon patriarchal systems that reduced women to objects of male honor and militarism. Of course, the Comanche also took slaves, and although their system of slavery was much more fluid than the chattel slavery of the South, it was brutal nonetheless (rape and torture with the intent of destroying their will and American/Spanish/Indian cultures and making them docile workers) and again was related in part to their entrance into the market.


George Catlin painting of a Comanche village, 1834

This new culture made the Comanche the dominant empire on the 18th and early 19th century Great Plains. At their height, around 1850, the Comanchería extended from the edge of the southern Rockies into central Texas and central Kansas. They raided much further, especially into Mexico, where they frequently went as far south as Durango to take captives and horses. This went far to shape the region. The Spanish and then the Mexicans wanted to move north but could not defeat the Comanches. The need for a buffer zone helped convince Mexico to invite Americans into Texas, who then became the victims of Comanche raiding. But the lack of Mexican settlement meant that the U.S. could easily take the northern half of Mexico during the Mexican War. But they then had to conquer the Comanches, which was extremely difficult. As late as 1860, white expansion in Texas was quite limited due to Comanche raiding.

This system of work and culture made the Comanches very difficult for the American military to defeat. To do so, post-Civil War military planners went to a more sophisticated strategy developed in the second half of that war by generals such as Ulysses Grant, William Tecumseh Sherman, and Philip Sheridan: total warfare. Rather than defeat these small, fast bands, undermining their way of life through the American industrial machine made more sense. Thus, the military decided to exterminate the bison. Bison populations plummeted in the years after the war, starting with the southern herds that sustained the Comanche economy and moving north. Market hunting was a piece of it, but this was a military strategy first and foremost. Without the bison and the work in hunting, processing, and trading them, the Comanche could not sustain itself. The second part of this strategy was to take away the Comanche’s horses, the transportation tool that facilitated this way of life. This strategy was tremendously successful, albeit increasingly controversial as the 1870s went on and total warfare against Native Americans outraged eastern reformers. Starvation and warfare decimated Comanche numbers, reducing them to about 8000 by 1870. They began relying on the U.S. government for rations, giving the U.S. much power over them. They refused to stay on the reservations that developed in the late 1860 and early 1870s, but leaving also brought warfare that was harder for the Comanche to sustain with the decline in bison, horses, and people. Finally, after the battle in Palo Duro Canyon, isolated badlands in the Texas panhandle, the Comanche largely moved to the reservations for good. The bison were gone anyway.

Undermining traditional ways of work would remain central to the post-conquest strategy of dealing with Native Americans. The Dawes Act of 1887 served to both alienate reservation land from Indians while also forcing them into the subsistence farming lifestyle white Americans had decided was appropriate for Native Americans. By 1920, there were only 1500 Comanche left in the wake of the destruction of their culture through conquest, land dispossession, Indian schools, and the despair all of this created. Like most other tribes however, Comanche numbers grew after that and continue to grow today, although with a very different set of cultural traditions and work life than that of the past.

I borrowed liberally from Pekka Hämäläinen’s prize winning book The Comanche Empire in writing this post. You should read this book.

This is the 159th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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  • Erik, your entire TDILH series is great, but this one was extraordinarily good.

  • Dr. Ronnie James, DO

    Second what Dana said. Thanks for the book rec as well.

  • Comanche Empire is indeed an outstanding book. It was a book I read very slowly, partly to digest what it said and partly to postpone completing it, prolonging the pleasure of reading it. The only issue I had with the book was the paucity of maps. I live right in the region the book describes and I know well all the geographical features it describes. But it can be tough sledding for readers who don’t have that geographical sense of the region. So get a big map of West Texas and New Mexico when you read it.

    • Barry Freed

      Read it too. An incredible book.

    • celticdragonchick

      I read that one also. I was left with the impression that war with the Comanche was always going to be inevitable given the really horrific raiding practices of the Comanche (a bit like Dark Ages Vikings, but on horseback) as opposed to the completely unnecessary war we provoked against the Oglala and Lakota Sioux.

      The descriptions of rape and torture of female captives taken by the Comanche(of whatever race they happened upon) were some really difficult and wrenching fare to get through. Also, this was utterly at odds with how Native Americans on the east coast treated women.

      Women were often killed in raids during the Colonial period, but rape was unheard of. There are no mentions of sexual assault on female captives from native American men in the eastern tribes. Indeed, most, if not all of the written documents from women who were taken captive mention that their fear of rape was unfounded. While privation and hard work were constant companions, sexual assault simply was not part of the culture.

      Any English woman finding herself brought alive to a Huron or Cherokee village would generally find herself treated much like the other women in time, and Native American judgments on the ultimate disposition of their white prisoners could read like something from King Solomon…in one recorded instance from the mid 18th Century, a white female captive was ordered to stand in for the dead brother of a woman in the tribe. He had been killed in action by colonial militia (presumably) and when his sister made her demand in council, the captive woman was told that since her people had killed the woman’s sibling, she must now act as a sister. This was taken quite seriously. She was now expected to be a family member in all respects and both sides had to hold to it. She later wrote in memoirs that French (I think) traders at an outpost were suspicious of her and began to ask questions of why an obviously English woman was with the tribe. Her adoptive sister became so alarmed at the questions that she found herself being quickly taken back to a canoe and evacuated from the area before anything could come of it.

      • witlesschum

        The idea of returning captives was always a huge stumbling block among the eastern natives, because they were so big on adopting people and having those people become full members of the nation. They usually would only do it basically at gunpoint, like after the Battle of Bushy Run during Pontiac’s War, etc. Of course, some of them didn’t ever want to go back, even if they’d been subjected to brutality in their kidnapping. Colonial writers would apparently wring their hands about this from time to time, including Benjamin Franklin, at the idea that some white people would prefer to remain “savages.”

        You have to think these ideas were heavily affected by all the epidemics that swept across eastern North America. So many groups would have broken down and reformed into some of the nations we know from written history, nobody who had a hardcore purist notion of whom got to be a Huron would have been listened to.

        • celticdragonchick

          Of course, some of them didn’t ever want to go back, even if they’d been subjected to brutality in their kidnapping.

          A number of colonial women after Pontiac’s War and the “French and Indian War” opted to stay with Native American people rather than be taken back to the colonies. This was largely due to actually being treated better and with more respect by their ostensible captors who honestly thought women should have an opinion on matters and should be heard.

          A good source on differing views of female equality during the American Revolution is Revolutionary Mothers: Women in the Struggle for America’s Independence by Carol Berkley. Chapter 7 is of particular interest as you learn of the amazement that Cherokees had when a treaty they struck with the Americans would not be taken to be ratified by the American women…”How could a treaty be signed if the women of (their) world did not give their consent?”

        • Ahuitzotl

          I would assume the many? tribes that didnt adopt freely and easily, depopulated quite briskly and disappeared

  • Coconinoite

    Double ditto. Quite a good read. I also enjoyed Gwynne’s Empire of the Summer Moon – mostly about Quanah Parker, the last Comanche chief.

    • Barry Freed

      Empire of the Summer Moon was a pretty good read for popular non-fiction but I found it odd that Hämäläinen’s definitive work was not consulted or at least cited and it had come out just a year or two before.

  • Thom

    Though it makes sense that women’s status declined as the labor became more gender-differentiated and the group was increasingly market-oriented, I would be cautious of the “wives were servants” narrative. Analogizing from African history (where polygyny is ubiquitous as a cultural norm), this sort of understanding of polygyny often comes from accounts by missionaries, travelers, and outside officials who are promoting a particular gender and marriage ideal. If marriage were just about obtaining labor, men would simply obtain slaves and would marry only slaves. I haven’t read the book, though, and it sounds very much like I should. Thanks for yet another very interesting post.

    • Well, one major criticism of the book is that the gender stuff is pretty seriously underanalyzed. In fact, that’s probably the biggest problem with it. So I wouldn’t be surprised if he oversimplifies it significantly. And he does draw a lot on white accounts for his evidence as well.

      • DrDick

        There is a fairly significant body of work on the impact of the horse on gender roles and status among the Plains tribes. An excellent early work on this is The Hidden Half. Patricia Albers has also done some excellent work on this.

  • DrDick

    Speaking as a Native Americanist, bravo for this. There is a massive literature in anthropology on the impact of the horse on Native societies in North America. It is also worth noting that the Comanche also played a major role in expanding the Spanish colonial mining and later agricultural and ranching frontier by acting as slave traders. This was actually the primary purpose of most of the taking of captives, who were sold to the Spanish (and included many northern Mexicans). Thomas Cavannaugh’s The Comanches is also quite good, as is John C. Ewer’s The Horse in Blackfeet Culture. John Moore’s Cheyenne Nation also deals with this quite well. Frank Secoy’s Changing Military Patterns of the Great Plains Indians is a classic on the role of the horse in transforming warfare on the Plains.

    • Ronan

      Have you read anne hyde’s ’empires nations and families ? ‘

      • DrDick

        I have not. If you are interested, there is a wonderful book on the role of Indian women in the fur trade, Many Tender Ties.

        • Ronan

          Ive put the Van Kirk book on the wishlist, thanks. (Ive had Hydes book on my kindle for a year now and am trying to work up a head of steam to get through it.)

  • divadab

    Very interesting post – illuminating a real gap in the official histories.

    Interesting that the domestication of the horse enabled the INdo-european expansions of the chalcolithic and bronze ages. An expansion that was checked and pushed back when the turkic and mongol peoples adopted the same mobile herding and warrior social organization.

    Vedic cultures, which are the last preserve of indo-european religious beliefs and practices – (our own cultures having been forcibly converted to Christianity and to a lesser extent Islam) – still celebrate the festival of the chariots, a re-enactment of the technology that allowed expansion onto the INdian sub-continent.

    • Origami Isopod

      As I read Erik’s post I was also thinking about the Indo-Europeans and their horses and their patriarchal culture. (I don’t know how much credence I give writers like Gimbutas, who IIRC claimed that the lands they conquered were all peaceful matriarchies beforehand; it sounds too much like a feminist Eden myth to me.)

      • divadab

        Ya I think Gimbutas gets the time scale wrong too – Indo-european IMHO has a deeper timescale to its spread than she gives credit. A branch of the IE’s got horses and expanded east and west (mostly seeking copper and trading) – but many did not – the ancient Greeks were horrified to see “Centaurs” approaching as they had never seen men on horseback before.

        And the “Old Europe” hypothesis does not account for the Celtic nature of the Atlantic bronze age pre-dating the central-european bronze age. IE peoples must have spread by ship also.

        I like the idea of the IE urheimat being around the drowned shores of the Black sea – which flooded at around 6000 bc as the post-glacial sea level rose 200 feet or so. Some moved north by land into the eurasion steppe and took up horses; some were already in Asia Minor – Hittites, eg.; many took to the waves and migrated by ship to the northern mediterranean, and on to what is now Spain and Portugal (home of the Beaker culture), Brittany, Britain, and the Low countries.

        IE peoples were certainly responsible for the spread of bronze technology to a vast swathe of the planet from Ireland to China. Now, this may also have been the beginning of the arms race….

        Idle speculations in my spare time…..these were my ancestors, after all.

        • DrDick

          Now we are wandering into fantasy land. China was one of the earliest adopters of bronze technology, well before the IE expansions. It is pretty clear that the proto-Indo-Europeans were likely responsible for the Kurgan Cultures of Central Asia and are ancestral to the modern Uighur in China (along with Mongols and others), as well as a number of other groups in the region.

        • Lee Rudolph

          The definitive work on the Hittites, written by Charles Simic before he got respectably boring (it was originally published in kayak in the late 1960s or early 1970s):


          Concerning My Neighbors, the Hittites

          Great are the Hittites.
          Their ears have mice and mice have holes.
          Their dogs bury themselves and leave the bones
          To guard the house. A single weed holds all their storms
          Until the spiderwebs spread over the heavens.
          There are bits of straw in their lakes and rivers
          Looking for drowned men. When a camel won’t pass
          Through the eye of one of their needles,
          They tie a house to its tail. Great are the Hittites.
          Their fathers are in cradles, their newborn make war.
          To them lead floats, a leaf sinks. Their god is the size
          Of a mustard seed so that he can be quickly eaten.

          They also piss against the wind,
          Pour water in a leaky bucket.
          Strike two tears to make fire,
          And have tongues with bones in them,
          Bones of a wolf gnawed by lambs.


          They are also called mound builders,
          They are called Asiatic horses
          That will drink on the Rhine, they are called
          My grandmother’s fortune-telling, they are called
          You can’t take it to the grave with you.

          It’s that hum in your left ear,
          A sigh coming from deep within you,
          A dream in which you keep falling forever,
          The hour in which you sit up in bed
          As though someone has shouted your name.

          No one knows why the Hittites exist,
          Still, when two are whispering
          One of them is listening.

          Did they catch the falling knife?
          They caught it like a fly with closed mouths.
          Did they balance the last egg?
          They struck the egg with a bone so it won’t howl.
          Did they wait for dead man’s shoes?
          The shoes went in at one ear and out the other.
          Did they wipe the blood from their mousetraps?
          They burnt the blood to warm themselves.
          Are they cold with no pockets in their shrouds?
          If the sky falls, they shall have clouds for supper.

          What do they have for us
          To put in our pipes and smoke?
          They have the braid of a beautiful girl
          That drew a team of cattle
          And the engraving of him who slept
          With dogs and rose with fleas
          Searching for its trace in the sky.


          And so there are fewer and fewer of them now.
          Who wrote their name on paper
          And burnt the paper? Who put snake bones
          In their pillows? Who threw nail parings
          In their soup? Who made them walk
          Under the ladder? Who stuck pins
          In their snapshots?

          The wart of warts and his brother evil eye.
          Bone-lazy and her sister rabbit’s-foot.
          Cross-your-fingers and their father dog star.
          Knock-on-wood and his mother hellfire.

          Because the tail can’t wag the cow.
          Because the woods can’t fly to the dove.
          Because the stones haven’t said their last word.
          Because dunghills rise and empires fall.


          They are leaving behind
          All the silver spoons
          Found inside their throats at birth,
          A hand they bit because it fed them,

          Two rats from a ship that is still sinking,
          A collection of various split hairs,
          The leaf they turned over too late.


          All that salt cast over the shoulder,
          All that bloody meat traveling under the saddles of nomads …

          Here comes a forest in wolf’s clothing,
          The wise hen bows to the umbrella.

          When the bloodshot evening meets the bloodshot night,
          They tell each other bloodshot tales.

          That bare branch over them speaks louder than words.
          The moon is worn threadbare.

          I repeat: lean days don’t come singly,
          It takes all kinds to make the sun rise.

          The night is each man’s castle.
          Don’t let the castle out of the bag.

          Wind in the valley, wind in the high hills,
          Practice will make this body fit this bed.


          May all roads lead
          Out of a sow’s ear
          To what’s worth
          Two in the bush.

      • DrDick

        I would not give it any credence at all.

        • Ahuitzotl


  • Bruce Vail

    So was the ferocity of the Comanche raiders responsible for their nasty reputation in Hollywood?

    I’m thinking ‘The Searchers’ in particular, but it seems that the Comanche are often depicted as especially bad.

    • DrDick

      I think it may be more the large number of people in Southern California who were from the regions where the Comanche raided. They had a very profitable trade in slaves and livestock in northern Mexico, mostly acquired in the Southern Plains, Southwest, and further north in Mexico.

    • Well, the Comanches’ reputation was certainly well-earned, let’s put it that way.

      • DrDick

        In no small part owing to their success in their business ventures, which allowed them to acquire state of the art guns.

    • witlesschum

      I think John Ford just liked portraying Texas, though he wished it looked more like Monument Valley, and the Comanches were the boogeyman of Texas, though in this case the boogeyman was pretty much real.

      • DrDick

        My favorite example of that I the Rooster Cogburn movies, aet in southeast Oklahoma, but filmed in Monument valley. The first time I saw one was at a drive in in SE OK with a bunch of anthro students. We kept looking at the screen and then looking around us at the actual scenery they were naming and howling with laughter.

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