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.
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