Daily Archives: 12 May 2015

Comanches and the Spread of the Horse Frontier

From The Comanche Empire, by Pekka Hämäläinen (Yale U. Press, 2008), pp. 70-71:

A superb hunting niche framed by two major agricultural spheres—the Rio Grande valley and the southern prairies—the upper Arkansas was primed for commercial prominence. Comanches had capitalized on the Arkansas’ centrality since the 1740s, when they forged exchange ties with the Taovayas and the French in the east. From the 1760s on, however, Comanches increasingly focused their commercial activities to the northern and central plains, where the diffusion of horses had opened fresh commercial opportunities.

The spread of the horse frontier across the Great Plains revealed yet another natural advantage of the upper Arkansas basin: it marked the northern limit for intensive horse husbandry on the continental grasslands. The climate became increasingly adverse for horses above the Arkansas, turning noticeably harsher north of the Platte River and outright hostile above the Missouri. The long and cold northern winters took a heavy toll on foals and pregnant mares, and the vicious blizzards could literally freeze entire herds on their hooves. Such hardships kept most northern tribes chronically horse-poor: only a few groups beyond the Arkansas valley managed to acquire enough animals to meet basic hunting and transportation needs. To the south of the Arkansas, however, winters were considerably milder, posing few limitations on animal husbandry. This meant that western Comanches could raise horses with relative ease and then export them to a vast perennial deficit region—a prerogative that gave them trading power that was rivaled only by the Mandans’ and Hidatsas’ celebrated trading villages on the middle Missouri River.

As the various Native groups on the central and northern plains acquired their first horses around midcentury, they quickly began to look south to Comancheria to build up their herds. In the course of the 1760s and 1770s, western Comanches incorporated many of those groups into an expanding exchange circle. They opened trade relations with the Pawnees, Cheyennes, and Kiowas, who ranged on the western plains between the Arkansas River and the Black Hills, and with the Ponca, Kansa, and Iowa farmers along the lower Missouri, Kansas, and Des Moines rivers. Recent converts to equestrianism, all these groups coveted horses and were willing to travel hundreds of miles to the Arkansas valley to obtain them. They incorporated these trade journeys into their semiannual hunting expeditions, traveling along established trails that led from the Republican and Kansas rivers tot he Great Bend of the Arkansas, which was only a few days’ journey away from the Big Timbers, the favorite camping ground of western Comanches.

While extending their commercial reach into the northern plains, western Comanches continued to trade actively on other fronts. They visited the Taos fairs and restored the ties with the Wichitas that had been severed in 1757 when the Taovayas fled from the Arkansas River. Now traveling to western Comanchería from their new villages on the middle Rad and Brazos rivers, Taovayas traded garden produce as well as high-quality guns, which they obtained from wide-ranging British contraband traders operating out of the numerous British posts that emerged on the east bank of the Mississippi after 1763. As a dramatic example of the volume of this trade, a Taovaya trading party sold seventeen horseloads of guns to western Comanches in a single transaction in 1768. The three-way commerce among Comanches, Taovayas, and British thrived well into the 1770s. According to a 1776 Spanish account, western Comanches received quantities of rifles, pistols, munitions, iron hatchets, and metal utensils from Taovayas, who in turn acquired these goods from the lower Mississippi valley.

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Arms Race on the Great Plains, 18th c.

From The Comanche Empire, by Pekka Hämäläinen (Yale U. Press, 2008), pp. 72-73:

Initially, in the early eighteenth century, Comanches had been largely cut off from the burgeoning trade in European weaponry in the continent’s center. Large quantities of guns, lead, and metalware flowed onto the grasslands from the north and east, from the French and British outposts in Canada and the Mississippi valley. In contrast, the Spaniards in New Mexico and Texas were reluctant to sell guns to Indians, fearing that those guns might be turned against themselves if the Natives allied with France or Britain for an attack against Spanish colonies. This disparity in the pattern of diffusion gave the northern and eastern plains tribes a decisive military edge—something that Comanches painfully learned in their early wars with the Pawnees and Osages. But the rise of the upper Arkansas trade center allowed western Comanches to break free from the gun embargo. By channeling large numbers of horses to the northern and eastern Great Plains, they managed to create a substantial inflow of firearms. Alarmed Spanish officials reported as early as 1767 that the western Comanches were better armed than Spanish troops.

Before long, in fact, western Comanches accumulated such quantities of guns and other manufactured goods that they could start exporting them. Domingo Cabello y Robles, governor of Texas, reported in the 1780s that western Comanches sold guns, powder, balls, lances, cloth, pans, and large knives to their eastern relatives in the Texas plains, who in turn supplied western Comanches with horses and mules, some of which were traded to Wichitas, Pawnees, Cheyennes, Kiowas, Kansas, and Iowas. Moreover, in a reversal of the typical forms of colonial trade, western Comanches started to sell guns and other manufactures to Spanish New Mexico. Such a trade was first mentioned in 1760 by Bishop Pedro Tamarón y Romeral who wrote that Comanches sold muskets, shotguns, munitions, and knives at Taos. Fifteen years later the trade had become a routine. When visiting the town’s summer fair in 1776 Fray Francisco Atanasio Domínguez was struck by Comanches’ export stock, which included tin pots, hatchets, shot, powder, pistols, and “good guns.” The gun trade, Domínguez noted, had become established enough to be based on fixed rates. “If they sell a pistol, its price is a bridle.” In exchange for the precious manufactured items, Comanches received special equestrian and hunting gear, such as bridles and belduques, broad butchering knives, which were available only in New Mexico. Western Comanches, it seemed, were creating a multilevel commodity flow that furnished them with imported staples, such as maize and horses, as well as with more specialized manufactured products.

But the inverse trade in guns and other European commodities only hints at a much more profound shift in Comanche-Spanish relations: western Comanchería had begun to replace New Mexico as the paramount economic, political, and military power in the Southwest.

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