Horses : Comanches :: Ships, Guns, Gold : Europeans

From The Comanche Empire, by Pekka Hämäläinen (Yale U. Press, 2008), pp. 240, 245:

The horse was to Comanches what ships, guns, and gold were to European imperial powers—a transportation device that compressed spatial units into conquerable size, an instrument of war that allowed them to wield much more power than their numbers would have suggested, and a coveted commodity around which a trading empire could be built. During their imperial ascendancy and dominance in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the Comanches owned nearly four horses per capita, a number that attests to a flourishing herding economy. Basic hunting and transportation needs on the grasslands required an average of one horse per person: a Comanche household of ten needed two running horses for hunting, raiding, and warfare; three or four pack horses (or mules) to transport the tipi and household belongings, and four to six animals for the women and children. Although most plains societies faced constant difficulties in meeting the minimum requirements of one horse per capita, the Comanches possessed an average of nearly three extra animals per person, or some thirty surplus animals per family. In absolute numbers, this meant huge reservoirs of surplus livestock. Numbering between 30,000 and 40,000 in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the Comanches may have possessed between 90,000 and 120,000 excess animals.

Comanches needed these enormous numbers in part because horses were such an uncertain form of wealth. They always lost animals during cold seasons. and the damages were especially if a harsh winter was followed by a dry spring, which prolonged the deficiency of water and vital nutrients over several months. Enemy raiders, wolves, and parasites preyed on their herds, and when hunting failed, Comanches routinely subsisted on horseflesh, making inroads into their own herds. But the principal purpose of large animal surpluses was commercial. For more than a century, Comanchería operated as a trade pump that moved thousands of horses and mules each year to the central, northern, and eastern Great Plains and across the Mississippi valley into Louisiana, Missouri, and beyond. A large section of the midcontinent relied on Comanchería for animal imports, and the Comanches needed vast surpluses to satisfy that demand….

Comanches relied almost solely on raiding during the early stages of their horse acquisition, but in time they became skillful horse breeders who could generate a sustained domestic increase in herd sizes and manipulate the endurance, speed, size, and color of their animals. They produced horses with distinct qualities for warfare, hunting, and hauling and recognized at least seventeen types of horses based on color alone. De Mézières observed in 1778 that the Comanches had become “skillful in the management of the horse, to the raising of which they devote themselves,” and by the early nineteenth century Comanche horses and mules were generally considered to be of better quality than Spanish or Mexican stock. “Their wealth consisted of horses and mules, those raised by themselves are generally of superior order,” one observer wrote, noting that whereas Comanches willingly sold their stolen Mexican stock, their “fine horses they could scarcely be induced to sell.” Theodore Ayrault Dodge, a U.S. Army officer who traveled widely in the West and visited Comanchería in the mid-nineteenth century, wrote: “In one particular the Comanche is noteworthy. He knows more about a horse and horse-breeding than any other Indian. He is particularly wedded to and apt to ride a pinto (‘painted’ or piebald) horse, and never keeps any but a pinto stallion. He chooses his ponies well, and shows more good sense in breeding than one would give him credit for. The corollary to this is that the Comanche is far less cruel to his beasts, and though he begins to use them as yearlings, the ponies often last through many years.”

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Filed under economics, migration, North America

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