Depleting the Bison Herds before Buffalo Bill, 1830–1860

From The Comanche Empire, by Pekka Hämäläinen (Yale U. Press, 2008), pp. 294-297:

It has been estimated that full-time plains hunters needed a yearly average of 6.5 bison per person for food, shelter, and clothing, which means that the Comanches and their allies were killing approximately 175,000 buffalos a year for subsistence alone. Moreover, although first and foremost horse traders, Comanches also produced bison robes, meat, and tallow for the market. In the early nineteenth century, their commercial harvest probably rarely exceeded 25,000 animals, but their hunting practices seriously aggravated the damage. Like most Plains Indians, Comanches did their market hunting in winter, when the robes were the thickest and most valuable, and they preferred killing two- to five-year-old cows for their thin, easily processed skins. Since bison cows produce their first calves at the age of three or four and their gestation period usually extends from mid-July to early April, Comanches slaughtered disproportionate numbers of pregnant cows, thus impairing the herds’ reproductive capacity.

Making matters worse, Comanches’ commercial ambitions induced them to open their hunting grounds to outsiders. For much of the eighteenth century, Comanches had restricted outsiders’ access to their hunting ranges, but that environmental policy became increasingly difficult to maintain as their trading links multiplied. One by one, they disposed of the neutral buffer zones skirting Comanchería, inadvertently depriving the bison of their crucial sanctuaries. Particularly inauspicious in this respect was the 1835 Treaty of Camp Holmes, in which Comanches granted the Osages and the populous immigrant tribes of Indian Territory access to their lands in exchange for trading privileges. Discouraged by the poor lands of Indian Territory, Cherokees, Chickasaws, Choctaws, and Creeks—all numerous groups—embarked on active bison hunting, and many Delaware, Shawnee, and Kickapoo bands became specialized hunters. Together with the Osages, the removed Indians did most of their hunting in the prime bison range between the upper Canadian and Red rivers, in the heart of eastern Comanchería. By 1841 the region’s bison populations were thinning rapidly.

At the same time on Comanchería’s western edge, ciboleros, the New Mexican bison hunters who had won hunting privileges in Comanchería in the aftermath of the 1786 Spanish-Comanche treaty, made animal hunting expeditions to the Llano Estacado, harvesting an estimated 23,000 animals per season. Even more pressure fell on the bison herds with the peace of 1840 among Comanches, Kiowas, Naishans, Cheyennes, and Arapahoes, which unlocked northern Comanchería for Cheyenne and Arapaho hunters, who embarked on a large-scale robe trade at Bent’s Fort and probably harvested a large portion of them in Comanchería. In all, in the early 1840s tens of thousands of Comanchería’s bison died every year in the hands of people not living in the region.

The combined toll of Comanches’ and their allies’ subsistence and market hunting probably neared, and in some years exceeded, the sustainable yearly rate of killing of 280,000, placing Comanchería’s bison herds on a precarious balance. This balance was rendered even shakier by the Comanches’ burgeoning horse herding economy. Horses and bison have an 80 percent dietary overlap and very similar water requirements, which makes them ecologically incompatible species. Even more critically, both animals could survive the harsh winters of the plains only by retreating into river valleys, which provided reliable shelter against the cold, and cottonwood for emergency food. But suitable riverine habitats were becoming increasingly scarce. To meet the expansive grazing needs of their growing domestic herds, Comanches had turned more and more bottomland niches into herding range, gradually congesting Comanchería’s river valleys. By the mid-nineteenth century, huge winter camps and horse herds could be seen stretching for dozens of miles along key wintering sites, covering the prime foraging and watering spots, and forcing the bison to retreat to poorer areas.

Most such areas were at the headwaters of major rivers and far from Comanches’ principal hunting and wintering grounds, but when the bison gravitated toward these perpheral habitats, they were blocked there as well. Southern Comanchería near the Texas frontier was the home for massive herds of wild horses, which had virtually taken over the region’s river valleys and resources. On the western portion of the Llano Estacado, at the headwaters of the Canadian, Red, and Brazos rivers and their tributaries, the bison had to compete for grass, water, and shelter with thousands of sheep driven there each winter by New Mexican herders, pastores. Perhaps most disastrously, freighting along the Santa Fe Trail grew into a large-scale industry in the early 1840s. A typical trade caravan consisted of some two dozen freight wagons and several hundred oxen and mules, and each year hundreds of such caravans trekked back and forth along the Arkansas corridor, destroying vegetation, polluting springs, accelerating erosion, and driving out the bison from their last ecological niches in the valley. It is also possible that the traders’ livestock introduced anthrax, brucellosis, and other bovine diseases to the bison herds….

In 1845 a long and intense dry spell struck Comanchería. The rains resumed briefly around 1850, but the drought returned and lasted in varying degrees until the mid-1860s. As the rains failed or came only as drizzles, springs, ponds, and creeks dried up and rivers shrank to trickles….

Although an unexpected climatic swing brought on the bison crisis, the Comanches’ actions had contributed to the shortage. By monopolizing the river basins for their horses, by slaughtering vast numbers of bison for subsistence and for trade, and by opening their hunting grounds to outsiders, Comanches had critically undercut the viability of the bison population, rendering it vulnerable to ecological reversals.

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New Mexico as Comanche Tributary

From The Comanche Empire, by Pekka Hämäläinen (Yale U. Press, 2008), pp. 211-213:

The 1830s also saw the escalation of the comanchero trade into a major economic institution that wedded New Mexico’s economy firmly to that of Comanchería and inescapably pulled the province further apart from the rest of Mexico. This expansion of the comanchero trade stemmed from changing geopolitics in Comanchería: western Comanches had temporarily lost their control of the lucrative upper Arkansas trade center to the invading Cheyenne-Arapaho-American bloc and turned to New Mexico as an alternative source of crucial imports. New Mexicans seized the opportunity, and the 1830s and early 1840s saw comancheros making regular annual trips into Comanchería, traveling along well-marked trails, and bringing in guns, powder, scrapes, brown sugar, corn, wheat tortillas, and specially baked hard bread. In return for the all important weapons and foodstuffs, Comanches offered bison robes, bear skins, and, above all, horses and mules, which were in high demand among the New Mexicans who had embarked on a large-scale overland trade with the United States. Comancheros, many of them genízaros [slaves, etymologically related to janissary] with strong cultural ties to Comanchería, had few qualms with doing business in stolen animals with Mexican brands. By decade’s end, Comanches routinely used New Mexico as an outlet for war spoils taken elsewhere in northern Mexico. …

By now, New Mexico had distanced itself from Mexico City to a point where its political ties to Comanchería began to seem tighter. In 1844 a Comanche delegation visited Santa Fe and told Mariano Martínez, now governor of New Mexico, that three hundred Comanche warriors were about to invade Chihuahua. Instead of trying to pressure the chiefs to call off the raid, Martínez sent them away with presents and dispatched a letter warning his counterpart in Chihuahua of the imminent assault. A year later New Mexico’s administrators refused yet another call for a general campaign against the Comanches, making their disassociation from Mexico City and its Indian policy complete. In their efforts to protect the vulnerable province—and their own positions within it—New Mexican elites had been forced to choose between appeasing one of two imperial cores and, in more cases than not, they chose Comanchería.

Viewed in context, the story of Mexican New Mexico becomes a dramatic counterpoint to that of Mexican Texas. Whereas Texas violently dismembered itself from Mexico starting in 1835, New Mexico remained within the Mexican fold until the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848. The Chimayó Rebellion [1837] tested the federal government’s mettle in New Mexico, and the Anglo-dominated Santa Fe trade served as a vanguard for “the unconscious process of economic conquest,” yet neither development spawned a strong secessionist movement. The divergent trajectories of Texas and New Mexico owed much to geography and demographics: New Mexico was shielded from the expansionist embrace of the United States by its relative isolation, which made it less attractive a destination for American immigrants, and by its larger Hispanic population, which ensured that the Americans who did immigrate remained a minority. …

But while compelling, the dichotomy of wavering Texas and steadfast New Mexico is a simplification, for it neglects the penetrating, if often unspoken, influence of Comanches over New Mexicans. Intimate, violent, exploitative, and mutualistic all at once, New Mexicans’ ties with Comanches both forced and seduced them to act and organize themselves in ways that were often deplorable and at times disastrous to the rest of Mexico. Indeed, it seems justifiable to ask to what extent New Mexicans who paid tribute to a Comanche nation at war with the rest of northern Mexico, who made profit by trafficking in goods Comanches had stolen from other Mexican departments, who openly defied federal orders to sever unsanctioned ties to Comanchería, and whose way of life was permeated by Comanche influences were still Mexican subjects?

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Comanche Attacks and the Texas Revolution, 1830s

From The Comanche Empire, by Pekka Hämäläinen (Yale U. Press, 2008), pp. 198-199:

By the mid-1830s, it was clear that the Indian policy of Texas was a complete failure. The decision to open the province to American immigrants had backfired. Rather than moving to the interior to shield the province’s core areas around San Antonio from Comanche attacks, most Americans stayed east of the Colorado River, beyond the Comanche range and within an easy reach of Louisiana, their main commercial outlet. The result was a splintering of Texas into two distinct and increasingly detached halves. The Anglo-dominated eastern half experienced steady growth, developing a flourishing export-oriented cotton industry and spawning nearly twenty new urban centers by 1835. This half was part of Mexico only in name. It main economic and political ties extended eastward to the powerful mercantile houses of New Orleans, and its settlers often spoke no Spanish, held slaves in spite of a widespread aversion toward the institution in Mexico, and harbored separatist sentiments.

The Tejano-dominated western half, meanwhile, descended into underdevelopment. As raids and violence engulfed vast portions of western and southern Texas during the early 1830s, basic economic functions began to shut down. Villages and farms were stripped of livestock and the reviving ranching industry faltered once again. Agriculture deteriorated as farmers refused to work on fields where they were exposed to attacks. Laredo on the lower Rio Grande lost one-sixth of its population between 1828 and 1831 to Comanche raids, nearly expiring during a cholera outbreak in 1834. Settlers lived in perpetual fear and near-starvation even in San Antonio, where, in the words of one observer, “nothing can be planted on account of the Comanches and Tahuacanos [Tawakonis] who frequently harass the city even in time of peace.” Villages curled inward and grew isolated, for settlers “seldom venture more than a mile from town on account of the Indians.” Major roads leading to San Antonio were frequently cut off, and Berlandier traveled on deserted roads lined with crosses marking places “where the Comanches had massacred travellers or herdsmen.” The road from Coahuila to Texas crossed “an uninhabited country” where Indian raiders ruled, and commercial and political links between New Mexico and Texas existed only on paper. When assessing the long-term impact of Comanche raids on western and southern Texas, Berlandier depicted a decaying, psychologically disfigured captive territory. …

It was this divided Texas that in 1835 rebelled against the central government and in 1836 became an independent republic with close ties to the United States. The Texas Revolution was the product of several long-simmering problems, which came to a head in 1834 and 1835 when the military strongman Antonio López de Santa Anna assumed dictatorial powers in Mexico City and imposed a conservative national charter known as Las Siete Leyes. Las Siete Leyes ended the federalist era in Mexico and ushered in a centralist regime bent on curtailing states’ rights and sovereignty. The momentous shift galvanized Texas, turning the smoldering tensions over slavery, tariff exemptions, and immigration (further immigration from the United States had been banned in 1830) acute and then violent. When centralist forces marched into Texas in fall 1835 to rein in the renegade province, they faced unified resistance that included the vast majority of Anglo colonists and many prominent members of the Tejano elite. In November, delegations from twelve Texas communities met in San Felipe de Austin, declared allegiance to the federalist constitution of 1814, and cut off ties to the centralist regime.

Texas independence may have been predetermined by geography—Texas was simply too far from Mexico City and too close to the United States—but the event can be fully understood only in the larger context that takes into account the overwhelming power and presence of the Comanches in the province in the years leading to the revolt.

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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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Comanchería Meets Indian Territory, 1830s

From The Comanche Empire, by Pekka Hämäläinen (Yale U. Press, 2008), pp. 152-154:

With the passing of the Indian Removal Act in 1830, the United States government began a wholesale relocation of eastern Indians across the Mississippi valley—the proclaimed permanent Indian frontier—into Indian Territory in what today are Oklahoma and Kansas. The removal policy brought thousands of Indians into present-day Oklahoma and Kansas, creating a new and deeply volatile geopolitical entity on Comanchería’s border. The most populous of the transplanted peoples—the Cherokees, Creeks, Chickasaws, and Choctaws—were placed in the southern and western sections of Indian Territory where, around the Wichita Mountains, their lands overlapped with Comanchería’s eastern fringe. Hundreds of removed Cherokees, Delawares, Shawnees, and Kickapoos also moved across the Red River into Texas, where Mexican officials offered them legal land grants if they served as border sentinels to protect the province from Comanche raiders and to keep illegal American traders from entering Comanchería.

A clash was immediate and, it seems, inevitable. Dismayed by the agricultural prospects in subhumid Oklahoma, many immigrant groups began to experiment with bison hunting. The westernmost bands of the Delawares, Kickapoos, and Shawnees developed a typical prairie economy of farming and foraging and started making regular hunting excursions to the plains, tapping into Comanchería’s bison reserves. Comanches responded to these transgressions by attacking the intruders and by raiding deep into Indian Territory to exact revenge and to plunder maize, cattle, and captives. The death toll climbed on both sides. The fighting also disrupted the Comanche-American trade that had flourished for two decades on the southern plains….

In moving across the Mississippi valley, the immigrant nations had encroached upon the Comanche realm but, more important, they had entered an ancient borderland where commercial gravity tended to pull peoples together. Their position between the livestock-rich Comanchería and the livestock-hungry Missouri and Arkansas territories invited the removed Indians to become middlemen who facilitated the movement of goods among the centers of wealth around them. Like the Wichitas, French, and Americans before them, several of the immigrant nations responded. A propitious diplomatic opportunity to attach themselves to the Comanche trade network opened to them in 1834 and 1835 when the U.S. government sponsored two large-scale political meetings among the Comanches, their allies, and the immigrant Indians, hoping to quell the violence that threatened to abort the entire Indian removal policy. In August 1835, some seven thousand Comanches and their Wichita allies gathered at Camp Holmes near the Canadian River, where nineteen Comanche chiefs signed a treaty and agreed to open their lands “west of the Cross Timber” to the immigrant tribes. In return, they expected trade.

The immigrant tribes did not disappoint, and within a few years the border region between Comanchería and Indian Territory had become a site for thriving trade. Although uprooted and dislodged, the removed Indians could still generate impressive surpluses of manufactured and agricultural products, which they were keen to exchange for the plains products they needed to survive in their new homelands. Comanches sponsored massive intertribal gatherings along the Red and Brazos rivers and on the salt plains of north-central Oklahoma, often sending messengers to Indian Territory to announce a forthcoming fair. Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, and Seminole trading convoys frequented Comanche rancherías, bringing in maize, wheat, potatoes, tobacco, vermilion, wampum, beads, powder, lead, and government-issued rifles. In exchange, they received robes, skins, meat, salt, horses, and mules, a part of which they traded again to American settlers in Missouri, Arkansas, and Louisiana. Sometimes the seminomadic and more mobile Delawares, Kickapoos, and Shawnees served as intermediaries, moving commodities between Indian Territory and Comanchería. The thriving commerce also pulled more marginal groups into the Comanche orbit….

The dynamics of this exchange mirrored the direct Comanche-American trade it had supplanted, but there was an important new element: slave trade. The removed Cherokees, Choctaws, Chickasaws, Creeks, and Seminoles [the “Five Civilized Tribes“] had brought with them approximately five thousand black slaves, and the bondage institution persisted in Indian Territory as the planter-shareholder elite set out to rebuild its exchange-oriented cotton and tobacco economy. This created secure markets for Comanche slavers who now commanded extensive raiding domains in Texas and northern Mexico. More improvised than organized, the slave traffic offered multiple opportunities for its practitioners. Removed Indians purchased kidnapped Mexicans, Anglo-Americans, and black slaves from Comanches, either to augment their own labor force or to resell them to American Indian agents, who generally ransomed the offered captives, especially if they had fair skin. At times Comanches bypassed the middlemen and took their captives directly to U.S. officials at Fort Gibson and other frontier posts, and sometimes they relied on comanchero intermediaries who then delivered the captives to American agents. Occasionally, Comanches even kidnapped black slaves from Cherokees, Chickasaws, Choctaws, and Creeks and then sold them to Delawares, Kickapoos, and Shawnees. They also captured black runaway slaves from Indian Territory and incorporated them into their ranks.

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Comanche-U.S. Commerce after 1821

From The Comanche Empire, by Pekka Hämäläinen (Yale U. Press, 2008), pp. 150:

In 1821, Spain’s American empire collapsed, and the resulting confusion in the Southwest opened the floodgates for Comanche–U.S. commerce. Only a year later, Stephen F. Austin reported that eastern Comanche rancherías had become the nexus point of three well-established trade routes that connected them to U.S. markets along the Mississippi valley. The northernmost route linked eastern Comanchería to St. Louis via a chain of Native middlemen traders. Below was the Red River channel, which funneled traders from Vicksburg, Natchez, Baton Rouge, and New Orleans into the heart of eastern Comanchería. The busiest of the trade routes was the southernmost one, leading from eastern Comanchería to Nacogdoches, which had nearly expired during the 1812–13 revolt in Texas and then, like Natchitoches, became a haven for American merchants and filibusters. With close ties to Natchitoches and New Orleans, Nacogdoches grew into a major trading community, boasting an annual trade of ninety thousand dollars in the early 1820s.

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Comanches Meet the Americans, c. 1800

From The Comanche Empire, by Pekka Hämäläinen (Yale U. Press, 2008), pp. 144-145:

A more subtle but ultimately more serious challenge to the Comanche-Spanish emerged in the late 1790s, when American merchants and agents operating out of Spanish Louisiana began to push into the southern plains. Evading Louisiana’s Spanish officials—and sometimes cooperating with them—itinerant American traders infiltrated the contested borderland space between Spanish Texas and the United States and then proceeded toward eastern Comanchería. Americans’ arrival constituted a litmus test for the pact between eastern Comanches and Texas, for the treaty of 1785 had anticipated the United States’ westward thrust and explicitly prohibited Comanches from dealing with American agents. Spanish officials expected eastern Comanches to honor the treaty, remain loyal to Texas, and banish the intruders. They expected that not only because Comanches had signed a political contract but also because Spanish gifts and generosity obliged them to do so.

The Americans, however, did not come as conquerors carrying guns and banners but as merchants carrying goods and gifts, and eastern Comanches eagerly embraced them as potential trading partners. Comanches simply viewed the linkage between presents and politics differently from Spaniards. Gifts, Bourbon administrators insisted, were contractual objects that created a political bond, an exclusive bilateral union, whereas for Comanches the meaning of gifts was primarily of a social nature. Bourbon officials insisted that Spanish gifts should forbid Comanches from trading with foreign nations, but this was a narrow interpretation of loyalty and friendship that did not easily translate into the Comanche worldview. If foreigners—American, French, or any other kind—who entered Comanchería were willing to adhere to Comanche customs and expectations, Comanches had no reason to reject them. Indeed, as the pages that follow will show, by demanding eastern Comanches to choose between devotion to Spain and hospitality to Americans, Texas officials eventually wrecked their alliance with the Comanche nation.

And so, by simply letting American newcomers in, eastern Comanches began to turn away from their fledgling, uneasy alliance with Spain, and toward American markets and wealth. It was a momentous shift that changed the history of the Southwest. By establishing exchange ties with Americans, and by linking their pastoral horse-bison economy to the emerging capitalist economy of the United States, eastern Comanches set off a sustained commercial expansion that eventually swept across Comanchería. Spanish officials were slow to recognize this change and even slower to react to it. When José Cortés applauded Comanches’ loyalty to Spain in 1799, eastern Comanches were already engaged in an active trade with the westering Americans, and when Pino echoed Cortés’ praise thirteen years later, eastern Comanches had already turned their rancherías into a thriving gateway between the Southwest and the U.S. markets. By the time the Spanish colonial era came to an end in 1821, the entire Comanche nation had moved out of the Spanish orbit. They commanded a vast commercial empire that encompassed the Great Plains from the Río Grande valley to the Mississippi and Missouri river valleys, and they looked to the north and east for markets, wealth, allies, and power.

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Ute-Comanche Slave Raiding & Trading, c. 1700

From The Comanche Empire, by Pekka Hämäläinen (Yale U. Press, 2008), pp. 26-27:

Utes also introduced Comanches to European crafts. Having traded regularly in New Mexico since the 1680s, Utes had accumulated enough guns and metal tools to pass some of them on to their Comanche allies, who now moved, literally overnight, from the Stone Age to the Iron Age. Although Comanches used the new technology to replace their traditional tools and elaborate on their old techniques, not to realign their basic economic system, it was a momentous leap nonetheless. Iron knives, awls, needles, and pots were more durable and effective than their stone, bone, and wooden counterparts, making the daily chores of hunting, cutting, scraping, cooking, and sewing faster and easier. Spanish laws prohibited the sale of firearms to Indians, but the ban was widely ignored in New Mexico’s trade fairs, especially in the northern parts of the province. The few guns available at the fairs were cumbersome and fragile flintlocks, but they nevertheless profoundly changed the nature of intertribal warfare. Firearms allowed Comanches to kill, maim, and shock from the safety of distance and to inflict wounds that the traditional healing arts of their enemies were unaccustomed to treating. And, like horses, firearms gave Comanches access to an unforeseen source of energy—gunpowder—further expanding the world of new possibilities.

With Ute assistance, Comanches incorporated themselves into the emerging slave raiding and trading networks on New Mexico’s borderlands. By the time Comanches arrived in the region, commerce in Indian captives was an established practice in New Mexico, stimulated by deep ambiguities in Spain’s legal and colonial system. Although thousands of Pueblo Indians lived within the bounds of Spanish-controlled New Mexico, strict restrictions prohibited their exploitation as laborers. Encomienda grants of tributary labor, the economic keystone of early Spanish colonialism in the Americas, were abolished in New Mexico in the aftermath of the Pueblo Revolt. The repartimiento system of labor distribution continued, allowing the colonists to pool and allot Pueblo labor for public projects, but that system operated on a rotating basis, making Indian laborers a communal rather than a personal resource. Most Pueblo Indians, furthermore, were at least superficial Christian converts, whose exploitation was strictly regulated under Spanish law. Eager to obtain personal slaves to run their kitchens, ranches, fields, and textile workshops—and to reinforce their fragile sense of honor and prestige—Spanish elite turned to captive trade in indios bárbaros, savage Indians. Spanish laws specifically prohibited the buying, selling, and owning of Indian slaves, but the colonists of New Mexico cloaked the illegal traffic as rescate (ransom or barter), whereby they purchased captured Indians from surrounding nomadic tribes, ostensibly to rescue them from mistreatment and heathenism. In theory, these ransomed Indians were to be placed in Spanish households for religious education, but in practice many of them became common slaves who could be sold, bought, and exploited with impunity.

Utes had first entered New Mexico’s slave markets as commodities seized and sold by Spanish, Navajo, and Apache slave raiders, but the allied Utes and Comanches soon inserted themselves at the supply end of the slave traffic. When not raiding New Mexico for horses, Utes and Comanches arrived peacefully to sell human loot. Their raiding parties ranged westward into Navajo country and northward into Pawnee country to capture women and children, but their main target were the Carlana and Jicarilla Apache villages in the upper Arkansas basin at the western edge of the southern plains. Traffic in Apache captives mushroomed in New Mexico. By the late seventeenth century, the people in New Mexico possessed some five hundred non-Pueblo Indian captives and were emerging as major producers of slave labor for the mining camps of Nuevo Vizcaya and Zacatecas; they even sent slaves to the tobacco farms in Cuba. By 1714 slave trade had become so widespread in New Mexico that Governor Juan Ignacio Flores Mogollón saw it necessary to order all Apache captives baptized before taken “to distant places to sell.” Many of these Apaches were purchased from Utes and Comanches, whose mutually sustaining alliance had put them in a position of power over their neighboring Native societies.

By the early eighteenth century, the Ute-Comanche coalition dominated the northern borderlands of New Mexico. The allies shut off Navajos from the prime trading and raiding locales in New Mexico and treated the colony itself as an exploitable resource depot.

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Climate Change Created Comanches, 17th c.

From The Comanche Empire, by Pekka Hämäläinen (Yale U. Press, 2008), pp. 22-23:

Shoshones had created a flourishing and eclectic culture that belies the traditional image of the impoverished existence of Basin peoples; and yet over the course of the sixteenth century, they abandoned the Basin for the Great Plains. This migration was apparently triggered by a climate change, the beginning of the Little Ice Age, which ended the long dry spell and brought colder temperatures and higher rainfall. As steady rains once again nourished the grasslands, allowing the ailing bison herds to recover, humans began to move back, first in trickles, then in masses. What followed was one of the greatest migrations in the history of North America. As if pulled into a vacuum, people flooded in from the Rocky Mountains, northern woodlands, and the Mississippi valley, turning the plains into an agglomeration of migration trails. This human tide consisted mainly of groups that had lived on the plains before the great drought, but some of the immigrants were newcomers. Among these newcomers were the Shoshones.

Building on their century-old tradition of seasonal transmontane migration, more and more Shoshones filtered through the South Pass onto grasslands in the early seventeenth century, elbowing the Kiowas and other nations eastward to the Black Hills region. By midcentury a distinct branch of Plains Shoshones had emerged. Occupying the northwestern plains between the South Platt and upper Yellowstone rivers, these eastern Shoshones morphed into typical plains hunters who shaped their diet, economy, and culture around the habits of bison. They lived as nomads, following their migrant prey on foot, moving their belongings on small dog travois, and sheltering themselves with light, easily transportable skin tipis. In hunting bison, they alternatively surrounded the animals, ran them onto soft ice or deep snow, or drove them off steep precipices. These communal hunts absorbed a lot of time and energy and required careful planning, but astounding returns rewarded the efforts. The Vore site, a precontact buffalo jump near the Black Hills, contains partial remains of ten thousand bison, even though people used the site only once every twenty-five years or so. Hundreds of similar, if smaller, sites in the Shoshone range testify to a burgeoning economy and a flourishing way of life.

But prosperity did not translate into stability. Sometime in the late seventeenth century, the Shoshones suddenly splintered into two factions and left the central plains. Possibly seduced by larger and denser bison populations above the Yellowstone valley, the bulk of the people migrated onto the northern plains, where they were dragged into prolonged wars with the southward moving Blackfeet and Gros Ventre—wars that were still raging on when the first Canadian fur traders entered the northern plains in the 1730s. A smaller faction headed south and disappeared from archaeological record for several years. They reemerged in the early eighteenth century in Spanish records as Comanches, one of the many Native groups living along New Mexico’s borderlands.

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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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