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The Comanche Empire (2008)

by Pekka Hämäläinen

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341656,566 (3.86)8
A groundbreaking history of the rise and decline of the vast and imposing Comanche empire  In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, a Native American empire rose to dominate the fiercely contested lands of the American Southwest, the southern Great Plains, and northern Mexico. This powerful empire, built by the Comanche Indians, eclipsed its various European rivals in military prowess, political prestige, economic power, commercial reach, and cultural influence. Yet, until now, the Comanche empire has gone unrecognized in American history. This compelling and original book uncovers the lost story of the Comanches. It is a story that challenges the idea of indigenous peoples as victims of European expansion and offers a new model for the history of colonial expansion, colonial frontiers, and Native-European relations in North America and elsewhere. Pekka Hämäläinen shows in vivid detail how the Comanches built their unique empire and resisted European colonization, and why they fell to defeat in 1875. With extensive knowledge and deep insight, the author brings into clear relief the Comanches' remarkable impact on the trajectory of history.… (more)
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Showing 1-5 of 6 (next | show all)
A fascinating and well-sourced history overturning many popular (and obscure) assumptions about what is today the American Southwest. The author traces the history of the Comanche, arguably the most geopolitically successful Native American confederacy of the colonization era, who not only resisted determined efforts by the Spanish, Mexicans and Americans to suppress them for nearly two centuries, but in many cases imposed their will on the hapless colonizers, reducing their outposts to tributary status.

The secret to this history of this remarkable people is that Hämäläinen treats the Comanche as unremarkable. That is, he covers them not as an oppressed people or as brutal barbarians, but as an imperial power engaged in imperial power politics with neighbors both great and small, white and native. He contextualizes the ways Comanche most frequently entered western histories — their devastating raids — as ways the Comanche projected power and as reflections of a complicated culture that the Spanish, Mexicans, Texans and Americans never truly understood.

The core of Comanche strength was of course the horse; they were pastoral nomads like the Mongols and Huns — two other confederacies that exerted their will on more sedentary peoples. But plenty of other tribes had access to horses, too, and did not rise to the heights of Comanche. Instead, Hämäläinen shows how raiding formed one leg of a vital triad of Comanche power. Equally important was the Comanche's massive trading network stretching from New Mexico to Louisiana, Colorado to Mexico. The Comanche traded bison meat and furs, and horses both captured from the wild and on raids, in exchange for things they couldn't produce on their own: guns, ammunition and other sedentary technology, and vital carbohydrates that the Comanche's otherwise protein-dominated diet would lack.

The third leg of the triad was a skillful balance of power diplomacy. The Comanche would raid some of their neighbors and trade with others, and constantly shifted this balance (as decided in vast conferences of different Comanche bands) to preserve their independence, their flow of tribute, their trading routes and to check possible threats. When the Spanish tried to punish Comanche raids by cutting off trade, they simply shifted their trade to the French and then the Americans. For one long period they raided Spanish Texas nearly into oblivion (but never quite!) and then turned around and traded their spoils to Spanish New Mexico, who were glad to choose this less personally destructive form of interaction with the Comanches even when it deflected raids to their ostensible countrymen.

Drawing on sources long overlooked (especially in English, since the bulk of the Comanche Empire's time in power was spent interacting with Spanish-speaking interlocutors) Hämäläinen sketches the Comanche as a living people, neither purely good nor purely bad but simply human — proud warriors but also inveterate slavers, patriarchal but democratic, ever changing and evolving with the changing and evolving times. He also fascinatingly describes their fall, usually attributed to the expansionist United States — but actually due mostly to a combination of drought and Comanche over-hunting of the buffalo. By the time the United States brought its military might to bear against the Comanche their empire was already a shell of its former self, a dizzying collapse from prominence to destitution in just a single decade due to complex, interweaving reasons Hämäläinen describes in detail. (And even then, when American attention was distracted by the Civil War, the Comanche managed a fascinating second life, transforming themselves from buffalo hunters to cattle herders, from raiding to capture slaves for labor to raiding to capture slaves to be new family members to replace their depleted numbers.) A little dense at times, especially the first half that focuses on a chronological history of the Comanche, this book brings together narrative history, archaeology, primary sources, oral traditions and scientific analysis to shed light on a long-overlooked people who once brought mighty empires to their knees. ( )
  dhmontgomery | Dec 13, 2020 |
An unusual case-study that makes for an interesting read: a Native American society in the Comanches raiding and dictating to a dependent Spanish colonial society in New Mexico and Texas that was powerless to assert itself against them. The misery of Spanish attempts to appease the Comanches when they could not fight them was well drawn from sources, and the sociology of the Comanche society was well explained, but I would have liked more source material from the Comanche side. ( )
  wa233 | Oct 26, 2018 |
The Comanches and their clients controlled a huge chunk of the American west for a long time, draining the resources of Spain and then of Mexico/Texas. The empire, in a familiar story, expanded so far that it collapsed from its own successes, especially its successes in killing buffalo and bringing more and more horses into the same territory where they competed with the buffalo for forage. While the Comanches played a significant role in weakening Spain/Mexico to support the US annexation, they then fell victim to that growing power. ( )
1 vote rivkat | May 1, 2017 |
Pekka Hämäläinen’s The Comanche Empire reframes the colonial experience in the American Southwest as a clash between four empires, Spanish, American, French, and Comanche. Hämäläinen seeks to answer the question of how the Comanche managed such a large empire and posed a challenge to the other three. His answer to this question draws upon social history and environmental history. Much of this work relies on an understanding of the ecology of the American Southwest and how that shaped the human geography of the region.
Hämäläinen argues, “Instead of merely defying white expansion through aggressive resistance…Comanches inverted the projected colonial trajectory through multifaceted power politics that brought much of the colonial Southwest under their political, economic, and cultural sway.” He frames his argument with a continued discussion of the role of an empire and how it maintains itself, especially over such a widespread area as Comanchería. Hämäläinen argues that the eastern and western halves of the Comanche Empire were semiautonomous. Discussing the western Comanche and their interaction with Mexico, Hämäläinen writes, “This was an empire that marginalized, isolated, and divided Spanish and Mexican colonies, demoting them, in a sense, from imperial to peripheral status.” According to Hämäläinen, expanding Comanche power directly led to New Mexico breaking away from Spanish and Mexican influence. Discussing the role of natural resources, Hämäläinen identifies the horse, imported by the Spanish, as the primary element that enabled the Comanche to create and maintain their empire. He spends a great deal of time discussing the nutritional needs of horses, the ability of the grasslands to provide for them, and how horses enabled the Comanches to hunt the buffalo, which became their primary export and further enhanced their imperial authority. Equestrianism also created a rigidly structured hierarchy of gender in Comanchería, encouraging the capture of slaves and polygyny in order to support the elite members of the empire. Hämäläinen makes numerous comparisons to eastern Native American tribes, specifically the Iroquois. Discussing Comanche influence, he writes, “Like the Iroquois in the Northeast, the Comanches attached on their sphere numerous Native and non-Native groups as exchange partners, political allies, and metaphorical kin, enveloping themselves in a protective human web.” To expand this empire, the Comanche created a system whereby captives and others could become Comanche, further echoing studies of Northeastern tribes in the colonial period.
Hämäläinen primarily seeks to counter the legacy of historians Walter Prescott Webb and Rupert Norval Richardson. Responding to their work and its impact on the historiography, Hämäläinen writes, “The Comanches who appeared in historical studies from the 1930s on terrorized the Spanish and Mexican frontier with relentless raids, but beyond that they merely occupied space…The narratives that spoke of different kinds of Comanches were marginalized.” Hämäläinen argues for returning to the original European sources as the agents of the French, Spanish, and American imperial systems understood the Comanche as a dynamic empire capable of countering Euro-American designs. Further, Hämäläinen relies on a detailed understanding of ecology, even referencing Alfred Crosby’s Ecological Imperialism in his conclusion. ( )
1 vote DarthDeverell | Dec 20, 2016 |
This is very much one of those "wake up and smell the coffee" sort of books which makes you wonder what else you've misunderstood about the course of history. Be that as it may, this is the story of how a not especially notable tribe of hunter-gathers totally committed to the equestrian way of life and created, if not a formal empire, a hegemony in the southern plains of North America that aborted the dreams of power of many other peoples; particularly the Spanish and their Mexican successors. How did the Comanche do this? It was not just a question of being great horse warriors, it was a question of making themselves indispensable so that all trade in the greater region essentially had to flow through them, having the population mass to back up their pretensions to predominance, and having the adaptability to seek new opportunities when faced with a challenge. Being as ruthless as any other empire based on the horse didn't hurt either.

In the end though the equestrian-nomad way of life did become a dead end for the Comanche. Their massive population of horses competed for the same habitat as the buffalo, so that when a major drought hit in the mid-18th century, at a time when Comanche economic machine had to run "all out," the results were catastrophic. By the time a respite came in the 1860s, the American government was in a position to put an end to this nuisance once and for all.

That's the thing, while Hamalainen goes to some lengths not to romanticize the Comanche, such as devoting a chapter to demonstrating just how hard the practice of empire was even on the rank-and-file of the Comanche Nation, not just their victims, that does bring up my main issue with this work; how Hamalainen could have played up how parasitic their way of life was. The reality is that the Comanche system worked best when they had other major powers to play off against each other to gain weapons and backing, or other, more settled societies to loot for food and captives. After considering the course of Comanche empire, and keeping in mind the downright genocidal end game of the American war on the First Nations, I at least have to think goodbye to bad rubbish. ( )
2 vote Shrike58 | Jul 27, 2016 |
Showing 1-5 of 6 (next | show all)
The history of North America as a contested land has always turned on the axiom that it was a prize in the clash of empires fought among European powers.… By proposing a counternarrative "in which governing historical forces emanate from the continent's center, Comanchería, and spread toward its margins," the author has presented a provocative thesis that suddenly brings into question every assumption that has forever kept the standard narrative fixed in place (p. 353).… Hämäläinen projects his interpretation through a scrupulously documented narrative that proposes some compelling and original arguments.… Among all the old assumptions Hämäläinen brings into question, those that most appealed to this reviewer concerned the odd relationship between Mexicans and Texians.… Comanche Empire is an impressive, well-written, and important study that should significantly influence future metanarratives, whether they include all or parts of Texas, the West, the Borderlands, or even general histories of the United States and Mexico.
 
The Comanche Empire is a hugely important documentary survey of the Comanche Nation, as known from documentary sources between the late 17th and the late 19th centuries. For these two centuries, author Pekka Hämäläinen has repositioned Comancheria as a Central North American empire, rather than painting them as peripheral colonial hangers-on, noble savages, or unknowable illiterates.… The arguments for the collapse of Comancheria break down into several limes of speculation,… without much in the way of firm conclusion. In the end, though, this volume is not intended to be the end-all of Comanche histories but rather a starting point.
 
Although the word 'empire' may be author's hyperbole, the Comanches ruled an extensive domain that worked on a melange of kinship ties, trade, diplomacy, extortion and violence.… Hämäläinen's most detailed scholarly labours concern the eighteenth century: he claims that by 1730 the Comanches had all their people on horses and had reached what he calls 'the critical threshold of mounted nomadism'. The narrative, firmly based on admirable scholarship, shifts from warfare to diplomacy and back.… Hämäläinen is very good on Comanche social structure.… Hämäläinen's great achievement is to force a rethink about Mexican history from its independence from Spain in 1821 to its defeat by the United States in 1846-8.… Hämäläinen's book contains powerful scholarship, original insights and some intermittently excellent narrative writing, but is, sadly, marred by… jargon, academy-speak and gobbledygook.
 

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A groundbreaking history of the rise and decline of the vast and imposing Comanche empire  In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, a Native American empire rose to dominate the fiercely contested lands of the American Southwest, the southern Great Plains, and northern Mexico. This powerful empire, built by the Comanche Indians, eclipsed its various European rivals in military prowess, political prestige, economic power, commercial reach, and cultural influence. Yet, until now, the Comanche empire has gone unrecognized in American history. This compelling and original book uncovers the lost story of the Comanches. It is a story that challenges the idea of indigenous peoples as victims of European expansion and offers a new model for the history of colonial expansion, colonial frontiers, and Native-European relations in North America and elsewhere. Pekka Hämäläinen shows in vivid detail how the Comanches built their unique empire and resisted European colonization, and why they fell to defeat in 1875. With extensive knowledge and deep insight, the author brings into clear relief the Comanches' remarkable impact on the trajectory of history.

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