Comanche People, Lords of the Southern Plains

Comanche Indians Chasing Buffalo, Painting by George Catlin, 1845–1846
Comanche Indians Chasing Buffalo, Painting by George Catlin, 1845–1846. Smithsonian American Art Museum

For nearly a century, the Comanche people, also known as the Numunuu and the Comanche Nation, maintained an imperial realm in the central North American continent. Successfully stymying the colonial powers of Spain and the United States between the mid-18th and mid-19th centuries, the Comanche constructed a migratory empire based on violence and an extraordinarily powerful international trade. 

Fast Facts: Comanche People

  • Other Names: Numunuu ("people"), Laytanes (Spanish), Patoka (French)
  • Location: Lawton, Oklahoma
  • Language: Numu Tekwapu
  • Religious Beliefs: Christianity, Native American church, traditional tribal church
  • Current Status: Over 16,000 enrolled members

History 

The earliest historical record of the Comanche—who called themselves "Numunuu" or "The People"—is from 1706, when a priest from the Spanish outpost at Taos, in what is today New Mexico, wrote to the governor at Santa Fe to tell him that they expected an attack by the Utes and their new allies, the Comanche. The word "Comanche" is from the Ute "kumantsi," which means "anyone who wants to fight me all the time," or perhaps "newcomer", or "people who are related yet different from us." The Comanche sphere of influence extended from the Canadian Plains to New Mexico, Texas, and northern Mexico. 

Based on languages and oral history, the Comanche ancestors are Uto-Aztecan, who in the early 16th century lived in an enormous territory from the northern Great Plains and into Central America. Centuries earlier, one branch of the Uto-Aztecan left a place they called Aztlan or Teguayo, and their descendants moved south, eventually creating the Aztec empire. A second great branch of the Uto-Aztecan speakers, the Numic people, left their core territory in the Sierra Nevadas and headed east and north, led by the Shoshone, the parent culture of the Comanche. 

The Shoshone ancestors of the Comanche lived a mobile hunter-gatherer-fisher lifestyle, spending part of the year in the mountains of the Great Basin, and the winters in the sheltered valleys of the Rocky Mountains. Provided with horses and guns, however, their Comanche descendants would transform themselves into an extensive economic empire, and become feared mounted trader-warriors, based in a homeland named Comancheria that endured until the mid-19th century. 

The Comanche Nation: Comancheria

Circa 1850: Herds of bison near Lake Jessie, North Dakota.
Circa 1850: Herds of bison near Lake Jessie, North Dakota. MPI/Getty Images

Although modern Comanches speak of themselves as Comanche Nation today, scholars such as Pekka Hämäläinen have termed the region known as Comancheria as the Comanche Empire. Wedged between the European imperial forces of France and the nascent United States on the east, and Mexico and Spain on the south and west, Comancheria was operated under an unusual economic system, a combination of trade and violence, which they saw as two sides of the same coin. Beginning in the 1760s and 1770s, the Comanche traded in horses and mules, guns, powder, ammunition, spear points, knives, kettles, and textiles including products from outside its borders: British Canada, Illinois, lower Louisiana, and British West Florida. These goods were moved by Native American middlemen, who traded in locally produced subsistence goods: maize, beans, and squash, bison robes and hides.

At the same time, the Comanche conducted raids on neighboring districts, killing settlers and capturing slaves, stealing horses, and slaughtering sheep. The raid-and-trade strategy fed their mercantile efforts; when an allied group failed to trade enough goods, the Comanche could carry out periodic raids without canceling the partnership. At markets in the upper Arkansas basin and in Taos, the Comanche sold guns, pistols, powder, balls, hatchets, tobacco, and slaves of both sexes and all ages. 

All of these goods were badly needed by Spanish colonists, who had been established in the New World to find and mine the mythical "El Dorado" silver mines and instead found themselves requiring continuing funding from Spain. 

The population of Comancheria peaked in the late 1770s at 40,000, and despite smallpox outbreaks, they maintained a population of some 20,000–30,000 through the early part of the 19th century. 

Comanche Culture

Comancheria was not a politically or economically united whole. Instead, it was a nomadic empire of multiple autonomous bands, rooted in decentralized political power, kinship, and intra-ethnic exchange, not unlike the Mongol Empire. They had no permanent settlements or demarcations of private property but instead asserted their control through naming places and controlling access to specific sites such as cemeteries, sacred spaces, and hunting grounds. 

Comancheria was made up of about 100 rancherias, mobile communities of about 250 people and 1,000 horses and mules, scattered throughout the countryside. Tasks were specific to age and gender. Adult men were heads of extended family, making strategic decisions about camp movement, grazing areas, and raiding plans. They captured and tamed feral horses, and planned livestock raiding, including recruitment of personnel and rituals. Teenage boys did the hard work of pastoralism, each assigned about 150 animals to tend, water, pasture, and protect.

Women were responsible for child care, meat processing, and household duties, from constructing the tipi to cooking. They dressed skins for market, collected fuel, made saddles and repaired tents. By the 19th century, as a result of a severe labor shortage, the Comanche became polygamous. The most prominent men could have eight to ten wives, but the result was the devaluing of women in society; girls were frequently married before they reached puberty. In the domestic sphere, the senior wives were the principal decision-makers, controlling the distribution of food and commanding secondary wives and slaves. 

Slavery 

The number of slaves in the Comanche Nation increased such that by the early 18th century, the Comanche were the dominant slave traffickers of the lower midcontinent. After 1800, the Comanches conducted frequent slave raids into Texas and northern Mexico. At the height of the empire, slaves made up 10% to 25% of the population and nearly every family had one or two Mexican captives. These slaves worked on the rancherias as a labor force, but were also conduits of peace as exchanges during diplomatic negotiations, and sold as merchandise in New Mexico and Louisiana.  

If taken in war, adult men survived capture if they had special talents, such as saddle makers or literate captives for translating intercepted dispatches or serving as interpreters. Many captive boys became regular warriors, and girls and women were domestic and sexual laborers who were potential mothers of children who might better resist European diseases. Children were renamed and dressed in Comanche clothing and taken into the society as members. 

Political Units 

The rancherias made up a network of related and allied extended families. They were independent political units, who made autonomous decisions about camp movements, residence patterns, and small-scale trading and raiding. They were the primary social group, although individuals and families moved between rancherias. 

Each rancheria was led by a paraibo, who attained status and was named leader by acclaim—not voted, per se, but agreed upon by other family headmen. The best paraibo was good at negotiation, had amassed a personal fortune, and given much of his fortune away. He cultivated patriarchal relationships with his followers and had a nominal level of authority. Most had personal heralds who announced his decisions to the community and kept bodyguards and aids. They didn't judge or hand out verdicts, and if anyone was unhappy with the paraibo they could just leave the rancheria. If too many people were discontented, however, the paraibo could be deposed.

A band council, made up of all the men in the rancheria, decided military campaigns, disposition of spoils, and the time and place of summer hunts and community religious services. All men were allowed to participate and speak at these band-level councils.

Top Level Organization and Seasonal Rounds

Engraving of a Comanche Village by George Catlin
Engraving of a Comanche Village by George Catlin. Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

After 1800, the rancherias assembled en masse three times during the year, fitting into a seasonal schedule. The Comanche spent summers in the open plains, but in winters, they followed the bison into wooded river valleys of the Arkansas, North Canadian, Canadian, Red, Brazos, and Colorado rivers, where shelter, water, grass, and cottonwood bottoms would support their vast horse and mule herds throughout the cold season. These temporary cities could house thousands of people and animals for months on end, extending for several miles along a streambed. 

Winter settlements were often the location of trade fairs; in 1834, the painter George Catlin visited one with Col. Henry Dodge. 

Language 

The Comanche speak a Central Numic language (Numu Tekwapu) that is only somewhat different from the Eastern (Wind River) Shoshone. A sign of Comanche cultural power was the spread of their language throughout the southwest and the Great Plains. By 1900, they were able to conduct most of their business at border fairs in New Mexico in their own languages, and many of the people who came to trade with them were fluent in it.

In the late 19th century, as with other Native American groups, Comanche children were taken from their homes and placed in boarding schools. By the early 1900s, elders were dying out and children were not being taught the language. Early attempts to maintain the language were organized by individual tribe members, and in 1993, the Comanche Language and Cultural Preservation Committee was formed to support those efforts. 

During World War II, 14 young Comanche men were Code Talkers, men who were fluent in their language and used it to communicate military information across enemy lines, an effort for which they are honored today.

Religion 

The Comanche did not define the world along color lines; anyone who was willing to adopt the proper code of behavior would be accepted. That code included honoring kinship, respecting camp rules, obeying taboos, yielding to consensus rule, adhering to accepted gender roles, and contributing to communal affairs.

End of the Comanche Empire

The Comanche Empire continued to hold sway in the central part of the North American continent until the mid-19th century, despite having fended off Mexican and Spanish incursions, and strongly resisting the United States. By 1849, their population still hovered around 10,000, with 600–800 Mexican slaves and countless Native captives.

The end was brought about in part because they were statistically over-killing bison. Today, the pattern is recognizable, but the Comanche, who believed that the buffalo were managed by the supernatural realm, missed the warning signs. While they weren't exceeding the harvest, they did kill pregnant cows in the spring, and they opened their hunting grounds as a marketing ploy. At the same time, a drought struck in 1845 which lasted until the mid-1860s; and gold was discovered in California in 1849 and Colorado in 1858, leading to a sustained effort that the Comanche could not fight off. 

Despite a respite from drought and settlers during the Civil War, when the war ended, the sustained Indian Wars began. The U.S. Army invaded Comancheria in 1871, and a battle at Elk Creek on June 28, 1874, was one of the last efforts by a great nation. 

The Comanche People Today 

Flag of the Comanche Nation
Flag of the Comanche Nation. Comanche Nation / Open Source

The Comanche Nation is a federally recognized tribe, and its members today reside in a tribal complex within the original reservation boundaries that they share with Kiowa and Apache, in the Lawton-Fort Sill area of Oklahoma, and surrounding areas. They maintain a decentralized organizational structure of autonomous bands, are self-governing, and each band has a chief and tribal council. 

Tribal figures show an enrollment of 16,372, with roughly 7,763 members residing in Lawton-Ft. Sill. Tribal enrollment criteria dictate that a person be a least one-quarter Comanche to qualify for enrollment.

A total of 23,330, people self-identified as Comanche in the 2010 census.

Selected Sources 

  • Amoy, Tyler. "Comanche Resistance against Colonialism." History in the Making 12.10 (2019). 
  • Fowles, Severin, and Jimmy Arterberry. "Gesture and Performance in Comanche Rock Art." World Art 3.1 (2013): 67–82. 
  • Hämäläinen, Pekka. "The Comanche Empire." New Haven CT: Yale University Press, 2008. 
  • Mitchell, Peter. "Going Back to Their Roots: Comanche Trade and Diet Revisited." Ethnohistory 63.2 (2016): 237–71. 
  • Montgomery, Lindsay M. "Nomadic Economics: The Logic and Logistics of Comanche Imperialism in New Mexico." Journal of Social Archaeology 19.3 (2019): 333–55. 
  • Newton, Cody. "Towards a Context for Late Precontact Culture Change: Comanche Movement Prior to Eighteenth Century Spanish Documentation." Plains Anthropologist 56.217 (2011): 53–69. 
  • Rivaya-Martínez, Joaquín. "A Different Look at Native American Depopulation: Comanche Raiding, Captive Taking, and Population Decline." Ethnohistory 61.3 (2014): 391–418.