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The Comanche Empire

The Comanche Empire

Pekka Hämäläinen
Copyright Date: 2008
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 512
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1njn13
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  • Book Info
    The Comanche Empire
    Book Description:

    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.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-14513-7
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. INTRODUCTION: Reversed Colonialism
    (pp. 1-17)

    This book is about an American empire that, according to conventional histories, did not exist. It tells the familiar tale of expansion, resistance, conquest, and loss, but with a reversal of usual historical roles: it is a story in which Indians expand, dictate, and prosper, and European colonists resist, retreat, and struggle to survive.

    At the dawn of the eighteenth century, the Comanches were a small tribe of hunter-gatherers living in the rugged canyonlands on the far northern frontier of the Spanish kingdom of New Mexico. They were newcomers to the region, having fled the political unrest and internal disputes...

  5. 1 Conquest
    (pp. 18-67)

    They came to the plains from the west, slipping through the canyon passes of the Sangre de Cristo Range in small, roving bands. Like so many other Native groups of the age, the Numunu moved to the great continental grasslands seeking new opportunities, to build a new way of life around the emerging ecological triad of grasses, bison, and horses. They were few in number, possessed little wealth beyond a handful of mounts, and seemed indistinguishable from their more prominent allies, the Utes. New Mexico’s Spanish officials noted their arrival to the southern grasslands in 1706 and wrote it off...

  6. 2 New Order
    (pp. 68-106)

    In February 1763 the world’s greatest powers gathered in Paris to untangle a global chaos they had created. The summit was convened to terminate the virulent Seven Years’ War that had raged for eight years over three continents, but it became an imperial reordering of unparalleled scale. Humbled by a series of defeats, France ceded all its possessions in North America and saw its American empire reduced to a few sugar islands in the Lesser Antilles, tiny fishing bases off Newfoundland, and a foothold in Guyana. Britain, whose army and fleet had scored victories from Manila to Montreal, won Canada,...

  7. 3 The Embrace
    (pp. 107-140)

    On February 25, 1786, Juan Bautista de Anza, lieutenant colonel in the Spanish Army and the governor of New Mexico, stood in front of his palace, preparing himself for the ceremony. He had waited for this moment too long, ever since the glorious day on the llanos seven years ago when he held the green-horned headdress in his hands. The memory of his triumph was already growing faint, making his gubernatorial tenure seem like a failure, but now there was hope again. He examined his subjects—hispanos, indios, genízaros, men, women, children—who swarmed in the dirt plaza, filling it...

  8. 4 The Empire of the Plains
    (pp. 141-180)

    The first half of the nineteenth century was the era of American imperial expansion in the Southwest. Powered by burgeoning industrial, technological, and demographic growth and roused by the chauvinistic nationalism of Manifest Destiny, the United States purchased, fought, and annexed its way from the Mississippi valley to the Río Grande, infringing Spain’s imperial claims, sweeping aside the Mexican Republic, and dispossessing dozens of indigenous societies. This expansion was set in motion in 1803 by the Louisiana Purchase, which roughly doubled the size of the nation, and was followed, in rapid succession, by the founding of the Anglo-dominated Republic of...

  9. 5 Greater Comanchería
    (pp. 181-238)

    Like most empires, the Comanche empire had many faces. Viewed from the north and east, it was an empire of commerce and diplomacy, an expanding transnational nexus that radiated prestige and power, absorbed foreign ethnicities into its multicultural fold, and brought neighboring societies into its sphere as allies and dependents. Viewed from the Southwest and Mexico, however, the Comanches showed a different kind of face. Here their empire brushed directly against Euro-colonial frontiers, and its tactics were often grounded in violence and exploitation. This was an empire that marginalized, isolated, and divided Spanish and Mexican colonies, demoting them, in a...

  10. 6 Children of the Sun
    (pp. 239-291)

    Behind the spectacular acts and institutions that made the Comanches an imperial power were untold everyday deeds. These mundane activities—elders debating in protracted councils, women running multilodge households, slaves tanning hides, teenage boys tending horses, young men jostling for recognition—may have lacked the immediacy of long-distance raids or international treaties and trade fairs as imperial acts but they were no less essential: they formed the foundation of the Comanche empire. This quotidian substratum is my focus in this chapter, which looks at the Comanche power complex from within, exploring the internal adjustments that made Comanches so domineering externally....

  11. 7 Hunger
    (pp. 292-320)

    The Mexican-American War marked the culmination of Comanche power, the hinge on which 150 years of expansion turned toward retreat. Although few Americans acknowledged it, the war of 1846 was a display of both United States and Comanche power. Washington argued that the takeover of Mexican soil was simply a matter of fulfilling America’s manifest destiny, but on the ground, where military power meant more than political rhetoric, the conquest seemed more propitious than predestined: the Americans who marched into Mexico in the name of destiny and democracy did so in the footsteps of Comanches, whose expansion had paved the...

  12. 8 Collapse
    (pp. 321-341)

    When the Civil War ended, the Great Plains emerged as the most violent place in North America. With peace, Americans once again became mobile, swarming across the Mississippi and onto the Great Plains in the thousands. For most of these westbound migrants, the plains were merely a barrier, a distance to cross on the way to greater riches beyond, and that was the problem. The federal government made only token efforts to negotiate with the powerful nomadic Indian nations of the western plains for right-of-ways across their lands. Overlanders became trespassers and killings became routine. In some instances Americans triggered...

  13. CONCLUSION: The Shape of Power
    (pp. 342-362)

    The icehouse at the Fort Sill agency was not a burial place of a people—the Comanche nation would endure and, in time, flourish again—but it was a burial place of an era. Past and present fell abruptly apart as new peoples, new economic regimes, and new ways of life descended onto the Great Plains, now eerily devoid of any material or geopolitical marks of Comanche presence. Comanches had ruled the Southwest for well over a century, but they left behind no marks of their dominance. There were no deserted fortresses or decaying monuments to remind the newcomers of...

  14. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. 363-364)
  15. Notes
    (pp. 365-444)
  16. Bibliography
    (pp. 445-474)
  17. Index
    (pp. 475-500)