The Comanche Empire. By Pekka Hämäläinen. The Lamar Series in Western History. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008.
Review by Christopher Valesey
Winner of twelve book awards, Comanche Empire is a landmark of ethnohistorical scholarship. Pekka Hämäläinen challenges more typical narratives of European imperialism that feature the rapid dissolution of indigenous civilizations by drawing attention to the rise and fall of the so-called Comanche Empire in the modern American Southwest from roughly 1750 to 1850. Despite being surrounded by Spanish, French, and Anglo-American domains, Hämäläinen argues that “European imperialism not only stalled in the face of indigenous resistance, it was eclipsed by indigenous imperialism” (2). This Comanche-style imperialism differed from Euro-Americans in that Comanches sought coexistence, control, and exploitation rather than conquest and colonization (4).
Ethnohistorical research is often hamstrung by a dearth of sources written by the indigenous group under study. While this is true for Comanche Empire, Hämäläinen offers an impressive analysis of Spanish, French, Mexican, and Anglo-American sources like government reports, captivity narratives, travelers’ journals, and traders’ accounts. Although Euro-American sources accentuate the military and economic aspects of the Comanche Empire rather than the cultural, they allow Hämäläinen to pay close attention to the implications of various events like the Bourbon Reforms, the French and Indian Wars, and the Mexican-American War. Taken together, Hämäläinen structures the book primarily chronologically to examine the lifespan of the Comanche Empire, beginning with Comanches’ alliance with Utes in the early eighteenth century and concluding with the empire’s collapse soon after the American Civil War.
Perhaps the most striking feature of the Comanche Empire was their adaptive use of horses, particularly the Spanish-introduced Barbs that descended from North Africa and thrived in the southern plains. Indeed, tying in previous publications in Western Historical Quarterly and the Journal of American History, Hämäläinen describes Comanches’ adoption of horses as an “equine revolution” (347). Equestrianism dramatically altered Comanche hunting, warfare, and transportation, exponentially expanding their world and the speed in which they could travel through it. With horses, Comanches transformed their entire economy to center around bison hunting and horse herding. Horses’ voracious appetite for the abundant buffalo and grana grasses not only allowed the equine and Comanche populations to skyrocket, but in Hämäläinen’s words, allowed Comanches to “exploit the vast reserves of bioenergy stored in the plains’ bison herds more thoroughly than any of their competitors” (66). Comanches’ use of horses was so effective that nearby plains tribes had no choice but to become mounted if they wanted to avoid being marginalized by Comanches (356). Ironically, the success of Comanche equestrianism also contributed to the fall of the empire: the rapidly declining bison population in the mid-nineteenth century, exacerbated by Euro-American hunting, appears to have crippled Comanches’ military and economic hegemony more than any armed conflict with Euro-Americans.
In addition to the military, demographic, and economic ramifications of horses, Comanches established a distinct culture of equestrianism with influences on wealth, social status, and gender. They selectively bred horses to optimize their endurance, speed, size, and even color. According to Hämäläinen, Comanches recognized at least seventeen different types of horses based solely on their color (246). The wealth of individual or families of Comanches could be determined by the number of horses they owned as private property. The average Comanche family owned twenty to thirty horses, but the most affluent elites could own hundreds (260). While teenage boys worked most closely with the horses on a daily basis, women participated in horse herding in addition to their responsibilities for childrearing, meat processing, the tanning of hides, and a range of household duties. Horses constituted a form of social currency that provided men with the means of gift-giving in exchange for wives, a massive advantage for the wealthy in a polygynist society. A lack of horses prevented young men from acquiring wives, and it also limited their access to other activities like trade. Without a horse, men were required to borrow them from peers, indebting them to a portion of the spoils of war or any wealth they would receive. Elites, on the other hand, could use their horses to make investments in more slaves and wives, in turn generating surplus commodities and food.
As any effective work of scholarship should, Comanche Empire raises nearly as many questions as it answers. Although this reader is convinced by the author’s usage of “empire,” some of the sharpest criticisms of the book revolve around whether or not Comanches established one. These discussions may be the most exciting contribution of the book. One productive and related question is the extent to which Comanches’ created an empire not only like Euro-Americans, but like other well-known indigenous empires like the Mexica in Central Mexico and Inca in Peru. This is not a critique of the book, but just the opposite: Comanche Empire’s ability to challenge historiographical trends and generate debate secures its spot in graduate class syllabi and the bookshelves of all ethnohistorians.