Title: The Comanche Empire
Author: Pekka Hämäläinen
Categories: Empire, The American West, Indians, Space, Market, Violence
Place: The Southwest (New Mexico, Texas, Northern Mexico)
Time Period: 1750-1850
Pekka Hämäläinen writes a revisionist history of the Southern plains by arguing that between 1750-1850 the Comanches built a dominant empire in the region. With an extractive economy based on raiding and trade, the Comanches used violence and sophisticated diplomacy to become the center of imperial power and force other empires and peoples to adapt - a narrative that flips the standard script of white Europeans imposing imperial change on Indians.
Hämäläinen describes how the Comanches first adopted the horse in the late 17th century, quickly and flexibly taking advantage of its power to harness energy on the grasslands of the plains. Through their rapid turn to a pastoral lifestyle centered on bison-hunting, the Comanches began to build a mobile commercial network that extracted labor and resources from surrounding peoples. In addition to bison-hunting, the Comanches engaged in a dual system of trade and raiding (which Hämäläinen sees as two different activities on a continuum). By the early 18th century, the Comanches dominated the region and had become the most populous Indian group, bolstered by an integral slave population closely tied to kinship relations. Hämäläinen argues that their presence in part explains New Spain's inability to extend their empire northward, and Mexico's chronic weakness after independence. By the 1830s and 1840s, in fact, the Comanches had developed a veritable "raiding industry" of slaves and livestock in Northern Mexico, with a core of power serving as a hub system of trade, tribute, and extraction. However, this system ultimately ended in collapse, as over-hunting of bison along with drought resulted in an ecological devastation of their economy. Weakened, the Comanches fell to an aggressive United States military attempting to solidify their rule on the Great Plains during the 1850s to 1870s.
One of Hämäläinen's main contributions is a discussion of empire. Although the Comanches exhibited many of the "traditional" traits of empire (geographic scale, core-periphery hierarchies, hinterlands of extraction and exploitation, incorporation of different ethnicities and multiculturalism, and cultural influence), they differed in other key ways, in particular: not subjugating people under direct political rule and not explicitly advocating for expansion as an ideology. Additionally, Hämäläinen builds an alternative spatial perspective. He works to re-center the North American historical narrative of the period from the east coast to the center of the continent. In particular, he argues that the Comanche and United States empire grew alongside one another, and that the Comanches effectively paved the way for U.S. expansion in the Southwest - particularly through their devastating raids of northern Mexico that paved the way for a shockingly easy invasion during the Mexican-American War in 1846-1848.
Key Themes and Concepts
- Reversal of Indian/European narrative
- Adaptiveness of Comanches to rapidly embrace new technology and equestrian/raiding lifestyle
- Comanche empire paved the way for US empire in the region
- Reliance on a pastoral/hunting economy
- Interplay between raiding and trade as two sides of the same economic industry
- Ultimate decline came via ecological disaster (depleting resources from reliance on bison)
U.S. History Qualifying Exams: Book Summaries
by Cameron Blevins
is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License