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The Comanche Empire (The Lamar Series in Western History) Paperback – May 19, 2009
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This comprehensive history of the Comanche people treats them as an independent power rather than as victims of American westward expansion. And though Hamalainen frames his arguments within scholars’ debates on proper perspectives toward the Comanche, general readers interested in the history of the Southwest will discover his to be a fascinatingly informative volume in its explanatory and narrative modes. Between the Comanche’s initial appearance in Spanish records in 1706 to their final defeat by the U.S. in 1874, Hamalainen traces an ascent in Comanche numbers, wealth, and influence that enabled them to dominate western Texas and New Mexico for decades. Interpreting such Comanche activities as raiding and slaving as distinct instruments of imperialism, Hamalainen credits these practices with endowing the Comanche with their fierce frontier reputation within the extensive Great Plains trading network they operated. A valuable library resource for its subject. --Gilbert Taylor --This text refers to the Audio CD edition.
"Perhaps we can simply stipulate that The Comanche Empire is an exceptional book—in fact, one of the finest pieces of scholarship that I have read in years. . . . Hämäläinen has given us a closely argued, finely wrought, intensely challenging book."—Joshua Piker, William and Mary Quarterly
"This exhilarating book is not just a pleasure to read; important and challenging ideas circulate through it and compel attention. It is a nuanced account of the complex social, cultural, and biological interactions that the acquisition of the horse unleashed in North America, and a brilliant analysis of a Comanche social formation that dominated the Southern Plains. Parts of the book will be controversial, but the book as a whole is a tour de force."—Richard White, author of The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815
"Hämäläinen not only puts Native Americans back into the story but also gives them—particularly the Comanche—recognition as major historical players who shaped events and outcomes."—Sherry Smith, Southern Methodist University, author of Reimagining Indians:
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One must work through the terminology and personal/place names. Remember it is somewhat popularized history and you will be drawn right on in.
The Comanches owed their rise to numerous exigencies and geographic circumstances. The introduction of the horse into Southwestern North America by the Spanish in the early 17th century altered native, and specifically, Comanche existence. "The horse represented a new way to tap energy," and it "redefined the realm of the possible" for the southwestern empire (25). Comanches became expert equestrians and horse breeders by the dawn of the 19th century. They utilized the horse for warfare, raiding, and commerce. Comanches utilized their skill to frequently raid Spanish settlements and entrepôs in New Mexico and Texas. The "blending of violence and trade had become commonplace on the New Mexico-Comanche border" by the late 18th century (81). In addition, the Comanches tapped into an extensive slave network, using the men, women and children of various Native American tribes and European colonial settlements for both labor and blackmail for trade.
Moreover, Comanche influence came to dominate New Mexico. Comanches alternated between "raiding and trading" to not only achieve military and economic superiority over New Mexico, but also to establish various diplomatic relationships with both native groups and European colonizers. For example, their early alliance with the Ute Native Americans allowed them to overrun Spanish trading posts as well as locate ecologically beneficial environments for the maintenance of their expanding human and horse populations. Their diplomatic relationships are reminiscent of the Realpolitik techniques of Otto von Bismarck in Germany well over a century and a half later. Comanches maintained alliances until they realized they could overrun their allies and pull them into or extract them from their economic sphere. The Comanches were also able to play European imperialists off on one another in order to benefit from trade.
Additionally, the Comanches utilized "gifting" as a means of coercion to maintain Spanish acquiescence and peaceful co-existence until they were finally able to run the Spanish out of the region by the early 19th century. Furthermore, the Comanches established trade relationships with the French in Louisiana and eventually with the burgeoning American Empire in the early 1800's as a means of weapons procurement and other goods including dyes, clothing and foodstuffs. In addition, as Hamalainen points out, native and Spanish populations had a "deeply conflicted attitude toward the Comanches," despising raids yet enjoying the numerous goods procured by the Comanches from various trading posts and fairs (84).
Hamalainen also does a fine job incorporating Alfred Crosby's analysis of the impact of flora and fauna upon the North American continent. He shows how disease was at times a benefit and a detriment to Comanche imperialization. Small pox epidemics wiped out Comanche populations "in 1799, 1808, 1816, 1839, 1848, and 1851," destabilizing their regime (179). However, such diseases took a toll on other populations as well, including the Wichitas, permitting "the mobile Comanches" to evade the threat while eventually eradicating the Wichata (96). However, such diseases also struck critical food supplies including the bison for which the Comanches were reliant as a predominant food supply. Because the Comanche culture viewed bison as central to their diet, while venison and maize were viewed as secondary or even as emergency foodstuffs, they not only over-hunted the animals, but also felt the effects of severe droughts that wiped out numerous herds by the early to mid 19th century. This element, combined with the rise and expansion of the technologically superior U.S. state, fragmented and eventually destroyed Comanche social, political and market structures.
Hamalainen's book is an amazing array of new findings and interpretations that require much more than a single page analysis. His evaluations of Comanche views toward race as well as Comanche views toward gender are also refreshing. Rarely do we get the opportunity to view a Native American society that was not only an imperialistic power that challenged and usurped European powers, but also a complex governing and commercial entity that inadvertently opened the gateway for American domination of the continent. The Comanches were a dynamic cultural, economic, social, diplomatic and militaristic machine that rivaled and for a time surpassed the empires that historians so often dwell upon as history's greatest powers.