Empire of the Comanche

The period of Comanche domination of Texas, New Mexico, northern Mexico, and much of the American West between 1750 and 1850 is just a passing footnote in American and Mexican history, but it provides an interesting perspective on many important historical questions, notably the history of the Eurasian steppe and the role of violence in long-distance trade.

My information about the Comanches comes from Hämäläinen’s The Comanche Empireand Gwynn’s Empire of the Summer Moon. Of these two authors, Gwynn especially emphasizes  the brutality of the Comanches, and Jared Diamond and others have recently revived the claim that life in prestate societies is usually bloody and violent.  However, with a better understanding of the historical status of violence and of  aristocratic men of violence in human history, the violence of the Comanches will be seen to  have been pretty much normal.

Completely secure in their home territory on the Llano Estacado in northwestern Texas, western Oklahoma, and neighboring areas of Kansas, New Mexico, and Colorado, the Comanches held Spanish New Mexico as a tributary vassal, raided northern Mexico and lowland Texas with impunity, and controlled trade in much of the American West, within which Comanche became the trade language.  For many Native Americans in the West Comanche markets were the main source for the goods of European America, while for European America they were a source of such goods as buffalo robes, buffalo meat, and slaves, but especially horses: the Comanche territory included the best pasture in North America.

From the perspective of Asian history Comancheria seems very similar to the various small, short-lived nomad / Chinese states which would fill power vacuums in north China during the periods of division, passing from existence once a strong Chinese dynasty arose. A comparison can also be made as well the Bulgar and Khazar trade states that arose north of the Black and Caspian seas during the second half of the first millenium AD. These states were founded by nomad raiders akin to the Huns, but they  eventually became nodes in a relatively peaceful trade network reaching from Greenland to China, the Middle East, and India, and ultimately to the Mongol trade empire that dominated  half of Eurasia. These states were much larger and longer-lived than Comancheria, but they suggest a development trajectory which might have been possible under different historical circumstances.

Spain was the first of the Western powers to lay claim to Comancheria, but Spanish control of New Mexico and Texas after the 1680 Pueblo revolt was very insecure . Starting about 1720 the French (who claimed the Mississippi valley) challenged Spanish control, but in 1763 France lost almost all of its North American possessions and Spain acquired most of French Louisiana (the west bank of the Mississippi and points west).  By this time, however, Spanish New Mexico was more or less under Comanche control and Spanish Texas was at the Comanches’s mercy, and the Spanish claim to Louisiana was virtually meaningless.

In 1783 the British claims east of the Mississippi and south of Canada passed to the United States, and in 1803 France recovered Louisiana from Spain and immediately sold it to the US.  However, the American claim was initially hardly more real than the Spanish claim had been, especially because the United States had to deal almost immediately with the British invasion of 1812. Whatever plans Spain had to gain control of its territory were ended by the Mexican Revolution of 1820, and the new Mexican state’s plans in that regard were quickly challenged by the rise of the Republic of Texas and by the Mexican War. The Mexican War was followed almost immediately by the Civil War, and in 1865 the victorious Union Armies had their hands full pacifying Texas, and for that reason signed a treaty favorable the Comanches. Finally, as soon as the Texans were quiet, the full power of General Sherman’s army was directed at the Comanches, and by 1874 their century of power was ended.

Despite the various European claims, during this period Comancheria controlled a large area and functioned as a state, signing treaties with the French in 1746, with the Spaniards in Santa Fe in 1754  and 1786, with Texas Republic in 1836 and 1843, and with the United States in 1865. These treaties were mostly favorable to the Comanches, since the Comanches were  the stronger party up until 1865 (and in fact, according to a visitor, believed that they were the most powerful people in the world), they interpreted the treaties as they saw fit. This is the explanation for a puzzling and bothersome thing about Comanche behavior: How could they negotiate so reasonably at one moment, and then at a later time behave with appalling brutality? There is really no mystery: the Comanches were the stronger party granting favors, and the westerners were their subject peoples, and from time to time imperialists have to get strict with their subjects. For the moment, it was the European-Americans who were the victims of unequal treaties unfairly enforced,as if Comancheria were a legitimate sovereign state like Spain, France, or England.

After the 1680 Pueblo revolt the Native American peoples had acquired horses, and the Comanches were the first to master their use.  Very quickly they developed a pastoral way of life (complete with cavalry warfare) which sharply contrasted with their earlier hunter-and-gatherer lifestyle in the Great Basin. From their new homeland in the Llano Estacado they became the major power over a large area and remained so for most of two centuries.  Their cavalry armies were almost irresistible and their raids could be horrifyingly savage, but (like the Vikings, the Mongols, the Venetians, the Hellenes, and 19th century Europeans) they were not merely raiders and plunderers, but also the center of a large trading network which included St. Louis, New Orleans, Santa Fe,  Pembina on the Canadian border, and a number of smaller towns. Roughly speaking, they held Comancheria as their homeland, dominated the areas north and west of them as their sphere of influence, held the Santa Fe area as a vassal, and plundered Texas and North Mexico (possibly as a step on the way toward making them vassals too), and engaged in foreign trade at Pembina, St Louis, New Orleans, and a few other places.

Not only were the material culture and lifestyle of the Comanches similar to that of the Mongols and other Asian steppe nomads, so were their foreign relations: a diplomacy of shifting alliances, the alternation of sudden cavalry raids from a safe haven and peaceful trade, and the adoption of captive children to be raised as Comanches. The Comanches hunted buffalo rather than raising sheep, but all the evidence is that, even if the US Army had not destroyed their nation, they would eventually have been forced to shift from hunting to some sort of pastoralism. There is an old argument in anthropology about whether or not (and to what degree) cultures are formed by their physical environments and the kinds of economies that these environments make possible, and the development of Comanche nomadism seems to support the thesis that this influence is very considerable.

Frederick Lane, Niels Steensgaard, and Charles Tilly have written about the role of violence in the formation both of of international trading networks and of nation states. Lane described Venice’s Middle Age trade network in the eastern Mediterranean, the Black Sea, China and the Middle East; Steensgaard discussed early modern trade empires of the Portuguese, the Dutch, and the English; and Tilly wrote of the rise of the states of early modern Europe. Traders on the steppe or in international waters either had to have a capacity for violence, or local protectors with such a capacity, and if they could do so they not only protected their own traders but captured and plundered competing traders in order to gain a monopoly. Likewise, if trading partners refused to trade, traders could simply plunder them. Lane distinguishes between “negative protection” of trade (protecting your own traders) and “positive protection” (destroying competition the and giving your own traders an advantage), and he also develops a continuum model of trade based on power relations, with pure plunder at one end, free gifts at the other, pure free trade in the middle, and extortion, protection payments, tributes, taxes, and forced trade (semi-free exchange) lined up between plunder and free trade. The ideally non-violent free trade which free marketers take as typical is merely one particular form, and really can only occur when  power relations are such that neither side can benefit from the use of or the threat of force.

The state is “protection” writ large, and Tilly described the rise of the modern nation state in terms of the accumulation and centralization of wealth, on the one hand, and of military power on the other. It is to be noted that the states he studied with wealth but little centralized military power (the northern Italian city states and the Dutch Republic) eventually receded into the second rank, whereas Russia, always a poor nation per capita but with a huge, centralized military, remains powerful today. In any case, once these states were securely established they sent out their own raiders to the Americas, Africa, and Asia, and in the course of time succeeded in destroying, among others, the Comanches.

There is no nonviolent theory of the international relations or of the state, but theorists of these topics do not go into detail about the cruelty and brutality of the necessary violence. Gwynn stresses the Comanches’ cruelty, but the Comanches did not do to Texans anything that Europeans did to each other during, e.g., the Thirty Years War or the Inquisition. The Comanche atrocities are not about “barbarism”. What they did in Texas, an area whose control was being contested, were within the normal range of violence for the various earlier empires, nations, and states and must be viewed in that larger context. On the blood-drenched stage of world history  Comanche violence was well within the normal range . We are more aware of the Comanche violence because the victims were people like us, and because the survivors were literate in English. From this same period we have much less testimony from the African victims of the slave trade (or as far as that goes, from 20th-century Congolese), and unsurprisingly the testimony we do have is not as widely circulated.

Lane tentatively suggests the four-stage development of states. According to this theory, the Comanches were already at Stage Two with regard to their Santa Fe dependency and the Native Americans to their north and west, but still at Stage One (“anarchy and plunder”)  in the contested areas of  Texas and Northern Mexico. An alternate history could be written in which Comancheria passed through the other stages to become civilized frontier trading state like Bulgar, Khazaria, or Xixia, all of which were founded by nomadic trader-raiders. In order for this to have happened, a large number of things would have had to have been different, but if, for example, there had been no railroads or firearms, and if the United States still had to contest control of North America with an equally-powerful state, Comancheria might still be with us today.

John Emerson lives in Portland, Oregon. He can be reached at: John Emerson emersonj@gmail.com.


Many years ago I read Joseph Schumpeter’s “Sociology of Imperialism” for an undergraduate class, and his line of thinking still seems popular among economists and libertarians. Ideal capitalism is “unwarlike” and the imperialism of capitalist nations is  “motivated by primitive aggressive instincts”, “non-rational and irrational”, “atavistic in character” – “the heritage of the autocratic state” which will  inevitably disappear. In the light of Lane, Steensgaard and Tilly this seems like special pleading, the projection of a  Platonic ideal has never been actual. The medieval “peaceful bourgeois” of whom Schumpeter speaks was a subjugated bourgeois, dominated and intermittently dispossessed by his noble rulers. Capitalists normally work within the coercion  regime that is in place, and do not need to participate actively in the violence themselves as long as their activities are protected; they will be happy delegate the task and ride free if they can (treating law and order as a “free good”, in Lane’s words).

Furthermore, as Adam Smith pointed out, every individual capitalist is perfectly willing to undermine the capitalist system (for example, by gaining a monopoly or promoting a war) if there is profit in it for him personally. In uncontrolled international waters and frontier lands where traders needed to protect themselves (as in the cases of medieval Venice, ancient Athens, the medieval Vikings, or 19th century Comancheria), they made their own law, and nothing forces them to limit themselves to self defense or to eschew  “positive protection” and forced trade (piracy and plunder). And it might be added that traders who trade in slaves or weaponry, as most of the early long-distance traders did, cannot be called “peaceful” even if they themselves do not use weapons.


Gwynn informs us that (much to the displeasure of some of his Texan admirers) Theodore Roosevelt cultivated the friendship of the once greatly feared Comanche war chief Qanah Parker. This is not surprising: like many others in the 19th and the early 20th century, Roosevelt was a war lover  and success worshipper who only regretted the comic opera flavor of his own military exploits during the Spanish American War. In his foreword to Jeremiah Curtin’s 1907 book The Mongols,  after a long, worshipful recitation of the Mongol triumphs (and a comment about historians’ Eurocentrism), Roosevelt explicitly compares the Mongols to the Comanches. (Of course, Roosevelt does end the piece with the usual comments on the Mongols’ “ant-like or bee-like” power of joint action, the “maddening” Chinese bureaucracy they imposed, and the “hideous and noxious” consequences of their triumph).


Lane (p. 416) on “forced trade”:

“To the objection that a “forced sale” is really no “sale” at all, and that the concepts of exchange do not apply, it may be answered: (a) “Forced “is a matter of degree”. At one extreme the buyer may have the alternative of payment or death, or taking extreme chances of dying. This choice faces not only those who pay for “protection”, but also those who depend for water on a supplier who has a monopoly of the supply. During a desperate famine buyers of food have only this choice.  In some cases of illness patients are in this sense practically forced to agree to the fee asked….. (c) Calling the taxpayer a purchaser of protection is no more inadmissible than saying that the servile laborers of an eastern German landlord were ‘selling’ their labor service to their landlord, yet an economist describes that situation by saying: ‘The Lord of the manor was a monopsonist with a closed demand’…. When laborers had to work for the landlord at the wage he offered or else have no means of livelihood, there was a ‘forced sale’ with force in the hands of the buyer”.


Gwynn, S.C., Empire of the Summer Moon, Scribner, 2010.

Pekka Hämäläinen, The Comanche Empire, Yale, 2008.

Victoria Tin-bor Hui, War and State Formation in Early Modern Europe, Cambridge, 2005.

Sechin Jagchid, Peace, War, and Trade along the Great Wall, Indiana, 1989.

Frederick Lane, Venice and History, Johns Hopkins, 1966.

Louis Proyect, “The Political Economy of Comanche Violence”, http://louisproyect.org/2013/08/29/the-political-economy-of-comanche-violence/

Theodore Roosevelt, “Foreword” to Jeremiah Curtin, The Mongols, Combined Books, 1996 (1908).

Joseph Schumpeter, Imperialism and Social Classes, World Publishing Co., 1961.

Niels Steensgaard, The Asian Trade Revolution, Chicago, 1973.

Niels Steensgaard, “Violence and the Rise of Capitalism, Review of the Braudel Society, vol. V, #2, Fall 1981, pp. 247-273.

Charles Tilly, Coercion, Capital, and European States, Blackwell 1992.

Eric Wolf, Europe and the People Without History, California, 1982.