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Pale Horse Revelations #58 - The Comanche

Hello readers and welcome back to Pale Horse Revelations. where we explore significant people, places, and events in Old West history. While I make no promises, don't be surprised if some of these places, people, or events find their way into future Pale Rider adventures.

Together, we've spent countless hours delving into the stories of famous cowboys and lawmen and equally infamous outlaws. But the frontier lands where their stories took place was occupied long before any of these legendary characters (or their immediate ancestors) were even born. Long before the arrival of European settlers, the North American continent was home to countless Native American tribes, each with their own language and customs.

Arguably, one of the most prominent tribes found west of the Mississippi were the mighty Comanche. At the height of their power Comanche territory included most of present-day northwestern Texas and adjacent areas in eastern New Mexico, southeastern Colorado, southwestern Kansas, and western Oklahoma. The Spanish colonists who first encountered them called this territory Comanchería.

The Comanche's autonym (or the name by which they refer to themselves) is nʉmʉnʉʉ, meaning "the human beings" or "the people." They were first referred to as Comanche in a 1706 report filed by Spanish officials indicating that the tribe was preparing to attack Pueblo settlements in southern Colorado. The Ute tribe called "the people" kimantsi, which means enemy. The Spanish adopted the term but spelled it the way it was pronounced in Spanish, thus yielding Comanche.

The Comanche were originally part of the Shoshone people of the Great Basin. Their language (Numic) originated as a Shoshoni dialect. During the Shoshonean Expansion that language group spread across the Great Basin and over the mountains into Wyoming. Over time and due to both distance and other encroaching tribes, segments of the Shoshone became isolated and developed their own divergent culture. Among these were the Comanche.

The horse was a key element in the emergence of this distinctive culture. The various Plains people first acquired horses sometime after the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, but it took considerable time for them to become numerous. As late as 1725 Comanche were reported to use large dogs to carry their bison hide tents, rather than horses. But perhaps no tribe embraced the horse as quickly or more fundamentally than the Comanche. Some scholars suggest that the Comanche broke away from the Shoshone and moved south in search of additional horses among the settlers of New Spain. Such theories are, of course, almost impossible to prove. But what is certain is that the Comanche have the longest documented existence as horse-mounted Plains peoples. In fact, they had horses when other tribes, such as the Cheyenne, still lived in lodges made of dirt.

The horse was key a component of the Comanche economy and they provided horses and mules to all who could pay for them. They were selling horses to Anglo-American traders as early as 1795. By the mid-19th century, Comanche horses were being brought into St. Louis by other Native tribes (acting as middlemen) that included the Seminoles, Osage, and Shawnee. But beyond this, a Comanche man's wealth was determined by the size of his herd.

The horse was equally important in the development of two other key components of Comanche culture, hunting and warfare. Horses made the nomadic lifestyle of the Comanche easier as horses were faster, easier to control, and stronger than the large dogs previously used to move camp. This aided with hunting, warfare, and moving camp. Larger dwellings became possible due to the ability of horses to pull and carry more belongings. Following and hunting bison herds became easier from horseback.

But perhaps the biggest impact horses had on Comanche culture revolved around warfare. Comanche raids were often launched for the specific purpose of stealing horses. And the Comanche did not discriminate when it came to who they raided. They stole herds numbering in the hundreds during raids against other tribes, Spanish, Mexican, and American settlements. At one time, or another, the Comanche were at war with every other Native American group living on the South Plains.

Not only were horses the primary motivation for warfare they were also the primary means for conducting those wars. The Comanche developed strategies for using traditional weapons for fighting on horseback. To this day the Comanche are counted among the greatest mounted warriors in history.

It was common practice to take prisoners during their raids. One of three fates usually awaited these prisoners. Some were used as slaves. Others were sold to Spanish or Mexican settlers. But many were adopted into the tribe. It is estimated that thousands of captives from raids on Spanish, Mexican, and American settlements were assimilated into Comanche society.

While the Comanche were initially valued as trading partners, they soon became feared for their indiscriminate raids. Their lack of allies left them vulnerable to political maneuvering by European powers and the United States. The Comanche waged several conflicts against the encroaching settlers and the governments that supported them, but several factors ultimately led to their decline in power and the cessation of any major presence in the Great Plains.

First, was the sheer number of settlers that encroached on the area from the East. Second, was the impact of the diseases that these settlers brought with them. The Comanche were nearly annihilated by a wave of epidemics due to diseases to which they had no immunity. Among the deadliest were smallpox, measles, and cholera. Outbreaks of smallpox in 1817 and 1848 and a cholera outbreak in 1849 took a heavy toll. The Comanche population dropped from around 20,000 in the late 18th century to just a few thousand by the 1870s.

The third and final factor in the demise of the Comanche was the hunting of the bison to near extinction. In the late 1860s the US government promised to stop the buffalo hunters who were decimating the once numerous herds of the Plains if the Comanche (and other tribes) agreed to move to a reservation totaling less than 5,000 square miles. This was one more promise that the US government failed to make good on. This failure led to several attempts at rebellion by various Native tribes and ultimately more bloodshed and heartache. Just ten years later the buffalo were on the verge of extinction, effectively ending the Comanche way of life. In 1875 the last free band of Comanches, led by Quanah Parker, surrendered and were moved to the Fort Sill reservation in Oklahoma.

This brings us to the end of another edition of Pale Horse Revelations. I hope you found it to be both interesting and entertaining. As usual, I have tried to provide some interesting historical information while trying not to bog the casual reader down with too much detail. But even more than usual, I feel like I have barely scratched the surface when it comes to this amazing culture. There is so much that I simply could not include without far exceeding the intended scope of this work. I strongly encourage everyone to dig in and do a little research of their own. I don't think you will be disappointed.

  As a reminder, I would love to hear your suggestions for topics to focus on in future editions of Pale Horse Revelations. If there's a particular location, person, or event that you would like to know more about, please let me know. Just fill out the Contact form found on the "Contact the Author" page of this website and indicate your desired topic in the message box at the bottom of the form. I look forward to hearing from you all.

  Please be sure to check back next week for the next installment of Pale Horse Revelations and thank you for your continued interest and support.


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