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BOOKS: Record set straight about the lords of buffalo country; Comanche Empire by Pekka Hamalainen. Yale, pounds 25. Reviewed by RICHARD EDMONDS.


During the Territorial claims of the 18th and 19th centuries, at the high point of Imperial struggles for supremacy in North America, an indigenous empire rose to great promise in the southern Great Plains and Northern Mexico.

This was the Comanche empire - big enough to suppress all its Native American rivals and hugely impressive in terms of its military prowess, political prestige, economic power, commercial reach and cultural influence.

We hear much about the Sioux, the Apaches and the Pawnee Indians and very little about anyone else. In fact, it is these peoples who usually surround John Wayne in the classic Westerns, yet of the Comanches - aristocrats among their people, little is known. Therefore, Pekka Hamlainen's richly detailed and fascinating book is doubly welcome, since it sets the record straight.

This story of an empire built and lost eventually (in about 1875) details the Comanches who, as long ago as the 18th century, were lords of the buffalo country. Hugely competent horsemen and sufficiently clever as combatants, they colonised the southern plains in epic military fashion, seizing land from the Apaches in bloody attacks which were devastatingly successful.

They were apparently random strikes but in reality were planned with military skill, which the invading Spanish military occupation found to be petrifying.

For example, after attacking and disabling an enemy, the Comanche warriors, working in a light formation, rode hell for leather for dozens of miles into tribal safety.

Why they survived all this and became a military might is explained carefully by the author as a combination of several key factors that stemmed from a dynamic economic and social core suggesting that the Comanches embraced gladly innovation.

The pinnacle of Comanche diplomacy was carried within a breathtaking network of political alliances with other tribes and forged in the 1750s. This changed a naturally militaristic people, which the Comanches were, into the masters of several key trade routes that eventually marginalised commercially the colonial Spaniards and the all-powerful Apache.

It gave the Comanche access to guns, powder, lead shot and European goods along the trade route. It meant they could play off the Spaniards against their French rivals.

In time, as the equestrian development of these magnificent people flourished, trade took an upturn along the Texas-Comanche borders.

Spanish trade brought diplomats on visits to Comanche ranches and in turn Comanche trade convoys visited the Texas border towns.

By 1806 alone, more than 2,000 Comanches visited San Antonio to barter bison products and Apache captives. Presumably these human beings were swapped for horses, clothing and the iron tools the Comanches required.

Spanish officials regulated the great trading fairs along the borders that distributed abundant presents to the Comanche chiefs such as medals, walking canes, uniforms, flags, tobacco and, naturally, large supplies of guns. And so did the Spanish border hierarchy take Apache slaves, men, women and children into their households? The matter rests.

Trade grew impressively until by the early 19th century, Comanche wealth was prodigious and the horse-to-person ratio was placed at three to four horses per person as we today have a ratio of two cars at least per family.

But by the mid 19th century the Comanches had turned from buffalo meat as a staple diet and were eating horseflesh, using the hides both for clothing and tent manufacture.

They mixed Texas longhorn cattle with imported English breeds and produced good meat for the great cattle drives of the 1860s.

There were astonishing concessions in all, which make this book electrifying. One of the aftermaths of the American Civil War was that large numbers of Texans were imprisoned, thus depriving ranches and homesteads of a viable workforce. By 1865 huge herds of untended cattle wandered free in Texas.

The Comanches seized the opportunity and appropriated for themselves both cattle and land. Eventually the United States pushed the Comanche nation aside during the massive territorial re-distribution. The legacy of the Comanche empire has left its mark on the configuration of the North America's ethnic stock.

Political problems of racial identification do not go away and the notion of what is an American remains unresolved.

Comanche wealth was prodigious and the horse-to-person ratio was placed at three to four horses per person, as we today have a ratio of two cars at least per family


The Comanche tribesmen were the lords of buffalo country, who colonised the southern plains of North America
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Aug 2, 2008
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