Mysteries of Primeval China, Part 1: Into the Labyrinth
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They subjugated Texas, collected tribute from Mexico, and made white people their slaves. Meet the Comanche — original conquerors of the Wild West.
For as long as anyone could remember, the people had roved freely across the open plains.
Here on the steppe-land, there were no walls to hem them in. No mountains to halt their wanderings. Only thousands of miles of wide-open prairie, stretching beyond the horizon in every direction.
And, of course, the bison. Those galloping, snorting giants grazed in herds a hundred thousand strong — so plentiful that it was said they spawned endlessly beneath the earth, charging forth onto the plains each spring to provide the people with meat, furs, leather and bone.
Life on these plains was not always easy. The winters could be brutal — especially when icy winds whipped across the open steppe, forcing the people to shiver inside smoke-choked tents of hide and fur. But for much of the year, the earth provided everything the people needed, in plenty. They walked on foot, following the herds of bison in their seasonal wanderings.
We do not know what name the people’s ancestors called themselves, or even what language they spoke; for they did not write. But as the centuries passed, many other peoples would migrate onto these vast prairies to pursue the same free-wandering life.
These nations of the Great Plains would come to be known by many names: the Apache and the Blackfoot. The Cheyenne and the Sioux. The Kiowa and the Cree. The Hidatsa and the Manden. The Pawnee and the Lakota.
While these peoples hailed from many different ancestries, spoke many unrelated languages, and frequently warred against one another, they were all connected by the simple fact that they called the Great Plains their home — depending on the same delicate ecosystem for survival and sustenance.
As you discovered in my article “Pirates on a Sea of Grass,” it’s very difficult to convey the sheer mind-boggling vastness of steppe culture — both in space and in time. Much like the plains of Central Asia, the North American prairies extend for thousands of miles, stretching from southern Texas all the way up to Saskatchewan; from the plateaus of Colorado to the woods of Missouri.
These flat grasslands could be crossed easily on foot; and prior to the 1700s they contained scarcely a single town or road. Herds of bison vastly outnumbered humans — who lived much as their predecessors had for more than 30,000 years, ever since the melting Ice-Age snows had opened up this limitless land as a hunting ground.
And while no single nation ever conquered all the peoples of the prairie —
The mightiest of all Plains nations were the Comanche people, whose Empire of Comancheria spanned Colorado, Oklahoma and Texas — and even Northern Mexico.
The Comanche came from humble beginnings. Around 1000 CE, they began to split off from a great nation known today as the Uto-Aztecan people, whose original homeland probably lay somewhere in the southern Great Plains, possibly reaching all the way down into Central America.
Across five hundred years — from the 1000s to the 1500s — the ancestral Uto-Aztecan people gradually split into four major groups:
The first of these Uto-Aztecan groups, the Shoshones, traveled north to settle in the Great Basin of Nevada, Oregon and Utah.
The second branch, the Aztecs, pushed down into Central Mexico, where they founded their own great empire.
The third branch, known today as the Utes, migrated into Utah and New Mexico, where they built their reputation as expert traders.
And as for the fourth Uto-Aztecan branch —
In their own tongue, these nomadic hunters called themselves simply Nʉmʉnʉ: “The People.”
Musical accompaniment for this story:
At first, the Nʉmʉnʉ settled in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. This was an unforgiving land, too hilly to attract many bison, yet too arid to nourish most crops. For generations, this unassuming branch of Uto-Aztecan descendants eked out a desperate existence in these barren hills, balanced on the knife’s edge of starvation.
At last, in the 1600s, the Nʉmʉnʉ forged a political and military alliance with their Ute cousins. It was the Utes who gave the Nʉmʉnʉ the name that would soon reverberate like a thunderous gunshot across the Great Plains: “Comanche,” or more properly “Kɨmantsi” — “The Enemies.”
This new alliance between the “Comanche” and their Ute cousins brought many bands of warriors into conflict with the neighboring Navajo people.
Over the ensuing decades, Comanche fighters would become renowned as proficient in battle, famed for their practice of “counting coup” — rushing through battle lines to tap enemies with their bare hands, then escaping without a scratch.
But the Comanche alliance with Ute traders brought them not only war, but also contact with a newly arrived tribe of foreign invaders: the Spanish. Over the past century, Spanish missionaries and soldiers had been pushing northward onto the Great Plains — building towns, taking slaves, making religious converts when they could; and always seeking gold.
In the beginning, the Comanche were not particularly impressed with the Spanish. Comanche warriors admired the newcomers’ formidable weapons, to be sure — but like many steppe peoples throughout history, they viewed the town-dwellers’ comfortable lifestyle with contempt.
It was the Spanish who first introduced the Comanche to an animal they called “puuku” — or, in English, “horse.” When the Comanche mastered horses, they began to conquer the Great Plains.
“When they first got horses, the people did not know what they fed on. They would offer the animals pieces of dried meat, or would take a piece of back-fat and rub their noses with it, to try to get them to eat it. Then the horses would turn away and put down their heads, and begin to eat the grass of the prairie…”
— Wolf Calf, a warrior of the Piegan (“Blackfoot”) nation
As you learned in “Pirates on a Sea of Grass,” horses are nothing short of a real-world superpower to a people who’ve always walked on foot. All of a sudden, Comanche hunters could track game across dozens of square miles every day. Warriors could raid more distant enemies, carry bigger bags of loot, and transfer entire camps across far greater distances than ever before.
The Comanche adapted to their new superpower with almost inconceivable speed. Within a mere ten years, they’d overhauled their entire culture to be horse-centric — and engineered a self-sustaining society in which every man, woman and child could ride with flourish and skill.
Along with horses, the Comanche acquired guns — and they mastered these new long-range weapons with astonishing speed, too.
Much like the Scythians, Huns and Mongols of ancient Asia, Comanches put their babies in the saddle as soon as they learned to walk. In fact, these people lived on horseback until the day they died, to a degree that’s hard for us to even imagine in today’s mechanized world.
A Comanche warrior wouldn’t dream of traveling more than a few steps without leaping onto a nearby horse — or proposing marriage until he owned several dozen strong stallions. Favorite horses were far more than just beasts of burden — they were treated as members of the family, endowed with honorable names and painted in colorful designs.
And in battle, Comanches mastered tactics that any Hun or Mongol would’ve recognized: swinging down beneath their horses as they charged, firing beneath the animals’ chins with pinpoint accuracy — then wheeling around to flee and attack again before the enemy recovered.
And so it was that the American Plains were overrun by their own version of Central Asia’s steppe peoples. Comanche rifle-cavalry raided Spanish and Navajo towns throughout the 1700s, piling up horses and guns by the wagonload, and capturing valuable river valleys across the southern Plains.
Although the Comanche did not build walls or permanent settlements, they subjugated towns and farms from Colorado all the way down into Mexico — exacting yearly tributes of horses, guns, gold, blankets, and slaves.
On rancherias (Comanche camps) across northern Texas, thousands of these slaves tanned hides and drew water for their Comanche masters. By the mid-1800s, some of these noble Comanche households owned 200 horses — while the wealthiest chiefs might own 1,000 or more. This signified a major step up in wealth: horse herds were now commodities, to be hoarded and traded with an ever-expanding network of allies.
As slaves and horse-wealth accumulated, one might expect an aristocratic class to emerge — but instead, nomadic Comanche rulers began to look much more like Mongolian Khans. And so we find chiefs named “A Big Fat Fall by Tripping,” Tabequana (“Sun Eagle”), and Tutsayatuhovit (“Black Prairie Dog”) — whom observers described as “huge masses of flesh.”
A Comanche chief who gave a lot of gifts was known as a “big man” — which is also what the ancient Sumerians called their war-chiefs: “lugal,” literally “lu + gal” = “man, big”.
Much like a Sumerian lugal, a Comanche “big man” was a respected elder who dispensed advice — but administration of the village was assigned to a different leader, whom the Spanish called a “capitan chiquito” (“little captain”). Meanwhile, the job of aligning work on earth with the will of the gods fell to a man known as the “puhukatu” (“possessor of power”).
Comanche chiefs maintained their power not through any rigid social structure, but through loosely organized gift-giving networks.
In fact, Comancheria was organized along strikingly different terms from the sedentary societies of European colonialists — or, for that matter, from the Native towns of herders and farmers who the Comanche raided.
And it was this conflict of ideologies, far more than any competition over land or resources, that brought the Comanche into violent conflict with their Spanish and Mexican neighbors — and, later, with the people of the newly founded United States.
The violent intensity of these conflicts makes it easy to wonder whether cooperation between Comanche and American peoples far more than just a challenge — it may well have been a logical impossibility. Certain groups of people view the world through such diametrically opposed frameworks that peace between them may never have stood a chance at all.
Take, for example, the Judaeo-Christian framework in which the act of stealing is judged as a moral wrong. While we might not practice Judaism or Christianity ourselves, we’ve all grown up in societies where the statement, “flagrant property theft is morally wrong” is an axiomatic truth: it’s self-evident; beyond question.
What happens, then, when a society that believes stealing is wrong winds up sharing a border with a society that believes stealing is honorable — or even necessary as a rite of passage?
This isn’t an abstract thought experiment, of course — it was the stark reality faced by American colonists as they pushed westward into Comanche-controlled territory.
In Comanche society, theft within one’s own social group was regarded as a moral offense, and would have been punished accordingly. But at the same time, a Comanche youth could not hope to attain the status of a warrior — or even recognition as an adult — until he’d stolen a horse or captured a slave from a rival group.
Women would snicker and mock such a young man until he performed his first theft or capture. Other men would refuse to invite him along on raiding and hunting expeditions. He’d have very little hope of ever finding a woman willing to marry him. His prospects for fathering children and acquiring property were grim. He’d be condemned, in short, to live out the rest of his days as a man-child who never attained maturity.
What’s more, Comanche people believed that when two groups were allies, it was the moral duty of each group to agree to any reasonable trade the other proposed. If your group had surplus horses, for example, and your ally was in need of them, then it would be not only selfish, but morally wrong to refuse a reasonable trade for those horses.
The Comanche ideal, in fact, would be to simply give your ally the horses they needed, with the understanding that you’d ask for a gift in return someday — a gift that your ally would, in turn, be morally obligated to provide upon request.
Now, take a group with the moral framework just described, and make them live side-by-side with Christian European colonists who believe that a) personal property is sacred and inviolable, b) horse thieves deserve to be executed, and c) American Indians are a lesser species of human, who are divinely ordained to be subjugated, controlled — or even exterminated.
Even with the best intentions on both sides, this living arrangement was a keg of dry powder — primed to erupt at the first spark.
The situation on the ground, however, proved to be far more nuanced than a stark choice between peaceful coexistence or all-out war. Even as white European settlers lived in terror of Comanche raids, the Native and African slave classes frequently welcomed the Comanche as liberators.
Recognizing that African and Native slaves were eager to throw off their chains, Comanche raiders often freed these prisoners, promoted them to warriors — and gifted them white people to serve as slaves of their own!
Inhabitants of impoverished Mexican villages, meanwhile, found themselves paying lower taxes to Comanche “invaders” than to their far-off king and queen in Spain. The Comanche demanded very little of these villagers aside from a levee of yearly tribute — and as a result, by the mid-1800s, many Mexican towns had become more loyal to Comancheria than to their Spanish masters.
Newly installed Spanish governors frequently arrived to find their townspeople dressing in Comanche-style loincloths and body paint, speaking more Comanche than Spanish, and conspiring against Spanish armies by passing information to Comanche war parties.
Mexico might have been a Spanish province on paper — but the Comanche had no use for paper. For all practical purposes, northern Mexico was a province of the Comanche Empire.
Yet although Comanche-controlled territory sprawled from northern Mexico all the way to southern Kansas, the “empire” of Comancheria was always a loose collection of tributary towns, trading partners, political satellites and periodic military allies — never a centrally administered nation-state.
Comancheria had no hard borders, few roads, an inconsistent taxation system, and no central treasury or state granary. For all these reasons, Comancheria’s vast wealth and military prowess would prove insufficient to deal with a series of rapid changes in ecology, population, and geopolitics.
Disease struck the first blows against Comancheria. Throughout the mid-1800s, a series of epidemics killed thousands of Comanche warriors — along with countless wives, children, captives and slaves.
Comanche raiding parties bolstered their numbers by capturing and freeing more African and Native slaves than ever before — and by the 1830s, Comancheria’s free population was still holding steady around 20,000 (plus a few thousand slaves and war-captives), making the Comanches by far the most populous nation on the American Plains.
However, such a massive population is a double-edged sword: on one hand, Comanches could field enormous cavalry forces, which meant they could collect vast heaps of yearly tribute. But the majority of that wealth was quickly drained off into gift-giving networks — which were necessary not only to secure support from Comancheria’s military aristocracy, but also to keep allies and trading partners loyal to the empire.
And of course, aristocrats and allies are always hungry for greater wealth. To keep their trade networks growing, Comanches were compelled to open their bison hunting grounds — the life-blood of the empire — to populous allied nations like the Osages, Cherokees, Chickasaws, Choctaws and Creeks.
Some Comanche allies, like the Shawnee and Kickapoo, all but gave up war to become full-time bison hunters, building up a specialized trade in bison meat and hides.
Since time immemorial, Comanches and their ancestors had believed that the bison herds were quite literally infinite in number — spawning in sacred caves beneath the earth each winter, and charging forth in their hundreds of thousands each spring: an inexhaustible supply of meat, hides, furs, leather and bone, ripe for the taking.
In fact, they weren’t far wrong. Back in the 1500s, an estimated 30 to 60 million bison had thrived on the Great Plains — and even by the early 1800s, the shaggy beasts may still have numbered in the millions. Ecologists estimate that the Comanches and their allies could have killed as many as 280,000 bison every year without depleting the herds.
But by the 1840s, the Comanche alone were killing upwards of 100,000 bison each year — while hunters like the Shawnee were slaying hundreds of thousands more. The Plains’ ecosystem began to implode.
By the time American settlers swept westward across the Great Plains, Comancheria had already become an ecological and economic train-wreck. The bison population was in out-of-control free-fall — forcing Comanches to barter away their monopolies on even more hunting grounds, which only accelerated the vicious spiral of depredation and die-off.
Without the bison, Comancheria succumbed to starvation. Warriors and their families died by the thousands — falling victim to hunger in far greater numbers than they’d ever perished in war.
And without warriors, Comancheria’s noble houses could no longer mount seasonal raiding expeditions — which meant they lost control over their vassal towns in Texas and Mexico, along with the all-important yearly tribute those towns paid.
With no income to sustain Comancheria’s gift-giving networks, alliances evaporated almost literally overnight. In just a few short years, almost all other Plains nations jumped from the sinking Comanche ship, to form new partnerships with one another — or, reluctantly, with the growing foreign power known as the United States.
Soon even the wealthiest Comanche families found themselves trading away their luxuries, horses and slaves for basic necessities like food and shelter.
In 1852, an American “Indian agent” named Horace Capron reported that the populations of many Comanche settlements numbered no more than a few hundred miserable survivors:
“[The Comanches are] suffering with extreme hunger, bordering on starvation. [The chiefs say], ‘The game, our main dependence, is killed and driven off, and we are forced into the most sterile and barren portions of [the Plains] to starve. We see nothing but extermination left for us, and we await the result with stolid indifference. Give us a country we can call our own, where we might bury our people in quiet.'”
Grim words, indeed, for chiefs who had commanded armies a thousand strong just twenty years earlier.
But even in such desperate straits, many Comanches still refused to surrender to despair. Younger warriors predicted — correctly, as it turned out — that the United States had no intention of allowing them to remain in their ancestral homeland as a sovereign nation. Their only hope of independence, they realized, lay in active resistance.
Fanatical religious movements arose among the starving Comanches in Oklahoma and Texas — who launched an all-out guerilla war against the colonialist invaders.
Except now, the Comanche fighters faced not one single enemy, but three. Even as settlers from the United States pushed westward across the Great Plains, General Santa Anna’s army was tightening its grip on the poor villages that dotted Mexico’s northern provinces.
Squarely in the middle, the newly independent Republic of Texas (founded in 1836 after defeating Santa Anna’s army) was now building its own military forts along the Trinity and Rio Grande rivers. Enemies though they were, all three of these colonial powers sought to exterminate the Comanches who “infested” the lands they had claimed for their own.
Comanche warriors still fought just as expertly with horse and rifle as they always had — but now only a few hundred fighters remained; and they had no network of wealthy Native allies to back their campaigns.
The Comanches’ enemies, too, had grown vastly in power and organization. By the 1850s, the United States had evolved from a loose collection of farming colonies into an industrial powerhouse — its population beyond counting, as the bison had once been; its cities interlinked by fast-moving railroad lines, speaking through the eerie magic of the telegraph.
Northern Mexico remained impoverished and poorly defended — but to reach its towns and ranches, northern Comanches now had to pass through the well-fortified Republic of Texas. Although Texas was still a sparsely populated frontier nation, European settlers were streaming into its lands by the thousands, lured by promises of cheap farmsteads, generous land grants, and military protection against Comanche raids.
Now that they had Texas to deal with, northern and southern Comanches were cut off from one another — unable to share resources or coordinate their attacks. This would prove to be a fatal blow for Comancheria.
Not even the most well-equipped, brilliantly coordinated guerilla force could have sustained a three-pronged war against Mexico, Texas and the U.S. simultaneously — and by the 1860s, the surviving Comanche war-bands were neither well-equipped nor coordinated. Starvation and poverty had rendered them impatient, hotheaded, and riven by internal rivalries.
“White men began to fence the plains so that we could not travel; and anyhow there was… nothing to travel for. We began to stay in one place, and to grow lazy and sicker all the time. Our men had fought hard against our enemies, holding them back from our beautiful country by their bravery; but now with everything else going wrong… our men, our leaders, began to drink the white man’s whiskey, letting it do their thinking.”
— Pretty Shield, a warrior of the Crow nation
Even despite all these handicaps, Comanche cavalry remained a force to be reckoned with in Oklahoma, Texas and northern Mexico. As late as the 1870s — well after the conclusion of the American Civil War — Comanche chiefs like Santanta, Tebenanaka and Quanah Parker were still living free in the Texas wilderness, leading raids on ranches and settlements, capturing horses and cattle by the hundreds.
Only in this late period did the Comanche acquire perhaps their most enduring legacy in American folklore — their infamous reputation as frontier bogeymen who scalped white farmers, raped virginal women, and occasionally murdered innocent children.
While there’s no question that some Comanches did perpetrate such acts, it’s much less clear who actually performed the murders and scalpings, and why.
There’s no clear proof that any Comanche chief ever pre-planned or directly ordered the scalpings of civilians. In fact, when chiefs like Quanah Parker were questioned about these atrocities, they repeatedly insisted that such acts nauseated them. The perpetrators, these chiefs maintained, were half-mad renegade warriors who slaughtered innocents in the froth of battle — and would be hunted down and prosecuted as war criminals.
Of course, these chiefs’ testimony doesn’t prove much about the true causes of these atrocities, one way or the other. For one thing, any such orders would have been given verbally, not in written form.
But even if the chiefs did manage to capture and punish the culprits, at least some Comanche raiding parties continued to rape, scalp and murder white settlers throughout the latter half of the 19th century.
As with so many tragic atrocities throughout history, the responsibility for each scalping may not have lain with any single person, but in a combination of factors — anger, desperation, fear and a hunger for revenge — that spiraled out of control in the heat of the moment. In war, hair-trigger impulses can abruptly manifest as irreversible crimes (e.g., the 1968 My Lai Massacre in Vietnam).
And Comanche warriors certainly had plenty of cause for rage. As if their hunger and poverty weren’t infuriating enough, the U.S. and Texas — which joined into a single nation in 1845 — were systematically pushing the Plains nations off their ancestral homelands.
From 1831 to 1850, U.S. soldiers force-marched thousands of Cherokee people — allies and friends of the Comanche — to barren reservations where they froze and starved to death. White soldiers raped many Cherokee women on this Trail of Tears. They separated children from weeping mothers at bayonet-point, while fathers died of miserable diseases like dysentery and typhus.
“Murder is murder, and somebody must answer, somebody must explain the streams of blood that flowed in the Indian country in the summer of 1838. Somebody must explain the four thousand graves that mark the trail of the Cherokees to their exile… Let the historian of a future day tell the sad story with its sighs, its tears and dying groans. Let the great Judge of all the earth weigh our actions and reward us according to our work.”
— John G. Burnett, U.S. Army interpreter on the Trail of Tears
In fact, even the practice of scalping itself may have first been perpetrated by white settlers against Native peoples, rather than the other way around.
As early as 1616, colonial authorities in New Spain (Mexico) as well as Connecticut and Massachusetts had offered bounties for the scalps of Native men, women and children. By 1692, France was also regularly paying for Native scalps — as were numerous British colonies.
The ostensible purpose of scalp bounties was to reward colonists for fighting back against Native raiders. But provincial authorities seem to have been uninterested in examining the scalps very closely. Some governors and generals in the U.S. and Mexico gladly paid out bounties for the scalps of any Native people — even members of tribes who were allied with the colonists.
In events like 1851’s Tehama Massacre and 1864’s Sand Creek Massacre, American troops scalped and murdered hundreds of Native men, women and children. Many soldiers wrote eyewitness letters to their loved ones about these acts — and a number of U.S. Army officers proudly displayed Native scalps, ears, bones and other body parts as war trophies:
“The dead bodies of women and children were afterwards mutilated in the most horrible manner. I saw only eight. I could not stand it; they were cut up too much…they were scalped and cut up in an awful manner…. White Antelope’s nose, ears, and privates were cut off.”
— Private David Louderback, First Cavalry
American commanders would deny responsibility for these scalpings, claiming they were perpetrated by rogue soldiers acting against orders — the exact same defense, in other words, that Comanche chiefs gave.
It’s all too easy, at a remove of 150 years, to look back on these atrocities and judge both Americans and Comanches as war criminals. Perhaps it’s too much to ask that we try to empathize — with Comanche warriors who’d watched American troops gun down their friends in cold blood; or with U.S. soldiers whose wives and children lived in mortal terror of Comanche scalpers …or with people on both sides of that equation.
But of course, these frontier battles aren’t just long-dead history. They have an all-too-familiar ring to those of us who watch the international news. To this very day, bands of riflemen on horseback slaughter American soldiers in the Central Asian wilderness — that ancient homeland of the Scythians and Huns — while U.S. interrogators torture and mutilate the chieftains they suspect of ordering these attacks.
As the great historian Will Durant wrote, modernity has never replaced savagery — it’s just a thin, cracking coat of paint we’ve applied on top.
Although the tale of the Comanche Empire doesn’t exactly have a happy ending, I’ll try to close this story — and the “Great North American Empires” series — on somewhat of a high note.
A full 15,000 Comanche people still live in the United States — around three-fourths of their peak population during the empire’s golden age.
Many live on a large reservation in Oklahoma, where they operate their own national government, teach their children the old tongue (which you can learn for free on Duolingo!) — and tell tales of their ancestors’ conquests across the Great Plains.
As for the bison, their population is slowly recovering from the depredations of white and Native hunters. A mere 20,000 wild bison live in North America today — but they’ve been a federally protected species since 1907, and their free-ranging herds are actively cared for by a number of organizations, including several Native nations.
Of course, we’ll never know how history might have played out differently if European colonialists had found ways of living side-by-side, as equals, with the free-roving nations of the Plains.
But even if such an arrangement was impossible within the ideologies of the 1800s, a recent wave of scholarship is inspiring newfound admiration not only for the Comanche Empire, but for many Native nations who once ruled in North America.
As I said in Part 1 of this series, this “New World” is one of the oldest worlds on earth. The North American continent has played host to more than 40,000 years of human society — from the stone-age hunters of Alaska to the mud-brick citadels of Colorado; from the towering pyramids of medieval Missouri to the mighty mercantile leagues of the Hudson Valley, to the vast empires of the Great Plains, to the dozens of Native nations who still preserve their ancient languages, religions and ways of life to this day.
If there’s one message you take away from this entire series, I hope it’s this —
Europeans did not colonize an untouched wilderness. They invaded a continent inhabited by millions of people — heirs to thousands of years of civilization.
The fact that European colonialists failed to recognize Native Americans as “civilized” is no fault of Native peoples, whose ways of life were brilliantly adapted to the ecosystems they called home. It was the Europeans, remember, who would have starved to death their first winter at Plymouth — if Native people hadn’t stepped in and saved their lives.
We may never be able to undo the damage inflicted by Europeans on Native nations. What could possibly serve as adequate compensation for an entire world destroyed? At the very least, though, we can try to learn from the mistakes of our collective past.
It’s time to recognize that Native peoples are not curiosities to be fetishized — but are the true masters and rightful heirs of the North American continent.
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