“THE COMANCHE INDIANS. One of the largest of the nomadic tribes, the Comanches moved about their hunting territory in a carefree manner. Their superb horsemanship, dashing courage, and craftiness in battle made them formidable foes. Their stocky muscular bodies gave them a fine appearance, although they lacked the usual primitive interest in dress and decoration. They were shrewd traders, and in later years they bartered their fine horses for white man’s trade goods. The Comanches are here shown as they pass the prairie landmark known as Pawnee Rock in what is now Barton County, Kansas. Pawnee rock is an outcropping of sandstone on the north side of the Arkansas River near the old Santa Fe Trail. Wagon trains were often surprised and attacked by Indians who waited behind the rock.”
“NOMANDIC PRAIRIE INDIANS. Most of the tribes living west of central Kansas never had fixed villages. They traveled over the prairie grasslands, living in temporary teepee camps, wherever food was most abundant and enemies were least likely to discover them. Before the white man brought horses to America, the Indians’ few belongings were carried on their backs and by dog pack, but the advent of the horse brought many changes in the customs of these wandering hunters. Tribal warfare increased as the use of the horse allowed them to invade the hunting lands of other groups. Tribes became larger and more powerful for greater protection and for strength in raiding enemy camps, to battle and to plunder.”
A Modern View
Originally inhabiting the Great Basin region west of the Rocky Mountains, Comanche ancestors migrated into Wyoming in the early seventeenth century. In the meantime, the Spanish established a colonial outpost in New Mexico where they exploited and missionized the Pueblo peoples. They also introduced domesticated animals like horses.
Horses spread northward along Indigenous trade routes. This process received a boost in 1680 after the Spanish temporarily abandoned the Southwest following the Pueblo Revolt, leaving their herds behind. The Comanche recognized the utility of these animals. As discussed in the original text, prior to the introduction of horses, Indigenous people hunted on foot and had only dogs to use as pack animals. Horses made it possible for tribes to span great distances, which facilitated bison hunting but also brought new conflicts as disparate tribes met and competed over resources.
Migrating onto the southern Plains, the Comanche embraced a nomadic equestrian lifestyle by the mid-eighteenth century. As noted in the original text, they became skilled riders and horse breeders. Their prowess as mounted warriors led them to dominate the southern Plains by the early nineteenth century, creating what one scholar has termed “the Comanche Empire.”
Beginning in the 1860s, the U.S. launched several campaigns to subdue the Comanche. Following a number of violent clashes, the Comanche signed the Medicine Lodge treaty in 1867 and agreed to settle on a reservation in Indian Territory (now Oklahoma). Dissatisfied with the assigned lands, Comanche hunters frequently left the reservation. These expeditions provoked renewed conflict that culminated in the Red River War of 1874. Depleted by disease and unable to find sufficient game, the Comanche eventually accepted defeat and retreated to their reservation in 1875.
The federal government allotted the Comanche reservation in the early twentieth century, which resulted in severe economic hardship. During WWII, many tribal citizens left to find jobs in the defense industry, which accelerated the breakup of Comanche society. In the 1960s, however, the tribe reestablished a tribal government and renewed their cohesion as a federally recognized tribe. Today, approximately 17,000 people are enrolled citizens of the Comanche Nation.