Comanche Tribe History is One of Conquest
The history of the Native American Comanche tribe includes their move from ancestral homelands in Wyoming to more southerly parts and conquering new lands. They were then in turn conquered, after many struggles, by invading people of European descent.
The Comanche in the 1600s moved from the mountains in the North onto the Southern Plains. They came to dominate their new territory. They adopted the horse into their culture in the 17th century and quickly conquered vast tracts through subjugation and warfare.
The Comanche were a Shoshone tribe when they lived farther north. They speak an Uto-Aztecan language that is still the same as spoken by the Shoshone people of today. Their later territory to the south overlapped with several other tribes, whom they drove out through war. According to some reports, they nearly wiped out the Apache people.
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Usually, the history of Native American tribes when they interact with Europeans is a tale of domination, slavery, displacement, and death —of the Indians. In the case of the Comanche, it’s different, at least for a time. They killed or forced out Pueblo, Apache, and Jumano Indians in the southern Plains.
Comanche warriors kept the Spanish from moving farther north in Texas and they kept the French from moving farther west from Louisiana. According to a story on NPR.com featuring author S.C. Gwynne, both coasts of the United States were settled before the central region primarily because of the Comanche.
A group of Comanche watch on a caravan travelling through a Trans Pecos valley in West Texas (1850) by Lee Arthur Tracy. ( Public Domain )
Comanche Wars, Comanche Torture
By many accounts, the Comanche were merciless in war, killing all adult male captives, killing babies and abducting children between the ages of 3 to 10. They also tortured captives, some accounts say. Comanche torture was described as brutal and included burning people.
The Comanche have been criticized for their brutality, but in many cases, it was no worse than what some Europeans were doing. The late Howard Zinn said in his book A People’s History of the United States that the Dutch introduced scalping to the New World. Also, the Comanche were fiercely resisting Europeans encroachment on their territory. And they succeeded. For a time.
A Comanche warrior named "Ako" and his horse, photographed 1892. ( Public Domain )
By the 1860s, the Americans had enough of a presence in the region to mount more forceful challenges against the Comanche. U.S. Army Col. Christopher “Kit” Carson made war on the Comanches in 1864 but was repelled.
But in 1865 the Comanche and allied Kiowa tribes entered into a treaty that gave them western Oklahoma. The United States government reneged and war broke out again in 1867. At the end of the hostilities, the Indians of the Comanche, Kiowa, and Kiowa Apache tribes signed an agreement to settle on a reservation in Oklahoma, some of which was stolen.
The U.S. government could not keep squatters off the Indian lands, and violent battles between Comanches and U.S. troops ensued. The wars lasted until the mid- to late-1870s.
Comanches of West Texas in war regalia. ( Public Domain )
The Comanche were powerful on the southern Great Plains by the early 1800s. Their population then was estimated at between 7,000 and 30,000 people. They lived in several bands (tribes) based on kinship. They lived over a large swath of Texas and neighboring states. This area was known as Comancheria.
As Britannica states:
“Highly skilled Comanche horsemen set the pattern of nomadic equestrian life that became characteristic of the Plains tribes in the 18th and 19th centuries. Comanche raids for material goods, horses, and captives carried them as far south as Durango in present-day Mexico.”
‘Comanche Indians Chasing Buffalo with Lances and Bows’ (1849-1848) by George Catlin. ( Public Domain )
The Comanche subsisted on buffalo or bison, a huge mammal that nearly went extinct because of over-hunting. The Comanche (and other tribes) ate the meat and made their tepee dwellings, clothing, and living utensils from bison parts.
In addition to bison, the Comanche ate elk, bear, deer and wild turkey. The women foraged for roots, vegetables and wild herbs, berries and fruits. If other foods were scarce they ate dried buffalo meat, which was known as pemmican.
‘Comanche tipi and warrior’ (1835) by George Catlin. ( Public Domain )
They also got involved in the bison-hide trade, through which they earned $3.50 for an individual hide.
Comanche weapons included the bow and arrow, knives, war clubs, hatchets or tomahawks and spears. When the Europeans came, they also obtained firearms.
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Of Comanche religion, the site warpaths2peacepipes.com says :
“The religion and beliefs of the Comanche tribe was based on Animism that encompassed the spiritual or religious idea that the universe and all natural objects animals, plants, trees, rivers, mountains rocks etc have souls or spirits. The Great Plains tribes such as the Comanche believed in Manitou, the Great Spirit.”
The Comanche, like other Great Plains Indians, did sun dances, vision quests, and used sweat lodges. At sacred ceremonies, they passed the peace pipe with tobacco . It was called the peace pipe because smoking it often sealed a peace treaty. The pipe was also used in religious ceremonies and war councils.
Fort Worth - Original Drawing of Comanche Indians. (Drriss & Marrionn/ CC BY NC SA 2.0 )
Today, there are an estimated 20,000 Comanche people, many of them living in Oklahoma.
Top Image: Comanche Feats of Horsemanship (1834-1835) by George Catlin. Source: Public Domain
By Mark Miller