Book review: The Comanche Empire by Pekka Hamalainen

Comanche portraits

The Comanches are usually portrayed in the existing literature as a formidable equestrian power that erected a daunting barrier of violence to colonial expansion. Along with the Iroquois and Lakotas, they have been embedded in collective American memory as one of the few Native societies able to pose a significant challenge to the Euro-American conquest of North America. But the idea of a Comanche barrier leaves out at least half of the story. (Introduction)

In this masterful account of the history of the Comanche people, Hämäläinen demonstrates that the Comanches were far from disorganized bands of violent Indians as they have previously been portrayed to be, most notably in the work of T.R. Fehrenback and Walter Prescott Webb. Through his meticulous research, extraordinary detail, and superb prose, Hämäläinen instead shows that the Comanches represented something closer to an empire. This is evidenced in their calculated military prowess, strategies of diplomacy, innovations in culture and technology, and economic growth. He further argues that the Comanche empire changed the course of American expansion, particularly in what is now New Mexico and Texas, through their dominant presence in the Southwest. 

Hämäläinen provides a thorough historical account of the Comanches that spans from the beginning of the eighteenth century to the mid- to late-nineteenth century. Utilizing an impressive variety of sources, including colonial Spanish accounts, archived letters, and government documents, he traces their early movement into the plains region, where their acquisition and mastery of horses was only the beginning of their expansion. The Comanches capitalized on the horse and slave markets, engaging in horse and slave raids and trading them for other commodities. Horses additionally permitted them to move about the region more easily, engage in warfare, and hunt bison, which served not only as a food source but as yet another economic commodity. Their relationship with Euro-Americans reveals the disparity between Comanche and European social and political norms, which allowed the Comanches to exploit governmental forces to create an ideal economic environment. They created an environment of intimidation that few could fight (though many tried, including the Apaches and the Spanish). Hämäläinen further argues that their internal dynamics, which created a thriving pastoral economy, were as important as their adaptation to external forces. Ultimately, the key to the Comanches’ success was that they were in the middle of one of the most disputed areas in North America, which they exploited and manipulated for their gain. While traditional history prefers to regard the downfall of the Comanches as the result of succumbing to the power of the US military, Hämäläinen shows that their downfall was a result of environmental and societal factors. These factors included a prolonged drought that lasted nearly two decades, which depleted their sources of bison and therefore caused Comanche population to drop. Though both the bison and Comanche population eventually bounced back somewhat after the drought ended, repeated assaults on the Comanche economy, which included hunting bison to the brink of extinction and resulted in an additional population loss that put their numbers down to approximately 1500, were the ultimate cause of their downfall.

Though Hämäläinen presents a convincing argument about the dominance of the Comanches in the American Southwest, the usage of the notion of “empire” is questionable. Historical accounts of other empires, such as the Aztecs, Mongols, Ottomans, or early modern Europeans, all had populations numbering in the multimillions. The Comanches, on the other hand, hit 40,000 at their height in the late eighteenth century by Hämäläinen’s calculations. Indeed, he also seems to exaggerate their size also in terms of the territory they occupied, describing their expansion in terms of “hemispheric dimensions” (3) when in fact their territory was closer to 250,000 square miles. While this is undoubtedly impressive, it is not “hemispheric.” Furthermore, this is the first time that anyone, including anthropologists and the Comanches themselves, has described the Comanches as an “empire.” Indeed, the notion of the “empire” in this instance is reductive in that it is defined as nothing more than economic and military dominance, societal hierarchy, and growth in population and territory. Hämäläinen conceded that he needed to redefine the term in order to fit his argument, which may be a sign that “empire” is not the best way to describe the Comanche society. While he clearly wants to avoid creating an essentialist retelling of the Comanche empire, perhaps the issue in the usage of the word “empire” actually demonstrates the need for a new rhetoric that describes their politics while not mythologizing or marginalizing them in the process.

Additionally, Hämäläinen’s chapter on the internal structure of the Comanche tribe—Chapter 6 – Children of the Sun—held so much potential for expanding our knowledge of their political history, yet it ended up falling short. Furthermore, while he attempts to describe women and gender roles within their society, the focus of the book is clearly on men and their economic or militant conquests. Women and children are made out to be little more than secondary characters in the larger narrative, as chattel with no agency or effect on Comanche society outside of their roles as laborers. While the source material regarding women and children may not be as extensive compared to that of the militant dealings with New Spain and the US government, The Comanche Empire positions itself as yet another account in masculinist history that the academic field has so much trouble escaping. However, Hämäläinen’s goal with this book was to make the reader question the notion of imperialism and of the Comanche influence on the westward expansion of the US. Therefore, I hope that others will use The Comanche Empire as a starting point to further reinterpret the history of the Comanches and engage in deeper research regarding gender roles.

Despite these shortcomings, The Comanche Empire is rightly deserving of its Bancroft award, along with the dozen other awards it received. This book can be utilized in both undergraduate and graduate classrooms, and the average reader will enjoy it for its exciting narrative and wonderful prose. It has challenged the way that we think about the westward expansion of the US as well as the way we regard relationships of Native American societies to non-Native governing forces.

Disclaimer: This review is a first draft of a review written for HIST 6317: Readings in the American West at CU Boulder. This is not the final draft that will be turned in. This post is intended to serve as a starting point for further research for interested readers, NOT as a book report to be copied. Any copying of this post is plagiarism, which is very frowned upon in academia. 

(c) Stefani at Florence and the Historian, 2012

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