The Comancheria or Comanchería (Comanche: Nʉmʉnʉʉ Sookobitʉ, ‘Comanche land’) is the region of New Mexico, west Texas and nearby areas occupied by the Comanche before the 1860s. Pekka Hämäläinen has argued that the Comancheria formed an empire at its peak and this view has been echoed by some historians.
The area was vaguely defined and shifted over time, but generally was described as bordered to the south by the Balcones Fault, just north of San Antonio, Texas, continuing north along the Cross Timbers to encompass a northern area that included the Cimarron River and the upper Arkansas River east of the high Rockies. Comanchería was bordered along the west by the Mescalero Ridge and the Pecos River, continuing north along the edge of the Spanish settlements in Santa Fe de Nuevo México.
Today, this region makes up West Texas, the Llano Estacado, the Texas Panhandle, the Edwards Plateau (including the Texas Hill Country), Eastern New Mexico, western Oklahoma including the Oklahoma Panhandle and the Wichita Mountains, southeastern Colorado and southwestern Kansas.
Before the Comanche expanded out of present-day Wyoming in the early eighteenth century, the lands that became known as Comancheria were home to a multitude of tribes—most notably the Apaches. Much of the region had previously been known as Apacheria.
Greatest extent and possible empire
Some historians have begun to consider Comancheria, at the peak of its power, as an empire. This concept was based on ideas developed by Pekka Hämäläinen who argued that from the 1750s to the 1850s, the Comanches were the dominant group in the Southwest, and developed a form of imperialism. Confronted with Spanish, Mexican, and American outposts on their periphery in New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, and Mexico, they worked to increase their own safety, prosperity and power. According to Hämäläinen, disease was the single most dangerous threat to Native Americans. The Comanche managed to avoid disease, which gave them an upper hand over the Apaches and other tribes in this area. Along with this, the Comanche were able to exchange goods with Europeans. The main thing exchanged for that gave them power was horses. Horses gave the Comanches more military power, and allowed them to hunt more buffalo. The Comanches used this military power to obtain more supplies and labor from the Americans, Mexicans, and Indians through thievery, tribute, and kidnappings. Although powered by violence, the Comanche empire was primarily an economic construction, rooted in an extensive commercial network that facilitated long-distance trade. Dealing with subordinate Indians, the Comanche spread their language and culture across the region. In the early 1830s, the Comanche began to run out of resources in Comancheria. At this time, they had been conducting raids deep into Mexico and would take what they got back to Comancheria. In the mid 1830s, the Comanche formed a colony in Mexico called the Bolson colony. Conditions in this colony were similar to how they were in Comancheria when it was winter in the north. Eventually, there was a drought, and Comancheria and the Bolson colony struggled. Along with this, the Comanche empire collapsed after their villages were repeatedly decimated by epidemics of smallpox and cholera in the late 1840s; causing their population to plunge from 20,000 to just a few thousand by the 1870s.
The Comanche resolved most of the challenges facing them in the 1830s with adroit diplomacy. Their strategy was flexible. With New Mexico, a Mexican province to their west, they enjoyed friendly trading relations. New Mexico was more of an asset than a threat to the Comanches and the New Mexicans avoided war with the Indians. In 1841 Governor Manuel Armijo was ordered by the Mexican central government to join a military campaign against the Comanche, but Armijo declined. “To declare war on the Comanches would bring complete ruin to the Department of New Mexico.” In 1844, New Mexican officials learned of but did nothing to prevent a Comanche raid on Chihuahua.
With their western flank secured by an unthreatening New Mexico, the Comanche dealt with rivals on their northern and eastern borders. In 1835, they met with a delegation of U.S. soldiers and eastern Indians in the Wichita Mountains of Oklahoma and concluded a peace agreement. The agreement permitted eastern Indians and Anglo-Americans to hunt on Comanche lands and did not restrain the Comanche and their Kiowa and Wichita allies from making war on Mexico. With their eastern flank secured by the treaty with the U.S., the Comanches next concluded a peace agreement in 1840 with the Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho pressing on them from the north. It was highly favorable to the Cheyenne and Arapaho. They were permitted to reside and hunt on the buffalo and horse-rich Comanche lands and, in addition, the affluent Comanches gave them gifts, including as many as six horses to every Cheyenne and Arapaho man. The Comanche welcome to these two tribes, their southern bands numbering perhaps 4,000, was both an acknowledgment that they were formidable rivals and also that the Comanche were short on men and resources to maintain their control over Comancheria.
South and southeast of Comancheria were the fast-growing Anglo-American communities in the Mexican territory of Texas. In the 1820s and 1830s most Comanche raids were in the southern parts of Texas and affected the largely Hispanic population around San Antonio, Laredo and Goliad. After the Texas Revolution asserting independence from Mexico in 1836, the Comanche had to deal with the new Republic of Texas. Texas’s first President, Sam Houston, was knowledgeable about Indians and favored a policy of accommodation with the Comanche.
Continued Comanche raids led to the election in 1838 of Mirabeau B. Lamar who favored a more aggressive approach. The massacre of 12 Comanche chiefs attending a peace conference in San Antonio in March 1840 set off a series of bloody reprisals and battles. Hundreds of Comanches descended upon and destroyed the towns of Victoria and Linnville in 1840. Although the Texans demonstrated they could defeat the Comanche, military campaigns emptied their treasury and Texas became more accommodating. In 1844, the Texans and the Comanches came to an agreement which recognized Comanche lands and left Comancheria intact.
The agreements with the United States and neighboring tribes, as well as the hiatus in the struggle with Texas, freed up the Comanche to make unrestrained war on the Mexican provinces south of the Rio Grande. The 1830s demonstrated that the Texans, the United States, and neighboring tribes all had the ability to invade Comancheria and attack the Comanche homeland; Mexico, by contrast, was rich in horses and unable to counterattack due to distance and the fact that, after 1836, any Mexican military expedition against Comanches would have had to pass through Texas, a republic whose independence Mexico did not recognize. In attacking Mexico, the Comanche seemed motivated by opportunity, economics and revenge – their animosity toward non-Comanches sharpened by decades of war and reprisals. Thus, their raids on Mexico became increasingly bloody and destructive.
To the west, southwest and southeast of the Comancheria stretched the vast territories of the various hostile Apache groups, partially overlapping and forming a kind of no man’s land, which was heavily contested between the two peoples. Moreover, the Comanche had to pass through the dangerous Apacheria on their way down to Mexico for raiding and recross it with plunder. The Oklahoma and Texas panhandles were inhabited by their allies, the Kiowa and Kiowa-Apache, along with the Comanche. In the northwest of the Comancheria lived the opposing Ute and Shoshone, to the northeast settled the enemy and powerful Osage and in the north the also antagonistic Pawnee. In addition, in and adjacent to the Comancheria settled the allied Wichita, Tawakoni, Waco (Spanish: Hueco, were a subtribe of the Wichita) and Hasinai. In the East lived the Caddo and later the Cherokee. In the southeast settled the erstwhile allies, but after the expulsion of the Apaches of the Plains, now rival Tonkawa. In the north, the Southern Cheyenne and Southern Arapaho, forced the Comanche to acknowledge the Arkansas River as their northern border. Moreover, the Comanche undertook extensive commercial enterprises to the Pueblo in New Mexico and to the Spanish settlements around San Antonio, Texas. In this trade of guns, horses, captives and other goods the Comancheros (Pueblo and New Mexico traders) acted as intermediaries. The Ciboleros also competed against the Comanche in the context of bison hunting. The Comanche language became the Lingua franca of the Southern Plains.