Winner of the 2009 Bancroft Prize, given by Columbia University
In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, at the high tide of imperial struggles in North America, an indigenous empire rose to dominate the fiercely contested lands of the American Southwest, the southern Great Plains, and northern Mexico. This powerful empire, built by the Comanche Indians, eclipsed its various European rivals in military prowess, political prestige, economic power, commercial reach, and cultural influence. Yet, until now, the Comanche empire has gone unrecognized in historical accounts.
This compelling and original book uncovers the lost story of the Comanches. It is a story that challenges the idea of indigenous peoples as victims of European expansion and offers a new model for the history of colonial expansion, colonial frontiers, and Native-European relations in North America and elsewhere. Pekka Hämäläinen shows in vivid detail how the Comanches built their unique empire and resisted European colonization, and why they fell to defeat in 1875. With extensive knowledge and deep insight, the author brings into clear relief the Comanches’ remarkable impact on the trajectory of history.
The age-old concept of fierce Comanche warriors as a military impediment to the conquest of the Spanish American Southwest has a long and influential history (e.g., Rupert Norval Richardson's The Comanche Barrier to South Plains Settlement). Hämäläinen (history, Univ. of California, Santa Barbara; ed., When Disease Makes History: Epidemics and Great Historical Turning Points) succeeds in introducing a new perspective on Southwestern history, mastering Spanish and Mexican historic resources to tell of a horse- and bison-based Comanche empire, Comanchería. He shows that the expansion and maintenance of Comanche range and trade networks between 1700 and 1875 occurred at the expense of other Indian nations and Spanish, Mexican, Texan, and American interests. Writing from intertwined ethnohistoric and Eurocentric views, the author credits this pastoral empire with New Spain/Mexico's steep loss of influence on the northern borderlands before the actual Mexican War of 1846-48 and argues that an appreciation of Comanche influence is needed to fully understand the history of the Southwest and Great Plains. Enthusiastically recommended for academic and public libraries.