The Comanche

Before the arrival of horses from Europe, Comanche people were pedestrian hunters and gatherers.  After the introduction of horses, they became a highly mobile warrior class of people who were able to control vast territories.  In the mid-1800s, the Comanche population may have numbered as high as 45,000; this, when combined with their mobility and fierceness, helps to explain their dominance over other Native peoples.  Moreover, not only did the Comanche take captives from weaker tribes during periods of warfare, selling them as slaves to Spanish and later Mexican settlers, they also took prisoners from among Spanish, Mexican, and American settlements; the number of these captured people numbered in the thousands —and, because many of these captives were absorbed into Camanche culture, tribal populations increased dramatically.

Today, the federally-recognized Comanche Nation consists of just over 15,000 people, half of which live within tribal jurisdictional areas around Lawton, Fort Sill, and other areas of south west Oklahoma.  Presently, however, only about one-percent of the Comanche population speaks their native languages.  The name Comanche originates with the Ute language, “Kimantsi,” which means enemy.

Comanche Warriors 001Historically, the Comanche emerged as a distinct group of people around 1700 A. D.  They were originally part of the Shoshone Nation, living along the upper Platte River in present-day Wyoming.  Some experts believe that when Comanche bands acquired horses, it may have helped to initiate the split away from the Shoshone.  Horses, after all, provided the Comanche with greater mobility, encouraging their search for autonomy and better hunting grounds.  On this basis, horses were a likely key element in the emergence of a distinctive Comanche culture.  In 1770, Athanase de Mezieres[1]opined that the Comanche were so skilful in horsemanship that they had no equal.  (Painting by Bo Newell).

Initially, migration took the Comanche into the southern plains extending from the Arkansas River to Central Texas.  By the early 1700s, the migration reached into present-day New Mexico and the Texas Panhandle.  Their arrival, dominance, and aggressive hostility forced the Lipan Apache to move further southward.  A major battle ensued, lasting some nine days, along the Rio de Fierro (present-day Wichita River) where the Apache were soundly defeated.  Within a period of 100 years, the Comanche had forced the Lipan into the Rio Grande Valley, and additionally, had pushed the Mescalero Apache to present-day Coahuila, Mexico.

One corollary to this migration was a substantial increase in the Comanche population.  This was due to an abundance of buffalo, an influx of Shoshone migrants, and Comanche adoption of a significant number of women and children who were taken captive from rival tribes.  It is interesting to note that the Comanche never formed a single cohesive tribal unit, but rather were divided into a dozen autonomous bands.  These groups did share a common language and culture, and they rarely quarrelled with one another.  And because the Comanche absorbed thousands of captives from Spanish, Mexican, and American settlements, their culture evolved into one mixed race descendants.

By the mid-1800s, the Comanche were supplying horses to French and American traders, settlers, and migrants passing through their vast territory on the way to California.  To the Comanche, there were never too many horses and so to maintain their vast herds, they routinely raided horses from other tribes; they were, in the view of some, formidable horse thieves and cattle rustlers. These activities frequently led to hostilities on the open plain.

The Comanche also had access to large numbers of wild horses, which within the Comancheria alone, numbered around two-million.  In the late 1700’s and early 1800’s, the Comanche lifestyle demanded one horse for each adult male, but warrior bands often possessed many more than that. Given our understanding of Comanche human population, that being between thirty and forty-thousand people, the Comanche owned or controlled from ninety to one hundred twenty-thousand horses.

Having developed strategies for using traditional weapons and for fighting on horseback, the Comanche were formidable opponents; open warfare was a major part of Comanche life.  Raids into Mexico typically took place during the full moon, when the Comanche could see well enough to ride at night.  This led to the expression “Comanche Moon,” a time when they raided for horses, captives, and weapons.

Experts have found four distinct divisions within Comanche society: the nuclear family, extended family, residential local groups, and bands, which linked several local groups through kinship, hunting and warrior groups.  Various bands were also known by the manner of their lifestyle, such as the root-eaters vs. buffalo-eaters.  Despite the organization of residential groups and bands (which were often limited in size to around 100 people), and in spite of the quite-large area of the Comancheria, the Comanche people never evolved into a nation-state.  Various bands respected one another as equals, seldom fighting with one another, and valuing one another’s autonomy.

The band was the primary social unit of Comanche culture, and several of these might attach themselves to a larger tribal entity.  They also just as easily detach themselves from one Tribal group in favour of another. Before the mid-1700s, there were three such tribal divisions: Yamparika, Jupes, and Kotsoteka.  After that time, the Kotsoteka Comanche branched off and moved to the Southeast —the result of which was the development of two tribal groups: western Comanche, and eastern Comanche (the Kotsoteka group).  Western Comanche lived in the area of the upper Arkansas, Canadian, and Red Rivers, and the Llano Estacado[2], while the eastern Comanche lived along the Edwards Plateau[3], the Texas plains of the upper Brazos and Colorado Rivers, eastward to the Cross Timbers Region[4].  Later, as Comanche culture began a general disintegration, members of some Comanche bands enlisted as scouts attached to either the US Army or Texas Ranger frontier battalion —which, at the time, were fighting against the Comanche bands that remained hostile to white settlements.

Comanche bands were altered in several ways over several decades.  The Jupes, for example, vanished from history (likely merging with other tribes).  Many of the Yamparika moved southeast, joining the eastern tribes and calling themselves Tenawa, and many Kiowa and Plains Apache (also called Naishan) moved north to associate themselves with the Yamparika or Tenawa.  Additionally, new tribes formed (such as the Nokonis, who were closely linked with the Tenawa, and Kwahadi, who emerged as a new tribal faction on the southern Llano Estacado).  The east-west distinctions changed in the mid-1800s to become northern, middle, and southern Comanche groups.  Eventually, the southern Comanche became known as Penateka Comanche —one of the largest concentrations of Comanche on the edge of the Edwards Plateau.

The Nokoni Comanche roamed in the eastern part of the Comancheria, between the Colorado and Red Rivers.  South of them were the strong but smaller bands of Tenawa and Tanima.  Together, these were often called middle Comanche. The powerful Kotsoteka (or Buffalo eaters) lived in region north of the Nokonis, in the Red River Valley between the Red and Canadian Rivers. They were joined by the Yamparika, which was actually the northern-most tribe, who retained many of their Shoshone traditions.  To simplify matters, white settlers simply referred to these tribes as Northern Comanche.

As previously stated, the Comanche were fierce warriors.  When we speak of the Comanche Wars, we are talking about a long series of armed conflicts targeting Spanish, Mexican, and American settlers.  The Comanche Wars began as early as 1705 and continued until around 1880.  Thus, for more than 150 years, the Comanche were the dominant Indian group living in the region, even though they shared parts of the Comancheria with Kiowa, Wichita, Apache, Cheyenne, and Arapaho Indians.

In 1821, Mexico’s War of Independence from Spain included the territory of present-day Texas, which became part of Mexico, incorporated as part of the state of Coahuila y Tejas.  Hoping that more settlers would reduce the near-constant Comanche raids, Mexico liberalized its immigration policies to permit settlers from outside Mexico and Spain.  Apparently, Mexican officials believed it was better for white settlers to have to deal with hostile Indians, rather than having to dedicate their own resources to solving this problem.

Under the Mexican immigration system, large tracks of land were allotted to empresarios  who recruited settlers from the United States, Europe, and the Mexican interior. The first grant of land was made to Moses Austin, and this was eventually passed on to his son, Stephen F. Austin[5],after his death.  Thousands of Americans realized the value of these land opportunities, but it brought them into direct conflict with the Comanche.  For their part, the Comanche resisted every foreign effort to settle the within the Comancheria.  The Comanche had been fighting against settlers from Spain since 1705; the wars would continue until around 1880, even though Comanche power peeked in the mid-1840s (when they conducted large-scale raids hundreds of miles into Mexico proper).  Added to this, the Comanche were, at one time or another, a war with virtually every other Native American group while also warring against Anglo-Americans and Tejanos settling in Texas.  Part of the reason for their overall decline in population was illness, including epidemics of cholera and smallpox[6], and of course, wars of attrition with US and Texas military forces.

Eventually, the United States forced the Comanche to cede most of their tribal lands.  The US began a concerted effort in the late 1860s to move the Comanche onto reservations, with the Treaty of Medicine Lodge (1867), which offered churches, schools, and annuities in return for a vast tract of land totaling over 60,000 square miles.  The government promised to stop the buffalo hunters, who were decimating the great herds of the Plains, provided that the Comanche, along with the Apaches, Kiowas, Cheyenne, and Arapahos move to a reservation totaling less than 5,000 square miles of land.

Isatai'iThe government did not prevent the slaughtering of the buffalo herds, however.  In retaliation, the Comanche under the war chief Isa-tai[7] (shown right) retaliated by attacking a group of hunters in the Texas Panhandle in the Second Battle of Adobe Walls (1874). The attack was a disaster for the Comanche.  The US Army was called in during the Red River War to drive all remaining Comanche in the area onto the reservation, culminating in the Battle of Palo Duro Canyon. Within ten years, the buffalo were on the verge of extinction, effectively ending the Comanche way of life as hunters.

In 1875, the last free band of Comanches, led by the Quahada warrior Quanah Parker surrendered and moved to the Fort Sill reservation in Oklahoma.  (Note: Quanah Parker was the son of Cynthia Ann Parker, who had been kidnapped in 1836 at the age of 9, and who eventually married a Comanche war chief).  By 1875, the last independent Kiowa and Kiowa Apache had also surrendered.

In 1876, unhappy with life on the reservation, 170 warriors and their families, led by the war chief Black Horse left the reservation to settle on the Llano Estacado.  Additional attacks on buffalo hunters’ camps led to the Buffalo Hunter’s War of 1877.

Several hundred of the Lipan Apache and Mescalero Apache, joined by some Comanche, held out in northern Mexico until the early 1880s when Mexican and U.S. Army forces either drove them onto reservations or into extinction.  The 1890 US Census reflected that there were 1,598 Comanche living at the Fort Sill reservation, which they shared with 1,140 Kiowa and 326 Kiowa Apache.


[1]A French explorer in the service of the King of Spain.

[2]A region of the Southwestern United States that includes eastern New Mexico and north western Texas.

[3]The Edwards Plateau is a region of west-central Texas which is bounded by the Balcones Fault to the south and east, the Llano Uplift and the Llano Estacado to the north, and the Pecos River and Chihuahuan Desert to the west.  San Angelo, Austin, San Antonio, and Del Rio, Texas provide a rough outline of this area. The eastern portion of the plateau is known as the Texas Hill Country.

[4]This term is used to describe a strip of land that runs south east of Kansas and across Central Texas.  This region contains a mix of prairie, savanna, and woodland and forms the boundary between the heavily forested eastern United States and the nearly treeless Great Plains.

[5]Stephen Fuller Austin (November 3, 1793 – December 27, 1836) was an American empresario.  Known as the “Father of Texas”, and the founder of Texas, he led the second, and ultimately, the successful colonization of the region by bringing 300 families from the United States to the region in 1825.

[6]While the Comanche managed to maintain their independence and increase the size of their territory, they faced annihilation by the mid-19thCentury because of a wave of epidemics due to Eurasian diseases, to which they had no immunity.  These included epidemics of smallpox and measles in 1817 and 1848, and cholera in 1849.  The death toll attributed to these incidents reduced Comanche populations from an estimated 20,000 in 1860 to just a few thousand by the 1870s.

[7]Isatai (c.1840 – 1916) was a Comanche warrior and medicine man.  Isatai gained enormous prominence for a brief period in 1873-1874 as a prophet and messiah of Native Americans.  He was originally named Kwihnai Tosabitu (White Eagle), but after the debacle at Adobe Walls on 27 June 1874, for which he was blamed, he was known among his own kind as Isatai (which translated means Coyote Vagina).


About Mustang

Retired Marine, historian, writer.
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15 Responses to The Comanche

  1. Pablo says:

    Great essay. Learned a lot!
    Also think the footnotes were wonderful informative.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Kid says:

    Great Read.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mustang says:

      Thanks, Kid. The Comanche were America’s original bad asses.


    • Kid says:

      They did make me think of Marines.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Mustang says:

      Well, back then the Marines were a very small organization whose main duties involved serving on USN ship’s as detachments of sharpshooters. I’d have to say (stay tuned for more stories about this) that if anyone learned how to defeat the Comanche using their own ruthlessness, it was the Texas Rangers. It wasn’t a pretty war, as wars go; but the Texas Rangers reasoned that in order to defeat these superior warriors, they would have to be willing to exhibit as little regard for human life as did the Comanche. Ultimately, they succeeded in defeating the Comanche, Kiowa, and Apache … in many cases, where the US Army could not. The Army, as it turns out, was (and still is) a massive bureaucracy with rules and stipulations regulating how to confront an enemy … in this case, hostile Indians … The Texas Rangers just went out and killed them. In time, problem solved.


    • kid says:

      I won’t get it word for word, but I remember reading a missive about how various forces would deal with a hijacked airliner on the ground. The Army would send in a large detachment, who would march up to the plane in straight rows doing loud cadence and kill everyone on the plane, while the Marine Recon group would dress up like terrorists, board the plane, befriend the hijackers and have them begging to give themselves up.



    • Naw, they remind me of Hell’s Angels.
      I wonder what informed their ethos.
      “Coyote Vagina”!


    • kid says:

      Ed, Yes, Marines would call most other P***ys. I suppose the Comanche felt they were protecting their land and livelihood. What would we do if overrun by a totally different culture. Fight back I hope or expect. Then again, as you suggest, maybe they were just adrenaline junkie maniacs.


  3. Fascinating read!

    Thank you, my friend, for putting all of this together for your readers.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Andy (The Club of) says:

    Noteworthy! Particularly enjoyed this one, but when do you find the time to put these together. I’m not complaining, just curious.


  5. Pingback: The First Americans | Old West Tales

  6. Pingback: Spanish Texas —Part III | Old West Tales

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