THE ENGLISH WESTERNERS' SOCIETY
JANUARY 2017 BOOK REVIEW
This review first appeared in the Tally Sheet (Summer 2015, Volume 61, Number 3)
COMANCHES – The History of a People
By T. R. Fehrenbach. Vintage Books, London, 2007. Amazon £11.99.
“The Comanche barrier had stopped European penetration of these plains for almost two centuries. It did not show on maps; it had no shape or form. The Comanche barrier was a wisp of smoke on the horizon, riders appearing suddenly on the ridges, shots and screams at sunset, horror under the summer moons. It was the death that threatened all whites who moved into this vast country.” (Comanches, p. 496)
On discovering this book in Waterstone’s in Glasgow, I mistook it for a recent publication but closer inspection revealed it to be the latest edition of a work first published in 1974. Buying it, however, was not a mistake. I need perhaps proceed no further than a personal endorsement of the laconic assessment paraded on the front cover –
‘Marvellous’ NEW YORK TIMES
A superficial examination also discloses, on the back cover –
‘FOR A COMPLETE HISTORY OF THE COMANCHES, THIS BOOK PROBABLY HAS NO EQUAL.’ DEE BROWN, AUTHOR OF BURY MY HEART AT WOUNDED KNEE
Being as yet unfamiliar with the full range of available literature on the subject, I can only acknowledge that it would not surprise me in the slightest to discover that Comanches is indeed a powerful contender for the definitive work on the subject.
There is however an element of incongruity at work here. Dee Brown, whose own magnum opus is highly sentimental in nature, always strains to present the Indians in the most favourable light possible. Brown at least overlaps with Fehrenbach in terms of subject matter, in his chapter The War to Save the Buffalo (Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Arrow Books Limited, Arena edition, 1987, p. 241), in which he portrays the ravages of the Comanche and their Kiowa allies as a kind of a moral crusade. The same sequence of events is dealt with by Fehrenbach but in a form barely recognisable as the same tale recounted by Brown, who seems to be consciously proceeding on P. G. Wodehouse’s principle that the secret of all good prose is the knowledge of what to omit. In the aftermath of the “Wagon Train Massacre” of 1871, when a Kiowa war party ambushed a military supply wagon, they tortured a wounded teamster, tore out his tongue, bound him to a wagon wheel upside-down and lit a fire under his face. This detail would rather upset the force of Brown’s eulogy so he conveniently airbrushes it out of his narrative.
The supply wagon, incidentally, had been preceded by General Sherman and a small escort. Sherman, it will be recalled, had stated during the Civil War that “war is hell” and then set out to prove it. Later, as commander-in-chief of the United States army under the Grant administration, he applied the same principle of “total war” to the Indian question. On the questionable advice of a medicine man, the Kiowa warriors, who clearly had no idea of who he was, ignored this first party.
As encountered in the pages of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, the archetypal Native American was an eco-warrior who bore all the deprivations and indignities heaped upon him by the white invader with almost unbelievable stoicism and whose most casual utterance encapsulated a pearl of poetic and philosophical insight. Even his predations are made to read like so many innocent misunderstandings, or else as acts of violence to the perpetration of which he had reluctantly been driven by unavoidable necessity. When forced to confront the unpleasant reality of Indian torture, Brown avoids the problem by pretending that the occasional perpetrator – e.g. Victorio – was a madman and an embarrassment to his tribe. (Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, pp. 399 – 401) His idealised Indian took from nature only what he needed and idiomatically used close to 100% of the substance of slaughtered beasts, over whose carcasses he presumably wept.
Comanches paints a very different picture. War was but an extension of the hunt and the tribe represented the far extent of their moral universe. No ethical standards whatsoever appear to have constrained their vindictive brutality towards those who had the misfortune to incur their enmity. The graphic, harrowing details recounted by Fehrenbach confront us with the unbridled cruelty to which savage man habitually descends and call into question our most optimistic assumptions concerning human nature. The evidence which he adduces lends substance to the “captivity narrative” genre and unless an elaborate blood libel is at work here, a dismissal of the horrible sufferings regularly inflicted emerges as an undertaking no more admirable than Holocaust denial. The old adage about saving the last bullet for yourself is no frontier myth.
Comanche warfare against rival tribes was endemic, a cycle of raiding, reprisal and counter-reprisal without end. Captive women were raped as a matter of course, men horrifically tortured, and children slaughtered or else adopted into the tribe, entirely as a matter of personal whim. Even the dead were viciously mutilated, to deny them entry into the spirit world. It was for this reason that Indians generally went to such lengths to recover the corpses of their slain.
The depredations of the Apache have been more comprehensively documented than those of other tribes but Fehrenbach assures us that they were actually no worse than their peers. The Apache, fellow incomers to the south-west, sprang from the Athapascan stock whose homeland was the Pacific north. They were the great rivals of the Comanche, who displaced them from that region of the southern Great Plains which was known for generations as Comancheria.
In terms of their ultimate origins, the Comanche, a short, dark-skinned and ungainly people, were part of the Uto-Aztecan linguistic group, an extensive network of nations strongly represented throughout the West. Relatives were to be found in the Great Basin, amongst the Pueblo tribes and into Mexico. Until comparatively recent times the Comanche, or Nermernuh – “People” - as they called themselves, were one people with the Shoshone in the mountains of Wyoming. The Comanche bands coalesced out of those elements of the tribe which had adopted the horse and migrated onto the Plains to follow the buffalo herds. They were known to their linguistic cousins and frequent adversaries, the Utes, as Koh-mahts, meaning “Those who are always against us”. This was eventually conventionalised as “Comanche”, the name by which they are most widely known today.
The Comanche were the first to fully embrace the horse culture and came to be acknowledged, by all who knew them, as foremost among the equestrian tribes. This great revolution came about particularly after the Spanish were temporarily expelled from the south-west by the Pueblo revolt of 1680. They were compelled to leave their horse herds behind and these were soon dispersed throughout the West, through commerce and raiding.
The “mustang”, a corruption of the Spanish mesteño, is a breed of horse which the Spanish had themselves acquired from Moorish invaders. It had its origins in the desert lands of Arabia and North Africa. By a simple historical coincidence, it was found to be ideally adapted to the arid conditions on the Great Plains and to the purposes of the scantily clad and light-armed Indians with whom it came to be so closely identified. With the acquisition of this most useful of animals, the Comanche emerged from the precarious and marginalised condition which had previously confined them to the mountain regions.
The white man’s three other significant introductions into the North American context were firearms, alcohol and disease. The combined effect of these four was to destabilise the entire continent; balances of power which had endured since time out of mind were overthrown, powerful confederacies crumbled and previously obscure tribes were thrust abruptly into prominence. The Comanche thus overtook the various sedentary, semi-agricultural tribes whose prospects had long seemed by far the most promising. Comanche adaptation at the forefront of the emerging Great Plains culture was complete by the early years of the 1700s.
Around 1790, the Comanche encountered an unrelated and previously unknown tribe, the Kiowa. After initial tensions which had certainty the potential to end otherwise, the two very heterogeneous peoples forged a lasting and formidable alliance analogous to that of the Lakota and Cheyenne north of the Arkansas.
As well as unlocking the potential of the great buffalo herds, the horse brought a degree of mobility hitherto unconceivable. Mounted warriors raided far into Mexico, spreading terror in their wake. On one particular occasion, a Kiowa war party penetrated as far as the Yucatan peninsula, returning home with incredible stories of parrots and monkeys.
Political organisation was extremely rudimentary among the Comanche; their bands lacked even the warrior societies which gave structure to the Cheyenne and Lakota. There was no overall tribal organisation but the various bands recognised one another as kindred, despite geographical distances which ensured that they were at times only peripherally conscious of one another’s existence. Hostilities only ever erupted within the tribe during the final years of its independent existence, at a time when their dying culture was placed under severe strain. Following an already well-established pattern, tensions arose between those who chose to accept life on the reservations and the irreconcilables who held out to the last.
Fehrenbach, a noted authority on Texan history who died at an advanced age in 2013, traces the development of the Comanche from when they “rode into history like the whirlwind” (p. 59) to establish themselves as the lords of the Great Plains, through hostile encounters with the successive “failed empires” of Spain, Mexico and France. During the years of Hispanic influence, the Comanche heartland was a precarious northern frontier held in place by administrative fiat and not much else. Static presidios manned by infantry were effectively powerless to protect settlers in the region from the ravages of merciless Comanche horsemen.
The downfall of the once invincible Comanche was a process of attrition which began with extensive Anglo-Saxon migration into Texas, whose immediate consequence was the war for independence from Mexico in the 1830s. Texas, of all the States, was alone, albeit briefly, a sovereign republic prior to its admission into the Union. This unique circumstance did much to shape the train of events.
One particularly compelling sideshow was the tragedy of the “Five Civilized Tribes”, the Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw and Seminole nations, fragments of which were driven into the Comanche domain by the persecution to which they had unjustly been subjected in Georgia. Instead of laying the blame squarely where it belonged, the wild Indians awkwardly resented the refugees for their involuntary trespass. Texans were for the most part former inhabitants of the south-eastern States and so the Texas Cherokee found themselves again confronted by essentially the same people who had so recently crowded them out of their ancient homeland. War with the nascent republic briefly flared and the Cherokee were expelled once more. Indian relations generally were greatly complicated and indeed acquired a surreal dimension by the concentration in “Indian Territory” of tribes originating from all across the continent.
In many respects, conditions in Texas resembled the Appalachian frontier of an earlier age, with the important difference that geographical conditions only supported the creation of scattered outposts for which there was no safety in numbers. Settlers were highly vulnerable to Comanche predations and so the act of moving out onto the plains as farmers and ranchers represented an almost incredible leap of faith. Bare survival was first prize in the struggle for existence; the loser’s lot does not bear thinking about.
Recognising that they would prevail only by taking the fight to the enemy, the Texas legislature first authorised the raising of companies of Texas Rangers in 1836. The introduction of the six-shooting pistol in 1838 did much to turn the tide of war in favour of the Anglo-Saxons; for the first time in Texas, the Europeans could match their adversaries in weaponry and mobility.
Not all factors in the eventual Comanche demise were military. Disease travelled far in advance of actual European penetration, and – a recurring theme in frontier history – enormously depleted Comanche numbers. The great cholera epidemic of 1849, set in motion by the great wagon trains trundling across the plains, is one notable example. The practice of raping captive women ensured that venereal disease was endemic among the tribesmen.
The Civil War years (1861-65) brought a temporary respite but only delayed the inevitable.
The demise of the buffalo herds in the early 1870s was not a gradual process but a sudden collapse, barely foreseen by either side. However the military may have applauded from the sidelines they did not instigate or orchestrate the slaughter. It was a startling and spontaneous movement resulting from the discovery of a new process for curing buffalo hides and from the advent of the trans-continental railroads, which introduced a new breed in the long succession of western characters, the professional hide hunter.
In 1874, the last of the free, the mixed-blood chief Quanah Parker’s Kwehar-rehnuh Comanche, rode out onto the plains for their spring hunt, to be greeted by a desolation of rotting carcasses and bleaching buffalo bones on all sides. On 27th September, Colonel Ranald S. MacKenzie succeeded in tracking the hostiles to their Palo Duro canyon stronghold, a natural phenomenon of which the whites had previously been unaware. Only four fleeing Comanche warriors were killed but this was not the true measure of the disaster. The soldiers burned the tipi encampment and supplies, reducing the Indians to destitution. Of the captured remuda of 1,400 horses, all but those requisitioned by the Tonkawa scouts for the carrying away of booty were destroyed in an enormous fusillade. In a final irony, the Comanche briefly reverted, bereft of both horse and buffalo, to the degraded existence from which they had sprung two centuries earlier, until, half-starved, they finally submitted, in June 1875, to the far from tender overtures of the reservation and to the final eclipse of the Comanche moon.
This – once again – “marvellous” book’s principal strength is simultaneously its greatest weakness. A volume dealing with the history of the Comanche in isolation could certainly be essayed in a far more compact form but Mr Fehrenbach adduces so much background material that his book swells to epic proportions and, embracing the full and complex sweep of Amerindian and indeed world history, beginning with the first arrivals of proto-Indians trekking across the land bridge from Asia which once connected the Behring Straits, becomes more “context” than anything else. However, he is clearly a master of his extensive subject. Whoever takes the time and trouble properly to digest this endlessly insightful and illuminating work, even if previously knowing nothing at all of frontier history, will acquire much of the author’s encyclopaedic knowledge of his subject and thus attain a far better understanding of the whole frontier dynamic than is presently enjoyed by the overwhelming majority. Which is not to say that it is a book for beginners. It offers an education even to the long-time student of frontier history.
Tom F. Cunningham
English Westerners' Society
Copyright © 2018 English Westerners' Society