By Randolph Carter Harrison
Quick, name some of the most powerful influences on American History.
Spain? France? Certainly England right?
How about the Comanche?
I would never have included them on such a list until I began to research West from Yesterday. When I did, I quickly became fascinated by the extent to which this nomadic tribe ruled the heart of the continent for nearly four centuries. That's four hundred years, folks.
Anyone wanting to delve deeper than Wikipedia into Comanche history can start with either of two masterful works: Comanche Empire or Empire of the Summer Moon.
Emerging from the Central Rocky Mountains in the 1400s, the Comanche were just one of several nomadic tribes wandering the central prairies and plains until a single event changed everything: the arrival of horses.
When Spanish conquistadors landed on North American shores they brought with them the tough, North African-breed called "Barb." It didn't take long before Native Americans were astride them and soon after the tribes of the plains became respectfully known by American military officers as "the best light cavalry in the world."
Of these magnificent cavalries, the Comanche were the best of all. They came to dominate other tribes, extracting tribute and taking slaves. Their mastery of hippology extended to breeding and trading what came to be universally recognized as the best horses west of the Mississippi.
With a fierce warrior ethos and mobility provided by massive herds (each warrior took as many as 10 horses with him on extended raids), the Comanche came to rule an enormous swath of the continent known as the "Comancheria". From the 1500s until the late 1800s, Comanche warriors successively turned back Spaniards, Mexicans, French, British, Texans and other American intrusions into their territory. In fact, successive government officials wrote bitterly about having to withdraw garrisons from land where Comanche literally called the shots. Before, during, and after the Civil War, Texas settlers complained about having to abandon ranches, farms and towns after being victimized -- or out of fear of being victimized -- by Comanche predations.
The leading character in West from Yesterday, Nolan Caudil, is modeled after men considered giants by their contemporaries and subsequent generations. Men such as Shanghai Pierce, John Chisum, Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving were all forces of nature who managed to thrive in the face of repeated disaster and death at the hands of Comanche raiders, drought and disease. They just wouldn't admit defeat and in so doing, became legends in their own time.
So what ended Comanche rule of America's heartland?
Following the Civil War, American military leaders conceived and executed a strategy simple in concept with only two primary objectives: destruction of the plains' Native Americans primary source of protein -- buffalo -- and the simultaneous destruction of their means of mobility -- horses. The Army ruthlessly and patiently implemented the strategy for the better part of two decades. The ruthlessness with which it was executed softened even hardened cavalry troopers who reportedly wept while emptying their carbines onto massive herds trapped in canyons below them.
Many know of the systematic slaughter of America's buffalo herds (a slaughter accelerated by discovery that belts made of buffalo leather lasted longer than cowhide belts being used in the machinery of burgeoning eastern factories). Not so many know of the concurrent slaughter of horse herds, the most infamous of which occurred in the Palo Duro Canyon of West Texas. Another took place outside Spokane, Washington were more than a thousand horses of the Nez Pierce tribe were killed by soldiers.
By the late 1800s, the age of the Comanche was over but it's worth remembering that, while America has been around for a couple hundred years, we'll have to stay around for two more centuries before we will have lasted as long as the Comanche ruled the roost.
Photo Credit: The Western Art of Charles M. Russel edited by Lanning Aldrich "Tax Collectors 1913"