A Native American Heritage Month Historical Spotlight from Issues & Controversies in History:
THE COMANCHES: Did They Establish an Empire in the American Southwest?
Did the Comanches establish an empire? Be sure to check out Issues & Controversies in History’s complete and unbiased coverage of this issue. Learn more about the issue and check out a sample of the pro/con arguments on both sides below.
The history of the American Southwest borderlands during the 18th and 19th centuries is traditionally narrated through the expansion of competing European empires and Euro-American nations: first the Spanish and the French, and later Mexico and the United States. Recent historians, however, have drawn attention to the Indigenous peoples who maneuvered between these nation states. Some historians have even argued that one Native American nation, the Comanches, constructed an empire of their own, even though they lacked many of the characteristics common to other world empires. While the Comanches certainly achieved great power in the Southern Great Plains—a region that encompassed present-day western Texas, eastern New Mexico, and western Oklahoma—through their control of bison herds and skill in mounted combat, it is unclear if their achievements translate to imperialism. Did the Comanches establish an empire in the heart of North America, or did they not?
Arguments That the Comanches Did Establish an Empire:
Arguments That the Comanches Did Not Establish an Empire:
The Comanches dominated the political, economic, and military landscape of the American Southwest, expanding at the expense of European empires and settler nation-states. They incorporated the people they conquered into a Comanche-centered system and constructed a commercial network that defined trade in the region. Empire is not a uniquely Western concept, and imperial strategies varied according to the people who created them. The Comanches forced conquered peoples to follow their customs, rather than their laws; they collected gifts, instead of collecting taxes; and they decided foreign policy based on councils of the most respected band leaders, rather than the dictates of a monarch. Though they founded no cities and colonized no foreign territories, the Comanches’ raids transformed much of present-day New Mexico and Texas into an empire. Without recognizing Comanche imperialism, the history of the Southwest is incomplete.
Though the Comanches launched powerful raids that terrorized others in the American Southwest, that alone does not mean their actions should be considered imperial. As a nomadic people, the Comanches lacked the centralized political structure and hierarchical legal bureaucracy necessary to constitute an empire. There could be no Comanche empire because the Comanches were never united under one sovereign government and one central authority. To apply concepts like imperialism to the Comanches is to misrepresent how they saw themselves and how they interacted with other nations. How could there be an empire with no imperial capital, no emperor, and no overarching state structure? Within the greater geopolitics of the Southwest, the Comanches are best understood as roaming bands united by culture and kinship, whose ferocious raiding created a barrier to imperial expansion for European and Euro-American states.
Issues & Controversies in History links this pro/con article to rich related resources that enhance the debate. Students and researchers can delve into primary sources that provide context, a topic-specific timeline, a bibliography, and a thought-provoking “What if…” section that explores what might have happened had things turned out differently. Plus, discussion questions are provided to inspire critical thinking and analysis.
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