A sample of Pekka Hämäläinen's startling The Comanche Empire (2009):
The assault came in March 16, 1758, when an estimated two thousand allied Comanches, Taovayas, Tonkawas, and Hasinais appeared at the gates of the San Sabá mission, announcing that "they had come with the intention of killing the Apaches..." Their faces "smeared with black and red paint," equipped with lances, cutlasses, helmets, metal breastplates, and "at least 1,000" French muskets, and led by a Comanche chief clad in a French officer's uniform, they set fire to the buildings... (59)
Does this seem remotely plausible? A large band of Comanches approach a Spanish mission in Texas. Their chief is wearing a French military uniform. The warriors wear French helmets and armor, and wield swords. Try to picture it in a movie. An audience would snort - it would look ridiculous. Is this how Plains Indians are supposed to look? Yet it appears to be true, known through multiple eyewitness accounts.
Hämäläinen makes an audacious argument, that the Comanche-occupied territory (in contemporary terms, western Texas and parts of neighboring states) should, from the early 18th through the mid-19th century, be considered as a unified state, as an empire, subclass: nomad. Like the Mongols, as a for instance. Hämäläinen demonstrates that Spanish New Mexico, for example, was essentially a tributary province of the Comanches for about a century.
The book is filled with startling reversals like this. It's become common for historians to simply flip perspectives - to look at America's westward expansion, say, from the point of view of the conquered peoples. The Comanche Empire is doing something else. Hämäläinen argues that for a long time the Comanches were the conquerors. There is no reversed perspective. Earlier perspectives were simply mistaken.
They were mistaken, often, because of partial evidence, the limited view of the participants. Spanish residents of Taos and Santa Fe, desperate to scrape up enough tribute to buy off Comanche raiders, had no idea that the horses stolen in New Mexico ended up on the other side of the empire, in the hands of French traders in Louisiana. Those Comanches in French uniforms and armor are not only plausible, but likely. Hämäläinen, with the assistance of hundreds of earlier historians, is able to put all of these pieces together.
I'll try to write about it for a couple more days. It's a complex book, meant for academic historians and what one might call "advanced undergraduates." Often, I found myself ill-equipped to judge it. It's packed with "no way" moments. Maybe I'll share a few of those. The book's a triumph.