Monday, November 30, 2009

Pekka Hämäläinen's audacious The Comanche Empire

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.


  1. Your movement from mummified cats to uniformed Comanches is exciting and surprising--as is your blog. Bravo!

    Now, I look forward to the next installment of your commentary on this provocative history, and I wonder what exciting surprises will be coming soon.

  2. Perhaps this is a new genre: speculative-but-hey-this-is-strange-it-might-actually-be-real history. Like speculative fiction, only much much more intensely migraine-causing (and what causes the migraine is the phrase, not the genre itself...).

    It's been ages since I've read any hard-core history texts and while the "for academic historians" label is somewhat off-putting, I'm intrigued by the idea that this has tons of "no way" moments. Those are just so much fun... I'm looking forward to more installments in this series. I suspect I'll leave them scratching in my head in speculative-history confusion and excitement.

  3. Yes, just what I want when a completely unexpected avenue of American history opens for me: a pitch for a pyramid scheme--ooops, I mean investment opportunity.

  4. Thanks for removing the pyramid scheme comment, but now my comment seems a complete non-sequiter.

  5. Biblibio - I seem to have given you the wrong impression. Hämäläinen's book is standard history of the highest quality. He does not speculate. He interprets evidence. His interpretations could be wrong. Native American history seems to be in a transformative phase right now - it's changing rapidly. Thus the number of startling moments.

    RT - you remind me that I should perhaps write about literature sometime. Soon. Maybe. History is a kind of literature.

    Deb - every experienced user of the internet will know just what happened. Do those scams ever work? They must, I suppose they must.

  6. Back in the pre-Caller ID/pre-Do Not Call list days, I used to be amazed at the number of telemarketing calls we received. One day after hanging up on one rather abruptly, I said to my husband, "Why do these people call every day, knowing I'm going to hang up on them?" To which he replied, "Not everyone hangs up on them."

    I guess it's sort of like the Nigerian email scams. They send out hundreds of thousands of emails, but they only need one or two people to respond to make some money.

    To return to the subject at hand, I'm enjoying your analysis of The Comanche Empire. I agree that the entire view of Native American history is changing rapidly right now--this book is a sign of that.

  7. Literature and history? I do not make the distinction because well-written history (like other well-written texts) are literature; I do not restrict the definition of literature to the imaginative/creative forms (i.e., drama, novels, short stories, poetry, etc.) but see it in a larger view. In any event, I look forward to more about the Comanches, and I look forward to more at Wuthering Expectations.

    "are literature" is incorrect; "is literature" is the correction. Even English teachers--when keyboarding in a hurry--make atrocious grammar mistakes. This one was more than atrocious.

  9. Very interesting stuff. One reason I find history so exciting to read is that it does not stay the same. So much of what we understand about it is in a stay of flux as new evidence and new theories are found. This sounds like an excellent book, but I'm a little afraid of the academic nature of it.

    Most of the history I read is on the popular side. I loved 1492 which I read a few years ago. It really made me rethink my understanding of Native Americans before Columbus.

  10. Someday Hämäläinen or someone else will write the 200 page pop book on this story. That will be an easy book to recommend.