Though their numbers are disputed, historians agree that the Comanches had a profound impact on western history. They now face the twenty-first century with confidence.
The Comanche are a Plains Indians tribe, numbering 14,732 enrolled members. Roughly half of the Comanche nation, about 7,763 people, reside in Fort Sill or the surrounding areas of southwest Oklahoma. The tribe boasts a modern Comanche Nation complex at Lawton, Oklahoma, a site that employs about 145 staffers. There is some dispute over the origins of the name “Comanche.” Most scholars think it was derived from the Ute word Komanticia, roughly translated as “enemy,” or more literally “anyone who wants to fight me all the time.” In their own language they call themselves “Numinu,” or “the people.” The Comanche language is an offshoot of the Uto-Aztecan linguistic family, and closely allied to the Shoshoni tongue.
There were at least thirteen bands at the height of the tribe’s power and influence in the early to mid-nineteenth century, and it is possible there were even more, but never recorded. But the major bands that played significant roles in Comanche history are well known. The Penatekas, or “Honey Eaters,” were the southernmost band. Their range stretched from the Edwards Plateau to the headwaters of the rivers in central Texas. Their territory brought them into conflict with the Anglo-American settlers, called Texicans, starting in the 1830s. North of the Penatekas three bands shared the same range. The Nokoni, or “Those Who Turn Back,” were the largest of the trio. The Tamina (“Liver Eaters”) and Tenawa (“Those Who Stay Downstream”) were the names of the other two bands. Sometimes the three were styled “Middle Comanches.” The Kotsotekas, or “Buffalo Eaters,” had a territory that included much of western Oklahoma. By contrast, the Yamparikas (“Yap Eaters’) were north of the Arkansas River. The name “”yap” comes from an edible root. The last major band, the Quahadis (“Antelopes”) roamed the high plains of the Llano Estacado.
Comanche Contact with the White World
The people we know as Comanche were an offshoot of the Shoshoni nation. Evidence seems to suggest that they were originally hunters and gatherers in the Great Basin region. They obtained horses in the late seventeenth century, perhaps in the 1680s. The Comanche became expert horsemen, which made them more formidable in the hunt and in war. Their numbers are disputed. Some scholars say there might have been as many as 40,000 Comanches, while others insist the tribe was small, perhaps only 4,000. Epidemics of cholera and other diseases swept through the Comanche, complicating modern estimates.
The Spanish in New Mexico and Texas encountered the Comanche in the early eighteenth century. In 1758 Comanche warriors destroyed Mission Santa Cruz de San Saba in Texas, sacking and burning the mission and killing eight inhabitants. Punitive expeditions were failures, so the Spanish generally negotiated peace agreements with the tribe.
When Mexico acquired Texas in 1821, there was an attempt to bring in Anglo-American settlers to form a bulwark against Comanche raids. The Anglo-Americans clashed with the Comanche almost at once. In 1836, the Comanche raid at Fort Parker killed several people and took five hostages, including Cynthia Ann Parker. Later married to Comanche leader Peta Nocona, she would be the mother of the last great chief, Quanah Parker.
Comanche-white relations were generally bloody, with some periods of relative peace. Anglo-American settlers demonized the tribe, in part because of the brutal treatment of white captives. But in 1867 the Treaty of Medicine Lodge established a reservation for the Comanche. In return, the tribe agreed to cede some 38 million acres, permit railroads to be built, and stop raiding.
The End of the Buffalo
By the early 1870s the buffalo were vanishing, ruthlessly slaughtered by hordes of white hunters. As the buffalo neared extinction, the Comanche began to starve. Quanah Parker and his Quahadis were among the last to retain the old free-roaming, buffalo-hunting ways. But the days of nomadic hunting were numbered. In 1874, a handful of white buffalo hunters were attacked by a band of Indians at Adobe Walls. The war party included Comanche, Kiowas and Cheyenne who had been assured by the Comanche “prophet” Isa-Tai (“Coyote Ass”) they would be victorious. Quanah Parker was among those who took part in the attack The result was a disastrous defeat- at least fifteen warriors were killed. by white long-range rifles. Within a year the last of the Comanches had surrendered and were on the reservation.
In 1892 the Jerome Agreement was signed between the U.S. and the Comanches, Kiowas, and Apaches. The pact allotted 160 acres for each man, woman, and child. In return the Indians gave up all lands, with the exception of four tracts. The Jerome Agreement allotments were completed by 1901. Today, modern Comanches live on their family allotments, or in cities and towns all over the country. Thus, they are not “reservation” Indians, that status having ended the turn of the century.
- Donaly Brice, The Great Comanche Raid:The Boldest Indian Attack on the Texas Republic (Eakin Press, 1987 )
- T.R. Fehenbach, Comanches: Story of a People (Anchor edition, 2003)