This is a single part of what will be, by my classification, about 240 compact tribal histories (contact to 1900). It is limited to the lower 48 states of the U.S. but also includes those First Nations from Canada and Mexico that had important roles (Huron, Micmac, Assiniboine, etc.).
Before contact, the Comanches were part of the southern groups of Eastern Shoshoni that lived near the upper reaches of
At the time of their first separation from the Shoshoni, the Comanches probably numbered about 10,000. This increased dramatically as they migrated south and were joined later by additional groups of Eastern Shoshoni. They also added to their population by incorporating large numbers of women and children prisoners. Estimates for 1790 run as high as 20,000, but there was never an accurate count until the 1870s. Although the 1849 United States census of Indian tribes also gave this figure, it was, at best, a guess. Epidemics during the following two years had dropped this estimate to 12,000 by 1851. There were less than 8,000 Comanches in 1870. At the lowpoint in 1920, the census listed less than 1,500. Currently, 5,000 Comanches live near their tribal headquarters in Lawton, Oklahoma. Total enrollment is around 8,000. Of the three million acres promised the Comanche, Kiowa and Kiowa Apache by treaty in 1867, only 235,000 have remained in native hands. Of this, 4,400 acres are owned by the tribe itself.
The Comanche name is well-known, but its origin is uncertain. The most likely explanation is that it was a Spanish corruption of their Ute name, Kohmahts (those who are against us). The Siouan word Padoucah used interchangeably by the early French traders for both Comanches and Plains Apache. In later years it came to be used only for Comanches. Likewise, Ietan (also Hietan, Iatan, Aliatan, Halitane, Lalitane, and Naitaine) was first associated with both Comanches and the Ute. By 1800, it meant Comanches. In their own language, Comanches referred to themselves as the Nemene 'our people.' Given variously as: Näumi, Nemene, Nerm, Nerme, Nermernuh, Nimenim, Niuni, Niyuna, and Numa. Other names for Comanches: Bodalk Inago (snake men) (Kiowa), Catha (having many horses) (Arapaho), Cintualuka (Lakota), Datse-an (Kiowa-Apache), Gens du Serpent (French), Gyaiko (enemy) (Kiowa), Idahi (Kiowa-Apache), Inda (Jicarilla Apache), La Plais (French), Larihta (Pawnee), Los Mecos (Mexican), Mahan (Isleta), Mahana (Taos), Nalani (Navaho), Nanita (Kitsai), Naratah (Waco), Nataa (Wichita), Partooku (Osage), Sanko (snake) (Kiowa), Sauhto (or Sont-to, Sawato) (Caddo), Selakampom (Comecrudo), Shishinowutz-hitaneo (snake people) (Cheyenne), Snake (also used for the Shoshoni), Tawaccaro(Osage), and Yampah (or Yampaini) (Shoshoni).
Uto-Aztecan - Numic. The Comanche language is almost identical to Shoshoni which in turn is related to Ute and Paiute.
Comanches were not a unified tribe in the usual sense of the word. There were from 8 to 12 independent divisions, which for the most part cooperated to some degree, but at other times were mutually antagonistic. In turn, each division could contain several semi-autonomous bands. For reasons known only to themselves, Comanche groups changed their names over the years. Division and band names often followed the Shoshoni custom of referring to a type of food.
Hois (timber people), Jupe (or Hupene, Yupini), Kotsoteka (or Caschotethka, Koocheteka, Kotsai) (buffalo eaters), Kwahada (or Kwahadi, Kwahari, Kwaharior, Quahada) (antelopes), Parkeenaum (water people), Nokoni (or Detsanyuka, Naconee, Nakoni, Nawkoni, Nocony) (people who return), Pehnahterkuh (wasps), Penateka (or Penande, Penetethka) (honey eaters), Tahneemuh (or Dehaui, Tanima, Tevawish, Yanimna) (liver eaters), Tenawa (or Tahnahwah, Tenahwit) (those who stay downstream), Widyunuu (or Widyu Yapa) (awl people), and Yamparika (or Yamparack, Yapparethka) (root eaters).
Ditsakana, Guage-johe, Hainenaurie (or Hainenaune), Itchitabudan, Ketahto, Kewatsana, Kwashi, Motsai, Muvinabore, Nauniem, Nonaum, Pagatsu, Pohoi (adopted Shoshoni), Titchakenah, Waaih, and Yapaor.
Great Plains horse and buffalo culture and all this implies, especially the horse. Comanches are believed to have been the first native people on the plains to utilize the horse extensively, and as such, they were the source for other plains tribes of the horses that made the buffalo culture possible, even their enemies. Comanche herds also supplied Americans with mules for the southern cotton plantations and horses used to reach California during the 1849 gold rush. For this reason, the Comanches were probably the most important tribe of the Great Plains. In spite of this, they have become something of a historical orphan. Texans do not like to talk about them because of the memories are painful. Some writers have deliberately avoided Comanches because it is a little awkward to describe them as victims; and others because Comanche society generally lacked the elaborate ceremony and ritual attractive to anthropologists.
Most early historical records are in Spanish, and given the pervasive anti-Spanish bias in American history, this has unfortunately been extended to the Comanches. Their name has become synonymous with the stereotypical image of the "wild Indian." In some ways their reputation is deserved. Comanches stole just about every horse and mule in New Mexico and northern Mexico and put a good dent in the available supply in Texas. They captured women and children from rival tribes and sold them to the Spanish in New Mexico as 'servants.' During the 1800s they expanded into stealing thousands of cattle from Texas herds to sell in New Mexico. Despite these activities, it is difficult to think of any other native group so maligned by misinformation. It has often been said that, between the years 1700 and 1875, Comanches killed more Euroamericans than any other tribe. However, when an actual body count is taken, this is clearly an exaggeration. During the same period, Comanches fought virtually every tribe on the plains: Crow, Pueblo, Arikara, Lakota, Kansa, Pawnee, Navaho, Apache, Ute, Wichita, Waco, Tonkawa, Osage, Sauk, Fox, Kickapoo, Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Seminole, and Chickasaw. A very long list, but it should be remembered that most of these wars began with the theft of Comanche horses. Comanches also fought the Kiowa, Kiowa-Apache, Cheyenne, and Arapaho but eventually made peace and formed lasting alliances with these former enemies.
Comanches were Shoshoni who, after acquiring the horse, migrated to the central and southern plains. Many of the Comanches' values and traditions had their origins in the harsh environment of the Great Basin (Utah and Nevada). Sometime around 1500 (perhaps earlier), several large groups of Eastern Shoshoni pushed through South Pass and spread across the western part of the northern plains. Eventually, they extended as far north and east as the plains of Alberta and Saskatchewan. On the plains, their lives improved but were still hard. Hunting buffalo on foot was not only difficult, but dangerous, and there were frequent skirmishes with the Crow, Blackfoot, and Plains Apache. Shortly after the Pueblo Rebellion (1680) forced the Spanish to temporarily abandon their settlements in New Mexico, the Comanches got their first horses, probably from the Ute. The source might just as well have been the Plains Apache, and the date is only an educated guess.
Comanches did not waste time on nonsense such as history. In their experience, people who thought too much about these things starved. Within a few generations, Comanches had lost all memory of their first horses, and some even came to believe they had horses before the Spanish. But the horse radically changed the lives of the Comanches for the better. Besides its mobility, buffalo were easy to hunt, and mounted warriors enjoyed a tremendous advantage in warfare. Comanche skills on horseback quickly reached levels which, in many ways, exceeded those of Europeans. Their adaptation was more rapid and complete than their Shoshoni relatives, and groups of Comanches began to separate and migrate south. It has been suggested they were attracted by the large buffalo herds on the southern plains, but there were more than enough buffalo near the Platte at this time for their needs. The more-likely answer was they were moving closer to the supply of horses in New Mexico. In short, the practical-minded Comanches were going into the horse business.
They were outrageously successful in this! Not only did their riding skills become the standard by which other plains tribes were judged, but Comanches were one of few native peoples to learn how to breed their horses. They valued pinto and paints and selectively bred for those characteristics. Through trade, capture, careful breeding, and especially massive theft, Comanches acquired large herds. By the early 1800s, Comanches had horses in numbers beyond the dreams of other tribes. Shrewd traders, their language became the lingua franca of horse trading on the plains. As the horse with its corresponding buffalo culture spread, Comanches found other markets markets for their horses. The French from Louisiana were first, followed by the Americans, and Comanches were hard-pressed to keep pace with the rising demand. Stealing horses was a universal blood-sport among the plains tribes, but like everything else concerning the horse, Comanches did it on a grand scale. As the number of Spanish horses in New Mexico became inadequate, Comanche raids reached south into Texas and Mexico. By 1775 the Spanish governor of New Mexico was complaining that, despite constant re-supply from Mexico, Comanche raiders had stolen so many horses he did not have enough to pursue them.
The Comanche epitomized the mounted plains warrior. Until the 1750s, they often employed leather armor and large body shields to protect both horse and rider. This changed with increased use of firearms and quickly changed into the stereotypical light cavalry tactics associated with plains warfare. This development first forced the Spanish, and later Texans and Americans, to cope with a new style of mounted warfare. They did not do very well at first. European cavalry had evolved into heavy-armed dragoons designed to break massed-infantry formations. There was no way these soldiers could stay with mounted Comanches who usually left them eating dust ..if they could find them in the first place. The Texas Rangers were organized during the 1840s primarily to fight Comanches. A decade later, when the American army began to assume much of the Rangers' responsibility, it had much to learn. As the cream of the army's officer corps struggled to keep Comanche raiders out of Texas and Mexico, dragoon regiments were replaced by light cavalry. The lessons learned were applied later during the American Civil War by men like Stuart, Forrest and Sheridan.
Although Comanches had acquired their first firearms from French traders as early as the 1740s, they continued to rely heavily on their traditional weapons: lance and the bow and arrow. These were not really a disadvantage in mounted warfare. The only major change was the use of steel for knives, arrow heads and lance points. If a Comanche did carry a firearm, it was usually a shotgun or musket. They disliked the rifle because of its weight, and its greater accuracy was useless from horseback. At later times they used revolvers after they had become available. On foot a Comanche warrior was dangerous but nothing exceptional ...an Apache or Pawnee was probably better. Mounted, Comanches had no equal. As a moving targets they were difficult to hit, and if an enemy fired and had to reload, a Comanche could close rapidly with his lance or send six arrows into an opponent while hanging under the neck of a galloping horse.
Comanche raids were legendary for the distance covered and could strike hundreds of miles from their starting point. War parties usually travelled at night following separate routes to a previously-agreed location. Strings of horses were used to avoid fatiguing their mounts. War paint was black and usually consisted of two broad black stripes across the forehead and lower face. Their war hoop was a collective rah-rah-rah...almost like a high school cheer. After the sudden attack, a rapid retreat began using separate routes and dividing into ever-smaller groups as necessary to thwart pursuit. Returning war parties often wore some of their stolen booty: stovepipe hats, womens corsets, etc., giving them an almost circus-like appearance. The effect would have been comic, if they were not so dangerous. Male prisoners were almost always killed at the scene, but women and children were taken back to the village. Women were usually raped, enslaved, and kept for ransom or sale as slaves. Children might also be sold but were often adopted and raised as part of the band. Comanches apparently made little distinction between natural-born and adopted members.
Physically, Comanches were generally shorter than other plains tribes. Warriors wore their hair long, parted in the middle around the scalplock, and braided (or tied) on the sides. Women usually cut theirs short. Clothing was buckskin, but after cloth became available, they preferred blue or scarlet. Despite the stereotype seen in the movies, Comanches did not wear feathered war bonnets like the Lakota until the late 1800s. For a headdress, many preferred a war bonnet made from a buffalo scalp with horns. This also served to protect its wearer from blows to the head. Rather than ordinary moccasins, Comanche horsemen wore high riding boots extending to hip and usually colored a light blue.
Besides language, Comanches retained other traits of the Shoshoni. Their tepees were distinctive on the southern plains for their use of four (not three) main poles, two of which outlined the entrance. The tepee was always used during winter, but in summer, Comanches frequently used temporary brush shelters reminiscent of Great Basin Shoshoni. The staple food was buffalo, but their diet also included roots, wild vegetables and fruits gathered by the women. The buffalo provided just about everything they needed: clothing, tepee covers, thread, water carriers, and tools. Some have mentioned they never ate fish or waterfowl, but Comanches say they ate them only if they happened to be hungry. However, they definitely did not eat dogs and never quite adjusted to the hospitality of their Kiowa, Cheyenne and Arapaho allies who did. When the Comanches first encountered cannibalism among the tribes in eastern Texas, their reaction was almost the same as Europeans, only Comanches had a more direct method of expressing disapproval. As a rule, they did not like or use the "firewater" offered to them by white traders.
They were loosely organized into 8 to 12 divisions, each with several bands. Individuals often transferred between these groups. Leadership was entirely male and not hereditary. It was based on status acquired through a combination of war honors, "puha" (medicine power), generosity, and family relationships. Its most apparent characteristic was the lack of hard-and-fast rules. The power of a Comanche parabio (chief) could vary from minimal control of his own band to authority over an entire division. Division chiefs apparently were elected by a general council of band parabios, when required, at large gatherings for that purpose. There does now appear to have been any level of central authority beyond the division level. Comanches valued good-judgement over speaking skills, and their leaders frequently employed a designated speaker, or orator (tlatolero), to speak for them. It was sometimes difficult for outsiders in meetings with Comanches to determine who was the actual leader. It was also almost-impossible to make a treaty with one group of Comanches that would be observed by all.
Like many of their other characteristics, Comanche social organization was basic, but not simple, because of the lack of absolutes. Their large horse herds required Comanches to live in small, scattered groups. Even then it was necessary to move frequently, not just to follow the buffalo, but to insure enough grass to feed their mounts. The basic social unit was the extended family. Wives became part of their husband's family, but not always. Comanche avoided using the name of the dead, but often names of people with great puha were passed to a new generation leading to several persons with the same name. Comanches did not have clans, but the men had several military societies which cut across band and division lines. Small medicine (puha) societies were another form of organization for both men and women. The Comanches were a warrior society, and the men dominated. Women were not allowed not speak at council, and often were not free to choose whom they would marry. Most observers have concluded their lives were hard. The men were polygamous, but an adulterous wife could be killed or have her nose cut-off. Generally parabios would not interfere in these private matters (even in cases of murder) unless absolutely necessary.
The dead were buried almost immediately in a shallow trench, usually on a hill near the village. The grave was then covered with rocks, and often a warrior's horse was also killed. A mourning period followed during which women relatives cried aloud as a sign of grief. As could be expected, Comanche religion was also basic. It centered around the individual acquisition of puha through a vision quest, but there was no formal ritual for this. There was a general belief in a Supreme Creator, spirits, and a life after death. Although there was little public ceremony, religion was an important part of their lives. Councils always began with a pipe smoking ceremony, with the first puff always offered to the Great Spirit. The Comanches had their own version of the sun dance, but it was performed at irregular intervals. When the Ghost Dance movement swept across the plains in 1890, the Comanches did not participate.
Of the great Comanche chiefs, Quanah Parker is probably the best known to Americans. His unlikely name means "fragrance" (sweet smell). He probably obtained his notoriety because his mother, Cynthia Anne Parker, was an Anglo-Texan. Cynthia was captured when she was nine-years old during an 1836 raid in Texas. Raised as member of the band, she married a Comanche, and they had three children. In 1860 she was recaptured by Texas Rangers and her husband killed. Quanah escaped and later became a leader among the Kwahada. Reunited with her white relatives, Cynthia only wished to return to her son and the Comanches. This was not allowed, and she died in 1864. Among the Comanches themselves, other chiefs were regarded as more important than Quanah. Among these were: Ten Bears, Red Sleeves, Green Horn, Iron Shirt, Leather Cape, and Buffalo Hump.
After they entered the northern plains as part of the Eastern Shoshoni around 1500, the people who would become the Comanches lived along the upper reaches of the Platte River in southeastern Wyoming ranging between the foothills of the Rocky Mountains and the Black Hills. They got their first horses sometime around 1680 and changed dramatically within a few years. Groups of Comanches separated from the Shoshoni and began to move south in about 1700. After forming an alliance with the Ute, they occupied the central plains of eastern Colorado and western Kansas between the Platte and Arkansas Rivers and began to drive the Plains Apache from the area. Their first European contact is commonly believed to have been in New Mexico around 1700 when they visited a trade fair in Taos in the company of some Ute. Although this meeting is undocumented, the Comanche were definitely known to the Spanish in New Mexico by 1706.