Comanche deities included numerous celestial objects such as the sun and moon. The Eagle Dance and Beaver ceremony were important, but Comanche did not adopt the Sun Dance until 1874. Young men undertook vision quests in remote places, hoping to attract a guardian spirit helper. When they returned, shamans helped them to interpret their visions and to prepare their personal medicine bundles.
Membership was fluid in each of the roughly 13 bands, including four major ones. Each band had a chief or headman, who was assisted by a council of the leading men of the band. In contrast to most other Plains Indians, the fiercely independent Comanche maintained virtually no police to keep order in the camp. Leaders for buffalo hunts maintained authority for that hunt only. Men might have more than one wife. Corpses were dressed in their best clothing, face painted red and red clay on the eyes, and buried in a flexed position in a cave or shallow grave. Mourners cut their hair, arms, and legs. They gave away the dead person's possessions, burned his or her teepee, and never mentioned his or her name again.
Buffalo was the main staple on the Plains. They were driven over cliffs, stalked individually, or, most commonly after the people acquired horses, surrounded on horseback. Men also hunted other large and small game. Women gathered wild potatoes, fruit (plums, grapes, and currants), nuts, and berries. Babies were cradled in beaded skin pockets attached to V-shaped frames. The Comanche also made shallow basketry gambling trays.
The Comanche frequented both northern Plains aboriginal trade centers: Mandan villages on the Knife River and the Arikara villages in present-day South Dakota. By the early 18th century, the Comanche were trading at Taos and Santa Fe, New Mexico, although they also raided these areas mercilessly. Having acquired horses during the late 16th century, probably from the Ute, the Comanche became among the most highly skilled horse riders on the Plains. They were excellent breeders and trainers as well as raiders and maintained some of the largest horse herds on the Plains. Both boys and girls began riding around age five.
Women made moccasins, leggings, breech-clouts, shirts, and robes for men, and for themselves they made two-piece dresses and moccasins with leggings and robes in the winter. Clothing was often decorated with beaded quillwork. They used red paint for battle on their horses' heads and tails as well as themselves. Other battle gear included buffalo horn headdresses, high buffalo hide boots, and horsehair extensions to their already long hair. Weapons included feathered lances, buffalo hide shields, and bows, mainly of Osage orange wood. The people adopted military societies beginning in the 18th century as well as many other features of Plains warrior culture.
The Comanche were originally part of the eastern Shoshone, who had lived along Arizona's Gila River from about 3000 BCE to about 500 BCE. At that time, a group of them began migrating north toward Utah, growing a high-altitude variety of corn that had been developed in Mexico. When a drought struck the Great Basin in the 13th century, these people, known then as Shoshone, spread out north of the Great Salt throughout much of the Great Basin.
By about the late 17th century, some Shoshone bands, from the mountainous regions of Wyoming and northern Colorado, later known as Comanche, had acquired horses. The bands began migrating into New Mexico and toward the Arkansas River on the central Plains. They adopted the cycle of buffalo hunting, raiding, and fighting characteristic of Plains life. By about 1750 they had acquired vast horse herds and dominated the central high plains.
In 1780–1781 the Comanche (as well as most other Plains tribes) lost a large number of their people, perhaps as many as half, to a smallpox epidemic. In about 1790, several thousand northern Comanche and Kiowa joined in a lasting alliance. The Comanche continued southward throughout the 18th and into the early 19th century, pressured from the north by the Dakota/Lakota and other tribes and drawn by trade and raiding opportunities in the Southwest and beyond in New Spain/Mexico. During this period they continued to drive Apachean groups from the Plains. They also prevented the Spanish from colonizing Texas extensively, and they acted as a brake to French trade expansion into the Southwest.
By the mid-19th century, the Comanche were roughly separated into three divisions. The southern group lived between the Red and Colorado Rivers in Texas. The middle group wintered in Texas but followed the buffalo in the summer north toward the Arkansas River. The northern group wintered on the Red River and wandered widely during the summer. In 1840, the northern Comanche made peace with the southern Cheyenne and Arapaho, after the latter had staged several successful raids against them. As part of this agreement, the Comanche gave up land in western Kansas north of the Arkansas River.
A cholera epidemic in 1849–1850 took a heavier toll on the Comanche population than had all the battles to date. During the 1840s and 1850s, the Comanche fought bitter wars with the Texans, the latter bent on exterminating all Native American groups. The Comanche defeated Kit Carson in 1864, but they and the Kiowa signed a treaty in 1865 that reserved much of western Indian Territory (Oklahoma) for them and their allies. When the U.S. government failed to keep non-Natives out of these lands, the Native Americans rebelled. In the ensuing 1867 Medicine Lodge Treaty, some Comanche bands agreed to accept a reservation in southwestern Indian Territory with the Kiowa and Kiowa Apaches. Hostilities over non-Indian squatters and the difficulties of life in captivity continued for another eight years. However, by the late 1860s the Comanche were in serious trouble. The great buffalo herds had been hunted to near extinction and the U.S. Army was pursuing Natives relentlessly.
After the 1868 Battle of the Washita, in which the United States massacred a group of Cheyenne Indians, a few Comanche leaders surrendered their bands at Fort Cobb, Oklahoma; these roughly 2,500 people were later moved to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, and began farming corn. Several bands, however, remained on the Plains, holding on to the free life for several more years. The Comanche adopted a modified version of the Sun Dance in 1874. At about the same time, a short-lived religious movement led to an unsuccessful battle against the United States at Adobe Walls.
In 1874, War Chief Quanah Parker led the last free Comanche bands, along with some Kiowa and Cheyenne refugees from Fort Sill, into Palo Duro Canyon, Texas, site of the last great buffalo range. There they lived traditionally until the Army found and destroyed their camp and horses. In 1875, Parker surrendered to mark the end of Comanche resistance.
Parker continued as an important leader on the reservation, overseeing favorable land leases and playing a major role in bringing the Peyote religion to the Comanche and many other Native American groups after 1890. Reservation lands were allotted beginning in 1892. Nonallotted lands were sold to non-Natives, and nothing remained of the reservation by 1908.
Barry M. Pritzker
Hicks, John D. The Federal Union: A History of the United States to 1865. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1937; Moquin, Wayne. Great Documents in American Indian History. New York: Praeger, 1973; Pritzker, Barry M. Native America Today: A Guide to Community Politics and Culture. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 1999.