to as “half-breeds” by uncomprehending Anglos, the Comancheros made
a living by trading with the Comanches. They were a combination
of entrepreneurs and soldiers of fortune with a little explorer
mixed in for good measure. The fact that their steadiest customers
were the Comanche bands scattered across the llanos and canyonlands
added an element of danger to their version of free enterprise.
The Comancheros were also trailblazers, cutting paths across the
plains that were later followed, fatefully for the Comanches, by
the U.S. Army and early day settlers and ranchers. The Comancheros’
sales territory extended from their native New Mexico east to the
Wichita Mountains of Oklahoma and as far east and south as the Davis
That turf was opened up with an 1786 treaty between Juan Baptista
de Anza, the Spanish governor of New Mexico who had dramatically
scored a couple of rare but decisive military defeats of the Comanche
in Colorado. The treaty allowed trade between New Mexico and the
Comanches in exchange for protection of the Spanish territories
and thus created a market the adventurous businessmen known as Comancheros
were quick to exploit; the most amazing thing about the treaty was
that both sides actually observed it.
The trade worked like this. The Comanches would bring cows, horses,
hides and captives to a predetermined meeting point. The Comancheros
would take those commodities, including the captives, off the Comanches’
hands, and trade them guns, firewater, trinkets, whatever. A lot
of times the Comanchero served as a middle man in returning the
captives over to the Army, especially after an announcement by U.S.
Army General Zachary Taylor that the government would pay for any
captives brought in to Fort Gibson (in what is now eastern Oklahoma).
The announcement had an unintended result: the number of captives
skyrocketed and the market for them boomed.
The practice earned the Comancheros a reputation among Anglos that
can be clearly seen in Josiah Gregg’s description of the traders:
“These parties of Comancheros are usually composed of the indigent
and rude classes of the frontier villages, who collect together
several times a year, and launch upon the plains with a few trinkets
and trumperies of all kind, and perhaps a bag of bread or pinole.”
In time, the trade came to include guns, ammunition and whiskey
and more than a few head of stolen cattle and horses. The Comancheros
sold these to wily merchants who often sold the livestock back to
the original owners.
The beginning of the end for the Comancheros came when Colonel Ranald
Mackenzie, with orders to exterminate the last band of wild Comanches
(or any other tribe for that matter) found an old Comanchero trail
that ran from present-day Tucumcari, New Mexico to what is now Canyon,
Texas on the edge of the Palo
Duro. The trail was told to Mackenzie by a captured Comanchero,
Polonio Ortiz, who was promptly transcripted into service by Mackenzie
as a scout.
Parker and his warriors surrendered, marking the official end
of the Comanches as lords and warriors of the plains, the Comancheros
lost one half of their business equation and faded into history
as a sidebar or footnote, and not always in a good way.
Many of the old Comanchero trails and the ones credited to Mackenzie
and his soldiers are still in existence, though there is virtually
no trace of the old Comanchero culture to be found anywhere. The
old trails now are generally paved and are marked on maps as highways
and county roads.
It’s almost like the scant legacy of the Comancheros is part of
the deal they made with history – to do their business, leave little
behind and then move out of the way. The bulk of their lasting legacy
is that they kept up their end of the deal.
© Clay Coppedge
4, 2011 Column
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