The Comanchero Trade and Trails
by Jay W. Sharp
The Comanchero trade, which spanned the arid lands between the Rio Grande settlements and pueblos of north central New Mexico and the buffalo plains of northern Texas, ranks as one of the more bizarre chapters in the history of the Southwest.
It involved a disparate assortment of players: Rio Grande Hispanics, Puebloans and a few Anglos collectively, the Comancheros who served as middlemen and transporters for trade goods; the Southern Plains Indians, especially the Comanches and their allies, the Kiowas all enterprising buccaneers who stole vast livestock herds and abducted women and children for the trade; New Mexico’s opportunists Hispanic and Anglo settlers and merchants as well as U. S. Army troopers who comprised the major market for the Comancheros’ pilfered livestock and slaves and hostages; and ranchers and settlers both Texan and Mexican victims who sacrificed their livestock and, sometimes, their women and children to the trade.
Origins and History of the Comanchero Trade
According to Charles L. Kenner, The Comanchero Frontier: A History of New Mexican-Plains Indian Relations, the era of Comanchero commerce sprang from the enduring truce negotiated by the Spanish and the Comanches in 1786, although, according to T. R. Fehrenbach, Comanches: The Destruction of a People, the agreement encompassed only the settlements of northern New Mexico. It gave no protection to the ranches and communities of northern Mexico and western Texas. It left the Comanches and Kiowas free to raid those areas at will.
The Comanchero trade became remarkably persistent, continuing throughout Mexico’s governmental chaos after independence in 1821, the rising tide of immigration from the United States, the war between the United States and Mexico in the late 1840’s, the war between the Union and the Confederacy in the 1860’s, and intense controversies over the trade of firearms and whiskey and the purchase or ransom of slaves and captives. It began to peak during the Civil War, when longhorn cows flowed heavily into the stream of trade. It ended only when the U. S. Army drove the Comanches and Kiowas from the Southern Plains in the mid 1870s.
The Principal Routes and Commodities
Of the principal Comanchero arteries, the southernmost (here I’ve drawn from the famed Texas historian J. Evetts Haley’s “The Comanchero Trade,” The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, January, 1935, and his Charles Goodnight: Cowman & Plainsman) began at Santa Fe, New Mexico, and it ran generally southeastward, to the Pecos River, then downstream to the vicinity of the Bosque Redondo (now Fort Sumner) in east central New Mexico. From there, one branch headed east southeast for 75 miles, then turned southeast. It crossed Texas’ High Plains, or the Caprock, a table-flat, treeless, shortgrass prairieland. It descended the eastern escarpment of the Caprock, into a river-bottom trading site, the Canyon del Rescate or, Ransom Canyon near Lubbock. A second branch ran due east across the High Plains. It descended the eastern escarpment to trading sites near the present community of Quitaque, Texas, where the “breaks” hosted cottonwoods, willows and hackberries along the stream bottoms and red berry junipers and mesquite on canyon walls.
The northern route began at Las Vegas, New Mexico. It ran generally eastward to the Canadian River, which it followed downstream to the western escarpment of the Caprock (near the present border between New Mexico and Texas). From there, one branch bore southeastward, passing through Palo Duro Canyon then across the High Plains to the Quitaque breaks. A second branch continued down the Canadian River then up a tributary to trading grounds at Las Tecovas, just west of Amarillo, Texas.
The Comanchero trails evolved from a prehistoric network of routes that had served the Plains Indians nomadic hunters, gatherers and raiders who traveled from their prairie homelands westward to trade with the eastern Puebloan peoples sedentary village farmers. Pueblos such as Pecos and Taos, in northern New Mexico, and Gran Quivira, in central New Mexico, were centers of trade.
The Comanchero commodities that flowed eastward over the historic trails included flour, meal, bread, sugar, coffee, cloth, pumpkins, onions, tobacco, whiskey, beads, knives, tomahawks, lances, steel arrow points, and more menacingly, muskets, pistols and ammunition. The Comanche and Kiowa trade goods that flowed westward included buffalo and deer hides, jerky, tallow and, especially, pirated horses, mules and longhorns as well as captives abducted in raids on the settlements of the Texas frontier and the haciendas of northern Mexico.
Cast of Characters
Kenner said that the Comancheros, who most often headed for the Plains to trade in the late summer and early fall of each year, would earn a reputation that was “quite paradoxical...” In the beginning, they were considered as “harmless rovers of the plains, later they were regarded as notorious villains; yet during the interval, they changed very little. They were the victims of a rapidly changing society in which they, like their red-skinned customers, became a dangerous anachronism...”
Early American frontiersmen regarded the Comancheros almost as strange apparitions of the prairie. The “Comancheros,” said Josiah Gregg who apparently coined the term in his classic Commerce of the Prairies, published in 1844, “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 kinds, and perhaps a bag of bread and maybe another of pinole [a flower made of ground corn and mesquite beans], which they barter away to the savages for horses and mules. The entire stock of an individual trader very seldom exceeds the value of twenty dollars, with which he is content to wander about for several months, and glad to return home with a mule or two as the proceeds of his traffic.” James William Abert, U. S. Army lieutenant and a High Plains explorer, described the Comancheros as “poor and shabby,” as quoted by Kenner. They dressed in “conical-crowned sombreros, jackets with the stripes running transversely; large bag breeches extending to the knee; long stockings and moccasins.”
Indigent and rude, poor and shabby, the Comancheros nevertheless left their mark across the land. As early as 1820, before the Mexicans won their independence from Spain, U. S. Army officer Stephen Long reported, according to Kenner, that 20 parallel horse or mule trails followed the Canadian River from New Mexico eastward to the plains. Abert reported seeing a Comanchero wagon road. Famed U. S. Army officer and guide Randolph B. Marcy spoke of the “old Mexican cart-road.”
While they used pack trains to transport their commodities, the Comancheros also used the old-style carretas, hand-hewn wooden carts drawn by one to four yoke of oxen. (The Spanish had used carretas as transport vehicles for centuries, from well before the time of the first Spanish colonization of the Southwest.) In his Expedition to the Southwest: An 1845 Reconnaissance of Colorado, New Mexico, Texas and Oklahoma, Abert described the carreta:
Two eccentric wheels, not exactly circular, formed by sawing off the ends of large logs, and rimming them with pieces of timber to increase their diameter… They were perforated in the neighborhood of the centre, to receive an axletree of cottonwood. A suitable pole, and a little square box of wicker wood completed the laughable machine.
As Abert’s party traveled westward along the rough Comanchero trail on the Canadian River, he saw that it was littered with broken axletrees of the Comanchero carretas.
The Comancheros’ principal trading partners, the Comanches and the Kiowas, ranked as perhaps the most fearsome of all the tribes of the buffalo prairies. They had, in fact, driven the legendarily fierce Apaches from the plains of northern Texas, western Oklahoma and northeastern New Mexico. They terrorized Hispanics and Anglos throughout their range.
Like other Plains tribes, the Comanches and Kiowas found liberation on the back of a horse. They thrilled to the buffalo hunt, lived in teepees, moved by travois. A Comanche or Kiowa warrior found his “medicine” and “power” in a vision quest. Distinguished by a flowing feathered headdress and protected by personal medicine symbols, he won his tribe’s recognition and respect by reckless courage and wild daring on the battlefield, counting coup by touching an enemy in the heat of combat. He built wealth and trading stores measured in terms of livestock and captives in raids on Anglo and Hispanic settlements as well as other tribes from the Midwest to northern Mexico. The Comanches and Kiowas looked to Comanchero trading, not only as an occasion to acquire foods to enrich their basic diet of buffalo flesh, but also as an opportunity to satisfy their craving for tobacco and alcohol and to meet their needs for weaponry and ammunition. In the early days of the Comanchero trade, they sometimes yielded to grossly unfair trades, but in the later days, they would master the art of barter.
The Comancheros’ market in New Mexico consisted of long-established Hispanic settlers and merchants, newly arrived Anglo settlers and merchants, and the U. S. Army. The Hispanics had capitalized on the Comanchero trade from the time of its origins. The Anglos seized on the trade as a means for stocking newly established ranches and increasing their mercantile profits. American soldiers and veterans ostensibly instruments of warfare, conquest, territorial control and civil protection viewed the trade as an opportunity to profiteer, according to Kenner. Officers at Fort Bascom, in northeastern New Mexico, exploited the Comanchero trade to supply themselves with livestock. A trooper with the Eighth Cavalry, said Kenner, “recalled capturing a [Comanchero] burro train loaded with ammunition, whisky, and about fifty bolts of red and blue cloth. It was sold to a merchant...” and the soldiers kept the proceeds.
The Comanchero trade suppliers the frontier ranches and settlements of Texas and the long-suffering haciendas of northern Mexico paid a heavy and bloody price for their unwanted role in the enterprise. From the Cross Timbers of north central Texas southwestward to the desert lands of Chihuahua, Coahuila and Durango, livestock owners lost hundreds of thousands of longhorns, horses and mules to Comanche and Kiowa raiders. Communities raised crosses over the graves of those who fell to the Comanche and Kiowa muskets and arrows. Families mourned the losses of women and children abducted by Comanche and Kiowa warriors. The pioneering peoples of the prairies and desert lands found themselves trapped in an epic Greek tragedy.
Stark Terror, Dark Comedy, Bitter Fruit
Beginning at the frontier regions, the story of the Comanchero trade vacillated wildly between sheer terror and low comedy across the Texas plains into the New Mexico desert.
“I think we dreaded the Indians in the early days more than anything,” Texas’ Southern Plains pioneer Fogg Coffey told an interviewer in the Federal Writers’ Project, American Life Histories. “We had to be on the watch constantly or they'd take all we had.
“A bunch of Redskins (Comanches, I think they were) visited our settlement on June 1, 1871. We had just got all the cattle and horses rounded up. There were 1,050 head of cattle and 54 saddle horses. The men had left a few boys to guard the herds while they went to take another look for stragglers, and something to eat. Nobody suspected an attack for they’d seen no Indians or signs or nothin’.
“Well, before the men could get in their saddles them low down Indians had drove off every cow and all the horses except three or four. Two of our men were killed and my brother John, then just a boy, was wounded.
“The very next Christmas them Indians come back and drove off 350 head of cattle. There weren’t more than twenty men in the neighborhood and they were scattered of course, so before they could get together, the Comanches were gone.”
Mrs. J. D. Rylee, a pioneering woman who lived with her family on the frontier just south of today’s Fort Worth, Texas, told her Federal Writers’ Project interviewer that, “The Comanches made a raid and carried off the wife and three little children of a doctor named Box who lived in our part of the country. Two of the children were girls, three and five years old, and the other was a baby. The Indians tied the mother on a wild horse which tried to throw her off, and they made her carry the baby, which cried and she couldn’t get it to stop. The Indians didn’t like that so one of them...grabbed the baby and smashed its head against a tree. They took the mother and two girls to their camp near San Angelo.”
Another Texas’ Southern Plains pioneer, Tom Morgan, told his interviewer that "My father’s home was on Jim Ned Creek and about 40 miles away at the mouth of the Concho, lived their nearest neighbor, Rich Coffey. Rich was a fine fellow and always joking. Early one morning, Rich walked out to drive in the milk cows. Three Indians spied him and began chasing him. Rich was a big fellow but ran his best to reach the house. His wife stood in the door, wringing her hands and calling, ‘Run, Rich, run!’ Coffey reached the door, fell headlong into the house and when he got up he said, ‘wife, you don’t think I throwed off in that race, do you?’”
The drovers who pushed longhorn herds up the Pecos River and the Goodnight and Loving Trail through eastern New Mexico also faced the threat of Indian raids. Cowboys’ graves defined the route. After one was buried beside the trail, said Haley, “the cowcamp poet, deficient in Biblical allusion, arranged a couplet to be carved in sandstone and seriously placed above the grave, so that all who passed might read that:
“‘He was young, and brave, and fair
But the Indians raised his hair’”
If the frontier became a theater of terror, the Comanchero trading grounds sometimes became a festival of games, audacity, connivance and wit. “Once among the Indians,” said Kenner, “the traders might remain for several days or even weeks before completing their transactions. ...the trading was preceded by a ‘sort of feast’ and athletic contests such as archery matches, wrestling bouts, and horse races, all accompanied by vigorous wagering... ...a full-fledged Comanche warrior...recounted the Indian side of the meetings: ‘we traded, horse-raced, gambled and had a good time while they got all we had, and then we left them, to rob the palefaces.’
“...a white captive of the Comanches...recalled that ‘those fool Indians would let the Mexicans pick their mules for a keg of whiskey; ten pounds of coffee was accepted for a pack horse, five pounds of tobacco would get a mule, and a buffalo robe would be exchanged for little or nothing.’”
One of the Comancheros, Juan Trujillo, who sold whiskey to the Indians, said that “he and his friends hid kegs...in the hills, perhaps ten miles from where they were trading,” said Haley. The whiskey “entered prominently into consideration, but was not delivered until the cattle were two or three days on the trail. Then Juan and another [Comanchero], who had been left behind on good fast horses, piloted the Indians to the keg...” Then they rode for their lives.
While the Comancheros took advantage of the Indians, “those fool Indians” often turned the tables. According to Haley, the Indians would trade livestock to the Comancheros, forcibly take back the stock from the Comancheros, then forcibly trade the same stock again to the same Comancheros.
At the peak, the Comancheros, who totaled perhaps 1,000 in any given year, according the Kenner, drove hundreds of thousands of stolen livestock from the High Plains to northeastern New Mexico. They came home to condemnation by New Mexico news reporters, who savaged them for the trade; scavenger prices from the opportunistic settlers, merchants and military personnel, who profited at the Comancheros’ expense; and warm and festive welcomes home by their fellow townsmen, who honored the Comancheros as heroes. “The next few days were filled with feasting and the nights with dancing,” said one old Comanchero, according to Kenner.
Inevitably, the Texas cowmen grew bitter toward the Comanches and Kiowas, the Comancheros and the New Mexico profiteers. One Texas rancher, a man named John Hittson, put together a force of 80 armed cowboys, and he rode to New Mexico to reclaim stolen longhorns. Hittson ran into one man named Simpson, who proclaimed that he would not give up cows he “had bought from the Comancheros,” according to Haley. A neighbor, Jim Duncan, told Simpson, the cowboys “‘were damn sure going to take them.’ As the Texans threw down the poles to drive the stock from his corral, Simpson jumped in the gate, and [the cowboys] shot him and drove the cattle out over [his body]. So the work sent on until Hittson had recovered some 10,000 head...”
In spite of the campaign by Hittson, legal action by ranchers, the pious protests of state politicians, and half-hearted efforts by the federal government, the Comanchero trade would go on until the mid 1870’s, when the U. S. Army finally defeated the Comanches and Kiowas on the High Plains, sending the starving remnants of the tribes to reservations in western Oklahoma.
The Quitaque Breaks
While most of the Comanchero trails have been obliterated by the plow, grazing and asphalt, you can see the Quitaque “breaks” by visiting Texas’ Caprock Canyons State Park, which is located below the eastern escarpment of the High Plains just north of the village of Quitaque. You can also drive and hike to one of the most famous trading sites, located south of the village.
Check at the park headquarters for details.
More on the American Indian.
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