OF THE COMANCHEROS
Articles by Marc Simmons
One of the romantic figures
of New Mexico's early history was the Comanchero, a name that meant,
literally, "he who trades with the Comanches." Men who took up this
dangerous occupation came from all the villages of the upper Rio
Grande, from Taos and Santa Fe southward through Albuquerque, Belen
Each spring they formed
small caravans and set out for the Llano Estacado, the high plains
of eastern New Mexico, to barter at the Indian camps. Gov. Juan
Bautista de Anza had made this possible back in 1786, when he arranged
a permanent Comanche peace with chiefs visiting Pecos Pueblo.
The caravans were made
up of heavy two-wheeled carretas, the typical New Mexican
ox carts manufactured of cottonwood from the river bosques. They
were loaded for the out-journey with such merchandise as tobacco,
metal arrow points, guns, knives, calico, hats, beads and wine.
Very hard, sweet bread
was another common item, since it was much favored by the meat-eating
Plains Indians. Having none of their own, they craved anything made
of wheat. The New Mexican dried horno bread was so durable,
however, that the Comances had to break it up with their tomahawks
and soak it before chewing.
The customers invariably
demanded whiskey. So the Comancheros usually included several kegs
in their carts. But from experience they knew to bury the liquor
several miles before reaching the villages. This was a safety measure.
After all the trading
was done and the whiskey sold, the New Mexicans started swiftly
for home, leaving one of their own behind as hostage for the kegs.
When a half-day had passed, he would guide the Comanches to the
burial site and then ride like the wind. He wanted to be far away
when the drunken revelers forgot that the traders were their friends.
Ordinarily, the Comaches
were quite protective of the roving merchants from New Mexico. But
this was not true of their allies, the Kiowas, who would attack
In the early 1850s a
Kiowa war party came upon a Comanchero train from San Juan Pueblo.
The Kiowas were on the point of butchering the lot when some Comances
arrived, intervened and saved the lives of the San Juans.
First the Spanish government,
and after independence the Mexican government, tried to regulate
the Comanchero trade by issuing licenses to those wanting to participate.
Following U.S. acquisition of the territory, American officials
continued the policy but did so reluctantly, because of growing
From the 1850s onward,
the Comanches raided the new Anglo settlements in Texas, making
off with thousands of horses and cattle. They knew that the Comancheros
would gladly buy them all. Texas rancher John Hittson, who had suffered
major losses, staged a raid of his own. In 1872, with 60 gun-toting
cowboys, he swept through eastern New Mexico, seizing 11,000 head
of stolen stock carrying his brand and that of his neighbors.
The Indian superintendent
at Santa Fe wrung his hands in despair and considered suppressing
the Comanchero activities altogether. But he long hesitated because
of the traders' access to the Indian camps, which made them excellent
go-betweens for ransoming captives taken in both Texas and Chihuahua.
Nevertheless, as the
U.S. Army moved in the mid-1870s to end Indian hostilities on the
plains, the Comanchero trade was outlawed.
One old-line merchant,
Jose Tafaoya of Mora, reafused to quit, but he was soon arrested
with his carts near Tucumcari, closing a story that had begun in
Spanish colonial days.
The wild, colorful life
of the Comancheros faded from history and was almost forgotten.
Then Hollywood discovered the subject in 1961 and turned out a romanticized
film that strayed several yards from the truth.
More recently historians
have dug deeply into old records, bringing to light the authentic
Comanchero tale. It is one worth remembering.
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An Interpretive History" or other books by Marc Simmons, visit
Articles by Marc Simmons