TALES OF THE COMANCHEROS

By Marc Simmons

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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 and Socorro.

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 on sight.

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 abuses.

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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