The comancheros were an ethnically mixed group of New Mexican merchants who in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries developed a distinctive form of trade with Comanches, Kiowas, and other Plains Indians. The comanchero trade began after 1786, when the Comanches signed a treaty with Spanish New Mexico and agreed to stop raiding in exchange for trade and gifts. The treaty opened the Southern Plains to New Mexico's traders, who were eager to reactivate the lines of commerce that had been broken during prolonged Spanish-Comanche wars. Trade in the Plains was officially sanctioned in 1789, when Governor Fernando de la Concha allowed the Spanish, Pueblos, and genízaros to take their goods out to the grasslands. In their search for mobile hunting bands, these traders sometimes traveled as far north as the Platte River in present-day Nebraska, but their main customers were the numerous Comanche bands of the Llano Estacado. The term comancheros, a derivation of their clientele's name, was first mentioned in Spanish documents in 1813 and was popularized in the 1840s by the Santa Fe trader Josiah Gregg.
Each fall, after the harvest, the comancheros loaded their burros and oxcarts (carretas) with beads, calico, tobacco, coffee, sugar, kettles, and large butchering knives (belduques) and ventured onto the Llano Estacado. A popular trade item was hard-baked corn bread, which was highly desired by Comanches, who needed carbohydrates to balance their bison-based diet. In return, the comancheros received horses, hides, dried meat, tallow, and captives. During the first halfcentury of the trade, the comancheros remained relatively unorganized. They relied on chance meetings with their clients, and the volume of their business remained low. According to Gregg, they seldom carried more than $20 worth of goods to the Plains. During the Spanish and Mexican periods, the comancheros also suffered from vacillating official policies. At times, the comanchero trade was seen as a means to obtain intelligence on American actions in the Southern Plains, and the officials granted licenses liberally. At other times the officials prohibited the trade, which they correctly thought stimulated Comanche horse raids into Texas and Mexico. The U.S. takeover of New Mexico resulted in stricter licensing policies and other restrictions on the comancheros, whose activities, particularly the ransoming of captives, were abhorred by the Americans.
The comancheros adjusted their commercial strategies to the changing conditions. Beginning in the 1850s they began to buy cattle stolen from Texas ranches by Comanches. The cattle found a ready market among wealthy New Mexican merchants who had begun to supply government beef contractors. Spurred by the new traffic, the comanchero trade was transformed from the unorganized, smallscale operations of the early nineteenth century into a mature commercial institution with fixed marketplaces, an elaborate transportation system, professional traders, and varied merchandise.
The comanchero trade of the 1850s and 1860s revolved around designated rendezvous sites, which featured irrigation ditches, adobe shelters, and other structures, indicating at least semipermanent occupation. The Llano Estacado was dotted with sites such as Tecovas Springs, northwest of present-day Amarillo, Texas; Las Lenguas (or Los Lingos) Creek, the modern-day Pease River; and Yellow House Canyon or Cañón del Rescate (Ransom Canyon), near present-day Lubbock, Texas. Bartering at these rendezvous could take weeks, during which huge amounts of cattle and commodities exchanged hands. Although the trade in subsistence goods persisted, much of the trade was now in firearms, ammunition, whiskey, and other manufactured products. A web of well-established cart roads and smaller pack trails connected the rendezvous to each other and to the Rio Grande Valley. Although the comancheros' practices, by then almost entirely associated with cattle-rustling, were illegal under American law, the attempts to repress them failed, mainly because many army officers had secretly invested in the trade.
The comanchero commerce reached its peak during the Civil War. The relaxation of frontier defenses in Texas allowed Comanche raiders to steal Confederate stock and sell them to comancheros, who in turn sold the animals to Union agents. After the war, the comancheros continued their lucrative operations with Kwahada Comanches, who refused to settle in the reservation that had been assigned to them in 1867. José P. Tafoya and other prominent comancheros amassed large profits, part of which was invested in the sheep industry, ranching, and freighting. But the ethnic, political, and economic niche that had allowed the comancheros to flourish was rapidly vanishing. The bison herds were nearly gone, the Kwahadas were forced into the reservation, and the U.S. Army intensified its efforts to put an end to the illicit trade. The final blow came in 1874, when the army, guided by imprisoned comancheros, destroyed the last Kwahada strongholds on the Llano Estacado.
Pekka Hämäläinen Taos, New Mexico
Haley, L. Evetts. "The Comanchero Trade." Southwestern Historical Quarterly 38 (1935): 156–76.
Kenner, Charles L. A History of New Mexican–Plains Indian Relations. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1969.
Levine, Frances. "Economic Perspectives on the Comanchero Trade." In Farmers, Hunters, and Colonists: Interaction between the Southwest and the Southern Plains, edited by Katherine A. Spielmann. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1991: 155– 69.