The Comanche Nation is a Native American group of approximately 10,000 members, about half of whom live in Oklahoma and the remainder concentrated in Texas, California, and New Mexico. There are two accounts of the origin of the name Comanche, which is either a corruption of a Ute term, komants, meaning "those who always fight us," or of the Spanish camino ancho, meaning wide trail. There were also called Paducah by early French and American explorers, but their own preferred name is Numunuh, meaning "the People." They speak an Uto-Aztecan language, sometimes classified as a Shoshone dialect.
The Comanches emerged as a distinct group shortly before 1700, when they broke off from the Shoshone people living along the upper Platte River in Wyoming. This coincided with their acquisition of the horse, which allowed them greater mobility in their search for better hunting grounds. Their original migration took them to central plains, from where they moved southward into a sweep of territory extending from the Arkansas River to central Texas. During that time, their population increased dramatically due to the abundance of buffalo, an influx of Shoshone migrants, and the adoption of significant numbers of women and children taken captive from rival groups. Nevertheless, the Comanches never formed a single cohesive tribal unit, and were divided into almost a dozen autonomous groups, which shared the same language and culture, but might have fought among themselves just as often as they cooperated. These groups were very fluid and often joined together or separated, depending on circumstances.
The horse was a key element in the emergence of a distinctive Comanche culture, and there have even been suggestions that it was the search for additional sources of horses among the Mexican settlers to the south (rather than the search for new herds of buffalo) that first led the Comanche to break off the Shoshone. The Comanche may even have been the first group of Plains natives to fully incorporate the horse into their culture, and may have even introduced the animal to the other Plains peoples. By the mid-nineteenth century, they were also supplying horses to French and American traders and settlers and later to migrants passing through their territory on their way to California Gold Rush. Many of these horses were stolen, and the Comanche earned a reputation as formidable horse and later cattle thieves. Their victims included Spanish and America settlers, as well as the other Plains tribes, often leading to war. They were formidable opponents, who developed entire strategies for fighting on horseback with traditional weapons.
In fact, warfare was a major part of Comanche life. Their emergence around the turn of the eighteenth century and their subsequent migration southward brought them into conflict with the Apaches, who already lived in the region and began migrating themselves to Spanish-dominated Texas and New Mexico. In an attempt to prevent Apache incursions, the Spanish offered them help in their wars with the Comanches, but these efforts generally failed and the Apaches were finally forced out of the Southern Plains by mid-century. The Comanche now dominated the area surrounding the Texas Panhandle, including western Oklahoma and northeastern New Mexico.
The Comanches maintained an ambiguous relationship with the Europeans and later the Americans attempting to colonize their territory. They were valued as trading partners, but they were also feared for their raids. Similarly, the Comanches were at war at one time or another with virtually every other Native American group living in the Great Plains, leaving opportunities for political maneuvering among the European colonial powers and the United States between the rival groups. At one point, Sam Houston, president of the newly created Republic of Texas, almost succeeded in reaching a peace treaty with the Comanches, but his efforts were thwarted when the Texas legislature refused to create an official boundary between Texas and the Comancheria.
While the Comanches managed to maintain their independence and even increase their territory, by the mid-nineteenth century they faced annihilation because of a wave of epidemics introduced by white settlers. Outbreaks of smallpox (1817, 1848) and cholera (1849) took a major toll on the Comanche, whose population dropped from an estimated 20,000 in mid-century to just a few thousand by the 1870s.
Efforts to move the Comanches into reservations began in the late 1860s with the Treaty of Medicine Lodge (1867), which offered them churches, schools, and annuities in return for a vast tract of land totaling over 60,000 sq. miles. The government promised to stop the buffalo hunters, who were decimating the great herds of the Plains, provided that the Comanche, along with the Apaches, Kiowas, Cheyennes, and Arapahos, moved to a reservation totaling less than 5,000 sq. miles of land. Nevertheless, the government failed to prevent buffalo hunters from slaughtering the herds, which provoked the Comanches under Isa-tai (White Eagle) to attack a group of hunters in the Texas Panhandle in the Battle of Adobe Walls (1874). The attack was a disaster and the army was called in to drive all the remaining Comanche in the area into the reservation. Within just ten years, the buffalo were on the verge of extinction, effectively ending the Comanche way of life as hunters.
Meanwhile, in 1892 the government negotiated the Jerome Agreement, with the Comanches, Kiowas, and Apaches, further reducing their reservation to just under half a million acres (under 900 sq. miles) at a cost of $1.25 per acre, with an allotment of 160 per person per tribe to be held in trust. New allotments were made in 1906 to all children born after the Jerome Agreement, and the remaining land was opened to white settlement. With this new arrangement, the era of the reservation for the Comanches came to an abrupt end.
The Comanches were ill-prepared for life in a modern economic system, and many of them were defrauded of whatever remained of their land and possessions. During World War II, many Comanches left the traditional tribal lands in Oklahoma in search of financial opportunities in the cities of California and the Southwest. Today they are among the most highly educated native groups in the United States. About half the Comanche population still lives in Oklahoma, centered around the town of Lawton. This is the site of the annual pow-wow, when Comanches from across the United States gather to celebrate their heritage and culture.