Comanchero Country

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Comanchero Country

By Michael Zimmer 

Caprock Canyon Country offers a unique opportunity for the history enthusiast. For eons, its twisting coral canyons and hidden springs afforded shelter from the elements, while its rich pastures provided graze for the bison, pronghorn, and other ungulates, which in turn attracted predators like the cougar and wolf. Humans soon followed. People of the First Nations have stalked this broken land since the days of the woolly mammoth and saber-toothed tiger. With the arrival of the horse in the 1600s, life changed immeasurably for the Plains Indians. Now the nomadic tribes – primarily Kiowa and Comanche by the turn of the 18th century – were able to range even farther afield, hunting bison, deer, and pronghorn not just for sustenance, but for trade.
This is also Comanchero country, one of two major West Texas sites where the metizo and Puebloan merchants of the more settled, agrarian communities of Rio Grande Valley would come in their lumbering, hand-made carretas to trade staples like bread, sugar, knives, tobacco, and blankets to the Kiowa and Comanche for horses, mules, buffalo robes, dried meat, and, eventually, captives stolen from Mexican and East Texas settlements. Although Comancheros caravans were known to travel great distances in search of the tribes, it was within these rugged canyons under the eastern rim of the Llano Estacado, with their abundance of trees for shade and firewood, and plentiful water and grass for their livestock, that became a perennial favorite of the New Mexican merchants.

For decades the trade between the Indians and Comancheros remained largely principled and aboveboard. It wasn’t until the middle of the 19th century, with white settlement encroaching from the east and an influx of Anglo traders from Missouri and elsewhere rolling in along the Santa Fe Trail to the north, that the commerce between these two groups became complicated. With an ever increasing demand for horses and beef in New Mexico, the Comanche began making sweeping raids through central Texas, stealing hundreds of head of valuable livestock for which the Comancheros acted as intermediaries. But it was the trade in captives that cast the darkest shadow over the region, giving name to the nearby canyon of Los Lingus, south of Quitaque, as Valley of Tears. It was here that Comanche prisoners, most notably women and young children, were wrenched from one another – children from mothers, sibling from sibling, and friend from friend – to be either traded among other tribal bands or sold to the Comanchero, who would then attempt to ransom the victims for cash or goods that would recoup their cost to purchase them. It was said the cries of the captives as they were separated from one another could echo through the winding canyon for miles.

Such an illicit trade couldn’t be ignored for long, and by the 1860s the U.S. military in the west and the Texas Rangers from the east began a concentrated effort to put a stop to these depredations. Despite their efforts, the Comancheros continued to wander the plains in search of the dwindling tribes. It wasn’t until the last of the Comanche Nation was forced onto a reservation at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, that the trade finally ceased. 

Today, some would argue that as the dust of thousands of horses settled and the carretas’ tracks were slowly reclaimed by the land, all that remains of the Comanchero’s story is myth and a tarnished legacy. That couldn’t be farther from the truth. Come explore Caprock Country, its parks, historical sites, and museum, and rediscover the true legend. 

The End