to as “half-breeds” by uncomprehending Anglos, the Comancheros made a living by
trading with the Comanches. They were a combination of entrepreneurs and soldiers
of fortune with a little explorer mixed in for good measure. The fact that their
steadiest customers were the Comanche bands scattered across the llanos and canyonlands
added an element of danger to their version of free enterprise.
were also trailblazers, cutting paths across the plains that were later followed,
fatefully for the Comanches, by the U.S. Army and early day settlers and ranchers.
The Comancheros’ sales territory extended from their native New Mexico east to
the Wichita Mountains of Oklahoma and as far east and south as the Davis Mountains.
turf was opened up with an 1786 treaty between Juan Baptista de Anza, the Spanish
governor of New Mexico who had dramatically scored a couple of rare but decisive
military defeats of the Comanche in Colorado. The treaty allowed trade between
New Mexico and the Comanches in exchange for protection of the Spanish territories
and thus created a market the adventurous businessmen known as Comancheros were
quick to exploit; the most amazing thing about the treaty was that both sides
actually observed it.
The trade worked like this. The Comanches would
bring cows, horses, hides and captives to a predetermined meeting point. The Comancheros
would take those commodities, including the captives, off the Comanches’ hands,
and trade them guns, firewater, trinkets, whatever. A lot of times the Comanchero
served as a middle man in returning the captives over to the Army, especially
after an announcement by U.S. Army General Zachary Taylor that the government
would pay for any captives brought in to Fort Gibson (in what is now eastern Oklahoma).
The announcement had an unintended result: the number of captives skyrocketed
and the market for them boomed.
The practice earned the Comancheros a reputation
among Anglos that can be clearly seen in Josiah Gregg’s description of the traders:
“These parties of Comancheros are usually composed of the indigent and rude classes
of the frontier villages, who collect together several times a year, and launch
upon the plains with a few trinkets and trumperies of all kind, and perhaps a
bag of bread or pinole.”
In time, the trade came to include guns, ammunition
and whiskey and more than a few head of stolen cattle and horses. The Comancheros
sold these to wily merchants who often sold the livestock back to the original
The beginning of the end for the Comancheros came when Colonel
Ranald Mackenzie, with orders to exterminate the last band of wild Comanches (or
any other tribe for that matter) found an old Comanchero trail that ran from present-day
Tucumcari, New Mexico to what is now Canyon,
Texas on the edge of the Palo
Duro. The trail was told to Mackenzie by a captured Comanchero, Polonio Ortiz,
who was promptly transcripted into service by Mackenzie as a scout.
Parker and his warriors surrendered, marking the official end of the Comanches
as lords and warriors of the plains, the Comancheros lost one half of their business
equation and faded into history as a sidebar or footnote, and not always in a
Many of the old Comanchero trails and the ones credited to Mackenzie
and his soldiers are still in existence, though there is virtually no trace of
the old Comanchero culture to be found anywhere. The old trails now are generally
paved and are marked on maps as highways and county roads.
like the scant legacy of the Comancheros is part of the deal they made with history
– to do their business, leave little behind and then move out of the way. The
bulk of their lasting legacy is that they kept up their end of the deal.
"Letters from Central Texas"