The Comancheros were primarily Hispanic traders in northern and central New Mexico Territory who made their living by trading with the nomadic Great Plains Indian tribes, in northeastern New Mexico and West Texas. Comancheros were so named because the Comanches, in whose territory they traded, were considered their best customers. They traded manufactured goods (tools and cloth), flour, tobacco, and bread for hides, livestock and slaves from the Comanche. As the Comancheros did not have sufficient access to weapons and gunpowder, there is disagreement about how much they traded these with the Comanche.
Prior to the coming of the Spanish, with their horses, into the American Southwest, with early explorations beginning in the 1540s and permanent settlement in the late 1590s, the people who came to be known as Comanches did not live in the Southern High Plains. The Comanches, a Shoshonean people, migrated from the North and arose as a separate and distinct tribe in the early 18th Century, largely as a result of having obtained breeding stocks of horses after the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. They migrated southward through the Rocky Mountains and into the Southern High Plains, where they and their Shoshonean kinsmen, the Utes, began to appear at trade fairs in Taos about 1700. During the first half of the 18th Century the Comanche gradually spread their area of occupation throughout the Southern High Plains and large areas of Texas, where they largely displaced the tribal peoples who had lived there prior to the coming of the Spaniards, mostly the Apache, who were themselves an earlier migrant group of Athapaskan peoples from the North.
In 1719, the Comanches made the first recorded raid for horses upon the settlements of the Rio Grande Valley. For the next 60 years, the relations of the Comanches with the Spanish and Pueblo settlements was a patchwork of alternate trading and raiding, with different bands being sometimes at peace and sometimes at war with the settlements along the Rio Grande. During the mid-18th century (1750–1780), the plains tribes, notably the Comanche, but also the Apache and other tribal groups, raided the Pueblos and Spanish settlements for horses, corn and slaves with ever-increasing frequency. This continued until 1779, when a 500-man army led directly by the new young governor, Juan Bautista de Anza, and including 200 native auxiliaries, undertook a punitive expedition against the largest and most active group of Comanche raiders, who were led by a man known as Green Horn (Cuerno Verde), and, surprising the Comanches in their camp, killed Green Horn and dealt a severe defeat to the Comanches. This show of force resulted in various Comanche war leaders acceding to peace over the next several years. By the end of 1785 all, or substantially all, of the Comanche bands had agreed. On 28 February 1786 at the Pecos Pueblo a treaty between the Comanche and the Spanish in New Mexico was signed between Governor de Anza and Ecueracapa, a Comanche war chief who had been selected as a plenipotentiary for the Comanche nation.
This treaty opened the way for the full development of the Comanchero trade. Prior to this New Mexico trade with the Comanche had been essentially limited to Comanche attendance at trade fairs at the Taos and Pecos Pueblos, and trade with the Spanish settlers at Santa Cruz, Santa Fe, Valencia and Tome. Although there was no doubt intermittent trading between small groups of Pueblos and Spaniards with various Comanche bands on the Southern High Plains prior to 1780, the real Comanchero trade grew and flourished after that year.
From the 1780s until the mid-19th century, the Comanchero trade flourished at different locales on the Southern High Plains, notably in northeastern New Mexico at Cejita de Los Comancheros in present-day Harding County and in the Palo Duro Canyon area of Texas near Quitaque in present-day Briscoe County.
When the US Government commenced its war against the Comanches after the American Civil War, their Comanchero allies and relatives assisted the Comanche resistance by supplying firearms and ammunition to the tribes. The US Army's attempts to interdict this trade were relatively unsuccessful until the winter of 1874–1875, when US Army troops under General Ranald Mackenzie attacked and defeated five village camps of Comanches near Palo Duro Canyon, burning the villages and capturing and destroying 1400 horses. This defeat, and loss of their horses, camps and food supplies, caused the last of the free-roaming Comanches, the Kwahada under Quanah Parker, to surrender to reservation life at Ft. Sill, Oklahoma. This brought an end to the old Comanche and Comanchero trade relationship, which had existed for almost 100 years.
Josiah Gregg described these traders as, "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 kinds, and perhaps a bag of bread or pinole." Some historians and writers have referred to the Comancheros as Mexican traders. While traders from Mexico were occasionally involved with the Comanchero trade, by far the majority were from New Mexico, hispanics and mixed bloods. New Mexicans of the time were the descendants of the Spanish colonial settlers and soldiers and the Native American peoples of New Mexico. The Native American people in New Mexico included the Pueblo, the Comanche, the Apache, the Kiowa, and the Navajo. The Comancheros are distinguishable from the Ciboleros, the buffalo hunters from New Mexico. Both Comancheros and Ciboleros, however, were primarily Hispanics from New Mexico.
Film and television roles
Comancheros are frequently the basis of the plot in many western former television series, such as Gunsmoke. In "The Last Comanchero" (January 14, 1958), the ABC/Warner Brothers series Cheyenne, with Clint Walker in the starring role, character actor Harold J. Stone is cast as Gabe Larkin, a brutal outlaw and supposedly the last of the comancheros of the New Mexico Territory. Edd Byrnes appeared as Benji Danton, whose parents were murdered by Larkin and whose girlfriend was held hostage by Larkin's last surviving son.
- Thomas, Alfred Barnaby (ed.) (1932) "Governor Anza's Expedition against the Comanche 1779" Forgotten Frontiers: A Study of the Spanish Indian Policy of Don Juan Bautista de Anza, Governor of New Mexico, 1777-1787 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Oklahoma, pp. 66-71 OCLC 68116825
- Thomas, Alfred Barnaby (ed.) (1932) "Governor Anza Dictates Comanche Peace 1786" Forgotten Frontiers: A Study of the Spanish Indian Policy of Don Juan Bautista de Anza, Governor of New Mexico, 1777-1787 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Oklahoma, pp. 71-83 OCLC 68116825
- A full translation of the treaty is set out at Thomas, Alfred Barnaby (ed.) (1932) "The Spanish-Comanche Peace Treaty of 1786" Forgotten Frontiers: A Study of the Spanish Indian Policy of Don Juan Bautista de Anza, Governor of New Mexico, 1777-1787 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Oklahoma, pp. 329-332 OCLC 68116825
- Gregg, Josiah (1847) Diary and letters of Josiah Gregg: southwestern enterprises, 1840-1847, published 1941 Univ. of Oklahoma Press, Norman, OK;
- "The Last Comanchero: Cheyenne". Internet Movie Data Base. January 14, 1958. Retrieved August 31, 2014.
- Kenner, Charles L. (1994) The Comanchero Frontier: A History of New Mexican-Plains Indian Relations University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, OK, ISBN 0-8061-2670-1 ;
- Lamadrid, Enrique R. (2003) Hermanitos comanchitos : Indo-Hispano rituals of captivity and redemption University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, ISBN 0-8263-2877-6 ;
- Moncus, Herman H. (1970) The Comanchero’s neighbors Western Heritage Press, Fort Worth, TX; OCLC 206497