Wednesday, December 15, 2021

Review - "Confederates and Comancheros: Skullduggery and Double-Dealing in the Texas–New Mexico Borderlands" by Blackshear & Ely

[Confederates and Comancheros: Skullduggery and Double-Dealing in the Texas–New Mexico Borderlands by James Bailey Blackshear and Glen Sample Ely (University of Oklahoma Press, 2021). Hardcover, maps, photos, appendix, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:x,175/286. ISBN:978-0-8061-7560-7. $32.95]

Ever since the Comanche people moved into the Texas-New Mexico borderlands between the Pecos and Rio Grande rivers during the early 1700s, trade relationships were formed between the region's Hispano settlers and the powerful, empire-building tribe. By the 1840s, an important economic-exchange network had evolved between New Mexican merchants and Pueblo Indians on one side and Southern Plains indigenous groups (the aforementioned Comanche, but also Kiowa and Apache) that came to be known as the "Comanchero" trade. That early to mid-nineteenth century period, which witnessed a changed in territorial control from Mexico to the United States at the conclusion of the 1846-48 war fought between those nations, also saw an influx in European (most prominently German) immigrants and Anglo-American entrepreneurs who prospered as merchants and army supply contractors. Those partners forged indispensable ties with Comanchero middle men who could effectively transport and negotiate the exchange of manufactured goods highly prized by the Comanche with Texas livestock stolen by Comanche raiders. The Comanchero trade of the 1860s and 1870s, with the American Civil War context as its centerpiece, is the subject of James Blackshear and Glen Ely's important new study Confederates and Comancheros: Skullduggery and Double-Dealing in the Texas–New Mexico Borderlands.

Confederates and Comancheros makes two fresh and notable contributions to the historiography of the nineteenth-century American West. First, its chronicling of the final two decades of the Comanchero trade in the Texas-New Mexico borderlands offers an important reappraisal of who was involved in the trade, its significance to the region's culture and economy, and what factors contributed to its demise. Second, Blackshear and Ely's study is the first book to document in detail Civil War activities and events in the Trans-Pecos during the 1862-65 period. The literature of the 1861-62 Confederate invasion of New Mexico and Arizona is very well developed at this point, a notable circumstance in itself given how little coverage is accorded to much larger Trans-Mississippi campaigns and battles situated much closer to the theater's military and political centers of gravity. However, those studies typically end with the less than triumphal return to Texas of General Henry H. Sibley's defeated and bedraggled army, offering only cursory reminder of sustained tensions in the region between Union and Confederate authorities. With New Mexico reasonably secure, Union planners turned their military attentions away from Confederate enemies and toward pacification of hostile tribes, and the disappointed Confederates in Texas were diverted by more pressing problems to the south and east. This volume fills that gap.

Blackshear and Ely offer readers really the first full examination of the spying, scouting, and raiding that persisted in the trans-Pecos between 1862 and 1865. In deftly weaving the international dimensions of those overt and covert activities into their narrative, the authors make a notable contribution to the Civil War-era borderlands literature that has become highly fashionable of late. They draw attention to an important regional figure, Confederate irregular scout Henry Skillman, who remains unknown to nearly all Civil War students but was the scourge of Union authorities. Skillman's aptitude for the work lived up to his name as he crisscrossed the region gathering intelligence, raiding enemy lines of supply and communication, and facilitating many beneficial cross-border connections. As the authors document, his death in an 1864 ambush was a loss that proved irreplaceable to Confederate military authorities in Texas and contributed mightily to tightened Union control over the region during the late-war period. The authors further illustrate how the grander plans of both sides, the Confederate dreams of returning to New Mexico with another army and Union ideas of using troops in southern New Mexico to cooperate with invading forces from the coast, never materialized due to logistical and manpower constraints. The text is supplemented by a handful of excellent, detailed maps of the region's geography. All are essential to understanding key locations, trade routes, and military movements obscure to most readers.

Comancheros were primarily New Mexican traders descended from Spanish settlers, but Pueblo Indians and other ethnicities were also involved in the widely interconnected network of legal and illegal exchange. These groups became vital go-betweens in the region's lucrative barter system in stolen Texas cattle that Comanche and Kiowa perpetrators traded with Comancheros for highly desirable trade goods obtained from New Mexican merchants. German immigrants and Anglo-Americans (often former army officers) eager to profit from their knowledge of the region and their government connections also became intimately involved. After the end of the war between the US and Mexico, the trade system operated on an officially licensed basis with significant financial bond requirements, but there was a great deal of corruption in the profitable business, and illegal trade in guns, powder, and whiskey was rampart. US government and military authorities tried to clamp down on the illegal activity but often had to tread lightly as Comancheros proved to be essential negotiators in bartering for the return of white women and children kidnapped by the Indians during their livestock raids.

Using depredation files, court records, and other sources, the authors piece together a detailed picture of the trade, along with many of its players both major and minor, as it existed in the trans-Pecos. In an appendix, the authors also compile for future reference a large, alphabetically organized roster of known Comancheros, their employees, and bond holders. After the end of the Civil War, cattle ranching and trailing (the Goodnight-Loving trail that followed the Pecos into New Mexico before continuing on to Colorado and Cheyenne, Wyoming being the nearest) exploded in scale, and old animosities between Texans and New Mexicans boiled over, with conflict (including deadly vigilante raids) ensuing between angry ranchers and those in New Mexico who participated in the trade in stolen Texas cattle.

New Mexico Territory was not the only source of pain to Texas ranchers, and the book also documents the Comanche-Comanchero trade in stolen horses and cattle on the Upper Arkansas that occurred during the late-1850s, especially activities around Bent's New Fort. During the Civil War, demand for beef skyrocketed under the dual demands of Union military occupation and the need to feed thousands of new mouths on the Bosque Redondo reservation. This was a windfall for army contractors, Comancheros, and Comanche raiders. The authors also note that, by the mid-war period, NW Texas ranchers, their livestock subject to impressment and payment in worthless Confederate paper money, themselves secretly traded with Union authorities.

Before and during the Civil War, the Comanchero trade was tolerated largely because the military posts and government agencies across northeastern New Mexico needed beef in great quantities and Comancheros were a major part of the 'few questions asked' subcontracting process. After the Civil War, with the arrival of the railroad and the booming business in feeding the teeming population of the East with Texas beef, a more concerted effort was finally made to defeat the powerful Comanche and Kiowa, whose raids still routinely stole thousands of head from the growing cattle trails. Doing so also meant that the Comanchero trade that previously supplied the army with fresh beef had to be dealt a severe and permanent blow.

As the book demonstrates, the Comanchero trade was largely extinguished by the mid-1870s, and the US Army was the primary force behind its demise. The authors note Texas vigilante threats and violence (and later their heavy migration into the region), a hostile press, and elements of elite New Mexican opposition as other major contributing factors. However, sources of prosperity and violence associated with the trade did not disappear with its end but rather changed in form, and the book insightfully draws many direct connections between the economic forces and players involved in the Comanchero trade with the cattle wars that followed, including the infamous Lincoln County War. While most presumably redirected their economic activities into more acceptable contemporary pursuits, what happened to the former Comancheros themselves is not delved into deeply. The authors do note that they were prized by allies and former enemies alike for their intimate knowledge of the region's geography, and some were even hired out by cattle ranchers on that basis.

In discussing those Union men who traveled into Texas itself to gather herds (mostly through purchase but supplemented through jayhawking), the book complements earlier studies in addressing the impact of California Column veterans on economic activities in the Southwest. Most of these large purchases were from John Chisum, who also acted as broker for other large ranchers. According to the authors, and contrary to many historical accounts, the record is clear that James Patterson and his associates forged the great trans-Pecos cattle trail a year before Goodnight and Loving. The book additionally documents the massive scale of Texas livestock losses from Indian raiders (who were often accompanied by Comancheros) during the early 1870s, and those losses would only diminish with the end of the Red River War in 1875 and establishment of Comanche, Kiowa, and Mescalero Apache reservations. Though raiders left the reservations on a regular basis that decade, losses from their activities weren't as serious as before and their extinguishment roughly coincided with the end of the Comanchero trade.

Deeply researched and expansive in scope, Confederates and Comancheros adds fresh and vital understanding to the history of the rise and fall of a legendary Trans-Mississippi trade network involving all segments of New Mexican and Southern Plains societies. The volume also admirably fills a major time and subject matter gap in the literature's coverage of the American Civil War fought in the Border Southwest. Highly recommended.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks as always for the review. Very interesting topic. Bought the book and looking forward to reading it. Check you site daily for the reviews and booknotes. Always finding something interesting. Curt Thomasco


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