Rein on Blackshear and Ely, 'Confederates and Comancheros: Skullduggery and Double-Dealing in the Texas–New Mexico Borderlands'
James Bailey Blackshear, Glen Sample Ely. Confederates and Comancheros: Skullduggery and Double-Dealing in the Texas–New Mexico Borderlands. Norman: University of Oklahoma, 2021. ix + 276 pp. $32.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8061-7560-7.
Reviewed by Christopher Rein (Air University Press) Published on H-CivWar (March, 2022) Commissioned by G. David Schieffler (Crowder College)
Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=57179
James Blackshear and Glen Ely’s collaboration on the complicated struggle for control of the Texas-New Mexico borderlands in the Civil War era does much to illuminate the complex webs of conflict and cooperation among the various groups living on and around the Llano Estacado. Part economic history, part military history, and part ethnography, the work seeks to restore the Comancheros, largely Hispanic merchants and herders who traded extensively with the Comanche empire, to their rightful place in history. These middlemen linked wealthy Santa Fe merchants and the Comanche raiders who devastated the Texas frontier during the war years. Using court records, trial transcripts, military records, and extant memoirs, the authors demonstrate that the 1862 Sibley campaign, which occupies so much attention in the history of the Civil War in the Southwest, was just a continuation of a decades-long struggle between Texans and New Mexicans—one that began with the 1841 Santa Fe expedition and continued well into the postwar period with such violent episodes as the Lincoln County War. Their work does much to enhance our understanding of the principal actors and trade networks that sustained the violence and eventually led to the US Army’s concerted effort to suppress it.
Comancheros brought trade goods, weapons, and foodstuffs from the upper Rio Grande Valley out onto the Plains to trade initially for buffalo robes and horses, but eventually cattle came to dominate their commerce. This occasionally licensed but usually illicit trade eventually grew in volume to the point where herds of thousands of Texas longhorns were moving west across the trans-Pecos, where they eventually passed through butcher shops in Santa Fe and into the commissaries of both military posts and Indian reservations. The Civil War played a central role in increasing the volume of this trade, bringing large volunteer forces, principally from California, into the territory, which enabled federal authorities to complete a punitive campaign against the Navajo that resulted in the “Long Walk” and temporary confinement on the Bosque Redondo reservation. Both the troops and the new wards of the government required a substantial supply of beef, which the Comancheros were happy to provide, with little question about its origin or rightful owners.
Moving roughly chronologically, the authors detail the wartime-induced expansion of ancient trade networks and the subsequent efforts by Texans to end the raiding that devastated the state’s western frontier. Indeed, the authors present a plausible alternate explanation for Sibley’s expedition, alongside ideas of a Confederate empire typically privileged in the literature. They contend it was an effort to halt the flow of Texas livestock northwest out onto the Plains by removing the raiders’ markets. Thus, the Civil War for the Southwest is also yet another example of the “contest for resources” that has animated empires and conflict since antiquity. After exploring the New Mexico side of the trade, the concluding chapters give the Texan perspective, enabling remarkable balance and illuminating both the postwar cattle drives and the eventual colonization of eastern New Mexico ranchlands by Texas-based livestock interests. As a means of eliminating the Comanche menace that had dominated this trade for centuries, Texans effectively pressured the army to crack down on the Comanchero middlemen. They eventually dominated the trade themselves, selling directly to Santa Fe markets and eventually expanding their drives to the north and east along the famed Chisholm Trail.
The authors effectively mine the rich documentary evidence created during the war to paint a comprehensive picture of the Comancheros and their sponsors. In so doing, they also ask new questions that challenge our understanding of the Anglo-American conquest of the region. The authors clearly demonstrate that Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving were imitators, not innovators, in the western cattle drives, who merely followed the trade routes established by the Comancheros and other ranchers before them. They also indirectly question the importance of the destruction of the bison in forcing the Plains tribes onto reservations. The Comanche, as Pekka Hämäläinen has demonstrated in The Comanche Empire (2009), proved remarkably adaptable and were able to replace resources obtained from the declining bison herds with levies of thousands of beeves from the Texas frontier, which both provided a stable food source as well as an ample surplus for trade. This perhaps explains how the Comanche were able to survive for as long as they did before finally being forced onto a reservation in Oklahoma, as it was the army’s efforts to suppress the Comancheros that finally disrupted the economic network the tribe used to sustain itself on the Southern Plains. From posts such as Fort Bascom, which Blackshear has expertly detailed in a previous work, and Fort Concho, where Texas ranchers spurred the army to take action against both the Comanche and their enablers, soldiers eventually suppressed the trade and relegated the Comancheros to a mere footnote in history, often overshadowed by other Southwestern trade networks such as the Anglo-dominated Santa Fe Trail.
The work has few flaws—the detailed accounting of brokers and tradestuffs makes for dry reading in places, but is important to illustrate the volume of the trade. Similarly, the cast of characters is both expansive and interconnected, making it difficult to track the multiethnic and multigeneration trade empires which both fostered and profited from the commerce. A lengthy appendix lists hundreds of the traders, though the authors readily admit they could not name everyone involved. In places where the documentary evidence runs thin, the authors offer their own informed opinions. Some readers may prefer a more airtight case free from speculation, but the informed analysis helps to illuminate transactions and motivations that too often escaped the historical record.
Overall, anyone interested in the far reaches of the Civil War in the Texas-New Mexico borderlands will benefit from a careful reading of Confederates and Comancheros. Both authors are to be commended for using their extensive expertise in the region to draw back the curtain on the economic activity that motivated many of the actions and reactions in the theater. The book further proves that the Civil War and the subsequent conquest of the American West are two acts that cannot be disentangled in the historical record, and will remain forever linked in history just as strongly as the disparate communities the enterprising Comancheros bound together.
Citation: Christopher Rein. Review of Blackshear, James Bailey; Ely, Glen Sample, Confederates and Comancheros: Skullduggery and Double-Dealing in the Texas–New Mexico Borderlands. H-CivWar, H-Net Reviews. March, 2022. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=57179This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.