In early 2008, not long after seeing the Coen brothers’ “No Country for Old Men”, a film that I found perversely at odds with storytelling good sense—the most interesting and attractive character is killed off long before the plot winds down to a philosophical burp uttered by a sheriff played by Tommy Lee Jones—I decided to have a look at the work of Cormac McCarthy whose novel the film is based on.
I decided to read “Blood Meridian” because it was based on incidents that took place in Texas in the mid-1800s and supposedly researched thoroughly by McCarthy. This was what I had to say about the novel in my review of “No Country for Old Men”:
If I had more time on my hands, I might take a look at McCarthy’s novels to try to extract out the rotten core and examine it under a strong light, especially the 1985 “Blood Meridian” that is described on the official website of the Cormac McCarthy Society as a dismantling of “the politically correct myth of aboriginal victimization, so that victims and their antagonists become indistinguishable.” The write-up continues:
In one celebrated scene, a column of mercenaries the kid has joined encounters a Comanche war party herding stolen horses and cattle across the desert. The kid barely escapes as the Indians, still vividly dressed like eldritch clowns in the garments they have stripped from their last white victims, annihilate his companions.
Just what the world was waiting for, a Faulkneresque novel that depicts American Indians as wanton killers.
I finally got around to reading the novel and was so appalled by the portrayal of the Comanche, who were treated far better in John Ford’s “The Searchers”, that I resolved to do an in-depth study of this much-maligned Indian tribe. Over the past 4 years I have read about 2000 pages on their history but had put it on the back burner.
Recently I asked to contribute to a special issue on indigenous issues for “Capitalism, Nature and Socialism”, the journal founded by James O’Connor. Although I have generally sworn off writing for print publications, especially those of the kind that Aaron Swartz tried to liberate, I decided to put the Comanche on the front burner and write something up on their political economy—focusing on their notorious penchant for horse raids in Northern Mexico. This quote from Brian Delay’s “War of a Thousand Deserts”, published in 2008, should give you a feel for the commodity exchange that led to permanent war—as symbolic in its own way as the “triangular trade” of sugar, rum, and slaves of an earlier period. But in this case, the triangle consisted of horses, guns, and slaves.
Brian Delay (emphasis added):
Hois and Tenewas [Comanche bands] had another major firm to do business with. Sam Houston cautiously tried to secure a negotiated settlement with the Hois soon after he reassumed the presidency of Texas in late 1841, though formal peace would take years to materialize. As part of the gradual thaw in relations, Houston engaged the firm of Torrey and Brothers to establish several trading posts. John Torreyand his brothers established posts at Austin, San Antonio, New Braunfels, and elsewhere in the early 1840s. In 1843 they received a license from the Texan government authorizing a major trading house on Tehuacana Creek, near the Brazos Falls, just on the edge of Comanche territory. This post was critical to Houston’s Indian policy and came to have a virtual monopoly on the licensed Indian trade in Texas.
All of these firms had the same material interests: hides, horses, mules, and, occasionally, captives. Traders could dispose of horses and mules that Comanches and their allies had seized from northern Mexico in a number of ways. As early as 1827 Anglo-American traders reported that they could buy mules for dollars in northern Mexico and sell them in Missouri for sixty. The Bents drove their herds to eastern Missouri, where, by the early 1840s, thousands of emigrants were buying tens of thousands of animals to pull, pack, and carry them and their families to Oregon. The growing U.S. Army presence in the western states was another important market for horses and mules. And exponential population growth in Texas during the 1830s and 1840s meant that many thousands of Anglo farmers would need horses and mules to clear land, haul plows, and transport goods to market. Most brought animals with them to Texas, but those who did not and those who needed more would have had little compunction about buying animals with Mexican brands via traders such as the Torreys. It is also possible that many horses and mules stolen from Mexican settlements made their way east of the Mississippi to help with the enormous project of clearing and working the millions of acres of tribal land opened up to Americans following Indian removal.
What did Texans and Americans give Comanches and Kiowas in return for their hides, horses, mules, and captives? Most Mexican observers understandably focused on two commodities in particular: guns and ammunition. Mexico had been lodging formal complaints with U.S. officials over the weapons trade since the 1820s, and even in the midst of the Texas revolt Santa Anna accused Anglo-Texans of arming Indian raiders. Later historians have followed the Mexican sources and focused on the animals-for-arms trade between Comanches and Anglos as well, suggesting that it was perhaps the key dynamic propelling the violence of the 1830s and 1840s. Some Anglo-American traders did indeed supply Comanches and their allies with guns and ammunition. Coffee [a businessman who traded with the Comanche] did. A Mexican man who had been held among Comanches between 1820 and 1830 insisted that Americans came to his rancheria every year to trade weapons and powder, and these were probably Coffee’s men. Sometimes the trade proceeded informally: the Texan commissioner for Indian affairs lamented the fact that Anglo-Texan settlers provided Comanches with arms and ammunition. Torrey’s establishments sometimes distributed powder and lead to men from the southern plains, though ostensibly in modest amounts for hunting purposes only. By the mid-1840s Hois openly approached the fort and interior towns in an attempt to acquire the ammunition they needed “to carry on the war with Mexico.”