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Searching for the Comanche Empire

In a deep gorge in New Mexico, archaeologists have discovered a unique site that tells the story of a nomadic confederacy's rise to power in the heart of North America


Tuesday, May 13, 2014



They called themselves Numunu, “the people,” and for centuries they had been hunter-gatherers living in small camps in the Rocky Mountains. But sometime before 1701, when they were first documented by the French on a map of the High Plains, the Numunu left the mountains and encountered horses, possibly trading for them with their linguistic cousins, the Ute, or the Pueblo people of northern New Mexico. By the mid-eighteenth century, they were known as Comanche, a name derived from the Ute word for “anyone who wants to fight me all the time,” and, on the strength of their unparalleled equestrian skills, they were well on their way to being the dominant Indian nation of the American West. Among the most feared mounted warriors in history, the Comanche forged a nomadic culture that served as a model for other Plains Indians. They ranged from Canada all the way to central Mexico, and carved out a homeland that would come to be known as Comanchería, which included much of modern-day Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Colorado, and which endured until the mid-nineteenth century.


Until now, despite the fact that they controlled a vast amount of territory for almost two centuries, and at one point numbered some 40,000 strong, the Comanche have been virtually ignored by archaeologists. “We thought the Comanche had a culture designed to be invisible and to escape detection,” says Barnard College archaeologist Severin Fowles. “If they made camps that they could strike so that no trace remained for the U.S. cavalry to find a few days later, what hope could archaeologists have of finding them more than 200 years later?” But the recent identification of previously unknown panels of rock art at a Comanche encampment in New Mexico’s Rio Grande Gorge is challenging the idea that they left no physical traces behind.


The discovery coincides with the rise of a new generation of historians, who, together with the Comanche themselves, are rereading colonial records and putting together a revised account of Comanche history. This new view contradicts the image of the Comanche in the popular imagination, which casts them as the most brutally savage of the Plains Indians, whose relentless raiding stalled the expansion of the U.S. frontier for decades. In the new, more nuanced approach to Comanche history, the “Lords of the Southern Plains” are emerging instead as skilled tacticians and diplomats capable of mustering thousands of warriors at one time to advance their political and economic interests.



Online Exclusive:
Rock Art of Comanche Warriors

America's Chinatowns

Dozens of digs and collections are revealing the culture, diversity, and challenges of the first Chinese Americans


Tuesday, April 08, 2014



Before the California Gold Rush in the late 1840s, there were perhaps 50 native Chinese people in the United States. Just a few decades later, there were more than 100,000, and seemingly every city, town, and remote mining camp in the West had a Chinatown of its own. Chinese immigrants were exotic curiosities, targets of racism and violence—and an essential part of the labor force that settled the West. They left little written history, but dozens upon dozens of archaeological sites and collections are now enriching our understanding of how the first Chinese Americans negotiated life in a strange and sometimes hostile land.


Most of the nineteenth-century Chinese immigrants came from an area the size of Rhode Island—Taishan County, in the southern province of Guangdong, which had suffered the dual indignities of the Opium Wars and the Taiping Rebellion in the 1840s and 1850s. The opening of trade relations between China and the United States, and the discovery of gold in California, spurred the first surge of immigration. In 1852 alone, more than 20,000 Chinese people passed through San Francisco’s Golden Gate. Many found relative safety, comfort, and job opportunities in Chinatowns, which grew first in the cities and then appeared on the frontier as Chinese laborers pursued work in railroad construction, mining, lumber, agriculture, and other industries. Their population in the United States declined following the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which prohibited new immigration, and would not rebound until the restrictions were lifted 60 years later, starting a second wave of Chinese immigration that has since brought their numbers north of three million.


Archaeological investigation of Chinatowns and Chinese neighborhoods began in the 1970s, with digs at sites such as Ventura, California, and Lovelock, Nevada. There were more in the 1980s and 1990s: Sacramento, San Francisco, Oakland, Los Angeles, San Jose, and others. But most of this early work was cultural resource management—digs related to construction or roadwork—and generated little analysis or scholarship.


Today, Chinese-American archaeology is changing, with new digs, the rediscovery of old collections, and a push to bring researchers together to share findings. Archaeologists and historians have begun working closely with historical societies and descendant communities, and even collaborating with colleagues in southern China. The picture emerging is of a complex, diverse community that held on to some traditions, selectively adopted aspects of Euro-American culture, and tried to make the most of opportunities.


“One of the things that archaeology is doing for all of Chinese America is giving us a greater understanding of what transpired among people who left no or very little written record,” says Sue Fawn Chung, a historian at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, who specializes in Chinese-American history.