Tracing Comanche History: Eighteenth-Century Rock Art Depictions of Leather-Armoured Horses from the Arkansas River Basin, South-Eastern Colorado, USA

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Plains Indian rock art produced between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries frequently includes detailed and accurately rendered depictions of both western and native material culture. The careful study of such images can reveal their period of manufacture, and support inferences about the cultural identity of their makers. Comparisons among these images also can illuminate the processes by which western material culture was adopted and modified by Plains peoples.

Horses and horse tack are among the most lavishly illustrated motifs in Plains Indian rock art (Keyser 1987, 1991; Keyser & Klassen 2001; Keyser & Mitchell 2001). During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the adoption of the horse dramatically transformed the economies of both nomadic and semi-sedentary groups living in the Plains and adjacent regions. Increased mobility facilitated the exploitation of previously unavailable resources, and restructured the economic and social relationships among neighbouring groups. By the first few decades of the nineteenth century, ownership of horses had become an important form of wealth, and their acquisition and use had become the principal means to power. Accordingly, status in Plains societies derived from a system of war honours which emphasised personal bravery in combat. Artistic depictions of horses, and the exploits they enabled, were used to document the personal histories on which status was built, and constituted a public record of individual achievement. Great care was taken to accurately depict horses, their equipment, and the narrative structure of the events represented.

This nineteenth century practice of heraldic or biographic drawing was preceded by a long tradition of representational art that is known primarily from petroglyphs and pictographs. Even prior to the adoption of the horse, Plains Indians created incised and painted rock art images--known collectively as Ceremonial tradition art--that focused in part on the depiction of warriors, weapons and personal combat. These images also document the initial adoption of horses, and the new military technologies which accompanied their use (Keyser & Klassen 2001:222-223).

Following sixteenth century Spanish usage, the principal technological innovation associated with the adoption of the horse for military purposes was the use of leather armour. In skirmishes where firearms are not present, armoured horses and riders have a decisive tactical advantage over massed infantry. However, leather armour is bulky and provides ineffective protection against bullets; hence, such armour was abandoned as soon as firearms became widely available. Beginning as early as 1650, horses were acquired--through both trading and raiding--almost exclusively from the Spanish in northern New Mexico. At the same time, the Spanish imposed an effective embargo against the sale of firearms to Native Americans. However, by the middle of the eighteenth century, firearms became available from the French and to a lesser degree the English, who had established trading centres in the upper Midwest and Great Lakes regions. French traders may have visited the Comanche in western Kansas as early as 1748 and by 1751 the Comanche had established trade relationships with both the Wichita and the Pawnee, apparently at the urging of the French (Gunnerson & Gunnerson 1988: 29-30).

Thus, during the century between about 1650 and 1750 military tactics on the central and southern Plains were dominated by what Secoy (1953) terms the Post-horse-Pre-gun military technique pattern, which emphasised the use of highly mobile, leather-armoured cavalry. After the adoption of the horse, warriors were armed with lances and short bows, and both the horse and rider were protected by leather armour. By contrast, the Pre-horse military technique had emphasised the use of massed infantry armed with bows, spears and clubs (Secoy 1953:10). …