The Comancheros were natives of northern and central New Mexico who conducted trade for a living with the nomadic plains tribes, often at designated areas in the Llano Estacado. They cut trails followed by traders and later ranchers and settlers. They were so named because the Comanches, in whose territory they traded, were considered their best customers. The term, unknown in Spanish documents, was popularized during the 1840s by Josiah Gregg and subsequently applied by United States Army officers who were familiar with Gregg's accounts. Initially, the Comancheros' lucrative practices were considered legitimate, and trade grew slowly. Increased demand for cattle in New Mexico, however, led some to become "rustlers by proxy" who traded stolen cattle to the Indians. The resulting hostility between Indians and settlers led to army intervention in 1874 and the Comancheros' eventual demise.
Comancheros ranged east to the Wichita Mountains of Oklahoma, southeast as far as the Davis Mountains in Texas, and north to the Dakotas. The distinctive form of trade associated with them began with a treaty of 1786 between the Spanish governor of New Mexico, Juan Baptista de Anza, and the Comanche Indians of the plains, allowing trade between New Mexico and the Indians in return for Indian protection of Texas against intruders on Spanish territory.
At first many Comancheros cached their oxcarts or carretas and loaded their merchandise on burros before venturing into the trackless Comanchería. But by the 1840s Josiah Gregg, James W. Abert, and other American mapmakers found evidences of broad cart trails leading into the Canadian River valley. Randolph B. Marcy described the "old Mexican cartroad" in his 1849 survey. Lieutenant Abert, while at Bent's tradinghouse on the Canadian in September 1845, parleyed with a small group of Comancheros, and in 1853 some New Mexico traders helped guide Lt. Amiel W. Whipple across the Panhandle. During the first decades of the Comancheros' trade, their merchandise consisted largely of beads, knives, paints, tobacco, pots and pans, and calico and other cloth, as well as the metal spikes that Indians came to prefer over flint points for their arrows. Foodstuffs such as coffee, flour, and bread were also bartered. The majority of their excursions were to the Comanche and Kiowa villages on the Llano Estacado. Such expeditions, poorly organized and often risky, depended on the nature of relations with different tribes.
From about 1840 on, Comanches realized the commercial value of horses and raided the frontiers of both Texas and northern Mexico to secure animals not only for themselves but for trade to the Comancheros. The rising demand for cattle in New Mexico led to further raiding. Between 1850 and 1870 thousands of animals stolen by Indians were traded by Comancheros to merchants in New Mexico and Arizona who had contacts with government beef contractors. The addition of firearms, ammunition, and whiskey to the list of trade items from New Mexico likewise added to the trade's worsening reputation. Although the territorial governors of New Mexico attempted to regulate the trade by requiring licenses, Comancheros mainly neglected the law. Many American officials, particularly federal Indian agents, believed that trading was merely a cover-up for the New Mexicans' real purpose of inciting resentment and resistance against Anglo Texans. Certainly the traders and their Comanche customers shared a common dislike of Anglos, and as far as the victims of raids and thefts were concerned, the feeling was mutual.
As the sordid commerce in stolen property increased, the Comancheros began arranging specific meeting times and places with their Indian customers to conduct business away from any settlements. The remote Panhandle-South Plains area thus became an ideal trading ground for these transactions. Horses, mules, and cattle bearing Texas brands were exchanged for such items as tobacco, coffee, and whiskey at popular rendezvous sites like Mulberry Creek, on what became the JA Ranch range; Tecovas Springs, on the future Frying Pan Ranch northwest of the site of Amarillo; Sweetwater Creek, near the site of Mobeetie; Atascosa Creek, at the site of Old Tascosa (now Cal Farley's Boys Ranch); and Yellow House Canyon near the site of present-day Lubbock, known to the Comancheros as Cañón del Rescate (Canyon of Ransom). Another familiar trading site was at Las Lenguas (or Los Lingos) Creek near the future site of Quitaque. From a typical rendezvous, during which bargaining might last as long as three weeks, a shrewd Comanchero could take back with him a mule for five pounds of tobacco or a keg of whiskey, a good pack horse for ten pounds of coffee, or a buffalo robe for little or nothing.
Probably the most controversial aspect of the Comancheros' operations was the ransoming of captives, a practice dating back centuries. At first enterprising New Mexicans had bought only captive Indians for use as mine workers or servants, but as time went on they began accepting Mexican prisoners as well. Many traders reportedly made large profits from highborn captives they had ransomed from Comanches by holding them for a suitable "reward" from relatives in the settlements of Texas or northern Mexico or from American government officials.
The Civil War momentarily left the Texas frontier practically defenseless and allowed the Indian raiders free access to livestock grazing in the Cross Timbers and Hill Country of central West Texas. Comancheros profited handsomely from this stock, much of it left unbranded as well as unattended, which they frequently traded to army posts, government Indian reservations, and ranchers for guns, ammunition, and whiskey to trade to the Indians. Noted traders like José P. Tafoya maintained crude rock and adobe shelters at places like Las Lenguas or Tecovas Springs during the 1860s.
Comancheros often accompanied Comanches on cattle raids into Coleman County and environs in the 1870s. The days of the Comancheros were numbered, however, as Texas Rangers and United States Army patrols mounted increasing pressure on their Indian customers. Col. Ranald S. Mackenzie and other army commanders often enlisted, or perhaps conscripted, Comancheros to guide them to the camps of the Indians with whom they had traded. The final defeat of the Comanches and their allies in the Red River War, along with the extermination of the buffalo by hunters, ended the Comanchero trade. In the late 1870s Casimero Romero, José P. Tafoya, Juan Trujillo, and others who had sometime engaged in the Comanchero trade settled for a time in the western Panhandle as peaceful pastores.