The fate of North Texas settlers lay indirectly in the hands of men whose faces they would probably never see unless they were Indian captives.
New Mexican traders called Comancheros contributed greatly to the turmoil and terror of the frontier. In fact, in Western fiction these men are generally portrayed as the lowest of frontier vermin, vultures profiting from human misery. Their reputation darkened through the years as they expanded their business to include the exchange of stolen horses and cattle – and worst of all, the ransoming of white captives.
In many ways, Comancheros provided incentives for the Comanches' most lawless acts. At first the Comancheros operated a legitimate business, trading supplies with the Plains Indian tribes. Their best customers, the Comanches, gave them their name. During the first decades of their trade, they peddled beads, knives, paints, tobacco, pots and pans, calico, coffee, flour and bread for buffalo hides. The Comancheros' daring forays into Kiowa and Comanche territory proved to be lucrative and helped pave trails into the vast expanse of the Texas Panhandle.
Their business got shadier when Comanches began raiding the Texas frontier for horses for themselves and for trading. The increasing demand for beef in New Mexico caused the Comanches to branch out to stealing Texas cattle by the thousands. Between 1850 and 1870 Comanches knew they could trade stolen stock with Comancheros, who in turn became rich selling to merchants in New Mexico and Arizona.
As if the frontier were not already dangerous enough, the Comancheros started trading firearms, ammunition and whiskey with the Indians. Many American officials, especially federal Indians agents, felt the trading was a deliberate attempt to incite resentment and resistance against Anglo Texans. The remote Panhandle-South Plains area became an ideal trading ground. Horses, mules and cattle with Texas brands were exchanged at popular spots near present-day Amarillo, Quitaque, Lubbock and other towns.
The most despicable aspect of the Comancheros' operations was the ransoming of captives. Many traders made large profits from captives they had ransomed from Comanches, holding them for a suitable “reward” from Texas relatives or American government officials. Pure greed motivated what amounted to peddling human lives.
Comancheros padded their pockets during the Civil War when unattended and unbranded stock were easy pickings for Indian raiders. Comancheros actually became so bold as to accompany Comanches on raids such as those in Coleman County in the 1870s. When the Texas Rangers and U.S. Army patrols began to put more pressure on Indians, the days of the Comancheros were limited. Since the welfare of the Comancheros and Comanches were so intertwined, the Comancheros lost all their business and power when the Comanches were defeated.
Before the Indian Wars ended in Texas, the Comancheros provided some service to soldiers such as Col. Ranald S. Mackenzie. The famous officers used the Comancheros' knowledge of the Plains to guide him to Comanche camps in Palo Duro Canyon. The final defeat of the Comanches in the Red River War and the extermination of the buffalo saw the end of the Comancheros, a major frontier predator.