In the catalog that first introduced his Indian Gallery to an English audience in 1840, Catlin was at pains to distinguish each of the tribes he had encountered in the West. The Comanches, he wrote, were "one of the most powerful and hostile tribes in North America, inhabiting the western parts of Texas and the Mexican provinces, and the south-western part of the territory of the United States, near the Rocky Mountains; entirely wild and predatory in their habits; the most expert and effective lancers and horsemen on the continent. Numbering some 25 or 30,000, living in skin lodges or wigwams; well mounted on wild horses, continually at war with the Mexicans, Texians, and Indian tribes of the north-west." Their horsemanship and their training for war were inseparable, he observed, and they could throw "themselves on the side of their horses, while at full speed, to evade their enemies' arrows-a most wonderful feat."
At the meeting with the Comanches in 1834, Catlin was witness to displays of their vaunted horsemanship and their prowess in combat. His paintings are eyewitness reports on a people who by then were established masters of the Southern Plains, enterprising traders and a military presence to be respected and feared. They had stymied the Spanish thrust north in the eighteenth century, cut off French ambitions to the west of Louisiana Territory, and were, by the 1830s, a formidable obstacle to American expansion into Texas-the heart of Comancheria.
Catlin saw a mock battle staged by the chief of a small village "to show to the author the mode of combat by his warriors." It was, like the feats of horsemanship he witnessed, good training for warfare. It was also an amusement for the villagers, who regarded it as spectator sport. Elsewhere Catlin called the sham fight a "Tournament of the Comanchees," and judging from his painting, it served that role.