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 Texas : Features : Columns : "Charley Eckhardt's Texas"

WHO KILLED THE CHIEF?

by C. F. Eckhardt
The man called Peta Nocona (most likely pronounced something on the order of POO-tak no-KOH-ni) enters Texas history on two accounts. He was the husband of the captive white woman called Nadua by the Comanches-her original name was Cynthia Ann Parker-and the father of perhaps the greatest of all Comanche chiefs, Quanah, later known as Quanah Parker. He was chief of a band of Quohada Comanches and possibly of a splinter band known as Noconis, a word which can mean 'wanderer' and may have the connotation 'outcast.' Over his death, over the years, there has arisen considerable controversy.

The recorded facts are these: In December, 1860, Texas ranger Captain Lawrence Sullivan 'Sul' Ross, only 22 at the time, led a contingent of rangers, a detachment of US troops, and some volunteers high into what was essentially unknown country in pursuit of a band of Comanches who had been raiding in the Palo Pinto and Jack County area. On the banks of a then un-named creek tributary to the Pease River Ross and his men achieved the virtually-impossible. They utterly surprised a hunting camp of Comanches. In the short but bitter battle that followed, every Comanche warrior in the camp and several women were killed.

Ross saw two horsemen flee the camp and gave pursuit. As he overtook the trailing rider and was about to shoot, she-it was a woman-abruptly stopped her horse and held a baby over her head. Leaving the woman to be captured by his men, Ross pursued the second horse, which was being ridden double. A shot from his pistol took the rear rider down, and in falling she-later proved to be a girl of about 15-dragged the other rider off the horse. The pistol ball penetrated her body completely, but was stopped by the warshield strapped to the other rider's back.

There was little question this man was a warrior. Almost as soon as he hit the ground he loosed an arrow at Ross. It missed the man, but hit Ross's horse. The horse began to buck, which made it difficult for Ross to shoot accurately, but also made him a difficult target for the bowman. He loosed 'seven or eight' more arrows at Ross, missing each time, while Ross returned inaccurate fire with his revolver. A lucky shot struck the warrior in an elbow, ruining his ability to use his bow.

Ross got his horse under control and dismounted, at which point the warrior rushed at him with a knife. Ross shot the man twice in the chest. He dropped the knife, walked to a tree, wrapped his good arm around it, and began to sing what was described as "a wild, weird song."

At about this time the interpreter accompanying Ross and his men rode up. The man's name has come down as 'Antonio Mortimus.' He spoke fluent Comanche, having been a captive of the Comanches for several years. The interpreter identified the warrior as 'Chief Nocona,' stating that the man had murdered his entire family save himself, and that he had been the Chief's slave while in Comanche captivity. He asked Ross's permission to finish the man.

Death could only have been moments away. Ross gave his permission. The interpreter stood in front of the warrior and spoke to him in Comanche. The warrior replied in the same language and then pulled his warshirt open. Antonio fired both barrels of a shotgun into the man's chest from a range of about two feet.

The captive woman began to demand to be taken to the body. According to Benjamin Gholson, who wrote an account of the action, the woman began to wail "Nocona, Nocona" in what was obviously intense grief. Again according to Gholson, it was necessary to force her away from the body.

The woman had blonde hair and blue eyes. The rangers began saying the names of known, unrecovered female captives to see if she recognized and responded to them. When someone said "Cynthia Ann Parker," the woman pointed to herself and said "Me Cynthy Ann."

While this was the first time she had been identified by name, it was not the first time she had been recognized as a white captive. In 1851, when she would have been 18, a blanket trader in a Quohada Comanche camp recognized her as white. He asked her in secret if she wished to go back to her white family. According to his statement "…she shook her head in a sorrowful negative, and pointed to her little naked barbarians sporting at her feet, and to the great, greasy, lazy buck sleeping in the shade near at hand, the locks of a score of scalps dangling from his belt…."

The 'little naked barbarians' had to be her sons Quanah and his younger brother, whose name has come down as 'Pecos' and-for some unfathomable reason-'Peanuts.' Since we know that Quanah was about four years older than his brother, and in 1851 Pecos was old enough to be 'sporting at (his mother's) feet,' Quanah had to be born about 1845.

As soon as the fight was over Ross detailed two men, one of whom was the later- famous Charlie Goodnight, to cut for sign and see if there were any escapees. West of the camp Goodnight came upon the tracks of two horses. They had been ridden away at a leisurely pace until they reached the top of a hill just west of the camp. At that point the riders apparently jettisoned all baggage and left at a dead run. Goodnight followed the tracks for about 50 miles, until he saw in the distance an encampment which he estimated had at least a thousand Indians in it. He returned to Ross with this information and Ross wisely decided not to pursue the matter any farther.

Lawrence Sullivan Ross went on to become Adjutant General of Texas, Governor of Texas, and president of what was then known as Texas A&M College. A&M's honors drill team, the Ross Volunteers, is named for him and is the honor guard for all Texas governors. Sul Ross State University in Alpine, established as Sul Ross State Teachers' College, likewise bears his name.

Ross believed, until he died, that he had killed the Quohada chief Peta Nocona, for whom the town of Nocona is named. During his lifetime no one contradicted this, not even Quanah. Quanah Parker admired Ross a great deal. Ross provided Quanah with a copy of the only known photograph of his mother and young sister. Ross also arranged to have the bodies of Cynthia Ann Parker/Nadua and her daughter Prairie Flower, whose name was rendered phonetically as 'Texanne,' exhumed and removed to the Comanche cemetery at Fort Sill, Oklahoma.

Ross, indeed, had a better reason to claim the kill than did the interpreter. The shotgun blast only hastened what could have been no more than a few minutes away.

There the story rested until 9 July 1896. On that day, in a speech in Quanah, Texas, the town named for him, Quanah Parker stated:

"Texas history books tell General Ross kill my father; he no kill him. I want to get that straight up. No kill my father! He not there. I see my father die, two-three year after. He sick. I there. I see him die."

This surprised not only Charlie Goodnight, but John Wesley of Foard County. Wesley, in 1880, acquired the land upon which the fight had taken place, along Mule Creek. In 1918 he wrote "I became acquainted with Quanah Parker in 1882 or 1883 and met him quite often in Vernon where he and members of his tribe came to trade. He was very friendly and wanted to know all about his kinfolks in Parker County. He asked me to visit him at Fort Sill and I in return asked him to visit me, but he said he never went to Mule Creek because his father was killed there and his mother and brother (actually it was his sister) were captured and carried off. He said he never wanted to see the place."

Both Cynthia Ann Parker and her daughter died in 1870. This was three years before Quanah became well known to the whites as a Comanche chief and five years before the final defeat of Quanah's Noconis, the name he gave his own band of Quohadas. His mother never knew her sons had survived the Mule Creek fight. According to her neighbors "She thought her sons were lost on the prairie after she was captured. She would take a knife and slash her breasts until they bled and then put the blood on some tobacco and burn it and cry for her lost boys." Obviously, then the woman Nadua and her sons were in the camp at Mule Creek when the fight started. Where was her husband, Peta Nocona?

In a 1910 letter to Charlie Goodnight, written shortly before the chief died, Quanah said "…when the Peas river fight took place my father with the main body of Indians was about seventy or eighty miles away with his Indian wife my brother and myself. He knew nothing of the fight until the two survivors, of the last named fight returned to the camp and informed him of the great disastor which had befallen his people." (Spelling & punctuation from the original.)

Quanah further wrote "From the best information I have, I was born about 1850, on Elk Creek in the Wichita Mountains…I remained with my father from this time until his death which occurred two or three years later, I was with him and saw him die and he was buried near the Antelope Hills in what I now believe is in Lipscond (Lipscomb) County near the south bank of the Canadian…Before the death of my father, he told me my mother was a white woman, that he took her into captivity from central or east Texas, when she was a child…what I state in regard to the death of my father is from my own personal knowledge…." (Spelling & punctuation from the original.)

Historian John Henry Brown had already disputed the identity of the chief killed at Mule Creek, stating he was told the man's name was Mo-he-ew. Quanah wrote "….while I was too young to remember the chief it is likely that Brown was correct…."

Quanah, though, was not 'too young to remember.' That 1850 date is too late for his birth. He was about 15 or 16 at the time of the Mule Creek fight. His mother slashed her breasts and burned bloodstained tobacco-a Comanche mourning ritual-in memory of her two sons, who had been in the camp at Mule Creek and whom she feared had died there.

Quanah himself wrote "There was born to her three children myself being the oldest, a brother who died at an early age, named Peanuts and my sister who was an infant in her arms when she was captured by Gov. Ross men…." (Spelling & punctuation from the original.) What sons was the woman Nadua mourning, if not Quanah and Pecos?

Baldwin Parker, Quanah's son, stated to George Hunt, an early anthropologist who gathered recollections among the Comanche, that the chief killed at Mule Creek was not Peta Nocona but a man named No-Bah. Charlie Goodnight later wrote in a letter to historian J. Evetts Haley "He (Ross) did kill a chief whose name was No-Bah, but Nocona died a long time afterwards while hunting plums on the Canadian."

Now enters into the controversy Mrs. Zoe A. Tilghman, widow of renowned Oklahoma lawman William 'Uncle Billy' Tilghman. In a novel entitled QUANAH, EAGLE OF THE COMANCHES, in which Quanah is the central character, Mrs. Tilghman identifies the man killed by Ross as a Mexican slave, a servant of Nadua's. Jack Jackson, in his graphic novel COMANCHE MOON, accepted this version, as did Lucia St. Clair Robson in her award-winning novel RIDE THE WIND. Many 'revisionist historians' accept this identification in spite of the fact that Mrs. Tilghman's book is a novel, not a biography, and she cites no source for this identification.
Order Here
Quanah, the eagle of the Comanches
Comanche Moon
Ride the Wind
Captain Sul Ross knew the difference between a Mexican slave and a Comanche chief. His father, Shapley P. Ross, was the Indian agent on the Tonkawa reservation in Texas. Sul grew up among the Tonks, who were bitter enemies of the Comanches. Sul had been fighting Comanches since he was old enough to shoulder a rifle. Few men in Texas knew the Comanches as well as Sul Ross. Let's look at the evidence.

The man who fled the Mule Creek camp was in company with Nadua/Cynthia Ann Parker and her daughter. He was armed and dressed as a warrior. He was, by Ross's statement, "a big man," as was Nocona (and Quanah as well). Nadua mourned the dead man and repeated the name "Nocona" over and around his body. Slaves were not armed and equipped as warriors, and slaves certainly did not have death songs-only warriors had death songs.

The Mexican interpreter, Antonio, identified the man as Chief Nocona, the man who murdered his family and held him as a slave. He spoke to the man in Comanche, and the man, instead of spitting on him in defiance, opened his shirt and stood while the interpreter shot him down.

Cynthia Ann Parker later mourned her two sons in what, to her white family and neighbors, seemed a bizarre ritual, believing they had been killed at Mule Creek.

None of this agrees with Quanah's statements, made nearly a half-century after the battle and repeated over several more years, that he was "too young to remember" much about the fight and that he was "seventy or eighty miles away" with his father at another camp. Nor does it agree with later statements by old Comanches that the chief killed at Mule Creek was not Nocona.

Why might Quanah have fabricated a story about his father's death 'two or three years later'? The chief at Mule Creek fought a good fight and died as a warrior should.

Partly, probably, the answer is tied to Comanche religion and mysticism. Comanche religion demanded that the body of a warrior be recovered and properly buried. The body of the man Ross killed was never recovered and never got a proper burial.

Then there's the question of the two ponies that were ridden away to the west at high speed just as the battle was joined. Who was riding them? Who brought the news of the fight to the rest of the Quohadas?

Nadua mourned her two sons, whom she believed were in the camp on Mule Creek when the fight began, and who she believed until her death had been killed there. If they had been "seventy or eighty miles away" with their father, she certainly would have known that. Quanah may have been 15 or 16 and a budding warrior, but Pecos was no more than 10 or 11 at the time.

Could the young men on those ponies have been none other than Quanah and his brother Pecos? Was Quanah ashamed-and rightly so, to a Comanche warrior's thinking-that he had not returned to fight and die alongside his father, and therefore fabricated the story of his father's death "two or three years later" to excuse his lapse? That seems the most likely explanation.
© C. F. Eckhardt
"Charley Eckhardt's Texas" >

May 1, 2007 column

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