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"A Glimpse of Texas Past"

Quanah Parker

by Jeffery Robenalt
Jeffery Robenalt

Quanah Parker, son of Peta Nocona and Cynthia Ann Parker, was born circa 1847. Although the exact date and place of his birth have been much debated, by Quanah’s own personal account, he was born in 1845 on Elk Creek south of the Wichita Mountains in what is now Oklahoma. Quanah was a major player in both the Comanche war of resistance against white encroachment of the Comancheria and in the tribe’s eventual acclimation to reservation life. Nomadic hunter of the plains, war chief of the Quahadi band, cattle rancher, man of business, and friend to American presidents; it could truly be said that Quanah Parker was a man of two worlds. Quanah’s father Peta was a renowned warrior in his own right and chief of the Noconi band of the Comanches, and his mother, Cynthia Ann Parker, was the famed captive taken by the Comanches in an 1836 raid on Parker’s Fort in Parker County, Texas, when she was only nine. Quanah also had a brother, Pecos, and a sister, Flower. Together, the group formed a close-knit and happy Comanche family.

Quanah Parker
Photo of Quanah Parker in Pioneer West Museum, Shamrock, TX
Wikimedia Commons
Things came to an abrupt change in the fall of 1860, when Peta Nocona rode back into Parker County at the head of a war party. As the Indians withdrew after their raid, Sul Ross, a well-known Texas Ranger captain, gathered 70 volunteers and set out on their trail. Ross also had the assistance of several Tonkawa scouts and was later joined by 20 army troopers from the Second Cavalry. Instead of turning back after a few days of unsuccessful pursuit, which was the normal course of affairs, Ross decided to keep his men in the field until they could strike a blow that would teach this particular band of Comanches a lesson. Pressing deep into the Comancheria, Ross continued the search until December 17, when Ranger scout Charles Goodnight and the Tonkawas located an Indian village on the Pease River. The camp belonged to Peta Nocona, but the warriors were out hunting and only women, children, and a few Mexican slaves were present.

Captain Ross led the attack on the village under the cover of a dust cloud and the noise kicked up by a fierce Texas blue norther, an intense cold front usually accompanied by gusty winds. In typical Ranger fashion during a punitive expedition, the fleeing Comanche women and children were gunned down without mercy. In the middle of the confusion, Ranger Goodnight saw the wind tear the blanket away from the face of one of the squaws and noticed that she had dirty blond hair and blue eyes. “Don’t shoot her!” Goodnight yelled. “She’s white!” The blue-eyed squaw was taken prisoner and Ross agreed that she was Caucasian, although her skin had been darkened by long exposure to the sun. The white squaw could speak no English and, she held an eighteen-month-old baby girl in her arms. After fighting off Peta and the other returning Comanche warriors, Ross carried both prisoners back to Parker County by force, where the woman was identified as Cynthia Ann Parker. Cynthia had to be put under guard to keep her from escaping. The little girl never adjusted to civilization and died four years later. In true Comanche fashion, Cynthia Ann scarred her breasts, prayed to the Indian spirits, and starved herself to death.
Cynthia Ann Parker and child
Cynthia Ann Parker and her child
Wikimedia Commons
The raid on the Comanche camp also resulted in the near extermination of the Noconi band. Peta and Quanah were forced to take refuge with the Quahadi Comanches. Peta later died from an infected wound, and Quanah became an orphan raised by his uncle in the Comanche fashion. Of all the Comanche bands, only the Quahadis or Antelope people were still powerful. The other bands, such as the Penateka or Honey Eaters had lived much closer to the whites and had already been decimated. Quanah soon became known for his fine horsemanship and eventually turned out to be an excellent leader. Both qualities proved invaluable when the Quahadis refused to attend the Medicine Lodge Treaty Council and became a target of the U. S. Army. Fortunately, the band lived far out on the Llano Estacado, or Staked Plain, beyond the reach of the army, where they continued to hunt buffalo and raid the settlements in the traditional manner. Quanah and his band of Quahadi Comanches held the Staked Plains virtually uncontested for the next seven years.

Throughout the years 1871 and 1872, Colonel Ranald S. Mackenzie and his Fourth U. S. Cavalry scoured the Llano Estacado in search of the Quahadi. Not only were their efforts unsuccessful, but the cavalry also fell victim to the Indians at Blanco Canyon on the morning of October 9, when Quanah and his warriors raided the army campsite and made off with most of their horses. Mackenzie and his men had a long walk back to civilization, but instead of holding a celebration for a hard-won victory, the incident was the beginning of difficult times for the proud Comanches and other Plains Tribes. If they surrendered and went to the reservations, they would be fed, but only enough to barely stay alive. Honesty was certainly not a trait shared by most Indian agents appointed by the Grant administration. On the other hand, if the Comanches refused to be penned up and remained on their beloved Staked Plains hunting buffalo, they were in danger from Colonel Mackenzie and his cavalry, who had once again taken up the hunt.
Ranald S. Mackenzie
Ranald S. Mackenzie
Wikimedia Commons
The real problem facing Quanah and the Comanches was the disappearance of the buffalo, the basis of all life for the plains tribes. With the blessing of the United States Army, the vast herds that once roamed the Great Plains from Canada to Mexico were being exterminated by the hide hunters at an alarming rate. Indian hunting parties could ride for days without sighting a single living buffalo, only swarms of vultures fighting over the piles meat that were intentionally left to rot. If the plains tribes were deprived of their primary food source, the Indians would have no choice but to return to the reservations. Into the middle of this sinking situation stepped a Comanche prophet named Isa-Tai. Prophets or messiahs were appearing to various Native American tribes throughout the West and were a recognizable symptom of the ongoing social decay of Indian society. Isa-Tai prophesied that the Plains Indians were doomed if they surrendered to the ways of the whites. They must instead preserve their native culture and drive the whites from the plains; only then would the buffalo return in their former abundance.

In 1874, the Quahadi Comanche, Kiowa, Southern Cheyenne, and the Arapaho held a council to discuss Isa-Tai and his prophesies. After much negotiation, Quanah and many other famed war chiefs, who had been enemies for years, formed an alliance to destroy all the buffalo hunters in Texas as Isa-Tai had urged. Unfortunately, the coalition could gather only 700 warriors. Of all the tribes that made up the alliance, only the Quahadi Comanches stood at the zenith of their power. Nothing but scattered remnants remained from the former glory of their allies. Quanah Parker was chosen to lead the warriors in battle. Meanwhile, the hide hunters were ranging further south out onto the Staked Plains to find buffalo. The Medicine Lodge Treaty had forbidden this area to the white hunters, but the army gladly ignored the violation. With the Army’s concurrence, the hide men established an outpost at Adobe Walls to carry out the planned extermination of the remainder of the buffalo. The small fortified camp became the target for the hatred of the Plains Indians.
Adobe Walls Battlefield
Adobe Walls Battlefield
Wikimedia Commons
Early in the morning of June 27, 1874, well before sunup, Quanah Parker led nearly 700 warriors in an attack on Adobe Walls. Only twenty-eight men and one woman were present to defend the camp, and the Indians expected to quickly overrun the sleeping hide hunters. Unfortunately, the element of surprise was lost when one of the hunters woke up early to relieve himself and sounded the alarm. The warriors bravely pressed their attack, but the alerted defenders were all excellent shots, and every man was armed with a heavy caliber buffalo rifle. A good number of warriors were unhorsed during the initial assault, including Quanah, but he was fortunate enough to scramble to safety behind some low cover. Others were not so lucky. All around the camp, the accurate long range rifle fire of the hunters forced the Indians to dismount and take cover. The Indians were armed with modern repeating rifles, but they were no match for the distance and accuracy of the hide hunters. After a few more attempts to overrun the camp had been driven back, the warriors reluctantly settled into an exchange of long range fire that favored the defenders. The siege lasted for three days, until the Indians finally lost heart and departed carrying fifteen dead and many more wounded.
Second Battle Of Adobe Walls

Painting of attack on Adobe Walls
(The Second Battle of Adobe Walls)

Wikimedia Commons

The angry warriors soon split up into their own bands and carried death and destruction across five territories and states, marking the beginning of the widespread Red River War. Nearby parties of buffalo hunters were caught out in the open and slaughtered, and the men who had survived Adobe Walls fled behind the safety of the Texas frontier or back to Kansas. The attack on Adobe Walls caused a reversal of United States Indian policy. No longer would Indian reservations serve as sources of sanctuary. Colonel Mackenzie and his Fourth Cavalry were again called on to engage the Indians and “break up their camps.” For nearly a year, Quanah Parker and his people were constantly harassed and kept on the move, until they reached the perceived safety of their usual winter camp in Palo Duro Canyon. The location of the canyon had been unknown to the army, but Mackenzie forced the information from a Comanchero prisoner. Leaving a company of cavalry at Tule Canyon to protect his supply train, Mackenzie marched all night to reach the rim of Palo Duro. Below the rim, a narrow trail led down to the canyon floor where five sleeping Comanche, Kiowa, and Cheyenne villages spread out along a winding stream. A huge horse herd grazed nearer the entrance to the canyon.
Palo Duro Canyon
Palo Duro Canyon
Wikimedia Commons
Mackenzie moved his men to the floor of the canyon as quickly and quietly as possible, put them on line, and launched the pre-dawn attack by stampeding the Comanche horse herd. Quanah Parker was up at the crack of the first shot. Under his direction, the warriors quickly moved in along the stream and laid down a heavy covering fire, while the women and children fled from the attacking cavalry. Thanks to Quanah’s leadership all of the women and children were able to escape, and the warriors who quickly followed, lost only four men. The women scrambled up the walls at the rear of the canyon and the warriors helped the children, but the Indians reached the plain above with nothing. On the surface, the battle seemed indecisive, but by capturing the horse herd and burning all five villages along with the large quantities of supplies that were needed to see the Indians through the winter, Colonel Mackenzie had struck a deathblow against the Comanches and their allies. Without a horse, a Plains Indian was lost; he could neither fight nor hunt. To make matters worse, without their teepees and the store of winter food, the very survival of the bands was threatened. Under relentless pressure and suffering from hunger and exposure, Quanah Parker and the Quahadis reluctantly surrendered and moved to a reservation in southwestern Oklahoma.
Quanah Parker in business suits
Quanah Parker in business attire
Wikimedia Commons
While some Indians found it difficult to adjust to reservation life, Quanah Parker adapted so easily that federal authorities, in an effort to unite the various Comanche bands, named him chief. Over the next twenty-five years, the former war chief proved to be a wise, resourceful, and capable leader in time of peace, lending his support to the construction of a reservation school and establishing a reservation police force. Quanah dealt with the unlawful use of Comanche grazing land by cleverly selling grazing rights to various local cattlemen. The leases not only raised badly needed cash for the reservation, but now the local ranchers had an interest in protecting Comanche grazing lands. Quanah also called on his people to adapt to their new way of life by building houses in the manner of the whites like his own twenty-two room frame home called Star House.
Quanah Parker in ceremonial attire
Quanah Parker in ceremonial attire circa 1890
Wikimedia Commons

Through a series of wise investments, Quanah eventually became one of the wealthiest Native Americans of his time. He was the close associate of several prominent Panhandle ranchers, and a good friend of President Theodore Roosevelt, who occasionally visited him and accompanied him on hunting trips. His opinion was also eagerly sought by reporters on a variety of political and social issues. However, in spite of his dedicated efforts to adopt white culture, Quanah never completely abandoned his past or forced his people to totally forsake their traditions, as exemplified by his founding of the Native American Church movement, his seven wives and numerous children, and his refusal to cut his long braids. Sadly, the old war chief took sick with an undiagnosed illness while visiting the Cheyenne Reservation in early February, 1911, and died at his home on February 23. Quanah Parker was buried in full Comanche regalia alongside his mother in Post Oak Mission Cemetery near Cache, Oklahoma.


© Jeffery Robenalt, April 1, 2014 Column
jeffrobenalt@yahoo.com
Sources for "Quanah Parker" >

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Sources for "Quanah Parker"

  • Exley, Jo Ella Powell, Frontier Blood: The Saga of the Parker Family, (College Station, Texas A&M University Press, 2001).
  • Fehrenbach, T. R., Comanches: The Destruction of a People, (New York: Knopf Publishing, 1974).
  • Gwynne, S. C., Empire of the Summer Moon, (New York: Scribner Publishing, 2010).
  • Hamalainen, Pekka, Comanche Empire, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008).
  • Hosmer, Brian C., “PARKER, QUANAH,” Handbook of Texas Online, (http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fpa28), accessed January 28, 2014. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
  • Jackson, Clyde L. and Grace, Quanah Parker, (New York: Exposition Press, 1963).
  • Newcomb, William W., The Indians of Texas, (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1961).
  • Weems, John Edward, The Last of the Indian Wars, (New York: Double Day Publishing, 1976).
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