Read an Excerpt
Quanah Parker, Comanche Chief
By William T. Hagan
UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESSCopyright © 1993 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
Life on the Plains
One day in early May 1875 a young warrior named Quanah (Fragrance/Odor) rose in council to speak to his fellow Comanches. Distinctive in appearance, he was taller and less heavily built, and he had a complexion and hair lighter in hue than those of the typical stocky, dark-visaged Comanche. Confirming his mixed-blood origins were his startlingly gray eyes among a brown-eyed people.
The mood of the main encampment of the Quahada (Antelope) division of Comanches on the Staked Plains was one of quiet foreboding. What the white man would call the Red River War of 1874–75 was winding down, and most Comanches already had been forced to report to their assigned reservation and to surrender their arms and herds of ponies.
Word had filtered back to the Indians still free that many of the warriors and chiefs had been imprisoned, some of them in shackles in the narrow cells of the Fort Sill guardhouse, others loaded into wagons for the first stage of their journey to Fort Marion in Florida, a land beyond the ken of these Plains Indians.
Guided by three Comanches, a messenger from Colonel Ranald Mackenzie, who commanded the Fourth Cavalry Regiment headquartered at Fort Sill, had arrived at the Quahada camp the day before. J. J. Sturm, who for many years had been employed at the Indian agency to which the Comanches were nominally assigned, had been pleasantly surprised by the hospitality accorded him. In council the Indians did not protest Colonel Mackenzie's order for them to come to Fort Sill and surrender unconditionally. They did request a delay of one day before making a formal response in order to enable some of their leading men to return from a buffalo hunt and share in the decision.
Following that first council Sturm was pleased to be invited to the lodge of Eschiti (Coyote Droppings/Wolf's Rear End), the young medicine man who had inspired the warriors attacking buffalo hunters at Adobe Walls in the Texas Panhandle in June 1874. Despite the failure of his medicine at Adobe Walls, Eschiti appeared to be the band's dominant leader, and he assured Sturm that he would prevail upon his people to follow Colonel Mackenzie's order.
The following day Sturm again met with the chiefs and headmen in council. He noted in his journal of his mission that Eschiti "told his people they must all prepare to come in to Fort Sill and as his authority seems absolute they all agreed to start tomorrow."
Sturm singled out in his journal only one other speaker at that meeting—Quanah, "a young man of much influence with his people," who also urged compliance with the colonel's order. Eschiti might have been the dominant figure in that village on the plains in May 1875, but in the reservation environment they were about to enter, it was Quanah who would earn the title, "The Chief of the Comanche Indians."
Very little is known with any certainty about Quanah's prereservation life, not even the origin of his name. There is no evidence that he ever visited his tribe's agency before the surrender in 1875, and only one white man seems to have seen him as a child. Late in life Quanah dictated a fragment of an autobiography, a few details of which were repeated in other interviews he gave. That he was not more forthcoming is not surprising. After his surrender Quanah was anxious to advance in the white-dominated reservation power structure, and boasting of his career as a young warrior with raiding parties that looted, raped, and killed their way through Texas and Mexican settlements would hardly have advanced his career. Such reticence was not unusual among former warriors. For years, Indian participants in the defeat of Custer on the Little Big Horn were, for fear of punishment, reluctant to talk freely to white men about their greatest triumph. Reservation officials in the early 1870s were continually frustrated in their efforts to assign responsibility for raids committed by bands under their jurisdiction. As admission of guilt could cost them annuities and rations, if not lead to their imprisonment, Comanche veterans of raids denied their own roles and attempted to cast suspicion on others—Kiowas and Kiowa-Apaches with whom they shared a reservation, or members of other Comanche divisions. The Quahadas were frequently saddled with crimes they had not committed because they rarely had direct contact with agency officials. This made them, as absentees, convenient scapegoats.
Quanah himself was a by-product of perhaps the most celebrated raid in Texas frontier history, an attack on Fort Parker in the Republic of Texas. The fort was occupied by the clan of John Parker, who had led his family from the Virginia piedmont on a hegira that lasted a half-century and finally brought them to Texas, with residences along the way in Georgia, Tennessee, and Illinois. Elder John, as he was known for his leadership in the Primitive Baptist Church, had great-grandchildren by the time the family arrived in Texas. In late 1833 the Parkers established claim to land on the headwaters of the Navasota River. By the next spring they had cleared fields, planted their first crops, and constructed some crude log cabins. Work was then begun on a typical palisaded fort, which was completed in a burst of activity inspired by threats of Indian raids in 1835. With the successful conclusion of the Texas War for Independence, the settlers became overconfident and relaxed their security measures. On May 19, 1836, when a war party composed principally of Comanches and Kiowas suddenly appeared in the clearing before the fort, most of the men were working in fields some distance away. The gate of the fort was open, and the blockhouses unmanned. The warriors first feigned friendship and then quickly overran the defenses. Some of the whites escaped in the confusion, but the Indians killed and scalped three men and left three women wounded, one of them mortally. The dead included Quanah's maternal great-grandparents and grandfather.
The war party carried off five women and children, including nine-year-old Cynthia Ann Parker and her six-year-old brother John. Although there are other versions of John's fate, it is most likely that he died in captivity, as Cynthia Ann purportedly told one white man. It was common practice for these Indians to seize women and children. Some might be killed if the warriors were hotly pursued; often they were traded to other bands or tribes or exchanged for ransom. Cynthia Ann was one of those who remained with her captors, and with the passage of a few years became a Comanche herself.
Only four years after being abducted by the war party, Cynthia Ann was seen by a white man who was visiting a Comanche camp. Despite his having obtained Indian permission to talk to her, he was unable to communicate with the girl. For whatever reason—inability any longer to speak English, fear of punishment if she did, or a reluctance to do anything that might jeopardize her position in her new life—Cynthia Ann did not respond to the man's overtures.
In time, Cynthia Ann would become the wife of Peta Nocona, a prominent war chief, and bear him three children. She and they, but not Peta Nocona, were in a camp attacked by Texas Rangers in 1861. She fled on horseback with her youngest child, a daughter named Topsannah (Prairie Flower), but was run down and captured. Although assured by the rangers of kind treatment, Cynthia Ann was inconsolably grief-stricken at the separation from her sons and husband. Restored to white relatives, she was never reconciled to the loss of her Comanche family and the way of life of which she had become a part. Her daughter died within three years, and the unhappy Cynthia Ann in 1870.
Cynthia Ann had described Quanah as having a smallpox vaccination mark. Late in life he remembered a childhood incident in which a white man visiting his village was checking on the scar in an attempt to identify him. His lighter complexion and more slender build must have attracted the stranger's attention. Quanah dated this incident as occurring about 1862, before the death of his father. Horace P. Jones, whose long career as army guide, interpreter, and agency employee began on the reservation some Comanches occupied in Texas 1857–59, claimed twenty years after the event that he had talked to Quanah about his mother in 1868. They had met, according to Jones, when an army column he was accompanying had camped near a Comanche village. Neither account is verifiable. By the time Horace Jones's version was recorded, Quanah was well on the way to becoming a local celebrity, and many people were happy to try to associate themselves with him in some way.
We know little about Quanah's life before 1875, not even the year of his birth. In 1885 the Comanche agent estimated him to be not over twenty-five, but five years later the tribal census carried him as thirty-six. The confusion was compounded when the 1899 census listed him at forty-eight, but that age presumably became the agreed-upon calculation, as the government listed him at fifty-nine on his death in 1911. Accepting that computation as reasonable, we may conclude that Quanah was born about 1852 and was approximately nine years old when he lost his mother, eleven when his father died, and twenty-three when he was forced to give up the life of a nomadic warrior and hunter.
As the result of the work of scholars such as E. Adamson Hoebel and Thomas W. Kavanagh, we can be reasonably confident in sketching the type of life Comanches led when Quanah was growing up. In those years the Comanches were indeed lords of the South Plains. Quanah's division, the Quahadas, epitomized those fierce fighters and superb horsemen. They ranged from the Arkansas River in the north to the Rio Grande and beyond it deep into Mexico. On the west they approached the Rockies, and to the east they were feared as far as the edges of the heavily wooded areas of Texas and Indian Territory. Comanche wanderings were dictated by their need for pasture for their large herds of ponies and by dependence on the far-ranging buffalo herds, which provided the staple of their diet, coverings for their tepees, and raw material for tools and utensils. Additional incentives for their restless movements were provided by their insatiable appetite for horses and captives, which together with scalps and coups were the measure of a man in Comanche society. The horses and captives also were prized as important commodities in Comanche bartering with Pueblo Indians and itinerant merchants.
By Quanah's time the Comanches had loose alliances with the Kiowas and that tribe's affiliated Kiowa-Apache band. To a lesser degree his people had a friendly relationship with the Cheyennes and Arapahos, who generally were to be found north of the Arkansas. In contrast, the Comanches intermittently fought the Utes and the Navajos and had a particular hatred for the Tonkawas, who served as guides for cavalry columns scouring the plains for bands the army dubbed hostile.
But it was the Texas and Mexican settlers who bore the brunt of Comanche fury. The Comanches particularly hated the Texans, who were slowly expanding into areas the Comanches had for generations regarded as their private hunting preserve, to be shared only with friendly tribes, such as the Kiowas and their allies the Kiowa-Apaches. During the Civil War years, agents of the United States were happy to see the Comanches ravaging the Texas frontier. But the fall of the Confederacy and the return of Texas to the United States fold did not deter Comanche raiders.
Nor was it possible, because of the loose-knit Comanche political structure, for the tribe or band leaders to restrain young men seeking war honors to establish their credentials in a society that judged a man by the size of his pony herd and the number of scalps collected and coups he had counted. Indeed, there was not the semblance of a tribal government. Unlike some other Plains tribes, the Comanches did not even have the tradition of gathering annually to celebrate the Sun Dance.
The basic Comanche political unit was the division, of which over a dozen have been identified. In turn, they were divided into residence bands, membership in which was determined principally by family relationships. These bands, however, were in constant flux as individuals and groups joined up or dropped away for an infinite variety of reasons. By the real beginning of their reservation period in 1875, the most important of the divisions were the Penatekas (Wasps), Kotsatekas (Buffalo Eaters), Noconis (Wanderers), Yamparikas (Root Eaters), and Quahadas (Antelopes).
By 1875 the Penatekas and the Quahadas represented the range of differences among the Comanches. Some Penatekas, whose band leaders had signed a treaty with the United States as early as 1846, had been persuaded to take up residence on a reservation in Texas in 1855. A nucleus of these had accompanied their agent when the hostility of Texas settlers forced the United States to shift their official residence north of the Red River to a section the government leased from the Chickasaws and Choctaws, although it had been traditional Comanche territory. A very few Penatekas even made spasmodic efforts to farm, although most continued to use their reservation as a base for their hunting—and raiding—expeditions.
At least the Penatekas provided some meager basis for the periodic claims of Comanche agents to be gradually reclaiming their Indians from what they considered a life of savagery. The Quahadas allowed them no grounds for optimism, refusing even to come to agency headquarters to share in the rations and annuities provided the tribal members by the Treaty of Medicine Lodge of 1867. By that document, signed by representatives of several bands, all Comanches were held by the United States to have surrendered their claims to the South Plains, except a reservation of about three million acres, and to have agreed to locate on that tract together with the Kiowas and Kiowa-Apaches. Although the Quahadas declined to come to the agency, a stream of Indians from other Comanche bands, including Penatekas, occasionally attached themselves to the Quahadas. Every spring as the grass grew high enough to give the ponies strength to carry the warrriors on raids into Texas and Mexico, or against the Utes and Navajos, the Quahada population would swell, only to drop as the approach of winter made the possibility of government rations more inviting.
The Comanche political system gave considerable latitude to the individual. Chieftainships were not hereditary, and any warrior could aspire to head a band. The key qualifications were an outstanding war record and a demonstrated concern for the welfare of one's followers. But the chiefs had little real control, since band actions were determined by a consensus of the headmen. Nor did all band members necessarily accept the decisions the band leaders had reached. If the matter was of sufficient moment, the dissenters might secede, to join another band or establish the nucleus of a new one.
Although the Comanche way gave the individual great freedom, it also imposed heavy responsibilities on its males. They were reared to be the principal providers and protectors for a hunting and fighting people. By the time he was five or six, Quanah was in training for the role he would be expected to play. He would have been given a small bow and encouraged to develop skill in its use. To succeed as a warrior Quanah also would have to meet the standards of Comanche horsemanship, and his fellow tribesmen were acknowledged to be light cavalry with few peers on the plains. As a boy Quanah learned to ride at breakneck speed while firing arrows or swinging low to snatch objects from the ground. He and his youthful companions heard the warriors boast of their exploits against the Utes, Navajos, and Texans and yearned to emulate them. In this close-knit society, respect by one's fellows was essential to a sense of well-being, and respect was earned the hard and dangerous way.
A Comanche's status also could be influenced by his claims to possess puha (power), which might be acquired in several ways. After reaching puberty, Quanah might have engaged in a vision quest. After preliminaries to prepare him, he would have retired to a secluded spot where he would have fasted, smoked, and prayed, all of which left him in a highly charged emotional state. What he sought was some sign that a supernatural being had taken note of his supplications and would share some of its power. A lone buffalo coming into view, a curious eagle swooping overhead, or a wolf howling in the distance might provide the youth with evidence that the spirit of one of these creatures had taken pity on him. He could than return to his people confident that he had acquired a powerful guardian.
Excerpted from Quanah Parker, Comanche Chief by William T. Hagan. Copyright © 1993 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.