Quanah Parker: Part 3

Quanah Parker was an important Comanche chief, a leader in the Native American Church, and the last leader of the powerful Quahadi band before they surrendered their battle of the Great Plains.  With five wives and 25 children, Quanah had numerous descendants. Many people in Texas and Oklahoma claim him as an ancestor. S.C. Gwynne recently published a book on Quanah Parker, and is giving a lecture on him at the museum on April 5. Here is part 3 of my blog on Quanah Parker. If you missed it, don’t worry, you can read part 1 here and part 2 here.

1872 saw continued Comanche raids into Texas, attacking settlements and raiding cattle. Once more, President Grant sent the Fourth Cavalry after them. This time, they applied the hard learned lessons from the past. They attacked a Comanche village, killing fifty-two Indians and taking 124 prisoners and the band’s horses (Gwynne 2010:255). However, that night Comanche warriors took back most of the captured horses. From then on a new policy was instituted regarding Comanche horses: they were always all shot (Gwynne 2010:256).

By 1874, extensive contact between Comanche bands and the settlements, as well as a decline in Indian population resulted in the Comanche slowly losing their identity. The bands started to intermingle. By that year, their staple food supply, the buffalo, was fast dwindling in numbers. White hunters, armed with high-powered rifles had started to kill off the buffalo, in an attempt to weaken the Comanche and other tribes who relied on them for food (Gwynne 2010: 260). Starvation set in. MacKenzie kept his patrols in the field, even in winter. Things from bad to worse fast.

Dwindling range of the American buffalo
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Against this backdrop of utter despair a prophet appeared. His name was Isa-tai, a magician, and some say con man as well (Gwynne 2010:264). He claimed he had medicine that made one bullet proof. He also claimed that he had visions of waging a final war against the white man, which would result in chasing them off Indian lands (Gwynne 2010:265). Quanah Parker accompanied him on his visits to the bands. Together they made an impressive pair of leaders: one man who claimed invincibility and the other who had remained victorious against the white man. Quanah became the first – and last – Principal Chief of the Comanches.

Isa-tai leaning against a propped up buffalo hide, ca. 1874. W.P. Bliss, photographer.
The photo is part of the Lawrence. T. Jones III collection,
Southern Methodist University, Central University Libraries, DeGolyer Library.

Agreements were made. A night attack would ensue. The target was buffalo hunter camp at Adobe Walls (Gwynne 2010: 267). The whole operation was expected to be a sure success. It all backfired. The hunters were wide awake and well prepared when the attack came in the middle of the night. Their superior weapons (buffalo hunting rifles with a range up to a mile) and their use of the saloons and other buildings as defensive barriers helped them carry the day (Gwynne 2010: 270-273).

Model 1874 “Billy Dixon” Rifle, named after a scout, who hit a Kiowa warrior at 1538 yards during
the attack on Adobe Walls. Image courtesy of Cherry’s Fine Guns, Greensboro, NC.

The white settlers decided to settle the Comanche problem once and for all. The Red River Campaign spelled the end of the Comanche as people roaming the Plains freely. Five mounted columns converged on the Texas Panhandle, looking for Comanche lodges. For months, battles and skirmishes raged across the Panhandle. Most often the cavalry carried the day, occasionally the Indians got the upper hand (Gwynne 2010:277). The final battle took place on September 28, 1874 in Palo Duro Canyon
(Gwynne 2010:280-282). The Comanche were beaten, large numbers died, and the survivors “straggled off to Fort Sill, Oklahoma in the following weeks, thoroughly beaten and never to roam off the reservation again” (Gwynne 2010: 283).

Major battle sites of the Red River Campaign, 1874. Image courtesy of Texas Beyond History,
Texas Archeological Research Laboratory, University of Texas at Austin.

On June 2, 1875, Quanah Parker and his band of fellow Quahadi surrendered.  Thus began the final chapter of Quanah’s life, one that would last another thirty-six years. When he arrived at Fort Still, he was living in poverty. He lived in a tipi close to the agency, and stood in line with the others to draw rations (Gwynne 2010: 290). Slowly, however, Quanah learned about the rationing process, in particular the phenomenon of splitting up the tribes into “beef bands,” and he managed to have himself appointed leader of the third-largest band (Gwynne 2010: 291-292). He also struck up a friendship with the man who had pursued him to the end of the earth, MacKenzie. On MacKenzie’ s behalf he tracked down and brought back to the reservation a small group of renegade Comanches (Gwynne 2010:292).

Quanah made a fortune leasing out the grazing rights on Indian held territory. His fortune improved, as did his fame. A book was published about his mother, who had died in 1870, five years before Quanah came to the reservation. He ended up building an extraordinary house in 1890. The moneys came from cattlemen he had befriended (Gwynne 2010: 301). Over the years he would host numerous guests, from fellow Comanches to President Teddy Roosevelt (Gwynne 2010: 312). His generosity eventually caused him to give most of his wealth away. He died on February 23, 1911, at the time of writing this exactly 100 years ago to the day.

He was buried next to his mother, Cynthia Ann Parker, whose remains he had brought up from Texas to be re-interred in Oklahoma. His gravestone reads (Gwynne 2010:319):

Resting here until day breaks
And shadows fall
And darkness disappears
Is Quanah Parker, the last chief of the Comanches.

His legacy lives on, and so do his people, numbering more than 14,000 members.

Make sure you check out S.C. Gwynne’s lecture on the Comanche on April 5, 2011 at the museum.

The museum’s Plains Indian collection is quite extensive; at its core is the Gordon W. Smith collection, which the museum acquired in 2008. For more information, see here.

Anyone interested in the history of Texas, and its close connection to the history of the Comanches, check out our exhibit on Texas!, on display now at the museum.

How Far are the Stars? (part 2)

A few months ago, I shared with you how astronomers measure distances to the nearest stars using simple geometry. I also pointed out, however, that we can measure only our small neighborhood using the geometric method we call parallax.

How then, can we possibly know the distances of stars even farther out?

Well, we all know that a light gets dimmer the farther away it is.  Therefore, we can estimate a star’s distance if we can measure how bright it appears to us and then compare that to how bright it’s ‘supposed to be.’


Astronomers describe the brightness of any celestial object as its magnitude.  The term goes back to antiquity when the Greek astronomer Hipparchus put stars into six classes of brightness.  The brightest stars he could see were called first magnitude, and the dimmest stars he could barely make out were sixth magnitude.  For one thing, this means that lower magnitudes describe brighter objects, while higher magnitudes describe dimmer objects–the reverse of what most people would expect.  Also, this means that the scale is logarithmic rather than linear, as the human eye does not detect brightness linearly.

A star’s brightness as it appears to us is its apparent magnitude.  Astronomers also define a star’s absolute magnitude as the brightness it would have if it were 10 parsecs (about 32.6 light years) away.  The difference between a star’s apparent and absolute magnitudes is the distance modulus, a direct measure of the star’s distance.  A star’s absolute magnitude is related to its luminosity (the amount of light it emits).  Objects of known luminosity, enabling us to measure their distance, are called ‘standard candles.’

Standard Candles

Among the more important standard candles for determining distances are stars called ‘Cepheid variables.’  These are stars that vary in brightness over a period of several days as they pulsate (expand and shrink again).  The period over which Cepheids vary in brightness indicates their luminosity.

Cepheids are one of several types of variable stars in the instability strip of the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram.  These stars pulsate because in these stars, a layer of helium is subjected to enough heat and pressure that helium atoms lose their electrons and become ionized.  Doubly-ionized helium or He III (with both electrons gone) readily absorbs light that a normal helium atom transmits.  Therefore, He III makes stars slightly dimmer.  However, all heated gases expand and then cool as a result of the expansion.  Thus, the Cepheid pulses outward, and in the cooler environment of the expanded star, electrons recombine with helium ions.  No longer ionized, the helium no longer absorbs light, and the star brightens again.  When the star has expanded too far, its gravity causes all the stellar material to fall back towards the center of the star.  In the heated environment of the compressed star, helium atoms lose their electrons again, the star dims, and the process repeats itself.  In 1917, Arthur Stanley Eddington suggested that Cepheids were types of heat engines; Sergei A. Zhevakin in 1953 correctly identified helium as the particular gas involved.

From Pulsation to Mass, Mass to Luminosity

Since a star’s mass determines how fast and how far it will expand before collapsing under its own gravity, the period of a Cepheid’s pulsation is related to its mass.  A star’s mass, in turn, is related to its luminosity.  As a result, we when we measure how much time it takes for a Cepheid variable to brighten, get dimmer, and brighten again, we have information about its luminosity.  Comparing this to the star’s observed apparent magnitude tells us its distance.  Once enough Cepheids have been observed, it becomes possible to establish a relation that lets us measure distances to any Cepheids, even those in nearby galaxies.

In 1784, English amateur astronomer John Goodricke discovered that the star Delta Cephei varied in brightness over a period of about six days.  Since most stars known at the time to change their brightness were novae or supernovae, Delta Cephei became the prototype of a new type of variable star.  (It turns out that a few months earlier, Goodricke’s friend Edward Pigott had discovered that the star Eta Aquila varies in the same way as Delta Cephei.  Nevertheless, the name ‘Cepheid’ remains).

Lesser Magellanic Cloud
Photo courtesy of NASA

In 1908, Henrietta Swan Leavitt was studying photographic plates that Edward Charles Pickering had taken of the Magellanic Clouds when she noticed a strong relationship between Cepheids’ brightness and the log of their pulsation period.  Leavitt assumed (correctly) that the Magellanic Clouds were much, much smaller than their distance from us; all the stars she was measuring on her photographic plates were thus at about the same distance away.  Thus Leavitt’s period-luminosity relation was a way to determine the luminosity of a Cepheid independently of its distance.

Edwin Hubble & the Andromeda Galaxy

In 1924, Edwin Hubble used Leavitt’s relation to show that the Andromeda Galaxy was indeed a different galaxy and not a nebula in our own Milky Way as many believed at the time.  In 1929, Hubble and Milton Humason used distances to galaxies calculated using Cepheids to establish that more distant galaxies recede from us faster than nearby ones, thus formulating Hubble’s law.

It turns out that there are a variety of stars in the Cepheids’ instability strip.  Walter Baade in the 1940s discovered a second type of Cepheids now called W Virginis variables, after their prototype star in Virgo, the Virgin.  Less massive and dimmer on average than the classical Cepheids, these are older population II stars with fewer heavy elements.  Conflating the two types of Cepheids had introduced errors in distances to nearby galaxies.  For example, Baade’s corrections increased the known distance to the Andromeda Galaxy by a factor of four.  Still smaller and dimmer, with shorter periods of pulsation, are the RR Lyrae variables, named after their prototype star in Lyra, the Lyre.  Astronomers use RR Lyrae stars to measure distances in our own galaxy, but their dimness makes them hard to detect in other galaxies.

The use of Cepheids as standard candles continues into recent decades as well.  The Key Project of the Hubble Space Telescope was to determine the Hubble constant (the rate at which a galaxy at a given distance from us is receding from us)  by measuring the distances to 18 different galaxies using Cepheids.

With modern methods, we are able to detect Cepheid variables in galaxies up to 29 million parsecs (94.6 million light-years) away.  With Cepheids, then, we can measure much more of the universe than with parallax alone.  However, much of the observable universe is so far from us  that it still remains out of reach.  To measure even greater distances, we will need other standard candles, which we shall discuss at a later time.

Born To Be Wild 3D – Opens in Two Weeks!

I am extra excited about our upcoming IMAX film Born To Be Wild 3D - opening a week from Friday!

It’s 45 minutes of baby elephants and teeny tiny orangutans, narrated by Morgan Freeman. It’s going to be like having a baritone comfort blanket wrapped around animal eye candy – and it’s inspiring to boot:

The film “documents orphaned orangutans and elephants and the extraordinary people who rescue and raise them—saving endangered species one life at a time.”

What’s not to love?

While you’re anxiously awaiting the release date, the makers of the film have released several fascinating behind-the-scenes webisodes from the production of the film. This one is from Camp Leakey, “a legendary place…Camp Leakey has this reputation as one of the foundations of biology.”

Take a tour of the camp with Dr. Birute Mary Galdikas, who established the wild orangutan research camp and rehabilitation center at Camp Leakey 40 years ago.

Can’t see the video? Click here to view online.

These are some amazing, dedicated people doing fascinating work. Get more behind-the-scenes goodness in the other pre-release webisodes!

Behind-The-Scenes Webisodes!
Click to watch: Borneo | Coming Home to Tsavo | Camp Leakey

UPDATE: HMNS Expansion Tops Out!

Yesterday, the HMNS Expansion construction crew poured the final section of the roof slab and the columns for the parapet screen – the highest points on the building’s structure!

Topping Out! [Marach 25, 2011]
The highest point of our new building!

So today, the museum’s contractor, Linbeck, hosted a traditional topping out ceremony and, as is customary on Texas construction projects, a barbecue lunch for 250 of the construction workers and design team members who have had a hand in helping the project achieve this important milestone.

Theories of the origins and precise symbolism of the topping out tradition of hoisting an evergreen tree to the project’s apex vary, but most agree in some form or fashion that it symbolizes both growth and good luck. Linbeck hoisted a Yaupon holly tree to the top of the Expansion and adorned it with an American flag, and Texas flag, and the Pirate flag that had been flying from boom of the tower crane. It is visible from the top of the museum’s parking garage for a few weeks, so check it out!

Here are some fun facts about the construction to date (courtesy of Linbeck):

Topping Out! [March 25, 2011]
See more photos!
  • 13,000 Cubic Yards of Concrete were used on the structure, including basement/foundation.
  • Including the steel, the structure weighs about 55 million pounds – the weight of approximately 4,000 Tyrannosaurus Rexes.
  • 10 miles of Post Tension Cables were used, which covers the distance from HMNS to Hobby Airport.
  • The tallest point on the structure is 74’-0” above the ground, or about the height of 3 Tyrannosaurus Rexes standing on top of one another.
  • There are 230,000 Square Feet total (or enough room for a football field on every floor) in the new building.
  • 128,000 Total Man Hours Worked to date (equal to about 15 years).
  • Main Exhibit Floor Volume is about 1,000,000 CF or 37,000 Cubic Yards, which would hold about 5 Goodyear Blimps.
Topping Out! [March 25, 2011]
It’s a long way to the top!

See all the photos from the Expansion on Flickr | View all news on the HMNS construction to date!

The museum would like to thank Linbeck and Gensler and all firms and individuals involved in accomplishing the exciting work in place to date. Visit the HMNS web site to learn more about the exciting exhibitions coming soon to HMNS!