Quanah Parker: Part 2

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 2 of my blog on Quanah Parker. If you missed the first part, don’t worry, just click here to read it.

Quanah grew up to be a full warrior by the time he was fifteen years old, when he led a raid to steal horses in the San Antonio area. His reputation grew when, on his second raid, he was intercepted by a company of U.S. Army cavalry. Instead of taking off, Quanah confronted his assailants and managed to steal the cavalry’s sixty mules (Gwynne 2010: 199-201).

These were the years during which the Civil War raged further east. While there were no large scale military encounters in this part of the US, the Civil War did affect the frontier area by siphoning off manpower and money. This left the border wide open to Comanche raids once more (Gwynne 2010:210).

Over time, Comanche raiding changed in nature. Instead of being primarily aimed at stealing horses, these raids became the 19th century equivalent of what would be called political terrorism today: their goal was to roll back the frontier. There was good evidence that this tactic was working (Gwynne 2010: 202). In addition, Quanah retained a burning desire to avenge his father’s death and his mother’s abduction (Gwynne 2010: 202).

After the Civil War, things did not improve. Comanches engaged in cattle raids, which they ended up selling to the army in return for guns and ammunition, to be used in later raids (Gwynne 2010: 223).

In 1868, Quanah took part in a raid that went into Mexico. However, by then the traditional Comanche lifestyle of hunting buffalo and raiding had become a whole lot more difficult. A line of forts had been built in Texas along the San Antonio – El Paso Trail (Gwynne 2010:201). These forts, built by the US after the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo were intended to protect Mexico from raids across the new international border by the Indian tribes of the North. This certainly included the Comanches. One of the men posted to these forts was US Army captain Ranald Slidell MacKenzie (Gwynne 2010: 238).

Ranald Slidell MacKenzie
Image from Wikipedia

In 1871, President Grant placed MacKenzie in command of the Fourth Cavalry on the frontier, placing him squarely in the path of Comanche war parties (Gwynne 2010: 238). This set the stage for the Battle of Blanco Canyon.

MacKenzie’s force consisted of six hundred men and twenty-five Tonkawa scouts. This was the largest force ever assembled against the Comanches to that date (Gwynne 2010:242). True to form, Quanah Parker attacked the force the night of October 10, 1871. He managed to run off some – but not all – of the horses. Still, sixty-six soldiers who had lost their horses were forced to march back east to their supply camp. The rest of the troops continued their search for their attackers. The next day, October 11, they did just that and more. They stumbled across the main body of the Quahadi band, to which Quanah Parker belonged (Gwynne 2010: 243). The Battle of Blanco Canyon had begun.

Blanco Canyon, in Crosby County, Texas, as it looked in 2009
Image from Wikipedia

Traditional Comanche tactics, especially when defending women and children, was for the warriors to face their attackers, buying time for their families to escape. This Quanah Parker and his warriors did. The odds definitely favored the attackers. MacKenzie outnumbered the Comanche warriors, and they were equipped with superior weapons. Quanah Parker and his fellow warriors, on the other hand, had to secure the safety of the entire band, consisting of several hundred lodges. There were large numbers of women and children to be moved out of harm’s way, as were tons of equipment, provisions and supplies, about three thousand horses and mules, as well as cattle and dogs. It seemed like an impossible task to hide them on the open plains, but that is exactly what they did (Gwynne 2010:245).

MacKenzie deployed his trackers, but the band disappeared in the canyons carved by the Brazos river east of the present city of Lubbock. For two days, the Comanche band marched and doubled back, leaving false trails heading in all kinds of directions. The pursuers, new to this part of the country were lost. Finally, mother nature came to the rescue. When at one point, the tribe was sighted and the Anglo force started to gain ground on them, a “blue-norther” roared in. In the face of snow, sleet and winds blowing up to fifty miles per hour, the Fourth Cavalry broke of its pursuit, and the Comanche vanished in the darkness (Gwynne 2010:248).

A blue norther heading toward Landergin Mesa.
Such storms can take a nice warm day and turn it cold, wet, and blustery in a matter of minutes,
a fact well known to anyone who has lived in the Texas Panhandle.
Photo by Rolla Shaller. Image courtesy of Texas Beyond History, Texas Archeological Research Laboratory,
University of Texas at Austin. Photo from Texasbeyondhistory.net

While a success in the short run, the Battle of Blanco Canyon marked the beginning of the end for the Comanche who still roamed the Plains freely. Within a few years, most would be dead, and the survivors forced to relocate to reservations.

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.

Check back next week for the conclusion of the blogs on Quanah Parker.