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.

Quanah Parker

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 1 of my blog on Quanah Parker.

Sometime in 1848, a baby boy was born in a tipi near the Wichita Mountains in what is now southwestern Oklahoma. His name was Quanah Parker. His mother, Cynthia Ann Parker, had been abducted by Comanche raiders in 1836. His father, Peta Nocona, was a powerful war chief of the Quahadi band, one of five bands that made up the Comanche nation. The Quahadi roamed the headstreams of the Colorado, Brazos and Red Rivers in Northwest Texas.

Quanah Parker. Photographed by Lanney.
National Archives Photo – ARC ID # 530911

This is Quanah’s story, and that of his people, both the Comanche and the Anglo settlers in Texas. It is based on a book by S. C. Gwynne, entitled Empire of the Summer Moon. An in-depth interview with the author, conducted in the summer of 2010 can be heard here.

Over the last four centuries, the Comanche nation in general and Quanah Parker in particular exerted a huge influence on the history of the Plains, providing answers to questions such as:

• Why were the East and West Coasts settled by people of European descent before the central portion of North America?
• What are the roots of Texas’ history?
• When, why and how did the Texas Rangers come into being?
• What is the story behind the five shot Colt revolvers?

When the Spanish arrived in the Americas, they re-introduced horses, long gone from this part of the world. They also brought with them firearms. This combination of horse and firepower created profound changes in North American Indian societies. The first known herd of horses to arrive in what is now the United States was brought in with Don Juan de Oñate in 1598. It did not take long before the Apaches mastered horse riding. This made them better hunters and gave them much greater mobility as raiders of agricultural settlements in New Mexico. Those raids started as early as the 1650s. It was a way of life that would culminate in the life of Geronimo. From then on, horses were the principal form of wealth on the Plains.

The Comanches were one of the first Plains Indian Nations to obtain horses. They became America’s most accomplished horsemen.

George Catlin commented on their prowess in the following way:

“Amongst their feats of riding there is one that has astonished me more than anything of the kind I have ever seen or expect to see in my life: – a stratagem of war, learned and practiced by every young man in the tribe; by which he is able to drop his body on the side of his horse at the instant he is passing, effectively screened from his enemies’ weapons, as he lays in a horizontal position behind the body of his horse, with his heel hanging over the horse’s back… in this wonderful condition, he will hang whilst his horse is at fullest speed, carrying with him his bow and shield and also his long lance 14 feet in length.”

Here is how Catlin illustrated this:

Comanche Feats of Horsemanship, George Catlin 1834-1835.
Smithsonian American Art Museum,  Gift of Mrs. Joseph Harrison, Jr.

In 1836 the world of the Comanches and that of Anglo settlers clashed at Fort Parker. The Parker family had moved from Illinois to Texas in 1833 and settled on land granted to them by Mexico. By 1835, on the eve of Texas’ independence, about two dozen people representing six Parker families had built a one-acre fort, located about two miles (3 km) west of present-day Groesbeck.

Fort Parker. Image courtesy of Texsbeyondhistory.net

This fort was situated on the western edge of the frontier. There were no Anglo settlements to the west. Gwynne notes:

“Between Parker’s Fort and Mexican California stood Santa Fe and the small, scattered settlements of New Mexico. [T]he fort was so far beyond the ordinary line of settlements that there were hardly any people behind it either. [Emphasis his]) (Gwynne 2010:14).

At this point in time, Texas was the only place where whites and Plains Indians met. Oklahoma was a place where the tribes of the South and the middle-Atlantic states were forcibly relocated to. North of Oklahoma, part of what would become Kansas, Nebraska and the Dakotas had not been reached yet by white settlers.

On May 19, 1836, a band of about 100 Comanche Indians rode up to the fort. They attacked the fort, killing five of its occupants before riding off with two women and three children. Among the children was nine year old Cynthia Ann. The survivors struggled to make it Fort Houston, near modern-day Palestine, Texas (Gwynne 2010:18).

Cynthia Ann survived, and was treated comparatively humanely, possibly because of the presence of a warrior by the name of Peta Nocona. He would later become her husband and war chief (Gwynne 2010:37).

Attempts on the part of her family to locate Cynthia Ann were unsuccessful. However, Leonard H. Williams, an Indian agent dispatched by the US government in 1846 did manage to find her in what is now Oklahoma. His attempt to purchase her freedom met with refusal from the tribe and Cynthia Ann’s as well (Gwynne 2010:107-108).

Quanah Parker was born two years later, the oldest of three children. As son of a powerful war chief, Quanah led a privileged life growing up among the Comanches. All this changed when he was twelve. In 1860, Peta Nocona led a bloody raid against the frontier. This resulted in the abandonment of hundreds of farms in the area, but also the raising of a posse by a man named Charles Goodnight (Gwynne 2010:173).

Charles Goodnight,
Picture from Wikipedia.

Goodnight tracked Nocona and his fellow raiders, as well as the 150 horses they had stolen. He followed them to a village well inside Comanche territory. Realizing that they were outnumbered the posse returned and organized a full-scale expedition against the village. Forty Rangers, twenty-one army soldiers and about seventy local volunteers left Fort Belknap on December 13, 1860. They were commanded by Sul Ross, at age twenty three already a veteran of the conflict with the Indians (Gwynne 2010:174). Six days later, they reached the village and attacked. Most of the warriors were killed, as were some of the women.

The battle ended with a brief running fight: Ross and another soldier pursued three Indians who had fled on horses. In the ensuing fight, one of the fleeing Indians was killed. He was later identified as Peta Nocona (Gwynne 2010: 177). The others were Cynthia Ann and a child, the son of another white girl who had been abducted by the Comanches and married an Indian (Gwynne 2010:178).

During the attack, Cynthia’s two sons, Quanah and “Grassnut” were separated from their mother. They would never see her again. Cynthia was taken back to Fort Belknap, much against her will. There she recounted her story. Eventually, she was moved from one family member to another but she never quite re-adjusted to Anglo society (Gwynne 2010: 181-193).

The two brothers not only escaped, but managed to make it to a Comanche camp some 100 miles west (Gwynne 2010:195). Quanah’s social status completely changed. He was now an orphan, his father killed, and his mother taken by the army. Moreover, within a year or so, his brother also died. At age 13, Quanah Parker had to stand up for himself, often being treated more cruelly than other orphans on account of his white blood (Gwynne 2010: 199).

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 to learn more about Quanah Parker.

Hello! And who are you?

Commemorating the 400th anniversary of the discovery of Manhattan Island.

On September 4, 1609, Henry Hudson, employed by the Dutch East India Company, discovered the island of Manhattan. This year marks the 400th anniversary of that voyage.

Here is the rest of the story.

Amerigo Vespucci
Creative Commons License photo credit:

Hudson may not have been the first European explorer who reached this part of the Americas. Two other explorers, Giovanni Verrazano, a Florentine, and Estevan Gomez, a Portuguese, who preceded Hudson by nearly one hundred years, each on their own voyage of exploration. Estevan Gomez left for the New World in 1524. He reached the Florida coast in January 1525. He traveled north and appears to have reached the coast of what we now call Massachusetts later in the year. In a letter dated July 8, 1524, Giovanni Verrazano addresses Francis I, King of France, Giovanni Verrazano describes how they reached “a very agreeable place between two small but prominent hills; between them a very wide river, deep at its mouth, flow out into the sea; and with the help of the tide, which rises eight feet, any laden ship could have passed from the sea into the river estuary.” Scholars agree that this is a reference to New York harbor..

Yellowtailed Cockatoo fan
Creative Commons License photo credit: Medicinehorse7

Even though Verrazano offered the opinion that these new lands had new land which had “never been seen before by any man, either Ancient or modern,” there was dense human settlement on the Island of Manhattan. Verrazano himself acknowledges this as he describes people as “dressed in birds’ feathers of various color,” a gentle reminder to us of what was lost over the centuries since the European arrival. Even though the custom of feather work making survived in North and South America, feather work dating back 500 years or even more, can only be found in parts of South America.

Oral tradition, written down about one and a half century later describes the encounter from the Indian point of view. A few days after the initial encounter between the Europeans and the original inhabitants of the Island, the former “proposed to stay with them, asking them only for so much land as the hide of a bullock would cover (or encompass,) which hide was brought forward and spread on the ground before them. That they readily granted this request; whereupon the whites took a knife, and beginning at one place on this hide, cut it up into a rope not thicker than the finger of a little child, so that by the time this hide was cut up there was a great heap. [T]his rope was drawn out to a great distance, and then brought round again, so that both ends might meet. That they carefully avoided its breaking, and that upon the whole it encompassed a large piece of ground. That they (the Indians) were surprised at the superior wit of the whites, but did not wish to contend with them about a little land, as they had enough.”  Dutch presence and settlement, both on Manhattan Island and in other parts of New York state, steadily grew over the next half century.

We benefit from decades of archaeological research in North, Central and South America related to the arrival of the earliest settlers. We know that people have been here for millennia before the first Europeans arrived. The origins of the word Manhattan may reside in a Munsee language expression, /e:nta menahahte:nk/ “where one gathers bows.” Exotic? Perhaps, but certainly no stranger than the fictitious anthropology report on the tribe of the “Nacirema.” See for yourself if their strange behaviors sound familiar to you….

As New York prepares to celebrate, it is good to remember that there is always more to the story. Digging around in archives and rekindling old oral traditions does, occasionally, bring the past back alive.

100 years – 100 Objects: Aztec Stone Figure

The Houston Museum of Natural Science was founded in 1909 – meaning that the curators of the Houston Museum of Natural Science have been collecting and preserving natural and cultural treasures for a hundred years now. For this yearlong series, our current curators have chosen one hundred exceptional objects from the Museum’s immense storehouse of specimens and artifacts—one for each year of our history. Check back here frequently to learn more about this diverse selection of behind-the-scenes curiosities—we will post the image and description of a new object every few days.

This description is from Dirk, the museum’s curator of anthropology. He’s chosen a selection of objects that represent human cultures throughout time and around the world, that we’ll be sharing here – and at 100.hmns.org – throughout the year.

aztecThis stone figure is a silent witness to one of the best known Pre-Columbian civilizations, the Aztecs. Aztec history chronicles a meteoric rise of a band of hunters and gatherers who, in few centuries, went from a nomadic lifestyle to that of city-dwelling empire builders. While their ascent to power was phenomenal, their demise was cataclysmic. Only three years after meeting the Spanish for the first time, Aztec civilization ceased to exist as an independent political entity.

The statue depicts Chalchiutlicue, a goddess of water (literally her name means “She of the Jade Skirt.”)

Explore thousands of years of Native American history in the John P. McGovern Hall of the Americas, a permanent exhibition at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

You can see more images of this fascinating artifact – as well as the others we’ve posted so far this year – in the 100 Objects section at 100.hmns.org