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.