Our forefathers were men of steel, and our mothers were women of iron. In our shared world in this new order, it is difficult to even imagine their strength and endurance. The battles fought merely to survive were tests of muscle and sinew; it took great might and skill to scratch a life from forest and plain.
Even before the Troubles began, life was harder than modern woodsmen face. Tools were Stone-Age primitive, existence won only by extreme effort. Agriculture was unknown to many, and just beginning for a few tribes. Hunger was a constant companion, especially for the pre-agriculture tribes, relieved only by successful hunts. Except for a few basic herbs, medicine was unknown; a small injury was often life ending. All adults and most children lived with pain, from the inevitable sicknesses, accidents and wounds.
This was true of the forest and plains people, so how much more for those who scratched existence from the desert southwest. Though there are certainly verdant meadows, sparkling streams and lush grasses, there is still more land that is arid, sun-scorched and nearly barren. It is a land of dangerous varmints and poisonous reptiles, with little comfort to promote gentle ways.
The people of these dry lands possessed a great sense of beauty, of balance and harmony with nature, a spiritual people, fiercely loyal to their own families and tribes. But they were in a harsh environment, and their ways showed this influence. From childhood on, they were taught to disregard their own pains. Boys suffered the most arduous rites of passage to become men. Girls learned from childhood to accept their roles without complaint. Compassion and empathy were not highly developed emotions.
Their war chests held little mercy for their foes. The End Game, in which the tribes of the southwest were undone, was characterized by severe brutalities, cruelty and torture. These skills had been honed by centuries of contact with the Spanish and the Mexican soldiers and bandits. When the white settlers came to Texas, Western Oklahoma, New Mexico and Arizona, the regional tribes used what they had to combat them. Unfortunately, the white men who came first were also hard-bitten and cruel, quick to practice the meanest, most vicious kind of inhumanities on the Native Americans.
Before we who live in a more gentle age condemn them, it is good to look at the state of the world. In Russia, the vast majority of the population were serfs, little better than slaves, and if they complained, brutally slain. In Spain, the Inquisitors were torturing anyone who didn't conform to Catholic dogma. In England, they still burned witches. In America, Southerners held black men (and quite a few Scots) in abject slavery, using beatings and even mutilations to subdue anyone who tried to escape. The slave business was thriving in Africa, as tribesmen sold their enemies to the Muslims. In China, life had no worth, and the warlords had power over everyone. In Japan, they boiled humans as punishment. All over the world, no one was very compassionate of their enemies' discomforts. Mercy is a modern concept, unfortunately still only skin deep.
The Comanche were probably the most hated of all the tribes. A hard people in a hard land, they fought settlers with guerilla type warfare, and practiced hideous tortures on their enemies. They did this with other tribes, they did this with Mexicans, and when the white men came, they used these fearsome tools to try to save themselves. When the settlers struck back, they were equally merciless.
The Unconquered Comanche
Once the Comanche lived in the grass-covered rolling hills of Wyoming, part of the Eastern Shoshone, until they broke away. After the horses came, they gradually migrated southward from 1700. By 1800, there were probably 20,000 Comanche between the Arkansas River and the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. This number included a great many women and children prisoners, captured in raids from other tribes and from Mexican villages.
Almost half of the Comanche died in the great smallpox and cholera epidemics of 1849-50. Most of the survivors lived in the Staked Plains, that area of flatland that extends from Western Oklahoma, across the Texas Panhandle, and into New Mexico. (The Staked Plains were given that name because stakes were driven into the ground to mark trails across the featureless wasteland.)
We call them "the Lords of the Prairie" because of their great prowess with horses. They were probably the first tribe to build a horse culture, and became extremely adept at stealing, breeding and raising horses, which were sold to other tribes, and even to the white men heading toward California in 1849. People used to say that the Comanche stole every horse in the Southwest, but that is surely an exaggeration. But it is no exaggeration to say that they became the best horsemen in history, rivaled only by the Mongolian warriors under Genghis Kahn.
This caused a lot of jealous rivalry, and lead to many wars when other tribes tried to steal horses from the Comanche. They eventually made peace with the Kiowa, Kiowa-Apache, Cheyenne and Arapaho, but continued hostilities with every other tribe on the plains. At the same time, they began stealing cattle from Texas, most of which they sold to settlers in New Mexico, where they also sold some of their captive women and children.
Life was simple. The tribe was divided into a dozen or so bands, but members could switch back and forth among the groups. Men were definitely dominant; women didn't speak in council, nor make many of their own choices. They primarily ate buffalo meat, and the buffalo provided their housing, clothing and most of their physical needs. The men were good hunters, and the women gathered whatever edible vegetation was available. The Comanche did not practice ritual cannibalism; they also refused to eat dog meat and were horrified when some of their allies did.
The 1700s were filled with sporadic warfare between the Comanche and everyone they encountered. This included the Ute, Apache, and the Spanish. At the same time, they did business with all these people, and with the French traders, who exchanged firearms for horses and mules that eventually went to plantation owners. During the last quarter of the century, the Spanish made several large military soirees against Comanche settlements, but eventually entered into an uneasy peace. This resulted in New Mexico having a friendly trading relationship with the Comanche for almost a hundred years, even though Texas and northern Mexico were still prime targets for raids and kidnapping.
After Texas won its independence, Sam Houston tried unsuccessfully to make treaty with the Comanche. What headway he made in this direction ended when he became president of Texas, and Mirabeau Lamar took over the Comanche negotiations.
Lamar wanted to obtain the return of the captive Texans held by the Comanche. He arranged a meeting in March of 1840 for this purpose, and twelve war chiefs came in under a white flag. When the Texans saw the condition of the one hostage brought in, they started asking questions. Angry at what they learned about the treatment of captured prisoners, they ended the peace negotiations. But instead of letting the twelve Comanche leaders leave, the Texans killed them, despite the flag of truce. After that there was open warfare, culminating in a militia ambush of the main body of Comanche at Plum Creek.
The Santa Fe Trail engendered special treaties, along with promises of gifts. To mark the occasion, a Comanche delegation visited Washington D.C. to meet President Polk. But proper boundaries were never set, the gifts and trading posts never arrived, and the Comanche continued to raid settlers. The Texas Rangers were formed to fight the Comanche, but even if one band were forced to make peace, some other band would continue hostilities.
This pretty well typifies the history of the Comanche and the settlers. Battles bred treaties; treaties got broken. Sporadic raids caused continual conflict. And, the Comanche were often blamed for everything that went wrong in the southwest. The Apache or Pawnee or Arapahoe might raid a Mexican village or a settler's ranch, only to have it blamed on the Comanches. The scalped and mutilated bodies would be publicly displayed to enrage the populace, then the whites would attack the first encampment they came across, regardless of who was there. (It was probably Comanche raids that produced the mutilated bodies shown in Denver, which prompted Governor John Evans and Colonel John Chivington to the slaughter of the Cheyenne at Sand Creek in 1864.) Both sides considered it fair game to kill women, children and old people along with the fighting men. And both sides practiced mutilations, brutality and torture.
The Raid That Changed the Comanche Destiny
In 1833, the Parker Family settled along the Navasota River in what is now Texas but was then the Comancheria. Elder John Parker and his three sons, along with other Baptist pilgrims from Illinois, built Fort Parker. They chose a site that was considerably deeper into Comanche territory than any other settlers had ventured. People in the area warned them they might be asking for trouble. But the Parkers came from a long line of settlers and Indian fighters, and felt ready for whatever might happen.
It is unknown whether this braggadocio was the cause, or whether it was because of the incursion into their territory, or if in fact it was merely random choice. Probably all three facts contributed to what was to follow. The structure of the fort also may have angered the Comanches. It had 12 foot walls made of pointed logs, with blockhouses, corrals and cabins inside, and looked very much like military forts of the day.
On May 19, 1836, a large band of Kiowa, Caddo, Wichita and Comanche warriors appeared with a white flag, while the men were working the fields outside the fort. Survivors varied in their reports, estimating their numbers everywhere from 100 to 500. One of the sons, Benjamin Parker, talked to them, and was told they just wanted some beef to eat and a safe place to camp. He returned to the fort to get the meat, and warned the settlers that he feared there would be trouble. Despite their urgings that he stay inside, he went back to the gathering, and was immediately murdered.
The band of warriors rushed the fort and battered down the doors. Five settlers were killed, and a number of others were severely wounded (some died of their wounds later.) The warriors also took captives, among them the pregnant Mrs. Rachel Plummer, her two-year-old son, and Mrs. Elizabeth Kellogg, plus two of the Parker children, Cynthia Ann and her brother John.
Eventually the two women were ransomed and returned, Mrs. Kellogg in about six months, and Mrs. Plummer about a year after that. Both women told terrible tales of their capture, rapes, beatings and enslavement. Mrs. Plummer in particular described a nightmare of abuse, including the theft of her two-year-old son, and an unconfirmed horror story about the murder of the child born while she was captive
The two Parker children, Cynthia Ann, age 8-9, and John, age 6, were kept, adopted and raised as Comanche. It's been reported that John became a Comanche warrior, who eventually married a Mexican captive and settled down to ranching.
Cynthia Ann was raised with the tribe, and eventually married Chief Peta Nocona. She had three children, two boys and a girl. In 1860 Texas Rangers recaptured her in a raid on the Pease River, where Peta Nocona was killed. She and her daughter were returned to her uncles who had never given up hope.
But Cynthia had been with the Comanche for 24 years, and she missed her two sons. She tried to return several times, and never readjusted to living with the whites. She died in either 1864 or '70 (reports vary) and was buried in Anderson County Texas. (If this all sounds familiar, it's because the Cynthia Ann Parker story was the basis of the movie "The Searchers".)
The Fort Parker Indian Massacre may have been the worst in Texas' bloody history up to that time, but it was fairly typical of the raids practiced against the white settlers of the southwest. There was one thing, however, that made it stand apart, historically more significant than all the rest. And that was Cynthia Ann's son, fathered by her husband Chief Peta Nocona. His name was Quanah Parker.
Quanah Parker -- The Great Chief of the Comanche
Quanah was probably born in 1845, when the band camped near the Wichita Mountains, now part of Oklahoma. The son of Chief Peta Nocona and the white captive Cynthia Ann Parker, his childhood was undoubtedly typical for his tribe. He would have learned to ride by the time he was three or four; he probably was put on horseback before he walked.
As part of the Nokoni band, life would have been filled with continual movement, following the buffalo; skirmishing with other tribes; trading with other Indians, Mexicans and French; avoiding army troopers, and above all, learning weaponry and horsemanship. He would have mastered the use of the lance, bow and arrow, and knife. Although the Comanche owned firearms, they did not consider them accurate enough when galloping on horseback. Still, it is natural to expect that Quanah Parker would have owned a rifle and been an expert marksman.
Since Cynthia Ann Parker was taken as a child, it is doubtful he would have learned much from her of the white men's ways. She may have remembered, but Comanche women were encouraged to keep to themselves, and above all, to keep quiet. Instead, Quanah would have spent his youth watching the braves, hearing about their raids and conquests, longing for the day he would be allowed to go with them into battle. He may or may not have gone through the arduous ordeal initiating boys into manhood; the cruel practice was gradually falling out of fashion and was eventually banned. He probably did participate in the Sun Dance, and probably took part in some kind of vision quest as an adolescent.
By the time his mother and sister were stolen and his father killed, in 1860 by the Texas Rangers under command of Lawrence Sullivan Ross, Quanah was ten or fifteen years old, depending on which birth date you accept. In either case, the raid on his band's encampment, the deaths of relatives and friends, and the loss of mother, father and sister would have solidified his hatred of the whites. The Nokoni survivors, after the raid in 1860, joined forces with the Quahada (often spelled Kwahada) band and mostly occupied the Staked Plains. By that point in Quanah's life, he was probably already accompanying his band on raids and in battles; after the Texas Rangers took his mom and killed his dad, you can be certain he was even more eager to seek revenge.
The Comanche had another reason to hate the whites that were flooding into the southwest. They carried disease and epidemic. It happened first in the late 1700s, then again in 1816. The California gold rush brought smallpox again in 1848, and cholera in 1849. Between 1849 and 1851, the government census estimated their numbers dropped from 20,000 to 12,000. Although the germ theory of disease was unknown, they weren't stupid -- they could certainly tell that the disease followed their encounters with the white men. And it wasn't over. By 1870, the two diseases had reduced them to 8,000 and falling.
Then there was the matter of the buffalo. Once there were sixty million buffalo on the plains. In the last half of the 19th Century, they were slaughtered into extinction. Not only were they hunted for sport, for food and for hides, they were deliberately wiped out in order to starve the Plains Indians to death. As Quanah was growing up, the buffalo were growing more and more scarce, the herds getting smaller and smaller. And the Comanche understood exactly what was happening and why. They knew it was a deliberate plan to eliminate their livelihood.
The 1840s and 1850s were filled with more or less constant raids, especially on the Mexicans and on the Texans. In 1854, the first three reservations were established on the Brazos, but only some of the bands agreed to go in. Unfortunately, they continued to raid settlers, and in 1859, a couple of hundred settlers attacked one of the reservations. The attack was unsuccessful, but it did cause the reservations to be closed, and the Native Americans who were there were moved to Oklahoma. Then Rangers attacked the remaining Comanche.
This was the climate of Quanah Parker's youth. Warfare was constant. Treaties were made, lines drawn on maps, then one side or another would break their promises. The cavalry attacked a village and killed 80-100 Comanche; the Comanche retaliated with more raids and attacks as they tried to drive back the settlers. A new treaty, new promises and more lines on maps, and the same pattern repeated itself. At the same time, the Comanche continued warfare with other tribes. In particular, they hated the Tonkawa because of their practice of cannibalism, and in 1862 participated with Delaware and Shawnee tribes in a massacre that killed 300 Tonkawa.
America's War Between the States turned attention away from these problems, and the Comancheria regained some of its lost land. Many Indians were recruited into both the Union and Confederate Armies west of the Mississippi, where they were generally used as scouts and hunters. However, the frontier army was mostly Union, and mostly made up of men who had no desire to face Confederate cannon. They instead were especially anxious to kill Comanche and Apache.
We do not know exactly when Quanah Parker began riding with the braves of the Quahada, but he certainly was at Adobe Walls, when Kit Carson and his column of soldiers attacked in autumn of 1864. Carson and his troops found more Comanche than they could handle, and were forced to retreat. This was just five days before Chivington attacked the Sand Creek village in Colorado and killed 300 Cheyenne.
By 1865, all the plains tribes were at war; the Oregon, Overland and Santa Fe trails were closed. But as the Civil War came to an end, more and more troops were sent west. As previously abandoned posts were recovered, new treaties were arranged, including the Little Arkansas Treaty of 1865 that gave the Comanche and Kiowa the western half of Oklahoma, and the Texas Panhandle. As part of the settlement, cash and goods were promised.
But all they got were spoiled old Civil War rations. General William Sherman ordered that no more ransoms should be paid to regain captives, thinking that would halt the kidnapping raids. This led to some brutal murders of captives in front of Army commanders, to show the flaw in Sherman's plan.
In 1867, the Medicine Lodge Creek peace conference exchanged the Comancheria for three million acres in Oklahoma. But the Quahada were suffering through an outbreak of cholera, so didn't attend the conference nor sign the treaty. Raids and retaliations continued. The white men stole thousands of horses from the Comanche in the 1870s, and in 1872 captured 130 Comanche women and children at the McClellan Creek encampment. In 1873, after months of negotiations during which the raids were slowed, these women and children were sent to Fort Sill Oklahoma.
By 1874, there were less than a million buffalo left, and these were being systematically exterminated. In June, a combined Comanche-Cheyenne war party attacked an encampment of buffalo hunters at Adobe Walls. The Second Battle of Adobe Walls started the Buffalo War (also called the Red River War.) But this was the last great struggle for the southern plains, and it was almost over.
Many warriors of the plains tribes left the reservations and joined the last holdouts on the Staked Plains. But the burning of the camp at Palo Duro Canyon, at the end of September, and the killing of 2,000 horses, left most of the remaining warriors on foot. That winter was a horrible time of terror, with constant harassing by the army, starvation, and cold. In April, the first 200 Quahada went in. On June 2, 1875, the last 400 Quahada surrendered at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, led by Quanah Parker.
The Magic of Quanah Parker
When we began this odyssey into the history of the Great Chiefs, I warned that there was little joy to be found in this study, only pain and sorrow. But Quanah Parker belies that. The measure of his greatness is that he created a new world for his people. Today we will smile at his memory.
Although we know only a little of his battle exploits, we know he was brave and strong, and admired by the men who rode with him. The Comanche do not offer allegiance based on hereditary claim. Although Quanah Parker was the son of Chief Peta Nocona, he had no claim to that title until he earned it. And earn it he did; he led the most warlike Comanche band of all, the Quahadas. Never doubt that he was a mighty warrior, and a great chief.
But his greatest accomplishments lay ahead, on that bitter June day when he led his men into Fort Sill. These proud men -- their hearts must have been breaking, as they rode in -- anticipated little but dishonor and death; their world was in ruins and life as they knew it had ended.
Yet Quanah slipped easily into the reservation, and quickly assumed his natural role as leader and counselor for the Comanche there. The federal agents spotted his evident strength, and named him as chief over the entire tribe, the only time the Comanche ever had an overall leader. They went along with this, and allowed him to shepherd them into a new life.
He knew that, above all, his people needed sustenance -- food, shelter, and an occupation to produce pride and money. So he set about redesigning their world.
He started building schools on the reservation, and told the youths to learn all about the white men and their strange ways. He told his people to build proper houses in the style of the white men. He told them to raise crops, and to build cattle ranches.
He struck deals with the Texas cattlemen, and charged a toll for cattle trains to cross reservation land. In return, there was no raiding of the herds, and the cowboys shortened their trip to market by this shortcut. He leased grassy lands to the cattlemen to graze their stock. As he explained to the tribe, the white men were already doing these things, but now the Comanche were earning money from them. (And doesn't it make you smile to think of the Texans chunking out the cash to the Comanche?!)
He used the money earned to buy needed supplies of food and blankets for his tribe. Then he started building herds for his people, so that they quickly slipped from impoverishment to security.
Not everyone agreed with his methods, of course, and it was a constant struggle to keep moving forward. Of course there were Comanche who wanted to reject everything white, even though it would mean starvation and death. But Quanah, with his great style and charisma, was able to direct his people through this fearful time, always looking ahead to better times.
He invested in a railroad, the Acme & Pacific Railway. He became an associate of many Texas ranchers, and through them learned more. He negotiated business agreements, he helped establish a Comanche police force, he allowed himself to be interviewed by journalists. He became a friend of Theodore Roosevelt, and rode in his inauguration parade in 1905, then went wolf hunting with him later that spring.
He took his mother's name and became Quanah Parker, then adopted the white men's way of dress, often appearing in suit and tie. And this was one beautiful Native American; his handsome grey-eyed face became America's most popular Indian portrait. But he changed so far, and no further -- he refused to cut his lovely long braids, refused to become monogamous and kept his seven wives and children in a 22-room house. He rejected Christianity, and encouraged Native Americans to use peyote in their religious ceremonies. He never forgot his past, and he never forsook his people.
Quanah died at home of pneumonia, surrounded by friends and family, on February 23, 1911. He was probably 66, or perhaps 61, depending on which birthday you accept. He was beloved by his people, and admired by his old enemies who now knew him for the great man he was. Today his body and that of his mother, Cynthia Ann Parker, lie side by side, buried with honor at Fort Sill, Oklahoma.
In 1901, the Comanche Reservation was closed. Every tribal member was given 160 acres, and paid $1.25 per acre for the land taken away. There are 10,000 tribal members left, over half of them still living on their own property in Oklahoma. They are widely considered to be the most prosperous Native Americans, with the best educations.
In World War I, Comanche braves volunteered as code talkers, then again in 1941 for World War II when Comanche was the code-language for D-Day and Patton's tank invasion. They earned thanks, both from this nation and from France, for their heroism under fire.
The heart still rides the Staked Plains; the spirit still climbs the snowy mountain. The Comanche People still survive, but now with eyes ever forward to a new world. And Quanah Parker was the great man, the Great Chief, who made it so.
What do you think about this? I'd be happy to know your opinions, questions, and even your disagreements. Write to me; I'd welcome your letters.
(Joyce Worley is proud of her Cherokee heritage.
A well-known journalist and historian from Missouri, Joyce now resides in Nevada.)