15. Quanah's Greatest Challenge

By Bill Neeley

Coming into the world from the womb of a white mother, sired by a prominent Comanche chief, a blue-eyed baby boy drew his first breath of pure mountain air perfumed by the scent of wildflowers. The newborn was not destined to enjoy for any length of time, however, the sweet repose of a Comanche village secure from all enemies, native and white. Conflict would be his constant companion from the time he was pitted against other boys in tests of strength to prepare them for battle, until he surrendered his lance to Brevet General Ranald Mackenzie at Fort Sill in 1875. Being of two bloods, Quanah often suffered taunts from the full bloods his age, but their attempts to reduce the son of a white captive had the opposite effect from the one intended. Quanah grew stronger and developed under his father Peta Nocona, as well as his formidable grandfather Pohebits Quasho, or Iron Jacket as he was known from the Spanish armor he wore in battle. After delivering Quanah in a meadow of wildflowers in the triangle formed where Elk Creek empties into the North Fork of Red River, Nadua, Someone Found (no longer Cynthia Ann), named the blue-eyed boy Quanah, meaning fragrant. To the white settlers and politicians, he would be a Comanche with a twist: his greatness, they thought, came from his mother's side. Some Comanches, on the other hand, saw Quanah's prominence as preferential treatment from his white "tribe," and "quanah" to them meant "you stink." The truth was that the half-blood Comanche was ALL Comanche in language, religion, custom, fighting prowess, and his strong sense of responsibility for the young and elderly.

Leaders from both sides of the blue-eyed Comanche's parentage were notable in their respective societies: the Parkers in Texas politics and religion and the Comanches in war, the hunt, and in their personal spiritual and military journeys, and, in Quanah's case, a lot of diplomacy. Peta Nocona captured nine-year-old Cynthia Ann Parker in 1836 from the fort built by her family and other parishioners of the two-seed Baptist church brought from Illinois to Texas. Pohebits Quasho probably rode with his son against the fort to avenge earlier Texans' attacks on Waco and Caddo villages in Texas. Members of those tribes helped make up the large war party, along with Kiowas, all intent on revenge and to let the white men behind the log walls of the fort know who really ruled the land. Nine-year-old Cynthia Ann Parker was given to a childless couple, or perhaps a widow, to be raised as a Comanche woman. After living with a foster family until the age of maturity, Nadua became a wife of her captor. Nadua was destined to bring into the world a man of great intelligence, integrity, and courage. But not all Comanches were happy with the attention his aging father and grandfather gave to the boy. Their jealousy of Quanah would surface after Nadua was captured by Texas Rangers and soldiers led by chief scout Charles Goodnight and returned to her white family.

Quanah was fifteen at that time and insisted at the Texas State Fair in Dallas in 1910 that Captain Sul Ross had not killed his father at the time of Nadua's capture. It made no sense for Peta Nocona to have been with the women as they packed bison meat to take back to the village a few miles west of the site on Mule Creek where it empties into Pease River west of present Vernon, Texas, where the Texans attacked Comanche women packing bison hides and meat. What self-respecting Comanche war chief would hang around a group of women packing meat? A captive named Nobah, according to a letter from Quanah to Goodnight, watched over the women. Comanche men did not help butcher bison. After the kill, they usually retired to a game of chance or perhaps a horse race. There would have been no reason culturally for Peta Nocona to have been present when the attack occurred. Men of a lower status in society would have protected the women. Though the self-serving Ross achieved instant celebrity as the supposed slayer of the dragon that was Peta Nocona, the cocky young Texan had not faced the Comanche war chief in battle. Yet by capturing Nadua and killing the chief's Spanish wife, Ross did hasten the decline of the aging and grieving war chief. Peta Nocona, in Quanah's words, was "very morose and unhappy. He died two or three years later. I was with him. He is buried at Antelope Hills."

Quanah was no older than seventeen when his father passed on to the spirit world and might have been a year younger than that. Yet he distinguished himself in battle by taking over when raid leader Bear's Ear was killed on the way back from stealing Texas horses with other teen aged Comanches. That was Quanah's first act of leadership under duress, and it would not be his last. Many in the Comanche village grieved, and in the case of the women, cut their hair and slashed their arms and legs while wailing to the high heavens. From the reaction of Old Bear, father of Weckeah, however, Quanah's exploits in saving most of the band could not conceal the fact that he was not a pure blood Comanche. So, when Quanah approached Old Bear's lodge with a nice string of horses to ask for the hand of his sweetheart, Quanah's mixed blood was given as the reason for his rejection. Undeterred, Quanah and Weckeah eloped. Gathering other young couples to join them, the lovers rode hard for the Concho Valley near present San Angelo, Texas. Old Bear, meanwhile, tracked them down. It was in that moment that the eighteen-year-old Quanah's skills as a diplomat came to the surface. He offered twenty horses and promised to lead Old Bear on a raid to the Texas settlements where horses and cattle were ready for the taking, providing, of course, that the Comanches could outride the Indian-hating Texans.

The raid was a success, and after that, Old Bear followed Quanah into many hard fights, including the Battle of Adobe Walls in 1874 when Quanah was one year short of his thirtieth birthday. Both men were wounded. Before suffering a shot that bounced off his canteen and hit his shoulder, taking him out of action, Quanah rode through a hail of bullets to lift his father-in-law off the ground where he lay with a broken leg. By the time that the combined force of Plains Indians attacked buffalo hunters at the little outpost on the Canadian River in the Texas Panhandle, Quanah was the designated leader of all the allied warriors. His fellow Quahada, Ishatai, provided the "medicine," to protect the warriors from the white man's bullets. Ishatai's magic yellow paint failed fatally against the large caliber rifles of the hunters, earning him the name Ishatai, Rear End of a Wolf. Before the abysmal failure at Adobe walls, he had been called White Eagle. Undeterred by his disgrace, Ishatai would use his medicine and influence among the full bloods long after his failure at Adobe Walls in an ongoing effort to discredit Quanah. Especially after the mixed-blood war chief was named Chief of the Comanches shortly after surrendering to Brevet General Ranald Mackenzie at Fort Sill. Only four years earlier, a twenty-six-year-old Quanah was chosen by the older chiefs to devise a strategy to escape Mackenzie's Fourth Cavalry's descent into Blanco Canyon, located east of present-day Crosbyton, Texas. Intent on forcing the Quahadas onto the reservation, Mackenzie attacked the Comanches in the canyon. By utilizing a military acumen advanced for his age, Quanah was able to lead the women, children, and the elderly away from the soldiers and their Tonkawa scouts, bitter enemies of the Comanches. Whether Mackenzie knew of the Tonkawa's appetite for Comanche flesh is not known, it is clear, however, that the Texas Rangers did know, because in the battle that killed Iron Jacket in 1858, Tonkawa scouts are described as carrying Comanche flesh with them on the trail after the Texans illegal attack into Indian Territory had ended in many Comanche deaths. Legality mattered not to the Rangers, in any case, for Texas was about to secede from the Union. But the attack would not be forgotten. Some in the village might have blamed Quanah in their grief and rage. Yet Quanah had lost his grandfather in that battle. Less than four years later he would lose his father.

Mackenzie had great respect for Quanah's leadership skills and honesty. The young Quahada war chief had never taken rations from the government while leaving the confines of the reservation on raids into Texas, as some Comanches and Kiowas had done. Quanah also startled Mackenzie by speaking to him in English, learned in great part from the tutelage of Butterfield. He had not learned English from his mother because she could only say, "Me Cinsee" when questioned by Goodnight after her capture. Quanah told Mackenzie that his father just before his death told him that his mother was a captive white woman. Mackenzie may have felt sympathy for Quanah after informing him that his mother had passed only two years earlier at her white family's home in East Texas, but if the soldier chief could trust Quanah to bring in what few Comanches remained off the reservation, Mackenzie could avoid sending soldiers to do the job, thereby avoiding bloodshed. The assignment meant that the half-blood warrior did not have to enter the stockade as a prisoner of war as most of the Quahada men had already done. Much bitterness was directed toward Quanah because he was spared that horror. He also got to keep his horses. So, when Army officers and the Indian agent chose Quanah to be Chief of the Comanches, at the age of thirty, many Comanches were not happy. They attributed the position to his white blood. Quanah was, however, the only Comanche leader who spoke English and was probably the only Comanche who spoke Kiowa, an important factor since the two tribes shared the reservation with the Kiowa-Apaches, a small tribe that camped with the Kiowas. Quanah's linguistic skills clearly impressed the army officers and Indian agent.

He learned the basics of English when he was twenty and already had multiple wives, Weckeah and Chony, for certain, and was the leader of a band camped near the Arkansas River when two hog-tied Texans were led into camp. The Comanches who captured the hated Texans wanted to torture and kill them, but Quanah asked his men to check the Texans' courage first. A man named Butterfield did not flinch when a gun loaded with only a little wadding and gun powder was discharged close to his face. Though his eyes must have burned, and he breathed in some of the acrid smoke, the Texan did not move. Quanah yelled, "Bravo," and Butterfield was told through signs and perhaps some Spanish that he could stay as long as he wanted in the Comanche camp with only one rule: he could not attempt to run away. In an extraordinary example of utilizing the talents of his white guest, Quanah made Butterfield teach him English. The brave Texan stayed for some time until one of Quanah's wives helped him to escape and return to his family. The other Texan had died on the first day of captivity when Quanah told him he could go free if he could run the gauntlet between two rows of men with one notched arrow each. The impetuous Texan was filled with arrows after only a few steps.

Three years after hosting Butterfield in his camp, Quanah was twenty-three and ready for adventure with his long-time Kiowa friend, Tohausen. Quanah's lodge was in the care of his wives in the Kiowa camp from which Tohausen led six Kiowas and two Comanches on a raid to Mexico. The year was 1868. Quanah described the raid to Captain Hugh Scott in the only interview he is known to have granted in 1897. After an unsuccessful journey to Mexico, the horse-loving Quanah had to walk the remaining distance to the Kiowa camp because his mule had played out somewhere on the Llano Estacado on the trip back home. "I went over the divide on the head of a little creek that runs into the Washita. There I saw some people. I couldn't tell what kind of people they were, so I crept down the bed of the stream and heard their talk. They were talking in Kiowa. I spoke to them. They were astonished to see me alive after such a long time." The Kiowas gave Quanah a horse, and "we found a large Kiowa village and my own lodge was with theirs." Clearly Quanah was at home with the Kiowas, as he had been for much of his later adolescence, a place free from taunts about his white mother. To the Kiowas, Quanah was all Comanche.

By the late 1870s, large herds of Texas cattle began to pass by Doan's Store on the south side of Red River west of present Vernon, Texas. Quanah and other Comanches took out a steer or two as the long-legged bovines munched on Indian grass on their way across the reservation. The young Chief of the Comanches was a frequent guest at Doan's Store. One day Corwin Doan asked Quanah if he ever visited his white relatives at Weatherford, seat of Parker County. The chief's reply reflected the depth of his understanding of the racial labels he endured from both bloods. He admitted that after he became chief, his white relatives had indeed reached out to him. "Corwin," he said, "as far as you see here I am chief and the people look up to me. Down at Weatherford I would be a poor half breed Indian."

Though Quanah was aware of negative remarks about his mix-blood heritage, none dared say any of them to the chief's face. Over a hundred years after his death in 1911, it is not unusual for a Parker family member or friend to hear one or more comments designed to diminish Quanah's legacy. A favorite of Quanah-haters among the Comanches is the ever-ready remark that he was "the white chief." I asked my late friend, the Rev. Dr. Reaves Nahwooks, who was not a Quanah relative, if there was anything "white" about Quanah. The distinguished minister and retired civil servant said without hesitation, "There was nothing white about Quanah." Another ugly remark often made to Quanah's descendants is that his dad was a Mexican captive. That would make him a non-Comanche entirely. The holes in that bucket of water are large and drain quickly. The truth is that Peta Nocona, after capturing Cynthia Ann to become his wife, would never have given her to a Mexican captive. Such a thing would have been culturally impossible.

Throughout his life, Quanah rose above the petty jealousies and outright hatred of his status in life, and so do his descendants.

The above was written by Bill Neeley for this site. Copyright © 2021 Bill Neeley. All rights reserved.

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