4. Military Genius: Quanah and the Battle of Blanco Canyon

By Bill Neeley

"A large and powerfully built chief led the bunch, on a coal-black racing pony. Leaning forward upon his mane, his heels nervously working in the animal's side, with six-shooter poised in air, he seemed the incarnation of savage brutal joy."

Captain R. G. Carter, serving under the command of Brevet General Ranald S. Mackenzie in the 4th Calvary, provides the above description of Quanah as he led a band of Quahadas in hit and run tactics against Mackenzie's numerous, well-led troopers. The year was 1871, three years after Quanah's raid with Tohausen to Mexico. The young Comanche war chief and his wives, including Weckeah and Chony, and possibly one or two others, were camped at what Captain Carter described as an "Indian paradise" in Blanco Canyon east of today's Crosbyton, Texas along a spring fed stream that attracted game animals as well as Comanches. Now living with the Quahadas, the most war-like of Comanche bands as an emerging war chief, Quanah's responsibility for protecting the non-combatants had increased over time. The young Eagle, the name given to Quanah by his father during Quanah's teen years after the emerging young warrior had participated in the Eagle Dance, now faced the greatest challenge of his life. He would need to rely on his Bear Medicine to make him strong and the vision of the Eagle to see the path ahead.

Mackenzie was considered by many the best cavalry officer in the army. He received several wounds while fighting heroically as a union officer during the Civil War. Now the young brevet general, in his twenties like Quanah, was intent on forcing the hostile Quahadas to the reservation established for them and their Kiowa allies in 1867 in a treaty with the federal government signed by Yamparika Chief Ten Bears and other Comanche and Kiowa elders. They agreed under duress, to live on what amounted to a postage stamp compared to the great extent of Comancheria that the old chief and all Comanches until recently had enjoyed. Though he placed his mark on the hated document, Ten Bears did so with a heavy heart.

Here is a portion of the elderly chief's eloquent speech at Medicine Lodge, Kansas: "The Comanches are not weak and blind like the pups of a dog when seven sleeps old. They are strong and farsighted like grown horses. These are things which you have said to me which I do not like. They are not sweet like sugar, but bitter like gourds. You said you wanted to put us on a reservation, to build us houses and make us Medicine Lodges. I do not want them."

Twenty-two-year-old Quanah listened, and no doubt nodded in agreement, Ten Bears continued. "I was born upon the prairie, where the wind blew free and there was nothing to break the light of the sun. I want to die there and not within walls. I know every stream and every wood between the Rio Grande and the Arkansas. I have hunted and lived over that country. I lived like my fathers before me and, like them, I lived happily. If the Texans had stayed out of my country, there might have been peace. But that which you now say we must live on is too small. The Texans have taken away the places where the grass grew thickest and the timber was the best. Had we kept that we might have done the things you ask. But it is too late. The white man has the country which we loved, and we only wish to wander on the prairie until we die."

As the pathos in the Ten Bear's voice resonated with his audience of government agents, soldiers, and chiefs of several plain tribes, Ten Bears knew he would put his mark on the treaty because he had been to Washington and seen the power of the whites, not because he wanted the treaty or thought it just. On the contrary, Ten Bears knew as well as the young Quanah that the treaty was a cynical attempt to stop Comanche reprisals against those who coveted their land and wanted to possess it. There was nothing in the treaty desired by the Comanches.

Quanah left the great encampment at Medicine Lodge, Kansas a free Comanche determined to live, as Ten Bears had said, as his fathers had lived before him. Now, four years after the treaty which no members of the Quahadas had put their mark on, the 4th Cavalry was intent in forcing Quanah's band onto the reservation. Mackenzie, though he rode out of Fort Richardson outside Jacksboro, Texas, meant to force the Comanches to surrender at Fort Sill established at the foot of the Wichita Mountains to enforce the conditions of the Treaty of Medicine Lodge, and that meant forcing the Comanches and Kiowas onto the reservation. Those who resisted faced imprisonment or death.

In recognition of Quanah's growing reputation as a war chief, the elders of the Quahada band in Blanco Canyon put the young Eagle in charge of the band's efforts to escape the clutches of the 4th Cavalry. Mackenzie had ridden out of Fort Richardson to force the Quahadas to give up their old way of life and accept the realities of their new existence as reservation Indians. Quanah, Wild Horse and other war leaders said that when the Indians on the reservation had it better than they did, it would be time to go in. That, in the view of the Quahadas, had not happened so they were prepared to fight.

A Cavalry trooper without a horse in uncharted Indian country far from home would be in grave danger from the Comanches. Soldiers, no doubt unconcerned about their horses, according to Captain Carter, were bivouacked before dark in a narrow canyon with small bluffs on one side and a stream with quicksand on the other. In an error of judgment no Texas Ranger would have made at night in Indian country, Mackenzie allowed the men to build fires. Around midnight the walls amplified the frenzied yells of Comanche warriors riding at full speed through the camp, dragging dried buffalo robes, ringing bells, and firing shots. In the words of a Dutch Corporal,"I was lying down, ven I hears a shot. I shoomps up, dries to get my bicket pin as de horses roosh by, and de next ding I knows de Injuns dey rode all over me." Captain Carter described the scene as follows: "The hissing and spitting of the bullets sounded viciously, and the yells of the retreating Indians from the distance came back on the midnight air with a peculiar, taunting ring, telling all too plainly that the Quahadas, Quanah's wild band of Comanches, had been among us."

Carter joined five men of A Troop as they began firing from an open stretch of prairie on the attacking Indians. "The well-directed fire of our little handful of men," Carter recalled, "covering now a considerable line, caused the savages to scatter out still more, to falter and hesitate, and to commence their curious custom of circling. They were naked to the waist; were arrayed in all their war paint and trinkets, with head dress or war bonnets of fur or feathers fantastically ornamented. Their ponies, especially the white, cream, dun and clay banks, were striped and otherwise artistically painted and decorated with gaudy strips of flannel and calico. Bells were jingling, feathers waving, and with jubilant, discordant yells that would have put to blush any Confederate brigade of the Civil War, and uttering taunting shouts, they pressed on to what they surely considered to be their legitimate prey."

Added to the din was the high-pitched tremolo of the Quahada women as they cheered on their warriors from the safety of the caprock wall. Weckeah and Chony were among the women who encouraged the men on in battle. Captain Carter, a lieutenant at the time of the battle, noticed that Captain Heyl and seven troopers under his command were hesitant to continue their pursuit of the Comanches as they stopped chasing the Comanches when the Indians turned to face them. The troopers were raw recruits. The mirrors, flashing in the early light of dawn were signals between Comanche warriors. "It was a most terrifying spectacle to our little band, yet wild, grand, novel in the extreme," Carter wrote. As Carter and his five troopers prepared to attack, Captain Heyl and his men made a dash for Mackenzie's main camp, and the Comanches let out a great howl of satisfaction that Carter and his five troopers wanted to fight. The Comanches had lured Carter and his men into a trap, which Heyl's group had avoided because of their timidity.

After firing a fusillade of shots to keep the Comanches at bay, Carter and his troopers followed Heyl's lead and headed for the protection of Mackenzie's camp. Quanah charged a trooper riding a gray horse that stumbled while Quanah swept in on a coal-black horse named Running Deer to finish the soldier off. Carter describes Quanah whose "face was smeared with black war paint, which gave his features a satanic look. A large, cruel mouth added to his ferocious appearance. A full-length head-dress or war bonnet of eagle's feathers, spreading out as he rode, and descending from his forehead, overhead and back, to his pony's tail, almost swept the ground. Large brass hoops were in his ears; he was naked to the waist, wearing simply leggings, moccasins and a breech-clout. A necklace of bear's claws hung about his neck. His scalp lock was carefully braided in with otter fur and tied with bright flannel. His horse's bridle was profoundly ornamented with bits of silver, and red flannel was also braided in his mane and tail, but being black, he was not painted. Bells jingled as he rode at headlong speed, followed by the leading warriors, all eager to out-strip him in the race. It was Quanah, principal war chief of the wild Quahadas." Just as Carter yelled at the panicked trooper to use his six-shooter, a shot from Quanah's pistol ended the rookie soldier's life. Without scalping his victim, Quanah whirled and led his warriors up a canyon wall, for in the distance the Eagle had seen Mackenzie's main body of troopers riding to Carter's rescue. They were led by Tonkawa scouts, blood-enemies of the Comanches. In the 1858 attack on Quanah's grandfather's village at Antelope Hills, Tonkawa scouts had eaten the flesh of Comanches killed in battle as the Texas Rangers stood by. Quanah could not allow that to happen again.

As the Comanche warriors ascended the walls of the canyon, their women provided them with fresh mounts as old and young, including women and children, drove the horse herd up the walls of the canyon on trails that Comanches and horses knew well.

As Carter and the rest of the 4th Cavalry followed the cannibal scouts up the zig-zag trail, the young lieutenant made the following observation. "Scattered all along were many of the small 'wicky-ups,' still intact, put up for the use of the Indian herders, usually half-grown boys and girls. Every few miles the canyon widened out into more or less broad valleys bounded by almost impassible bluffs. We also saw numerous ravines and sand hills, as well as many small herds of buffalo. Here and there the creek widened out, creating beautiful ponds or lagoons, clear as crystal, out of which swarmed immense flocks of wild ducks and curlew, and occasionally a majestic swan, whose trumpet notes sounded strange to our hunters who had rarely, if ever, seen such game."

At length Mackenzie's men found where the village had been, but only holes in the ground where lodge poles had been anchored remained. The Comanches had vanished, and Quanah did not intend for his people to be found by Tonkawas painted for battle and lusting for Comanche blood and flesh. Quanah, however, threw the "Tonks" off the trail by retracing the steps of his people, causing the exhausted troopers, after climbing the canyon walls, to turn back around and ride back to the valley. At length, Mackenzie's Tonkawa scouts discovered the trick that Quanah had played on them. So again the soldiers, in Carter's words, "after toiling over many rocky bluffs and floundering around in the 'breaks' and 'arroyos,"' emerged from the canyon "upon what appeared to be a vast, almost illimitable expanse of prairie, as far as the eye could reach, not a bush or tree, a twig or stone, not an object of any kind or a living thing was in sight. It stretched out before us – one uninterrupted plain, only to be compared to the ocean in its vastness."

It was mid-October, and the vagaries of weather would assist the Comanches as their path was now clear for Mackenzie's troopers to close in for the kill. "We had them!" Carter observed. "Or, at least, we thought we did. The Comanches began to swarm on the right and left of the trail, like angry bees, circling here and there in an effort to divert us from their women and children."

Just as Mackenzie prepared to order an attack, Nature provided the Comanches with an impenetrable veil of blinding snow. Mackenzie shivered terribly from the cold as his many wounds from his heroic actions in the Civil War caused him much suffering. A buffalo robe abandoned in the Comanche's flight from the 4th Cavalry, was placed around the commander's shoulders as the 4th Cavalry shivered though their first blizzard on the plains. Quanah's subterfuge had delayed the soldiers long enough for Nature to provide a curtain of security for the Comanches.

The Battle of Blanco Canyon was over, and the 4th Cavalry began the long ride back to Fort Richardson. Quanah and the Quahadas were still living free in the inner reaches of Comancheria.

The above is excerpted from The Last Comanche Chief: The Life and Times of Quanah Parker by Bill Neeley. Copyright © 1995 Bill Neeley. All rights reserved.

Full list of historical articles.