History

3. Orphan Warrior: Quanah's Rise to Power

By Bill Neeley

"A leader's road is a hard road. Some men are good leaders of war parties. Everybody knows who they are."

Chief Quanah Parker conveyed those sentiments to Captain Hugh Scott at Fort Sill in 1897, a generation after the Comanche War Chief surrendered to Col. Ranald Mackenzie at the same site in 1875.

Known from the grasslands of the Kiowa, Comanche, Apache Reservation in southwest Oklahoma to the Stock Yards in Fort Worth and all the way to the halls of Congress, Chief Parker was a celebrity whose dress and mannerisms reflected his Comanche heritage and the realities of accommodating white power. As a traditional Comanche, he practiced polygamy, having had as many as eight wives at one time. He also wore braids. Both customs were frowned on by the agent, yet Quanah resisted efforts to get him to change his way of life. His practice of the Peyote religion especially troubled both agents and missionaries.

A segment of the tribe resented Quanah's position of chief, mainly because he was selected by U. S. authorities and not elected by his people. The Comanches had never had a principal chief like the Kiowas had, so tension frequently pulsated just below the surface as young Chief Quanah led his people into the realities of adapting to the circumstances of their new existence on the reservation.

One of Quanah's greatest achievements was joining forces with his old foes, Texas cowmen, in working out a lease agreement for five Texas ranchers to make yearly payments to the members of the Kiowa, Comanche, and Apache tribes in exchange for the right to graze their cattle on the rich grasses of the reservation. By that action, Chief Parker went a great way toward alleviating hunger on the reservation. The cattlemen rewarded Quanah by building him a large two-story house with stars painted on the roof. Chiefs, generals, cattlemen, Comanche tribal members, peyotists, the ambassador from Great Britain, and President Theodore Roosevelt were guests at Star House.

Reaching such a pinnacle of power and prestige had not come easily. At the time of the capture of Quanah's mother, Quanah was between ten and fifteen years of age. He was ten if born in 1850, but the chief's grandson, James Cox, a former tribal chairman in his own right, thought his grandfather was born in 1845. If Chairman Cox's assumption is correct, Quanah was fifteen in 1860 when Nadua was taken away from him. Her loss was not only difficult for Quanah and his younger brother, Pee-nah, who disappeared from history, but Peta Nocona also took the loss of Nadua and his Spanish wife very hard.

According to Quanah, his father "knew nothing" of the attack on the meat packing crew, composed mostly of women, at Pease River until two survivors arrived in camp and informed the old war chief "of the great disaster that had befallen his people." Peta Nocona, scarred from many battle wounds and still grieving over the loss of his father two years earlier, now had to find a way to live without his two wives lost in the surprise attack. Quanah saw him "shed many tears," and he died "two or three years later. I was with him," Quanah dictated in a letter to Charles Goodnight. "I saw him die. He was buried near the Antelope Hills near the south bank of the Canadian River." Quanah's letter concludes with this revelation. "Before the death of my father, he told me that my mother was a white woman, that he took her into captivity from central or east Texas, when she was a child."

The death of his father left young Quanah in a difficult position. Those who had looked down on Nadua as a captive saw Quanah in a similar light. As the son of a white captive, Quanah was sure to have endured the taunts of boys his age from families who viewed captives in a negative light. Certainly children, whether Comanche or captive, were cherished by Numunu society. They were never spanked but were shown the Comanche way by the actions of their elders. Quanah's role models as he grew up were those of his father and grandfather, both war leaders of considerable influence. By the time he was fifteen, he was almost certainly a warrior.

He had probably gone on his vision quest at one of two locations: Medicine Mounds southeast of Quanah, Texas, or Medicine Bluff in the Wichita Mountains on what is now Fort Sill. Though Quanah did not tell Captain Hugh Scott in his 1897 interview where he went on his vision quest, he did tell him about the results of his quest. "Sometimes a Comanche man dreams, and a big bear comes and tells him to do this – you paint your face this way. If he sees bear in his dreams, then he makes medicine that way." (Quanah was described as wearing a necklace of bear claws in the 1871 Battle of Blanco Canyon.)

In 1868, one year after the Treaty of Medicine Lodge established the reservation for the Comanches, Kiowas, and Apaches, Quanah went on a raid to Mexico under the leadership of Kiowa war chief Tohausen. There were two Comanches and seven Kiowas on the raid, and they set out from a Kiowa village near the Canadian River at Antelope Hills, a sacred area for Quanah as his father had been buried there five or six years earlier and his grandfather, Pohebits-Quasho, two years before that after being killed by Texas Rangers at Antelope Hills when a bullet penetrated his Spanish armor. It is clear that Quanah spent much of his time with the Kiowas and spoke their language.

After a long trip on mules, and a stop-over at a Mescalero Apache camp, the raiding party had a hard time finding horses, the object of their long journey, because, in Quanah's words, "where the white man's houses are thick they keep their horses hidden and they are hard to find." On one occasion the Kiowa-Comanche raiding party had the opportunity to break into a house, take scalps and captives, and steal the family's horses. The Comanche band that killed Mrs. Sherman in Parker County eight years earlier would have wasted no time in deciding to attack the family. Tohausen, Quanah, and the rest of the men on that particular raid, however, showed mercy to the Mexican family gathered around their kitchen table as the Indians peered through a window of an adobe ranch house.

With no horses, captives, or scalps to show for their efforts, Quanah and two other men started for the Kiowa village. On the way, they rested their mules at a Quohada-Mescalero camp and learned that the Kiowa village had moved to the forks of Lone and Beaver Creeks. "When we came to the head of Red River," recalled Quanah, "my mule played out, and I came back on foot." By declining to attack the family seen with their horses huddling inside their adobe home in fear, as the moon was full, Quanah, proud Comanche horseman that he was, walked the last several miles to the Kiowa camp.

Quanah looked in many camping areas, for he knew the village would have to move frequently because the Indians' vast numbers of horses had to be herded to fresh pastures on a regular basis. Waiting for Quanah at the Kiowa camp were Weckeah and Chony, the young warrior's first and second wives. One reason Quanah camped so often with the Kiowas, except for the personal friendships he had developed with them, was to escape the drama he had endured among a certain element of the Comanches after his father's physical decline and death.

The ultimate expression of Comanche racism was Old Bear's refusal to accept Quanah's offer of many horses for Weckeah's hand. The father of Quanah's sweetheart referred to the young man as the son of a white captive and therefore not worthy of taking his daughter to his lodge.

Undaunted, the young lovers eloped, riding hard for the Concho Valley near present San Angelo where Quanah was joined by other young warriors and their wives. Old Bear, hearing of Quanah's exploits, rode to the village of his son-in-law, where they reconciled and raided the Texas settlements together.

Though peace was made with Old Bear, there were other Comanches who resented the power and influence that Quanah continued to develop as he matured. In 1868, as he looked for the village he called home, Quanah continued his story. "I went over a divide on to the head of a little creek that runs into the Washita. There I saw some people. I could not tell what people they were, so I crept down the bed of the stream until I could hear their talk, and they were talking Kiowa. Then I spoke to them, and they were astonished to see me." It would appear that Quanah and the other raiders were given up for dead. The small group of Kiowas provided a mount for Quanah. "We found a large village," he said, "and my own lodge was with them."

Quanah was, if born in 1845 as grandson James Cox suggests, twenty-three years old in 1868. He had already distinguished himself in battle, had taken a second wife, Chony, and his influence among the Kiowas as well as many within his own tribe, continued to grow.

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

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