Quanah Parker

views updated May 17 2018

Quanah Parker

Quanah Parker (died 1911) was a leader of the Comanche people during the difficult transition period from free-ranging life on the southern plains to the settled ways of reservation life. He became an influential negotiator with government agents, a prosperous cattle-rancher, a vocal advocate of formal education for Native children, and a devout member of the Peyote Cult.

Quanah Parker was born to Peta Nocona, a Quahadi (Kwahado, Quahada) Comanche war leader, and Cynthia Ann Parker, a white woman who had been captured by the Comanche and raised as an Indian. Cynthia's family, the Parkers, were influential people in prestatehood Texas, so the raid on Ft. Parker on May 19, 1836, is considered a major event in Texas history. Several family members died in the raid, but nine-year-old Cynthia was one of those taken alive. She and her brother were adopted by the Natives, but her brother apparently died soon after. Cynthia was renamed Preloch and was brought up in a traditional Quahadi village.

In her middle teens, Cynthia married Peta Nocona. About 1852 (some sources say as early as 1845), Quanah was born to them as their band camped at Cedar Lake, Texas. Approximately three years later, Quanah's sister Topsannah ["Prairie Flower"] was born. Their childhood coincided with major changes in Comanche life, as American settlement increased and free range for Indians and buffalo decreased. Cynthia's family kept up the search for her throughout the years. Finally, in 1861, Texas Rangers recaptured Cynthia and brought her and Topsannah back to her relatives. Although she knew about her early years, Cynthia had become completely Comanche, and she mourned for her Indian family and friends. It is believed that Prairie Flower died in the mid-1860s, and Cynthia followed her to the grave in 1870.

Back amid the Quahadi, Quanah was trying to adjust to the loss of his beloved mother and sister. The death of Peta Nocona in 1866 or 1867 was a further blow to the young man. For all intents and purposes now an orphan, Quanah found himself at the mercy of the charity of other relatives, while becoming the object of taunts from other Quahadi for his mixed ancestry. He must have been a striking figure among his people, taller and thinner than other Comanches, with a lighter complexion and grey eyes. Still, he felt himself to be unquestioningly Comanche in his beliefs and way of life.

The Move to Indian Territory

In 1867, the Treaty of Medicine Lodge was signed, which called for the settlement of the Comanche, Cheyenne, Riowa, Kiowa-Apache, and Arapaho onto reservations in Indian Territory (later the state of Oklahoma). Most of the Comanche bands accepted the treaty, but the Quahadi would resist settlement the longest, refusing to recognize the document. Seven years of periodic raiding and open hostility towards white settlers and frontier towns ensued, with retaliation against the Comanche for these incidents. The final insult in the minds of the Quahadi was the increasing presence of buffalo hunters, professionals hired to hunt the huge animals for the eastern market and to undercut the basis of Plains Indian life, forcing them onto reservations to avoid starvation. In June of 1875, a group of 700 allied tribes' warriors attacked a group of buffalo hunters at a fortification called Adobe Walls, in the Texas Panhandle. Three days of bitter fighting led to an eventual turning back of the Indian raiding force, and the beginning of two years of relentless pursuit of the Quahadi by General Ranald Mackenzie. Until recently, published accounts of Quanah Parker's life reported that he led the Indians against Adobe Walls, became the war chief of the Quahadi during Mackenzie's pursuit, and reluctantly surrendered to reservation life as the last fierce war leader of the free Comanche. Recent works show that Quanah was too young to have been a war chief, but report that he did fight at Adobe Walls.

The Quahadi surrendered to reservation settlement in 1875. The person who was most likely their leader at that time was Eschiti ["Coyote Droppings"], who had been the leader who incited the raid on Adobe Walls. A medicine man as well as a civil leader, Eschiti would see his influence decrease as Quanah Parker's increased with the favor of the Indian Agent. Early on, the agent had courted Parker's good graces, believing that, as a mixed-blood, Parker could be more easily converted to white ways and could then influence his people to change also. However, the agent had not taken into account that Parker's mixed ancestry was the reason many staunchly traditional Comanche refused to accept his leadership. That he was being "created" as an Indian leader by white officials caused further conflict.

A Chief Emerges

These first years of settled life took quite a toll on the Quahadi: Not only was their old way of life dying, many Indian people sickened and died as well. Perhaps this alarmingly high death rate also accounted for a lack of rivals to contest Quanah Parker's rising power. In fact, his most potent competitor, Mowaway, who had been a war chief, chose to rescind his position in 1878, virtually clearing the way for Quanah to become the "principal chief" of the Comanche around Ft. Sill.

Quanah Parker then moved quickly from the status of a "ration chief" (one who is recognized as the leader of a small band of reservation-dwellers who count collectively as one unit for the purpose of handing out rations) to a member of the Comanche Council. Throughout the late 1870s, the council functioned mainly to agree to whatever the Indian Agent decided. The single major disagreement between the agency and the council in this period arose over the Indian Department's decision to consolidate the Wichita, Kiowa, Kiowa-Apache, and Comanche agencies and to move the headquarters from Ft. Sill to the Washita River. This change would place the source of rations some sixty miles distant from the Comanche settlements. With rations being handed out three times per week, most Comanche would be constantly in transit to or from the headquarters. Parker joined in with other, more traditional leaders in opposing this move. The growing anti-Quanah faction regarded this as one of his last "loyal" acts. Already, Parker's accommodation of whites was earning him enemies.

Heading into the 1880s, Texas cattlemen were regularly driving cattle across Comanche lands on the way to railheads at Dodge City and Abilene, Kansas. The sparingly grazed grasslands were lush and provided a last chance for cattle barons to fatten their stock before sale. At first, the Comanche ignored this trespassing, as the cattlemen also ignored the occasional poaching of a cow by the Indians. Eventually though, the ranchers in the areas adjoining Comanche land intentionally ranged their herds on Comanche grasslands. In 1881, the Comanche Council formally protested the actions. Sensing that Quanah Parker was a man who could see both sides of the issue, the cattlemen agreed to put him (and Eschiti) on their payroll to ride with white "cattle police" keeping an eye on property lines. Later, Permansu (also known as "Comanche Jack") would join them.

Being on the cattlemen's payroll provided Quanah Parker with money, "surplus" cattle, and influence among the cattle barons. He started his own herd with gift cattle and a blooded bull, courtesy of the king of the cattle barons, Charlie Goodnight. Parker started his own ranch, where he would eventually build his famous residence, the Star House. More a mansion than a house, it was two-storied with a double porch, its metal roof was decorated with prominent white stars, and the interior was richly appointed in the manner of wealthy non-Indians of the day. Some of Quanah's detractors said he had built the Star House to lord over the more traditional leaders of the Comanche; others said he needed the room for his seven wives and seven children.

The Indian Agency was appalled that Quanah, a strong believer in formal education for his people and their participation in the developing money economy of Indian Territory, was an equally strong believer in polygamy and the Peyote Cult. It is not certain when Quanah was introduced to the peyote rite (originally a religion of the native peoples of northern Mexican deserts), but he was well respected in the Comanche branch of the faith, becoming a "road man" (a ritual leader). When the Ghost Dance swept the Plains tribes, and people from the Lakota to the Paiute were dancing themselves into trances, trying to make the buffalo return, Parker rejected the movement. He remained true to his peyotism, but would accept the inclusion of elements of Christianity, some said in honor of his mother.

"Progressive" in Two Worlds

In 1884, Quanah Parker made his first of 20 trips to Washington, D.C. This one dealt with changes in the lease arrangements the Comanche had been able to work out with the cattle ranchers. The Comanche were profitably leasing grasslands they were not using themselves, and they resented the property changes that would come with allotment in severalty, the process of dividing tribally held land into individually owned plots. Despite several trips, Quanah was unable to stave off the allotment under the terms of the Jerome Commission, but he did improve the deal for his people.

The ever-present anti-Quanah Parker faction on the reservation criticized Quanah for trying to arrange a larger allotment for himself and a higher price per acre payment for the sale of surplus land. However, he was still a very influential leader. In the 1890s, the Indian Agent was issuing official "chief certificates, " a sort of identification, and Quanah was able to convince the agency that he should be issued the certificate for the principal chieftainship. This done, Eschiti was finally completely deposed, and Parker went so far as to have letterhead printed with his name and the emblazoned title of principal chief. The action further impressed white men, but further embittered the more traditional Comanche.

Starting in 1886, Quanah Parker had been a judge of the Court of Indian Affairs, but lost his position as the tribe made the final move towards allotment near the end of the century. The breakup of communally held lands and the resulting breakdown of age-old tribal traditions greatly angered many Comanche and they saw Quanah as the source of their problems. They saw that Quanah courted a public image as a "progressive" Indian in the eyes of white America, becoming something of a national celebrity. Visitors to the Star House would include Theodore Roosevelt and British Ambassador Lord Bryce. In fact, Quanah would be one of the four Indian chiefs to ride in President Theodore Roosevelt's inaugural parade.

The Circle Is Completed

In the first decade of the 20th century, Quanah Parker's influence began to wane. On a personal level, two of his wives left him, angered over what they saw as a self-important pursuit of plural wives. Tonarcy was considered his principal wife, but among his others were Topay, Chony, Mahcheettowooky, and Aerwuthtakum. Since most of his wives were widows when he married them, Parker saw this arrangement as a way to take care of women who would otherwise have had to rely on relatives for their survival, due to their young ages. In the sphere of tribal politics, Quanah was also losing ground. Allotment had reduced his land base and therefore his personal fortune, and he would eventually resort to taking a paid position with the Indian Service as an "assistant farmer."

By the beginning of 1911, Quanah Parker was in obvious poor health. He had rheumatism and his heart was weakening. In February, after a long and tiring train ride, he took to his bed, suffering from heart trouble. On February 25th, 1911, Quanah Parker died at the Star House, Tonarcy at his side. Despite criticism during his life from traditional Comanche, Quanah Parker was so revered that the procession to his resting place was said to be over a mile long. After a Christian service in a local church, Quanah was buried next to his mother's and sister's reinterred remains in Cache County, Oklahoma. Four years later, graverobbers broke into his grave, taking the jewelry with which he had been buried. The Parkers ritually cleaned and then reburied him. Quanah Parker, Cynthia Ann, and Topsannah were all moved to Ft. Sill Military Cemetery in 1957. The life of Quanah Parker is today seen as the extraordinary story of a person successfully living in two worlds, two minds, two eras.

Further Reading

Andrews, Ralph W., Indian Leaders Who Helped Shape America, 1600-1900, Seattle, Superior Publishers, 1971.

Dockstader, Frederick J., Great North American Indians, New York, Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1977.

Edmunds, R. David, American Indian Leaders: Studies in Diversity, Lincoln, University of Nebraska, 1980.

Hagan, William T., Quanah Parker, Comanche Chief, Norman, University of Oklahoma, 1993. □