Half-white but raised a Comanche, he led the ‘Lords of the Plains’ in times of war and peace and knew enough about the white man’s world to become a successful cattleman.
In the heart of the Stockyards Historic District of Fort Worth stands a statue to famous Comanche Chief Quanah Parker. What tourists may not understand is that there is little reason for it to be there. Quanah never lived in Fort Worth, had no family roots there and visited the Texas city only rarely. Yet this son of a Comanche father and a white mother became Fort Worth’s “native son” in the truest sense. His is the remarkable story of a man with his feet in two cultures who helped heal the wounds of war between them.
He was born and grew up in the world of the fearsome Comanches but died in the white man’s world after making peace with his people’s longtime enemies. His birth name was Quanah, a Comanche word that translates roughly as “odor” or “fragrance.” Years later he added the surname “Parker” as a concession to the white half of his ancestry. The two names symbolized the two worlds of Quanah Parker.
Quanah always said he was born “about 1850,” but various historians have placed the date as early as 1845 and as late as 1852. There is no way of telling for certain since the Plains Indians relied on oral history, instead of written records, to preserve their past. However, 1845 seems more likely, based on a review of the chronology of his lifetime. By Quanah’s account, as told years later to cattleman Charles Goodnight, he was born in a Comanche tepee in the shadow of Oklahoma’s Wichita Mountains.
Quanah’s mother was Cynthia Ann Parker, who was taken at age 9 by Comanche and Caddo Indians in a raid on Fort Parker, the family compound at the headwaters of the Navasota River in east-central Texas. It was May 1836, and Cynthia Ann would not see her family for the next 24 years. The raiders escaped with five white captives, including Cynthia Ann and her brother John. The Comanches might have ransomed the girl back to her people, which is what happened to the other four captives, but they admired her toughness and her striking blue eyes. So they adopted her into the Quahade tribe (“Antelope-eaters”), giving her the name Na-u-dah (“Someone Found”).
A few years later, Chief Peta Nocona took Cynthia Ann as his wife. Like most Comanche males, he had several wives, so it was hardly a Boston marriage or a romantic coupling, but it proved a long and happy union. Cynthia Ann grew up thoroughly assimilated into the culture of those who called themselves “the People,” and the children she had by Peta Nocona were all raised in the Comanche way. By 1860, Quanah had a 10-year-old brother, Pee-nah (“Peanuts”) and an infant sister, Toh-Tsee-Ah (“Prairie Flower”).
Quanah Parker’s formative years coincided with the height of Comanche power in the Southwest. They lived up to the name given to them by the Utes, “the people who fight us all the time,” ranging from Kansas and Colorado down into Mexico. Texans were often victims of Comanche raids—and vice versa as the whites retaliated. At the time Quanah was born, the “Lords of the Plains” were battling rival tribes and encroaching on whites for a large territory known informally as “Comanchería.” After the Civil War, the Comanche Indians went into rapid decline as an independent power.
In December 1860, Cynthia Ann was recaptured by a white raiding party to the Pease River led by a future governor of Texas, Lawrence Sullivan “Sul” Ross. The Quahade Comanche Indians, mostly women and children, were caught completely off-guard and massacred, including another wife of Peta Nocona who had been a second mother to Quanah. Cynthia Ann, who was nursing Toh-Tsee-Ah at the time, was recognized as white and thus spared that she might be returned to civilization. Quanah, Pee-nah and their father were away from the camp on a hunting expedition at the time, so they, too, survived.
After he entered politics, Sul Ross would spread the story that he had personally killed Peta Nocona that day, a claim that Quanah, in adulthood, would vigorously refute. He told a Texas audience in 1909: “This damn lie. Sul Ross no kill my father. My father no there on Tongue River [sic]. Gone to Plains for hunting.” In fact, a very-much-alive Peta Nocona would rename his oldest son Tseeta (“the Eagle”) after the battle, a more warlike name signifying that the chief foresaw his son becoming a war chief in his own right some day.
Cynthia Ann passed through Fort Worth on the way to the Parker homestead in northeast Tarrant County. Mother and daughter were objects of curiosity and pity, which only underscored the fact that whites were no longer her people. Although returned to her birth family, at heart she remained a “white squaw.” She died prematurely in 1870, never having seen her sons or husband again after December 1860. Quanah never got over the manner of her dying, telling an audience years later: “My mother was a good woman whom I always cherished. She has gone to her resting place. I, myself, may die at any time. When I do I want to meet my mother in the great beyond.”
He cherished her memory so much that his only request when he first came in to the reservation was for help to find where she had been buried, and after he traded in his tepee for a house, he commissioned an oil painting of her to hang in his bedroom. When he eventually located her grave, he had the remains moved to a cemetery near his Cache, Oklahoma Territory, home and arranged to be buried beside her.
Quanah’s father, Peta Nocona, died two or three years after the Pease River fight, still grieving his personal loss. His death was the second great tragedy in Quanah’s young life, compounded by the fact that on his deathbed the old chief revealed for the first time that Quanah’s mother had not been Na-u-dah, a Comanche squaw, but Cynthia Ann, a white captive.
The next decade saw Quanah’s star rise among the Comanches as he grew into manhood. He easily assumed the mantle of war chief because all his boyhood had been spent training to be a warrior fighting for plunder, honor and revenge. It was how Comanche boys were raised. He was now a member of a warrior caste as ferocious as the Don Cossacks of Russia or the Mongols of China.
He was a magnificent specimen of manhood, possessing the best qualities of his people. Typically, the Comanches were short with stubby legs. One contemporary observer described them as “uncommonly fine-looking men and women… muscular and athletic.” Quanah combined the compact, powerful muscles of his father’s people with the longer build of his mother’s people. By the time he reached adulthood, he stood more than 6 feet tall. He had the high cheekbones of his father’s people and the blue eyes of his mother’s, but his face was all Comanche, with a jutting brow and prominent Roman nose. He learned the ways of his father’s people. Comanches were raised to be cunning but also generous and usually honest. Unfortunately for whites, they were also merciless in war.
Quanah led his share of raids under the full moon (the traditional time of Comanche raids), yet he never displayed the cruelty or taste for blood for which his adopted people were famous. His name was never attached to the torture of captives or the massacre of innocents, although white apologists writing in the 1960s and ’70s may have intentionally obscured such incidents.
Quanah took his first wife, stealing her from the tepee of her father, before he was 20 years old. By 1867 he was sitting in the Quahade councils of war and joined the older chiefs in rejecting the Medicine Lodge Treaty whereby all the Southern Plains Indians agreed to settle down in Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma) and submit to assimilation.
The Quahades held out for another seven years. During that time, they launched the last Indian raid into Tarrant County in June 1871, chasing homesteaders John P. Daggett and John B. York through the scrub oak north of town, but there were no deaths and no kidnappings on this occasion. Subsequently, Indian depredations continued to plague Parker County, due west of Tarrant, but Fort Worth’s days as a frontier settlement were over.
In June 1874, the Quahades took one more shot at defending their ancestral lands against white encroachment. Quanah led a war party of some 250-300 warriors against 28 buffalo hunters who were forted up in a trading post known as Adobe Walls on the Canadian River. The June 27 attack was repulsed with heavy Indian losses, and Quanah himself was wounded. Afterward, even the most diehard Comanches had to admit the truth: The white man owned the southern Great Plains, and their life of freedom was over. There was no longer any place to hide and no way to survive on the run.
In May 1875, Quanah led the pitiful remnants of the Quahade band—fewer than 100 men, women and children—into Fort Sill, Indian Territory, and surrendered to Colonel Ranald Mackenzie. Quanah identified himself to Mackenzie simply as war chief of the Comanches and son of Cynthia Ann Parker, although at the time he did not know if she was alive or dead. Quanah promised the colonel that he would adopt the white man’s ways.
The Comanches reluctantly settled down to reservation life, living on handouts and staying within the boundaries set by the U.S. government. Quanah’s native intelligence and flexibility allowed him to make the transition to reservation life with the same ease that he had shown going from boy to warrior. Government agents, the new overlords of the Plains Indians, recognized his leadership qualities and designated him a “tribal chief” over all the Comanches, to serve as a liaison between his people and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. In effect, it represented a promotion from being merely a war chief of the Quahades. He proved a shrewd and pragmatic leader, encouraging the Comanches to take up ranching and farming, educate their young in government schools and sign contracts with whites. In return, the overlords embraced him as an assimilationist who could be a role model to his fellow Comanches.
Led by Quanah, many Comanche males took up cattle ranching and became relatively prosperous by leasing their grazing lands to white cattle barons such as Samuel Burke Burnett and W.T. Waggoner, both of whom called Fort Worth home. Quanah proved to be a shrewd stockman, as successful at managing his herds and lands as he had been at raiding and making war. He invested the money he made from leasing his grazing lands in railroad stocks and real estate, becoming a businessman of some means, perhaps even the wealthiest American Indian in the United States at the time. He built himself a spacious house near the foot of the Wichita Mountains, which he named “Star House,” but spent as much time away as he did at home. He traveled widely on business and tribal affairs, always with an entourage. He participated in Wild West shows, posed for photographs and gave speeches. He was an eloquent speaker, though he spoke, without affectation, in the broken English of latter-day Hollywood Indians.
Along with his personal wealth, his influence grew. Washington consulted him on Indian affairs and feted him as a “noble savage.” A town in Texas was named Quanah for him, and the Quanah, Acme & Pacific Railway was dubbed the “Quanah Line” by those it served. Although whites had bestowed his designation as tribal chief, most of his own people also treated him with deference because he had proved himself as a warrior. He served as a judge on Comanche tribal courts, which were a combination of English due process and Indian judges. He also encouraged the establishment of a tribal police force to assist white authorities in maintaining law and order on the reservation.
Chief Quanah became the leader of the so-called progressives among the Comanches, while more conservative members of the tribe denounced him as a half-blood lackey of the whites, an “Uncle Tom-tom” as it were. The same pragmatic, openhanded qualities that made him a leader of his own people also allowed him to move easily in white society. He learned to drive a car and wore a business suit when traveling. Yet he never completely turned his back on tribal ways. Rather, he walked a thin line between the two races.
He preferred moccasins to boots and under his Stetson wore his hair in long braids down his back. He also remained faithful to the old religious ways. Historically, the Comanches had never practiced organized religion, but they did believe in spirits and mystical visions. Quanah encouraged them to keep praying to the ancient spirits and even led the movement to use peyote in their religious ceremonies, which helped them cope with the humiliations of being “blanket Indians.” Here, again, he mixed white and Indian heritage in his religion, practicing a highly personal brand of Christianity along with peyote worship and seeing no apparent contradiction. His personal use of peyote coupled with his open advocacy of its use by his people would eventually result in his being recognized as a founding father of the Native American Church.
Quanah made it his life’s mission to keep peace between the two races. Under his leadership, the Comanches did not join the popular uprising known as the Ghost Dance movement when it swept through the Plains Indians around 1890; they thereby avoided the excesses committed by the Sioux up north. Quanah himself seems to have received a free pass from whites for his years of leading war parties. Ranald Mackenzie once declared that he “certainly should not be held responsible for the sins of former generations of Comanches,” ignoring Quanah’s own past aggressions.
In preserving the old Comanche family structure, however, he was on shakier ground. Comanche men had always been polygamists, and Quanah Parker stubbornly retained that part of his heritage. Estimates of the number of wives he took during his lifetime vary from four to eight, and at the time of his death in 1911, he still had at least two living under his roof. Ironically, this defiance of Victorian morals got him into more trouble with the authorities than his years of raiding white settlements ever did. Government agents sniffed at his “much married condition” and even thought they had convinced him to get rid of all but one.
In 1897 he promised Secretary of the Interior Cornelius Newton Bliss that he would take no more wives over and above his current four, but there is no indication that he kept this promise. The Bureau of Indian Affairs tried to be helpful by referring in their reports to all but one of the women as “mothers” rather than wives. But he kept the harem, including To-nar-cy, the “show wife” who often traveled with him.
Quanah’s intransigence on this matter finally got him dismissed from the tribal court in 1898, at which time he publicly acknowledged five wives. By his various mates, he eventually sired 24 children, of whom 19 grew to adulthood and 16 survived him. This remarkable patriarchy was a monument to both his virility and his love of family.
Despite Quanah’s best efforts, the Comanches continued to lose ground to advancing white civilization even after accepting resettlement in Oklahoma. In 1901 the federal government changed policy again by breaking up the Comanche Reservation and redistributing the land in parcels of 160 acres. Many Comanches moved away after this latest betrayal, but Quanah continued to live on his land, and even add to it until he had created a spread of baronial proportions. He also continued to act as tribal spokesman even after the Comanche diaspora.
Tragedy continued to dog his life. In 1906 his 18-month-old son died of whooping cough, a death Quanah took very hard. Later that same year, his 8-year-old son was dismissed from the public school in Lawton, Okla., because the parents of his white classmates considered the boy a half-blood. Quanah had stated earlier in regard to enrolling the boy, “I want my children to become educated men and women.” Now he was forced to reenroll the boy in the local Indian School, but the old chief was “nearly heart-broken” by the blatant discrimination.
Another slap in the face was the fact that in the eyes of the U.S. government he was not even an American citizen, despite being born on American soil and having an American citizen as a mother. As Quanah Parker, noncitizen, he could sign treaties, serve as sheriff of Lawton, negotiate contracts with whites, even own land, but he could neither vote nor enjoy the basic civil rights protections of the Constitution. That situation did not change during his lifetime. Not until 1924 did Parker’s children receive U.S. citizenship along with all American Indians after President Calvin Coolidge signed the Indian Citizenship Act into law.
Quanah never escaped discrimination, but late in life he derived some satisfaction from being a national celebrity whose fame crossed cultural and racial boundaries, much like Geronimo but with more dignity and influence than the last war chief of the Apaches. Business leaders and civic representatives feted him, and practically everyone who met him in person came away an admirer. A congressional investigator in 1904 stated: “If ever Nature stamped a man with the seal of headship she did it in his case. Quanah would have been a leader and a governor in any circle where fate may have cast him—it is in his blood.” It should never be forgotten that that blood came from both his mother and his father.
Among the notable men of his day who called him friend were legendary cattleman Charles Goodnight and U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt. He corresponded with Roosevelt and even took part in the president’s 1905 inaugural parade through Washington, D.C. Quanah was a regular invitee to public events in Dallas and Fort Worth, including the Texas State Fair, the annual convention of the Texas Cattle Raisers’ Association and the annual Fort Worth Fat Stock Show.
At the Fat Stock Show in 1909, he brought 38 members of the tribe down with him from Oklahoma, and they set up their tepees near the imposing North Side Coliseum, not far from where the current statue of Quanah stands. After the show, he told one reporter, “Had big time; big show; lots fine cattle, lots people; cattleman, Fort Worth people, old-home folks, all treat me as brother—think big man.” In these public appearances, he played his war chief image to the hilt. Perhaps, it could be argued, he demeaned himself by taking part in the mock Indian attacks that were standard fare in Wild West shows. But he believed they helped shape positive attitudes about the Comanches, so he participated in full Indian regalia.
Quanah’s remarkable personal popularity even extended to his mother’s descendants, the Parker family, who could not bring themselves to hate him. They joined the chorus that proclaimed Quanah, “the greatest of Comanche chiefs.” Quanah himself always believed his mixed heritage was a positive thing. Shortly before he died, he mused that white men and Indians were “all same people, anyway.”
Quanah’s connection to Fort Worth is shaky on historical grounds but part and parcel of local mythology. He made his first visit to “Cowtown” in December 1885, a visit that almost cost him his life. His hosts put him and a father-in-law, Yellow Bear, up in the town’s nicest hotel, the Pickwick. When the two visitors went to bed that night, they extinguished the gas flame but failed to turn off the gas. Both were overcome by the fumes. Yellow Bear died of asphyxiation and Quanah barely survived. Despite this bad experience, he returned to Fort Worth on several occasions in the following years.
Quanah Parker, aka the Eagle, died on February 23, 1911, at Star House, the home he had built. What white men had not been able to do when he was a feared war chief, pneumonia did in his seventh decade of life. Doctors at the time believed his death resulted from a combination of rheumatism and asthma. Some of his own people, however, believed he had been poisoned by his enemies, since he had taken ill suddenly while visiting the Cheyenne Reservation, and they vowed to launch an investigation. At any rate, the controversy soon died down, and he was quietly buried near his home. As he had requested, he was buried not beside any of his wives, but beside his mother in the Post Oak Mission Cemetery. In 1957 the remains of Quanah and Cynthia Ann were dug up and moved to the military cemetery at Fort Sill. This time a pair of impressive monuments were placed over the graves.
Quanah’s death marked the passing of an era in more ways than one. After his death, the Comanches never again called their elected leader “chief.” Instead, they adopted the white man’s title “chairman.” Quanah’s death cut the last ties to the old days when Comanches roamed the southern Plains at will, making war on anyone who dared to enter their domain, terrorizing white settlements and other Indian tribes alike.
For more than four decades, Quanah Parker had been the public face of those Comanches. He was also their first and last media star, filling the same role that Geronimo filled for the Apaches, Sitting Bull for the Sioux and Chief Joseph for the Nez Perces. Unlike those others, however, Quanah made the transition smoothly, almost effortlessly, from savage warrior to successful entrepreneur and public figure. In the tradition of Pocahontas and Massasoit, he became a “good Indian,” who helped forge the bonds of peace between the two races.
Despite his fame and the honors that came his way, Quanah Parker had a difficult life. Beginning with his separation from his mother and the deaths of both parents when he was young to the deaths of a beloved wife and son, he endured the loss of those who were closest to him. He also endured the loss of a certain amount of pride when he was forced to lead his people into captivity. Then after he led them to the reservation, even that was taken away from them by the double-dealing government in Washington. All the wealth and honors in the world could never replace all that he lost during his lifetime. Yet he never sank into bitterness or depression. On the contrary, he was never less than honorable and dignified and often rose to heroism in his role as last Comanche chief.
Quanah Parker’s memory looms large in Fort Worth history. In the same way Fort Worth appropriated Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid of Wild Bunch fame to represent its outlaw heritage, the city appropriated Quanah Parker to represent some sort of mythical Indian heritage. Fort Worth’s image as “the city where the West begins” requires not just the cowboy and outlaw elements but also the Indian element to be authentic. Quanah Parker represents Fort Worth’s tie to a time when American Indians “owned” north Texas and defied whites to take it from them.
Fort Worth native and Wild West contributor Richard Selcer is the author of Hell’s Half Acre and Legendary Watering Holes: The Saloons That Made Texas Famous. Suggested for further reading: The Last Comanche Chief: The Life and Times of Quanah Parker, by Bill Neeley; Quanah Parker, Comanche Chief, by William T. Hagan; and Quanah Parker: Last Chief of the Comanches, by Clyde L. Jackson and Grace Jackson.
Originally published in the December 2007 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.