Photo Courtesy Mary Helen McKnight
Quanah Parker was the son of Peta Nocona and Cynthia Ann Parker, a white captive. He had one brother, Pecos, and one sister Toh-Tsee-ah (Topsannah/Prairie Flower) There is no record of Parker’s birth, he is believed to have been born between 1845 and 1852 in Indian Territory of what is now Oklahoma. In a letter to Charles Goodnight, Parker wrote: “From the best information I have, I was born about 1850 on Elk Creek, just below the Wichita Mountains”. His name was originally Tseeta, meaning eagle, but was changed to Quanah, meaning fragrance, after his mother was captured by Texas Rangers and returned to her white family. Parker’s appearance would set him apart from both the white settlers and his own people as he was taller and leaner than most Comanche. His complexion and were lighter and his eyes were gray instead of the brown of a typical Comanche.
The Comanches called the “Lords of the Plains” had won control of the Llano Estacado region from the Apache and used the Staked Plains, with its great herds of buffalo and antelope, as their hunting grounds for nearly a century before white settlers began invading their lands. The Comanche divided into several small bands, with each band led by chief, and while there was no central leadership over all the bands, they would unite when necessary. Quanah Parker was a member of the Quahada (Antelope) band, known as most aloof, fiercest, and most war-like of the Comanche bands. The Comanche were supreme horsemen and were considered to be the greatest light cavalry from a military history standpoint. Their style of fighting from horseback was unrivaled and put the U.S. Army at a great disadvantage, keeping them away for many years. The Comanche were extremely effective with their bows and arrows, deeming guns inaccurate and slow as they could fire nearly twenty arrows in the time it took to reload a gun.
Parker grew up in the Quahada warrior band, following the buffalo herds, raiding settlers and fighting with warring tribes. Parker’s mother, Cynthia Ann and her daughter, Prairie Flower, were recaptured by Texas Rangers in November 1860. Cynthia Ann and her daughter made several attempts to escape back to the Comanche but were unsuccessful. Eventually, they were sent to live
with Cynthia Ann’s brother in Anderson County, Texas. Cynthia Ann constantly worried over her two boys. Pecos contracted smallpox and died in 1862. Prairie Flower contracted influenza and died of pneumonia in 1864. Cynthia Ann died in March 1871. Nocona’s death a few years after Cynthia Ann’s recapture resulted in a difficult life for Quanah, due to his mixed ancestry he was often jeered and depended on the charity of others in his tribe to survive. His medicine grew strong at a young age, and he quickly became an accomplished horseman, a fierce warrior and began to command much respect within the Quahada band.
The Medicine Lodge Creek Treaty of 1867 was the treaty that would place the Comanches and Kiowas in the reservation at Fort Sill. Even though Parker was not a designated leader at the treaty meeting, being only sub-chief in charge of a small band, he still had influence over many of the Native American people there.
Nations represented at the meetings included the Apache, Arapaho, Cheyenne, Comanche, and Kiowa. Major players for the tribes included Black Kettle of the Cheyennes, Ten Bears of the Comanches, and Satanta of the Kiowas.
The Quahada did not consider Ten Bears as their representative and refused to follow the rules set in the treaty which would force them in to the Fort Sill reservation. The treaty saw the Comanche’s land further reduced to southwestern Oklahoma and allowed buffalo hunters, who were decimating the buffalo herds the Comanche relied upon, more range. The buffalo hunters posed more of a threat to the Native Americans than the U.S. military; on average a buffalo hunter could slaughter close to 15 buffalo in the span of two hours. In a ten-year span, buffalo hunters were responsible for the slaughter of over three million buffalo on the southern plains of Texas. These circumstances lead to a party over 300 of Comanche, Kiowa, and Cheyenne, under Parker’s leadership, participating in the Second Battle of Adobe Walls against 28 buffalo hunters on June 27, 1874. The battle proved disastrous for the Native Americans despite their numbers, the buffalo hunters were able to push back the attack. After the battle Colonel Mackenzie ordered all Comanche horses found to be shot, knowing the band would not be able to hunt without them. The Quahada divided their herds, but Mackenzie found many of them and within a year, Parker’s band, near starving, were forced to surrender. Upon receiving word of their surrender, Mackenzie sent food and horses to help them on their journey to Fort Sill. They were the last to surrender their way of life.
Quanah never used the name Parker until his move to the reservation, where it was encouraged by Mackenzie, who had taken a special interest in Parker because of his mixed ancestry. The Quahadas found reservation life nearly impossible, Parker, however, made the transition with such ease that federal agents, seeking a way to unite the various Comanche bands, named Parker chief.
Over the next 25 years, Parker led his people by example, promoting self-sufficiency and self-reliance. He supported the construction of schools on the reservation and encourage the youth to learn the white man’s ways. He promoted the creation of ranches and led the way by becoming a successful and wealthy livestock raiser. He supported an agreement with white ranches which allowed them to lease grazing lands on the reservation and encouraged his people to build homes of white man’s design and plant crops. Parker served as a judge on the tribal court, approved the establishment of the Comanche police force, negotiated business deals with white investors and fought the attempts by his own people to roll back the changes made under his leadership.
Parker’s influence was deeply felt in his successful attempt to prevent the spread of the Ghost Dance among his people, which as leading to an uprising in other reservations. In a prophesy began by Wovoka, a Paiute prophet, he claimed those who lived justly and danced the Ghost Dance, their ancestors would rise and droughts would end, the white man would vanish and buffalo would roam the plains. The Ghost Dance spread like fire among the reservations and can the results can be seen in tragedies such as Wounded Knee. A strong advocate of the Peyote Religion, Parker encourages the use of peyote in place of the Ghost Dance.
While he pushed himself and his people to embrace the white culture, Parker did not completely repudiate his past, nor did he force his people to abandon their traditions. Parker himself rejected the idea of monogamous marriage and maintained a twenty-two-room house for his seven wives and numerous children. He refused to cut his long braids and rejected Christianity altogether.
Chief Quanah Parker, the last great chief of the Comanche, died on February 23, 1911, in his home. He was buried in Post Oak Mission Cemetery near Cache, Oklahoma, next to his mother and sister, Topsannah. Befitting his position as a man of two worlds, Parker was buried in full Comanche regalia with a large sum of money. Parker’s grave was robbed in 1915, the thieves took anything of value, including his jewelry.
In 1957 the expansion of the missile base forced the relocation of the Post Oak Mission Cemetery. Parker and his mother and sister were reburied in the Fort Sill Post Cemetery in Lawton, Oklahoma on August 9, 1957. Chief Parker was given full military honors in the section of the cemetery now known as Chief’s Knoll.
The Texas Plains Trail sponsors the Quanah Parker Trail, which is marked by a giant, steel arrows standing over 20 feet tall. Each arrow marks a location integral to the hi
story of Quanah Parker. In Cochran County, such an arrow can be found behind the Cochran County Activity Building and marks part of the trail Parker took while tracking a group of Native Americans who had left the Kiowa-Comanche reservation in December 1876 and returned to this area to hunt and live. In February 1877 the Native Americans raided buffalo hunters who were camped out in the area. Over the next several months the sporadic raiding would continue. In response, the U.S. military sent the 10th Cavalry, an African-American unit known as the “Buffalo Soldiers”, lead by Captain Nicholas Nolan to subdue the Native Americans. Parker was granted a 40-day pass by Fort Sill commander Colonel Ranald Mackenzie to seek, find, and safely bring back the band of Native Americans. This quest led Parker through Cochran County. Parker played major roles in the resistance to white settlement and in the tribe’s adjustment to life on the reservation.
Quanah Parker was an influential negotiator, prosperous cattle rancher and outspoken advocate of education for Native American youth. His ability to successfully live in two different worlds, with two different mindsets makes Parker’s story truly extraordinary.
Sources: The Buffalo Soldier Tragedy of 1877 by Paul H. Carlson; Texas’ Last Frontier: A New History of Cochran County by Elvis Fleming and David Murrah; Quanah Parker and Comanche Culture: Divided Loyalties by Colt Chaney; Texas State Historical Association; Texas Plains Trail texasplainstrail.com; Quanah Parker Trail quanahparkertrail.com; & the Oklahoma Historical Society okhistory.org