Last Days of the Comanches

By the autumn of 1871, the Western frontier was rolling backward, retreating in the face of savage Indian attacks. When a ragtag army of federal soldiers arrived on the Llano Estacado to crush the hostile natives once and for all, they had numbers and firepower on their side. What they didn’t know was that their enemies were led by Quanah Parker, a half-white war chief who may have been the greatest fighter of his time.
Last Days of the Comanches
Illustration by Tyler Jacobson

On October 3, 1871, six hundred soldiers and twenty Tonkawa scouts broke camp on a lovely bend of the Clear Fork of the Brazos, in a rolling, scarred prairie about 150 miles west of Fort Worth. The soldiers—mostly veterans of the Civil War—had bivouacked at the edge of the known universe and now found themselves ascending to the turreted rock towers that gated the fabled Llano Estacado of northwestern Texas, a country populated exclusively by the least friendly Indians on the continent. The Llano was a dead-flat, high-altitude tableland larger than Indiana, a vast, trackless, and featureless ocean of grass where white men became lost and disoriented and died of thirst, a place where the imperial Spanish had once marched confidently forth in pursuit of Indians, only to find that they themselves were the hunted. The U.S. soldiers, under the command of a Civil War hero named Ranald Slidell Mackenzie, moved out in a long, snaking line through high cutbanks and quicksand streams.

They were hunting Comanches. The reason was clear to everyone from the Washita River to Washington, D.C.: The western frontier was an open and bleeding wound, and the Comanches, more than anyone else, were responsible. What was once the vanguard of America’s westward migration had become a smoking ruin littered with corpses and charred chimneys. Victorious in the Civil War, unchallenged by foreign foes in North America for the first time in its history, the United States government now found itself unable to deal with a tribe that had for more than a century ruled a 240,000-square-mile empire of buffalo herds and horizon-spanning plains.

Colonel Mackenzie and his soldiers were supposed to change that. Their main problem was that it was almost impossible to find the nomadic Comanches. One could know only their general ranges, their hunting grounds, perhaps old camp locations. The band Mackenzie was tracking—the Quahadi, legendary as the most remote and irredeemably hostile of all the Comanches—hunted the Llano Estacado; they liked to camp in the depths of Palo Duro Canyon, the second-largest canyon in North America; they often stayed in Blanco Canyon and near the headwaters of the Pease River and McClellan’s Creek. As the soldiers moved north and west into the stream-crossed no-man’s-land of the Texas Panhandle, Mackenzie had his Tonkawa scouts fan out far in advance of the column. The Tonks, members of a tribe that had nearly been exterminated by Comanches and whose remaining members yearned for vengeance, would look for signs, try to cut trails, then follow them to the lodges.

Within a few days, the Tonks had found a trail. It had been made by a Quahadi band under the leadership of a brilliant war chief named Quanah, a Comanche word that means “odor” or “fragrance” (reportedly he was born in a bed of flowers). He was as yet unknown to the world beyond the frontier. Quanah, who was probably 23 at the time, was unusually young to be a chief; he was also ruthless, clever, and fearless in battle. There was something else about Quanah too. He was half white, the son of a Comanche chief and a white woman. People on the Texas frontier would soon learn this about him, partly because the fact was so exceptional. By the time Mackenzie was pursuing him, in 1871, Quanah’s mother had long been famous. She had been the best known of all Indian captives of the era, referred to as “the white squaw” for her refusal, on repeated occasions, to return to her people, thus challenging one of the most fundamental Eurocentric assumptions: that given the choice between the sophisticated, industrialized, Christian culture of Europe and the savage and morally backward ways of the Indians, no sane person would ever choose the latter. Few, other than Quanah’s mother, ever did.

Her name was Cynthia Ann Parker. She was a member of one of Texas’s most prominent families, which included Texas Ranger captains, politicians, and Baptists who’d founded the state’s first Protestant church. In 1836, at the age of nine, she was kidnapped in a Comanche raid at Parker’s Fort, near Mexia. She soon forgot her mother tongue, learned Indian ways, and became a full member of the tribe. She married a war chief and had three children by him, of whom Quanah was the eldest. In 1860, when Quanah was twelve, Cynthia Ann was recaptured during an attack by Texas Rangers on her village and never saw her son again.

Mackenzie and his soldiers most likely knew the story of Cynthia Ann Parker, but they wouldn’t have known that her blood ran in Quanah’s veins. Or how unprepared they were to face him in battle. The soldiers were operating beyond anything they’d experienced, such as a trail they could follow or landmarks they could have recognized. They were dismayed to learn that their principal water sources were buffalo wallow holes, which, according to Captain Robert G. Carter, Mackenzie’s subordinate, were “stagnant, warm, nauseating, odorous with smells, and covered with green slime that had to be pushed aside.” The bluecoats spent a day riding westward over a rolling mesquite prairie pocked with prairie-dog towns. The latter were common in the Texas Panhandle and extremely dangerous to horses and mules. The troopers passed herds of buffalo, vast and foul-smelling, and rivers whose gypsum-infused water was impossible to drink. They passed curious-looking trading stations, abandoned now, consisting of caves carved out of the sides of cliffs and reinforced with poles that looked like prison bars.

Hoping to surprise the enemy in its camps, Mackenzie ordered a night march. What he got instead was an object lesson in the hazards of High Plains warfare. His men struggled through steep terrain, dense brush, ravines, and arroyos. After hours of what Carter described as “trials and tribulations and much hard talk verging on profanity” and “many rather comical scenes,” they fetched up bruised and battered in the dead end of a small canyon and had to wait until daybreak to find their way out.

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