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

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