During the latter years of his life, Quanah Parker was the best known of all the Comanche, and his is still a name to conjure with in Texas more than a century after his death. He was born around 1852, the son of war chief Peta Nocona and a white woman named Cynthia Ann Parker, who was captured in 1836 during a raid at Fort Parker. Quanah grew up to become a warrior in a culture that measured a man by the number of horses and captives and scalps he took; he died an honored statesman who wore the white man’s clothes and lived in a ten-room house. But he never abandoned the Comanche ways. As his biographer William T. Hagan writes, he had “one foot on the white man’s road and the other on the old Comanche trail.”
There is little reliable information about Quanah’s early life. When he was approximately nine, Cynthia Ann was recaptured by whites at the Battle of Pease River, in present-day Foard County; two years after that his father died. In later life he recalled that he was a participant in the Second Battle of Adobe Walls, in June 1874, in which several hundred Comanche, Kiowa, Arapahoe, and Cheyenne attacked 28 buffalo hunters but were repelled after a five-day siege. The following May he was part of the Comanche band that surrendered to Colonel Ranald Mackenzie after the Red River War, agreeing to live on the reservation at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. Quanah was approximately 23 years old.
Reservation life for the Comanche meant subjecting themselves to the government’s attempt to eradicate their free-range hunting and warring native culture and turn them into settled farmers. The first step in this process was abandoning their annual buffalo hunts and instead drawing government rations of beef, sugar, flour, and coffee. Quanah’s inherent leadership qualities caught the eye of reservation agent James M. Haworth, who in 1875 appointed him head of a beef band, a group of families who drew their rations together.
Quanah rose in stature on the reservation. He realized the futility of continued Comanche resistance and saw that compromise with the federal government was the only path to survival. At the same time, he urged the preservation of as many Comanche customs as possible. He preached cooperation with the authorities in most matters, and in turn the authorities trusted him, describing him on one occasion as “a particularly progressive Indian.” By 1878 he headed the third-largest band on the reservation, with 93 members. It was at about this time that he adopted his mother’s surname, and a few years later the letterhead on his stationery proclaimed him to be “Quanah Parker, Principal Chief of the Comanche Indians.”
Quanah’s rise to chiefdom was by the assent of his fellow tribesmen, not by appointment or election. He first emerged as a defender of Comanche interests in the early 1880’s, when he put together a shrewd alliance between his tribesmen and a group of Texas ranchers, including Burk Burnett and Dan Waggoner, to persuade the government to allow the tribe to lease its unused reservation grasslands. The leases brought income to every Comanche in the form of “grass money” and benefited Quanah personally, as he received a retainer from Burnett and Waggoner to ensure the leases’ annual renewal. The alliance later helped Quanah delay efforts by Congress to turn the three-million-acre Comanche reservation over to white settlement, a fight he ultimately lost.
Quanah’s defense of his native customs included the tribesmen’s right to take as many wives as they could afford. Quanah himself had at least five at one time, and government officials continually harassed him about his polygamy. His position as presiding judge of the reservation’s Court of Indian Offenses was threatened because of his plural marriages, and when he requested government funds to build his sprawling ten-room, two-story home, known as the Star House, he was told that no assistance would be granted to him unless he agreed to live with only one wife. He traveled to Washington, D.C., to discuss the matter with Thomas Morgan, the commissioner of Indian Affairs, and purportedly told him that he would agree to those conditions if Morgan would be the one to tell the other wives to leave. Eventually his Texas rancher friends paid for the house.
Quanah also sustained the use of peyote in religious ceremonies, a practice that increased in the 1880’s and eventually became the foundation of the Native American Church. Starting in 1888, three successive agents at the Fort Sill reservation issued orders forbidding their Indian charges to use peyote in any form, and Quanah blandly assured each that his people were complying while he continued to function as a Road Man, or leader in the peyote ceremony. The secrecy that surrounded the ceremony made this deception possible. Quanah believed that peyote offered solace to his people and defended the practice by saying, “The white man goes into his church house and talks about Jesus, but the Indian goes into his tipi and talks to Jesus.”
By the late 1890’s Quanah had become a national celebrity. He made numerous well-publicized trips to Washington to represent Comanche interests, and in 1905 he rode down Pennsylvania Avenue in Theodore Roosevelt’s inaugural parade, clad in buckskin and wearing a feathered headdress. He also led parades at the Fort Worth Fat Stock Show and the Texas State Fair, in Dallas, and he was much in demand for Fourth of July parades in Oklahoma. Quanah died in 1911, but the headdress he wore on these occasions is now in the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum, in Canyon. It is a magnificent assemblage of 62 golden eagle feathers, each trimmed at the top with red turkey or rooster hackles and horsehair and attached to a felt cap and a trailer that falls nearly to the floor. It was a gift to the museum in 1960 from Topay, Quanah’s last surviving wife, a fitting memento of a man who spent his life trying to guide his people along the white man’s road while preserving their identity as Comanche.
Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum, 2503 Fourth Ave, Canyon (806-651-2244). Open Tue–Sat 9–5 from September through May; Mon–Sat 9–6 from June through August.