Bridges: Quanah Parker lived between two worlds


Quanah Parker became a respected leader of the Comanche Nation at the end of the Plains Indian Wars.  He spent much of his life caught between two worlds.  He was the son of a white settler and a Comanche chief.  And he had to lead his tribe in the difficult transition from their ancient traditions to life on the reservation.


His mother, Cynthia Ann Parker, was captured by Comanches at age 9 in an 1836 raid on Fort Parker in Central Texas, just east of modern-day Waco.  She became a full-fledged member of the tribe and fully assimilated into the culture.  She married Peta Nocona, the chief of the Kwahadi band of Comanches.  The community of Nocona was later named for him.  Quanah Parker was born probably in 1845 in the Wichita Mountains of southern Oklahoma, though other dates have been offered and even locations as distant as East Texas as the site of his birth.

Parker grew up with Comanche traditions on the Llano Estacado, moving along sites across the Texas Panhandle and into New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Kansas.  In 1860, his mother and sister were captured in a clash with Texas Rangers at the Battle of Pease River in Foard County and died within a few years.  Though Comanche tradition encouraged tribe members to change their birth names once they reached adulthood, Parker kept his birth name as a reminder of his mother. 

In 1868, the federal government attempted to make peace with the tribes of the southern plains and bring them onto reservations.  Many tribes signed, but Parker refused.  The army sent cavalry units after the Comanches, but the tribe always managed to stay a step ahead.  Parker would even raid cavalry camps, steal army horses, and disappear.  By 1872, the army gave up its search.  In 1874, the army restarted its search for the Comanches and waged intense battles against them.

At the end of the Red River War in 1875, Parker had to face the terrible reality.  The U. S. Army had killed 1,500 of their horses at the Battle of Palo Duro Canyon, and the buffalo that the Comanches and other tribes relied upon had been hunted nearly to extinction.  With their maneuverability and military strength greatly reduced and with food becoming scarce, Parker had no choice but to surrender his band of Comanches to the army, becoming the last tribe on the southern plains to surrender.  They were taken to the combined Kiowa-Apache-Comanche reservation in the Southwest Indian Territory, or what is now Oklahoma.

Though he was chief of his own band of Kwahadi Comanches, the federal government made him principal chief of all Comanches though the tribe had not selected him for the position.  Nevertheless, he spoke out repeatedly to defend Comanche needs, their rights, and their traditions.  He tried to make the Comanches self-sufficient on the reservations and encouraged the construction of schools on the reservations that emphasized their cultural heritage.  

There was tremendous pressures to open reservation lands to white settlers and to lease the lands for grazing rights, but Parker resisted.  By the 1880s, after years of discussions and negotiations, he entered into a contract with North Texas cattle barons Charles Goodnight and Samuel Burk Burnett to allow their cattle to graze on 1 million acres of their reservation lands for a fee.  The contract stayed in place until 1902, and the grazing fees became a steady source of income for the tribes.  Parker himself also made the transition to becoming a successful rancher himself, and with investments in railroads became perhaps the wealthiest Native American in the country.

Parker earned a great deal of respect among white settlers in his later years.  In 1884, the city of Quanah, the county seat of Hardeman County, was founded and named after Parker.  He even appeared at a dedication ceremony, offering a benediction to bless the community, saying, “May the Great Spirit smile upon your little town.”  He met regularly with many powerful politicians, including President Theodore Roosevelt.  In 1902, he was named Deputy Sheriff for Lawton.

At a time when federal and state officials were trying to end tribal religious practices in favor of Christianity, Parker maintained his steadfast support for his ancient traditions.  He became a co-founder and leader of what became known as the Native American Church, sometimes called Peyotism, which was a combination of different tribal traditions culmination in the belief that the world was controlled by the creator, or “Great Spirit,” and emphasized care for others, forgiveness, and unity.  Peyote is commonly used as a medicine and for spiritual visions.  In 1907, he defended the use of peyote in religious ceremonies at a committee meeting of the Oklahoma state legislature, declaring, “I do not think this legislature should interfere with a man’s religion.”  One of his sons, however, would become a noted Methodist minister.

Parker continued to give interviews and travel to other reservations.

He died at his home in Cache in 1911.  He was buried next to his mother.  The reservation government was reorganized after his death, replacing chief with the position of chairman, making Quanah Parker at the time the last chief of the Comanches.

Ken Bridges is a writer, historian and native Texan. He holds a doctorate from the University of North Texas. Bridges can be reached by email at drkenbridges@gmail.com.