Quanah Parker: The Last Comanche Chief
Updated: Jan 29, 2022
I became interested in learning more about Quanah Parker after discovering the book Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History by S.C. Gwynne.
The book, which I will soon discuss on my Mysteries and Histories channel (YouTube), isn’t entirely a biography about Parker. Against a background of complex political issues, clashing cultures, and the zeitgeist of the times, Quanah Parker emerges as an interesting man, leader, warrior, and diplomat.
Born around 1845 into the Nokoni (“wanderers”) band of Tabby-nocca Parker grew up among the Kwahadi (“antelope”) tribe of the Comanche Nation. There are many bands in the Comanches, and it can be confusing to distinguish between them. Therefore, the Old West Texans and Americans labeled the Comanches according to five large dominant bands and their general geographical areas (and I’m Anglicizing the language here because I don’t speak Comanche): Yamparika (northern), Kotsoteka (northern), Nokoni (middle), Penateka (southern), and Kwahadi/ Quohada (western).
However, it’s important to understand that these geographical categories are loosely applied since most Comanche bands were nomadic and followed hunting opportunities. They also often traveled outside of their territory to “blitzkrieg” rival tribes (like the Apaches) or white settlements in order to pillage horses and resources and then race back to camp before their rivals knew what hit them. They were fierce and sometimes vicious warriors and almost impossible to beat-- even with “advanced” technology like long rifles. Even the U.S. military, highly trained and skilled in war and battle strategy had great difficulty fighting the Comanche for reasons I will discuss when I do the book review. But for all their fierceness, they were also superior horsemen. They prized horses above all their other possessions. Of course, they bred horses, but from a young age, both male and female warriors learned to ride and fight from the saddle in a fashion that most settlers and other tribes couldn't copy or compete with; it was, in part, this power to fight from horseback that made the Comanche such a superior fighting force.
Now back to Parker!
He was born to the Kwahadi Comanche chief, Peta Nocona, and Cynthia Ann Parker, a white woman who had been assimilated into the Nokoni tribe after she was kidnapped at age nine from the Fort Parker settlement. I’ll definitely write about Cynthia Ann in another blog.
After Peta Nocona’s death around 1864, Horseback, the Nokoni head chief, taught Parker and his brother, Pecos, the ways of the Comanche warrior. Parker grew into considerable standing as a warrior and eventually left and rejoined the Kwahadi band.
In 1873, Isatai’i, a Comanche claiming to be a medicine man, called for all Comanche bands to gather for a Sun Dance, though that ritual was Kiowa, and had never been a Comanche practice. The bands rallied in May at the Red River where Isatai’i and Parker recruited warriors for raids into Texas to avenge slain relatives. Other Comanche chiefs claimed the buffalo hide merchants were the real threat to their way of life and called for an attack on them.
As a result, a war party of around 250 warriors, composed mainly of Comanches and Cheyennes, headed into Texas towards the Adobe Walls trading post. The raid would’ve been a slaughter. However, a saloon keeper had caught wind of it and kept his customers from going to bed by offering free drinks.
Around 4 AM, the raiders charged into the valley. Parker and his band were unable to penetrate the two-foot thick sod walls and were repelled by the hide merchants’ long-range .50 caliber Sharps rifles. As they retreated, Parker’s horse was shot out from under him at five hundred yards. He hid behind a buffalo carcass, and was hit by a bullet that ricocheted off a powder horn around his neck. The wound wasn’t serious, and he was rescued.
The attack on Adobe Walls led to the Red River War. After a series of battles between the Indians and U.S. forces, the war ended on September 28, 1874, when Colonel Ranald Mackenzie with U.S. Army forces and his Tonkawa scouts razed the Comanche village at Palo Duro Canyon. Nearly 1,500 Comanche horses, the main form of Comanche wealth and power, were killed.
With their food source depleted (buffalo), and having suffered a heavy loss of horses and lodges, the Kwahadi Comanche surrendered. Parker, with Colonel Mackenzie and his Indian Agent James M. Hayworth, brought the Kwahadi band of Comanches to the Kiowa-Comanche-Apache Reservation at Fort Sill, Oklahoma during late May and early June 1875. This ended their nomadic life on the southern plains and began an adjustment to more settled life.
Parker’s was the last tribe of the Staked Plains to come to the reservation. He was named chief over all the Comanches, though he was never elected. Rather, he was appointed by the federal government as principal chief of the entire Comanche Nation, and became a primary emissary of southwest indigenous Americans to the United States legislature. Parker proved to be a forceful, resourceful, and capable leader, as well as a savvy business man. Through wise investments, he became perhaps the wealthiest American Indian of his day in the United States.
After moving to the reservation, Parker reconnected with his white maternal relatives and stayed with them while he studied English and Western culture, and learned white farming techniques.
When a severe drought caused grasslands to wither and die in Texas, ranchers met with Comanche and Kiowa tribes to lease land on their reservation—nearly 1 million acres just north of the Red River in Oklahoma. Initially, many Indians, including Parker, were opposed to the idea. But Parker eventually changed his position and forged a close relationship with a number of Texas cattlemen.
As early as 1880, Parker was working with these new associates in building his own herds. In 1884, due largely to Parker’s efforts, the tribes received their first “grass” payments for grazing rights on tribal land. It was during this period Parker met cattle baron Burk Burnett. Burnett strongly supported Indian rights and genuinely respected Indians.
Over the next 27 years, the Parker and the Burnett families forged a tight bond. Parker, with a large group of warriors, participated in parades and other events at Burnett's request. In turn, Burnett assisted with buying the granite headstones for the graves
of Parker’s mother and sister and contributed money to the construction of Parker’s home, called Star House. The home was a spacious, two-story structure with a bedroom for each of Parker’s seven wives and their children. He had his own private quarters, sparsely furnished, with photographs of his mother and sister at his bedside.
Though Parker had adopted much of the white culture, he rejected monogamous marriages. Parker took two wives in 1872. His first wife, Ta-ho-yea, was the daughter of Mescalero Apache chief Old Wolf. After a year of marriage she asked to return home because she couldn’t learn the Comanche language. So, Parker sent her back to her people.
Parker’s other wife, Wec-Keah, was the daughter of Penateka Comanche subchief Yellow Bear. Although she was already married to another warrior, she and Parker eloped, taking several other warriors with them. Eventually Parker made peace with Yellow Bear and the two bands united, forming the largest Comanche force.
Over the years, Parker married six more wives: Chony, Mah-Chetta-Wookey, Ah-Uh-Wuth-Takum, Coby, Toe-Pay, and Tonarcy. His family was rounded out with twenty-five children (some of whom were adopted).
Another aspect of white culture Parker rejected was traditional Protestant Christianity. Instead, he founded his own church and religious practice: the Native American Church (NAC), which included ritual peyote. Parker taught that the sacred peyote medicine was the sacrament given to the Indian peoples and should be used with water when taking the NAC communion. He had adopted the peyote ritual after suffering a bull goring during a visit to his Uncle John Parker’s home. To fight an onset of severe fever, a Mexican curandera was summoned and she healed him with a preparation of fresh peyote tea.
In 1902, he was elected deputy sheriff of Lawton. It seems there was nothing this man didn’t do! In addition to his many other duties, Parker was something of a diplomat as well. He extended hospitality to many influential people, both Native-American and European-American. For instance, after appearing in President Theodore Roosevelt‘s 1905 inauguration parade, he later hosted Roosevelt at the Star House. They enjoyed a wolf hunting trip with Burnett near Frederick, Oklahoma.
During the hunt, Roosevelt and Parker discussed allowing the tribe to retain ownership of the 400,000 acres that the government planned to sell off to homesteaders—a negotiation he eventually lost. Also, Parker asked Roosevelt for help combating unemployment among his people and later received a letter from the President stating his own concern about the issue. I don’t have time and space here to get into Roosevelt, but his attitudes towards the Indians were conflicted at best. After all, he was a politician. But in my limited research on Roosevelt, it seems little was done about the unemployment issue. However, the wolf hunt was believed to be the catalyst for Roosevelt creating the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge.
Quanah Parker died on February 23, 1911, aged 66, at Star House and was buried at Post Oak Mission Cemetery near Cache, Oklahoma. With his death, the leadership title of Chief was replaced with Chairman. Therefore, Quanah Parker is described as the “Last Chief of the Comanche.” In 1957, his remains, along with his mother and sister, were moved to Post Cemetery at Fort Sill, Oklahoma.
Although praised by many in his tribe as a preserver of their culture, Parker also had critics. Some claimed that he “sold out to the white man” by adapting, becoming a rancher, and dressing and living in what some have viewed as a European-American style.
Though Parker did adopt some European-American ways, he always wore his hair long and in braids, refused to follow U.S. marriage laws, engaged in polygamous marriage practices, and rejected the traditional Christian religion.
So, it seems, as with all great men who lead and serve in the public eye, Quanah Parker was no different: He was complex, charismatic, and a target for both admirers and critics. He was a skilled and brave warrior, leader, and was a savvy business man and politician. He made decisions that, at the time, and in his wisdom and determination, seemed to be the most beneficial to him and his family and people. It’s easy for modern people with the knowledge of outcomes to look back and condemn the decisions and behaviors of historical figures, to sit back and say “could have,” “should have,” and “would have.” It’s possible, if Quanah Parker could’ve seen into the future, he might’ve made different choices—or maybe he wouldn’t have.