Winds of Change for the Comanche

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In studying the past, we often hear about an individual’s or group’s “way of life.” It is simply how one chooses to live his or her life, and it absolutely defines the person or group. When that way of life is threatened, there seems to be only two choices — give in and adapt or fight. In the late nineteenth century, the U.S. government set out to conquer the last of the western Indian tribes and force them onto reservations. Such subjugation meant an end to the nomadic lifestyle those Native Americans had previously enjoyed. Some chiefs resisted; some immediately gave up and gave in to the overwhelming might of the government. One of the chiefs who chose defiance was the leader of the fiercest tribe to rule the southern plains. When he could no longer resist, he adapted without giving in. He was a great warrior, and his name is still remembered today. He was Quanah Parker of the Comanche tribe. This is the story of his fight to protect his way of life, regardless of what it took.

Quanah Parker was a man of two worlds, but his heart always belonged to one. He was the firstborn son of Peta Nocona, a Comanche chief, and Cynthia Ann Parker, a white captive later adopted into the tribe. Quanah’s early years were spent on the vast prairies of the Texas frontier learning to ride and participating in raids on the Texas settlements. The Comanches were the rulers of the south plains, striking fear in the hearts of whites and Indians alike. They came to be known as the finest horsemen and mounted warriors ever. Quanah himself was destined to become the youngest Comanche war chief. As he grew up, he watched settlers move onto Comanche land. Like other chiefs, he resolved to defend the wild and free nomadic life that his people had enjoyed for centuries. He increased his harassment of settlements, including the capture of women and children for ransom.   Texans tried to contain the Indians, but their efforts were not enough. When the Civil War ended, the outcry persuaded U.S. officials the time had finally come to completely resolve the Indian problem.    

The government initially tried to reach a settlement with the Indians through peaceful means. In 1867, the U.S. government negotiated a treaty with the Comanche bands. Many of the bands agreed to move to the reservation, but one treaty could never bind all the independent tribes. Quanah’s Quahada band refused to sign. They continued their marauding ways. Over the next few years, some of the reservation Indians, unhappy with the confined conditions, left the reservation and joined Quanah’s warriors in attacking and killing settlers. The Indians also attacked white hunters who entered Indian land and who slaughtered large numbers of buffalo. In one famous fight, Quanah launched an attack on a community of buffalo hunters at Adobe Walls in the Texas Panhandle. Quanah hoped to drive the whites out of the village, but with their long-range rifles, the hunters inflicted losses on them, even wounding Quanah himself. The warriors finally had to withdraw. Though ultimately unsuccessful, the attack demonstrated that the Quahadas were still a lethal threat and that military action was required.

In late 1871, the U.S. government decided to send the U.S. Army into the region. It was hoped that a military presence would end the threat posed by Quanah and the last bands of Comanches. A military expedition made up of the 4th U.S. Cavalry was ordered to the edge of the Comanche’s ancestral lands. The soldiers arrived at the outpost of Fort Richardson in the town of Jacksboro, Texas. Not long after arriving, the soldiers succeeded in capturing several Kiowa chiefs, allies of the Comanches. The Comanches themselves still remained free though, and the soldiers began making preparations to go after them. Overseeing these preparations was the expedition’s commander, Colonel Ranald S. Mackenzie. A veteran of the Union army, the Indians knew him as “Bad Hand,” due to his wounded hand. President Ulysses S. Grant called him the army’s most promising young officer. Once preparations were completed, he received permission from General William Tecumseh Sherman to engage the Indians. He advanced the 4th Cavalry into the high plains of the Llano Estacado in what is today northwestern Texas and eastern New Mexico, deep in the heart of Comanche country.

Quanah and his warriors were waiting for them. The various belligerent bands had reached a consensus that the army would have to defeat them before they agreed to submit to the U.S. government. To defeat the Indians meant fighting them on their own ground. Mackenzie’s soldiers were nervous at the prospect of entering Comanche territory, but they followed their bold leader. As the days passed, Mackenzie’s forces closed on the warriors, but the Indians managed to escape on their superior horses. Tired of the pursuit, Mackenzie’s force camped in a canyon well known to Quanah’s warriors. That night the warriors snuck into the camp and stampeded the horses.

Quanah’s raid against the cavalry was a serious blow, but Mackenzie failed to accept defeat. To the Indians’ shock, he marched his soldiers towards one of the Indians’ favorite campsites. The move threw the Indians into pandemonium. They had to act quickly. The women, children and elderly managed to escape while Quanah led his warriors in a countermove against the cavalry. Quanah circled throughout the territory, and Mackenzie doggedly pursued him. The two sides engaged in a series of battles, but neither side dealt a fatal blow to the other. Quanah succeeded in preventing the capture and subjugation of his Quahada band, but he could not run the cavalry out of Indian country. The expedition remained in the field for several more months. Mackenzie’s troops returned to their base of operations when winter conditions set in; however, the fight to defeat the Indians was far from over.

Over the next three years, both sides fought a series of engagements. Then in 1874, the U.S. Army consolidated its forces and went after the Indians. Quanah once again faced Ranald Mackenzie, now a general. The two great warriors chased each other across the rolling prairies of Texas and fought throughout the rugged Palo Duro Canyon, a Comanche stronghold for generations. Despite Quanah’s elusive maneuvering, the army began to deprive the Indians of the necessary provisions to survive on the frontier. The buffalo were continuing to disappear, and now the army moved against previously undetectable Indian camps. The soldiers destroyed the safe haven camps and hunted down the survivors. They successfully captured large numbers of Indian horses, the lifeblood of the Comanche way of life. At one point in the campaign, Mackenzie’s forces captured over one thousand horses. The expedition’s goal of Indian subjugation was slowly coming to pass. By early 1875, the outlook was grim for Quanah and his band. Unbroken in spirit, he was loath to give up but began to see no viable alternative. As a respected chief, he realized that he could not lead his people to destruction. Recognizing the necessity of adapting to the new reality, he led his band to Fort Sill, Oklahoma and surrendered to his old adversary, General Ranald S. Mackenzie. Quanah would now live as a reservation Indian.

For the rest of his life, Quanah Parker, as he came to be known, worked to create a new way of life for his people. Just as his mother had adjusted to survive in the Comanche world, he would now adjust to survive in the white world. Other Indians failed to adapt as well as Quanah, but he tried in various ways to inspire his people. He refused to simply become a ward of the state. Not long after he surrendered, Quanah was selected as the chief spokesman for the Comanche tribe. With great intelligence, he not only spoke for his people but also actively advocated for them. His new position allowed him to lead some religious rituals, such as the use of peyote, and caused him to spurn others, such as the celebrated Ghost Dance. He helped finalize a treaty with Charles Goodnight to open up Comanche territory to cattle drives. Quanah also tried to lead his people to prosperity through the raising of cattle on their own. He himself established a ranch and eventually became a respected Indian statesman. Through his mixed heritage he attained great credibility, admired and trusted by both his native tribesmen and the whites. He even met with national leaders, including President Theodore Roosevelt. By the time he died in 1911, he had been a chief and a true leader in both his native and his adopted world.

Quanah Parker’s life proved that a person or group could adapt their way of life without giving up. He went from the wild and free life of a plains warrior to the peaceful life of a tribal leader and statesman on a reservation. He saw the old way of life was gone, but he refused to allow himself or his people to give in to despair. In both war and peace he sought to better the condition of those for whom he was responsible. Quanah grasped that all life had to be fluid and that individuals must conform their lives to the changing circumstances around them. If they refused to change, extinction would be inevitable. He concluded it was more important for Comanche culture to survive. Quanah Parker fought his whole life — first to protect the old ways and later to survive in the new. He stands today as an example of bending to the winds of change but never breaking.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Winds of Change for the Comanche

  1. Eric Brown

    Jake, you continue to motivate me to learn more about history every week with your engaging and eloquently told stories. As I am part Native American Indian, I found this story particularly enjoyable. Thank you!

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