Quanah Parker: The Last Chief of the Comanche

The Comanche are a proud people, not unlike other tribes of Native Americans. What separates the Comanche, though, from other nations is their meteoric rise to power because of the horse. No other tribe or nation in North America would surpass them in horsemanship, with many experts even going as far as saying that they were the best light cavalry the world had ever seen. And, while there are many Comanches who have stood out in the history of the American West, only one is notable for not only being the Last Chief of the Comanche, but also for his close relationship with white cattle barons, his founding of the Native American Church, and his complicated reputation.

The early life of Quanah Parker

Cynthia Ann Parker and her daughter, Topusana (Prairie Flower), in 1861.

Quanah Parker’s mother, Cynthia Ann Parker, was a member of the large Parker frontier family that settled in east Texas in the 1830s. She was captured at age nine by Comanches during the raid of Fort Parker near present-day Groesbeck, Texas. Given the Comanche name Nadua (“Foundling”), she was adopted into the Nokoni band of Comanches, as a foster daughter of Tabby-nocca. Assimilated into the Comanche, Nadua Parker was married to the warrior chief Peta Nocona, also known as Noconie, Tah-con-ne-ah-pe-ah, Nocona or the “Lone Wanderer”.

Quanah’s paternal grandfather was the renowned chief Puhihwikwasu’u (“Iron Jacket”), a warrior of the earlier Comanche-American Wars, famous among his people for wearing a Spanish coat of mail.

Nadua and Nocona’s first child was Quanah or Kwana, born in the Wichita Mountains of southwestern Oklahoma in 1845, 1850 or 1852 depending on which history you believe. For what it’s worth, Quanah would later write in a letter to rancher Charles Goodnight, “From the best information I have, I was born about 1850 on Elk Creek just below the Wichita Mountains.” Alternative sources cite his birthplace as Laguna Sabinas or Cedar Lake in Gaines County, Texas.

Nadua and Nocona also had another son, Pecos (sometimes known as “Peanuts”), and a daughter, Topsana (“Prairie Flower”). In December 1860, Cynthia Ann and Topsana were captured in the battle of Pease River. American forces were led by Sgt. John Spangler, who commanded Company H of the U.S. 2nd Cavalry, and Texas Rangers under Sul Ross would claim that at the end of the battle, he wounded Nocona, who was thereafter killed by Spangler’s Mexican servant. It was believed that Quanah and his brother Pecos were the only two to have escaped on horseback, and were tracked by Ranger Charles Goodnight but escaped to rendezvous with other Nokoni people. Some, including Quanah Parker himself, claim this story is false and that he, his brother, and his father Peta Nocona were not at the battle, that they were at the larger camp miles away, and that Nocona died years later of illness caused by wounds from battles with Apache.

Nonetheless, Cynthia Ann “Nadua” and Topsana were taken by the Texas Rangers in a raid and were taken to Cynthia Ann’s brother’s home. After twenty-four years with the Comanche, Nadua refused re-assimilation. Unlike her mother, Topsana began to adapt to her new culture, but died of an illness in 1863. Tragically, Cynthia Ann “Nadua” Parker died due to hunger strike and influenza in March 1871.

A proud, young warrior

Quanah Parker on horseback wearing eagle feather headdress and holding a lance bottom-up.

After Peta Nocona’s death in 1864, being now Parra-o-coom (“Bull Bear”), the head chief of the Quahadi band, and Kobay-o-burra (“Wild Horse”), the second ranking, Quanah was introduced into the Nokoni band, where the head chief Tirhayaquahip, took him under his wing. After Pete Nocona, Tirhayaquahip taught Quanah the ways of the Comanche warrior, and he grew to considerable standing as a warrior.

In October 1867, when Quanah was only a young man, he had come along with the Comanche chiefs as an observer at treaty negotiations at Medicine Lodge, Kansas. Tirhayaquahip made a statement about Quanah’s refusal to sign the treaty. In the early 1870s, the Plains Indians were losing the battle for their land with the United States government. Following the capture of the Kiowa chiefs Sitting Bear, Big Tree, and Satanta, the Kiowa, Comanche, and Southern Cheyenne tribes joined forces in several battles. Colonel Ranald S. Mackenzie led U.S. Army forces to round up or kill the remaining Indians who had not settled on reservations.

In 1873, Isa-tai, a Comanche claiming to be a medicine man, called for all the Comanche bands to gather together for a Sun Dance, even though that ritual was Kiowa, and had never been a Comanche practice.

The bands gathered in May on the Red River, near present-day Texola, Oklahoma. At that gathering, Isa-tai and Quanah recruited warriors for raids into Texas to avenge slain relatives. Other Comanche chiefs, notably Isa-Rosa (“White Wolf”) and Tabananika (“Sound of the Sunrise”) of the Yamparika and Pearua-akupakup sects of the Nokoni band, identified the buffalo hide merchants as the real threat to their way of life.

They suggested that if Quanah were to attack anybody, he should attack the merchants. A war party of around 250 warriors, composed mainly of Comanches and Cheyennes, who were impressed by Isa-tai’s claim of protective medicine to protect them from their enemies’ bullets, headed into Texas towards the trading post at Adobe Walls.

The raid should have been a slaughter, but the saloon keeper had heard about the coming raid and kept his customers from going to bed by offering free drinks. Around 4 AM, the raiders drove down into the valley. Quanah 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, Quanah’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 and lodged between his shoulder blade and his neck.

The wound was not serious, and Quanah was rescued and brought back out of the range of the buffalo guns. The attack on Adobe Walls, however, caused a reversal of policy in Washington. It led to the Red River War, which culminated in a decisive Army victory in the Battle of Palo Duro Canyon. On September 28, 1874, Colonel Mackenzie and his Tonkawa scouts razed the Comanche village at Palo Duro Canyon and killed nearly 1,500 Comanche horses, the main form of the Comanche wealth and power.

Life on the Reservation as the Last Chief of the Comanche

Quanah left and rejoined the Quahadi (Antelope Eaters) band with warriors from another band. With their food source depleted, and under constant pressure from the army, the Quahadi Comanche finally surrendered in 1875. With Colonel Mackenzie and Indian Agent James M. Hayworth, Parker helped settle the Comanche on the Kiowa-Comanche-Apache Reservation in southwestern Indian Territory (in modern day Oklahoma).

Traditionally, the Comanche had no single chief as the various bands of the Comanche each had their own chiefs. Interestingly, Quanah was never elected chief by his people, but was rather appointed by the U.S. federal government as principal chief of the entire Comanche Nation, and became a primary emissary of southwest indigenous Americans to the United States legislature. Since the use of the term Chief was falling out of favor in the early 20th century, and Chairman was soon after the preferred leadership title, Parker is referred to as the “Last Chief of the Comanche.”

Parker’s home in Cache, Oklahoma was called the “Star House.” Parker’s was the last tribe of the Staked Plains or Llano Estacado to come to the reservation. After Quanah was named chief over all the Comanches on the reservation, he proved to be a forceful, resourceful and able leader. Through wise investments, he became perhaps the wealthiest American Indian of his day in the United States.

At this time, Quanah embraced much of white culture and adopted the surname Parker. He was well respected by the whites. He went on hunting trips with President Theodore Roosevelt, who often visited him. Nevertheless, he rejected both monogamy and traditional Protestant Christianity in favor of the Native American Church Movement, of which he was a founder. This association may have related to his taking up the Native American Church, or peyote religion. Quanah was said to have taken an Apache wife, but their union was short-lived.

A storied relationship between two unlikely friends

It was also during this time that a story of the unique friendship that grew between Quanah and the Burnett family. The correspondence between Quanah and Samuel Burk Burnett, Sr. and his son Thomas Loyd Burnett, expressed mutual admiration and respect. In fact so close was the relationship between the families that an exhibition of cultural artifacts were given to the Burnett family from the Parker family. The presentation of a cultural relic as significant as Quanah’s war lance was not done lightly. It is a clear indication of the high esteem to which the Burnett family was regarded by the Parkers.

The Four Sixes Ranch is founded

Samuel Burk Burnett, founder of the 6666 Ranch.

With the buffalo nearly exterminated and having suffered heavy loss of horses and lodges at the hands of the US military, Quanah was one of the leaders to bring the Quahadi (Antelope) band of Comanches into Fort Sill during late May and early June 1875. This brought an end to their nomadic life on the southern plains and the beginning of an adjustment to more sedentary life. Samuel Burk Burnett began moving cattle from South Texas in 1874 to near present-day Wichita Falls, Texas. There he established his 6666 Ranch headquarters in 1881. Changing weather patterns and severe drought caused grasslands to wither and die in Texas. Burnett and other 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.

Originally, Quanah, like many of his contemporaries, was opposed to the opening of tribal lands for grazing by Anglo ranching interests. But, Quanah changed his position and forged close relationships with a number of Texas cattlemen, such as Charles Goodnight and the Burnett family.

Quanah becomes a cattle baron in his own right

Parker in December 1889 wearing European-American business attire.

As early as 1880, Quanah was working with these new associates in building his own herds. In 1884, due largely to Quanah’s efforts, the tribes received their first “grass” payments for grazing rights on Comanche, Kiowa and Apache lands. It is during this period that the bonds between Quanah and the Burnett family grew strong.

Burnett ran 10,000 cattle until the end of the lease in 1902. The cattle baron had a strong feeling for Native American rights, and his respect for them was genuine. Where other cattle kings fought natives and the harsh land to build empires, Burnett learned Comanche ways, passing both the love of the land and his friendship with the natives to his family.

As a sign of their regard for Burnett, the Comanches gave him a name in their own language: Mas-sa-suta, meaning “Big Boss”. Parker earned the respect of US governmental leaders as he adapted to the white man’s life and became a prosperous rancher in Oklahoma. His now spacious, and renovated two-story Star House had a bedroom for each of his seven wives and their children. He had his own private quarters, although they were rather plain.

Beside his bed were photographs of his mother “Nadua” and younger sister Topʉsana. Parker extended hospitality to many influential people, both Native American and European American. Among the latter were the Texas surveyor W. D. Twichell and the cattleman Charles Goodnight.

The best of friends

Of all his white acquaintances, Parker counted Burk Burnett the best. He reportedly said, “I got one good friend, Burk Burnett, he big-hearted, rich cowman. Help my people good deal. You see big man hold tight to money, afraid to die. Burnett helped anybody.”

During the next 27 years Parker and the Burnetts shared many experiences. Burnett helped by contributing money for the construction and later renovation of Star House. Burnett asked for (and received) Quanah’s participation in a parade with a large group of warriors at the Fort Worth Fat Stock Show and other public events. The “Parade” lance depicted in the exhibit was usually carried by Quanah at such public gatherings. Burnett assisted Quanah in buying the granite headstones used to mark the graves of his mother and sister. After years of searching, Parker had their remains moved from Texas and reinterred in 1910 in Oklahoma on the Comanche reservation at Fort Sill.

According to his daughter “Wanada” Page Parker, her father helped celebrate President Theodore Roosevelt’s 1905 inauguration by appearing in the parade. In April 1905, Roosevelt visited Parker at the Star House. President Roosevelt and Parker went wolf hunting together with Burnett near Frederick, Oklahoma. 

During the occasion, the two discussed serious business. Quanah wanted the tribe to retain ownership of the 400,000 acres that the government planned to sell off to homesteaders, an argument he eventually lost. Quanah asked for help combating unemployment among his people and later received a letter from the President stating his own concern about the issue. The wolf hunt was believed to be one of the reasons that Roosevelt created the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge.

Many marriages and family

Quanah Parker, about 1890.

Quanah took two wives in 1872 according to Baldwin Parker, one of Quanah’s sons. His first wife was Ta-ho-yea (or Tohayea), the daughter of Mescalero Apache chief Old Wolf. He had wed her in Mescalero by visiting his Apache allies since the 1860s and had got her for five mules. After a year of marriage and a visit of Mescalero Apache in the Quohada camps, Ta-ho-yea asked to return home citing as her reason her inability to learn the Comanche language. Quanah sent her back to her people.

Quanah’s other wife in 1872 was Wec-Keah or Weakeah, daughter of Penateka Comanche subchief Yellow Bear (sometimes Old Bear). Although first espoused to another warrior, she and Quanah eloped, and took several other warriors with them. Yellow Bear pursued the band and eventually Quanah made peace with him. The two bands united, forming the largest force of Comanche Indians.

Over the years, Quanah married six more wives: Chony, Mah-Chetta-Wookey, Ah-Uh-Wuth-Takum, Coby, Toe-Pay, and Tonarcy. An 1890 photograph by William B. Ellis of Quanah and two of his wives identified them as Topay and Chonie. All told, Quanah had eight wives and twenty-five children (some of whom were adopted).

After moving to the reservation, Quanah also got in touch with his white relatives from his mother’s family. He stayed for a few weeks with them, where he studied English and Western culture, and learned white farming techniques.

The fledgling Native American Church movement finds a new voice

Quanah Parker is credited as one of the first important leaders of the Native American Church movement. Parker adopted the peyote religion after having been gored in southern Texas by a bull. Parker was visiting his maternal uncle, John Parker, in Texas where he was attacked, giving him severe wounds. To fight an onset of blood burning fever, a Mexican curandera was summoned and she prepared a strong peyote tea from fresh peyote to heal him.

Thereafter, Quanah Parker became involved with peyote, which contains hordenine, mescaline or phenylethylamine alkaloids, and tyramine which act as natural antibiotics when taken in a combined form. Clinical studies indicate that peyocactin, a water-soluble crystalline substance separated from an ethanol extract of the plant, proved an effective antibiotic against 18 strains of penicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, several other bacteria, and a fungus.

Photo: Oklevueha Native American Church.

Parker taught that the sacred peyote medicine was the sacrament given to the Indian peoples and was to be used with water when taking communion in a traditional Native American Church medicine ceremony. Parker was a proponent of the “half-moon” style of the peyote ceremony. The “cross” ceremony later evolved in Oklahoma because of Caddo influences introduced by John Wilson, a Caddo-Delaware religious leader who traveled extensively around the same time as Parker during the early days of the Native American Church movement.

“The White Man goes into his church house and talks about Jesus, but the Indian goes into his tipi and talks to Jesus.”

– Quanah Parker on the spirituality of the Native American Church

The modern reservation era in Native American history began with the adoption of the Native American Church and Christianity by nearly every Native American tribe and culture within the United States and Canada as a result of Parker and Wilson’s efforts. The peyote religion and the Native American Church were never the traditional religious practice of North American Indian cultures. This religion developed in the nineteenth century, inspired by events of the time being east and west of the Mississippi River, Parker’s leadership, and influences from Native Americans of Mexico and other southern tribes.  They had used peyote in spiritual practices since ancient times.

Quanah’s remaining years and death

Quanah Parker’s modern day gravesite.

Quanah was elected deputy sheriff of Lawton, Oklahoma in 1902, and nine years later, at the age of 66, Quanah died at his beloved Star House. After his death in 1911, Quanah Parker’s body was interred at Post Oak Mission Cemetery near Cache, Oklahoma. In 1957, his remains were moved to Fort Sill Post Cemetery at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, along with those of his mother Cynthia Ann Parker and sister Topsannah.

The inscription on his tombstone reads:

Resting Here Until Day Breaks
And Shadows Fall and Darkness
Disappears is
Quanah Parker

Last Chief of the Comanches
Born 1852
Died Feb. 23, 1911

Biographer Bill Neeley wrote: “Not only did Quanah pass within the span of a single lifetime from a Stone Age warrior to a statesman in the age of the Industrial Revolution, but he never lost a battle to the white man and he also accepted the challenge and responsibility of leading the whole Comanche tribe on the difficult road toward their new existence.”

An interesting life lived between two worlds

Oil painting of Quanah Parker.

Although praised by many in his tribe as a preserver of their culture, Quanah also had Comanche critics. Some claimed that he “sold out to the white man” by adapting and becoming a rancher. He dressed and lived in what some viewed as a more European-American than Comanche style. Critic Paul Chaat Smith called “Quanah Parker: sellout or patriot?” the “basic Comanche political question”.

To his credit, while Quanah did adopt some European-American ways, he always wore his hair long and in braids.  He also refused to follow U.S. marriage laws and had up to eight wives at one time.

And, in all of this, you have Quanah Parker. A Comanche warrior. A successful rancher. A loyal friend. And, the Last Chief of the Comanche.

Until next time, mis amigos, happy trails! ★


2 thoughts on “Quanah Parker: The Last Chief of the Comanche

  1. I see, I listen, I feel… I wear Two Turquoise Tear drops on my ears everyday. Only my heart
    knows why. One day Mother Earth will home to her people forever. That is when my heart will beat with happiness, my cheeks will be dry from tears, and I will be with my …

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