The Great Quanah Parker
“This was a man.”
—S. C. Gwynne
Quanah Parker was born in the Wichita Mountains near the present-day southwest Oklahoma town of Cache in 1848, nearly a generation before the War Between the States. He died in 1911, amidst a new world replete with Ford Model T automobiles, airplanes, telephones—of which he owned one of the first in western Oklahoma—and silent motion pictures, the first of which he appeared in.
Quanah arises as perhaps the quintessential archetype of the bridge from the old West to the new, even as both he and the West retained so much of their essential strength and so many of their distinctives. He was born into the most fearsome warrior tribe ever to rumble across the earth. The Comanches stopped the Spanish, the French, the Mexicans, the Apaches and numerous other tribes—and for a long time the Americans—from conquering the Southwest. His father was a legendary war chief and his mother an even more famous white woman. A member of one of the great Texas pioneer dynasties, she was captured by the tribe in a bloody raid, and then recaptured by Texas Rangers in a battle years later in which Quanah’s father possibly fell in a shootout with future Texas governor Lawrence Sullivan “Sul” Ross.
His Quahadi band was the only North American tribal group never to sign a treaty. The loss or capture of parents, siblings, close friends, and at least one wife at the hand of the Texans and other Americans kindled a volcanic hate within Quanah. Through his mid-twenties, he himself killed Americans, Mexicans, and Indians from other tribes and participated in or led many raids and slaughters that involved robbery, rape, torture, and murder. The Comanches’ victims included women, children, and even babies. These events stretched across vast tracts of land and many years. The Quahadis were the final Native group to surrender on the Southern Plains, and they did so in 1875 only when they were nearing starvation and relentlessly pursued by the greatest Indian fighter in American history, the dauntless Colonel Ranald Slidell MacKenzie.
Leader in Peace
While U.S. Army commander at Fort Sill in present-day southwest Oklahoma, Civil War hero Mackenzie dispatched Comanche peace emissaries to persuade Quanah and his few holdouts to come in to the fort, lay down their arms, and take up peaceable ways as American citizens. Surprisingly, those Native ambassadors found Quanah ready to surrender and urging his fellow remaining Quahadis to do so.
Upon getting to know Quanah, MacKenzie recognized in the fabled warrior a strength of character that spurred him to mentor the Comanche, teach him American social manners and customs, and guide him toward leadership opportunities among both Indian and white societies. MacKenzie also persuaded Quanah’s socially and politically prominent white Texas relatives—his mother’s Parker forefathers founded the first Protestant church in Texas—to look past his bloody deeds and accept him.
After shielding the final Quahadi resistors from imprisonment in Fort Leavenworth, Quanah capitalized on MacKenzie’s trust and influence. He also recognized the peaceful path of American citizenship as the best hope for his decimated tribe. (No more than three thousands Comanches remained alive at the time of their final surrender to MacKenzie.) As chronicled by S. C. Gwynne in his landmark work Empire of the Summer Moon, Quanah embraced and led them toward farming and ranching, attending American schools, getting involved in commercial business enterprises, participating in the civic arena, and learning the English language. Eventually, he founded an American-style school district for Comanche children that was owned and run by the tribe, and served as school board president. He also cultivated relationships with white leaders on the local, territorial, state, and national levels.
Quanah Parker – American
During the 1880s, Quanah parlayed his innate entrepreneurial and interpersonal skills and his burgeoning friendships with white cattlemen and business leaders, into a large ranch and a lucrative Comanche land-leasing business. He even charged his white colleagues fees for grazing and driving their cattle herds across the tribal reservation.
As his influence grew, some of those same friends sponsored him on trips to Washington, D.C. There, this former intrepid enemy of the United States advocated these and other enterprises that he believed were in the tribe’s best interests before high federal officials, including President Theodore Roosevelt. He and Roosevelt developed a lasting friendship, as evinced by their famous 1905 wolf hunt near Frederick, Oklahoma Territory and Quanah’s riding in Roosevelt’s inaugural parade. According to Gwynne, Quanah also influenced his tribe to get away from the Ghost Dance cult that led the Sioux to disaster at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, in 1890.
He also defended his tribe as he verbally dueled with government commissioners leading the Dawes Act process of wresting Plains Indian lands away for individual allotments to tribal members and sale of the remainder to settlers. Quanah helped delay the process, particularly regarding the large Big Pasture region in southern Oklahoma Territory. This enabled the Comanches to lease that half-million-acre area for grazing for scores of thousands of dollars for years. By the time all the land was allotted, Quanah had personally secured better terms and more money for the tribe.
He accomplished all of this amidst continual opposition from other Comanche leaders who were often older and usually jealous of him, as well as from a white-dominated society that for generations had bitterly fought the Comanches and other Plains tribes in total war and retained much prejudice against them.
In 1890 Quanah accomplished two of his greatest feats. The U.S. government named him the first and only principal chief in Comanche history, a high station to which the tribe would later re-elect him. He also built the Star House, a renowned two-story, ten-room mansion near the Wichitas. It was a dwelling of which the wealthiest Oklahoma or Texas cattle baron would have been proud.
White and Indian guests alike filled the Star House’s dining room with the twelve-foot ceiling. Many of them were well-known figures in American history books, including General Nelson Miles, Apache chief Geronimo, Kiowa chief Lone Wolf, Charles Goodnight, Samuel “Burk” Burnett, and President Theodore Roosevelt. White cooks and servants waited upon them and Quanah hired white teachers as well.
Quanah’s generous nature had drawn the loyalty of others at least as far back as his successfully recruiting other Comanches for raiding parties he led. It grew more evident as he aged. He spent most of the small fortune he had accumulated feeding the hungry who streamed to him and the Star House, and helping other needy people, not all of them Natives. Gwynne poignantly wrote how tipis often clustered around the house—even though Quanah filled it with guests—and he and other family members slept outside in those tipis.
The legendary enemy and killer of Americans, Mexicans, and other tribes had two white sons-in-law and adopted and raised two white boys, not counting former white captive Herman Lehmann, who considered him his foster father and applied for Comanche membership.
Tragedy and Destiny
Quanah retained a durable streak of independence, as reflected in his multiple wives in which he sired twenty-four children, his leadership in the peyote-based Native American religion, and his long coldness toward the Christian faith. Yet after his pride and joy, gifted eldest son Harold, fell gravely ill with tuberculosis in the mid- to late-1890s, he witnessed young German-born Mennonite missionary Henry Kohfeld’s evangelistic message to his son. When Harold professed belief in Jesus Christ to the Mennonite, the great chief declared, “I see, I see now what I never could understand or grasp before.” Harold soon died, but according to Quanah, his son spoke frequently in his final days about the scriptural teachings that Kohfeld had shared with him, and died happy that he had found God’s love.
Marvin E. Kroeker, professor emeritus of history at East Central University in Ada, Oklahoma, and a member of the Oklahoma Historians Hall of Fame, recounted what happened after Harold’s burial:
“Quanah asked the people to go back into the chapel. He stepped behind the pulpit, took the Bible in his hand, and addressed his fellow Comanches. He had been to Washington many times, he stated, and had met presidents and senators, but never had he heard anything as comforting or inspiring as what he heard from the Bible and ‘this dear missionary today.’ He urged his people to come to the mission every Sunday and listen to God’s word. Here was the way to the heavenly home. Harold had told him he loved Jesus and wanted to go home, and God had granted his wish . . . Then Quanah said a prayer and departed.”
Quanah was now the one person with the power to keep Christian ministers from building churches on Comanche land or even preaching the Christian gospel to the tribe. But he was also the only individual with the power to give that permission, which he did in 1896 to the persistent Kohfeld. And thus began the conversion of the greatest warrior tribe in history to Christianity through the denomination most committed to being peacemakers in the history of the American Church. And thus also was born Post Oak, the first Mennonite mission in history to a foreign land—the Comanche reservation. Post Oak Mennonite Church continues to serve the Comanche people to this day, not far from Quanah’s birthplace.
Whether or not Quanah Parker himself trusted in Christ for eternal salvation is known to God. Following the loss of his son Harold, he periodically attended Mennonite church services. One of his own wives, To-pay, was among the first Comanche converts to Christianity. Another of his sons, White Parker, served the Comanches in and around Lawton for decades as a stalwart Methodist minister.
Legacy of a Man
Quanah died nearly broke due to his ceaseless and selfless sharing of his possessions with others, usually those of various races who had nothing with which to pay him back. He could not bear to see anyone hungry. And according to white Cache, Oklahoma storekeeper Robert Thomas, “He was always kind, never speaking ill of anyone.”
Well-known Texas historian J. Evatts Haley wrote that near the end of Quanah's life, recruiters wooed young Comanche men to join the U.S. Army. This would have led at least some of them into the World War I trench warfare, mustard gas, machine gun massacres, and other horrors that killed, maimed, and psychologically scarred hundreds of thousands of Americans. The old warrior stepped in and stopped the recruiters, declaring the inconsistency of recruiting young men to fight and kill when the white missionaries taught that it was wrong to go to war.
Gwynne recounted how in the final months of his life, accompanied by his twelve-year-old son Gussie, Quanah spoke to an enormous crowd at the Texas State Fair in Dallas. In memorably unpredictable Quanah Parker fashion, he sported a war bonnet, buckskins, and moccasins, yet what he said was this: “I used to be a bad man. Now I am a citizen of the United States. I pay taxes same as you people do. We are the same people.”
Indeed we are, my fellow Americans.
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Oklahomans Vol 1:
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