Quanah Parker, the last chief of the Quahada Comanche Indians, son of Peta Nocona and Cynthia Ann Parker, was born about 1845. According to Quanah himself, he was born on Elk Creek south of the Wichita Mountains in what is now Oklahoma, but there has been debate regarding his birthplace, and a Centennial marker on Cedar Lake northeast of Seminole, Texas, in Gaines County, claims that site as Quanah's birth location. He was a major figure both in Comanche resistance to white settlement and in the tribe's adjustment to reservation life. Nomadic hunter of the Llano Estacado, leader of the Quahada assault on Adobe Walls in 1874 (see RED RIVER WAR), cattle rancher, entrepreneur, and friend of American presidents, Quanah Parker was truly a man of two worlds. The name Quanah means "smell" or "odor." Though the date of his birth is recorded variously at 1845 and 1852, there is no mystery regarding his parentage. His mother was the celebrated captive of a Comanche raid on Parker's Fort (1836) and convert to the Indian way of life. His father was a noted war chief of the Noconi band of the Comanches. Despite his mixed ancestry, Quanah's early childhood seems to have been quite unexceptional for his time and place. In 1860, however, Peta Nocona was killed defending an encampment on the Pease River against Texas Rangers under Lawrence Sullivan Ross. The raid, which resulted in the capture and incarceration of Cynthia Ann and Quanah's sister Topasannah, also decimated the Noconis and forced Quanah, now an orphan, to take refuge with the Quahada Comanches of the Llano Estacado.
By the 1860s the Quahadas ("Antelopes") were known as the most aloof and warlike of the various Comanche bands. Among them Quanah became an accomplished horseman and gradually proved himself to be an able leader. These qualities were increasingly in demand when, as a consequence of their refusal to attend the Medicine Lodge Treaty Council or to move to a reservation as provided by the treaty, the Quahadas became fugitives on the Staked Plains. There, beyond the effective range of the military, they continued to hunt buffalo in the traditional way while raiding settlements.
For the next seven years Parker's Quahadas held the Texas plains virtually uncontested. Attempts of the Fourth United States Cavalry under Col. Ranald S. Mackenzie to track and subdue the Indians in 1871 and 1872 failed. Not only was the army unable to find the Indians but, at Blanco Canyon on the morning of October 9, 1871, the troopers lost a number of horses when Quanah and his followers raided the cavalry campsite. Afterward, the Indians seemingly disappeared onto the plains, only to reappear and attack again. Mackenzie gave up the search in mid-1872.
But time was on the side of the army. As buffalo hunters poured onto the plains, decimating the Indians' chief source of subsistence, Parker and his followers were forced to take decisive action. Determined to maintain their independence, or at least their survival as a people, the Quahadas, under the guidance of Quanah and a medicine man named Isa-tai, formed a multitribal alliance dedicated to expelling the hunters from the plains. On the morning of June 27, 1874, this alliance of some 700 warriors—Cheyennes, Arapahoes, Kiowas, and Comanches—attacked the twenty-eight hunters and one woman housed at Adobe Walls. From the Indians' point of view, the raid was a disaster; their planned surprise was foiled, and the hunters' superior weapons enabled them to fend off repeated attacks. In the end the hunters suffered just one casualty, while fifteen Indians died and numerous others, including Parker, were wounded. Defeated and disorganized, the Indians retreated and the alliance crumbled. Within a year Parker and the Quahadas, under relentless pressure from the army and suffering from hunger, surrendered their independence and moved to the Kiowa-Comanche reservation in southwestern Oklahoma.
While most Quahadas, indeed most Indians, found adjustment to the reservation life difficult or impossible, Quanah made the transition with such seeming ease that federal agents, seeking a way to unite the various Comanche bands, named him chief. While this action was recognized as lying outside the jurisdiction of the federal government and, perhaps more significantly, utterly without precedent in Comanche tradition, the tribe, essentially leaderless, acquiesced. It was a fortuitous choice, for over the next quarter century, Quanah provided his people with forceful, yet pragmatic, leadership. As chief, frequently leading by example, Quanah Parker worked to promote self-sufficiency and self-reliance. To this end, he supported the construction of schools on reservation lands and encouraged Indian youths to learn the white man's ways. Indeed, most of his children were educated, either at reservation schools or off-reservation boarding schools. Economically, Parker promoted the creation of a ranching industry and led the way by becoming a successful and quite wealthy stock raiser himself. He also supported agreements with white ranchers allowing them to lease grazing lands within the Comanche reservation. Parker defended this controversial idea by pointing out that herds belonging to white ranchers were already using Comanche pasturelands, with or without legal sanction. Therefore, by concluding arrangements with specific ranchers, Parker hoped to enlist the aid of whites who had a stake in preventing unlimited access to Comanche grazing lands. In addition, he called on his followers to construct houses of the white man's design and to plant crops. In general, then, Parker was an assimilationist, an advocate of cooperation with whites and, in many cases, of cultural transformation. Along with his support for ranching, education, and agriculture, he served as a judge on the tribal court, an innovation based on county tribunals; negotiated business agreements with white investors; and fought attempts to roll back the changes instituted under his direction. Here, his influence was most keenly felt in his successful attempt to prevent the spread of the ghost dance among his people. He also approved the establishment of a Comanche police force, which he believed would help the Indians to manage their own affairs.
Through shrewd investments, including some $40,000 worth of stock in the Quanah, Acme and Pacific Railway, Parker became a very wealthy man, perhaps the wealthiest Indian in America at that time. As a testament to his successful conversion to white ways, Parker was a close associate of several prominent Texas Panhandle ranchers, counted Theodore Roosevelt as one of his friends, and was frequently interviewed by magazine reporters on a variety of subjects, including political and social issues. Yet, for all his efforts to embrace white culture, Quanah did not completely repudiate his past or endeavor to force his followers to abandon their traditions altogether. He rejected suggestions that he become monogamous and maintained a twenty-two-room house for his seven wives and numerous children. He refused to cut his long braids. He rejected Christianity, even though his son, White Parker, was a Methodist minister. Quanah was a member of the peyote-eating Native American Church and is credited with introducing and encouraging peyote use among the tribes in Oklahoma.
Despite his artful efforts to protect his people and their land base, by 1901 the movement to strip the Comanches of their lands had grown too powerful. The federal government voted to break up the Kiowa-Comanche reservation into individual holdings and open it to settlement by outsiders. For the remaining years of his life Parker operated his profitable ranch, continued to seek ties with whites, and maintained his position as the most influential person among the now-dispersed Comanches. In 1902 his people honored their leader by naming him deputy sheriff of Lawton, Oklahoma. On February 11, 1911, while visiting the Cheyenne Reservation, he became ill with an undiagnosed ailment. After returning home he died on February 23 and was buried beside his mother in Post Oak Mission Cemetery near Cache, Oklahoma. At his funeral he was dressed in full Comanche regalia but, befitting his position as a man of two worlds, was reputedly buried with a large sum of money. Apparently robbers plundered his grave four years later. In 1957 expansion of a missile base forced the relocation of Post Oak Mission Cemetery and the reburial of Quanah and Cynthia Ann Parker in the Fort Sill Post Cemetery at Lawton, Oklahoma. On August 9, 1957, Quanah was buried with full military honors in a section of that cemetery now known as Chief's Knoll.