The Wild West of Yester-Year

Quanah Parker
By Rachel Kovaciny

Quanah Parker’s father, Peta Nocona, was a Comanche chief. His mother was a white captive, Cynthia Ann Parker, whose life story eventually inspired Alan Le May to write The Searchers. You might know they made that book into a movie starring John Wayne. You might not know Quanah Parker became the richest Native American of his day. He successfully transitioned from a fierce warrior against the whites to a peaceful ally who worked with white men while keeping his Comanche heritage. His life story is as fascinating as any movie.


Cynthia Ann Parker was taken from Parker’s Fort in east-central Texas when she was only nine years old. Her Comanche captors adopted her. In her mid-teens, she married a young chief named Peta Nocona and bore him two sons and a daughter. Her first son, Quanah, looked like a Comanche except for his blue eyes. Cynthia Ann refused at least once to be ransomed away from her Comanche family, saying she loved her husband and children. But eventually, twenty-four years after her capture, Texas Rangers found her and took her back to live with her white relatives. They allowed her to take her daughter along, but she had to leave her sons behind. Soon after the Rangers took Quanah’s mother, his father died of an infection, and then his little brother died. No longer bound by family ties to the Nacona band of Comanches, Quanah joined the Kwahadies instead. They were fierce warriors, skillful raiders with a reputation for striking sudden blows against the white Texans.

For a few years, the Comanches, Kiowas, Arapahos, and Cheyennes enjoyed success in their efforts to push white people back out of their homelands. Why? The white soldiers were too busy fighting the Civil War to defend the settlers. But when the war ended and the U.S. Army returned to Texas, the tide quickly turned. Most of the natives surrendered and agreed to move to reservations in Indian Territory. Most... but not all. During these negotiations, Quanah learned his mother and sister had died. Cynthia Ann had tried repeatedly to leave her white relatives and return to her Comanche family. After her daughter became ill and died, in her grief, Cynthia Ann starved herself to death. Whether because he resented their taking his mother and sister away, or for other reasons of his own, Quanah Parker refused to sign the treaty with the white people. He took command of the Kwahadies and led them on continued war parties and raids. For years, he and other Comanche warriors continued to defy white rule.


But then, quite suddenly, he changed tactics and became peaceful. It wasn’t the white soldiers who made Quanah Parker change from a warrior to a peacemaker, but the buffalo hunters moving into Texas. At first, Quanah and other warrior leaders sought to drive them out, but after several large battles and many atrocities committed by both whites and natives, Quanah and his followers were left the last diehard Comanche warriors, and they could not fight on alone forever. On June 2, 1875, Quanah Parker and his Kwahadi band surrendered. Quanah spent the next thirty-five years disproving the white man’s idea that natives could never adapt to change or live life like the white people. Intelligent and shrewd, Quanah excelled at business and political negotiations. He devoted himself to bettering the lives of the Comanches on his reservation in southwestern Oklahoma.

Shortly after surrendering, Quanah traveled across Texas to visit his mother’s white family. He made friends with the Parkers, visited the graves of his mother and sister, worked at improving his English, and learned white farming methods. He also took her last name for his own. When he returned to the reservation, Quanah began providing for the Kiowas and Comanches who lived there by charging cattle drives for the right to pass through reservations and to graze those lands on the way to the railheads. Within a few years, this was such a successful arrangement it earned between $30 and $50 a year for each native on the reservation. 

Besides his business and political dealings, Quanah held important offices within the reservation. He won the elected position of deputy sheriff of what is now Lawton, Oklahoma, and later served as the elected president of the local school district, which he had also worked to create. More important than any of those duties, he was selected to be the chief justice of the Court of Indian Offences, and for fifteen years held judicial power over the reservation. Although Quanah lived in a large house built like a white man’s, often dressed in suits and ties, and could read and speak English beautifully, he did not forsake the ways of his Comanche forbears. He insisted on wearing his hair in the traditional long braids. He followed the Comanche religion instead of converting to Christianity, even though one of his sons became a Methodist minister. Over the course of his life, he took eight wives, though he did not marry all of them at the same time. Still, at one point he had five wives. When the Commissioner of Indian Affairs told Quanah having multiple wives was against the law, and he would have to choose one to keep and tell the others to leave, Quanah succinctly ended the discussion by saying, “You tell them.”  

He had twenty-five children, though he adopted some of them. When he died, they buried him next to his mother. To this day, his descendants hold an annual reunion and powwow near his home. Quanah Parker, son of a white captive and a Comanche chief, became a legend in his own time and an example of how one person can use their gifts and abilities to serve not themselves, but all those around them.