We left Vernon, Texas excited about our decision to see the whole Big, Wonderful Thing, which happens to be the title of Stephen Harrigan’s terrific updated history of our homeland. Harrigan’s opus, along with the seminal Lone Star, A History of Texas and the Texans by T.R. Fehrenbach, provide much of the detail to some of my stories. Credit where credit is due.
To get from Vernon to Turkey, Texas for Bob Wills Days, one drives slightly northwest on US 287 until taking a hard left on State Highway 86. Driving the posted speed limit puts you at the destination in two hours, having made one turn. Governing yourself by the implied “reasonable and prudent” West Texas limit gets you there much quicker. The expanses of West Texas can be navigated and travelled with relative ease these days.
It was not always so, as our first detour reminded us. Thirty miles from Vernon sits Quanah, the Hardeman county seat. At this point I also need to acknowledge Mrs. Virginia Wittles, my seventh-grade Texas history teacher at John Nance Garner middle school in San Antonio. Like all great Texas history teachers, Mrs. Wittles impressed on me that the Texas story is one of tremendous conflict. The moral and morals of the tale often depend on the perspective of the teller. Quanah is of course named for the famed Comanche chief Quanah Parker. If any one Texan embodies the complexities of Texas history, Quanah Parker qualifies.
His story began a short month after Sam Houston won our independence at San Jacinto. On May 19, 1836, a band of raiding Comanches swept down on the John Parker family compound in Limestone county, killing the men and capturing nine-year old Cynthia Ann Parker. In the forty or so years that Comanches fought furiously against the expansion of the frontier into their homeland, the Parker raid was one of the most publicized. Despite significant effort, the settlers could not recover the girl. The Comanches adopted Cynthia Ann into their way of life and she eventually married Peta Nocona, with whom she had three children: Pecos, Flower and Quanah.
Today, travel from Groesbeck (the Limestone County seat) to Quanah is five hours to cover 300 miles in the comfort of a SUV. In the 1800s, the Comanche covered the same distance on horseback, ranging far and wide to chase the buffalo that grounded their culture. In 1860, Peta Nocona lead much of the “far and wide ranging,” including attacks on settlements throughout Northeast Texas. Sul Ross was the twenty-two year old Texas Ranger tasked with ending the harassment; Ross and his company pursued Nocona’s group to where they had settled for the moment, a sheltered spot on the Pease River very close to where we now stood in present-day Quanah.
Ross’ lead scout was Charles Goodnight, of the Goodnight-Loving trail, a man in the process of becoming a legendary plainsman and ranch owner. On December 19, 1860, Ross’ group attacked the settlement in what came to be known as “The Battle of Pease River.” The day earned its name as a battle on the the strength of Ross’ account that he personally killed Peta Nocona. That story turned out to be a case of mistaken identity as Nocona likely died four years later from disease. In truth, the Battle of Pease River served as almost a mirror image of the raid on the Parker compound 24 years earlier. The Rangers massacred women, children and frailer men while Nocona, his sons and other warriors hunted elsewhere. In the melee, however, Goodnight glimpsed blond hair on one of the Comanche women; he yelled to save her. Based on Goodnight’s command the woman lived while her friends and relatives died.
Goodnight had temporarily spared Cynthia Ann Parker’s life and that of her daughter, Flower. Texans widely celebrated the fact that the Rangers had finally recovered Cynthia Ann after 24 years with the “savages,” ignoring the fact that Cynthia definitely did not want to be saved. Flower could not adjust and, in Fehrenbach’s words, the young girl “died of civilization” four years after Goodnight and Ross saved her. In grief, Cynthia Ann starved herself to death, never again seeing her husband or sons.
Quanah may have been half white, but he was all Comanche. By the 1870’s his force of will, skill as a horseman and warrior, and natural command abilities marked him as the leader of the fiercest sect of Comanches, the Quahadis. The natives were fighting a losing battle, primarily because the boom in buffalo hides meant the near extinction of the animal on which they depended. In that setting, a prophet like figure briefly appeared in Quanah’s sect. The medicine man called a dance and his messianic message was convincing enough that the various sub-groups in the still active Comanche and Kiowa world formed an uneasy alliance in last gasp attempt to fend of the settlers. They looked to Quanah to deliver them.
The beginning of the end came in the Second Battle of Adobe Walls, which occurred far north of Quanah near the Oklahoma border. After several years of at least slowing the progress of the frontier, Quanah led the braves in a surprise attack on a lonely fort full of bison hunters. Despite the prophet’s assurances, there was very little surprise. The men under attack (one of whom was Bat Masterson, later an ally of Wyatt Earp and then an acclaimed New York columnist as well as the role model for the protagonist in Guys and Dolls) shot animals at long range for a living and were well armed. The tables turned quickly and Quanah retreated.
General Tecumsah Sherman then headed the federal forces in the region and he sensed an opportunity to end the problem that had slowed settlement on the Texas plains for decades. He tapped Ranald Mackenzie to lead the forces in the field in what became known as the Red River War. Mackenzie pursued and fought Quanah over the plains, but most of these battles were skirmishes. Ultimately, Mackenzie trapped the natives in their Palo Duro Canyon hideaway and was able to separate the warriors from their mounts. Without the horses, the last of the Plains Indians had little choice but to surrender to the reservation at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. Quanah and his Quahadis were the last to enter life under the thumb of the settler.
Remarkably, Quanah’s story did not end there. Rather than despair, Quanah led in a different way. He forged alliances with ranchers who wished to graze reservation lands, resulting in substantial “grass payments” to Quanah’s tribe. Remarkably, one of those ranchers turned out to be Charles Goodnight, the man who had saved and then captured Quanah’s mother decades before. Quanah turned out to be a shrewd investor of his own portion of the funds and ended his life as reportedly the wealthiest Native American in the land. President Theodore Roosevelt befriended Quanah and they hunted together. Above all else, Quanah’s second act served as a reminder of the dignity of his people.
The Saturday morning we visited Quanah, Texas, county seat of Hardeman, one would have been hard pressed to guess the immense story that sat behind the town’s name. After years of steady population decline, about 4,000 people live in all of Hardeman county. Most of them have some connection to the land, as ranching, farming, gypsum production and oil provide the lifeblood of the area. The downtown was neat, clean and quiet.
Right off Highway 287 we found a large vintage/antique/junk shop with an impressive inventory and quirky displays. M’Lissa and I love that sort of thing, but the proprietor must be more interested in collecting than selling, judging by the prices and her refusal to bargain. So we spent only a bit of time there before rejoining the road to Bob Wills and Turkey. We did capture the courthouse in a photograph so we could claim to have officially visited Hardeman county.
M’Lissa and I have been lucky to travel to our share of historic places. Between the two of us, we have passed through most of the capitols and many of the battlefields and shrines of Europe and have travelled our own country extensively. I am hard pressed to recall any geographic location that represents as much “history per capita” as Quanah, Texas.
One of the most celebrated stories of our frontier beginnings provides only a starting place. Some of us wore boots or played baseball with gloves made of “Nocona” leather. If you are a Texas A & M ex-student, you are familiar with the fact that Sul Ross later lead that institution. If you grew up in far West Texas, maybe you attended university at the school that bears Ross’ name. Fans of Larry McMurtry and Lonesome Dove know that the author based Woodrow and Gus on Charles Goodnight and his partner, Oliver Loving. Maybe you played Sky Masterton in your high school’s rendition of Guys and Dolls. Civil War buffs understand who Tecumseh Sherman was and what he meant to ending our greatest conflict. Theodore Roosevelt embraced the idea of manifest destiny and represents its conclusion; yet somehow, he became fast friends with one of its chief victims.
Quanah ties all of those stories together. So if you and your grandchildren ever happen to be driving northwest from Wichita Falls on U.S. Highway 287 and you see the exit for Quanah, take the time to visit this quiet and humble town. Tell them about the man and the remarkable life he lived. Virginia Wittles will thank you.
Two down, 252 to go.