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COMANCHE CHIEF QUANAH PARKER CAME TO THE BIG BEND SEEKING PEYOTE 


According to Fort Davis historian Barry Scobee, Comanche Chief Quanah Parker showed up in Fort Davis in the last part of the nineteenth century. As Quanah put it, he came in search of “the gift-of-God cactus to lighten the Red man’s burden”. Accompanied by Chief Rising Star and several other dignitaries from the Indian Territory, Chief Quanah arrived at the Lempert Hotel much to the astonishment of a Miss Finck who presumably worked at the desk. Scobee described this most unusual occurrence. “Miss Finck heard a knock at the door and was somewhat startled to see three heap big Indians standing there in stately silence”. Mr. Fox, an Indian agent accompanying the party, stepped forward explaining that the chief and his two traveling companions came on a peaceful mission simply wishing to obtain bed and board while they searched for peyote somewhere in vicinity of Mitre Peak. Quanah apparently told the Indian agent that Comanche traditions taught the wonderful cactus could not be found in any other locality.

While Scobee’s intriguing glimpse into the past ends there, there is more to the story, much more. Chief Quanah Parker likely knew the Texas Big Bend a lot better than most folks today might expect. Born about 1850 probably near Elk Creek near the Wichita Mountains of today’s Oklahoma, Quanah rose to become the principal Comanche leader during and after the Texas Panhandle Red River War. Quanah’s mother, a white woman of Scotch-Irish extraction taken captive at the age of nine years from Fort Parker, Texas in 1836 is Cynthia Ann Parker. Her story became immortalized in the dark but classic John Wayne movie The Searchers. Quanah came from an impressive line of Comanche chieftains including his father, Peta Nocona, who Quanah said, died of complications from wounds received during a fight with the Apache. Iron Jacket, Quanah’s grandfather, got his name because he wore a Spanish coat of mail in battle. Comanche legend has it that Iron Jacket had the ability to blow threatening bullets away from him with his breath.

Following the death of his father, Chief Wild Horse of the Destanyuka band took the ten year old Quanah Parker under his wing teaching the boy the warrior ways of the Comanche. It is not clear at what point the Comanche first used peyote in shamanistic ceremonies. According to anthropologist Dr. Omar C. Stewart who is considered to be an expert in the study of peyote use by Native Americans, the Comanche probably first learned about peyote during their raids to steal horses as they traveled on the Comanche trail across west Texas into Chihuahua. It is here that the young Quanah most likely first encountered the magical cactus.

While Quanah Parker cannot be credited with introducing peyote to his people he became, according to Stewart, “the most important Comanche roadman in the early history of peyotism”. Long before the arrival of the Comanche, the Native Americans of Mexico including the Tarahumara knew of the power of peyote as a natural medicinal drug. Christian Tarahumaras also associated peyote with their faith. They also applied it to snake bites, wounds, and burns, and thought it cured cure rheumatism. But its power went beyond that. The Tarahumara believed if a man carried peyote on his person that bears could not bite them or deer run away, that game would become tame and easy to kill. During the early 1700’s Chihuahua experienced a considerable number of Spanish Inquisition investigations into the possession and use of Peyote.

U. S. Army Captain Valery Havard, a surgeon stationed in the 1880’s near Presidio became one of the first Anglo physicians to describe the use of peyote and mescal beans in the Big Bend. He noted the beautiful flower produced by the peyote cactus and its presence in most Mexican houses. Although Havard said peyote is mostly an intoxicant he thought it to be good for the relief of fever. The good doctor also pointed out that if one chewed the magical cactus a “delirious exhilaration” could be experienced and that peyote in those days was known as “dry whiskey”.

Quanna liked his peyote for more than one reason. In 1896 an observer saw him sit up all night during a peyote ceremony and eat thirty buttons. The following morning Quanna seemed unaffected and alert. He once sent a roadman to Mexico to obtain 8,000 buttons. Perhaps the chief summed it up best when he said, “The White man goes to his church and talks about Jesus. The Indian goes to his tipi and talks with Jesus.” Perhaps Quanah became a believer in the power of peyote when he went to visit his brother John Parker in Chihuahua about 1885. Previously he opposed the use of peyote. During the visit a Spanish bull is said to have somehow attacked the great chief leaving him with a terrible wound that resulted in a bad case of blood poisoning and fever. Other accounts state that Quanah only contracted some sort of stomach disorder. Whatever the case, a shaman mixed him a strong potion made from peyote juice and he recovered. Apparently Quanah believed the concoction cured him because after that time he became an ardent supporter of the use of peyote.

As a whole, the Comanche and Quanah in particular never really had much confidence the Ghost Dance Movement of 1890. Quanah respected the white man’s religion but when told by the U. S. Secretary of the Interior that he must give up all of his wives except one and he had three, the great chief replied “Mr. Secretary you tell them”. Multiple wifes and peyote were two things Chief Quanah never compromised. He became a quite successful businessman making money in cattle and land. But even in his last days took an active part in peyote ceremonies described the Half Moon ceremony or the Quanah Parker Way.

Quanah Parker died in 1911 but not long before his death C. S. Simmons observed the great chief conduct a peyote ceremony at his home outside Lawton, Oklahoma. “At about three o’clock in the morning, the silent hour and the time of the greatest manifestation of power, Quanah, the leader, knelt before the altar and prayed earnestly. Then, taking the eagle feathers in both hands, he arose to his feet. I saw at once he was under great inspiration. His whole personality seemed to change. His eyes glowed with a strong light and his body swayed to and fro, vibrating with some powerful emotion. Has sang the beautiful song “Ya-na-ah-away” in a most grand and inspiring manner. Then all sang together in harmony. They prayed to God and Jesus and sang of a “narrow way”.

Glenn Justice

Note: Larry Francell tells me that when Quanah Parker came to Fort Davis the chief stayed at the Lempert Hotel not the Limpia Hotel. The present day Limpia Hotel was not constructed until 1912. In the 1880's an earlier Limpia Hotel did operate near the fort but this is not where Quanah stayed according to Larry. The old Lempert Hotel is today the Veranda Bed and Bed and Breakfast. Thanks for the info Larry!
Gj


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