Empire of the Summer Moon

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The remarkable scene consisted of more than just his own family. There were always many other Comanche tipis around the house, too. That was partly because of Quanah’s unfailing generosity—he fed many hungry Comanches over the years and never turned anyone away.34 According to people who knew him, feeding members of his tribe was the main use to which he put his private herd. Many sick Comanches came there in order to receive prayers—often related to peyote ceremonies (on which more later)—or, sometimes, in the knowledge that Quanah would handle the funeral arrangements. Most were put in beds inside Star House, which meant that family members slept in the tipis.35 His reputation as a healer drew white men as well, at least one of whom claimed to have been healed by him.36

There was also a constant stream of guests, white and Indian, at his dining room, a formal place with wainscoted and wallpapered walls, a molded tin ceiling, and a dinner table that would seat twelve comfortably.37 Quanah laid a splendid table. He hired white women to teach his wives how to cook, and for ten years employed a white servant, a Russian immigrant named Anna Gomez.38 Over the years guests included General Nelson Miles, who had tracked him in the Red River War, his neighbor Geronimo, Kiowa chief Lone Wolf, Charles Goodnight, Commissioner of Indian Affairs R. G. Valentine, British ambassador Lord Brice, Isa-tai, Burk Burnett and Daniel Waggoner, and eventually President Teddy Roosevelt. Though Quanah always refused to talk about his days as a Comanche warrior, he loved to hold forth on tribal politics, or on his frequent trips to Washington. He loved jokes. He dined often with a family named Miller, and at one meal he stated that the white man had pushed the Indian off the land. When Mr. Miller asked how the whites had done this, Quanah told him to sit down on a cottonwood log in the yard. Quanah sat down close to him and said “Move over.“ Miller moved. Parker moved with him, and again sat down close to him. “Move over,” he repeated. This continued until Miller had fallen off the log. “Like that,” said Quanah.39

By 1890, Quanah’s letterhead read “Quanah Parker: Principal Chief of the Comanches,” a title he had been permitted by the agent to use. There had never been such a person before in the history of the tribe. There would never be another. He still had rivals, including the perennial second-rater Isa-tai, but the reality, acknowledged by the white man as well as most Comanches, was that he was the main chief. If, as F. Scott Fitzgerald suggested in the early twentieth century, there are no second acts in American lives, then Quanah was an exception to the rule. The lives of most of his fellow tribe members, however, proved Fitzgerald’s thesis admirably. That year most Comanche adult males still lived in tipis, wore their hair long as in the prereservation days, spoke little or no English, preferred their medicine men to the white man’s doctors, dressed in buckskins and blankets, and continued to condemn agriculture as women’s work.

While Quanah prospered, his friend Ranald Mackenzie’s life took an abrupt turn into sadness and tragedy. The change did not happen right away. During the years after the Red River War, Mackenzie was one of the most highly regarded officers in the U.S. Army. At Fort Sill he had further distinguished himself. As an administrator he may have been abrupt and easily angered, but he was also firm, fair, and just, and won the respect of Kiowas, Apaches, and Comanches alike. One particular story illustrates his stern and deliberate style of management. In 1876 a group of Comanches had illegally left the reservation, then had quietly returned. Mackenzie found out about it and ordered the chiefs to arrest the offenders. Instead of obeying, they showed up at his office wanting to parley. These were typical Indian tactics: parley, dither for an extended period of time, then find a compromise. Mackenzie listened patiently for half an hour to their harangue, while surreptitiously ordering his men to mount up and prepare for battle. He then rose from his desk, and calmly said, “If you do not bring in the renegades in twenty minutes, I will go to their camps and kill them all.” Then he left the room. The renegades were soon delivered.40

Sheridan thought so well of Mackenzie that he sent him and his crack Fourth Cavalry veterans north following Custer’s defeat at Little Bighorn in June 1876. Less than two months after Custer’s demise, Mackenzie assumed command of both the District of the Black Hills and Camp Robinson, the fort that guarded the Red Cloud Sioux Agency. When a large group of Sioux scoffed at Mackenzie’s order to return to the reservation, he promptly took eighteen companies and surrounded the Indian village at dawn. Two hundred thirty-nine men surrendered, along with 729 horses.

That winter he was placed in charge of another major campaign: the Powder River Expedition against the Northern Cheyennes and their chief Dull Knife, a group that had taken part in the destruction of Custer’s troops. In heavy snow and subzero conditions, Mackenzie with 818 soldiers and 363 Indian scouts attacked Dull Knife’s village at dawn on November 25, 1876. They routed the Indians, killing twenty-five and wounding many more and capturing five hundred horses with the loss of only six of his own. In April, Dull Knife, hearing Mackenzie was still after him, surrendered. “You are the one I was afraid of when you came here last summer,” he told Mackenzie. Two weeks later Crazy Horse and 889 Sioux surrendered to Mackenzie at the Red Cloud Agency, ending the Sioux and Cheyenne war.41 The surrender stands as a sort of bookend to the twinned fates of Custer and Mackenzie, the one destined for eternal fame and glory, the other for obscurity and oblivion.

Mackenzie became Sherman and Sheridan’s favorite commander in the West, as he had been Grant’s favorite young officer in the Civil War. He was the one they sent to deal with difficult situations. In 1877 he was called to the border to subdue bandits. In 1879 and 1881 he went to deal with rebellious Utes in Colorado, issuing an ultimatum to them that resembled the one the Comanches had received at Fort Sill—with equivalent success. He crushed an uprising of Apaches in New Mexico and was so successful in dealing with the Indians in general that the governor and citizens of the state lobbied for his promotion to brigadier general. With former president Grant’s enthusiastic help, he got the promotion in October 1881.

But by that time something was already terribly wrong with Ranald Slidell Mackenzie. Soon after his promotion he wrote a letter to his superiors with the odd request for reassignment to a military court or retiring board. The handwriting in the letter was so poor as to suggest that the writer had suffered a stroke. He wanted the soft duty, said the tough-as-nails Mackenzie, because he had suffered “much harder in the last two years than anyone has any idea of.”42 It was the first hint of the calamitous changes that were taking place inside his head.

He was nevertheless assigned to the command of the Department of Texas, based in San Antonio. There, at the age of forty-three, he began a rapid decline. Though he had forsworn alcohol throughout his career, he now began, unaccountably, to drink heavily. His eccentricities, notably his impatience and irritability, increased noticeably. For the first time anyone knew of, he began to keep the company of a lady, the thirty-four-year-old Florida Sharpe, with whom he had fallen in love in the late 1860s while on court-martial duty. (She had then been married to the base’s doctor.) On December 9, 1882, the army surgeon began treating Mackenzie for unusual behavior. On December 10 the quartermaster said that he thought Mackenzie was insane. A week later, General Mackenzie became engaged to Mrs. Sharpe, and it became known that he had purchased property in the nearby town of Boerne and had plans to retire there. On December 18 he drank too much and got into a fight with two local citizens. They had no idea who he was, so they beat him senseless and tied him to a cart where he was found the next day. Several days later he was loaded onto a train under the pretext that Sheridan had something important to speak with him about in Washington. On December 29 he was checked in to the Bloomingdale Asylum in New York City. On March 5, an army retiring board declared, over his protests, that he was insane and therefore not fit for duty.

The rest of his life was a steady descent into madness. He remained in the asylum until June, still protesting his forced retirement, when he went to live with his sister at his bo

yhood home in Morristown, New Jersey. He had plans to revisit Texas and his property in Boerne, but he never moved again. Mrs. Sharpe never spoke of him. His physical and mental health deteriorated; he grew more and more childish until he could no longer make himself understood. He died in a New York hospital on January 18, 1889, at the age of forty-eight.

What caused Mackenzie’s madness? There are several theories. For many years it was thought that his condition was the result of syphilis. But this is unlikely. The army knew all about syphilis, dealt with it constantly, and there is no record of Mackenzie ever being treated for it. One historian suggested that his illness was the result of post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition that was unknown at the time. Mackenzie’s horrific wounds and central role in many Civil War battles certainly could have produced it, and his irritability, explosive temper, and difficulty forming close relationships are common symptoms. He had also suffered an odd accident back in 1875. In the autumn of that year, he somehow fell off a cart at Fort Sill and injured his head so badly that he was in a stupor for three days. It was said that he became unusually irritable in the days that followed. Finally, there is the more remote possibility that the sunstroke he had suffered as a child had something to do with it. We will never know. His death went virtually unnoticed. Quanah, who was forty at the time, making his way in the new, civilized West that Mackenzie had made possible, must have heard about it, though there is no record of his reaction. The day after Mackenzie’s death the following death notice appeared on the obituary page of the New York Times:

MACKENZIE—At New Brighton, Staten Island, on the 19th of January, Brig. Gen. Ranald Slidell Mackenzie, United States Army, in the 48th year of his age.

In its brevity and lack of detail, the item suggested a minor military figure, perhaps someone who had won a medal or two in the war, and had then been put out to grass in some lonely outpost of the new empire. There was no news item in the Times or any other newspapers with the particulars of his life. The event would have seemed to have no more significance to the casual reader than the passing of a manager in a local dry goods company.



IN 1889 THE U.S. Congress came up with a new and ingenious plan to steal land from the Indians. A three-man panel known as the Jerome Commission was appointed and charged with the task of negotiating with the tribes west of the 96th meridian. Their goal was to secure “the cession to the United States of all of their title.” The idea was simple: The Indians would give up their collective, tribal lands. In exchange, each Indian would be allotted a private parcel of land that would be subject to the normal laws of private property. Commissioner David Jerome told the Indians that, instead of a reservation they no longer needed, “now you have the opportunity to sell to the Great Father all that land that you cannot use for homes for his white children.”1 The plan had teeth because of the so-called Dawes Act, passed in 1887, which allowed the president, “whenever he pleases,” to require the Indians to give up their reservations for individual allotments. In council at Fort Sill in 1992, the officials smiled and made nice and did not expect much opposition from Indians who undoubtedly could not comprehend either the idea that they would own private property or the sheer magnitude of the proposed transaction, which would affect some twenty tribes and fifteen million acres.

They had not counted on Quanah Parker. He demanded that he be told the specifics of the proposed deal. “I want to know how much will be paid for one acre, what the terms will be, and when it will be paid,” he insisted. Jerome tried to stall, assuring Quanah that he would get his answers “by and by.” But Quanah would not be put off. “When will you answer the questions?” he asked. Jerome again refused to answer, and Quanah continued to badger him, explaining that, unlike some other Indians who just wanted some quick cash in their pockets, “I want a thorough understanding. I just want to talk about business. Talk to the point.”

The next day he pressed even harder. First he dueled with the commissioners over the size of the allotments. He reminded them that the Treaty of Medicine Lodge had specified three hundred twenty acres per person instead of the one hundred sixty acres they were offering. And he wanted to know how much the government was going to pay for the land that was left over after the Indians each got their one hundred sixty acres. Pressed now, Commissioner Warren Sayre somewhat sheepishly offered up a number: $2 million. The following exchange took place in council.

Quanah: How much per acre?

Sayre: I cannot tell you.

Quanah: How do you arrive at the number of a million dollars if you do not know?

Sayre: We just guess at it.

Quanah: We would like to know how much per acre, because we have heard that some tribes received $1.25 per acre, and the Wichitas received fifty cents per acre and were dissatisfied.2

Quanah soon prevailed. The following day, an exasperated Commissioner Jerome, acknowledging that “Yesterday Mr. Parker pushed Judge Sayre hard to tell him how much . . . for one acre,” actually provided a figure. He now estimated that the government was offering a little over $1 an acre. When they insisted that the low valuation was partly due to the fact that much of the surplus land was rocky and mountainous, Quanah countered: “I have noticed that coal is burned in such localities, and that iron, silver, and gold are found in such places.” Later he added: “The mountains are all supposed to be rocks and the rocks are supposed to be worthless, but the military use them to make houses with. . . .” Thus it went, Quanah hectoring them every step of the way. He was unlike any of the other Indian leaders, who tended to be long-winded, delivering rambling, occasionally poetic complaints that did not address significant issues.

But there was no forestalling the government’s plan. The Dawes Act meant that the white man could seize the land by fiat, making the new law a mere formality. In October the Indians signed the Jerome Agreement, which, once ratified, meant that they would get one hundred sixty acres of land apiece and would sell what was left over to the government for $2 million. Quanah’s role in the final agreement is not known. He signed it, even though it was not in his interest to do so. He stood to lose more from it than any other Comanche, most notably his forty-four-thousand-acre rent-free pasture, from which he made $1,000 a year.

Quanah also understood the futility of blind resistance. Having nominally agreed to the terms of the Jerome Agreement, he spent the next eight years—the time it took the Senate to ratify it—lobbying hard for changes in its terms. He pushed for a new deal in which the Indians got to keep all of their land; he eventually championed the setting aside of an additional 480,000 acres. With help from powerful supporters in the East, the Jerome Agreement was eventually modified to include this. (The largest chunk of it, 400,000 acres, came to be known as the Big Pasture and was leased to the white cattlemen.)

The agreement became law in 1900. Another thirteen months passed before the reservation was opened. On the eve of the change some fifty thousand “sooners” flooded into the country, scouting their own properties and ignoring Indian property lines. Soldiers from Fort Sill cleared the intruders from the land, but they always came back. They stole the Indians’ livestock, and camped on Indian property.

Thus began the Comanches’ new lives as owners of property, something they had never wanted and had never really understood. Ten years later, the system had become drearily familiar. Most Comanches leased out their allotments to white ranchers and farmers and simply lived on the lease payments, supplementing them with the $100 or so each received in interest on tribal funds (from the eventual sale of the Big Pasture) and with periodic work picking cotton or harvesting grain. They retained enough land for a house and garden. Few owned any cattle; most kept a horse or two. By Comanche standards, it was an aimless, purposeless existence.3

The division of the old Indian lands took away most of Quanah’s income. He would never again earn anything near what he made in the 1890s. His unstinting generosity, in fact, would soon make

him relatively poor. But this changed very little in his life. His penury coincided with the peak of his power, influence, and celebrity.

The busy and complex scene continued unabated at his house, where he shared his food and his lodging with ever greater numbers of people. His celebrity now attracted people who simply showed up at his house wanting to meet the famous war chief and share his legendary table. But mostly the people who came were local Indians. According to his adopted white son Knox Beall, who later became the translator at the Fort Sill agency:

My father fed a great many Indians. He had a great herd of cattle and horses in 1890 and when he died in 1911 he did not have many left because he was so generous. When a person became hungry he fed them. He could not stand to see any one of his tribe go hungry.4