Battle of Pease River
Map by Homer Norris
The following first-hand account from General L.S. Ross is from the book, Indian Depredations, by J.W. Wilbarger.
On the eighteenth of December, 1860, while marching up Pease river, I had suspicions that Indians were in the vicinity, by reason of the buffalo that came running in great numbers from the north towards us, and while my command moved in the low ground, I visited all neighboring high points to make discoveries. On one of these sand hills I found four fresh pony tracks, and being satisfied that Indian videttes had just gone, I galloped forward about a mile to a higher point, and, riding to the top, to my inexpressible surprise, found myself within two hundred yards of a Comanche village, located on a small stream winding around the base of the hill. It was a most happy circumstance that a piercing north wind was blowing, bearing with it clouds of sand, and my presence was unobserved and the surprise complete. By signaling my men as I stood concealed, they reached me without being discovered by the Indians, who were busy packing up, preparatory to a move. By this time the Indians mounted and moved off north across the level plain. My command, with the detachment of the Second cavalry, had outmarched and become separated from the citizen command, which left me about sixty men. In making disposition for attack, the sergeant and his twenty men were sent at a gallop, behind a chain of sand hills, to encompass them in and cut off their retreat, while with forty men I charged. The attack was so sudden that a considerable number were killed before they could prepare for defense. They fled precipitately right into the presence of the sergeant and his men. Here they met with a warm reception, and finding themselves completely encompassed, every one fled his own way, and was hotly pursued and hard pressed.
"The chief of the party, Peta Nocona, a noted warrior of great repute, with a young girl about fifteen years of age mounted on his horse behind him, and Cynthia Ann Parker, with a girl child about two years of age in her arms, and mounted on a fleet pony, fled together, while Lieutenant Tom Killiheir and I pursued them. After running about a mile Killiheir ran up by the side of Cynthia's horse, and I was in the act of shooting when she held up her child and stopped. I kept on after the chief, and about half a mile further, when in about twenty yards of him I fired my pistol, striking the girl (whom I supposed to be a man, as she rode like one, and only her head was visible above the buffalo robe with which she was wrapped) near the heart, killing her instantly, and the same ball would have killed both but for the shield of the chief, which hung down, covering his back. When the girl fell from the horse she pulled him off also, but he caught on his feet, and before steadying himself, my horse, running at full speed, was very nearly upon top of him, when he was struck with an arrow, which caused him to fall to pitching or 'bucking,' and it was with great difficulty that I kept my saddle, and in the meantime, narrowly escaped several arrows coming in quick succession from the chief's bow. Being at such disadvantage he would have killed me in a few minutes but for a random shot from my pistol (while I was clinging with my left hand to the pommel of my saddle) which broke his right arm at the elbow, completely disabling him. My horse then became quiet, and I shot the chief twice through the body, whereupon he deliberately walked to a small tree, the only one in sight, and leaning against it, began to sing a wild, weird song. At this time my Mexican servant, who had once been a captive with the Comanches and spoke their language fluently as his mother tongue, came up, in company with two of my men. I then summoned the chief to surrender, but he promptly treated every overture with contempt, and signalized this declaration with a savage attempt to thrust me with his lance which he held in his left hand. I could only look upon him with pity and admiration. For, deplorable as was his situation, with no chance of escape, his party utterly destroyed, his wife and child captured in his sight, he was undaunted by the fate that awaited him, and as he seemed to prefer death to life, I directed the Mexican to end his misery by a charge of buckshot from the gun which he carried. Taking up his accoutrements, which I subsequently sent to Governor Houston, to be deposited in the archives at Austin, we rode back to Cynthia Ann and Killiheir, and found him bitterly cursing himself for having run his pet horse so hard after an 'old squaw.' She was very dirty, both in her scanty garments and person. But as soon as I looked on her face, I said: 'Why, Tom, this is a white woman, Indians do not have blue eyes.' On the way to the village, where my men were assembling with the spoils, and a large caballada of 'Indian ponies,' I discovered an Indian boy about nine years of age, secreted in the grass. Expecting to be killed, he began crying, but I made him mount behind me, and carried him along. And when in after years I frequently proposed to send him to his people, he steadily refused to go, and died in McLennan county last year.
"After camping for the night Cynthia Ann kept crying, and thinking it was caused from fear of death at our hands, I had the Mexican tell her that we recognized her as one of our own people, and would not harm her. She said two of her boys were with her when the fight began, and she was so distressed by the fear that they had been killed. It so happened, however, both escaped, and one of them, 'Quanah' is now a chief. The other died some years ago on the plains. I then asked her to give me the history of her life with the Indians, and the circumstances attending her capture by them, which she promptly did in a very sensible manner. And as the facts detailed corresponded with the massacre at Parker's Fort, I was impressed with the belief that she was Cynthia Ann Parker. Returning to my post, I sent her and child to the ladies at Cooper, where she could receive the attention her situation demanded, and at the same time dispatched a messenger to Colonel Parker, her uncle, near Weatherford, and as I was called to Waco to meet Governor Houston, I left directions for the Mexican to accompany Colonel Parker to Cooper in the capacity of interpreter. When he reached there, her identity was soon discovered to Colonel Parker's entire satisfaction and great happiness." And thus was fought the battle of Pease river, between a superior force of Comanches under the implacable chief, Peta Nocona on the one side, and sixty rangers led by their youthful commander, Captain L. S. Ross, on the other. Ross, sword in hand, led the furious rush of the rangers; and in the desperate encounter of "war to the knife" which ensued, nearly all the warriors bit the dust.
So signal a victory had never before been gained over the fierce and war like Comanches; and never since that fatal December day in 1860 have they made any military demonstrations at all commensurate with the fame of their proud campaigns in the past. The great Comanche confederacy was forever broken. The incessant and sanguinary war which had been waged for more than thirty years was now virtually at an end. The blow was a most decisive one; as sudden and irresistible as a thunder bolt, and as remorseless and crushing as the hand of Fate. It was a short but desperate conflict. Victory trembled in the balance. A determined charge, accompanied by a simultaneous fire from the solid phalanx of yelling rangers, and the Comanches beat a hasty retreat, leaving many dead and wounded upon the field. Espying the chief and a chosen few riding at full speed, and in a different direction from the other fugitives, from the ill starred field, Ross quickly pursued. Divining his purpose, the watchful Peta Nocona rode at full speed, but was soon overtaken, when the two chiefs engaged in a personal encounter, which must result in the death of one or the other. Peta Nocona fell, and his last sigh was taken up in mournful wailings on the wings of defeat. Most of the women and children, with a few warriors escaped. Many of these perished on the cold and inhospitable plains, in an effort to reach their friends on the head waters of the Arkansas river.
The immediate fruits of the victory was some four hundred and fifty horses, and their accumulated winter's supply of food. But the incidental fruits are not to be computed on the basis of dollars and cents. The proud spirit of the Comanche was here broken, and to this signal defeat is to be attributed the measurably pacific conduct of these heretofore implacable foes of the white race during the course of the late civil war in the Union-a boon of incalculable value to Texas.
In a letter recognizing the great service rendered the State by Ross in dealing the Comanches this crushing blow, Governor Houston said: "Your success in protecting the frontier gives me great satisfaction. I am satisfied that with the same opportunities, you would rival, if not excel, the greatest exploits of McCulloch and Hays. Continue to repel, pursue, and punish every body of Indians coming into the State, and the people will not withhold their praise." [Signed] Sam Houston
President Sam Houston
(1793-1863) wearing a cowboy duster in this early daguerreotype. Houston preferred a policy of treating with the hostile Indians and opposed the ability of Major General Thomas Rusk to call up the Texas Militia without presidential consent.
Texas State Library and Archive Commission.
The following account is from the book, Passionate Nation, The Epic History of Texas, by James L. Haley.
After hostile Comanches raided through Jack, Parker, and Palo Pinto counties, north of the former Texas reserve, Ross and forty of his men gave chase and overran a large village of about 150 warriors and perhaps three times that many dependents on the Pease River, surprising them as they were loading up their winter supply of buffalo meat. The bulk of the Comanches bolted when Ross attacked and captured 370 horses and mules, nineteen of which were branded as U.S. Cavalry mounts. Their retreat was covered by a number of warriors who stuck and fought. About a dozen of this rear guard were killed, and after the fleeing Comanches opened up some distance, the chief ordered the survivors to mount and ride after them. As he did so he pulled a woman up onto his horse behind him. Sul Ross himself gave chase, firing after them, but saw no effect until the mortally wounded woman fell from the horse five hundred yards later, pulling the chief off with her. The bullet had passed through her body and wounded the chief as well. Dismounted, the chief loosed a stream of arrows, one of which hit Ross' horse, and Ross returned fire until he struck the chief in the arm.
Ross sent for his Mexican cook-interpreter, Anton, asked who the man was, and learned that it was the chief of the band, Peta Nocona. "Tell him then that if he will surrender he will not be shot anymore."
After brief exchange, Anton relayed, "you tell the white captain that when I am dead, I will surrender, but not before, and not to him." Nocona then fastened a rope to the tree and to a lance, hurling it at Ross, and began singing his death song.
"That is the bravest man I ever saw," said Ross. "I can't shoot as brave a man as that."
Unknown to Ross, his cook, Antonio Martinez, in his youth had been Nocona's personal slave, and had witnessed the chief kill his mother as she pled for their lives. What Ross could not do, Martinez quickly did. Ross ran up to where the chief fell, "and he looked up at him and breathed about three times, and between breaths gritted his teeth ...and died."
Ross joined the pursuit of the other Indians, and when he returned saw one of his lieutenants, Tom Kelliher, trying to subdue one of the Comanche women. Ross rode over swiftly. "Tom, this is a white woman." Anton identified her as the wife of the dead chief, and as one witness described it, she "paraded around over Nocona a bit," and was later taken to Camp Cooper for identification.
An elderly Isaac Parker, survivor of the Parker's Fort raid a quarter century before, called, thinking it might be one of his relatives. He told the wild-eyed captive, "My niece's name was Cynthia Ann," at which the woman became excited and slapped her chest. "Cynthia Ann! Cynthia Ann!" It was all the English she remembered.
The following story is from the book, Carbine & Lance, The Story of Old Fort Sill, by Colonel W.S. Nye.
In the fall of 1860, the war chief Nawkohnee (usually called Peta Nacona in Texan accounts) led his small band of eastern Comanches deep into Parker County, passing close to the site of the old Parker fort. But this was now a long-settled, armed, and highly organized frontier. Nawkohnee soon withdrew and raced westward toward the High Plains, for he had stirred up a hornets' nest of vengeful Texans.
Ranger captain Sul Ross, an experienced leader, took up the chase with sixty riders, some Tonkawa scouts, and seventy settler volunteers. A patrol from the 2nd Cavalry, a sergeant and twenty troopers, joined him, placing themselves under the state officer's command. Ross rode further and further, determined to catch the marauders and teach them a Texas lesson they would not forget. He drove his command high onto the plains in the teeth of winter. Finally, his scouts reported the Comanche lodges on the Pease River, near what was to become the tiny town of Quanah.
On December 17, 1860, Ross came down on the Comanche camp behind the noise and dust of a howling west Texas norther. This was the camp of Nawkohnee, but it held only women and children and a Mexican male slave. The chief, his sons, and warriors had gone hunting, never dreaming that white men would pursue him to the heart of the bison plains.
The Rangers, volunteers, and soldiers crashed through the camp. There were the screams and shots, ripped away by the wind, the usual killing. Accounts vary as to what happened. Captain Ross, who was acclaimed a hero for the deed, claimed and probably honestly believed that he had caught and killed Peta Nacona. But in the melee he pursued and shot Nawkohnee's Mexican slave, who was trying to save the fleeing Comanche women.
The plunging horsemen fired at every running figure, killing, as Ross reported, "several" females. But then, as Ranger Charles Goodnight took aim at a small running form, the wind caught and turned back a blanket, exposing dirty, dung-greased, but unmistakably blond hair. Goodnight screamed: "Don't shoot her! She's white!"
This woman was spared and seized. Ross examined her. She seemed to know no English, but her eyes were blue, and although wrinkled and browned by the elements, her exposed skin and features were distinctly Caucasian. She carried a little girl, a small, dark, eighteen-month-old baby. When the Rangers and soldiers left the burned camp with its scattered, tumbled corpses, they carried the woman and girl back with them.
The woman created a great sensation, for she was positively identified as Cynthia Ann Parker. She was the right age, the right coloring, and had Parker features. And when her name was spoken, she broke into tears, although she had forgotten every other word of English.
The Parker clan had become prominent in this part of Texas. They received Cynthia Ann back with rejoicing and tried to give her love; Parker blood had helped win Texas, and the family cared nothing for popular opinion. But opinion now was highly sentimental. The state legislature granted Cynthia Ann Parker a league of land and an annual pension of $100 for life to ease her return to civilization. Her family and her people now did everything they could for Cynthia Ann, as they believed, and so destroyed her.
For this blue-eyed yellow-haired survivor of an almost-forgotten massacre was no longer a Parker, or a Texan. She was Naduah, Nerm, a woman of the People, who had belonged to them now, for twenty-five years. Her husband was Nawkohnee, the respected chief; her sons were still out on the prairie. Every account or memory of the People has agreed that this family was a singularly happy one, and that Nawkohnee the chief, when he returned to his ruined and death-filled camp, never took another woman. The Parkers would not grant the woman Naduah the one thing she begged of them-to return her to her man and two sons on the High Plains.
When she tried to escape, sadly but adamantly the Parkers put her under guard. There was no hope of adjustment. This, probably, did much to kill the little girl, Topsannah or Flower, who died from a "civilized" disease. Naduah then, to the horror of her blood kin, mourned her dead child like woman of the People. She mutilated herself, cried and howled. She had nothing more to live for; she sank into deep apathy and starved herself to death.
But the Parker saga was not ended, nor would tragedy cease to haunt the Parker blood. Far to the west, the grieving Nawkohnee died from an infected wound. His younger son Pecos, or Peanut, fell prey to some disease. Such losses were not unusual for a Comanche family in these years. But the elder son, born about 1847, who was called Kwahnah (Quanah) or Sweet Odor, was growing tall and strong. Already as a boy, he showed intelligence and spirit and great character. In his twenties, he was to be acclaimed a war chief and, in his way, to become the greatest Comanche chief of all time. The Texans would hear of him, fear him, hate him, and eventually come to honor him, writing-half in boasting, half in bitterness-that blood would always tell.
The following story is from the book, The Great Chiefs, by Benjamin Capps.
Cynthia Ann was one of five white women and children abducted by the warriors. Like most young white captives, she adjusted readily to the Indian life and was adopted by the Comanches, who suffered from a low birth rate. In her teens, she became the wife of Peta Nocona, a rising young chief of the Noconas, one of the main bands. Early in her marriage, she gave birth to Quanah-meaning "fragrant" in Comanche. The infant looked just like a full-blooded Comanche, except that his eyes were blue-gray instead of black. As Quanah grew into a strong, tall boy, Cynthia Ann bore another son, Pecos, and a daughter, Prairie Flower.
Three children were a larger-than-average brood for a Comanche woman, and Nocona was so pleased with his productive blue-eyed spouse that, though most chiefs took several wives, he remained monogamous. Cynthia Ann was as content as her husband. In the 1850s, some white hunters met her on the plains and offered to pay ransom for her freedom. She refused, saying she had children to care for and that she loved her husband.
Quanah, like all Comanche children, grew up on horseback. He learned to ride with his mother almost as soon as he could walk, and by the time he was five he had a pony of his own and was practicing with a small bow and blunt arrows as he rode at increasing speeds. A Comanche's boyhood was a pampered, sportive idyll, and from the time Quanah was nine or ten he and other youths were taking midnight joy rides on the moonlit prairie, playing rough games and enviously watching the warriors parade around camp before leaving on raids. Quanah learned that Comanche men hunted to live, but lived to win honors and booty in war.
Because anyone who did not fight was not truly a man to the Comanches, many aging warriors felt that life had become purposeless, and they would bitterly quote the Comanche proverb, "A brave man dies young." More than a few elderly warriors, realizing that their skills and strength were fast slipping away, chose to commit suicide by battle. One such glorious death was witnessed-and abetted-by a troop of U. S. cavalry in 1860. The soldiers, pursuing a Comanche raiding party, saw an aged warrior dismount up ahead. He removed his moccasins, a sure sign that he did not intend to leave that spot alive. The old man fought hard and wounded three soldiers and their commanding officer before he died with more than twenty bullets in him. But while he made his brave stand, his friends were able to get away.
Quanah probably went on his first raid-and killed his first enemy-by the age of fifteen. The success of the mission was practically a foregone conclusion, in part because the Texas frontier was too extended to defend at all points against surprise attack, and also because Comanche raiders never neglected to play for their retreat. If the target lay at any appreciable distance, they traveled with a change of horses in tow. The warriors would set up a temporary camp not far from the intended point of attack, and leave their spare horses there before swooping in for the kill. It took hours for any settler who escaped their scalping knives to round up a relief force, and the rescuers could not reach the ravaged settlement for hours more. By then the booty-laden warriors would have returned to their temporary camp, carefully traveling over rocky areas and through stream beds to conceal their tracks. Mounted on fresh horses, they would ride as much as one hundred miles without stopping for food or rest. Even if they were tracked to their temporary camp and beyond, their pursuers stood only a slim chance of catching them.
Quanah's reaction to the recapture of his mother can only be guessed at in light of his persistent later efforts to learn of her fate. Obviously he loved Cynthia Ann, and an adolescent boy-even a fierce Comanche-was bound to be shaken by the sudden loss of a parent. Almost certainly, the loss added an urge for vengeance to his hatred for the whites who kept proclaiming themselves the masters of the Comanche range.
Quanah suffered other losses in quick succession. His father died, reportedly of an infected wound, and his brother Pecos then died of disease. With no one left to hold him in the Nocona band, Quanah joined the powerful Kwahadies, a band that lived on the edge of the Staked Plains of West Texas, a timberless tableland bordered by steep escarpments; the region's name recalled an early Spanish surveying venture.
Among the Comanches, individual warriors and whole families changed bands freely, often to follow an especially successful war chief. Quanah was probably attracted to the Kwahadies by their reputation as persistent and consummately skillful raiders. If so, he made the switch at a most opportune time, for the Comanches suddenly found themselves almost unopposed. The Civil War not only stripped the forts of U. S. soldiers, but also sent about 60,000 Texans into the Confederate Army, leaving scarcely 27,000 men behind to defend the entire state. The Comanches, together with the Kiowas and other allies, turned central Texas into a disaster area. Hundreds of settlers were massacred, and their settlements were reduced to charred ruins. When the U. S. Army finally returned after the war, an officer remarked, "This rich and beautiful section does not contain today as many white people as it did when I visited eighteen years ago."
Tabananica (Hears-the-Sunrise) and Isa-habbit (Wolf-Lying-Down) were in charge of the Comanches. The Comanches say that a number of their people, including some women and children, were killed. One of the Caddoes killed a prominent Kiowa named Bird-Appearing, which led to subsequent bad feeling between the Caddoes and Kiowas. A ranger named James Pike states that after the fight the Tonkawas indulged in their well-known flair for cannibalism by roasting and eating some of the slain Comanches.
Captain Cureton's Rangers responded immediately to Nocona's raid. Goodnight relates the occurrences:
'It was still raining, but we struck out in a westerly direction aiming to intercept the trail of the Indians, who had taken a northwest course from Loving's Valley. We followed the trail all day, passed through the Western Cross Timbers, and were some miles west, in the open country, when night overtook us. We appeared to be very close on their trail, as we had ridden faster than they could with the large herd of horses-about a hundred and fifty head.
'Just as dark overtook us, we came into the main drift of the buffaloes, making trailing more difficult. But at daybreak we took the trail again with all speed practicable, and by dark we had reached Pease River, a few miles above where Vernon now stands. The Indians continued up the river in a westerly direction. They seemed to have driven all night, as the trail at sundown was not as fresh as it was the evening before. It was their custom, in going out, especially, to scatter their herds when striking gravel or hard ground to make trailing as difficult as possible. But now, beyond where they thought white men would follow, they had quit all such precautions and were driving in a body. Still we had not got west of the buffalo herd. We reasoned we could not catch them before they would reach large bodies of their own people, which would make it folly for us to attempt an attack, which reasoning afterward proved correct.'
When the Rangers returned to the Keechi Valley, they found the community terror-stricken. A ranchman from that time related:
the most intense excitement and dire alarm pervades the whole country. Men, women, and children may be seen hurrying on horseback, on foot, and in sleights to Camp Cooper and Weatherford; leaving behind their homes and property, unguarded and exposed to the ruthless hand of savage invasion.
The entire settlement west of Weatherford have fled to the interior, and it
is left the extreme frontier post.
In the fall of 1861, Confederate Colonel Henry McCulloch ordered his Texas Mounted Riflemen on an extended scout west of the settlements. They score a victory against the Comanches on the Pease River. The following is from the book, Horse Sweat and Powder Smoke, by Stanley S. McGowen: