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The Quanah Parker Trail

Panhandle-Plains road trip in heart of Comanche homeland
Written by Russell A. Graves. Photographs by Russell A. Graves.

50 51 CattleStanding on a rock ledge looking south over the Pease River Valley in the Texas Panhandle, it is easy to understand why the Comanche loved this country.

Notable stops along the Quanah Parker Trail

The Quanah Parker Trail is a project of the Texas Plains Trail Region, a participant in the Texas Historical Commission’s Texas Heritage Trails program. Each site on the Quanah Parker Trail will be marked with a 23-foot arrow and a monument describing a connection to Comanche chief Quanah Parker. Here are some notable stops to visit.

54 Arrow

Peppered with junipers, mesquite, and cacti, the land is a patchwork of grasslands where bison once grazed by the hundreds of thousands, and where red-dirt badlands are stippled with ribbons of white gypsum. While more than a century has passed since this area was first inhabited by Anglo settlers, it’s still alive with the spirits of native people who lived here for centuries. This is the heart of Comancheria—the Comanche homeland.

The Texas Panhandle and Rolling Plains are the last haunts of the Comanche, who were moved to Oklahoma reservations after the Red River War of 1874 and 1875. When the war ended and the Comanche were forced onto reservations, Chief Quanah Parker emerged as a visionary leader among his people, introducing them to Anglo conventions such as ranching and formal school while encouraging them to retain Comanche cultural traditions.

In 2011, on the centennial of Parker’s death, communities throughout the region established the Quanah Parker Trail to honor Parker, the Comanche people he served in wartime and peacetime, Parker’s Anglo and Comanche descendants, and the Southwest’s Native-American heritage. A project of the 52-county Texas Plains Trail, one of 10 heritage tourism trails developed by the Texas Historical Commission, the Quanah Parker Trail is a still-evolving initiative designed to showcase places with a real or legendary connection to the famous chief. Across dozens of counties in such towns as Matador, Dalhart, Spur, and Lipscomb, 23-foot steel arrows mark spots of interest and significance. Since the program is still developing, new arrows are added on a regular basis.

The Trail’s website describes itself as a “road-trip guide,” and with exploration in mind, I begin my journey just south of the Red River in Quanah (pop. 2,500), the town founded in the 1880s and named for the famed Comanche leader. On the north end of town, the Hardeman County Historical Museum houses a collection of artifacts that chronicle Parker’s time in the area, along with items related to area ranching and the impact of the railroad.

After a quick breakfast at Red’s Drive In, I leave Quanah and head south toward the Pease River Valley. East of Texas 6, four large dolomite hills rise conspicuously from the surrounding flatlands. Known as the Medicine Mounds, the hills stretch across private land in a surprisingly straight line. The Comanche considered the mounds sacred and believed them to be home to powerful spirits. You can see them from Farm-to-Market Road 1167.

I continue east on FM 1167 to the town of Medicine Mound (pop. 6). Not much is left of the town save for a few houses on the periphery, along with a scuttled shell of the community school, an abandoned service station, and the former Hicks-Cobb General Store—now the home of the Downtown Medicine Mound Museum. Built with round granite stones brought from Oklahoma, the building dates to the 1930s and now houses a collection of historic photographs, vintage signs from local businesses, farm implements, arrowheads, quilts, and vintage housewares. The museum isn’t air-conditioned, so it opens by appointment and for limited hours on Saturday mornings.

Soon I resume my explorations, heading south. I make a quick stop at Copper Breaks State Park, where I take a few moments to stretch my legs on a trail that overlooks the broad Pease River Valley. The Pease River (named for Texas Governor Elisha Pease) emerges from the ground along the Caprock Escarpment and flows east until it empties into the Red River just northeast of Vernon.

Just southeast of where I stand, a seminal moment in the history of Quanah Parker played out. In December 1860, Sul Ross and his band of Texas Rangers, along with members of the U.S. Cavalry, came across a Comanche camp in a grove of chittamwood trees. Among them was a blue-eyed Comanche woman named Cynthia Ann Parker, who had been kidnapped some 25 years earlier near present-day Mexia.

By this time, Cynthia Ann was the mother of three half-Comanche children, including Quanah Parker. During the encounter with Ross in 1860, Quanah escaped, but Cynthia Ann and her daugh­­ter were recaptured and reintroduced to Anglo lifeways. Cynthia Ann made several unsuccessful attempts to return to her Comanche family and died within a decade.

I’m still thinking about that poignant drama as I make my way to Crowell. Here, the Foard County Historical Museum, housed in the town’s 1922 fire station, showcases photographs, farm implements, and other items relating to area history. Antique vendors Bryant and Carylon Thompson show me around their store on the town square, then suggest I take a look at Gentry’s Country Store, where owner Marion Gentry has been selling items as varied as soft drinks and work gloves for almost six decades. If you happen by when the store is open (generally 7-5 daily), don’t miss the chance to visit with him.

That evening, I head 10 miles west of Crowell to join my family at the Longhorn Ranch Steakhouse, a western-themed restaurant and RV park specializing in mesquite-grilled fare. I enjoy a delicious pork loin, while my wife and kids dig into mesquite-grilled chicken. After dinner, we drive south on FM 654 for about 5 miles to the Comanche Springs Astronomy Campus to watch the stars. The 700-acre campus, part of the Three Rivers Foundation for the Arts and Sciences, offers camping, wildlife-viewing, and several high-powered tele­scopes, including a 30-inch reflecting telescope that affords spectacular views of Saturn’s rings.

The next morning, I arrive in Matador. Next to the 1891 Historic Motley County Jail, a 23-foot arrow (the first erected on the Quanah Parker Trail) is impaled into the red dirt, honoring the time Parker spent in the area as a warrior and in times of peace. At the edge of town, a monument known as Bob’s Oil Well commemorates a popular gas station and roadside attraction from the 1930s. To attract customers, owner Luther Robertson outfitted his station with an oil derrick, a version of which still towers over the surrounding plains.

West of Matador, I can see the im­mense Caprock Escarpment looming in the distance. The dividing line between the Rolling Plains to the east and the High Plains to the west, the escarpment rises—in some places more than a thousand feet—and runs north to south through the Panhandle. At places like Palo Duro Canyon, Quanah Parker and his fellow Comanche camped and lived off the land thanks to ample water and game.

In towns throughout the Quanah Parker Trail, small museums pay homage to Quanah and the Comanche legacy. In Snyder, I pay a visit to the Scurry County Museum, where Director Daniel Schlegel explains the history of the area and how Native Americans helped shape the cultural tapestry of the region. Among the many items on display are a full-size painting of Chief Parker and a display about buffalo hunter J. Wright Mooar, who killed a rare white buffalo near Snyder in 1876. This event angered the Comanche, who viewed the white buffalo with reverence. Throughout the trail, in fact, historic markers chronicle skirmishes and battles between buffalo hunters, the U.S. Army, and the Comanche. On the northwest corner of the Scurry County courthouse square, a statue of the white buffalo recalls not only this turning point in Comanche-Anglo relations but also Snyder’s history as a buffalo-trading town.

North of Borger lies a monument to the Second Battle of Adobe Walls, which precipitated the Red River War of 1874-75, the last major conflict between the U.S. Army and the Southern plains tribes. Here, in June 1874—a decade after the First Battle of Adobe Walls pitted the U.S. Army against the Comanche and Kiowa—Army scouts Billy Dixon, Bat Masterson, and almost 30 others fought off a surprise morning attack by Quanah Parker and more than 300 Comanche, Kiowa, and Cheyenne. As with the first battle in 1864, the natives sought to preserve their ancestral hunting grounds, while the buffalo hunters—with the unofficial blessing of the United States government—wanted to exploit the vast buffalo herds for their hides. In the end, a legendary shot by Billy Dixon ended the fight.

Soon, I am back on the road headed south toward Shamrock, a town that not only represents Texas’ pioneer days but also the era of the automobile, when travelers first explored the West via America’s new transcontinental highways. Running right through town is Route 66, the famous Chicago-to-Los Angeles road that has inspired books, songs, and road trips for generations. On the periphery of town, you can still see patches of the old highway, complete with the ruins of some of the buildings that serviced drivers on the historic byway. Don’t miss the iconic U-Drop Inn, an Art Deco café and gas station built in 1936. Today, it serves as a visitors center.

The Quanah Parker Trail continues to add sites and monuments as communities throughout the region embrace their heritage. Northwest Texas yields rich rewards for travelers looking to explore one of Texas’ last frontiers.

Writer and photographer Russell Graves lives in Childress, where he specializes in topics relating to nature, wildlife, and agriculture.

See related: Quanah Parker Trail: A Panhandle-Plains Trek

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