Out of the Way
Copper Breaks State Park offers history and beauty along with a true tale of the Comanches and the frontier of Northwest Texas.
By Russell A. Graves
From my vantage point high on a bluff overlooking the broken badlands of the Pease River, I can see the appeal of this land to centuries of intrepid travelers. This country has attracted Comanches, a future president, cowboys, ranchers, farmers and, most recently, tourists. The badlands are situated in the midst of some of the most beautiful country in Northwest Texas, in Copper Breaks State Park.
While I contemplate the rugged landscape, the morning-sun sky washes the broken red badlands with a soft light. Sitting on a slickrock ledge, I am glad that public access exists along this riparian corridor. Virtually unknown to people outside the region, this 1,899-acre park is the only bit of public land situated along the Pease, a non-navigable stream that is an insignificant source of water compared to other, more notable, Texas streams. Even though it may not be notable for its water, the Pease is notable for the history that has unfolded along its banks.
Failed Attempts at Mining
I am seated perhaps 200 feet above the river as it flows from right to left toward its merger with the Red River about 45 miles from here, northeast of Vernon. Behind me lies Hardeman County. Wedged between the Red River to the north and the Pease River to the south, Hardeman County is typical of the hardscrabble country on the western end of the Red River. Red-rock breaks dominate the watercourses, which are surrounded by acres of mesquite, agarita, yucca, prickly pear flats and shortgrasses that seem to flow uninterrupted, save for intermittent, neatly tended fields of cotton and wheat. Across the river to the south is Foard County, which looks to be a carbon copy of its neighbor to the north.
Located 12 miles south of Quanah — just off Texas Highway 6 — Copper Breaks State Park gets its name from the deposits of copper laced throughout the area’s indigenous rock. The famed Red River explorer Captain Randolph Marcy first discovered evidence of copper in the area during his expedition to the Texas frontier in 1854. More than 20 years later, after serving as an officer in the Civil War and as governor of New Jersey, General George McClellan traveled to Hardeman County to mine the copper. Financed with $1 million from a Philadelphia investment group, McClellan led a wagon train and 200 horses from Fort Worth and began exploration. Five years later, confident that copper mining was a feasible enterprise, McClellan shipped heavy machinery to a primary mine site on the south side of the Pease River.
In 1884, with $12 million in operating capital, the Grand Belt Copper Company began full-scale, open-pit mining of the ore. Up to 100 employees worked the steam-powered machinery and rock-crushing equipment, and a shantytown of saloons and other frontier businesses soon opened. George McClellan died in 1885 and the mine closed in 1888, after less than 4 years of mining, because of lackluster production. Other entrepreneurs attempted to open the mine three more times, but none succeeded.
Land of the Medicine Mounds
Around 1725, the Comanche Indians split off from the Shoshone tribe of Colorado’s Rocky Mountain region. Moving southeast across the plains, the Comanches eventually made the land surrounding the Pease River the center of a vast piece of Texas and Oklahoma real estate known as Comanchería.
“The People,” as the Comanches called themselves, were the dominant tribe of the plains and offered considerable resistance to settlers of the West Texas frontier. During the 100 years or so that the Comanches freely roamed the Texas plains, they found the Pease River a favorable place to hunt bison, find shelter from northern winds and seek medicine from the spirit world. Just 10 miles east of Copper Breaks State Park is one of the places where the Comanches believed spirits dwelled.
Rising as conspicuous domes above the relatively flat surrounding plain, the Medicine Mounds consist of four monolithic, conical hills that lie in a southeast-to-northwesterly line. The hills grow progressively larger, with the largest hill, some 350 feet tall, at the northwest end of the line. The top of the largest hill is covered with a layer of protective rock. The Comanches believed that the most benevolent and powerful spirits lived at the top of this hill. One medicine man found the spirits after his daughter became ill and a vision directed him to the top of the highest mound. Once on top of the hill, he mixed his medicines as the spirits instructed and prayed for his daughter’s good health. After leaving the mound, he returned to his tepee to find his daughter awake and her fever broken.
Soon the word about the powers of the mound spread and other medicine men visited the area, seeking its powers. Warriors often visited the mounds to drink from their gypsum-laced springs, which was thought to cure ailments. The Comanches also believed that as long as they were in sight of the mounds, the hills would direct their arrows into the buffalo and protect them from their enemy’s weapons.
The Recapture of Cynthia Ann Parker
An ancient bison trail leads from the Medicine Mounds to the Pease River. It was here that one of the most significant events in the history of the Comanches’ struggle with settlers occurred: the recapture of Cynthia Ann Parker, a settler’s child who had been raised to womanhood as a Comanche.
In 1836, Parker was kidnapped from her family’s fort east of Waco. For the next 24 years she was raised as a Comanche; she married a Comanche chief and had two children with him. Before her recapture along the Pease, white people spotted her three times. Captain Randolph Marcy saw her during his 1854 Red River expedition, and wrote: “There is at this time a white woman among the Middle Comanches, by the name of Parker, who, with her brother, was captured while they were young children from their father’s house in the western part of Texas. This woman has adopted all the habits and peculiarities of the Comanches; has an Indian husband and children and cannot be persuaded to leave them …”
Eight years later, she was captured back by whites. In 1860, just a few miles east of Copper Breaks State Park, where Mule Creek runs into the Pease River, a young scout for the Texas Rangers named Charles Goodnight rode into an abandoned camp and picked up a Bible that had belonged to a Parker County family killed in a Comanche raid a few weeks earlier.
Goodnight knew that Comanches often stole books in their raids and used them in makeshift bullet-resistant vests. He instructed a group of Rangers to ride into a grove of bumelia trees and look for signs that the Comanches were camped there. Upon finding signs, Goodnight noted that the trail headed west, and the band of frontier fighters followed. A few minutes later, the Comanches were spotted and a brief gun battle ensued.
A woman riding a gray horse and carrying an infant was captured, and Goodnight noted her reaction: “The squaw was in terrible grief. Through sympathy for her, thinking her distress would be the same as that of our women under similar circumstances, I thought I would try to console her and make her understand that she would not be hurt. When I got near her I noticed that she had blue eyes and light hair, which had been cut short …”
Shorn hair was a Comanche sign of mourning. The woman was Cynthia Ann Parker, and she was the wife of Chief Peta Nocona and mother of Quanah Parker, the last chief of the Comanches. The baby she carried when she was captured was Topasannah — little sister to Quanah Parker. According to The Handbook of Texas, Cynthia Ann returned to her family in Van Zandt County with her daughter, who died 10 years later. Though the exact date of Cynthia Ann Parker’s death is disputed, the last record of her was the 1870 Anderson County census.
From that pivotal event, the Comanches warred with buffalo hunters, pioneers and the United States Army for the next 15 years. Shortly after his father died around 1865, Quanah Parker took command of the Quahadi band of Comanches. He led raids on buffalo hunters across the Texas plains and fought the United States Army led by Colonel Ranald MacKenzie until the Comanches surrendered in 1875 and were exiled to a Kiowa-Comanche reservation at Fort Sill, Oklahoma.
When the fighting was over, Parker became a dignitary for his people and often lobbied leaders in the U.S. government for Indian rights. In 1906, he hosted a wolf hunt for President Theodore Roosevelt just north of where I sit. Five years later, Quanah Parker died of heart failure. He left a legacy of peace that helped heal the divide between the Comanche people and the United States government.
A small museum at the park’s headquarters displays artifacts that trace the area’s frontier history. Purchased in 1970 from a private owner, the park opened in 1974. It offers campsites, recreational vehicle hook-ups and group picnic and camping areas.
Along the 10 miles of hiking trails, an assortment of wildlife can be seen: Texas horned lizards, roadrunners and white-tailed and mule deer. The park’s 60-acre lake is home to many shorebirds and species of waterfowl. From my perch, I watch turkey vultures catch thermals and soar as they search the broken terrain for carrion. In this short trip, I have seen a couple of rabbits and some wigeons on the lake. As a plant lover, I appreciate the variety of rugged plants that populate the park’s rocky breaks. Grama grasses, little bluestem and sand dropseed sculpt the park’s softscape. Copper and gypsum-laced rocks, mesquite, and prickly pear create a pleasing hardscape. Rounding out the mix are colorful flowers such as Indian Blanket, horsemint and prairie verbena.
Despite its beauty, Copper Breaks State Park is not heavily used. Small crowds and year-round interpretive programs such as the star-gazing tours make this an attractive park.
For the past 2 hours, as the sun gains altitude in the immense cobalt sky, I have been watching the birds, the river and the trees swaying rhythmically in the wind. The land is a sensual delight. The smell of the sage and juniper, the feel of the constant wind, the calls of bobwhite quail, the rustling of cottonwood leaves and the sight of an unending and remote landscape beneath a huge sky satisfy the soul. The longer I sit, the more I understand what Comanches and cowboys saw in this country.
The Trail of Cynthia Ann Parker
The story of Cynthia Ann Parker is one of the most enduring stories of the Texas frontier. The classic John Ford western, The Searchers, was loosely based on Parker’s story. For history enthusiasts, following the trail of Cynthia Ann and Quanah Parker is relatively easy.
East of Waco, along the Navasota River near Mexia, is Fort Parker State Park. A replica of the family fort is situated in a nearby city park operated by the town of Groesbeck. In the Comanche chief’s namesake town of Quanah, the Hardeman County Historical Museum tells the area’s frontier history from a local point of view. Just east of Quanah you can see the Medicine Mounds by turning south onto FM 1167 from US Highway 287. A word of warning, though:The Medicine Mounds lie on private property and trespassing is prohibited.
Near the community of Margaret, in northeastern Foard County, a granite marker 3 miles east of Copper Breaks State Park commemorates the Pease River Battle Site where Cynthia Ann Parker was recaptured. From Texas Highway 6, turn east on FM 3103 to the small community of Margaret, take FM 98 from Margaret, and then turn north on County Road 231. An alternative route is to get on FM 98 at Crowell and travel to CR 231.
Just northeast of Copper Breaks State Park, near the city of Lawton, Oklahoma, Quanah Parker, Topassanah, and Cynthia Ann Parker’s graves lie commemorated in the Fort Sill Cemetery. A few hours northwest of Copper Breaks State Park in Canyon, Texas, the Panhandle Plains Museum chronicles the life of Quanah Parker, the Comanche Indians and the history of the plains more thoroughly than any other museum in Texas.