Native Themes in New Deal-Era Murals

The Naming of Quanah

Refer to caption
The Naming of Quanah by Jerry Bywaters
Quanah, Texas Post Office
Used with the permission of the United States Postal Service®.

“The Naming of Quanah” (1938) by Jerry Bywaters painted for the Quanah, Texas post office prominently depicts Chief Quanah Parker at the center of the composition. The town of Quanah was named in honor of the famous Comanche chief. Wearing a full-feather headdress, he stands stoically with his right hand raised in a stereotypical greeting and a peace pipe cradled in his left arm. The imagery of the peace pipe stands in stark contrast to the man he greets, who is wielding a rifle and wears a holstered pistol around his waist. The obstructed view of the tipi behind the two men, as opposed to the clear depiction of various historical changes in the region, symbolizes the cultural shifts that took place during Chief Parker’s life time. Other than Chief Parker’s traditional clothing and peace pipe, the tipi is the only other representation of Indigenous cultural depicted in the mural.

On the left-hand side of the composition, Bywaters depicted two scenes, the coming of the railroad and the use of the land for cattle ranching by settlers. The arrival of both most likely led to significant changes for the Comanche people. The right-hand side of the composition depicts further changes that came to the region along with white settlers, including agriculture, animal husbandry, and industry. Beginning in the lower right-hand corner, the raising of livestock and corn are pictured with the hand-picking of cotton and the harvesting of crops just above them. At the top of the painting, Bywaters depicted a large factory in the distance, an indication of the industrialization that took place in the region. These major changes that surround the Comanche Chief end up marginalizing the Comanche culture and way of life just as much as the obstructed view of the tipi and lack of images representing the Comanche Indians that populated the region. Although the mural is a respectful depiction of Chief Quanah Parker, the various scenes that surround him idealize the major changes that took place while diminishing the importance of Comanche Indian traditions and culture in the region of Quanah, Texas.

According to anthropological evidence, the Comanche Indians (also known as Nermurneh) have origins as “a branch of the Northern Shoshones” based in the “Great Basin of the Western United States” and were known as “hunters and gatherers” (“Comanche Indian”). After they acquired horses in the late 17th century, they quickly developed horsemanship skills that were widely respected across the continent (Yeagley). Not only were they able to migrate and cover vast expanses of land in a single day, but horses allowed them to hunt with greater success than ever before, contributing to their rapid expansion during their migration from the Great Basin into Texas. The Comanche gained control of a “vast area of the Southern Plains, including much of North, Central, and West Texas, which soon became known Comanche country, or Comanchería” (“Comanche Indians”).

Soon after their arrival to the Southern Plains, the tribe came “to be known as Comanche, a name derived from the Ute word Komántcia, meaning ‘enemy,’ or, literally, ‘anyone who wants to fight me all the time’” by the Spaniards of New Mexico (“Comanche Indians”). As master horsemen, they relied on Buffalo as their main source of food, shelter, and clothing. Over the next century, the tribe would engage is various skirmishes with white settlers, the Apache, Spanish officials, Mexican officials, and the US government.  In May of 1836, a band of Comanche raided Fort Parker, “killing several settlers and taking five hostages” (Comanche Indian). One of those hostages was nine-year-old Cynthia Ann Parker. During her 24 years with the Comanche, she adapted to the Comanche way of life, became wife to Comanche Chief Peta Nocona, and gave birth to Quanah Parker–the last great Comanche Chief, born about 1845.

After his father was killed in a fight with Texas Rangers and his mother and sister were captured and imprisoned, Quanah Parker found safety and protection as an orphan with the Quahada Comanche, known as the most warlike of the various Comanche bands (Parker, Quanah). When the Quahadas rejected the 1867 Medicine Lodge Treaty, Quanah’s horsemanship and leadership would flourish as the Comanche band continued to roam the Texas plains freely, hunting buffalo and raiding settlements. Later in 1874, Quanah Parker helped formed an alliance with several Indian Tribes and would help lead a coordinated attack on a group of buffalo hunters at Adobe Walls (Parker, Quanah). Over the next few months, Col. Ranald Mackenzie would attempt to lead a series of attacks against the Comanche, forcing Quanah Parker and the Quahadas onto the Kiowa-Comanche reservation in Oklahoma (Parker, Quanah). Quanah Parker was named chief of the Comanche by a federal government “seeking a way to unite the various Comanche bands” (Parker, Quanah).

As Comanche Chief, Quanah Parker would lead his people by example, promoting self-sufficiency and self-reliance. He valued education by supporting the construction of schools and encouraging young Indians to attend. He also helped create a successful ranching industry and supported leasing agreements with white ranchers for the use of Comanche pastureland. Proving to be a shrewd businessman, Chief Parker negotiated various agreements with white settlers and had investments in the Quanah, Acme, and Pacific Railway (“Parker, Quanah”). Chief Parker also served as a judge on the tribunal court and aided in the establishment of the Comanche police force, hoping to reinforce the Indian self-reliance he had hoped for. He rubbed elbows with future president Theodore Roosevelt, calling him his friend. However, despite his partial willingness to assimilate into white culture, he refused to give up Comanche traditions he thought were integral to maintaining their culture–for example, maintaining membership of the Native American Church and refusing monogamy (Parker, Quanah). As a sign of this Chief Parker lobbied in congress for the legitimization of the Comanche Nation. On February 23 of 1923, Chief Quanah Parker died and was buried next to his mother at Post Oak Cemetery in Oklahoma. His biographer, Bill Neeley, wrote in The Last Comanche Chief: The Life and Times of Quanah Parker “Not only did Quanah pass within the span of a single lifetime from a Stone Age warrior to a statesman in the age of the Industrial Revolution, but he accepted the challenge and responsibility of leading the whole Comanche tribe on the difficult road toward their new existence” (Boggs).

The legend of Chief Quanah Parker lives not only in the name of the Texas town but also in the mural painted by Jerry Bywaters commissioned by the Treasury Section of Fine Arts for the Post Office in Quanah, Texas, in 1937. Born on May 21, 1906, in Paris, Texas, Bywaters developed an interest in art at a young age when sketching was his only outlet after an accident saw him bedridden for an entire year. However, it wasn’t until a European tour after graduating from Southern Methodist University that he discovered his “yearning to become an artist” (Dingus). In 1928, on a trip through Mexico, he met Diego Rivera, whose use of vibrant colors and his murals depicting simple scenes influenced Bywaters throughout his artistic career (Dingus). Bywaters briefly took classes at the avant-garde Art Students' League in New York where he would meet his “most influential instructor” social realist John Sloan (Carraro 61). Upon his return to Dallas, Bywaters would enroll at the Dallas Art Institute, where he met other young painters--among them Otis Dozier, Alexandre Hogue, Everett Spruce, and William Lester, who “waved the banner of regionalism” and “sought to produce a purely American art” (Dingus). As a pioneer of Lone Star Regionalism and a member of “the Dallas Nine,” he helped establish the Texas art scene with his totemic paintings during the 1930s and 1940s, including “Oil Field Girls” (1940). In 1937, Bywaters was “invited by the Section of Painting and Sculpture to submit sketches for a mural painting for the new post office in Quanah, Texas,” receiving $690 as payment for the mural (Carraro 241). He was commissioned for a total of four mural projects, “one mural each in the post offices of Trinity, Quanah, and Farmersville, and three murals in the Parcel Post Building of Houston” (Carraro 240).

Built in 1937 with Treasury Department funds, the Quanah Post Office installed Bywaters’ mural in the Spring of 1939 (Carraro 241), where it can still be scene in the lobby today. “The Naming of Quanah” stands as an artistically respectful and permanent record of the local community and its history.

By Andrew Meichtry

To learn more about the Comanche Nation see:


“Biography: Diego Rivera.” n.p. n.d. Web. 12 Oct. 2015.

Boggs, Johnny D. "Book Review: The Last Comanche Chief: The Life and Times of Quanah Parker ." Wild West. HistoryNet. 12 Aug. 2001. Web. 20 Oct. 2015.

Carraro, Francine. “Jerry Bywaters: A Life in Art”. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1994. E-book.

“Comanche Indians.” n.p. n.d. Web. 12 Oct. 2015.

Davis, Steven L. "Jerry Bywaters, Interpreter of the Southwest." Southwestern American Literature 33.2 (2008): 118. Print.

Dingus, Anne. "Brush with Fame." Texas Monthly. Jan 1995. 23.1: 128. Print.

“Parker, Quanah.” n.p. n.d. Web. 12 Oct. 2015.

“The Comanche - Horsemen of the Plains.” n.p. n.d. Web. 10 Oct. 2015.

Indians at the Post Office