By: Jayme Rutledge
The cold breath of early winter pierces the morning air as a half dozen Comanche come to kill Rachel Plummer’s 6-week-old son. Like an enraged lion, an Indian tightens his grip around the throat of the infant until he is dead, or so it seems. Rachel is breathless with anguish, but cannot cry. Six months enslaved with the Comanche has dried up her grief. As she caresses the limp baby in her arms, color returns to his cheeks. The Comanche, angry that the baby is alive, tie a rope around his neck, secure the other end to a horse and drag him through a hedge of prickly pear. The spines of the cactus rip open his soft flesh. An Indian throws the dead child into Rachel’s lap. She carves a grave in the hard ground with a knife and buries her son. “May God grant me a heart to pray for [the Comanche],” Rachel laments later. “For ‘they know not what they do.’”
It’s the fodder of frontier thriller: Two girls, captured during an Indian raid on the family fort in Texas, are forced to live in captivity among savages. The tragic reality of pioneer life — violence, abduction, separation and death — leave Rachel and her cousin, Cynthia Ann, heartbroken, mourning their children lost on the plains. Many times I’ve been told to “let the story find me.” But one week in Archer City — on the eastern edge of the old Comanchería, where the tribe ruled with an iron fist — Cynthia Ann and Rachel rose from the ashes of the past, determined to make me listen.
The small town of Archer City, in northwest Texas, is an unlikely place for a writer’s retreat in late July, when the desert-like heat rises to its peak. We — four writers at the weeklong workshop — are sitting in a half-circle around Jack Loftin at his Archer City home. Loftin is in his 80s now, but he sits with his shoulders against the back of the chair, his military background clear in his appearance — neatly combed grey hair and simple clothes. We are as quiet as kindergartners at story time, enjoying the cool of whirring floor fans and iced sodas handed out in red plastic cups by Jack’s wife Marie. A historian and born storyteller, Jack spins tales from a deep well of memory.
Listening to Jack, I dredge up half-forgotten facts and names learned in my seventh grade Texas history class, until he mentions someone I’d never heard of before: Cynthia Ann Parker, a 9-year-old abducted by the Comanche along with her 17-year-old cousin, the red-haired Rachel Plummer. Married to a chief, Cynthia Ann bears three children by her Indian husband before the Texas Rangers recapture her in 1860 in a battle near the Pease River. In most history books, the story ends here. If I had not found a book while wandering in Larry McMurtry’s personal library, my interest might have ended there, too.
The book, a passport to the past, opened a direct link to Rachel, whose passion and pain jumped from the page. Months went by and still I couldn’t stop thinking and talking about them, two women who had lived more than 150 years ago, who had become characters in tired tales of Indian atrocities and dusty old history books. The hunt for facts, not legend, took eight months. I spent hours searching long-dead 19th century newspapers, like the Fort Worth Daily Gazette and The Palestine Daily Herald, preserved in databases like the Library of Congress and The Portal to Texas History. My search took me to the fort where the Comanche and Kiowa first ambushed the Parkers as well as the cemetery where the men who died in the attack are buried in a common grave. Ironically, much of the tale unfolded beneath the watchful eyes of the last Comanche chief, who had a personal stake in the story as well.
Fort Parker, where the attack on the Parkers took place, is tucked away down a tree-lined road off Highway 14 between Mexia and Groesbeck, near the Navasota River in East Texas. The Depression-inspired Civilian Corps rebuilt the fort in 1936, according to the original plans. Two blockhouses, each pockmarked with gunholes in the walls and the floors, anchor the tall fence encircling the fort. The architects positioned the blockhouses diagonally — so shooters could protect all four walls from any threat. The half-dozen log cabins inside are no bigger than a walk-in closet, yet fit a bed and rough-hewn table and chairs. A carpet of green grass covers the ground. It is quiet and peaceful. It’s almost too quiet, like the eerie quiet before battle.
The spring day I visit the fort is sunny and cool, much like the May morning in 1836, when “as the dew drops glistened in the sun-rays, it fell by the hand of the Comanches.” Reconciling the tranquility with the violence of its past is difficult. Walking the grounds, I notice the fort is simple, functional. The half dozen armed men at the fort that day weren’t enough to protect against 600 Indians.
A couple of months before the attack on Fort Parker, threats from Mexican soldiers and Indians forced the “feeble little colony” to retreat to the Trinity River. Before they could cross the flooded river, they learned of Santa Anna’s defeat at San Jacinto. But the threat from Indians hadn’t waned. Inexplicably, however, James Parker, Rachel’s father, dismissed the fort’s rangers the day before the attack, despite rumors circulating of an impending Indian assault. “As there appeared to be but little danger of an attack,” Parker writes in his memoir, he let them go. The deadly miscalculation haunted him for years.
Just then, a trio of young boys, exploring the fort with their family, runs up the stairs of a blockhouse to marvel over the gunholes. They point their hands in the shape of pistols, spitting gunfire noises out of their mouths. Their game of cowboys and Indians is an unwitting echo of the real event.
The morning of the attack, a cry of “Indians!” alerts the families of trouble. Suspicious, Rachel’s uncle Benjamin Parker walks out to meet the Indians, who carry a white flag and falsely declare friendship. Confusion reigns. “Stand and fight like a man, and if we have to die we will sell our lives as dearly as we can,” her other uncle, Silas, calls to a man hurrying his family out of the fort. Silas instructs Rachel to stay and watch Benjamin while he runs for ammunition. But Rachel, seeing the Indians surround Benjamin, runs across the fort, dragging her son, James Pratt, with her. She crosses paths with Silas, who asks if his brother is still alive. “I know they will kill him,” he says, prophetically. “But I will be good for [shooting] one of them at least.” She dashes out the gate, only to land into a crowd of Indians. She hears gunfire and her uncle’s triumphant shout.
Fresh scalps knotted to a warrior’s belt bounce in rhythm with the horse. Rachel recognizes a scalp streaked with grey as her grandfather’s, John Parker; two others belong to her uncles, Benjamin and Silas. The biting tongue of a whip prods Rachel forward. The flaming sun, sliced in half by the ground, takes with it the last hope of rescue. By midnight, the Comanche raiding party arrives at the Trinity River. Indians yell and dance around the scalps. The torture of the captives resumes. Rachel’s arms and legs are bound together. They beat her with clubs and bows, nearly smothering her in her own blood. Rachel tries to speak with her aunt, Elizabeth Kellogg, but both are silenced with blows that break their will to resist. The children, Cynthia Ann, her younger brother John, and Rachel’s 18-month-old son James Pratt are whipped for weeping. “Mother, mother!” little James wails, each call breaking his mother’s heart.
Within days, the raiding party disbands on the Llano Estacado, where the grass ripples like a snake. The captives are separated. The children Cynthia Ann and John are whisked away by one band of Comanche, Rachel by another. Rachel is tied to the back of a horse and forced to run naked to the east, then northwest into the snowy Rocky Mountains. She never sees her son or Cynthia Ann again.
Newspapers went rabid with dramatic accounts of the massacre. Scrolling through the newspapers, my eyes dry from long hours in front of a computer, a Fort Worth Daily Gazette headline hooks my attention. It screams: “The Women Outraged and Murdered and the Children Butchered and Left for the Wild Beasts.” Years later, after Cynthia Ann’s recapture, relatives and acquaintances of the Parkers sent letter after letter to newspapers correcting wild stories of her Comanche life. An exasperated family friend, J. M. Emerson, even wrote to The Palestine Daily Herald: “So much has been written about this historical woman that is not true, I write this in order that at least a part of the truth may be known.”
The whole truth died with Cynthia Ann. Unlike Rachel Plummer, she did not leave behind a written account of her years among the Comanche. The captivity narrative — stories mostly written by women and former child captives — was a robust genre in 19th century America. First, the slave endures a violent induction into captivity, then gradually accepts Indian culture, is adopted into the tribe and ultimately, returns to white civilization. Described as the “literature of catharsis,” these stories were so popular that surviving first editions are scarce because they were “literally read to pieces,” says Richard VanDerBeets, an expert on the narratives.
Rachel’s story is, luckily, rich with detail about the Comanchería, a swath of land stretching from South Texas to the Rocky Mountains, patrolled by the Comanche. She writes of her love of roasted rabbit and the pure air of the prairie as if she were an explorer, not an Indian slave. She marvels at mirages of watering holes and sparkling plains covered in salt crystals. Her narrative is believed to be the first published in Texas by a captive of Texas Indians, an elite status.
Eager to read it, I had asked Jack Loftin where I could find a copy of the narrative. He warned me copies had long been out of print and were largely limited to libraries. Jack had last seen Rachel’s narrative in a South Texas library. Then fate — or perhaps the deity that looks kindly upon struggling writers — intervened, placing it in my path.
Loftin’s longtime neighbor, Lonesome Dove author Larry McMurtry, is infatuated with books. McMurtry’s famous collection spills from his Archer City home into an old carriage house converted into a two-story private library. On this day, McMurtry isn’t at home, but his sister Sue McMurtry Deen allows us to wander around the buildings. I climb up to the second floor of the carriage house, which is nothing more than a narrow, rectangular walkway lined with shelves. I prefer to read books, not stare at them, I think to myself, trying to conceal my restlessness. As if in answer to my thoughts, my eyes are drawn to a shelf devoted to Indian culture and history. Between two books is a slim paperbound volume, the very book I want: Rachel Plummer’s Narrative of Twenty One Months Servitude as a Prisoner Among the Commanchee Indians. My palms begin to sweat. In my shaky hands is a copy, idly discovered in McMurtry’s carriage house. I am humbled. I have been marked, like an Indian with war paint.
Rachel’s story is mine.
But once at home, surrounded by dozens of articles and books about Rachel and Cynthia Ann, I feel lost. Rachel bares her soul in her memoir. Nearly two years after her capture, she is purchased by traders and travels back to her family in Texas. Though emotionally and physically battered, she becomes pregnant soon after, but Rachel and the baby die the following year. Who is Cynthia Ann? Her life – suited for a Hollywood screenplay without embellishment – passes into legend with each new newspaper account, but she remains a mystery.
“The white squaw,” as some reports call her, is a beautiful, noble Indian queen straight from a storybook. In reality, Cynthia Ann is as weathered and tanned as any full-blooded Indian. More than three decades after her death, The McCook Tribune in Nebraska described her life as “… one of the most romantic tales of the early days of Texas.” Cynthia Ann’s abduction was “… one of the many thrilling incidents in the pioneer history of the Lone Star State,” The St. Paul Globe informs its readers. Frontier life had morphed into myth. The suffering was an abstract memory.
After hours of reading old broadsheet newspapers culled from The Library of Congress’ online database, clarity strikes: Truth must be restored to Rachel and Cynthia Ann’s history. It is neither romantic nor thrilling. Rachel’s red hair turned snow-white by the end of her captivity; she lost two children to the Indians and died before her 22nd birthday. Cynthia Ann, torn between two nations at war, was delivered from one form of captivity into another, only to watch her daughter die from a white man’s disease. Doubtless some pitied Cynthia Ann’s suffering; perhaps others saw it as punishment.
“Cynthia Ann, a child of Baptist birth, became the unthinkable: the wife of an Indian war chief. She had lost her whiteness.”
In the eyes of early Texans, Cynthia Ann, a child of Baptist birth, had become the unthinkable: the wife of a war chief who accompanied her husband on settlement raids. She had lost her whiteness, a notion now shocking in a politically correct world. “The existence of such Indianized female captives did not merely raise doubts about the values of white civilization; it could also imply the far more disturbing possibility that white women might find Indian men sexually superior,” says scholar David T. Haberly. Cynthia Ann’s assimilation was inevitable; she spent more years with the Comanche than her birth family. “She was with the Indians twenty-four years, six months and twenty-nine days,” her family’s friend, Emerson, writes. A lifetime.
What I know of Cynthia Ann is pieced together from century-old recollections and a photo set in a tintype frame. It shows a woman with a sad, inflexible expression, a woman who has lost a husband and two sons. I stare hard at the photograph, willing Cynthia Ann to reveal herself. The woman I long to know seems lost to time: the wife who rode the open plains with her husband, the mother who cared for her three adoring children, the healer who tended to the tribe’s sick. Her Comanche family renamed her Naduah, meaning “she carries herself with dignity and grace.” That is a clue, I realize: Cynthia Ann has pride; she is a survivor. From the Comanche, she learns to cook, tend fires, scrape buffalo hide, set up teepees, and how to heal.
In her teens, she marries Peta Nocona, the warrior who captured her at Fort Parker. Some believe Peta Nocona, against Comanche custom, keeps the blue-eyed Naduah as his only squaw. They have three children, each given names reminiscent of the earth: The eldest son, Quanah, or “fragrant,” says he was born amongst sweet-smelling blossoms south of the Wichita Mountains. A year or so after Quanah’s birth, his brother Peanut, or Pecos, is born, followed by a dark-haired baby girl named Topsannah, also known as Prairie Flower.
Naduah’s once-blonde hair is now darkened by grease, but her eyes remain as blue as the sky. Her family does not forget her. Rumors of a white woman living amongst Indians spread around Texas. Indian agents and traders who travel to Comanche camps barter for her return. Offers to buy her are rebuffed. In 1840, when Naduah is nearly 15, a trading party led by Col. Len Williams, finds her with a band of Comanche on the Canadian River. A member of Naduah’s new family tells Williams all the goods he has couldn’t ransom her. The threat in the Indian’s words is clear. “The firmness of his countenance,” Col. Williams recalls, “warned me of the danger of further mention of the subject.” Years later, Naduah refuses pleas from her younger brother John to leave her Indian children and husband. “He is good and kind to me and my children, who are his, and I cannot leave them,” she says.
Peta Nocona, her husband, shows no such regard to settlers. The Comanche were feared — and not just by the white man. Horses transformed the rambling tribe into a formidable force. The Ute, their longtime adversaries, called them “kohmahts,” the Ute word for enemy. Warriors learned to ride horses expertly at a young age. They rode full speed, clinging to the side of a horse, while shooting arrows underneath the horse’s neck. “As a rule them Commanchie [sic] Indians is like coyotes, they will fight and run until they die or get away,” Henry Ward Harris, a Texas Ranger who fought at the Pease River skirmish, says in his frontier memoir.
Cynthia Ann’s husband has homesteaders living on edge. Bands of Indians wait outside the settlements, ready to ambush the stray pioneer who dares venture away from home unarmed. Weary of surviving in perpetual fear, they push Texan officials to act. In January 1844, the Republic of Texas commissions a company of mounted Texas Rangers under the leadership of Captain John “Jack” Hays to defend against a Mexican invasion and Comanche raids in the northwestern and southwestern frontiers. To make the men a swifter, smarter force, Hays drills them in Indian guerilla tactics, frontier-style horsemanship and Colt’s new five-shot revolver. Skirmishes with the Indians continue up until the eve of the Civil War, when a young captain, 22-year-old L. S. “Sul” Ross, leads the pursuit of a raiding party that ends with the recapture of Cynthia Ann Parker.
The captain’s story is well known. Tipped off by galloping buffalo, Ross follows fresh pony tracks to a Comanche camp. A signal sends his men charging into the encampment. Taken by surprise, several Indians are shot down where they stand. Naduah, in a panic, swings up on a horse with her daughter, Topsannah. Lt. Tom Kelliheir, gun at the ready, catches up to Cynthia Ann, who raises the papoose above her head in surrender. Kelliheir curses himself for running his horse to the ground for an “old squaw.” When Ross rides up, he sees a dirty woman in scanty clothes. Then he meets her eyes. “Why Tom, this is a white woman! Indians don’t have blue eyes,” he says. Through a translator, Naduah tells Ross details about the Fort Parker attack that convinces him of her identity.
That night, as the Rangers sit around the campfire, she speaks her name for the first time in decades.
“Me Cynthia Ann,” she says.
Her sons are never far from her mind, however. Cynthia Ann attempts to flee her uncle Isaac’s home near Fort Worth and again in Austin, where he took her to lobby for a state pension. Sensing her unhappiness, Isaac sends Cynthia Ann and Prairie Flower to live with her brother Silas. On the way to his east Texas home, they stop in Fort Worth. A man named A. F. Corning asks Cynthia Ann to pose for a picture with Prairie Flower. The spectacle draws dozens of curious onlookers who stare at the former captive like a caged tiger at a circus. The photograph reveals a stoic woman, her face softened by grief. Her hair, parted down the middle, is hacked off at the chin, a sign of Comanche mourning. Prairie Flower, her face half hidden, suckles her mother’s breast between the folds of a calico dress.
More than 20 years later, Quanah contacts several newspapers in Texas for a picture of his mother. Corning reads his plea in the Fort Worth Daily Gazette and sends the Comanche a copy of the photograph taken in his gallery long ago. It is the only photograph ever taken of mother and daughter. The dark-haired Prairie Flower dies before her 10th birthday from pneumonia caused by influenza. Cynthia Ann dies in 1870, bereaved of husband and children.
The last Comanche chief, the only one of Cynthia Ann’s children to live to adulthood, took the Parker last name in honor of his mother’s heritage. The Dallas Morning News dubbed Quanah a “strange product of the frontier.” Born to a settler’s child and a war chief, he was respected by both warriors and politicians. As settlers replaced buffalo and Indians, he knew the era of the roaming native was over. After several bloody battles, Quanah negotiated with the U.S. government to move the remaining Comanche, decimated by war and disease, to a reservation in Oklahoma. He would bring his mother and sister there to be buried.
“Comanche may die today, tomorrow, ten years,” Quanah says in English at his mother’s re-interment. “When end comes then they all be together again. I want to see my mother again then.” Two months later, he died.
In Archer City, between backroading and trips to the American Legion, we gather at long tables in the dining room at The Spur Hotel. The writers meet almost daily, sometimes for hours, to share our work and experiences with the “locals.” The last night of our stay, a fellow writer asks the owner Abby Abernathy about a painting in a corner high above my chair. I hadn’t noticed it. I turn to look. Six Indian chiefs stare down at me. Could one be him? I wonder. I go into the kitchen where the owner is making a sandwich.
“Is one of the chiefs Peta Nocona?” I ask, referring to Cynthia Ann’s husband. Abby shakes his head no.
“What about Quanah Parker?” He leads me to the door of the kitchen.
“That,” he says, pointing to a man robed in blue, “is Quanah.”
Quanah’s eyes are closed, as if in the hold of the final sleep.
He had been there, all week, watching and waiting.