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Empire of the Summer Moon

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But there is evidence that the Indian retreat was, in fact, tactically quite brilliant. The Comanches were most concerned with protecting their wives and children. This they seem to have done. Though they lost much of their loot, they held on to many of the horses. According to Linn, who was entirely of the glorious-victory-for-the-whites school of history, only “several hundred head of horses and mules were recovered.”26 Out of three thousand. What this points to is a victory that was possibly not quite as magnificent as it is portrayed in Ranger histories and other accounts sympathetic to the Texans. In the view of historians Jodye and Thomas Schilz, the Comanche strategy during the battle consisted of a number of feints, executed on horseback at high speed, that confused the whites, screened their camp followers, and thus allowed them to escape.

The display of color and equestrian skill made for a dazzling distraction that gave the women and children time to begin herding the stolen livestock toward the northwest to get it out of Huston’s reach. . . . Despite suffering heavy losses, Buffalo Hump had led a raid all the way to the Texas coast and had brought most of his people safely home. . . . The Battle of Plum Creek was a tactical draw.27

When the battle was over the Tonkawas, who by most reports had done a good deal of the heavy fighting, thus paying off their ancient blood debts, gathered around a big fire they had built. They began singing. Several men then dragged a dead Comanche toward the fire. They cut small fillets from his body, skewered them on sticks, thrust them into the fire, cooked them, and ate them. After a few mouthfuls, according to Robert Hall, who witnessed this, “They began to act as if they were very drunk. They danced, raved, howled and sang, and invited me to get up and eat a slice of Comanche. They said it would make me very brave.”28

If some doubt lingers as to the magnificence of the Texans’ victory at Plum Creek, there is no disagreement at all about what happened two months later on the Upper Colorado River. Having convinced his superiors that the Comanches had not suffered enough for their atrocities of the Victoria and Linnville raids, Colonel John Moore, still smarting from his humiliation on the San Saba in 1839, drummed up a squad of volunteers for another punitive expedition. On October 5 he left with ninety white men and twelve Lipan Apaches and marched northwest up the Colorado River. By mid-October he had gone farther west than any Anglo-Texan had ever gone before, some three hundred miles west of Austin. There the Lipans found a Comanche camp of sixty lodges (eight to ten people in a lodge was normal). According to some accounts, this was Buffalo Hump’s camp.29 The soldiers camped a few miles away. It was a clear, cold October night; the earth was white with frost.

They attacked at dawn, and because Moore had learned his lesson on the San Saba, they came on horseback. Once again, the Indians, who did not believe that taibos could possibly attack them so far inside Comancheria, were completely unprepared. What followed, as the Texans plunged into the village, was more butchery than battle. The Indians who managed to escape their burning tipis found that they were cornered against the Colorado River. Many died crossing it. Those who managed to crawl up the other bank were pursued, some for up to four miles, and shot down.30 Many were left to die in burning tipis. Only two soldiers were killed, evidence that most of the Comanches never even got to their weapons. Moore himself dispensed with the usual niceties about trying to avoid killing women and children (a staple of western military reports), saying that he had left “the bodies or men, women and children—wounded, dying and dead on every hand.” He claimed to have killed one hundred thirty people in about half an hour and there is no reason to doubt him. He took thirty-four prisoners, captured five hundred horses, and destroyed the village by fire. Thus were the sins of Linnville and Victoria avenged. But the big war had just begun.



THERE IS HISTORY that is based on hard, documented fact; history that is colored with rumor, speculation, or falsehood; and history that exists in what might be termed the hinterlands of the imagination. The latter describes many of the nineteenth-century accounts of the captivity of Cynthia Ann Parker, the legendary “White Squaw” who chose the red man over the white man and a life of unwashed savagery over the comforts of “civilization.” Most are informed by a sort of bewildered disbelief that anyone, but especially a woman, could possibly want to do that. The result, as in this 1893 telling by a former federal Indian agent, is often a weirdly incongruous attempt to graft European romantic ideals on to Stone Age culture:

As the years rolled by, Cynthia Ann developed the charms of captivating womanhood, and the heart of more than one dusky warrior was pierced by the Ulyssean darts of her laughing eyes and the ripple of her silvery voice, and laid at her feet the trophy of the chase.1

There is plenty of literature like this, and much of it amounts to a denial that there was any such thing as Indian culture. It’s all Tristan and Isolde. Cynthia Ann is seen falling in love, wandering through fragrant, flower-strewn fields, discussing the prospects of connubial bliss with her warrior swain, and so forth. (In another completely made-up “historical” account that appeared in many places, her younger brother and fellow captive, John Parker, courts a “night-eyed” “Aztec” beauty, a captive herself, whiling away the idle hours in amorous talk. She later risks her own life to nurse him through smallpox, and they ride off into the sunset together.)2 Other versions of her life assumed the reverse: a harsh reality in which Cynthia Ann was suffering terrible hardship and “degradation.” But in this case it was happening entirely against her will. The idea, expressed in delicate Victorian code, of course, was that she was forced to have sex with greasy, dark-skinned, subhuman Indians because she could not possibly have chosen to do so on her own. “No situation can be depicted to our minds,” sighed the Clarksville Northern Standard in northeast Texas, “replete with half the horrors of that unfortunate young lady’s.”3

Both approaches grew out of the same fundamental problem: No one really knew what happened to her, and no one ever knew what she thought. People were thus free to indulge their prejudices. Though she became, in lore, legend, and history, the most famous captive of her era, the fact was that, at the age of nine, she had disappeared without a trace into the incomprehensible vastness of the Great Plains. Most captives were either killed or ransomed within a few months or years. The White Squaw stayed out twenty-four years, enough time to forget almost everything she had once known, including her native language, to marry and have three children and live the full, complex, and highly specialized life of a Plains Indian. She was seen twice, and only briefly: The first sighting happened ten years after her capture; the second, five years after that. Almost every other moment of that time is, in conventional historical terms, completely opaque. Plains Indians did not write letters or journals or record their legal proceedings, or even keep copies of treaties—history meant nothing to them.

That does not mean, however, that she has gone entirely into legend. Understanding her life requires a bit of digging about in the Indian affairs of the middle century, some historical sleuthing with the benefit of one hundred sixty years of hindsight. It is possible to ascertain which Comanche bands she lived with, where those bands lived, when and where epidemics of white man’s diseases struck them, when they won or lost battles, the identity of her husband and the names and approximate birth dates of her three children.

Perhaps most important, we know the general behavior of the tribe toward what might be called a “loved captive.” To victims of Comanche brutality, it was almost impossible to believe that such a phenomenon existed. Yet it did, and it was not uncommon. The infertile Comanche women and statistically death-prone Comanche men were undiscriminating in whom they invited into the tribe. Their captives included Mexicans, Spanish, members of many other tribes (including hated foes like the Utes and Apaches), whites of all descriptions, and slave children. Their bloodline, as twentieth-century studies would show, was extremely impure compared to other tribes. The ones they adopted were usually prepubesce

nt children. Adult women were either killed or, like Rachel Plummer, destined for hard lives as slaves, sexual and otherwise. Some, like Matilda Lockhart, were terribly abused. Loved captives were something entirely different. They were embraced and cherished and treated as full family members. This was Cynthia Ann.

Fortunately, in view of Cynthia Ann’s resonating silence on the subject, there exist several parallel accounts. The best comes from Bianca “Banc” Babb, taken captive by Comanches at the age of ten in September 1866 in Decatur (northwest of present-day Dallas), and ransomed seven months later. She was taken by the same band—Nokonis—that took the Parker captives. Her written chronicle remains the only first-person narrative of a girl’s captive time with a southern plains tribe.4 There are great similarities with the captivity of Cynthia Ann Parker, starting with the horrific circumstances under which Banc was taken. Her mother was stabbed four times with a butcher knife while Banc held her hand.5 Then the little girl watched as her mother was shot through the lungs with an arrow and scalped while still alive. (She was later found with her blood-smeared baby daughter, who was trying to nurse at her dying mother’s breast.)6 Banc also watched as Sarah Luster, a beautiful twenty-six-year-old who was captured with her, became, in Banc’s brother’s words, “the helpless victim of unspeakable violation, humiliation, and involuntary debasement.”7

Like the Parker captives, Banc, her brother, and Mrs. Luster were strapped behind Indians on horses and taken on a furious ride north. They had little food and were not allowed to dismount their horses. At one point Banc was given a chunk of bloody meat cut from a cow that wolves had killed. She ate it, and liked it. She lost control of her bowels while on the back of the horse, and thus acquired her unfortunate Indian name: “Smells Bad When You Walk.” After four days of chafe and dire thirst and muscle ache and blistering sunburn, they arrived at the Indian village. Here the Comanche with whom she had ridden gave Banc to his sister, whose husband had been killed the morning before the raid on the Babb house. The widow had no children of her own.8

And then everything changed. Banc was taken into a close-knit family group that consisted of thirty-five people who camped together in eight buffalo-hide tipis. She and her Comanche mother, Tekwashana, shared a tipi. According to Banc’s memoir:

This woman was always good to me, that is she never scolded me, and seldom ever corrected me. . . . Our bed consisted of a pile of dead grass, with blankets and dressed buffalo robes spread over the grass. On cold winter nights my Squaw Mother would have me stand before the fire, turning [me] round occasionally, so I could get good and warm, then she would wrap me up in a buffalo robe and lay me on the bed over near the outer edge, next to the tentwall and tuck me in good and warm. . . . She . . . seemed to care as much for me as if I were her very own child.9

The world Banc describes sometimes sounds like a child’s paradise. Indeed, she recalled that “every day seemed to be a holiday.” She played happily with other children. She loved the informality of meals that usually involved standing around a boiling kettle and spearing meat with skewers. She liked the taste of the meat, though she said it took a long time to chew. Tekwashana taught her to swim, pierced her ears, and gave her long silver earrings with silver chains and brass bracelets for her arms. The Comanche women mixed buffalo tallow and charcoal and rubbed it into her bright blond hair to make it dark. She loved the war dances. She learned the language quickly and so well that, after only seven months of captivity (which she believed was two years), it was hard for her to “get my tongue twisted back so I could talk English again to my folk and my friends.”10 She had two dresses, and neither was buckskin: One was made of calico, and one made of blue-and-white-striped bed ticking.

Banc also describes hardship and days that were not like holidays at all. Her captors were, after all, nomadic hunter-gatherers; life was at best uncertain. There was not always enough food to eat. Sometimes her family group would get only small rations of dried meat; on other occasions they would not give her any and she sometimes went two days without food. “When our supply of dried meat was gone we lived on boiled corn,” she wrote, “and when that was exhausted and everybody hungry, they would kill a fat horse or mule and then we would have a feast as long as that lasted.” She said her family owned three hundred horses, which suggests that they detested horse meat and ate it only as a last resort. Or perhaps they detested the idea of eating such a useful and tradeable commodity. The band moved its camp every three weeks—typical of nomads who required a good deal of horse pasturage—which meant hard work for everyone, including Banc. She carried water, gathered wood, and packed the horses and mules on moving days, and helped see to all the logistics of the move, including the care of the dogs. At one point she violated a taboo by passing in front of the men’s tipis while fetching water. In punishment, an old woman set her dogs on her. Later that same woman attacked her with an ax, managing instead to kill a young Indian girl who happened to intervene. The woman, Banc noted, was summarily executed.

In April 1867, Banc was ransomed for $333. That night a heartbroken Tekwashana shut her out of the tent. Later she relented and convinced Banc to try to escape with her, carrying the girl on her back. This was extreme behavior, punishable by violence, and clear evidence of how much Tekwashana loved her adopted daughter. The two were tracked down and caught the next day. Banc was soon returned to her family. At their reunion, she realized that she had forgotten how to speak English.

Another account, less complete but similar in many ways, came from a girl who lived in central Texas. One of the bloodiest raids ever carried out by Comanches took place in Legion Valley, near modern-day Llano, Texas, in 1868. They took seven captives but killed five of them in the first few days—including a baby and a three-year-old—leaving only lovely, long-haired Malinda Ann “Minnie” Caudle, eight, and a boy named Temple Friend, seven. Minnie was immediately adopted by a fat Comanche woman, with whom she rode back to the Indian camp. Her new mother slept with her to keep her warm and tried to shelter her from the events of the first night, when Minnie’s two aunts were raped and tortured as they wept and prayed aloud.11 The next day her captors decided the two aunts were too much trouble. When they seized them and killed them, Minnie’s Comanche mother threw a blanket over her head so she would not have to watch.12 Like Banc Babb, Minnie Caudle was treated with great kindness. Her new mother told her stories by the fire. The Comanche women would not let the Indian men harm her. They cooked meat for her the way she liked it, and when they passed salt licks they made sure to get some salt to season her food. They dressed her in buckskin and greased her body with tallow to keep her dry in rain and snow.13 Like Banc, too, Minnie was held captive half a year, then ransomed and returned. Her story survived in one published interview and in later interviews with her descendants.14

Thus two experiences that were very likely similar, except for the ransoming and return, to Cynthia Ann Parker’s. One can only speculate. As long as both of them lived, Banc and Minnie defended the Comanche tribe. Minnie Caudle “would not hear a word against the Indians,” according to her great-granddaughter. Her great-grandson said, “She always took up for the Indians. She said they were good people in their way. When they got kicked around, they fought back.”15 This is asserted against the brute facts of her own experience, which involved watching her captors rape and kill five members of her family. Banc Babb, against all reason and memory, felt the same way. In 1897 she applied for official adoption into the Comanche tribe. Both girls had seen something in the primitive, low-barbarian Comanches that almost no one else had, not even people like Rachel Plummer with long experience of tribal life. Banc’s brother Dot Babb described it as “bonds of affection almost as sacred as family ties. Their kindnesses to me had been lavish and unvarying, and my friendship and attachment in return were deep and sincere.”16 The children all had the sense that, at the core of these most notorious and brutal killers, there existed a deep and abiding tenderness. Perhaps that should be obvious, si

nce they were, after all, human beings. But it was absolutely not obvious to white settlers on the western frontier in the mid-nineteenth century.

In April 1846 an Indian agent from Texas named Leonard H. Williams was dispatched by the U.S. Indian Commissioners to find a Comanche headman named Pah-hah-yuco. This was not just any paraibo. Pah-hah-yuco was, along with the cunning, diminutive Mopechucope (Old Owl), the greatest of the Penateka peace chiefs.17 In 1843 he had intervened to stop the torture and killing that had been planned for three Texas commissioners who had been sent to make amends for the Council House massacre. Most of his tribe had supported the idea of burning the white men. Pah-hah-yuco had that sort of power. He was a large, portly man, weighed more than two hundred pounds, had several wives, and what one observer described as “a pleasing expression of countenance, full of good humor and joviality.”18 His name has been translated as “The Amorous Man,” but one suspects a more priapic meaning in the Comanche original.19 Colonel Williams, whose expedition consisted of eleven men, was instructed to invite the chief to treaty talks, the first ever with the United States, of which Texas had just become part. He was also told to find out if there were any captives in the camp, and to purchase them if he could.

Williams found Pah-hah-yuco on the Washita River, in what is now Oklahoma, probably not far from where it flows into the Red River, about seventy-five miles north of modern-day Dallas. It is unclear how Williams found the village in the great, wild beyond of the unsurveyed Indian territories, but he undoubtedly used Indian guides who were friendly with Comanches, very likely Delawares or Wichitas. It must have been a heart-pounding, adrenaline-pumping moment when his small band first rode, unannounced, into the huge Comanche village with its lodges and campfires and racks of drying buffalo meat that snaked for miles along the banks of the river. The arrival of the Williams party created an immediate uproar in the camp. Some of the younger warriors plotted immediately to kill them. Luckily, Williams found out about this from a Mexican boy captive, and claimed the protection of Pah-hah-yuco, who, according to Williams, “with difficulty succeeded in pacifying and restraining his men.”20