Empire of the Summer Moon

Page 16 of 52

Peace in Texas was an illusion, too. How deeply the whites misunderstood the Comanches was evident in the peace treaty of 1844, the product of three years’ work by Sam Houston, who had returned to the presidency in 1841, bringing his pacifist notions back with him. Though the Texans were dealing with only a fraction of the Penateka—the treaty’s signers were only Old Owl and Buffalo Hump (Pah-hah-yuco and Santa Anna were not there)—they persisted in referring to the “Comanche tribe” and the “Comanche nation” as though all of the bands had been part of the negotiations. Sam Houston himself, old Indian hand that he was, persisted in the mistaken belief that Comanche chiefs wielded power over other bands and Kiowas.37 In this formulation, they could thus sign a treaty that all Comanches from eastern Colorado and western Kansas to the Mexican border would dutifully obey. The idea was preposterous. The camp headmen within the Penateka band were barely able to agree among themselves. The dangerous Comanches, the Comanches still riding free and unbeaten and unencumbered on the more remote prairies, as yet undestroyed by war or disease, hadn’t signed anything.

But no one in Texas in the middle century could have told you that. Nor could they have imagined that getting rid of the Comanches was going to take another thirty years of war.

Colonel Williams’s visit to the Comanche camp put the Parker family back in the headlines—as much for the discovery that Cynthia Ann’s bones were not bleaching in an alkali creek somewhere as for her refusal to return. On June 1, 1846, the Houston Telegraph and Texas Register ran a story about the meeting. “Miss Parker has married an Indian chief,” it said, with the matter-of-factness of a social notice, “and is so wedded to the Indian mode of life that she is unwilling to return to her white kindred.” The story added that every possible effort had been made to reclaim her, but they had all been unsuccessful. “Even if she should be restored to her kindred here,” the story concluded ruefully, “she would probably take advantage of the first opportunity and flee away to the wilds of northern Texas.”

Not everyone was willing to accept this state of affairs. Robert Neighbors, a talented Indian agent who was Texas commissioner of Indian affairs at the time, was foremost among them. Believing that Cynthia Ann was the only white captive still alive among the plains tribes, he mounted a concerted effort in the summer of 1847 to get her back. That meant sending messengers to the villages bearing gifts and money. He had no more luck than Colonel Williams had. “I have used all means in my power during the last summer to induce those Indians to bring her in by offering large rewards,” he wrote in a November 18, 1847, report to the U.S. commissioner of Indian affairs, “but I am assured by the friendly Comanche chiefs that I would have to use force to induce the party that has her to give her up.”

He also said something interesting. He noted that she was “with the Ten-na-wish band of Comanches . . . with whom we hold little or no intercourse. They reside on the headwaters of the Red River.”38 If he was right, and he very likely was, then Cynthia Ann and her husband had jumped bands, and in so doing had traveled well west of the normal Penateka ranges. Pah-hah-yuco himself was sometimes affiliated with the Tenawish,39 which might explain the jump. Whatever the cause, it was a clear move away from trouble, away from the death throes of the Penatekas. Cynthia and Peta Nocona were fleeing the Texas frontier. They were refugees. Within a year, the couple changed bands again. They camped even farther north, on Elk Creek south of the Wichita Mountains in Indian Territory (Oklahoma).

There, with the world crashing down around the southern Comanches, a son was born to Cynthia Ann and Peta Nocona. According to later interviews with his descendants, they named him Kwihnai, “Eagle.” If that is true, then the name Quanah is a nickname. Its meaning, too, is far from clear. According to his son Baldwin Parker in a later interview, the name comes from the Comanche “kwaina,” meaning “fragrant.”40 Though this name is usually translated as “smell,” “odor,” “fragrance,” or “perfume,” the Shoshone root word kwanaru, meaning “stinking,” may suggest the real source of the name. In this theory, people modified his original name to mean “stink.”41 Within the next two years, Cynthia Ann gave birth to a second son whom she named “Peanuts.” From later interviews with Quanah, the name originated in his mother’s fond childhood memory of eating peanuts around the fireside at Parker’s Fort.42 Both names are unusual and suggest that Cynthia Ann, who family legend said was a “spirited squaw,” and her husband had defied Comanche custom by naming the children themselves.43

The first anyone knew of these events was in 1851, when a group of traders led by a man named Victor Rose, who would later write histories of the era, saw her in a Comanche village. When they asked her if she wanted to leave, she shook her head and pointed to her children, saying, “I am happily married. I love my husband, who is good and kind, and my little ones, who, too, are his, and I cannot forsake them.” Rose described Peta as a “great, greasy, lazy buck.”44 The account has an odd ring to it: Rose undoubtedly saw Cynthia Ann, because he was the first to report the existence of children. But it is unlikely that she uttered those grammatically perfect sentences. The timing is worth noting. The existence of the two brothers playing at her feet would seem to confirm that Quanah was born before 1850, and possibly as early as 1848. In any case, she was sincere. She was “Nautdah” now, “Someone Found,” the name given to her by Peta Nocona, whose name means “He Who Travels Alone and Returns.”45

The last anyone on the frontier heard of Cynthia Ann in the 1850s came in a report from the intrepid explorer Captain Randolph Marcy, a reliable chronicler of the frontier. “There is at this time a white woman among the Middle Comanches, who, with her brother, was captured while they were young children from their father’s house in the Western part of Texas,” he wrote, confirming that she had changed bands and placing her with the Nokonis or the Kotsotekas, who were known as Middle Comanches. “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.”46

For the moment she was free again in the way that Comanches had always been free. In the way that the hapless Penateka no longer were. She was on the open plains, where the buffalo still roamed in their millions and Comanche power stood inviolate. Where the white man still did not dare to go.



THE REST OF the Parker hostages—Rachel Plummer, Elizabeth Kellogg, John Richard Parker, and James Pratt Plummer—suffered very different fates. All were intertwined in some way with Rachel’s father and Cynthia Ann’s uncle James W. Parker, the man whose breathtaking lack of judgment had been largely to blame for the disaster that had befallen the clan in May of 1836. Like many other members of the Parker clan, James was a colorful figure. But he was much more than that. He was one of the most outrageous, extreme, obsessive, ambitious, violent, dishonest, morally compromised, reckless, and daring characters ever to stake a claim on the early Texas frontier. He was a man of more contradictions than anyone could keep track of: a prominent citizen who was accused at various times of being a murderer, counterfeiter, liar, drunk, horse thief, and robber. He was kicked out of two different churches for lying and drunkenness. And yet during his lifetime he was an elected justice of the peace, one of the original Texas Rangers, a representative at the legendary “consultation” that set the stage for the Texas revolution, and a friend of Sam Houston and Mirabeau Lamar. He was a preacher who once had his own church, a successful businessman who owned a sawmill and thousands of acres of land. Though an odor of impropriety, untruth, and general malfeasance haunts his life, he was never convicted of anything. Some of his neighbors believed that the raid itself had been the result of his shady business dealings. They alleged that he had bought stolen horses from Indians with counterfeit money, and that the true purpose of the attack had been to avenge the fraud.1 Nothing was ever proven, and James himself mounted a spirited defense of his honor in a self-published pamphlet.2 He admitted to killing five peopl

e, but they were all Indians and there were no criminal penalties in the Republic of Texas for murdering redskins.

And yet that was not how James Parker was mainly known. For all of the obloquy and misadventure, he was famous throughout the West as the man who searched for the Parker captives. The man who refused to give up. He made five trips, alone, into Indian lands between 1836 and 1837, mostly acting on tips about young white women—like his daughter Rachel—who had been carried off by Indians. He made another four or five excursions from 1841 to 1844, based on information he believed would lead him to his niece Cynthia Ann Parker, his nephew John Richard Parker, or his grandson James Pratt Plummer.3 He logged perhaps five thousand miles, much of it alone. The only remotely comparable captive hunter in American history was a former slave named Britt Johnson, who made five trips into the wilderness starting in 1864 searching for his wife and children, who were also captured by Comanches.4 (If James’s story begins to sound familiar, it was the basis for John Ford’s magnificent western The Searchers starring John Wayne in the James Parker role and Natalie Wood as his niece, the screen version of Cynthia Ann.)

Parker’s first trip in search of his relatives, to Nacogdoches in East Texas, was a stunning and unexpected success. His sister-in-law Elizabeth Kellogg had been purchased by Delaware Indians and brought in to that city to trade. The Delawares, presumably marking up what they had paid the Kichais (who got her from the Comanches), wanted $150 for her. James was both overjoyed and, as would be the case at various times in his life, “penniless.” He somehow managed to convince his old friend Sam Houston to put up the money.

Thus was Elizabeth ransomed on August 20, 1836, three months after the raid. History does not record what happened to her after that, though the social position of returned female captives in nineteenth-century America was deeply compromised. People were under no illusions about what had happened to them. They knew with great specificity what Plains Indians did to adult women, and thus repatriated captives were usually objects of pity. If they were married, their husbands often would not take them back. In several cases unmarried women captives were wealthy enough to attract husbands in spite of what had happened to them. Elizabeth probably lived out a life of quiet shame in the shadows, perhaps in the home of a Parker relative. She would have been an embarrassment: That may be why James says so little about her.

Between August 1836 and October 1837, Parker spent most of his time in the wilderness searching for the captives. He was mainly tracking his daughter Rachel, because in those early years his informants—traders along the Red River, Texas’s northern boundary—had heard stories only of young women and nothing about children being held by Indian tribes. His journeys are chronicles of hardship and near disaster. On his first trip, he found his horse could not swim across the swollen Red River so he abandoned it, crossed the river on his own, and headed off into the Indian territories on foot, an action that people of the day considered tantamount to suicide. He weathered a driving rainstorm that flooded the prairie to a depth of two feet and was followed by a blue norther that howled down out of the Canadian plains and froze it all. He was almost certainly going to die, in his own estimation, when he managed to start a fire by stuffing some cotton from his shirt into his pistol and firing it at a log that had somehow stayed dry in the torrent. On his next trip he ventured into the wilderness unarmed—again, tantamount to suicide—and this time went six days without food, breaking his fast by strangling and eating a skunk. On the next he spent a full month lurking around a Comanche camp, leaving messages in English by nearby streams. He knew that Indians forced captives to fetch water, and was hoping, though there would seem to be less than a chance in a million of this ever happening, to get his daughter’s attention. All his suffering was in vain. None of the stories he heard got him any closer to his daughter.

In October 1837 he returned home for the fourth time, discouraged and in poor health. While he recuperated, he dispatched his son-in-law Lorenzo Nixon (who was married to Rachel’s sister) to the Red River trading posts to see if there was any news of women captives. Now, finally, his luck turned. At one of the posts, Nixon was tipped that a Mrs. Plummer had arrived in Independence, Missouri, outside of modern-day Kansas City. He found her there a few weeks later. Her first words to him were: “Are my husband and father alive?” Nixon said they were. Then she asked: “Are mother and the children alive?” The answer to that, too, was yes.

Like everything else that happened to the Parker family in those early days, the story of Rachel Parker Plummer’s return is a strange and epic tale that stretches across several thousand miles of frontier. She was purchased from her Comanche captor in August of 1837 by a group of Comancheros. At the time she was probably somewhere on the high plains of eastern Colorado. She was put on a horse and taken on what she described as a “very hard” seventeen-day ride to Santa Fe, which was then still a part of Mexico. The Comancheros, who would actually not acquire that name for another five or six years, were one of the West’s most interesting subcultures. They owed their existence to the 1786 peace made by New Mexico governor Juan Bautista de Anza and the Comanches, after his defeat of Cuerno Verde in Colorado. From that year forward, Comanches could freely enter Spanish settlements to trade for horses, and New Mexican traders could operate safely on the plains of Comancheria. American accounts often described Comancheros as “renegades” or “half-breeds,”5 the latter referring to what was supposed to be Comanche blood. In fact they were half-breeds, or mixed blood, but so was almost the entire population of New Mexico. They were mestizos, of mixed Spanish and Indian blood, as most Mexicans are today. They were less renegades than businessmen, though they were famously hard-bitten characters and occasionally rode with Comanches and Kiowas on horse- and cattle-stealing raids. The Comanches traded livestock, hides, and captives to the Comancheros in exchange for beads, knives, paint, tobacco, pots and pans, calico and other cloths, metal spikes for making arrows, coffee, flour, and bread. The trading took place in specific locations such as Palo Duro Canyon in the Texas Panhandle and various places in northeastern New Mexico.

As years went by, more and more of the Comanchero trade was in guns, ammunition, and whiskey, and they dealt increasingly in stolen cattle, which they fenced to merchants who in many cases sold them back to their original owners, often the military.6 They were important to the Comanches for many reasons, but perhaps the most important was that they allowed the still-wild bands—the Quahadis, Yamparikas, Nokonis, and Kotsotekas—to stay out of the white man’s settlements, away from the blandishments of white civilization, away from the diseases that were destroying their southern brethren. (On the east, a comparable trading network evolved among the Kickapoos, Delawares, and Shawnees in the Indian country, offering the Comanches the same opportunities.)7 Comancheros also gave the People a way to trade and profit from captives. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries the Comancheros had dealt mainly in captive Indians from a variety of tribes for use as mine workers or servants. But starting in 1821 the Anglo settlement in Texas changed all that. Once it became clear that Texans would pay generously for captives, an active market sprang up. (When U.S. general Zachary Taylor announced in 1842 that the U.S. government would pay for any captives brought into Fort Gibson, in what is present-day eastern Oklahoma, the market went wild, as did the takings.)8 The Comancheros were soon doing a brisk business in white captives as well.

The men who ransomed Rachel Plummer were not speculators; they had been operating under specific instructions from William and Mary Donoho, a wealthy Santa Fe couple, who had told them to pay any price for white women. The Donohos were remarkable people, especially Mary. She was thought to be the first woman ever to travel the Santa Fe Trail, doing so in 1833. She was the first female U.S. citizen to live in Santa Fe; two of her children were the first Anglo children born there.9 They took Rachel in and put her up at the best hotel in town, which had dirt floors, where she enjoyed her first night in a bed in fifteen months

. The Donohos were exceptionally kind to her, assuring her that everything would be done to return her to her relatives. The people of Santa Fe welcomed her, too, in spite of her deeply compromised status. They raised $150 for her to help her get back home.

But Rachel’s run of bad luck was not quite over. Her $150 was immediately stolen by the dishonest clergyman who had been entrusted to hold it. And then a violent rebellion broke out in the streets of Santa Fe. Two thousand Pueblo Indians ambushed two hundred government militiamen. A massacre followed. The rebels beheaded the governor, placed his head on a pole, and paraded it through the streets. They put a district judge in stocks, cut his hands off, and waved them in his face.10 The Pueblos installed their own governor.

This was enough for the Donohos, who were now fearful for their own safety. They fled east, with the hapless Rachel in tow, back to their Missouri home—a two-month journey of some eight hundred miles straight through the heart of Comancheria. In her memoir, Rachel dismisses the trip, which very few white Americans had made at that point, as a minor inconvenience:

The road led through a vast region of prairie, which is nearly one thousand miles across. This, to many, would have been a considerable undertaking, as it was all the way through an Indian country. But we arrived safely at Independence, where I received many signal favors from many of the inhabitants.11