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Empire of the Summer Moon

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Reunited with her brother-in-law, together they departed, in the dead of winter, for Texas. The trip was long, cold, and miserable—yet another thousand miles. On February 19, 1838, Rachel arrived at her father’s home near Huntsville, Texas, north of Houston. She had made a nearly unbelievable nineteen-month odyssey across a huge portion of the continent, and it had taken a fearful toll on her. James describes her as being “in very bad health,” and observes:

She presented a most pitiable appearance; her ematiated [sic] body was covered with scars, the evidences of the savage barbarity to which she had been subject during her captivity.12

Curiously, he says nothing about her life back home. Instead, he describes a “protracted illness,” during which she prayed for her son James Pratt, and then her peaceful death.

She often said that this life had no charms for her, and that her only wish was that she might live to see her son restored to his friends. . . . In about a year from the time she returned to her paternal home, she calmly breathed out her spirit to Him who gave it, and her friends committed her body to the silent grave.

This strangely bowdlerized account leaves out most of the important events of the last part of her life. James does not mention Rachel’s pregnancy, for example, which was in itself a remarkable event. Her third child was conceived soon after she had returned, which meant that her husband, L. T. M. Plummer, had gotten over what so many others could not: the fact of her violation by Indians. They were starting another family. Nor does James mention another remarkable fact: Toward the end of Rachel’s pregnancy, his family was forced to flee their home because it was threatened by a gang of vigilantes who had vowed to kill him.

The vigilantes believed that he had murdered a Mrs. Taylor and her daughter, apparently in connection with a robbery. According to a letter James sent to Governor Lamar requesting relief, the same gang had staged mock trials and had hanged people.13 They had written James a note saying they were going to kill him and L.T.M. and destroy their property. James went into hiding, and insisted that his family, which numbered perhaps a dozen people, travel to Houston, some seventy miles away. Fearing that the vigilantes might try to kill them, too, they avoided the dirt road and instead made their way, in freezing rain and bitter cold, through thick brush and pine forest, often cutting their own trails. It probably took them a week. They slept out in the open with only the clothing they had hurriedly gathered before leaving. Rachel was very likely nine months pregnant at the time.

James does not mention this episode in his published narrative. He merely says that Rachel died of a “protracted illness,” and most historians have tended to let it go at that. But what killed her was the flight from Huntsville to Houston. In a letter he wrote to his friend Mirabeau Lamar on or about the date of Rachel’s death, James gave the fullest explanation of what happened.

I directed my family to move to the citty of Houston while at thare urgent solicitation I was induced to keep out of the way of those outlaws; but with such malignant Vigilance did these usurpers of the law watch us, that my familty to evade them was so exposed to the cold rain and inclemency of the weather as not only to endanger all thare lives but has actually taken Four of my beloved to thare long home; (among whom was my daughter Mrs. Plummer).14

Rachel died on March 19. Her infant son, Wilson P. Plummer, born on January 4, 1839, outlived her by two days.15 It is ironic that, after all she had suffered, and the thousands of miles she had traveled, her death was caused, indirectly, by her own father in what ought to have been the safety of her own home.

In 1841, James started searching again, now focused on the captives still at large: his niece Cynthia Ann, his nephew John, and his grandson James. His account of the next four years is again full of derring-do and near calamity. In late 1842 he heard that two boys had been brought in to Fort Gibson. He arrived there in January 1843 to find his grandson and his nephew. James Pratt Plummer was now eight; John Richard Parker was thirteen. They spoke no English. James’s first reaction was to run away, and he had to be persuaded to come back. The three somehow made their way home, in cold and wet weather, partly on foot and without proper winter gear (nothing was ever easy with James), through the Indian territory and back to Texas.

In his narrative, James suggests a simple, happy ending for the boys, but it was more complicated than that. John seems to have been returned to his mother, Lucy, who had remarried in 1840 and divorced soon afterward and who had been mired in the settlement of her dead husband Silas Parker’s estate for four years. John was dispatched by her sometime around 1850 or 1851 (Lucy died in 1852) to try to find Cynthia Ann and bring her back. Somehow he managed to find her—an astounding story in its own right—though he had no more luck than Colonel Williams, Robert Neighbors, or Victor Rose.

In his report on his expedition to the headwaters of the Red River in 1852, Captain Randolph Marcy wrote that he had met John Parker around this time and spoken with him:

The brother of the woman, who had been ransomed by a trader and brought home to his relatives, was sent back by his mother for the purpose of endeavoring to prevail upon his sister to leave the Indians and return to her family; but he stated to me that on his arrival she refused to listen to the proposition, saying that her husband, children and all that she held most dear were with the Indians, and there she should remain.16

No one knows what happened to John. There were many stories. Cynthia Ann believed, as she later told interviewers, that he had died of smallpox. She was wrong, at least on the timing of his death. He was reported to have served in the Civil War under a colonel in the Texas Rifles. The most popular story was that John returned to live with the Comanches. In this version, he came down with smallpox, was abandoned, and nursed back to health by a Mexican woman who had been a captive herself (the “night-eyed” “Aztec” beauty). He became a rancher in Mexico, lived to a ripe old age, and died in 1915. Several newspaper accounts of the day suggested as much. Such are legends of the West.

James Pratt Plummer had a more prosaic fate. By the time of his capture, his father, L.T.M., had remarried, and had two children. When they arrived back in Texas, the elder James did something that was both bizarre and fully in keeping with his mercurial character. He refused to let L.T.M. have James Pratt. The reasons are not entirely clear but were most likely financial: James wanted money. He claimed at one point that he paid $1,000 for the two children, an apparent lie for which he was later banished from his church. He tried to hold L.T.M. up for some of that. He may have been trying simply to keep his grandson, who looked disarmingly like his beloved daughter Rachel. Unable to gain custody of his son, L.T.M. Plummer petitioned Sam Houston, who was again president of the Republic of Texas. Houston responded angrily:


Your communication in reference to the detention of your son by Mr. James W. Parker, came duly to hand. . . .

In case of this kind, the attempt to swindle a distressed father on account of his long lost child is in every way deserving of the severest reprehension. Though I had some reason to suspect the professions of Mr. Parker, yet, until this case was presented, I had not supposed him capable of practicing such scandalous fraud upon his kindred and connexions. . . . His pretensions about his liability for two hundred dollars, etc., are utterly groundless. You will, therefore, take your child home.17

Little more is known of James Pratt’s life. He married twice, fathered four children, and died on November 17, 1862, of pneumonia while serving in the Confederate Army in Little Rock, Arkansas.18

James Parker’s last trip in search of Cynthia Ann took place in 1844. He presumably learned of Colonel Williams’s meeting with her and gave up. He was kicked out of another church, this time for drunkenness. He prospered. He was elected justice of the peace in Houston County. He died in 1864 at the age of sixty-seven, having outlived most of his children and siblings. By then the Parkers were one of the most affluent and influential clans in Texas. His brother Daniel had founded nine churches

before his death in 1845, making him the leading Protestant clergyman in Texas. His brother Isaac was a prominent politician, an original member of the Texas Congress in 1836. He later served as a state representative and a state senator. Yet another brother, Joseph Allen, was a large landowner and prominent citizen in Houston. For all of their prosperity and success, they never returned to Parker’s Fort, which soon disappeared. Some said it was dismantled within a few years, its stout cedar posts used to build other homesteads farther to the east, where life was less dangerous.



FEW HISTORIANS WOULD argue that the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which a defeated Mexican republic signed on February 2, 1848, in the wake of a lopsided war, was as momentous an event in American history as the signing, seventeen years later, of the surrender at Appomattox Courthouse. Yet in its own way it was quite as definitive. Appomattox stitched the nation back together. It asserted that this oddball disaggregation of warring states was in fact a single nation with eternal common interests—a unified political idea that now included both a federal government with powers the founders could never have imagined, as well as millions of freed slaves whose welfare and freedom were now its assumed burden and responsibility.

But Guadalupe Hidalgo created the physical nation itself. Before the treaty the American West consisted of the old Louisiana Purchase lands that rose in ladderlike fashion from the mouth of the Mississippi, climbed the courses of the Missouri, and touched the rocky, fog-shrouded shores of the Northwest. It was a tentative, partial fulfillment of the national myth. Guadalupe Hidalgo, in which Mexico gave up its claims north of the Rio Grande, made the dream suddenly, and completely, real. It added the old Spanish lands that lay, enormous and sun-drenched, athwart the Southwest. They included the modern states of Arizona, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, California, and Nevada. There was Texas, too, in a sense, though it had been subsumed in 1845. U.S. annexation of Texas was what the war against Mexico was about, and the American victory settled the question forever. In all, the United States of America acquired 1.2 million square miles of real estate, an instant 66 percent increase in its total landmass. In terms of land gained, on a percentage basis, it was as though France had acquired Germany. Thus was the nation entirely recast. Its singularity of purpose, its raw and conquistador-like desire to possess and dominate all lands it touched and to dispossess or destroy all of its aboriginal peoples, its burgeoning will to power could now stretch, untrammeled, from sea to shining sea. It was manifest destiny made manifest.

The treaty changed everything in the West. It changed the world beyond the 98th meridian for everyone and for all time but perhaps most radically for the native peoples who inhabited the stark, open middle of the continent.

At the time of the Mexican war this was still mysterious, dangerous, untraveled land. Much of it—from Canada to south Texas—had never been explored by white men, especially the headwaters of the big rivers that ran through the heart of Comancheria. The continent’s heart was pierced in two places:

the Oregon Trail, which started in Missouri and scaled the continent along the North and South Platte Rivers to reach the Columbia, and the Santa Fe Trail, starting in the same place but then snaked from western Missouri to New Mexico, hugging the Arkansas River part of the way. But these were merely highways down which relatively small numbers of pioneers traveled. They did not draw settlement; westering pioneers did not stop in the middle of the Oregon Trail and decide they wanted to build a cabin. That was never their purpose and would have been suicidal anyway. The higher plains, including the 240,000 square miles of Comancheria, remained inviolate, their buffalo herds, horse tribes, trade routes, and rough boundaries still intact.

The problem for the Comanches was that, where once they existed as a buffer between two huge land empires, they now stood directly in the way of American nationhood. They were now surrounded by a single political entity. With the annexation of Texas, they were no longer dealing with a quirky, provincial republic with few resources, devalued currency, and a patchwork citizen soldiery; they were now a principal concern of the federal government, with its visions, blue-coated armies, vaults full of tax money, and complex, usually misguided, politically charged Indian policies. In the immediate aftermath of the Mexican war, none of this would have been apparent. In fact, a weird status quo reigned. Until the late 1840s, Texas was still the only part of civilized America that was in range of the horse tribes. In the Indian Territory, the relocations of eastern tribes had played out, depositing some twenty thousand Indians from a dozen tribes across modern-day Oklahoma; they jostled with one another and with plains tribes. But not with white men. Not yet. On the northern plains, in Sioux, Arapaho, and Cheyenne country, Indians had dealings with the military and occasionally confrontations, but there were no human frontiers in those lands.

The status quo would not hold much longer. In the 1830s and 1840s white civilization had shouldered its way slowly up the Colorado, Guadalupe, Trinity, and Brazos rivers in Texas, moving inexorably into the Comanche borderlands. Soon those settlements would be replicated in the North, too, ascending the Kansas, Republican, and Smoky Hill rivers, directly onto Cheyenne hunting grounds. It was moving even into the Indian Territories, which the federal government had specifically set aside for Indians. In 1849 the floodgates opened. The Gold Rush was the first great exercise of America’s new spatial freedom. People poured giddily into the West in numbers that would have been unthinkable just a year before.

But pilgrims, land-grabbers, sodbusters, Forty-niners, and a nation with galloping expansionist urges were not the only problems for the Comanche nation in those years. Something else had happened during the years of the Texas Republic to change the fundamental nature of their relationship with the white man. Comanche power had long resided in sheer military superiority: the ability, man for man, to outride and outshoot the Anglo-Europeans. This had been true from the earliest days of Spanish rule. Now for the first time, came a serious challenge. It came in the form of dirty, bearded, violent, and undisciplined men wearing buckskins, serapes, coonskin caps, sombreros, and other odd bits of clothing, who belonged to no army, wore no insignias or uniforms, made cold camps on the prairie, and were only intermittently paid. They owed their existence to the Comanche threat; their methods, copied closely from the Comanches, would change frontier warfare in North America. They were called by many different names, including “spies,” and “mounted volunteers,” and “gunmen,” and “mounted gunmen.”1 It was not until the middle of the 1840s that they finally had a name everybody could agree on: Rangers.

To understand who they were and why they were necessary, it is important to grasp the extremely difficult, nearly untenable situation in which the new Republic of Texas found itself in the late 1830s.

Texas was never supposed to be its own sovereign country. After their victory at San Jacinto the vast majority of Texans believed that their territory would be immediately annexed by the United States. There were a few would-be empire builders like Mirabeau Lamar and James Parker (who volunteered to fulfill Lamar’s grandiose vision by conquering New Mexico) who had other ideas. But mostly everyone else wanted statehood. They were soon disappointed. There were two main reasons it did not happen. First, Mexico had never recognized the independence of its renegade northern province. If the United States added Texas it risked war with Mexico, something that, in 1836, it was not prepared to do. Nor could it easily admit a slave territory.

Texas was thus left alone, broke and militarily punchless, for ten years to confront two implacable enemies: Mexico on the south, and the Comanche nation on the west and north. The fledgling country would never know peace. Mexican incursions persisted; the city of San Antonio was captured twice by large Mexican armies in 1842. Raids were constant, as was the predation of itinerant bandits from across the border. And Texas’s western frontier was the scene of continuous attacks by Comanches. It is interesting to note Texas’s peculiar positi

on here: Neither of these enemies would have accepted peace on the terms the new republic would have offered them. Even more remarkably, neither would accept surrender. The Mexican army consistently gave no quarter, most famously at the Alamo. All Texan combatants were summarily shot. The Nermernuh, meanwhile, did not even have a word for surrender. In plains warfare there was never any such thing; it was always a fight to the death. In this sense, the Texans did not have the usual range of diplomatic options. They had to fight.2

But while the Mexicans hovered, sent war parties north of the Nueces, and waited for their chance to reclaim their lost province, the constant, lethal, and unstoppable threat still came from the Comanches, who killed thousands more Texans than the Mexicans ever did. As ornery, stubborn, and fearless as the Texans were, they found themselves completely unprepared and ill equipped to deal with Comanches. So much so that, in the early days of the Republic, it looked very much as though the Texans were doomed to suffer the same fate as the Spanish and Mexicans. In the first phase of the Comanche wars, the Indians held all the advantages.

Their superiority started with weaponry. When the Texans arrived from Tennessee, Alabama, and other points east, they brought with them their main firearm, the Kentucky rifle. It was, in many ways, a fine piece of technology. Long, heavy-barreled, short-stocked, and extremely accurate, it could be devastatingly effective when fired from cover by a shooter at rest. It was an excellent hunting rifle. But it was ill suited to combat, and especially ill-suited to mounted combat. It required a good deal of time to load. Powder had to be measured and poured, and the ball had to be rammed down the barrel with a long rod. Then the tube had to be primed and the flint properly adjusted so that it would strike.3 This all took at least a minute, which amounted to a death sentence against mobile, bow-wielding Comanches. Worse still for anyone fighting Comanches, the shooter had to dismount to use the long rifle. From the saddle, the weapon lost its only real advantage, which was its accuracy. The Texans had pistols, too, old-fashioned, single-shot dueling weapons,4 equally cumbersome to load and fire, and equally impractical in the saddle.