April 1956 | Volume 7, Issue 3
Both grimness and beauty touch this haunting fragment of America’s past
This is an old tale, and not a pretty one; it is a true tale, a real “Western,” although it wouldn’t go on TV. It sounds to me like a ballad—the ballad of Cynthia Ann.
But Cynthia Ann, fleeing us all on the thunder of Comanche hoofs, is no part of a sentimental ditty. By all accounts, she was a very pretty little girl. One of about eighteen children at Parker’s Fort on the Navasota River, she was the kind men pick out for a tweak of the curls or a joking word—even those grim pioneers whose eyes saw less of the beauty around them than visions of the day when the Lord would drive their enemies out of the land. The women, trying to describe her afterwards, said she had blue eyes and light hair—flax-flower eyes, I fancy, wheat-straw hair that curled, as a child’s will in hot weather, softly at the temples where the veins show blue in the porcelain flesh. The women would remember that flesh with burning pity. Cynthia Ann was in her ninth year on the last day of Fort Parker, which was May 19, 1836.
That day dawned warm, then turned to a regular east-Texas hot spring morning. For a while the women in Parker’s Fort could hear their men’s voices out in the fields in the shimmering heat waves. Then the voices drifted away down the long furrows. The women sought cool looting (shoes were for Sunday) as they went about their tasks. Rachel Plummer moved languidly, eight months gone with child. Old Granny Parker (eighty-odd) drove the flies from the parchment of her face.
The people in Parker’s Fort numbered only ;35 souls. Patriarch of them all was Elder John Parker, who had led his people—the Parkers, the Plummers, the Nixons and other neighbors from back east—across the Red River into the Canaan of Texas soil. And he was a Cod-fearing, “Two-seed” Baptist, and his son the Reverend James Parker walked in the ways of the Lord also, and so did his brothers Isaac and Silas and Benjamin. And they took unto themselves wives, all except young Benjamin, and begat children. And the names of their children were Rachel and Sara and James and John and the like-all Bible names. All except Cynthia Ann, daughter of Silas, the son of Elder John. Her name, whether her mother knew it or not, was Creek. For “Cynthia” is one of the titles of Artemis, goddess of the moon and protectress of maidens.
But to protect her now there wasn’t a soldier left in the fort. The Republic of Texas had pulled them all out some weeks ago, now that the Indian frontier had retreated a hundred miles to the west. Nobody that morning was thinking of Indians: why should they?
Then, suddenly, out of the prairie heat waves—they were there: Comanches and Kiowas, some afoot, some sitting ponies. The braves weren’t yelling or brandishing their shields of buffalo hide. They were just staring in silence—a long, deadly stillness. Even the buffalo horns and the eagle plumes of their headdresses hardly stirred. Their fourteen-foot lances were motionless as a grove of dead saplings, only the leathers near the tips trembling a little in the south wind.
Benjamin Parker, Cynthia Ann’s youngest uncle, went out to meet them and play for time—enough for Mrs. Sarah Nixon, Cynthia’s cousin, to run for the fields with the alarm. Ben talked as long as he con Id, then came into the fort to say the Indians showed by sign they wanted beef. There was none, so he went back to temporize. He was the first to die. They clubbed, speared, and scalped him under the aghast eyes at the portholes in the log stockade.
Now the yells broke. The mounted Indians dashed their ponies in a noose around the Tort. They swept up young Mrs. Elizabeth Kellogg; Rachel Plummer, a child in her arms and another inside her, was dragged away by her hair along the ground. The folding gate of wooden slabs yielded to the blows of the hostiles. As it burst in, one scream tore the throats of the ten women, the fifteen children. With them were only four men—old Elder John, and Silas (Cynthia’s father), and Robert Frost and his son Samuel. They had time for a single burst of firing, a single yell of triumph from Silas as a few Indians fell. Then all the men were overpowered, killed, stripped, and scalped.
Cynthia Ann heard her mother’s voice urging her on, hut she couldn’t outrun those long coppery legs. A copper hand was in her hair; a hard arm scooped her up by her waist. Her own mother was forced to set her on a pony’s back behind a mounted brave, and stand staring after her as she was borne away.
For now from the fields came the rest of the men, crouching as they ran. They were armed, though short of bullets and powder, which were mostly in the fort. Their line of fire was a ragged popping: these were farmers who never before had shot anything more dangerous than a snake or hawk. But they turned back the Comanche charge, and then another, and gained time for the children and women to scatter like quail in the brush down by the Navasota’s banks.
The Indian’s didn’t charge again. They were dealing with the milch cows now, filling them full of arrows as so many pin cushions. The farmers could hear the beasts bellowing. Soon they saw the red and yellow flames war-dancing in the standing crops.
Deep in the woods the men began hunting for their families, children for their parents. These refugees were many starving days 1'rom salety. The shoeless had to walk all the way on bleeding feet. Yet they all made it back to the eastern settlements. The wounded made it, a woman with child made it. Old Granny Parker, speared and left for dead, played possum till darkness—she made it too. Three nursing mothers somehow brought their babes alive through the flight; Nature wrung the milk out of their gaunt flesh to nourish the frail hopes they carried.
Wouldn’t you think they’d had enough of Fort Parker? Then you don’t know your own American ancestors. For practically all of these people returned to the fort in a short time. They buried the bones, picked clean by wolves and vultures, of their dead. They planted another crop that year. They begot and bore and raised more children. They brought more Bibles with them, and read aloud together the covenant of Jehovah with those who keep His commandments.
And now the heathen wilderness began to give up some of those ravished away. Elizabeth Kellogg was the first to return. Unbroken in spirit, she had given such a thrashing to a squaw who was beating her that the Ketchaw Indians admiringly named her “Brave Worn- an.” They sold her for $150 in trading goods to some Delawares (always allies of the whites) who brought her home. Rachel Plummer, that same autumn, was purchased by Santa Fe traders and brought back to her husband. Of her son Pratt, taken from her early in captivity, she never lived to hear news. Yet seven years later he was turned over by friendly Indians to the soldiers at Fort Gibson.
But the Indians had taken Cynthia Ann to a place that no honest white man ever saw—and lived. It is the center of the whirlwind, the ancient and most secret hide-out of the Comanchcs. It is the lost and inaccessible valley where a stream comes down, between warpaint canyon walls, from the high Llano Estacado through the break of the cap rock. That stream was called the Rio de las Lenguas—“the river of tongues”—for the many tongues that were spoken here: Kiowa, Comanche, Wichita, Jicarilla, Mescallero, a cawing Babel like ravens and geese and whooping cranes all calling together. The Comancheros, white renegades who rode out from New Mexico to trade here for stolen cattle and horses, with a duel poetry named this spot—where women were sold among the tribes, where children were reft from the clutch of their mothers, and girls knew brutal hands—the Valle de las Lágrimas.
Into that blackness vanished Cynthia Ann.
Years had passed, and Colonel Len Williams, with his fellow trader, Stoat, and the Delaware guide, Jack Harry, were parleying with Pahuaka’s band of Comanches down by the bank of the Canadian River. Heat and excitement fevered the Colonel’s impatience. Best let the more stoic Stoat negotiate. For the Colonel himself hadn’t a doubt of the identity of that blond girl of thirteen among the Comanches. Promptly he had offered to buy her freedom; proudly Pahuaka replied that members of his tribe were not for sale. The Colonel then asked to speak with the girl, and received the startling answer that the chief would have to get the permission of her mother and father.
Now the girl, in Indian dress, walked slowly out of the group and toward him, her eyes on the ground. At the Colonel’s feet she sat down, as a modest Comanche girl does before a man, tucked her legs under her skirt, and folded her hands in her lap—the incarnation of obedient attention.
The Colonel spoke, coolly, kindly. Her family had been hunting for her for years. Her playmates remembered her. Her place waited for her, and a warm welcome. And he promised to raise any sum for her ransom that the Indians might ask.
She raised her eyes. And what he saw was nothing he had ever seen before in the gaze of any woman, least of all in the look of a young white girl. In that long glance he saw the Llano—the endless level of the highlifted short-grass plain, where there is nothing from dawn to sunset to give back an echo. Even the blue of those eyes was like the Llano sky, that arches over the buffalo grass and the curlew lakes, and is unchanging, beyond recollection or fear or pity.
He dropped his own startled gaze. It’s no use, he knew. There’s nothing we can do with this. Let us go.
Yes, they went, and they let her go back—back to the blanket. For there is no fugitive so difficult to pursue as the freed will of a woman—unless it is a Comanche.
The tribe was, in those days, the whirlwind itself, possessed of the greatest horsemen in history. Greater, said old cavalry officers, than Arabs or Bedouins or Cossacks. It was they, perhaps, who were first of the red men to master horses—beasts descended from strayed or stolen mounts of the Spaniards. From the moment that the Comanche leaped to the back of that mustang, he changed from the clumsiest Indian afoot into the “red knight of the plains.”
With horses, the Comanches’ striking power was fluid as the Llano wind. The West Point style of cavalry charge was useless against a foe who could hang by his heels while galloping, and shoot arrows under the horse’s neck so fast that he could keep eight of them in the air all the time. The Texas Ranger could get in at most three shots—one from a rifle and one each from a brace of pistols—before he had to reload. In the sixty seconds needed for that, a Comanche horseman could close in for the kill.
It was in horses that a Comanche counted his wealth; racing he thought the one sport worthy of a man. Squaws, too, rode like wild spirits of the air; they too could hang by their heels, vault up again to the saddle, or spring from one galloping steed to another. The horse lifted the Comanche woman from a beast of burden to a mate, mounted and proud and free, whose bride-price had been paid by her suitor in those very animals that made of him a red half-god, a centaur out of myth. … That was how Peta Nakona, young chief of the Kwahadi band of Comanches, obtained Cynthia Ann from her red foster parents when she would have been about fifteen years old.
In 1851, some Texan travelers fell in with the Kwahadi band along the upper Canadian River. They stared long at the hair of the young chief’s wife; it was straight as an Indian’s, smelling of the lodge fires, but yellow, yellow. Her skin was tanned to leathery brown; in her eyes, when they questioned her, there was no gleam of recognition. Not even at the name of Cynthia Ann Parker. She was Preloch now (say the ch hard, as in the Scottish loch ). No, she answered in Comanche, she had no desire to return to her white relatives, to leave her two swarthy little sons, and her good husband.
I know, I know. It doesn’t fit at all with the tengallon legend. It’s right in the script that any white woman would spurn the embrace of a no-account, redhanded, scalp-lifting Indian varmint. And the fairhaired girl is always rescued by the Lone Ranger.
All right. I’ll play you the banjo tune for a minute—and I’ll be telling the truth. That’s just what happened.
The Kwahadi band—so went the Texan tune—had to be punished. They’d been raiding; the frontier was aflame. So, in December of 1860, 47 Rangers, under the command of Captain Sul Ross, took the field in vengeance. Joining them was a handful of settlers and cowboys, and 23 dragoons, fight-loving Irishmen. In all, they made a motley force of some eighty, in every kind of uniform or duds, on every sort of mount.
United in their enmity, these outfits had their own ways of fighting; when it came to a scalp-lifting, you couldn’t always tell a Texas settler from a Comanche; the dragoons shot squaws as soon as bucks. (Harsh truth drowns out the banjo.) And the Rangers had at last got Colt six-shooters. They were the first to use the Colt on the Comanches, and with it they turned the whole tide of Indian warfare. Now it was they, not the red centaurs, who charged, and their in-fighting was so close they powder-burned the coppery skins.
Thus, on the morning of December 19, the end was clear in the beginning, when the whites surprised the Kwahadi camp on the desolate banks of the Pease. It was the same end, of course, as that which had come to Fort Parker. The Comanches fled, as the Baptists had fled, larruping their wild-eyed ponies, toppling, under the leaden hail, sideways or backwards with a last crazy salute of upflung hands. Only one figure, crouched low on an iron-gray mount, was pacing the wind. She outraced the Rangers, all but outran the bullets, until at their whine around her ears she reined, plunging, and lifted high above her head a swaddled babe, hostage to surrender, pledge of her womanhood.
So they took her. Took her first to Camp Cooper, where the officers’ wives were kindly pitying, and cooed over Tautaijah, the tiny red baby. They improved the Indian syllables into Topsannah, and declared it meant “Prairie Flower.” (You know how we make up the Indian’s poetry for him, to fit our Longfellow notions.) To poor Cynthia Ann Parker they showed every Christian charity—and met the glare of Preloch, a caged female whose mate and cubs were still out in the wild. Twice she stole a horse and with her babe in her arms streaked as only a Comanche could for the open. But the cavalry did its job; she was always brought back. Everybody concerned was glad when Senator (and Colonel) Isaac Parker came and took his niece and her child away.
He brought her home, to the piny eastern part of Texas, to her younger brother Dan Parker’s house in Athens.
The state legislature was so good as to vote a pension to Cynthia Ann. But it bought nothing that Preloch wanted in this world. Nor could money save Topsannah when she sickened. For as soon as she was weaned and began taking white man’s food, she wasted, and presently was laid beneath a stone.
Her mother did not long survive her. Some say she died of sorrow, some that she starved herself to death. By 1864 she was buried in the old Fosterville cemetery. No doubt they put a cedar by her head, to point the way to heaven. No doubt they planted periwinkle; they usually do, on a woman’s grave, down south. Its kitten-eyed blue flowers bring to mind the little girl who vanished a quarter-century before, by the salt river of tongues, in the war-paint valley of tears.
So ends the ballad, my ballad of Cynthia Ann. So, you might think, ends the story. I point no moral to it; I lift no finger to show any one way to salvation. Indeed, if you look well at our history—look between the eyes at our conquest of the land, once all the red man’s, you find yourself, like me, falling silent. All we can say is that out of that murder and rapine, out of that courage and struggle, came this, our nation. And in its history there’s one more paragraph I must relate, which adds an envoy to my ballad.
You remember the two little sons she had, out in the whirlwind wilderness? The eldest, Quanah, was in battle where she was captured, and he escaped with the remnant of his people. At 22 he became the chief of the Kwahadi band, still the most bitter and intractable of all Comanches. Most of them agreed, by the Medicine Lodge Treaty of 1867, to come onto the reservation. Not Quanah; he kept out on the Llano, leading the United States Army in circles after him. He is described as the most ferocious Indian ever encountered, by an officer who saw him lead a charge—a smoking six-shooter in his hand, bear-claw necklace at his throat, war bonnet streaming behind him, his face satanic with daubs of red and ochre.
And then—what gentling, south-wind spirit reached to him? What strangely prompted him, in 1875, suddenly to surrender? He brought his people down out of the plains, turned over all his arms, and settled with his band at the foot of the Wichita Mountains, in Indian Territory. He saw to it that every little Comanche went to school, to learn the white man’s language and study in his books. Jovial, hospitable in the big house he built for his three wives and fifteen children, Quanah was fond of a good cigar and relished a fund of racy stories.
It’s the last of the story, it’s the end of the song—all the plaintive sorrow drowned in the sound of a big brass band. It’s 1905, on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, and that’s Teddy Roosevelt’s Inaugural Parade swinging down through the cheering throng, the flags, the gaudy music of Stars and Stripes Forever and Hail to the Chief , the white man’s chief, the Rough Rider President. And in the parade are great chiefs of his red brothers, Chief Joseph of the Nez Perces, Geronimo the Apache, and Quanah of the Comanches—Quanah, son of Cynthia Ann, her victory out of defeat.