BY PAUL I. WELLMAN, WICHITA, KANSAS
The story of Cynthia Ann Parker is one of the most famous incidents in the history of the Southwest.
In its familiar version it runs as follows: Cynthia Ann Parker, nine-year-old daughter of Silas M. Parker, was captured with her little brother John, when the Comanche Indians sacked Parker's Fort, Texas, which was founded by her grandfather, Elder John Parker. The Parkers were of old Virginia and later Kentucky blood. The fort was at that time on the extreme frontier of Texas.
After the capture of the fort and the massacre of nearly all its inhabitants, which occurred May 19, 1836, the Comanches and their Kiowa allies carried a few captives, including Mrs. Rachel Plummer, her fifteen months' old son James Pratt Plummer, Mrs. Elizabeth Kellogg, and the two Parker children, far out on the plains, where the prisoners were distributed among the various bands which made up the large war party. There was a scalp dance that night and then the Indians scattered.
Of the prisoners the two women and the little Plummer boy were later ransomed by friendly Indians and returned to their relatives after terrific hardships. The Parker children, however, were taken by the Quahada Comanches, whose habitat was the Staked Plains. This portion of Texas was so far removed from the settlements that the two children could not be recovered.
In 1840, four years after their capture, Col. Len Williams, a trader named Stoal, and Jack Henry, a Delaware Indian, visited the camp of the Comanche chief Pa-ha-u-ka, then on the Canadian river. Col. Williams reported that he saw a white girl and believed her to be the missing Cynthia Ann Parker, then thirteen years old. He tried to ransom her, but his offer was refused by the Comanches, although they granted him permission to talk with her.
Cynthia Ann came to where Col. Williams was standing, and seated herself on the ground. He tried to question her, but she refused to answer, either because she had already forgotten her mother tongue, or was afraid to talk, or was indifferent to his proposition of returning her to her own people.
Not long afterward she became the wife of Peta Nokoni, who was destined to rise to the chieftainship of the Quahada Comanches.
Fifteen years after this date there was another reported interview with Cynthia Ann Parker. Victor M. Rose said that, with a party of white hunters, he had visited the camp in which she lived. He said that he asked her if she would like to return to her people and she replied "in sorrowful negative." Pointing to her husband, by this time chief of the tribe, and her babies, she was quoted by Rose as saying: "I am happily wedded. I love my husband, who is good and kind, and my little ones, too, are his, and I cannot forsake them."
Time passed. One day Peta Nokoni's village was surprised and captured by Texas Rangers under Captains Lawrence Sullivan Ross and Jack Curington. During the battle which followed, Nokoni was killed by Ross, and Cynthia Ann Parker was captured with her youngest child, a baby girl named Topsannah (Prairie Flower). Cynthia Ann Parker and her baby were taken to the Texas settlements where she was identified by her uncle, Isaac Parker, and lived from the time of her capture, early in 1861 until her death with that of her child in 1864.
That, in briefest outline, is the story as it has been written and rewritten. For years it has been allowed to stand although many persons in the Comanche tribe have always known that some of its details are untrue. Among these are the following:
Peta Nokoni was not killed by Captain Ross and did not die for some time after the capture of his wife, which occurred while he and his warriors were elsewhere.
The "village" captured by the Texas Rangers was not a regular Comanche village, but a hunting camp, occupied by women and Mexican slaves who were getting a meat supply.
There was no "battle." What occurred was in reality a massacre of defenseless women and Mexican servants, since there were no Comanche warriors present, all the fighting men being with Nokoni on a war expedition at the time.
Cynthia Ann Parker was not held as an unwilling prisoner. She lived in the Comanche village of her own volition and preference and after her capture by the whites made several fruitless attempts to return to her adopted people.
There are other minor details which are also in error in the story as told by Ross and others.
The reasons why the Comanches have never denied any of these statements are twofold: The natural reticence of the Indian was for many years added to the fear of a captive people that bad consequences might follow any recital by them of details connected with the captivity of a white woman. In addition to this, the great Quanah Parker, eldest son of Nokoni and Cynthia Ann Parker, forbade his people to tell the truth about the matter for an entirely different reason. On one occasion he said to one of his daughters, the present Mrs. Neda Parker Birdsong, of Cache, Okla.: "Out of respect to the family of General Ross, do not deny that he killed Peta Nokoni. If he felt that it was any credit to him to have killed my father, let his people continue to believe that he did so."
The magnanimous injunction was observed by his children until now. A recent statement made that Nokoni was a Mexican, has caused them to break the silence of seventy years.
This statement is based on the fact that a man killed by Captain Ross at the time of the capture of Cynthia Ann Parker, and identified by him as Nokoni, was undoubtedly a Mexican. The story of the mistake in identification was told recently to the writer by Mrs. Birdsong, and corroborated by her sister, Mrs. Emmett Cox, of Lawton, Okla., as follows:
While Cynthia Ann Parker was undoubtedly an unwilling captive at first, she later came to like the life of the Comanches, and lived it from preference. Shortly after she grew old enough for marriage, she became the wife of Peta Nokoni. The Rose story is written in a vein which would imply that she was not fully sincere in her statement about her love for her husband and her desire to stay with the Indians. Mrs. Birdsong, who is a Carlisle graduate, and a cultured woman, has made a close study of the history of the case, and she doubts that Cynthia Ann Parker ever made the statement quoted. If she did, Mrs. Birdsong says, she certainly did not use the words quoted by Rose, as by that time she had been in captivity, or rather had been living as a Comanche tribe member for nineteen years, and had forgotten how to speak English, certainly how to use such chaste and elegant phraseology as was placed in her mouth in the Rose account. That her negative to him—if given at
all—was "sorrowful" seems ridiculous to Mrs. Birdsong and other descendants of the remarkable white Comanche woman. After the first few years, the Comanches say, Cynthia Ann Parker entered into the life of the wild tribe with zest. This is no uncommon occurrence. Many persons, both men and women, lived with the Indians and grew to love the life. There are plenty of well authenticated cases where they expressed their preference for the free, roving existence, with its constantly changing scenes, its multitude of incident, its color and its adventure, to the more hum-drum life of the civilized communities. Cynthia Ann Parker was descended from a long line of adventurers and she soon adapted herself to her surroundings and became as good a Comanche, in spite of her golden hair and blue eyes, as any of her dark-skinned sisters.
One reason for this is that her married life with Nokoni seems to have been very happy. At the time they were wedded according to Comanche customs, he was still a young warrior but was already noted. He is said to have been the leader of the attack on Fort Parker and had won renown by many other successful forays. While he was not yet a chief, he was already on the path which was destined to make him the most famous of the Quahada Comanches of his day, and eventually head of the whole tribe. In his later years he was such a dominating figure that his branch of the Comanches is referred to in some writings as the "Nokoni Comanches" instead of by their usual name, the Quahadas.
Nokoni appears really to have loved his white wife, and treated her kindly and generously. She returned his affection. The best proof of this is the fact that although it was the custom of Comanche warriors, particularly notable ones, to have several wives, Peta Nokoni never took another woman to his lodge. At least if he did none of his descendants ever heard of it and there is no record of it in the memories of any of the old members of the tribe still living, some of whom knew Nokoni during his life.
"If Cynthia Ann Parker made the statement quoted by Rose, which she might have done in Comanche, she undoubtedly spoke the sincere truth, and there was no 'sorrowful negative' about it," says Mrs. Birdsong.
At the time that Ross and his Texas Rangers attacked the
Comanches and captured Cynthia Ann Parker, she was thirty-four years old and had lived with the Indians for twenty-five years. The story of the attack as told by the Comanches, is given here in Mrs. Birdsong's own words:1
"One day a band, composed of women and small children, too small to be away from their mothers, and a number of captive men servants, set out to get their winter's supply of meat. They were met on the Pease river by Texas Rangers under Captain Sull Ross. The Rangers attacked and killed many of them as they were women and not armed. One of the officers charged up on Cynthia Ann Parker, who was mounted on a swift pony, with her baby clasped in her arms. Just as he was about to shoot her, the wind blew the blanket off her head, revealing her golden hair and blue eyes. Riding with the officer was the late Charles Goodnight, who yelled to him: 'Don't shoot that's a white woman.'
"Peta Nokoni and the warriors were not within miles of this place when Ross and his Rangers won their 'victory' over this band of women with babies in their arms, and a few Mexican servants. The story that Quanah Parker and his brother, the sons of Nokoni and Cynthia Ann, escaped from the Rangers at this time is also false, since they were miles away with their father. If they had been there they probably would both have been killed.
"One of the Mexican servants who was helping the Comanche women was owned by Peta Nokoni and was Cynthia Ann's personal servant, being sent to hunt and help her with the meat.
1Editorial Note—It was the pleasure of the writer to have spent an evening with Horace P. Jones at Fort Sill in 1896. Mr. Jones was the government interpreter at Fort Sill and had been in government service on the frontier since before the civil war, Jones related to me and the two young army officers that were with me, the whole story of Cynthia Ann Parker's capture, by Capt. Sull Ross; Jones was with Capt. Ross and was one of the interpreters. His story confirms the account of her capture as related by Cynthia Ann Parker's granddaughter, Mrs. Birdsong. Jones told the writer that when the white woman was captured she at first refused to talk, but when some one with the Texas soldiers said that it might be Col. Parker's daughter Cynthia Ann, who was captured by the Comanches many years before. When the woman heard the name Cynthia Anna she struck her hand to her breast and said, "Me, Me, Cynthia Anna"—She did not want to go with the white people for she said that she had two sons away with their people, perhaps in the Wichita Mountains.
Jones told several stories of Cynthia Ann, also her husband Nokona, and of their two sons, one of whom was Quannah Parker. I remember that he stated that the name "Nokona" meant in English—"One who camps alone," or "Lone Camper." It was a very interesting evening we spent with one of the oldest scouts and historians of the plains, Horace P. Jones."
—D. W. P.
This man was known as Joe (or Jose) Nokoni, much as we would say 'Nokoni's Joe.' There had been some buffaloes killed and the women were butchering when the Rangers came up. The women all mounted their ponies and rode as fast as they could to escape. Joe, who was also mounted, stayed near the horse on which his mistress, Cynthia Ann Parker, was riding, to help her if possible. As the Rangers began to overtake them, they started shooting and the Mexican was hit and disabled. At once he began to sing his death song in Comanche, and turning around made a 'dare ride' (i.e.—charged the opposing line by himself to cause them to concentrate their fire on him and bring them to a halt) hoping to stand the Rangers off and enable the women and children to escape.
"During this single-handed charge, he was shot and killed by Captain Ross. Cynthia Ann Parker and her baby, together with several other women and children, were captured immediately afterward.
"Following the 'fight' the Rangers gathered about the slain Mexican, who was dressed like a Comanche, and asked who he was. He is believed to be the only man killed by the Rangers in this attack. One of the captured squaws volunteered the information that he was Joe Nokoni. Knowing that the Quahada chief's name was Nokoni, and struck by the bravery of this man, Ross came to the conclusion that he had killed the Comanche leader and the story was later published and generally accepted as true.
"As a matter of fact, as I have said, the dead man was not even a Comanche, but a Mexican captive instead. His faithful and heroic service to his mistress is all the more remarkable under the circumstances.
"The real Peta Nokoni gathered up those who escaped and moved his village. He lived to lead his warriors on many war paths after his wife was captured. He died eventually from an infected wound, but I do not know the date, and because the Comanches were driven from place to place, the exact place of his death is not known either."
An interesting side-light on the Parker episode is the fate of John Parker, Cynthia Ann's younger brother, who was captured by the Indians at the same time she was. He grew up as a Comanche and was adopted into the tribe. He dressed, lived
and fought as a Comanche warrior, and achieved some distinction in the tribe, taking particular zest in the long, dangerous raids into Mexico.
On one of these raids, he was stricken with small pox, a disease so dreaded by the plains Indians that the mere mention of it was enough to cause a panic. His Comanche companions incontinently deserted him and fled. They had captured a Mexican girl on the raid and were carrying her back with them to the Comanche country as a captive. This girl was left with John Parker to take care of him. She nursed him back to life and after he recovered, they married and returned to Mexico. There John Parker remained until the opening of the Civil War. He served in the Confederate army during the Rebellion, but returned to Mexico afterward, living in that country on a ranch until his death.
Cynthia Ann Parker was taken by her white captors to the settlements, where her uncle, Col. Isaac Parker, identified her. He was appointed her guardian and the state legislature voted her a pension of $100 a year for five years, dating from January 1, 1861.
She soon learned to speak English after a fashion and with the habits of industry learned as a squaw among the Indians, she quickly picked up a knowledge of how to spin and weave and do house work. But a quarter of a century in the freedom of a Comanche village could not be erased. Cynthia Ann Parker had become a true Comanche at heart.
"She loved her husband and the boys she had been separated from, and longed to return to her teepee home," says Mrs. Birdsong. "But her pleas to be allowed to return to the wilderness fell on deaf ears. She was held a captive—an unwilling one this time—with her baby. Desperate, she made her escape twice or three times and tried to reach the Comanches, but each time she was recaptured and brought back.
"Civilized life did not agree with little Topsannah. The child pined and finally, in 1864, she died. After that Cynthia Ann Parker, broken in spirit, a mis-fit among the white people, and bitter at her enforced captivity, refused to eat. She literally starved herself to death and died only a short time after Topsannah."
Cynthia Ann Parker was buried in the Fosterville grave-
yard, in Henderson County, Texas., where her body with that of her daughter, lay for forty-six years. In December, 1910, Quanah Parker had the remains brought to Post Oak, Okla., near his tribal homestead, and there reinterred. When he died, February 21, 1911, he was buried, according to his last wish, beside his mother.
There they lie, side by side, the white woman who became a thorough Indian, and the great Indian who followed so well the white man's path. On the monument, which was erected above Quanah's grave by Congress, is an inscription, written by his daughter, Mrs. Birdsong, and containing in itself her defiant answer to the white man's attitude toward the Indian.
"They speak of the Indian going to the 'Happy Hunting Ground'," she said. "No! Only dogs go to a 'Happy Hunting Ground'. "
The inscription, engraved in the eternal granite quarried from the Wichita Mountains which Quanah loved so well, reads as follows:
"Resting here until day breaks and darkness disappears is Quanah Parker, the last Chief of the Comanches. Died Feb. 21, 1911, Age 64 Years."