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Sunday, May 19, 2013

The Parker Saga: Twists of hate, fate... and photography

One hundred and seventy seven years ago today…

Cynthia Ann Parker and her daughter Prairie Flower.

The most intrepid, or some might say foolhardy of Texas pioneers suffered a famous Indian attack that became the foundation for an enduring legend of the American West. And its beginnings were right here in Grimes County.
Elder John Parker appears to have been a deeply religious yet impetuous patriarch, who led his large family from Virginia into settlement experiments in Georgia, Tennessee, and finally Illinois, seeking the right opportunity for his prolific clan. Through their migrations they suffered multiple setbacks and misfortunes, as son Isaac lost three children to disease, and then John Jr. was killed by Delaware Indians. Disgusted, John Parker decided they all needed a fresh start.  And besides, he dreamed of establishing a frontier church, a “two seed” Baptist utopia in Texas.

The Parkers were the stereotypical advance guard of Manifest Destiny; and a bundle of contradictions, wearing the various hats of preacher, farmer, Indian fighter, or entrepreneur, as circumstances required.  Now they added visionary colonists to their resume' and in 1832, 25 ox-drawn wagons rolled approximately 70 Illinois immigrants to Grimes Prairie, not far from Navasota. Stephen F.  Austin’s Colony had appeared to be the perfect opportunity for social and financial recovery.
But nothing could go as planned.  After getting lost in Louisiana, they followed an Indian trail known as the Coushatti Trace down to their new “Promised Land.” And once they got there they learned some hard truth; The Spanish government made an uncompromising requirement of Catholicism, and Baptist ministers were not welcome.  Federal laws notwithstanding, Daniel Parker performed an illegal marriage near present day Anderson, and by some accounts preached the first Protestant sermons on Texas soil. The Parkers were ready to stand for their “rights.” But just as some of the do-good Parkers were men of the cloth, others were wanna- be “Injun fighters” proposing not only to settle land, but old scores with the Indians. Their illegal and confrontational dispositions probably did not settle well with the local leader, Regidor Jesse Grimes, who was very law-abiding and respectful of the various local tribes.  His friendly dealings with the Mexican government and the Caddoes, Kickapoos and Coushattas were a foundation of the community. One story suggests that after the Parker’s arrival, the Bedias Indians began to complain that somebody was stealing their horses…  

When these Northern immigrants realized they were surrounded by resolute Texians who did not share their definition of utopia, and most of the prime land in the area had already been acquired, the fact that most of the landowners were Southern slave holders and tolerant of the natives, probably became the last straw. It was time to regroup. They sent out men to investigate a more promising environment.

About a year later, and by now in an awkward cloud of accusation, the weary and somewhat disgruntled immigrants split up, nearly in half, and most of the Parkers and their loyal friends pushed further into the wilderness, far from the reaches of Mexico and its loyal subjects, and settled at the headwaters of the Navasota River, near modern-day Groesbeck.  [ It is not insignificant that brothers Daniel and Isaac chose not to share in their adventure. Daniel went on to become a respected Baptist minister, and Isaac served in the Texas senate.]  By 1834 Elder John Parker and his followers had made a clearing in the wilderness, built a sturdy fort and planted crops.  34 of the most adventurous frontier settlers in Texas planted themselves far beyond the comfort zone, where they could exercise religious freedom. More than able, and quite willing to protect themselves, some of the men got themselves designated as Texas Rangers, with Silas as their Captain, qualifying each man for an extra $1.50 per day, with the license to kill all the Indians they could hunt down.  Ft. Parker became the arrowhead of Anglo intrusion into wild Texas and the Parkers finally had their place on earth.  Some would have argued it was the ends of the earth.

Establishing themselves way beyond the reach of any protection from the Mexican soldiers or the Texian population, the Parker men displayed a chronic flaw that would haunt them repeatedly, to the grave and beyond; that was the willingness to do whatever in the name of opportunity, at the expense of the safety of ther families.
The killing of one of their brothers by Lenape (Delaware) murderers had prejudiced them, and James, Silas and Benjamin Parker were young aggressive lions in the forest looking for trouble. They and their fellow villagers began to hunt and kill Indians, making sure they would not ever suffer at the hands of Red men again.  And one legend says they purchased horses from some of the natives with counterfeit money. The Parkers were as duplicitous as they were “unlucky.”

Later events seem to bare these assumptions out, requiring no stretch of the imagination.

On May 19, 1836, just a few months after Texas had won its independence, an unusual coalition of Woodland and Plains tribes showed up at the gate of the fort. Several hundred angry Kiowas, Caddos and Comanches approached Ft. Parker with a white flag. Probably with tongues in their cheeks, they demanded water for their horses, and cattle to butcher. They were in no mood to suffer fools. But enough water and cattle to satisfy this throng would have prostrated the village. Benjamin bravely tried to renegotiate, making his very last deal with an Indian. When they did not get the payment they demanded, they began to butcher the Parkers like hogs.

They filled Benjamin with arows and then hacked, raped and destroyed, killing and scalping five of the inhabitants including Elder John, Silas and Benjamin Parker and taking two young women and three children with them. Meanwhile 28 desperate survivors threaded through the forest to safety, arriving at Ft. Sam Houston after six days of grueling flight. Barefooted and hungry they dragged into the frontier outpost, about the same time that the Comanches and Kiowas gloatingly divided their new white slaves on the infinite expanse of the “Great American Desert.” And an American legend was born. The twenty-five year saga for little nine- year old Cynthia Ann Parker had begun.

While the Plains Indians headed back to the Llano Estacado, the Woodland Indians melted back into Frontier Texas. .. and the Native American version of human trafficking became commonplace in the new republic.  Delaware and Cherokee middle-men made careers finding and ransoming Texas women and children. John Conner, Black Beaver, Jim Shaw, Jesse Chisholm, and others were constantly contracted by Sam Houston to find his captive sheep and bring them home.  Amazingly, many of the captives spoke well of their captors, and some even wanted to return to them.
Elizabeth Kellogg was the consolation prize for the Caddoes, who wisely traded her to the some Kichai kinsmen, wild plains Wichitas beyond the boundaries of civilization, who fairly quickly sold her to, ironically, some Delawares.  (Hmmmmm....) She was home by August. This was way too fast for the Delawares to have even been hired by anyone to find her.  But as it turned out, they happened to have connections (coincidence?) to President Sam Houston, who gladly “reimbursed” them.  The Indian network for slave trade and extortion was surprisingly efficient.

When Elizabeth was returned to her family at Nacogdoches, relatively close to Ft. Parker, they happened, coincidentally, upon one of the Caddo Indians who had abducted her, and who had just recently been caught stealing horses, and consequently suffering from a gunshot.  He seems to be the only one of hundreds of raiders at Ft. Parker that did not get away with the murders, kidnappings and extortions of the Parkers.  He was identified by some tell-tale scars and executed in his stupor, but the rest of the story unfolded painfully and slowly.
One beautiful day in May, life got different for Rachel Plummer.
Rachel Plummer, three months pregnant, was thrown on a horse and taken five hundred miles away to the northwestern-most corner of Comancheria. Her little boy James, just a toddler, was beaten bloody and then disappeared completely.  The baby she carried inside her was born and then suffered a horrible death. After he became too much of a distraction, he was strangled, cruelly dragged to pieces by several braves, and then tossed in her lap.  Rachel was just grateful that in spite of their incredible brutality, they allowed her to bury her infant in peace. Later she decided to get herself killed by bucking the women who oversaw her labors. She ended up whipping them both and gaining the admiration of the tribe for her courage and fighting ability.  To the Comanche, courage was the highest trait of character.

It was explained to her by the chief that she had shown mercy to her enemies when they deserved death, and although this was not the Comanche way, her compassion was seen as Godly. Through her violent tirade she ascended from miserable slave to Divine messenger. After every unimaginable violation and humiliation, and eventual acceptance into their convoluted social order, she was unexplainably traded around a year later to Mexican Comancheros who ransomed her to a wealthy couple in New Mexico.  Perhaps this exchange had always been the plan.

The Donohos of Santa Fe had let it be known they would ransom white Indian hostages. But it is easy to see their good intentions backfiring and actually inspiring more kidnappings. Indians were notorious for stealing people to increase their own numbers, but the main motive in this case turned out to be something else; just plain old revenge… and a profitable business opportunity.  
Raiding, killing and stealing was the way of life for the Comanche, and with their expert use of horses this became a perfected system, over a territory as large as Texas, straddling over five or six states in the West.  But the Comanches were adventuring way beyond their common hunting and raiding grounds when they ravaged Ft. Parker. It is arguable, as unpopulated as the region was, the only way they would have ever pin-pointed the fort was with the guidance of the local tribes. The fact that there were any survivors indicates that they were more interested in making a point, a show of force, and perhaps providing moral support rather than gathering spoils or scalps. 

Led by a merciless firebrand known as Peta Nocona, who would make quite a name for himself, they took what they wanted. Yet their spoils were fairly insignificant compared to what they generously left behind to the Woodland Indians, who failed miserably to capitalize on the raid, especially the advantage in numbers that was provided them. The Comanches seem to have been like a big brother helping a little brother settle a schoolyard dispute.  It was after all, the local tribe’s battle. But the locals lost their nerve and only trailed the Ft. Parker refugees, apparently afraid to attack them as they scambled through the east Texas jungle. And in the main party there were twelve children and only six adults- perhaps only a handful that could have fought them in any capacity.

Back at the fort, three overwhelmingly outnumbered Parker defenders, led by David Faulkenberry, had only to finally aim their rifles at the assaulters and they apparently dispersed the whole attack. Only after they left in search of those fleeing in the woods did the Indians come in and ransack the village. Anyone who reads of later depredations by Comanches would agree, this was not an attack led by them, but by less violent and less capable, certainly less determined tribes. 

Then, as if there was a cavalry around to chase them, the Plains Indians raced across the state and disappeared as myteriously as they had come. It was a textbook example of guerrilla warfare. The perfect crime.

It took a grueling six years, but four of the five captives were ultimately ransomed for considerable amounts and returned to their families.  The fledgling and feeble Texas government was bankrupting itself over chasing, fighting and then PAYING the confounded Comanches. 
The Donohos found themselves in the middle of a bloody revolt in Santa Fe and fled with barely recovering Rachel Plummer in another long and perilous journey… to Missouri, where she was finally reunited with family and returned to the new Parker settlement... back again in Montgomery County (probably northeast Grimes County today)… which turned out to be another chapter of scandal and chaos.

I am stretching to connect bits and pieces of history together here, but from what I can conclude, James Parker found himself under suspicion of responsibility somehow for the death of a Montgomery County woman by the name of Taylor. According to Blair’s Grimes County History and Z. N. Morrell’s history, there was a woman named Taylor supposedly killed by Indians there in 1838, in present day Grimes County.  Mrs. Taylor, accompanied by her two daughters, had insisted on retrieving the body of her husband who had just been killed by Indians. They too were attacked and Mrs. Taylor was slain, and her daughters taken captive. But in his wonderful book Empire of the Summer Moon,  S. C. Gwynn finds that vigilantes had so threatened James Parker over the death and robbery of a Mrs. Taylor and a daughter, that Parker was compelled to flee with his family. Ever on the defense, Parker even wrote to Texas President Lamar about the chase and his removal to Houston to save his family. I believe the two Mrs. Taylors are one and the same. It seems that Indian depredations followed the Parkers wherever they went, and soon the locals tied the two together. It must be that some Montgomery County citizens believed James Parker had somehow riled the Indians, who were always consistent about retaliation, and decided to stop the cycle after the Taylor deaths and abductions. One can understand their suspicions if this were the case.

One begins to wonder what the fuss was, that the Parkers had with the Delewares back in Missouri. Was it some kind of fear of a vendetta that propelled them into the great wide open? And when they discovered the Delawares were there in Texas, in fact General Sam Houston's henchmen, perhaps they had to leave Grimes Prairie or find themselves as social undesirables, and certainly targets. What kind of dirty deal had they perpetrated on east Texas tribes to have inspired such a seemingly unprovoked raid deep in the Texas woods? After the Taylor killings in Grimes County,  coincidentally upon the return of the Parker remnant, it seems to establish James Parker as the lightning rod to the Native American lightning bolt. 
During the first year after her return, Rachel Plummer wrote quite a bit about her misfortunes, but unfortunately they were not over... And more ironically, after becoming pregnant again, and predicting her imminent death, she died after the Parker family’s flight through the wilderness in Texas, this time to escape vigilante justice.  James Parker ultimately left a trail of needless casualties, and Gwynn describes him as “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.”
Flowers for his dear Rachel? This is supposed to be an authentic likeness of  troublesome James Parker. It certainly does nothing to contradict the unkind words used to describe him.
There was an ugly trend by now, and even Sam Houston washed his hands of James Parker when he refused to return little James Plummer when his father could not to afford to reimburse him for the ransom money… much of which had come from the struggling Nation’s treasury.  Gwynn again describes James Parker as; “... murderer, counterfeiter, liar, drunk, horse thief and robber.” This was the man who searched tirelessly for and received Rachel and James Plummer into his care, only to use the moments to destroy his legacy. It seems too ugly, too tragic to be true.

Meanwhile at around thirteen years of age Cynthia Ann Parker had been married off to the cunning predator who had abducted her. A master of bloody surprise raids who refused to talk peace, Peta Nocona fathered several children by Cynthia who eventually saw him as her brave provider, a kind and loving husband, and noble father of her sons. She had been interviewed over the years by various would- be saviors, who begged her to agree to be ransomed, including her brother John, who returned unafraid after he was ransomed.  Nocona would not hear of it, and she only froze up when it was discussed. Cynthia Ann  was not dissimilar to the women we hear about that are held in captivity today… adjusting to horrible circumstances, losing hope of escape, finding meaning in their life by serving their captor, baring children, even growing … strangely tolerant, if not even fond of their captors.

Then, twenty–five years later a strange “battle” took place in far northwest Texas, which ended Cynthia's saga and began another. After several horrible atrocoties by hostiles, Governor Sam Houston sent one of his most trusted Rangers to retaliate. Young Ranger Captain and Indian- fighter Lawrence Sullivan Ross led a squad of Texas Rangers and U.S. Cavalry in a surprise attack on what they believed to be Peta Nocona’s camp on the Pease River.  

legendary skirmish birthed so much confusion that historians have still never dared to explain the contradictions.  According to the combatants, hundreds of Comanches were encamped on the Pease River, where Ross and his small force attacked with so much zeal that the Comanches fled in all directions, leaving the chief and his party to their ugly fate.  This was an unlikely scenario, and when the smoke had cleared, in truth they had only killed a few warriors, and more significantly, perhaps a dozen squaws.  Years later old Rangers would sheepishly admit that they would never brag about that particular skirmish. They were still squeamish over it.  Still, they supposedly managed, they believed, to kill the chief and capture his wife, only to discover she was the long sought after Cynthia Ann Parker
 To his credit, Capt. L. S. Ross was known to adopt and raise the captives he saved. He eventually took in a little girl found when subduing Buffalo Hump, and he adopted a little Mexican captive boy rescued at the Battle of Pease River. He became like a son and served him all through Ross' campaigns in the Confederacy. 
Suddenly, no matter the circumstances, Ross and his Rangers were Texas legends.  Everyone was jubilant over the end of a twenty-five year tragedy.  But Cynthia Ann was crying profusely… supposedly over the loss of her beloved husband and the separation from her sons. But to add to the confusion, years later the Comanches insisted that the Rangers had not killed Chief Peta Nocona, but his servant… a c"servant" (probably a captive slave) known as “Joe Nocona,” who had been left behind by the main tribe in what tribal historians called a mere “hunting party.”  And a fairly small and vulnerable hunting party it was, made up mostly of women…  servants, and at least two captives.

That was the spin, but they were more than likely intentional decoys, if not a begrudging peace offering. Cynthia Ann had become a huge liablity to the whole tribe. It was time to cut losses, give the White men what they wanted, for the greater good.
Sul Ross always believed one of his men, a Mexican orderly who wanted revenge, had killed the great Peta Nocona, just as he had claimed, forcing the unimaginable conclusion, that the whole tribe got up and abandoned Nokona and his entourage and left him to be surrounded and summarily executed. Yet his sons, both of fighting age, were nowhere to be found. Surely they would have fought to the death to save their parents, had they been anywhere around. But this never happened.

The historical facts are simple; Nokona was reputed to have lived on many more years, living to see his and Cynthia Ann’s oldest son become a warrior of high status. Whites even reported talking to him, but the story of his death stuck. The Rangers had killed him. That was far more poetic and useful than the truth. Eventually Sul Ross built an impressive military career, serving as the youngest Confederate General and later was elected Governor of Texas.

But Cynthia Ann told them from the git-go that (ironically) a significant party of warriors, around 35 real fighting men, had left just before the attack. Typical after successful raids, the main party was out trading with Comancheros. This sounds like the proper duties of Nokona, if not the perfect alibi.  With parties of soldiers weaving across the plains, no self-respecting Comanches assigned to protect the chief's wife would have left in masse unless… it was planned for some reason.  And from the day that she was “saved” Cynthia Ann was inconsolable. She finally admitted who she was, remembered her English, and went home with her Uncle Isaac, who set her up in a fine cabin near Ft. Worth, but she stayed depressed and distracted, uninterested in her Parker kin or their civilization.

An influential politician, Isaac Parker was able to get a generous pension and a land grant from the State of Texas, now a member of the Confederate States of America. But there was not enough money in the world to replace what Cynthia Ann had lost, or to give her a fresh outlook. She was known to practice Comanche ritual mourning, her hair cut off, slashing her breasts and bleeding into a fire. Passed around between frustrated relatives, Cynthia Ann plodded along in a suspended state of martyrdom. Something deep, even harder than the death of a loved one, ate at her psyche.

 Sure Cynthia Ann missed her boys terribly, and was no doubt devastated after being ripped away from her SECOND family, this time from her husband and children. But to be fair, her sons were practically grown and on the warpath, the equivalent to career training in our culture.  They were out of the nest and in the normal Comanche life style. They were still alive and making Texans pay, as far as she knew. And Peta Nokona was no Prince Charming. A legendary man of war, he was described by objective witnesses as fat and greasy and lazy. His main "positive trait "was his prowess as a ruthless killer and robber; Somebody who massacred relatively helpless, small groups, who routinely destroyed families and tortured his enemies with glee. It would be easy to assume from all of these observances that Nokona would have probably qualified in our culture as a sociopath, someone capable of anything necessary to achieve his objectives.

And all Comanche women were no better off than slaves, no matter who they were. That is illustrated by Rachel Plummer's swift rise in spite of incredible odds, over her female, Comanche co-workers. Her baby dead, she did not care whether she lived or died, and that nothing-to-lose attitude made her a star.  In the Comanche world, loss was an inevitable part of the process. And you were the winner, no matter what, as long as you were brave doing it. Loss of your loved ones was certainly justification for mourning in Comanche society, but Cynthia Ann's were probably not lost. And she still had her baby, Prairie Flower, to bring her joy.

I believe it was the psychological wounds of the outrages she suffered as a child, long suppressed by brutality and the struggle to survive, and the subsequent revisitation of the loss of her mother, her whole family, their savage deaths, and whatever was added to that which we will never know, which left her in a permanent state of shock. In fact life on the prairie had helped her to forget, perhaps deny her losses,  and she had never dealt with them. The return to that life twenty-five years later was the killing blow to her fragile mental bubble.  And the loss of a mother's love was trumped by the loss of ... for lack of a better term, "true love."

Not only was she suffering from the long-delayed grief over all that she had endured... but the ultimate insult. She had been forged from the age of nine into a good Comanche wife, worthy of a Chief. Done everything with compliance only a captive will muster, and then, just as outragous as the first abduction, she had been allowed to slip through their otherwise fierce and protective fingers. It had the stench of betrayal. No other human being in history has suffered such great failures from her families, both real and adopted, as to be abducted twice by violence from their negligence.  But the second abduction was probably inspired by something far more hurtful than neglect.

So, to try to explain Cynthia Ann more realistically, I propose something that has never been proposed to my knowledge. I suggest that the Comanches, "lords of the plains," were in total control the whole time. And what Cynthia Ann suffered was something worse than abduction or captivity; Rejection.

Worse than that, she was being used as cannon fodder, Comanche style. When the Texans that day began to massacre every Indian, she saw her life flash before her eyes. She was on the high plains, and left high and dry. How could she have been the fiercely protected prize for so long and then...  it was all over in an instant... and unbelievably, no chief or his warriors around to fight for her. It looked like a set up.

Before one of the Rangers could snap his musket, she knew what she must do... she reportedly exposed her breasts... her relatively white breasts, and instantly identified herself visually as a woman, a white woman, and then to make sure they understood, she yelled, "Americano!" In a desperate but strategic measure, she had been handed over against her will. Whatever theatrics or pouting Cynthia Ann displayed afterwards, it is a safe assumption that she understood a great deal more than anyone else did. 
The main proof for this theory is simple. Nobody ever found the Comanches unless they wanted to be found. The Tonkowa scouts had found the camp… even saw hundreds of warriors.  But when they attacked at daybreak… ready to get their ultimate revenge, all they found were some helpless stragglers. I believe Peta Nocona orchestrated the surrender and recapture of his wife to buy time and peace for his tribe. Pragmatic if not heartlessly practical, his band had been hounded all across the plains, as his famous wife had attracted a great deal of negative attention, and the army coming after him was growing exponentially. The hunter was becoming the hunted.  I propose that his men were instructed to be “found” and then unbeknownst to the focus of the search, Cynthia Ann and a few women and servants were to be left behind in a supposed hunting party, to distract and delay the Texans and Tonkowas, bent on satisfying two decades worth of revenge.

The Comanches assumed from past skirmishes these stragglers would be safe. Whites would rarely kill women and children.  Very possibly older, less essential members, ones who were burdensome and who wanted to give it up, and perhaps wanted to be sent to the reservation, were being granted their wish, as they were used to distract and occupy the enemy. And more importantly, the Texans would have to escort their prisoners to the Indian Territory… far from the main body.

And the wily, ruthless Peta Nocona would live to fight another day. Cynthia Ann, in Comanche terms, was nearing if not past her prime as a wife. To a ruthless warlord like Nokona, she was expendable, especially since she was the focus of a twenty-five year manhunt. But his handsome son Quanah Parker would become one of the fiercest warriors in Comancheria, one of the last to be subdued. He made his father proud no doubt, yet legend says he forbade his warriors to abuse or kill white women, as one might be his mother.  One has to wonder what made him so sure she might be alive. Perhaps even Quanah understood the trade of his mother for relief. But when he finally came in to the reservation, one of the first things he did was seek her out.
She and his little sister had died, one despondent, the other from pneumonia, decades before during the Civil War. Quanah, who became a great leader in the White world as he had been in the Red,  then asked for something good he had discovered about White civilization- a photograph of his long lost mother, the human bridge between him and the world he was adjusting to. Amazingly, he made a much better go of it than she had. A photographer who read of his search sent him an enlargement of his mother suckling Prairie Flower, his little sister. Luckily, he had captured them right after their "rescue" when both were at the height of their good health.

For the rest of his life, and even as an old man, Quanah was obviously moved when he talked about his mother. In spite of all the racism and treachery on both sides, nothing could come between the love of a mother and her son.  Not bloody wars, bribes, abandonment, the whole expanse of the Great Plains, not even death. There are numerous known photographs of the great Comanche chief, some proudly posing next to the picture of his mother. It was supposedly his most prized possession.

I'm sure a Native American would have been as fascinated with the magic of photography as he would have been by so many promises many people made about the whereabouts of his long lost, but never forgotten mother. She had "gone to be with Jesus..." was no doubt stated confidently many times. She was now "in God's hands,"  and "someday they would be together again." Quanah posed comfortably between the two, and for that moment then, and for us now, they were all together in that circle that will be unbroken, Bye and Bye.

 And this all began one hundred seventy seven years ago, today.

Click Below for a music video I made about Rachel Plummer...

 *If this interests you, do read Gwynn's book on the Comanches; Empire of the Summer Moon. It is the best book ever written on the subject, especially the details about one of my all time heroes... Quanah Parker.

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