Roger Hodge

  • Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanche Tribe by S.C. Gwynne
    Constable, 483 pp, £9.99, July 2011, ISBN 978 1 84901 703 9

On 19 May 1836, less than a month after the Texan Republic won independence from Mexico in the Battle of San Jacinto, a large group of Indians rode up to the gate of Parker’s Fort, near present-day Mexia, east of Waco. The Parker clan had travelled from Illinois to the extremities of the Texas frontier three years earlier, with 30 oxcarts of belongings and a religious zeal that was anything but missionary. In 1835, six of the Parker families, three of whom had received land grants of 4600 acres, had built a heavily fortified cedar stockade that covered an acre of land; it contained six log cabins and four blockhouses, and was laced with gunports. The Parkers had fought Indians in Illinois, Tennessee and Georgia, and they expected to fight them in Texas as well. They probably didn’t realise, however, that their grant from the Mexican government had placed them deep in Comanchería, the area of the South-West controlled by the Comanches, or that the Mexicans intended to use the rapidly growing colonies of English-speaking settlers from the US (known as Anglos) to create a human shield between the Comanches and their traditional raiding grounds further south. It is unlikely the Parkers would have passed up the free land in any case. They were devout and aggressive Baptists who believed that God had empowered them to make the barbarian deserts bloom. ‘The elect are a wrathful people,’ Elder Daniel Parker said, ‘because they are the natural enemies of the non-elect.’

When the Indians arrived, ten of the Parker men were working in the fields about a mile away. Six men, including James and Silas Parker, both Texas Rangers, were still at the fort, along with eight women and nine children. The armoured gate was open. The Comanches were apparently taking advantage of the disorder created by the Texans’ violent divorce from Mexico to carry out raids on settlements that penetrated too far into their hunting grounds. Estimates of their number range from one hundred to five hundred. Their horses painted for war, the Indians approached the fort with a white flag. Benjamin Parker walked out of the gate and spoke to the warriors, who asked for a cow; Parker refused, though he offered other supplies, and thus abandoned whatever hope he and his family had of surviving the encounter.

Comanches were used to accepting tribute from Euro-Americans; gift-giving was integral to Comanche political culture, so the frequent refusal of Texans ‘to share’ was considered insulting and hostile. While Benjamin spoke to the Indians, other members of the Parker family were fleeing out of the fort’s back door. Rachel Parker Plummer, who survived 21 months of Indian captivity (possibly among the Shoshone in south-western Wyoming, rather than the Comanches as she believed), watched as her uncle Benjamin was surrounded, clubbed, impaled with lances, shot with arrows, then scalped. Rachel took her little boy James and began to run, but, as she wrote after her release, ‘a large sulky looking Indian picked up a hoe and knocked me down.’ Silas Parker went for his bag of shot and was soon killed, as were the other men who remained in the fort trying to protect the women and children. Some of those who fled were caught, mutilated and killed. Granny Parker was raped and stabbed but survived. Taken captive along with Rachel and her son James were Elizabeth Kellog and Silas Parker’s children John and Cynthia Ann. John grew up to be a Comanche warrior, perhaps ending his life as a rancher in Mexico; Elizabeth was ransomed; Cynthia Ann became the wife of the war leader Peta Nocona and the mother of Quanah Parker, whom S.C. Gwynne, taking his place in a long line of writers, calls the ‘last chief’ of the Comanches. It might be more accurate to call him the first chief, but that would diminish the mythological attraction.

Quanah’s prominence in recent popular accounts owes as much to his being the half-breed child of a captive white woman as to his prowess as a war leader. The romance of the defiant noble savage was less attractive while the Indian wars still raged. For most of the last 175 years Cynthia Ann has been the focus of attention, with the story of her abduction and the slaughter at Parker’s Fort told and retold in newspapers, magazines and romantic novels that imagined love among the prairie flowers between a lovely white squaw and a darkly handsome young buck. Her uncle James Parker, Rachel Plummer’s father, made nine or ten trips into Indian country, often by himself, over the next decade, determined to retrieve his daughter and other captured relatives, a quest that was eventually given Hollywood treatment in The Searchers, with John Wayne as James and Natalie Wood as his missing niece. Quanah, born around 1850, was known only to the soldiers and Rangers who pursued him along the cliffs and plains of the Llano Estacado. It wasn’t until he surrendered in 1875 and presented himself to Colonel Ranald Mackenzie at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, that his parentage became known and the slow work of fashioning his legend began.

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