You may be aware that the role played by Natalie Wood in the movie The Searchers was loosely based on a true-life Indian captive, Cynthia Ann Parker. She was captured as a nine-year-old by Comanches in 1836. What you may not know is that the role John Wayne played of the driven Ethan Edwards is loosely based on another Parker character, Cynthia Ann’s uncle, James Parker.
And what a character he was. He was wily, witty, and wry, brave, pious, tenacious, brutal, unforgiving, vengeful, and murderous. And he has left us a riveting account of his single-minded quest to bring home the five captives, including Cynthia Ann and his daughter Rachel Plummer, taken in the Fort Parker Massacre in May of 1836.
Interestingly, his daughter Rachel has also left an account of her 21 months of living among the Indians (found in the same document as linked above). She, taken as an adult, was mistreated and served as a slave of an Indian family. She longed to be released and finally was returned to her family.
Cynthia Ann, on the other hand was taken as a child and was adopted into the tribe. Though given a couple of opportunities to leave, she always wanted to stay with the Comanche. She married an Indian named Peta Nocona and bore three children, one of whom became the greatest and last Comanche chief, Quanah Parker. Her heartbreaking story is recounted in S.C. Gwynne’s Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History, which tells the complete story of the violent and tragic struggle between the Comanche and the Texans.
Primary Sources That Spark the Imagination
Both of these accounts are found in one document that has been recently (2012) digitized and is now available here: The Rachel Plummer Narrative
These two accounts, being so easily accessible, easy to read, and so interesting, are exactly the kinds of primary sources you should have your kids read when studying Texas history. There is something very affecting about reading about an event in the words of the person who lived it. A voice from history talks directly to you. And you learn directly the facts that others interpret and mediate for you in their books. In Gwynne’s book he describes the culture of the Comanche people and pulls facts that he (and other scholars of Native American culture) get directly from Plummer’s memoir.
Rachel Plummer wrote and published her account in 1838. James Parker’s narrative was apparently published in 1844, as he mentions an 1844 battle and his desire that Texas become a state, which in fact occurred in 1845.
The original text of this digitized version was published in 1926 by two granddaughters and a great granddaughter of James Parker and combined both accounts. These accounts were originally published under the titles: Rachael Plummer’s Narrative of Twenty One Months’ Servitude as a Prisoner Among the Commanchee Indians and Narrative of the Perilous Adventures, Miraculous Escapes and Sufferings of Rev. James W. Parker.
James Parker, Ferocious Father
Both accounts begin with each narrator’s personal experiences during the attack on Fort Parker. James’ story begins on page 6 of this digitized version and continues to page 37.
No one else was as committed to retrieving the captives as was James, not even Rachel’s husband, whose son was also taken, or the other uncles of the captured children. [Update Jan 2023: I just read a comment from a reader who says James is not very trustworthy and that Rachel’s husband actually took after the kidnappers armed with only a butcher knife, according to some of the earliest historical accounts. James had a terrible reputation and even Sam Houston expressed this in a letter that can be found in Frank X. Tolbert’s An Informal History of Texas. Given how James describes his own unseemly behavior, I have no trouble believing him to be an untrustworthy source.] He spent months every year searching for them in Indian territory, mostly alone, sometimes with no weapon in hand. He survived floods, freezing cold, near starvation, wild animals, and Indian attacks.
His resourcefulness is quite impressive. He describes a time he was nearly freezing to death; so he stuffed a piece of his shirt into his pistol and shot it at a dry log to start a fire. One time to avert starvation, he decided to eat prairie dogs, but fearing to use his rifle because it might draw the attention of Indians, he used his hat to pour water down prairie dog holes and drown them.
His is a quite literate narration with allusions to classical literature and the Bible. He writes that he was “yielding myself to the arms of Morpheus” as he goes to sleep and when describing a terrible storm he endured, he quotes a line from the Joseph Addison play, Cato: A Tragedy, and Selected Essays. (The play was quite popular with the American Revolutionaries.)
With the intervening years taking the edge off the misery he must have experienced, Parker writes with a wry humor. When he encounters a wolf devouring a buffalo he had just shot, Parker writes:
Finding, however, that his wolfship was not to be moved by menaces, and my hunger increasing as the opportunity of satisfying it was before me, I determined after a long time to risk another fire, and accordingly gave my ungenerous companion of the wilderness a leaden pill to work off the hearty supper he had made on my buffalo.”
His humor, however, sometimes betrays his cold-bloodedness. He spies an Indian in a town wearing a vest he, Parker, had abandoned at Fort Parker. He is reminded of the horrific day and desires vengeance on the man he is convinced was involved. He describes the incident this way:
I mounted my horse, and taking a ‘last, fond look’ at my vest — with one eye through the sight of my trusty rifle — I ‘turned and left the spot,’ with the assurance that my vest had got a new button hole!”
Read the whole account to learn the outcome of his many forays in search of his relatives and the fate of the captives.
The Memoirs of Rachel Plummer
Rachel Plummer, in contrast with her father, actually tried to live out the Christian call to forgive and writes of her captors:
May God grant me a heart to pray for them, for ‘they know not what they do.'”
In reading what she endured, you wonder how you would have kept your sanity in those conditions. She was repeatedly raped. She watched her 14-month-old son being beaten and then finally taken from her never to be seen by her again. She was pregnant and seven weeks after she delivered another son, the Comanches killed it in a most cruel manner. And she lost hope of ever being rescued, so much so that she tried to goad the Indians into killing her.
But she kept her faith in God. She relates a story of a time she got permission from her Indian masters to explore a cave. The cave sparked a great sense of wonder in her, and she spent more than 24 hours in the cave without realizing it. While she was there she saw a vision of a ministering angel and tells us that after that encounter, her wounds never hurt again. She writes of this experience:
Oh, could it have been possible that He who comforts the afflicted and gives strength to the weak, that God, in His bountiful mercy could have extended His hand to a poor wretch like me. whilst thus buried in the earth. How inscrutible are thy ways, Oh, God; and thy mercy and wisdom, how unsearchable. Were I to go give vent to my feelings, and possessed the mental capacity equal to the task, it would swell this humble narrative far beyond the limits I have prescribed to it.”
She lived with an Indian man, his wife, and their daughter, who may have been roughly the same age as Rachel. She never tells us any of the Indians’ names, and her tone sometimes seems somewhat detached, which, considering her circumstances, is understandable.
She is mistreated and required to work nearly all the time. Rachel reaches the point of despairing of life and hopes to be killed when she refuses to obey a command of her mistress. But you must read the account to find out the surprising twist this event engenders.
She spends a large portion of the narrative describing the flora and fauna she saw as the Indians migrated from Texas to the Rocky Mountains and back and gives just a brief description of Comanche customs, which scholars have since mined for details, wishing she would have written more. She however believed that particular part of her account was not worth much, writing that
Their habits are so ridiculous that this would be of but little interest to any.”
Rachel died less than a year after her account was published. Gwynne tells us her death was due in large part to her father’s somewhat dubious reputation. For the rest of that story read Gwynne’s book.
Geographical and Historical Chapters
In this digitized booklet there is a curious set of chapters from page 37 to page 88. These were written by James Parker and include a geographical description of Texas, which is an interesting summary of Texas as it was in 1844. One of his intentions in writing this seems to be as a warning to potential immigrants of both the opportunities and dangers found in Texas.
He also writes a brief history of the Texas Revolution, again with the interesting perspective of someone present in Texas at the time. One significant episode he relates will be of interest to Second Amendment defenders. He tells how Texans supported Santa Anna’s rise to power because he had promised a more republican form of government than the previous Mexican presidents had practiced. But Santa Anna proved himself to be a worse despot than those before him:
Now enthroned in power, influenced and dictated to by the Priesthood of Mexico, he set about removing all obstacles to his continuance in power; the most formidable of which was the rifles of the people. It was therefore necessary that they should be disarmed, and that strong standing armies should be kept up to keep them so.”
Luckily the Texans objected to this threat and responded with their famous attitude of “come and take it.”
Parker ends this section with a statement that reflects his pride in Texas. These words still represent the feelings of proud Texans today:
“The morn of her greatness has already dawned, and the sun of her glory will soon rise in all its beauty and grandeur.”