"The White Squaw": Two Women in One Life
Cynthia Ann Parker’s story is a tragic one.
She was born to Silas Mercer Parker and Lucinda Parker (née Duty) in Crawford County, Illinois.
Her grandfather, John Parker, a noted ranger, scout, and soldier for the United States was recruited to establish a settlement fortified against Comanche raids, which had been devastating to the Euro-American colonization of Texas and northern Mexico. The Parker family, its extended kin, and surrounding families established Fort Parker on the headwaters of the Navasota River in what is now Limestone County.
On May 19, 1836, when Parker was around nine years of age, a force of several hundred Indian warriors, composed of Comanches accompanied by Kiowa and Kichai allies, approached the community. Her Uncle Benjamin approached the Indians alone, on foot, and unarmed. The Indians claimed they wanted a cow to slaughter and directions to a watering hole, which was an absurd request considering the Comanches’ expertise on the plains. Nevertheless, Benjamin returned to the fort gathered some food and supplies and brought them back to the Indians, though he was warned by his brother Silas not to.
Then everything turned in a blink.
John Parker and his men, who had been accustomed to Indian warfare in the East, lacked sufficient knowledge of the Comanches’ military prowess, were caught in the open and unprepared for the ferocity and speed of the Indian warriors. The Indians attacked the fort and quickly overpowered the outnumbered defenders.
According to S.C. Gwynne in his book Empire of the Summer Moon, the elderly John Parker, his wife Sallie, and others attempted an escape out the back of the fort that led toward the spring. Meanwhile, Silas, Cynthia’s father, who had determined to stay and fight had forgotten his shot pouch and told his niece to stand in the doorway and keep an eye on the Indians while he ran back to his house to fetch his shot pouch. Rachel Plummer, holding her 14 month old baby, watched in terror as Benjamin was impaled on a lance, clubbed, shot with arrows at close range, and scalped.
The Indians now turned their attention on the fort.
Rachel ran to escape with her baby, but was quickly caught and knocked to the ground with a hoe. When she came to, she was being dragged by her hair to the main body of Indians where a Comanche squaw held the Plummer baby while two other Comanche women beat Rachel with whips. As this unfolded, the remaining men in camp, Silas, Samuel and Robert Frost were all killed and scalped. Then the mounted warriors chased down the settlers who had managed to escape on foot. John Parker, his wife, Sallie, and their widowed daughter Elizabeth Kellogg were surrounded. They were forced to strip naked. First the Comanches attacked the seventy-eight-year-old Parker with tomahawks, making his wife watch as they scalped him, cut off his genitals, and killed him. Then they pinned Sallie to the ground with lances, raped her, and stabbed her in the breast, leaving Sallie for dead (though she had somehow miraculously survived). Elizabeth was grabbed up and carried off on horseback.
In all the mayhem, Lucy, Cynthia’s mother, had managed to escape to the cornfields with her four children. However, the Indians caught them, too, dragged them back to the fort and forced Lucy to surrender two of her children before three men with rifles arrived from the fields to rescue the surviving settlers. Gwynne doesn’t explain how three men with rifles managed to chase off such a large number of Indian attackers. My guess is that by this point in the raid the majority of the Comanche had taken what they wanted and had headed back toward camp. The Comanche tended to strike hard and fast and didn’t linger long. At any rate, Lucy Parker got to keep two of her children. The other two children taken by the Comanches were Cynthia Ann and her seven-year-old brother, John Richard.
Parker and four other captives (two women, three children ) were led away into Comanche territory. The Texans quickly mounted a rescue force. During the Texans’ pursuit of the Indians, one of the captives, a young teenage girl, escaped. All of the other captives were released for ransom over a period of years. One of the released was Cynthia’s brother, John Richard,who was ransomed back in 1842, but apparently was unable to readapt to white society and ran away to return to the Comanche. Cynthia remained with the Indians for nearly twenty-five years.
Parker was soon integrated into the tribe. She was adopted by a Tenowish Comanche couple, who raised her as their own daughter. She forgot her original ways and became Comanche in every sense. She married Peta Nocona, a chieftain. They enjoyed a happy marriage, and as a tribute to his great affection to her, he never took another wife, although it was traditional for chieftains to have several wives. They had three children: famed Comanche chief Quanah, another son named Pecos, and a daughter named Topsana (Prairie Flower).
In December 1860, after years of searching, Texas Rangers led by Lawrence Sullivan Ross discovered a band of Comanche deep in the heart of Comancheria that was rumored to hold American captives. In a surprise raid, the small band of Rangers attacked a group of Comanches in the Battle of Pease River. Though, according to S.C. Gwynne, “the fight lasted only a few minutes and was more of a butchery than a pitched battle” (Gwynne 176).
General Ross and his sixty men, came upon the camp of about fifteen Comanche that consisted mostly of elderly, children, women, and a few warriors who were breaking camp to move. Ross’ men attacked, killing about twelve Comanche and about fifteen of their dogs who had attacked in defense of their masters. Three of the Indians, mounted on two horses, fled and Ross pursued. When Ross closed in on the solitary rider, he "was about to shoot when the Comanche, who he could now see was carrying a small child, reined in the horse and, depending on which version you believe, either opened her robe to show her breasts, or cried ‘Americano! Americano!’ She may have done both. In any case her ploy worked: Ross did not shoot.”
He ordered a man to stay with her while Ross took off after the other two escapees. He shot the rear rider, a female, who pulled the male rider off the horse with her as she fell.
The male happened to be Chief Peta Nocona. He landed on his feet, fully armed, and shot Ross’ horse with arrows, followed by several more arrows. Ross fired a shot "which broke his right arm at the elbow, completely disabling him." After delivering two more shots into the chief, Nocona, at that point, moved to stand by the only tree in the area and sang a “weird, wild song.” Ross, likely out of ammo, ordered his Mexican soldier, Antonio Martinez, to “end his misery by a charge of buckshot” (Gwynne 176).
Ross and his men soon discovered the “white squaw” they’d captured was Nautdah, also known as Cynthia Ann Parker.
She was sturdily built with large, strong hands, short-cropped, medium-brown hair, and wide-set, striking blue eyes. She was about five foot seven inches in height and about 140 pounds, which would’ve made her a giant among Comanche women.
Ross sent Parker and her child, Topsana (“Prairie Flower”) to Fort Cooper and notified Parker’s uncle, Colonel Isaac Parker. Meanwhile, at Fort Cooper, the women there decided to clean up Parker. She was covered in filth because as a Comanche woman, she was responsible for processing buffalo hide and meat brought in by the hunters. So she was covered in blood, grease, and grime. The decision to clean her up to make her suitable for reintegration into white society offers a flicker of humor to her otherwise tragic story:
“They found some clothes for her, then got ‘an old negro mammy’ to scrub her down with soap and hot water. Then they combed her hair and let her look at herself in the mirror” (Gwynne 179). She seemed to go along with the scheme until she discovered a good opportunity to escape. “She made a dive for the door and got past the negro mammy. She then headed for her tent, which was about two or three hundred yards away, tearing her clothes off as she ran until she had almost nothing on, followed by the mammy frantically waving a washcloth as three bewildered army wives looked on and [Prairie Flower] toddled along after them.... Nautdah reached her tent, where she managed to find and put on some Comanche clothes. After that, the army wives gave up trying to pretty her up” (Gwynne 176).
Once Colonel Isaac Parker arrived, he questioned her and was convinced that she was in fact his long lost niece who had been kidnapped by the Comanches in the raid on Parker’s Fort. So, he decided to take her back to Birdville (modern day Haltom City) with him, just north of Ft. Worth.
Parker’s return to her birth family captured the country’s imagination. In 1861, the Texas legislature granted her about 4,400 acres of land and an annual pension of $100 for the next five years, and made her cousins, Isaac Duke Parker and Benjamin F. Parker, her legal guardians. She became an instant celebrity and people from all around came to gawk at her as though she were a side-show freak in a circus. Journalists circled to write up stories about her, often leading readers to believe she had suffered mistreatment from the Comanches, though there is little evidence to support this beyond her first few days of capture. While, her body did have several scars, they were most likely as a result of the mourning ritual practiced by Comanche women who cutting arms and breasts in their grief.
Parker never adjusted to her new surroundings, and although white and physically integrated into the community, she was uncomfortable with the attention she received. She tried repeatedly to escape with her daughter and many times made it deep enough into the woods that search parties were sent to find her. This happened so often that Colonel Isaac felt compelled to lock her in the house whenever he was away, which, as her guardian, he was legally allowed to do.
She remained uncooperative with her family. She could not or would not speak English with them. She would sit for hours on the front porch, crying, and nursing her daughter. She even continued with the Comanche rituals. As described by one of her relatives:
“She went out to a smooth place on the ground, cleaned it off very nicely and made a circle and a cross. On the cross she built a fire, burned some tobacco, and then cut a place on her breast and let the blood drop onto the fire. She then lit her pipe and blowed smoke toward the sun and assumed an attitude of the most sincere devotion.” (Gwynne 184).
Apparently, this made neighbors and family uncomfortable because they began to demand that Parker and Topsana wear “white” clothes and receive instruction in Scripture. That did not go well.
In the hope that she might find greater happiness elsewhere, her Uncle Isaac sent her on a long journey through the homes of various relatives that took her further away from her Comanche homelands—and further from any hope of again seeing the Comanches she’d come to know and love as her people. After a few moves between family, and the same pattern of uncooperative behavior, she eventually landed at her sister, Orlena Parker O’Quinn’s home near Tyler, Texas in 1862. By this time, a growing realization had settled on Parker that she would never see the Comanches again, so she began to slowly adjust to her new life. She relearned English so that she could speak it if she wanted to and she learned to sew, spin, and weave. And with her hide tanning experience from her former Comanche life, she developed a reputation as the best tanner in the county.
Then fate delivered a fatal blow to Parker when, in 1864, her daughter caught influenza and died of pneumonia. Since she believed her two sons were dead (they weren’t), she couldn’t bear the loss of her last child as well. She began refusing food and water and resisted encouragement to save herself. She lingered on until 1870, when she also died of influenza, which was likely complicated by her self-starvation. She died at the O’Quinn home and was buried in Foster Cemetery on County Road 478 in Anderson County near Poynor.
In 1910, Parker’s son, the renowned Chief Quanah, moved her body to Post Oak Mission Cemetery near Cache, Oklahoma. When he died in February 1911, he was buried next to her. Their bodies were moved in 1957 to the Fort Sill Post Cemetery at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. In 1965 the state of Texas had Prairie Flower moved from her grave in Edom, Van Zandt County, Texas to join her mother and brother.
Parker wasn’t the only white captive among the Comanches, but her story is certainly among the most famous and possibly the most tragic because she was ripped from one family to be raised by her captors who had also killed her friends and family. Yet, in some ways, she was fortunate to survive and to avoid much of the brutality often visited upon white settlers during raids. But it turns out to be a bittersweet twist in her fate. Though she became assimilated and grew to love her captors as her family, she had to witness their destruction twenty years later only to be forced to reintegrate with family who loved her but were now strangers to her. Parker was a woman of two families, two cultures, two lives, two identities entwined in one spirit who endured enormous hardship, loss, and grief. Hers is a life, a powerful story, that fascinates while it grips the heart.
Gwynne, S.C. Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History. Scribner: New York, 2010.