It Happened Here: Mexia, Texas

The inspiration behind The Searchers (1956), Cynthia Ann Parker’s real life did not have a happy ending.

American Cowboy Picture
n 1835, near what is now Mexia, Texas, the Parker clan from Illinois settled Mexico’s Comanche territory with a land grant of around 16,400 acres. They had pushed farther westward than any permanent settlers had yet attempted and built a fort and began farming. In May of 1836, about two dozen Parkers were at the fort and in the nearby fields when a band of Comanches rode up under a white flag. Benjamin Parker approached the riders to parlay, but he was suddenly surrounded and impaled with lances. The Comanches fell upon the settlement, killing five men, wounding two women, and carrying off five captives.

Alan Le May’s novel, The Searchers (Amereon, 1954), is loosely based on this event and the subsequent hunt for the captives that obsessed James Parker—Ethan Edwards in the The Searchers (1956), who was played by John Wayne. James Parker took five solo trips into the Comanche country in an effort to find his daughter, Rachel Parker Plummer, her son, James Pratt Parker, 9-year-old Cynthia Ann Parker, and her younger brother John. One of the five captives, Elizabeth Kellogg, was sold by the Comanches to the Delawares within a few months of the capture. Her story is lost to history, though the social status of former captives, especially women who had been “violated,” was compromised.

James Parker unsuccessfully petitioned his old friend Sam Houston for financial assistance to buy back his relatives; he endured floods, blizzards, and near starvation (He strangled a skunk to stay alive at one point.) on his treks; once he even snuck upon a Comanche encampment and left messages written in English near water holes to no avail.

In the fall of 1837, his daughter Rachel Plummer wound up in St. Louis by way of New Mexican “Comanchero” traders. She was reunited with her husband but died within two years of her rescue. The boys eventually surfaced at Fort Gibson, in what is present-day Oklahoma, in 1842, but spoke no English. James Pratt died of pneumonia in the Civil War, and John Parker’s fate is largely speculation. Meanwhile, Cynthia Ann assimilated entirely into Comanche culture, marrying the influential chief Peta Nocona and bearing him two sons, Quanah and Peanuts, and a daughter, Prairie Flower. In 1846 an Indian agent named Leonard H. Williams discovered her while on a diplomatic mission with the Comanches and tried to purchase her freedom. Both she and the Comanche leaders refused. Comanchero traders had also attempted to buy her over the years to no avail.

Twenty-four years after her initial capture, Cynthia Ann, who had been renamed Nautdah, or “Someone Found,” was cleaning buffalo hides and packing provisions on the Pease River with a dozen other women, a few old men, and a handful of warriors, when the camp was surprised by Texas Rangers. Guided by 24-year-old Charles Goodnight, who would later become the greatest cattleman of the West, and led by 23-year-old Sul Ross, who would later become governor of Texas, the white men were retaliating in response to a series of raids on frontier settlers. Most of the Indians were killed immediately, but according to Sam Gwynne, author of Empire of the Summer Moon (Scribner, 2010), Nautdah’s sons escaped. Ross himself killed Peta Nocona, but Nautdah identified herself as a white woman and was spared.

Though she was returned to her family, Nautdah mourned the death of her husband deeply and missed her sons. She refused to speak English and constantly tried to escape. Her family went so far as to use her for notoriety, putting her on display in a freak show. Her daughter Prairie Flower died of pneumonia in 1864, and six years after her recapture, Cynthia Ann died of influenza, likely brought on by self-starvation. Remarkably, her son Quanah became a great Comanche chief and led a fierce resistance, surrendering years later and becoming a successful cattleman. He even befriended Charles Goodnight, the very man who had recognized his mother in the Texas Ranger attack.

This article is from The Legends of Western Cinema collector's issue, which can be purchased at HorseBooksEtc.com

Copyright ©2013 Cruz Bay Publishing, Inc. an Active Interest Media company. All rights reserved.