The Two Heartbreaks of Cynthia Ann Parker

In today's excerpt - the two heartbreaks of Cynthia Ann Parker.  In 1836, when she was nine years old, Cynthia was captured in a murderous raid by Comanches on her frontier family. The tragic story, and the resulting search for her, became perhaps the most famous in its time, with many Americans heartbroken for her and yearning for her rescue.

From the first arrival of Europeans in the 1500s to the late 1800s, North American Indians were in a desperate dance with these intruders – alternating between cooperation and bitter conflict. The most fierce tribe to emerge from this was the Comanche tribe, which had taken two European imports – the horse and the gun – and taken horseback warfare to an unprecedented level of skill. The skirmishes in Texas and surrounding territories, such as the one in which Cynthia Parker's family was murdered in front of her, were the most brutal in the American West.

However, unbeknown to her worried friends and neighbors, Cynthia eventually became the contented wife of a Comanche chief, and proud mother of two sons and a daughter. She was finally "rescued" by the U.S. Army a full twenty-four years later in a battle that saw her husband killed, her two young sons fleeing to save their lives, and both she and her young daughter taken into captivity. Cynthia Ann Parker's story is vividly told as part of S.C. Gwynne's Empire of the Summer Moon:

"There was the virtually universal belief among Texans at the time that Sul Ross, the hero of the battle and the future Texas governor, had saved the poor, unfortunate Cynthia Ann Parker from an ugly fate. That belief would color the histories for a long, long time.

"We will never know how Cynthia Ann Parker felt in the weeks and months after her capture by Sul Ross. There are so few comparable events in American history. But it was painfully apparent from the earliest days that the real tragedy in her life was not her first captivity but her second. White men never quite grasped this. The event that destroyed her life was not the raid at Parker's Fort in 1836 but her miraculous and much-celebrated 'rescue' at Mule Creek in 1860. The latter killed her husband, separated her forever from her beloved sons, and deposited her in a culture where she was more a true captive than she had ever been with the Comanches. ...

"Texans could not get enough of her. There were many newspaper accounts of her return, all of which were uniformly obsessed with the idea that a pretty little nine-year-old white girl from a devout Baptist family had been transformed into a pagan savage who had mated with a redskin and borne his children and forgotten her mother tongue. And all the stories assumed that everything she had done had been forced upon her. That she had suffered grievous mistreatment, had been whipped and beaten and had led a lonely and desperate existence. People simply did not believe that a Christian white woman had gone along with it voluntarily. One paper, the Clarksville Northern Standard, observed later that 'her body and arms bear the marks of having been cruelly treated.' Yet there is nothing to suggest that she was cruelly treated after the first few days of her captivity, as her cousin Rachel Plummer had described them. She was the ward of a chief, later his wife. The scars may have resulted from the practice among Comanche women of cutting themselves in mourning, often on the arms and breasts. ...

"[Once she had been 'rescued'], it is not clear exactly what [her relatives] thought they were going to accomplish with Cynthia Ann and her daughter. Perhaps they saw themselves as her deliverer, imagining the day when Cynthia Ann, grateful and weeping, would embrace Jesus and forsake her savage ways. Nothing of the sort happened. Cynthia Ann's repatriation was in fact a disaster. She was not only unrepentant. She was actively, and incessantly hostile to her captors. She tried repeatedly to escape with her daughter, sometimes making it far into the woods and requiring a search party to find her. She was so intent on leaving that [her relatives] had to lock her in the house when they were away. ...

"She would sit for hours and hours on the wide porch of [her uncle] Isaac's house weeping and nursing her daughter Prairie Flower. She refused to stop her pagan devotions. One of her relatives described her ritual of worship:

" '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.' ...

"Cynthia Ann kept trying to escape, walking off down the road with her daughter in her arms whenever she was left alone. (She said she was 'going home, just going home.') She often slashed her arms and breasts with a knife, drawing blood. This was probably an act of mourning for the death of her husband. Or it could have been a simple expression of misery. [She once added] 'I want to go back to my two boys.' "


S.C. Gwynne


Empire of the Summer Moon




Copyright 2010 by S.C. Gwynne


181, 183, 184, 188, 190

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