The Searchers

Texas RangersA news article on 29 April 1846 described a visit by Colonel Leonard G. Williams’ trading party with a band of Tenewa Comanche near the Canadian River.  Williams reported that he had seen a young white woman about twenty years of age.  He reported that she appeared to be a married woman; he thought that it was possible that she was Cynthia Ann Parker.

A young white woman was observed again a year later by two federal officials, who were meeting with Yamparika Comanches near the Washita River.  In 1848, Robert S. Neighbors, a federal Indian agent for Northern Texas, was told that Cynthia Ann Parker had married a warrior from the Tenewa band. He was told that she had a family of her own and that she would never leave her husband, a chief by the name of Peta Nocona.  Nocona was famed for his daring raids on white settlements. Together, they had a son whom they named Quanah (translated variously as fragrant, stinky, or smelly).

The Texas Frontier was famous as a rumor mill.  For twenty-four years, the name Cynthia Ann Parker produced keen interest, if not outright excitement.  James Parker never rested in his quest to find her.

In the late 1850s, anticipating conflict between the Northern and Southern states, the US Army began to withdraw military assets from Texas. One of these was the 2ndCavalry Regiment, which left settlers on the Texas plain subject to hostile raids by Comanche and Kiowa Indians.  Texan settlers were not happy about this.  Governor Hardin Runnels, who had campaigned for office on a platform promise to end hostile raids, was stunned by the withdrawal of federal troops.

In 1860, a double murder attributed to the Comanche stirred the government of Texas to action, although at this time, Sam Houston was serving as governor; he was a known Indian-lover and in matters of hostile Indians, was slow to act.

One may recall that the Comanche were fierce warriors.  Whenever we speak of the Comanche Wars, we mean a long series of armed conflicts targeting Spanish, Mexican, Texian, and American settlers.  The wars began around 1705 and continued for another 150 years.  The Comanche were the dominant Indian group living on the Great Plains, even though they shared the Comancheria with Kiowa, Wichita, Apache, Cheyenne, and Arapaho Indians.

The ferocity of the Comanche was one of the reasons Mexico opened settlement of Texas to American immigrants.  There was nothing the Mexicans could do about the Comanche; maybe the American immigrants could deal with them.

Nocona - PARKER

War Chief Peta Nocona

Under Mexico’s immigration scheme, large tracks of land were allocated to empresarios, who recruited settlers from the United States, Europe, and the Mexican interior. Thousands of Americans realized the value of the opportunity for cheap land, but it brought them into conflict with the Comanche.  For their part, the Comanche resisted every attempt to settle within the Comancheria. If white settlers wanted to settle these lands, they would have to deal with the most lethal group of warriors in North America.  Whether fair or just, this is raw history.  The Comanche controlled the land, and the white settlers wanted to settle it.  Conflict was inevitable.

Early in 1860, Peta Nocona led several Comanche raids through Parker County, which had been named in honor of Cynthia Ann’s family.  After each raid, he returned with his war party to the sandstone bluffs of the Pease River near Mule Creek.  It was a favored site of the Comanche because it provided both cover from the severe winter winds and ample forage for their ponies; nearby buffalo herds provided food for the village.

In late October/early November 1860, Nocona led numerous additional raids in Palo Pinto County, west of Parker County.  Forty-six-year-old John Brown was tending his cattle near Keechi Creek when he was set upon by a Comanche war party.  Brown was knocked off his horse and murdered in a most distasteful fashion.  The raiding party drove Brown’s horse together with twenty other head previously stolen and headed north in Palo Pinto County.  The Indians moved quietly along the creek until they encountered the Sherman farm.  One warrior stayed with the horses while the others surrounded the farm house.

Nocona opened the door to the farmhouse and, leading his men inside, found the Sherman family of four having their noon meal at the table.  The Indians threw the family onto the floor and sat down to eat the prepared food.  Ignored, the Sherman’s slipped out the door and began running down the wagon rutted pathway.  As soon as the Indians finished eating, they began ransacking the house.

It wasn’t long before the Indians went in search of the Sherman family. They caught up with them on the road. Nocona grabbed Mrs. Sherman by her hair and pulled her up and over his horse and rode back to the farmhouse. Mr. Sherman sought to hide the children in the tall weeds in the field.  Sherman could hear his wife’s screams for a long while.  Realizing there was nothing he could do for his wife, Sherman took his children and ran to the nearest neighbor for help.  It took several hours for Sherman to reach his neighbor’s property.  Leaving his children in their care, he borrowed a horse and raced to town.

Hittson 1865

Sheriff “Cattle Jack” Hittson

After hearing Sherman’s report, County Sheriff John Nathan Hittson [1] and deputy James Hamilton Baker recruited a posse and rode north toward the Sherman family farm.  Hittson found the building in a shamble.  After taking a quick look around, Hittson’s posse tracked the war party northward.  Hittson was not certain how many Indians there were; he estimated between seven and ten.  A mile along the trail, Hittson found Mrs. Sherman’s body lying in a field.  She had been raped, scalped, stabbed, and she had two arrows protruding from her breasts.  In spite of her several injuries, all of which were serious, the pregnant woman was still breathing.

A portion of the posse treated her as best they could and removed her back to town. Hittson and the rest of his men continued tracking the Indians.  The next day, with their horses near to exhaustion, Hittson and his men returned to town.

Mrs. Sherman died four days later; her horrendous death served to galvanize the entire northwest frontier.  Hittson sent out messages of warning to Fort Worth, Dallas, and Austin.  It wasn’t long before well-armed men began showing up in Palo Pinto.  They wanted revenge and they wanted it now.

Sheriff Hittson sent an appeal to Governor Sam Houston for armed assistance and protection.  He wanted a Texas Ranger company assigned to Palo Pinto.  While awaiting the governor’s reply, Jack Cureton [2] formed a local militia cavalry unit.  Within a few days, 100 volunteers were encamped just out of town, all waiting for the governor’s reply.  Meanwhile, Hittson and his deputy sent word out to the outlying farms suggesting that the citizens come into town for protection.  With his civic duty done, Hittson subordinated himself to Cureton’s cavalry.  Townsfolk relinquished their best horses and offered weapons to those who needed them.

Sul Ross Civil War

Sul Ross Civil War Photo

Within a week, word arrived that Houston was sending a Texas Ranger force to Palo Pinto County under the command of Captain Lawrence “Sul” Ross.  When Ross appeared in Palo Pinto, having briefed the town folk on his mission, he asked the local militia to join his force, which they agreed to do.  Ross send out the scout Ben Dragoo and three others to scout north of the Trinity River. Ross needed to find the Indian trail, and if anyone could cut that trail, it was Ben Dragoo.

The work in preparation for such an undertaking was difficult; it took three weeks for the expedition to form, orient, train, and provision.  The reinforced Ranger company was finally formed by the second week in December. By then, the weather had turned bitterly cold.

Three columns of Texas Rangers and militia departed Palo Pinto on 14 December 1860.  Captain Ross’ company now consisted of 27 rangers, 18 mounted soldiers from the US 2ndDragoons —provided by Lieutenant Colonel Robert E. Lee at Camp Cooper, commanded by First Sergeant John W. Spangler.  Cureton’s militia now consisted of over 100 men.  Within two days, the ranger force had reached the West Branch of the Trinity River.  Forage in the winter was scarce, the horses needed a break —and so too did some of the older volunteers, the frigid weather taking its toll.  Ross ordered the expedition to encamp.  Meanwhile, Ben Dragoo and his scouts had left markings on trees which communicated to Ross the direction of their search.

By 18 December, the Ross expedition were 70 miles northwest of Palo Pinto. Ross’ scouts reported to him the presence of a fairly large hunting party and camp on the banks of the Pease River. Deteriorating weather suggested that it would be possible for Ross to approach the camp undetected.  As the Texas Rangers and dragoons broke camp that morning, Cureton elected to hold his men in camp.  The horses were beginning to die from the cold and exhaustion; several of his men were now on foot.

By 9:00 o’clock, Ross and his men were separated from the militia by a dozen or so miles.  Ross approached a series of cedar-covered hills, halted his men and had a council of war with his men.  Ultimately, he decided to send twenty men to position themselves behind a chain of sand hills to deny retreat from the northwest.  Ross cautiously approached the hills, again halting his men and directed the sharpest eyes among them to begin scanning the surrounding land, particularly the river bottom that ran in the distance below.

The Rangers soon spied several groups of people moving near the river about a mile distant.  Ross assumed that the formation was part of a Comanche war party engaged in the process of packing up their teepees.  Ross moved his Texas Rangers forward on the line and stationed the dragoons in a second rank.  The men unholstered their side arms.  When the men were ready, Ross charged down the hill.

As the rangers and dragoons approached the group, they began firing their weapons.  His attack was so sudden that the Indians were taken by surprise and a number of Indians were killed before they could organize a defense.  Women and children on foot scattered in all directions, with some young boys mounting ponies and galloping off on various tracks—with some of these riding directly into the line of waiting rangers; those who were not killed scattered off in new directions.

As rangers began to pursue the Indians, their line became fragmented and it didn’t take long before the attacking force had lost sight of one another. First Sergeant Spangler held his men in check while sending a few of his men to capture the Indian mounts —which numbered around 350 head.  Ranger private Charles Goodnight [3] gathered with a few of his friends near the corralled horses, jokingly wondering where the ranger officers had gone off to.

Captain Ross and two of his lieutenants were in the pursuit of two well-mounted Comanche warriors.  Ross fired his weapon at a well-dressed chief, who fell from his horse.  As Ross attended to the dispatch of the Indian, Lieutenant Kelleher continued his pursuit of another Indian.  Ross quickly remounted and followed.  After a long chase, Ross finally closed with what appeared to him as a bulky Indian and got off a shot.  To his surprise, a body fell from the horse, but left another mounted Indian.  Ross realized that he had shot a woman who was riding behind a warrior.

Ross continued the chase, firing several more times.  When the Indian’s horse began to stagger, the warrior leapt from his mount and began losing arrows at Captain Ross.  One of these struck Ross’ horse, which stung, began bucking. It was all Sul Ross could do to hold on. The warrior then attacked by running toward Ross’ horse and, grabbing its reigns, made an attempt to stab Ross with an arrow.  Ross desperately fired at the Indian several times, finally (and luckily) hitting him in the chest.  Stunned, the warrior dropped his arrow and began walking away.  He started to sing his death song.  Ross dismounted and began to tend to his horse.  When the animal had quieted, Ross approached the Indian, who was still singing, and asked him to surrender.  The Indian turned and spit at Ross … whereupon Ross killed him.

Returning to point of their initial attack, Ross noticed there were several captives, including a young, scared, and bewildered lad.  Ross, fearing for the safety of the boy, took him into custody and carried him back to where Goodnight and the others were gathered. Lieutenant Kelleher soon joined them with a captive Indian woman who had a baby strapped to her back.  Ross gave little thought to the woman at that time; he had more to worry about.  Since the incident had occurred on the Pease River near Mule Creek, Sul Ross named the boy Pease.  There were no casualties among the Texas Rangers or the dragoons.

Cureton’s volunteers finally caught up with Ross in the late afternoon.  Ross reported the presence of fifteen Indian, twelve of whom were killed, and three captives.  Pease, the Indian woman, and her infant child.  Ross ordered the men to make camp, and after the camp fires were started, Deputy Sheriff James Baker (Hittson’s deputy) took a closer look at the Comanche woman.  He noted that the woman was of white parentage; looked like an Indian but had blue eyes.  Questioned, she only responded, “Me Mericana.”  One of the men wondered, “Could this be Cynthia Ann Parker?”

PARKER C A 001

Cynthia Ann Parker, c. 1862

The next day, Ross led his expedition, the prisoners, and the captured ponies, to Camp Cooper.  Rancher George Evans’ wife was asked to care for the woman and her infant.  Ross sent a message to Austin asking that Isaac Parker be notified that his long-lost niece may have been recovered.  She eventually made her way back to her family, but the truth is that Cynthia Ann Parker had not only been adopted by the Comanche, but she had adopted them, as well.  The Parker family had to watch her carefully to prevent her running back to the Comanche territory.

The Ross expedition resulted in an increase in Comanche Raids, and one of these in particular, placed the entire town of Palo Pinto under an all-night siege.  The winter of 1860/1861 proved to be one of the deadliest in the history of Comanche violence.

There evolved two distinct and contradictory stories of Peta Nocona’s death. In the first, he died while trying to escape the attack at Pease River with his wife and infant daughter.  This was the official report tendered by Sul Ross. Ross’ story was supported by Antonio Martinez, the expedition’s Comanche language interpreter.  The other story is that Nocona died three years later from a sickness; this was the story told by Quanah Parker, the eldest child of Cynthia Ann and Peta Nocona.

The State of Texas granted Cynthia Ann a pension of $100/year and 4,000 acres of land.  She accepted the money but could not afford to have the land properly surveyed.  She spent the rest of her life mourning the loss of her husband and two sons; she refused to “go back” to her family, and she never re-learned the English language.

During the Civil War years, disease and sickness was rampant on the Texas frontier. On 15 December 1863, Cynthia Ann’s daughter Topusana died, aged 5 years, from complications of pneumonia. The broken spirited Cynthia Ann Parker passed away on 19 March 1871 from the influenza.  She was 46 years of age.

Notes:

[1] John Nathan Hittson, also known as Cattle Jack Hittson, would become one of the wealthiest cattlemen in the Old West.

[2] Jack Cureton (1826-1881) was one of the first settlers in Palo Pinto County.  He went to Texas to fight in the Mexican-American War with a regiment of Arkansas Volunteers.

[3] Charlie Goodnight was a frontier scout, member of local militia, a Texas Ranger, and later became one of the best-known cattle ranchers in the State of Texas.  He is often regarded as the “father of the Texas Panhandle.” Historian J. Frank Dobie has remarked that in his opinion, Charlie Goodnight “approached greatness more nearly than any other cowman in the history of the old west.”  The book and film Lonesome Dove were modeled on the life of Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving.

About Mustang

US Marine (Retired), historian, writer.
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6 Responses to The Searchers

  1. Andy says:

    The question of what happened to Cynthia Ann Parker is finally answered.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. kid says:

    This would make a heck of a movie. Much better than John Wayne’s The Searchers.

    Like

    • Mustang says:

      I’ve been to Sul Ross State University in Alpine, Texas. Quite a place with a great museaum with bronze statues depicting Texas in days past. I’m inclined to agree with you that the story would make a great film, but only if the right actors were selected to portray the main characters. Sul Ross wasn’t a big man, nor even handsome, but he had sand. Thanks for stopping by, Kid.

      Like

  3. Life was rough, eh?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mustang says:

      That’s my guess, Ed. Although I think the alternative was even rougher. I wonder how any of these people survived without Twitter or Facebook.

      Like

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