Reviewed by Hank Schmidt
By Scott Zesch
St. Martin’s, New York, 2004
Some of the most popular early books in American literature dealt with the captivity narrative, and the appeal of such dramatic tales of hardship and adventure on the frontier can still grip modern readers. Many frontiersmen considered being captured by hostile Indians a “fate worse than death,” but not everyone captured came to feel that way. One of author Scott Zesch’s ancestors, Adolph Korn, was captured at age 10 from the Texas Hill Country, adapted to the nomadic life of the Comanches, and began training with these fierce Plains warriors who were at war with U.S. soldiers and white settlers. Eventually, he was forced to return to white society, but he didn’t manage well and ended up living alone in a cave. Korn is the principal focus of Zesch’s book, but the author also has much to say about other child captives from the Texas frontier. Korn wasn’t a talker, and he left many secrets behind. “To better understand my ancestor’s captivity,” he explains, “I expanded my search to include other
children who lived with the Comanches or Apaches at about the same time, especially those who chose to talk about their experiences.”
On New Year’s Day 1870, Korn was struck on the head with a pistol and captured by three Apaches, but he had no lasting physical injuries. His primary abductor soon traded him to some Quahada Comanches for a sorrel horse, a pistol, a blanket and some trinkets. When young Adolph was thrown from a horse and injured, his usefulness to the Comanches was minimal, but a Comanche woman took him under her wing and for all intents and purposes became his new mother. For nearly three years, the young man had some struggles but also many thrills and adventures. The author suggests that his ancestor came to enjoy the mobile, unfettered lifestyle of the Comanches, who made him feel significant in their tribal society. And this was said to be an improvement over life in the German settlements. “Frontier parents in central Texas, preoccupied with the necessities of life and their own daily toil, typically had little spare time to instruct their young,” Zesch writes. Adolph and the other young captives apparently jumped at the chance to ride horses, shoot and fight, and in time they “felt a need to prove that they were worthy of their Indian parents’ investment in them.” It’s no wonder that the author wonders in the prologue if “under the same circumstances, would I have become like him?” Of course, it must be said that the Comanches didn’t capture and adopt just anyone. They also mutilated, raped and brutally murdered settlers. In reading this book, one might on occasion wish to nudge the author and remind him that 19th-century German-American immigrants, just like the free-roaming Comanches, must have had feelings, too.
Along with the story of Korn, Zesch considers the tales of more talkative onetime captives Herman Lehmann, Dot and Banc Babb, and Clinton and Jeff Smith. A convenient table near the end of the 362-page book lists the dates and places of birth, capture, recovery and death of the aforementioned, as well as three others. In the end (he died on July 3, 1900), Adolph Korn chose to not live with his German Texas kin or within the confines of the Kiowa-Comanche reservation, but in a Texas Hill Country cave. “Every day he spent in that cave…,” Zesch writes, “my uncle Adolph kept a solitary vigil for Comanche brothers whom he knew would never return.” Maybe so, but I’m betting that maybe once a week, his mind reflected on some of those mean old Germans he once knew.