The Comanche war party splashed across the Red River in late November 1860. Its leader was Puhtocnocony, called Peta Nocona by the whites. He and his raiders rode down the edge of the Western Cross Timbers, an irregular hilly and wooded region extending south through Montague, Wise, Jack, Parker, Hood, Erath and Comanche counties. The Cross Timbers’ trees and broken topography enabled stealth. Now in enemy territory, the warriors, their faces painted black, the death color, moved by moonlight and holed up during the day.
Kelliher was ready to shoot her when Ross noticed something strange. ‘Why, Tom,’ he said, ‘this is a white woman! Indians don’t have blue eyes’
Nocona, born into the Noconi band but later joining the Kwahadis, was about 40 years old. Most likely he had entered Texas after envisioning a great raid in a dream. He had planned out the route in detail. The raiders made no fires, ate dried meat and endured heat and cold. They were not specifically in search of horses or other booty, although stealing horses along the way would add to their laurels. Nocona was leading a revenge party. Its mission was to kill the enemy, and it would stay the course until the leader declared his vengeance satisfied. His enemies were Texas settlers, and they could expect no mercy. There were no rules. Depending on the whim of the assailants, the victims could be slaughtered, raped, tortured, taken captive or set free.
While the raid had begun like so many others, it was destined for three reasons to become one of the most notable Comanche raids ever made in Texas. First was the sheer savagery of the attacks. Second was the participation of a white female warrior, Cynthia Ann Parker. Third was the recapture of Cynthia Ann, making her the most famous white captive in the history of the Western frontier.
Peta Nocona and his large war party first struck in Jack County at the James Landman home, about five miles northeast of Jacksboro. On November 26, Landman and his 14-year-old stepson, Will Masterson, were cutting wood about a mile from the cabin. At home were Mrs. Landman; her 6-year-old son, Lewis; her baby, John; and her two daughters from a previous marriage, 12-year-old Jane and 15-year-old Catherine Masterson. The Comanches murdered Mrs. Landman and her son Lewis, plundered the house and carried off the Masterson girls. Catherine’s captor threw her on a horse, but Jane was roped and dragged.
The raiders traveled less than a mile west to the banks of Lost Creek, where they cut loose Jane’s battered body, shot her with five arrows and left her body on the ground. Nearby was Calvin Gage’s cabin. At Gage’s that day were Anna Gage; her 5-year-old son, Jonathan; her 1-year-old daughter, Polly; and three children with the last name Fowler from Anna’s previous marriage—16-year-old Joseph, 10-year-old Mary Ann and young Hiram. Joseph was searching for stray oxen about a mile from the house. The Sanders cabin was nearby. Elick Sanders, the brother of Anna Gage, was away, but their mother, Katy Sanders, was inside with another of the Gage children, 14-year-old Matilda.
About 250 Comanches engulfed the two households. Old Katy Sanders had no luck fending off the raiders at the Sanders cabin; they quickly killed her and ransacked the place. Several of them grabbed Matilda and threw her on a pony. About the same time, other warriors descended on the Gage cabin. They beat Anna senseless and shot her with arrows, leaving her for dead. She recovered, only to die of complications from her wounds a few years later. They took little Polly and, to their great amusement, threw her high into the air several times, letting the infant smash onto the ground on the last toss. They shot and wounded Mary Ann Fowler and Jonathan Gage. The Indians also ripped open several beds and tossed the feathers to the winds.
Tiring of this sport, Nocona and his warriors took what property they could carry and rode south, bringing with them three captives—Matilda Gage, Catherine Masterson and Hiram Fowler. A short time later, several Comanches stripped Matilda and Catherine and abused them before setting them free. The two naked girls walked in a daze toward home and soon met up with Joseph Fowler, who was bringing in the oxen. The trio cautiously approached the Gage cabin. A cold north wind was blowing about the bed feathers. At first, Joseph thought it was snowing. After getting the full bloody picture, he rode to neighbors to report the raid. When H.A. Hamner of Jacksboro rode up to the Gage’s, he found frightened Jane Masterson in the woods. She told him what had happened, showed him five wounds on her body from which she had pulled arrows and pleaded with him to help her family. Then she died from blood loss.
Although fairly inured to Indian depredations, the residents of Jack County were shocked by the brutality of the raid. One of them, W.W.O. Stanfield wrote to Governor Sam Houston on December 9, saying, “This day a week ago, we buried five that was killed in the most savage-like manner that I have ever herd [sic] of.” He mentioned a 65-year-old lady “shot through with an arrow” and children “murdered withe [sic] a lance and beat withe rocks, some of them cut in as high as 14 different places.” Mrs. Anna Gage, Stanfield added, is “the worst brused [sic] human being I have ever saw.” The first day of raiding was over, and the Comanches rode south into Parker County, named, ironically, for the family whose daughter was a wife of Peta Nocona and was riding with the war party currently devastating the region.
This tragic, incredible episode had it antecedents nearly 24 years earlier, when, on May 19, 1836, several hundred Indians attacked Parker’s Fort in east Texas. Brothers Silas M. and James W. Parker had established the frontier fort in 1834, on the headwaters of the Navasota River in today’s Limestone County. Despite Indian warnings, someone left open the stockade gate that morning when the men went to work in the fields. The raiders hit and made short work of the virtually undefended settlement, killing five of the Parker clan and seizing five others. Taken captive were Rachel Parker Plummer and her son James, Elizabeth Kellogg and John and Cynthia Ann Parker.
For 9-year-old Cynthia Ann, the first several days of her capture were terrifying. She was beaten and abused, and she saw the Indians rape her cousin Rachel and Rachel’s Aunt Elizabeth. In the Comanche village, Cynthia Ann was virtually a slave, forced into backbreaking labor to keep the lodge of her master. She was young and compliant, and her owner chose to keep her. When of marriageable age, she would bring in many fine horses.
Cynthia Ann survived and was adopted into the tribe. Sightings of her over the years tantalized the public and kept alive relatives’ hopes she might one day be rescued. But by then Cynthia Ann may no longer have wanted to be rescued. She received the name Naduah, or Nautdah (“She carries herself with grace”), married Nocona and gave birth to several children, one of them Quanah Parker, later to become a Kwahadi chief.
Indian agent Leonard Williams saw Cynthia Ann in 1846 during a meeting with Comanches on the upper Brazos. Williams said she “continued to weep incessantly.” He offered 12 mules and two mule loads of merchandise for her but claimed the Indians “say they will die rather than give her up.” Commissioners Pierce M. Butler and M.G. Lewis reported that Cynthia Ann was the wife of a warrior, and either “from the influence of her husband or from her own inclination, she is unwilling to leave the people with whom she associates,” and that “she would run off and hide herself to avoid those who went to ransom her.”
In 1852 Captain Randolph B. Marcy met with a band of Noconis and saw a “white woman…by the name of Parker.” Marcy said she “has adopted all the habits and peculiarities of the Comanches, has an Indian husband and children and cannot be persuaded to leave them.” Cynthia Ann had chosen her new life. She roamed with the Penetekas for a time and then with her husband’s adopted Kwahadis. But while Cynthia Ann, or Naduah, may have been contented with her new life and family, the very thought she could happily exist as a Comanche “squaw” rankled white settlers on the Texas frontier. The fact the Indians could take white women and force them into “a fate worse than death,” and that some would not care to return to white society, stoked the underlying racial and sexual tensions of the frontier folk.
Naduah sometimes accompanied Peta Nocona on his raids. Almost everyone in Comanche society, including women and children, participated in a raid either logistically or socially in the accompanying ceremonial dances. Women also helped manage the camps and carry away spoils, and female warriors occasionally participated directly in the fighting and killing. What exactly was Naduah’s role in this savage raid? She was there, but did she actually lift the scalping knife, or did she remain at camp in a supporting role? Several captured white boys rode with other Comanche war parties and were said to be crueler than the Indians. Naduah never told what she did during the 1860 raid, or if she did, it was not recorded.
Nocona, Naduah and the other raiders had entered Parker County by the early morning hours of November 27. One may wonder if Cynthia Ann knew the county carried her family name. Just before daylight, a messenger reached John Brown’s house, 16 miles northwest of Weatherford, bringing warning of an Indian raid, and Brown saddled an old cow pony to go alert his neighbors. Two hours later, Nocona and some 50 other Comanches approached Brown’s cabin. Mary Brown gathered her children and a slave, 14-year-old Anthony, in the half-story loft. To her horror, Mary realized one of her little girls, Annie, remained below in a kitchen outbuilding. Anthony fetched her just as the raiding party appeared in the yard. While Mary shepherded her children up the trapdoor stairs to the attic, Anthony grabbed an ax and guarded the door. Surprisingly, the Indians didn’t molest them but only stole the horses.
The Comanches encountered Mary’s husband, John, a half mile from the house. They lanced and scalped him, then cut off his nose. Neighbors found his body under a cover of snow the next morning, and Mary buried him in the corner of their yard.
The raiders stole 18 horses from Brown and rode to T.E. Thompson’s place, two miles away on Rock Creek. “They came very near and like they were going to kill us all,” said one of Thompson’s daughters, “but on second thought, they turned and left, taking all our horses.” Content with the stolen stock, Nocona and his warriors cut southwest into Palo Pinto County.
On Staggs Prairie, northeast of Mineral Wells, they came to the home of Ezra and Martha Sherman. The Shermans had just sat down for dinner when six Comanches walked through the door. Martha cautioned her family not to show any fear. Seven-year-old William H. Cheairs, Martha’s son from a previous marriage, had seen the Indians coming and had run off to hide in an oak thicket.
The family tried to remain calm. Ezra indicated to a large warrior with a face painted black and scarlet that they had no food or drink to share, only molasses. Martha chose a different tactic: She pointed to the door and said, “Git!”
“Hambre,” the Indian said in Spanish, rubbing his belly.
“No, you ain’t,” Martha said, picking up her broom and moving to swat him. Some of the warriors laughed, and one touched her long chestnut hair. Martha pulled away, and the Indians talked among themselves. One of the children, Mary Cheairs, then commented, “That’s red hair.” Martha, too, noticed the red hair of one of the unwanted guests, which meant he was probably a white renegade.
Finally, one of the warriors pointed at the door and told the family, “Vamoose!” With 1-year-old Joe Sherman in hand, Ezra, Martha and Mary walked out into the cold and headed east toward their nearest neighbor. A light snow was falling. They only got half a mile when the Indians rode up to them and told Ezra and the children to keep moving. Ezra protested, but a lance pointed at his chest convinced him. The Indians then dragged Martha back to the cabin, where she was stripped, tortured and raped by at least 17 warriors, including one she called “that big old redheaded Indian.” They then scalped her and rode their horses over her, leaving her for dead. Other warriors ransacked the house, drank up the molasses and, for whatever reason, stole the family Bible. Then they rode off. William Cheairs watched it all from the thicket.
The marauders were not finished. They hit John B. Pollard’s farm, less than three miles southwest on the Brazos, where they stole 26 horses. Warriors also attacked William Eubanks’ ranch near the mouth of Turkey Creek, about six miles farther west. Solomon B. Owens, a 20-year old who had just moved to Texas, lived there with his young bride, one of Eubanks’ daughters. While riding toward Turkey Creek, the Comanches drove some 300 stolen horses through Owens’ wheat field, destroying the crop. The only ones home that day were three of Eubanks’ daughters, who quickly donned men’s clothing and hats and took position behind a fortified picket. Not wishing to challenge these defiant defenders, the Indians settled for riding off with more horses.
Nocona headed north toward Keechi Creek. Will Eubanks was riding home late that evening in a rain and sleet storm when he suddenly found himself amid the Comanches and their huge herd of stolen animals. He removed his hat, slumped over and rode slowly in the same direction. As night closed in, he sidled away and escaped.
The marauders also took advantage of the darkness to slip away. Crossing Keechi Creek, they turned west, passing through Dark Valley. Nocona had apparently slaked his vengeance, and with a herd of more than 300 horses, he finally headed out of the settlements.
The four Pollard brothers grabbed their weapons and followed the Comanches’ trail. Arriving at the Sherman place, James Pollard “saw feathers flying over the yard and went in the house and saw blood and everything tore up.” Billy Cheairs emerged from his hiding place in the oak thicket and told the Pollards he saw the Indians take his mother, Martha Sherman. “The little boy,” James noted, “said he could hear her screaming and hollering for an hour, and the last he saw of her, her hair was tied to the tail of a pony, and they dragged her out on the prairie.” The Pollards soon found the battered Mrs. Sherman trying to crawl back to the cabin. Next to arrive was Ezra Sherman, who had made it to the neighbors and borrowed a gun. His wife told him the horrible things the Indians had done to her, describing how they had sawed and hacked at her scalp for the longest time trying to remove it.
Over the next couple of days, neighbors came to visit the Shermans, and one, Henry Belding, could not erase the “fearful” sight of Martha from his memory even 50 years later. She lingered four days, delivering a stillborn child before dying. Ezra took her body to Weatherford, where it lay shrouded in a casket and laid out in a cabin for all to view. Martha Sherman was buried in Willow Spring Cemetery, eight miles east of town. Naturally, the people of the county were outraged.
A posse of neighbors trailed the Indian war party, soon finding several horses that had dropped dead from exhaustion. Sol Owens said the posse also found moccasin tracks, a quirt, a “cross mark” and other signs, “which was meant as a dare to [us] to follow them.” After two days, the men gave up the chase and returned home. Nocona’s deadly raid convinced some settlers to pack up their belongings and return east, while others “forted up” with other families According to Ida Lasater Huckabay, a granddaughter of Mary Brown, the murders “so enraged the settlers that the cavalrymen and Rangers became determined to pursue the Indians to their own doors of the Texas plains.”
Civilians had been scouting for Indians in the western counties for the past month. Jack Cureton and a company of volunteers had just returned from Fort Chadbourne, hungry and exhausted. They reached Palo Pinto County in Nocona’s wake. Ranger Captain Lawrence “Sul” Ross and his men, plus nearly 100 civilian volunteers, gathered in Lovings Valley. The civilians elected Cureton captain and Richard W. Pollard first lieutenant. A 21-man detachment of Company H, 2nd Cavalry, under Sergeant J.W. Spangler, arrived from Camp Cooper. They moved to Fort Belknap and took on additional recruits. On December 14, the force of nearly 140 men and Tonkawa scouts rode out. Charles Goodnight, the future cattleman, discovered the raiders’ trail heading west toward the Pease River.
Ross followed the pony tracks to the junction of Mule Creek and the Pease and, on December 19, found the raiders’ camp. For young Hiram Fowler, the rescuers were one day too late. The night before, the Indians had murdered the troublesome boy and left his body behind. Just before Ross moved to attack, Goodnight found a pillowslip on the trail. Inside was a little girl’s dress and a Bible inscribed with Martha Sherman’s name. They had caught up to the guilty Indians—at least some of them.
The Comanche camp on the Pease did not comprise the entire war party. Following the raid, many individuals had gone their own way. Peta Nocona himself had left two days earlier, taking his boys Quanah and Pecos on a hunt. Few warriors were in camp. Some of the Indian women and children had eaten a skunk for breakfast and were now gathering hackberries. Naduah, the white Comanche, had joined the other women in dismantling the lodges in anticipation of moving. She was startled to see white riders crest a hill and ride toward them.
Ross saw the Indians about the same time they saw him. He counted about two dozen warriors among the women trying to pack up. He had outmarched Cureton’s exhausted volunteers, but there was no time to waste. The Ranger captain charged forward while Sergeant Spangler led the cavalry detachment around adjacent sand hills to cut off the Comanches. The fleeing Indians ran right into the flanking force, which trapped some of the women riding heavily laden horses. Spangler caught the women, said Goodnight, “and killed every one of them, almost in a pile.”
Naduah managed to grab a pony. Mounting with her young daughter, Toh-tsee-ah (“Prairie Flower”), she threw a buffalo robe around the two of them and rode off, with Ross and Lieutenant Tom Kelliher in pursuit. After a mile, Ross was close enough to shoot, but before he did, the fleeing rider turned, held out the child and shouted, “Americano! Americano!”
Ross told Kelliher to hold the captive while he rode after the others. Closing to within 20 yards of a horse with two riders, Ross fired and hit the rider (a warrior) and his passenger (a girl). Both tumbled to the ground. The warrior rose and shot an arrow into Ross’ horse, and the Ranger returned fire, putting three bullets into the Comanche. Ross watched him crawl off and sing his death song. He thought he had killed Peta Nocona, but the raid leader had already escaped to fight another day. Circling back to Kelliher, Ross found the captured Indian giving his lieutenant trouble. Kelliher was ready to shoot her when Ross noticed something strange. “Why, Tom,” he said, “this is a white woman! Indians don’t have blue eyes.”
The Rangers had found Cynthia Ann Parker, though they seemed uncertain about her identity. Later that night around the campfire, Palo Pinto County rancher Jonathan Baker, by his own account, suggested she might be one of the Parker children carried off by the Comanches more than two decades prior. James Pollard, who had ridden with the volunteers and arrived too late to participate in the attack, said the captive looked familiar. In 1857 and 1858, he had visited the old Brazos Reservation when annuities were issued and had watched the Indian women skinning buffaloes. One woman’s light hair had stood out, and he’d thought it odd, but he hadn’t realized who she was. When Cynthia Ann tried to communicate—in Comanche, English and sign language—Pollard got the impression she, too, recalled having seen him before.
Once Ross led the command back to Camp Cooper, the Rangers summoned Isaac Parker, who finally identified the captive as his niece. When someone mentioned the name “Cynthia Ann” in her presence, she recognized the sound, stood up, patted herself and said, “Me Cincee Ann.”
For Cynthia Ann, it was not a triumphal return. En route to Camp Cooper, she repeatedly tried to escape. The 33-year-old woman had left behind a husband and two young boys—12-year-old Quanah and 10-year-old Pecos—and all that remained of her life for the past 24 years was her daughter and the clothes they wore. The Army wives at Camp Cooper gave her food and clothing, but Cynthia Ann was despondent. She tried to escape again but was closely guarded. Then Uncle Isaac Parker came to take her “home.” They traveled to Fort Worth and then to Isaac’s home in nearby Birdville. Word spread of the captive’s return, and Cynthia Ann became a celebrity, but she usually greeted visitors with tears. Officials feted Cynthia Ann at the capital in Austin, but the fuss and ceremony frightened her, and she attempted yet another escape. The Texas Legislature ultimately granted her a pension of $100 per year for five years, plus a league of land (about seven square miles).
But Cynthia Ann remained unhappy. Her brother, Silas Parker Jr., took her into his home in Van Zandt County, and when he joined the Confederate Army, Cynthia Ann went to live with her younger sister, Orleana, who was married to R.J. O’Quinn. At her sister’s house, Cynthia Ann learned to weave, spin and sew. She already knew how to tan hides, and neighbors brought in skins for her to prepare. She picked plants and herbs for home remedies. Cynthia Ann also learned to speak English again and began to read and write. But she missed her Comanche family, even more so in 1864 after Toh-tsee-ah died of pneumonia.
The O’Quinns promised to take unhappy Cynthia Ann to visit her tribe but then moved even farther from the frontier. Unable to overcome her grief as a captive (this time of white people), Cynthia Ann fell into a deep depression. She died in 1870 and was buried at the Fosterville Cemetery. Few cases captured the public imagination as did Cynthia Ann’s. In 1909 Congress authorized a monument in her honor, and the next year it approved the reburial of Cynthia Ann and Prairie Flower side by side at the Post Oak Cemetery near Cache, Okla.
The Comanches had killed seven white settlers and wounded five others during Nocona’s November 1860 raid. No whites had died during the ensuing Pease River fight, but the Rangers killed five warriors and nine women and children and captured three other women and children. During the Indian wars on the Great Plains, particularly in Texas, it was the women and children, both Indian and white, who suffered the most. It was they who bore the brunt of the fighting. The innocent victims of Nocona’s raid and the recapture of Cynthia Ann Parker/Naduah were heartbreaking examples.
Special contributor Gregory Michno won a 1997 Western Heritage Award from the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum for his article “Lakota Noon at the Greasy Grass” (June 1996 Wild West). Michno, of Longmont, Colo., has written extensively about the Indian wars. His book Fate Worth Than Death is recommended, along with A Cry Unheard, by Doyle Marshall, and Frontier Blood: The Saga of the Parker Family, by Jo Ella Powell Exley.