Sul Ross is a Texas icon, remembered as a fierce Indian fighter, Confederate brigadier general, two-time governor and first president of the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas (present-day Texas A&M University). Another who wore the Ross name had far less reason to be proud of it and is virtually unknown today. Pease Ross was his white name, but he wasn’t white. A full-blood Comanche taken into Sul Ross’ family as a boy in 1861, he dropped out of sight in the early 1880s. His memory is kept alive today through two family histories and a single intriguing photograph (see sidebar below).
His story begins near the confluence of Mule Creek and the Pease River in north central Texas at a small Comanche camp of mostly women and children. On Dec. 19, 1860, Texas Rangers, U.S. 2nd Cavalry troopers and citizen volunteers struck the camp on a mission of extermination. Texas Ranger Captain Lawrence Sullivan “Sul” Ross, just 22 and a recent college graduate, was their leader. Governor Sam Houston had ordered Ross to “regard all Indians seen this side of Red River as open enemies of Texas” and wipe them out in retribution for a Comanche raid in November through Palo Pinto, Parker, Jack and Young counties that left at least six settlers dead, including a pregnant woman left scalped and naked on the prairie. Ross and his men swooped down on the camp and killed more than a dozen Indians, including a defiant warrior (a chief perhaps) who died fighting rather than surrender. Three members of the camp were taken captive, including Cynthia Ann Parker, who was the main reason the engagement is enshrined in Texas history. In 1836 Comanches had snatched 12-year-old Cynthia Ann from her white family. In the intervening years she had been integrated into the tribe and become the wife of Chief Peta Nocona, bearing him three children. When recaptured in 1860, she had their 2-year-old daughter, Prairie Flower (Anglicized as Topsannah in Comanche), with her. Her two sons and her husband were away from camp. Mother and daughter would live unhappily with white relatives until Prairie Flower died of pneumonia around 1868 and Cynthia Ann succumbed a few years later either to disease or heartbreak.
The third captive was a Comanche boy about 10 years old. During the attack Ranger Lieutenant David Sublett leaned over and hauled him up onto the back of his horse but soon tossed the boy aside to continue the fight. Ranger F.C. Donohoe then grabbed him, but he too changed his mind, whereupon Ross claimed him, believing the prize to be “the son of the chief.” At least that is what Ross wrote in his Jan. 4, 1861, report to Sam Houston. Such a valuable trophy could be used either as a bargaining chip in future negotiations with the Comanches or as a gift to his mentor, Houston, who had made Ross a captain and sent him into the field. No one bothered to ask the boy what he thought of this, any more than the Comanches had asked young Cynthia Ann 24 years earlier.
Ross probably saved the boy from being killed that day. He was a lucky little fellow, even if he did not feel lucky
Ross probably saved the boy from being killed that day. He was a lucky little fellow, even if he did not feel lucky. For years whites had denounced the Comanches for carrying off white children, conveniently forgetting that whites did the same with Comanche children. One contemporary account noted that at the time Ross claimed his prize, the boy was crying in fear for his life—very un-Comanche-like behavior, even for a child.
Ranger Jonathan Hamilton Baker wrote in his diary that night, “The prisoners are a woman, a small child and a boy about 10 years old.” Baker was curious about the white woman, but made no further mention of the girl or the unhappy boy. Sergeant John Spangler of the 2nd Cavalry noted in his report of Jan. 16, 1861, that “Captain Ross took one small boy prisoner.” These accounts and Ross’ after-action report are the first mentions of Pease Ross in the historical record—but not the last. Decades later cattleman Charles Goodnight, a civilian scout at the Pease River that day, told historian J. Evetts Haley about the boy, and in 1908 former Ranger Dave Simpson also remembered him.
In later years Sul Ross would relate the story of the battle and its results many times, but never the same way twice. About 1870, in a letter to a friend reprinted in several newspapers, he laid out what he termed the “correct history” of the battle, even providing a name—“Mohee”—for the Comanche chief and delving into greater detail about how the boy was captured. A decade after that, while preparing his first run for the Texas Legislature, Ross told biographer Victor M. Rose for Ross’ Texas Brigade that he was the one who first discovered the Indian boy “lying concealed in the tall grass…[and] with kind words placed the little fellow upon his horse.” In this telling Ross gave the name of the chief as Peta Nocona, Cynthia Ann’s mate and Quanah Parker’s father. Six years later, in yet another variation told to author James T. DeShields, he claimed to have unhorsed Peta Nocona but allowed his Mexican servant (a onetime Comanche captive) to administer the coup de grace with a shotgun, as Ross could not bring himself to finish off the brave warrior. Toward the end of his life Ross related a similar version to his daughter Elizabeth Ross Clarke, omitting Peta Nocona’s name.
The one indisputable fact in all versions of the story is that Sul Ross wound up with the boy—hardly surprising, as Ross was considered by some to be an “Indian lover.” He certainly had history with the Indians, telling Rose that he was “twice in their hands” (unverified); that his father, Shapely Prince Ross, had been an Indian agent for the state of Texas; and that his paternal great-grandfather, Lawrence Ross, had been captured by the Cherokees at a tender age and lived with them until he was 23. Something else Ross knew about was carrying off Indian children. In 1858, during a raid on a Comanche camp on the Wichita River in Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma), he had snatched up a light-skinned young girl. He brought her home and named her “Lizzie” after fiancée Elizabeth Tinsley, telling everyone she was a white captive who could not remember her parents, although later census reports list her as “Indian.” And, of course, there was his Mexican servant, Pablo, who had lived among the Comanches before being taken into the extended Ross family.
Ross named his most recent trophy “Pease,” either after the battle site or perhaps after recent Texas Governor Elisha M. Pease
Ross named his most recent trophy “Pease,” either after the battle site or perhaps after recent Texas Governor Elisha M. Pease. Crossing paths with Sam Houston on the Brazos River on his way home, the Ranger captain offered the boy along with other battle trophies, including a shield and lance. After Houston magnanimously declared the child should be returned to his own people, the two had, according to a witness, this surreal exchange:
Houston: “And I want you to tell your people to quit killing my people.”
Comanche boy: “Well, you tell your people to quit killing my people.”
That a Comanche boy knowing little or no English could come up with such a snappy retort strains credulity. And Pease did not go back to his people; he went home with Ross, who was living with his parents in McLennan County. The boy became part of the household but not part of the family. He tended the Ross horses, which made him a stable boy, although family lore forever after described him as a “ward.” Most likely Pease slept in the stable along with black servant “Old Armistead,” caretaker of the family’s blooded horses.
The exact nature of the relationship between Sul Ross and Pease Ross is hard to define. The historic literature takes its cue from the soldier-hero in calling the boy his ward. Clearly, Pease was something less than a foster child, which is how Lizzie was regarded. On the other hand, no one ever called him a slave. Perhaps indentured servant is more accurate—indentured to the Ross family until he reached adulthood. When he struck out on his own, Pease kept the surname of his white family. As far as is known, from the day he was captured, he never went by his Comanche name.
Pease wasn’t a stable boy for long. After a few months Sul Ross enlisted in the Confederate army, and when he went for training at Camp Bartow near Dallas, he took along Pease as his body servant. Pease had his own pony, playing Sancho Panza to Ross’ Don Quixote. Dallas ladies visiting the camp took note of the boy and made him what was described as “a fine suit of uniform.” Ross wrote wife Lizzie in September 1861, “Pease creates more excitement than a monkey show.” When Ross’ regiment left for the front, Pease went along, albeit without his pony. Ross had sent it home to Waco.
The war’s end in 1865 found Ross back home in Texas, with Pease still faithfully tagging along. Ross steadfastly maintained the boy was granted multiple opportunities to return to his people but always declined. Realistically, however, the Comanches would never have accepted him back into their fold, and Pease must have suspected as much. He would not have fit in any more than Cynthia Ann fit in with her own people after having lived like a Comanche for so many years. The Comanches had no problem adopting captive children whom they could inculcate in Comanche ways, but it was a one-way street.
Late in 1865 one of Sul’s former Rangers, David McFadden, visited his old commander, dragging along another Comanche captive. McFadden asked Pease to translate for him, but the boy explained he had “so far forgotten his [original] language as to be unable to communicate with his own tribe any longer.” Yet another of Ross’ old Rangers, Benjamin F. Gholson, helped perpetuate the myth Pease was a beloved member of the Ross family, repeating that tale to interviewers into his 80s.
After the war Pease Ross fades from the picture, turning up occasionally in old-timers’ recollections but absent from the official record. Former Ranger H.S. Halbert recalled years later that when he left Waco in 1876 “the Indian boy” was still living there. A guidebook to the town published that same year reports cryptically the good citizens of Waco still regarded Pease as a “great curiosity.” Yet Pease doesn’t appear in the first Waco city directory (1876), and he is not listed in either the 1870 or 1880 census reports anywhere in Texas or Indian Territory, where the Army had relocated the Comanches.
He would have to live under the functional Jim Crow attitudes of the time—and he was neither black nor white
Pease most likely continued to live in McLennan County, but his circumstances changed dramatically. By the close of Reconstruction in 1876 the county had split into two segregated communities—white settlers and their former slaves. Pease was a grown man by this time and no longer bound to the Ross family. Unfortunately for his happiness and sense of self, as long as he remained in McLennan County, he would have to live under the functional Jim Crow attitudes of the time—and he was neither black nor white.
To pick up Pease’s trail we must shift our focus to the county’s black community, specifically the family of William “Buck” Manning, who had come to Texas in 1863 with his master, the Rev. William Manning. (Some Manning descendants insist Buck’s master was Neil McLennan, the pioneer and namesake of McLennan County, which cannot be true, as McLennan came to Texas in 1835.) After emancipation, Manning had risen to become the county’s most distinguished black patriarch, acquiring land and influence in equal measure and helping found the Willow Grove community of former slaves. At some point young Pease made the acquaintance of Buck’s teenage daughter Texana, who had been born shortly after her parents crossed the Red River. According to Manning family lore, endorsed by local histories, Texana was a beauty who caught Pease’s eye. He courted and won her, and they tied the knot in 1878 when she was just 15. Within a year she gave birth to a son, Samuel David Ross. At least that’s the story in family lore.
The truth is more complicated. There are no public records to substantiate the marriage, though a match between Sul Ross’ Comanche boy and Buck Williams’ girl would have been big news. There is a marriage certificate for Texana Manning and Kesic Thomas, a black man nine years her senior, showing they tied the knot on Oct. 3, 1878, and a birth certificate showing they had a son named Samuel David on Jan. 17, 1879. The math indicates Texana was pregnant when she married Kesic, but who was the father? The 1900 census lists Samuel David Thomas, still living at home with his parents, Kesic and Texana, and the couple’s other seven children. But the 1910 census lists him as Samuel David Ross, giving his race as “mulatto.” Thus his parents were of mixed race, and one could certainly have been Indian. From 1910 until his death in 1949, Samuel David used the surname Ross, and that is the name on his death certificate provided by a helpful family member. The Manning family has always said Samuel David’s father was a Ross.
But his death certificate only muddies the water further, as it lists Samuel David’s father as “Willie Ross,” not Pease Ross, suggesting either Pease replaced the hated name bestowed on him by Sul Ross with another of his own choosing, or that some other Ross male was Pease’s father. Sul Ross did have a younger brother named William. If William Ross was indeed Samuel David’s father, then we are entering Thomas Jefferson–Sally Hemmings territory, where some claim Hemmings’ mulatto children were sired not by the president but by his roguish brother, Randolph—only without supporting DNA evidence.
It would be nice to cast Pease and Texana in the roles of Romeo and Juliet, with the Ross and Manning families as the Montagues and Capulets, because as a couple they did not fit in with either side of the family. On the other hand, a Texana-Kesic marriage would have protected Manning family honor while keeping a beloved daughter in the protective fold of the black community.
Pease last appears in the public record in 1881, the year Victor Rose, Sul Ross’ unofficial biographer, reported the 30-year-old man was still living with “his benefactor,” thereby throwing further doubt on a Pease-Texana marriage. Another passing reference that same year suggests the direction the wild Indian boy’s life had taken since he reached adulthood. The item in a Waco newspaper criticized Pease for “drinking [too much]” and getting into a dust-up with a “Mexican organ-grinder,” after which the police put Pease behind bars for “his own protection.” Perhaps Sul, who was making his run for the Legislature, bailed him out. Regardless, it sounds like Pease had become an embarrassment to one of Waco’s first families at a very bad time.
Pease Ross seems to have died before he turned 40. Sul Ross told James DeShields, author of the 1886 book Cynthia Ann Parker: The Story of Her Capture, that Pease died “last year” (1884? 1885?). Years later Ross family biographer Elizabeth Ross Clarke said Pease died in 1887 “a respected citizen of McLennan County.” But his passing doesn’t show up in death or burial records or in the local papers, which did note the passing of the Rosses’ black servant Old Armistead. One strand of Manning family lore claims Pease and Texana had moved to Oklahoma, where he died.
Pease Ross will always have a place in Texas history, thanks to writers like Rose and DeShields and more modern references such as The Handbook of Waco and McLennan County, Texas, which gives credence to the Pease-Texana connection and the myth of Sul Ross’ kindly guardianship. In Sul Ross: Soldier, Statesman, Educator (1983), Judith Benner relied heavily on Clarke’s manuscript and repeats the same old myths. S.C. Gwynne in his Empire of the Summer Moon (2010) has Ross raising the boy and turning him into a “respectable citizen.” Ultimately, all the basic elements of Pease Ross’ story lead back to Sul Ross. Perhaps we should recall Charles Goodnight’s scathing indictment of Sul Ross as a “lying four-flusher” before accepting his account of Pease Ross at face value. WW
Wild West contributor Richard Selcer of Fort Worth has written 10 books, including A History of Fort Worth in Black & White: 165 Years of African-American Life (University of North Texas Press, 2015). For further reading he recommends Myth, Memory and Massacre: The Pease River Capture of Cynthia Ann Parker, by Paul H. Carlson and Tom Crum, and Sul Ross: Soldier, Statesman, Educator, by Judith Ann Benner.
PICTURING PEASE ROSS
The same batch of images includes a photo of Cynthia Ann Parker taken in February or March 1861. Paperwork attached to the images indicates “an unknown person” gave them to Reuben J. Palmer, a member of Texas’ Secession Convention, which Cynthia Ann attended in March 1861 with uncle and guardian Isaac Parker. He was in Austin to petition the Eighth Legislature on Cynthia Ann’s behalf, seeking restitution for her ordeal. On April 8 the Legislature passed acts granting Cynthia Ann a league of land and a pension. It would be reasonable to assume Isaac had both Cynthia Ann and Pease by his side in Austin. If so, they might have all had their pictures taken. The boy pictured, Pease or not, does not look happy. —R.F.S.