A fall Indian raid in frontier Texas was as dramatic as any in fiction, but no more gripping than the odyssey of the female captives and their searchers.
Comanche and Kiowa raiders swept down on the Fitzpatrick ranch, a two-story house formerly known as the Carter Trading Post, only a few miles northwest of Fort Belknap in Young County, Texas. No men were home that day—Thursday, October 13, 1864. Twenty-one-year-old Milly Susanna Carter Durkin, whose father was black and mother white, tried to defend the others with a shotgun, but she was tomahawked, dragged outside, raped, scalped and killed. Milly’s 38-year-old mother, Elizabeth Ann Carter Sprague Fitzpatrick, and 13-year-old brother, Elijah Carter, were in the house. So were Milly’s three children—daughters Charlotte Elizabeth “Lottie” Durkin, 5, and Milly Jane, 2, and an unnamed newborn son. A black family, the Johnsons, also lived there. Britt Johnson, the head of the household, was away working at a mill; although technically a slave, he raised his own livestock and had considerable independence. Britt’s pregnant wife, Mary Johnson, 24, was home with her 4-year-old daughter and two sons.
At the first attack, 7-year-old Jim Johnson ran from the house, but Indians killed him before he reached the gate. The violent murders of the boy and Milly Durkin cowed the others into compliance. Even so, when Indians found the Durkin baby boy hidden in a box beneath the bed, they pulled him out and smashed him against a wall. Raiders tied the remaining captives on ponies, and at a bugle call by Kiowa leader Satanta, they left the ranch.
The group rode northwest for almost two days and nights before stopping on Saturday morning near the Pease River. Elijah Carter was sick, probably from drinking gypsum water, and was too ill to travel. The Indians built a fire in a brush heap and threw the boy in it. They forced Elizabeth Fitzpatrick to watch her grandson burn to death. From there the Indians headed into the northern Texas Panhandle. It is uncertain whether all the captives were kept together, but at least several were in an Indian village on the Canadian River near William Bent’s old adobe fort when U.S. soldiers attacked on November 25.
The assault on the Fitzpatrick ranch was part of a larger offensive known as the Elm Creek Raid. Some 500 Comanches and Kiowas rode south out of Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma) and swooped down on the ranches along Elm Creek, a tributary of the Brazos River northwest of Fort Belknap, killing or capturing about 14 settlers and driving off hundreds of stolen horses and cattle. Some Young County residents hid, some fled and others played Paul Revere, riding to outlying ranches to give warning.
Several settlers “forted up” at George Bragg’s ranch. The defenders of “Fort Bragg” and the newly constructed Fort Murrah stockade held off the Indians, although the raiders wounded Bragg and neighbor Thomas Hamby and killed another neighbor, Thomas Wilson. Comanche Chief Little Buffalo, who led the raid, was killed in the fighting at Bragg’s. Hamby’s son, Thornton, a Confederate soldier, rode for help. Lieutenant N. Carson, Company D, of Colonel James Bourland’s Border Regiment, pursued the raiders with only 14 men. They rode into an ambush and retreated. All told, the Indians lost about 20 warriors, mostly in the fight at Bragg’s Ranch and with Carson’s soldiers. Carson lost five killed and five wounded; total civilian casualties were seven killed and two wounded.
After the swift and terrifying Elm Creek Raid, an equally dramatic event ensued—the relentless pursuit of captives from the Fitzgerald household by the courageous and determined Britt Johnson. Nearly a century later, the tale of terror and triumph piqued the interest of novelist Alan Le May. The Le May novel in turn attracted the attention of director John Ford, who used it as the basis for a 1956 film that routinely ranks in the top 10 of best Westerns lists—The Searchers (see sidebar, P. 53).
The Ford film has often been praised for its depiction of the harsh reality of life on the Texas frontier amid hostile Indian neighbors. The Searchers has also been damned as racist fiction. Some critics wonder how anyone in real life could be as obsessed as John Wayne’s character, Ethan Edwards. At least a partial answer can be found on the real frontier. Whether or not the Ford classic rings true is a matter of opinion, but the fact is the tale has historical connections. As for the facts of the Elm Creek Raid and its aftermath, they are as dramatic as any novel or film ever created about the West, albeit with a few bureaucratic realities thrown in that wouldn’t play in Hollywood.
Colonel Christopher “Kit” Carson left Fort Bas- com on November 12, 1864, with about 335 cavalrymen and infantrymen, plus Ute and Jicarilla scouts, searching for Kiowas and Comanches who had been raiding along the Santa Fe Trail. Carson first hit the 150-lodge village of Little Mountain’s Kiowas on the 25th. His quarry fled downstream, and Carson followed, coming upon more Indians as he went. As he approached Comanche Chief Stumbling Bear’s 350 lodges, about 1,000 warriors confronted him. Satanta was present, again blowing his bugle, and now it was Carson’s turn to fall back. Kiowas had reoccupied the first village, and Carson’s soldiers had to fight their way in again. Only the howitzers kept charging warriors at bay in the so-called Battle of Adobe Walls. Carson wisely vacated the area, but he torched the lodges and supplies before he left—a severe blow to the Indians at the onset of winter. Three soldiers and a scout were killed, and 29 soldiers and scouts were wounded; the Indians had about 60 casualties. Some captive whites were indirect casualties of the attack.
Toddler Milly Jane Durkin had been hidden in the bushes as Carson approached Stumbling Bear’s village and was not rescued. When the soldiers withdrew, the Indians rode off to seek help from kinsmen on the Cimarron River. The months of December 1864 and January 1865—referred to by the Kiowas as the “Muddy Traveling Winter”—were cold and harsh, and the Indians and their captives suffered greatly. People of all ages perished from disease, starvation and exposure, Milly Jane among them. The Indians blamed the “Great Father” for all their deaths.
The five remaining captives spent the winter and spring in various Comanche and Kiowa camps between the Cimarron and Arkansas rivers. Few, if any, inquiries were made concerning their fate, possibly because they were illiterate and had few relatives in Texas. Also, Young County had few people and an inefficient government, barely able to manage its own affairs let alone organize a rescue. Apparently the only male relative able and willing to search for the captives was Mary Johnson’s husband. Britt Johnson, strong, honest, respected and a brave Indian fighter, made several trips into Indian Territory looking for his wife, children, the Fitzpatricks and Durkins.
Johnson ventured into Indian Territory with David White, who was looking for his son Elonzo, who had been captured in July 1864 in Jack County, Texas. In late May 1865, they attended a council at Camp Napoleon (now Verden, Okla.) with many of the Plains tribes. There, with the help of Texas Brig. Gen. James W. Throckmorton, they negotiated the release of nine white captives, including one member of the Fitzpatrick-Durkin clan, the Johnsons and White’s son.
Comanche Chief Asa Havey (“Milky Way”) knew Britt Johnson and was instrumental in gaining the captives’ release. For a number of horses, blankets, supplies and a $20 gold piece, Havey ransomed them from Chief Tosawi (“Silver Brooch”) and turned them over to Texas agents at Cottonwood Grove. White gave horses worth $1,200 for his son and two other captive boys. Johnson gave seven ponies for the release of his wife, Mary, their 5-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter, an infant born to Mary during her captivity and Lottie Durkin. Durkin had been separated from the others after Carson’s November 1864 attack. The Indians had tattooed her arms and tattooed a dime-sized blue moon on her forehead.
The freed captives were sent to Decatur, Texas. By midsummer of 1865, they had moved on to Veals Station in Parker County, where Britt Johnson had relocated after Elm Creek.
Elizabeth Fitzpatrick remained in captivity with different bands. In October 1865, the Indians met the whites for another peace council, this time on the Little Arkansas in Kansas. Again Britt Johnson was there, trying to recover Texas captives. Before the commissioners would distribute any treaty goods, they demanded the Indians free their captives. Five Texans were ultimately released, but Fitzpatrick was not among them.
At the same time, agent Jesse H. Leavenworth was busy rounding up any captives he could find. With the aid of mixed-blood Cherokee guide Jesse Chisholm and a soldier escort, he rode to Fort Zarah on the Arkansas River. On Walnut Creek on November 2, 1865, Leavenworth found a white woman and a small white girl, Alice Taylor, working as slaves in the camp of Kiowa Chief Sun Boy. The woman was Elizabeth Ann Fitzpatrick, and she knew at once why soldiers were there. She “thought they must be beings from another world,” because “their white faces and blue uniforms looked so beautiful.”
In her 55 weeks of captivity, Fitzpatrick had been starved, beaten and raped, and her obviously pregnant belly was a constant reminder of her treatment. Even now, she and little Alice Taylor performed their chores nearly naked. Leavenworth secured both captives and moved on to a nearby Comanche camp. There, he collected 9-year-old James Benson, who had been captured near Burnet, Texas, earlier in 1865.
Leavenworth took the three freed captives to the Kaw Agency at Council Grove. En route Fitzpatrick questioned him and learned that her granddaughter, Lottie, had been returned to Texas four months before. She also learned that Milly Jane had died the previous winter, but she refused to believe it.
At Council Grove, Elizabeth Ann Fitzpatrick once more resumed the familiar duties of running a household and caring for children. Born in Alabama in March 1825, she had been just 16 when she married a free black man, Alexander J. Carter, and ran her first household. They moved to Milford, Texas, and did business with Fort Graham on the Brazos, engaging in freighting, stock raising and farming. When the fort closed, the Carters followed the emigration northwest to the frontier at newly established Fort Belknap.
Elizabeth Ann raised her children while running the boarding-trading house. Her husband was murdered in September 1857, and she married Lieutenant Owen A. Sprague in February 1858. The lieutenant apparently did not relish his situation, as by October he had paid off his creditors at Belknap and disappeared. Elizabeth’s daughter Milly married Private Owen Durkin in 1857, but she lost him in February 1859, when soldiers at Fort Belknap murdered him. Milly had a child out of wedlock in 1862, the same year Elizabeth Ann married Thomas Fitzpatrick. This marriage lasted 18 months, until Fitzpatrick was murdered in February 1864. Once more, Elizabeth Ann was a widow. Tragedy again befell her seven months later during the Elm Creek Raid.
At the Kaw Agency, the newly freed Fitzpatrick met other Texas women and children who had been held captive and were now ensconced in Council Grove: Caroline and Rebecca McDonald, James and Dorcas Taylor and James Ball. With help from Alice Taylor and James Benson, “Grandma” Elizabeth, only 40 years old, took on the duties of supervising and caring for seven women and children. Fitzpatrick also worked for agent Hiram W. Farnsworth at $3 per week, to cook, clean, sew and nurse the growing number of people at the agency. Elizabeth was expected to deliver her child in December, but apparently the baby was stillborn.
With the arrival of 1866, the former captives remained at the Kaw Agency with no money, no family and no word as to when they could return home to Texas. Caroline McDonald was expected to give birth shortly, and her midwife, naturally, was Fitzpatrick. Despite her workload, Elizabeth retained the spirit to constantly agitate for their return home and for the rescue of other captives still on the prairie. “If all the captives still unaccounted for belonged to those whom the business of rescuing them was committed,” she complained, “they would have been rescued long ago.”
In January 1866, Indian Affairs Commissioner D.N. Cooley appointed Leavenworth to accompany the captives back to Texas, but the agent demurred, saying McDonald “might be confined any day” and the trip south was too hazardous. He figured it would be easier for the captives to travel to St. Louis, down the Mississippi and up the Red River to Shreveport, La. The delay might also allow him to recover Fitzpatrick’s granddaughter, McDonald’s little girl and Willie Ball.
The women, fearing recapture, also did not want to venture home 1,000 miles by wagon. McDonald gave birth to a boy in March 1866 and was finally ready to travel, if only she could retrieve her daughter Mahala from the Indians. Fitzpatrick remained sure Milly Jane was alive and also did not want to leave without her. The government was more concerned over the cost of maintaining them at the agency.
In June, Leavenworth delivered Willie Ball to Council Grove, and Fitzpatrick convinced the agent she knew where Mahala McDonald was being held. She and Leavenworth rode out, and in two weeks they had her. Their recovery meant more work for Fitzpatrick, as she became the surrogate mother of both Ball cousins. But everyone was accounted for, barring Milly Jane.
By July the women were frantic to get home. Elizabeth and Caroline tried to make deals with passing freighters and travelers, then they forced the government’s hand. It was too expensive to go by water, and agent Farnsworth told Fitzpatrick he could not pay her until September. If she would work until then, he promised to send them home in a government-sponsored wagon train.
The women jumped at the chance, but an argument ensued about the cost. The situation had become an embarrassment to the government. Finally, Kansas Senators Samuel C. Pomeroy and Edmund G. Ross and Congressman Sidney Clarke traveled to Washington to appropriate money for the trip. On August 27, 1866, Farnsworth got them all loaded up in five wagons and on the road home.
The trip was long and arduous, and not with- out danger. The same month the freed captives set out, Kiowas under Satanta raided Cooke and Montague counties, Texas, an area through which they would pass. The raiders attacked the James Box family, killing the husband and a baby and carrying off five females. Once the Kiowas cleared out, the freed captives came through and continued south to Decatur, where they split into several parties for their various routes home. In October, Fitzpatrick finally reached Parker County, where she met the Johnsons and her granddaughter, Lottie Durkin.
Fitzpatrick stayed for a time with the Miers family, who had been caring for Lottie. Elizabeth soon met Isaiah Clifton and married him in 1869. They moved west to Shackleford County, near the booming area of Fort Griffin. The Miers family and Lottie moved with them. In May 1871, Commanding General of the Army William T. Sherman was at Fort Griffin, and Elizabeth Ann Clifton and Lottie Durkin called on him. They described their ordeal during the 1864 Elm Creek Raid and their subsequent captivity. Clifton made it clear she was not convinced her granddaughter, Milly Jane, was dead. She pleaded with Sherman to resume the search, and the general promised he would.
In November 1880, Isaiah Clifton suffered a stroke and died soon after. Elizabeth Ann now had been abandoned by one husband and buried three other husbands. She appeared depressed and morose, her spirit gone. In 1882, looking much older than her 56 years, she saw her health steadily decline until her death on June 18. Elizabeth Ann Carter Sprague Fitzpatrick Clifton was buried beside Isaiah in a mesquite-covered grave yard near the Clear Fork of the Brazos, somewhere below Fort Griffin. The graves were unmarked.
Of the captives of 1864, only Lottie Durkin remained. At age 15 in 1874, she married David H. Barker, town marshal of Fort Griffin. They had two daughters, Ada and Ida. When the buffalo played out, Fort Griffin declined, and Barker took his family west to the panhandle a few miles from Fort Elliott, to a place that would eventually become Mobeetie. Barker became a deputy, but Mobeetie too was doomed, by drought, prairie fire, cattle fever and lack of a railroad. In 1886 the Barkers moved west to Tascosa, Texas. Lottie’s health had been poor since her captivity, and she declined after the birth of a son in July 1887. On August 10, cholera took the life of her little baby, and on the same day “childbirth fever” claimed Lottie. The lady with the blue moon on her forehead was just 27 years old.
The last of the Elm Creek Raid captives was gone. The story persisted that Milly Jane Durkin had survived and remained with the Kiowas. Britt Johnson was said to have made several searches for her. Elizabeth Ann insisted she had seen Milly with Chief Sun Boy’s Kiowas near the Little Arkansas in 1865. A few years later, Vincent Colyer, secretary of the Board of Indian Commissioners, was nearing Fort Bascom on his way to Arizona Territory when he met a band of Kiowas who claimed to have a captive named “Molly.” But Colyer’s questions convinced him the girl was too old to be Milly Jane. Agents Lawrie Tatum and James Haworth also initiated searches for the girl, to no avail. The Indians always insisted that Milly Jane had died during the first harsh winter after her capture. A woman who married Kiowa Chief Goombi and died in 1934 at Mountain View, Okla., was not Milly Jane Durkin.
The long and involved odyssey of the Elm Creek captives was the inspiration for the film The Searchers. Britt Johnson, the man who had dedicated much of his life to recovering Indian captives, was the model for John Ford’s principal searcher in the memorable film—John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards.
Colorado resident Gregory Michno is a special contributor to Wild West and author of many articles and books about the frontier. This article is adapted from his A Fate Worse Than Death: Indian Captivities in the West, 1830–1885, which he wrote with his wife, Susan. Also recommended for further reading: Michno’s Encyclopedia of Indian Wars and Barbara A. Neal Ledbetter’s excellent Fort Belknap Frontier Saga: Indians, Negroes and Anglo-Americans on the Texas Frontier.
Originally published in the April 2009 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.