Over two years ago, I posted “Heartbreak on the Texas Frontier,” the story of nine-year-old Cynthia Ann Parker, her younger brother, and other family members who were taken prisoner by the Comanches on May 19, 1836. I recounted the tragedy of Cynthia Ann’s life after she was “rescued” in 1860 and returned to her white family. No one understood that she had adopted the ways of the Comanches, married a chief, bore three children, and was happy in her nomadic life. Cynthia Ann eventually died of influenza brought on by self-starvation.
While Cynthia Ann’s story was sensationalized, followed by people all over this country, a less well-known tragedy was taking place—the
recounting of which played a significant role in understanding the culture and psyche of the Comanche. On that May morning in 1836, when the Comanche raiding party swooped down on Fort Parker, Rachel Parker Plummer was seventeen, expecting her second child, and caring for her fourteen-month-old son James Pratt Plummer. Her husband Luther, her father James Parker, and eight other family members were working in the field about a mile from the fort. In her book Rachel Plummer’s Narrative of Twenty One Months Servitude as a Prisoner Among the Comanche Indians, Rachel wrote that “one minute the fields (in front of the fort) were clear, and the next moment, more Indians than I dreamed possible were in front of the fort.” Her Uncle Benjamin Parker, not really believing the white flag carried by the Indians was to be trusted, walked out to meet the Indians, hoping to give the women and children in the fort time to run out through the back entrance. Rachel had delayed leaving with the others because she feared she could not carry her son and keep up with them.
It only took the sound of their whooping to realize the Indians were coming into the fort. As she ran carrying her son, she saw her Uncle Benjamin being stabbed with lances. Rachel said, “a large sulky Indian picked up a hoe and knocked me down.” He dragged her by her long red hair until she finally managed to get up on her feet. A Comanche squaw on a horse had taken little James Pratt. She saw her grandfather tortured and killed and her grandmother raped, speared, and left for dead. The Comanches rode away from Fort Parker with three children—Cynthia Ann, her brother John, and Rachel’s son—and two women— Rachel and Elizabeth Kellogg (who was returned three months later when Sam Houston paid the $150 ransom).
Rachel wrote that four Indians found a bottle of her father’s pulverized arsenic and thinking it was white paint, dissolved the powder with their saliva and smeared it all over their faces and bodies. All four died, probably in agony.
That first night, the war party held a ritual dance dangling the scalps of the slain men before the captives. They beat and kicked the women and children. When the children cried, they “were soon hushed by blows I had no idea they could survive.” The women were stripped naked and bound so tightly that their arms bled. Then they were repeatedly raped while the children watched. Rachel wrote, “To undertake to narrate their barbarous treatment would only add to my present distress, for it is with feelings of the deepest mortification that I think of it, much less to speak or write of it.”
The next morning, all the captives were strapped to their horses and for the next five days the Comanches rode hard, denying them food and allowing only small amounts of water. On the sixth day, the Indians divided them, with Rachel and baby James going with a separate group of Comanches. However, as soon as the Indians realized James had been weaned, they ripped him from Rachel’s arms, and she never saw him again.
They rode for weeks into the high plains above the timberline. She described a journey through the snows of the Rocky Mountains where she rarely had anything on her feet and very little covering her body. Her job as a slave was to tend the horses, and to prepare buffalo skins. If she failed to meet her quota, she was beaten. The work entailed scraping the flesh off the skin, applying lime to absorb the grease, and rubbing the buffalo brains on the skin until it was softened.
At the time of the raid Rachel was four-months pregnant and gave birth the following October to a second son. Her master thought the baby kept Rachel from her work and when he was seven weeks old, several men held Rachel while another man strangled the baby. When he still showed signs of life, they tied a rope around his neck and dragged him behind a horse until he was “literally torn to pieces.”
Rachel continued to write about the country and the animals and plants that she saw as the tribe traveled. She noted Comanche folkways, the nightly dances, the worship of pet crows, and taboos. She learned the language and listened to plans for attacks. Eventually she lost all hope of being rescued, and finding that she was unable to kill herself, she decided to provoke the Indians to do it for her. When her young mistress ordered her to get a tool from the lodge, Rachel refused. The mistress ran screaming at Rachel, and instead of cowering in fear, she fought back, threw the girl on the ground, and beat her on the head with a buffalo bone. All the time she fought, Rachel expected a spear to be driven into her body. Instead, a crowd gathered and began screaming, but making no effort to stop Rachel from beating the girl. When it was clear Rachel had won the fight, she picked up the girl, carried her back to camp, and washed the blood from her face. The girl’s mother was furious and threatened to burn Rachel, which she had done in the past. But this time Rachel fought back. The two struggled so furiously around the fire that both were badly burned. They continued to fight until they burst through the side of the tipi. Again, the men watched and did not interfere even as Rachel won. When the council met to discuss the fight, all three women gave their account. Rachel was told she must replace the lodge pole she had broken. Sensing a new place in the community, Rachel refused unless the younger woman helped her. The council agreed. Rachel discovered that the Comanches respected those who fought back, who defended themselves, who did not cower in the face of danger.
Once Rachel realized she would not be killed, she decided her only hope lay in finding someone to buy her. Eventually she met Comancheros, Mexicans who traded with the Comanches. To her surprise, when the Comanchero asked to buy Rachel, her master agreed. The Comancheros who ransomed Rachel was working for William and Mary Donoho, a wealthy couple in Santa Fe who had given them instructions to pay any price to ransom white women. The Donohos and the citizens of Santa Fe warmly welcomed Rachel, however, a Pueblo Indian uprising caused the Donohos, in fear for their lives, to take Rachel with them as they fled Santa Fe. They traveled to their home in Independence, Missouri—a two-month journey of 800 miles across the heart of Comanche territory. Upon her arrival, Rachel was reunited with a family member who immediately set out in the cold winter weather on the 1,000-mile trip to her father James Parker’s home. They arrived in Huntsville on February 19, 1838.
Rachel was reunited with her husband who, unlike many men whose wives had been abused by the Indians, welcomed her home. She soon was pregnant with her third child. Near the end of her pregnancy, the family was forced to flee to Houston to escape vigilantes who were threatening her father. The trip in the dead of winter must have been more than Rachel Plummer’s body could tolerate. Soon after reaching Houston, her son, Wilson P. Plummer, was born on January 4, 1839. Rachel died the following March 19 and her son died two days later.
Rachel’s book has served historians well. It was among the vast resources used by S.C. Gwynne in Empire of the Summer Moon, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Gwynne’s account is a must read for anyone wishing to understand the culture of the powerful Comanche Tribe. Gwynne deftly employs the raid on Parker’s Fort and the subsequent events, to weave the fascinating tale of the power and decline of the great Comanche Warriors.