She was eighteen months old on October 13, 1864, when a Kiowa warrior entered a blazing ranch house and found Millie Durkin crawling out from under a bed after the raiding party had killed her mother and baby brother.
Over the next eighteen years Millie’s grandmother, Elizabeth Carter Clifton led a determined search for the child who had been living on Elizabeth’s ranch with her widowed mother and siblings when 700 Kiowa and Comanche warriors tore through Young County in the infamous Elm Creek Raid.
Elizabeth Carter Clifton had known tragedy long before the Indian raid. She was sixteen in 1842 when she married a free black man in Alabama. (He may have been a mulatto whose mother was Irish.) They moved with his family to Texas where they eventually settled on a ranch near Fort Belknap, ninety miles west of Fort Worth. Elizabeth was illiterate and epileptic, but those drawbacks did not keep her from working on the ranch with her husband and father-in-law and operating a boarding house. After both men were mysteriously murdered, only Elizabeth’s fourteen-year-old daughter Susanna and young son Joe inherited the ranch. Elizabeth continued managing the ranch and boarding house for her children, and soon both she and Susanna married. Even after her second husband of eight months disappeared, Elizabeth went right on operating the ranch. The boarding house prospered, especially after the Butterfield Overland Mail Route made a stop at nearby Fort Belknap. In 1862 she married her third husband, one of her ranch hands, who was murdered within eighteen months.
And then her life was shattered by the horror of the Elm Creek Indian Raid. The men had gone to Weatherford for supplies, leaving three women at the ranch: Elizabeth, Susanna and Mary Johnson, wife of Britt Johnson, a free slave who worked for Elizabeth. When the women heard the shrieks of the approaching warriors, Susanna grabbed a gun, ran into the yard, and fought until she was overpowered, stripped and mutilated as Elizabeth was forced to watch. T. R. Fehrenbach says in Lone Star that two braves quarreled over who had captured Britt Johnson’s oldest son; they settled the argument amiably by killing him. They murdered Susanna’s baby boy before they threw the survivors—Elizabeth, thirteen-year-old Joe, granddaughters (Lottie, age five and Millie), and Mary Johnson and her two children—on horses. They rode away in separate groups that continued marauding and looting throughout the Elm Creek Valley. Joe was not well and when he could not keep up with the pace of his captors, they killed him. The raid resulted in eleven settlers killed, eleven homes damaged or destroyed, and seven women and children carried off.
Elizabeth was held for over a year in northwest Kansas. Although accounts differ over who actually won Elizabeth’s freedom, Fehrenbach writes that Britt Johnson, who had spent all that year searching for his wife and two surviving children, found Elizabeth. She begged Johnson to help ransom all the captives and promised to pay from her considerable land and cattle holdings whatever it took to gain their freedom. Johnson made four trips into Comanchería, paying “two dollars and a half” to ransom his wife and eventually rescuing all the captives except little Millie.
Still convinced that Millie was alive, Elizabeth was taken to a mission in Kansas where for the next ten months she nursed, fed, and cared for other released captives, all the time demanding better care for those in her charge and begging for more to be done to find all those still being held by the Indians.
When Elizabeth finally reached home in 1866, almost two years after her capture, she was reunited with her granddaughter Lottie whose Comanche captors had tattooed her arms and forehead. Elizabeth married her fourth husband, a farmer who still had four small children. They moved with Lottie to the land her mother had inherited from Elizabeth’s first husband. Elizabeth never gave up her search for little Millie, contacting the Office of Indian Affairs only a few years before her death in 1882, asking them to investigate rumors that Millie was living with a Kiowa woman.
In 1930 George Hunt, a Kiowa historian, began seeking the white relatives of his mother-in-law, Saintohoodi Goombi, who knew she had been captured by Kiowas when she was eighteen months old. Several elderly men, including one who had been a young warrior on the raid, confirmed the story of the capture of a toddler.
Other stories reveal that Elizabeth had described Millie to government officials as one-quarter African descent with dark skin, hair, and eyes. Mrs. Goombi had fair skin and blue eyes, which convinced many that she was not the missing Millie, but the child of another family who never knew their baby daughter was alive.
Mrs. Goombi had been well received by her Kiowa family and lived a happy life with no memory of her white childhood. She had nine children and many grandchildren and great grandchildren. She lived in Oklahoma with her daughter Lillian Hunt until her death in 1934 and apparently never met any of Elizabeth’s or Lottie’s descendants. Fehrenbach writes that when the Governor of Texas asked Mrs. Goombi “what the state might do for her, she answered, ‘Nothing.’”
That’s quite the story! As for Elizabeth she was very resilient to live through so much heartache and disaster.
She amazed me as well. Thank you for reading.
When i read this, Myra, i say to myself how fortunate i am, count your blessings, lad; some people have such difficult lives..these difficulties are nothing new to me i’ve seen them time and again across Africa and Asia and in parts of Europe but that doesn’t stop me responding to them and feeling the pain.
The ending to this excellent essay is splendid – she answered ‘Nothing’
Bless you, My Friend, for this
You are a kind soul. Yes, there is still so much suffering.