By Bob Welch and Sue Hancock Jones
Cynthia Ann Parker’s kidnapping in 1836 was the inspiration for both a book and film with themes of rescue and redemption, but real life for the mother of Comanche warrior Quanah Parker did not have a Hollywood ending.
In 1835 near what is now Mexia, Texas, the Parker clan from Illinois settled in Comanche territory on a Mexican land grant of about 16,400 acres. They pushed farther west than any permanent settlers had attempted, built a fort and began farming.
About two dozen Parker family members were at the fort and in the nearby fields in May of 1836 when a band of Comanches rode up with a white rag attached to a stick. The gate to the fort was open when Benjamin Parker approached the riders to talk, but he was suddenly surrounded and impaled with lances. The Comanches fell upon the settlement, killed five men, wounded two women and carried off five captives: Rachel Parker Plummer, her son James Pratt Plummer, 9-year-old Cynthia Ann Parker, her younger brother John and Elizabeth Duty Kellogg.
Alan Le May’s 1954 novel, The Searchers, is loosely based on this event and the subsequent hunt for captives that obsessed James Parker, Cynthia Ann’s uncle. Named Ethan Edwards in the 1956 movie version directed by John Ford, the James Parker-inspired character was played by John Wayne. Natalie Wood was Debbie Edwards, the film version of Cynthia Ann.
In real life, James Parker took five solo trips into Comanche country to find his daughter. One captive, Elizabeth Duty Kellogg, was sold by the Comanches to the Delaware Indians within a few months of capture and ransomed relatively quickly by Parker with $150 provided by Sam Houston.
James Parker endured floods, blizzards and near starvation in search of the captives and at one point strangled and ate a skunk to stay alive. He even sneaked into a Comanche encampment and left messages written in English near water holes. Parker’s desperate efforts to find his daughter finally began to pay off when he located Comancheros who were willing to trade for Rachel. Comancheros were New Mexican merchants who traded with Plains Indians, and at that moment the Comanches were camped north of Santa Fe.
The Comancheros ransomed Rachel in 1837, but she was not reunited with her husband until Feb. 19, 1838. She wrote a book about her captivity, and it became the first narrative about a captive of Texas Indians published in the Republic of Texas. The book was a sensation and sold throughout the United States and abroad, but nearly a year after joining her husband, Rachel died from complications after childbirth.
The film version depicted a search party immediately leaving in an attempt to rescue Laurie Jorgensen (Vera Miles) and Debbie. Early on in the search, Ethan finds Laurie’s corpse. Ethan and Marty Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter) continue their pursuit of Debbie for years as the viewer is left to wonder about Debbie’s fate.
More technical discrepancies from reality include the time and place. The real story occurred in Texas in the days of the republic, but the film takes place post-Civil War and is filmed mostly in Utah (though set in Texas).
Wayne’s performance is lauded as one of his best. The character of Ethan Edwards is mysterious and complicated. Even racist to the degree that he states Debbie would be better off dead after how the Comanche presumably treated her. In fact, the film implies that Marty remains with Ethan on the quest simply to prevent him from killing Debbie once she is discovered. The Ethan Edwards character is a rarity for Wayne. He’s a loner, he’s defeated, and his motives are questionable. Despite that, he’s sympathetic because he’s authentic—the West was full of men like Ethan Edwards.
Back in reality, the two boys surfaced at Fort Gibson in 1842 in what is present-day Oklahoma, but spoke no English. Both had been ransomed by a trader. After hearing about the boys, James Parker arrived at the fort in January 1843 to find his grandson, age 8, and his nephew, age 13.
Both boys had complicated homecomings. James Pratt Plummer arrived too late to be reunited with his mother, Rachel, before her death. A feud between his father and grandfather kept the boy from ever living with his father, Luther Plummer. Even Sam Houston tried to intervene, but James Parker felt that his son-in-law had not supported his efforts to reclaim the boy and his mother. Because James refused to return his grandson to his natural father, James Pratt Plummer grew up in his mother’s family and later fought in the Civil War before dying of pneumonia.
When John Richard Parker was returned to his mother, she eventually sent him back to the Comanche to prevail upon his sister, Cynthia Ann, to leave the Indians and return home. Cynthia Ann refused, and the rest of John Parker’s story is vague speculation. The most popular version is that he returned to the Comanche because he was unable to adapt to white society and fell in love with a captive Mexican girl. He later was left to die after he contracted smallpox during a Comanche raid into Mexico. The war party left the captive girl to care for him, and the two married after his recovery. They settled on a ranch in Mexico where he was a stockman and rancher until he died in 1915.
Meanwhile, Cynthia Ann assimilated entirely into Comanche culture, marrying the influential chief Peta Nocona and bearing two sons—Quanah and Peanuts—and a daughter, Prairie Flower. In 1846 an Indian agent named Leonard H. Williams discovered Cynthia Ann while on a diplomatic mission with the Comanches and tried to purchase her freedom. Comanchero traders had also tried, but both Cynthia Ann and the Comanche leaders refused.
Twenty-four years after her capture, Cynthia Ann, who had been renamed Nautdah (“Someone Found”), was cleaning buffalo hides and packing provisions on the Pease River with a dozen other women, a few old men and a handful of warriors when the camp was surprised by Sul Ross’s Rangers—a group of 25 regular U.S. troops from Fort Belknap—and 80 Texas volunteers. The men were retaliating in response to a series of raids on frontier settlers and were guided by 24-year-old Charles Goodnight. Goodnight would later become the greatest cattleman of the West, and Ross would become governor of Texas.
Most of the Indians were killed immediately, but according to Sam Gwynne, author of Empire of the Summer Moon, Nautdah’s sons escaped, and Sul Ross killed Comanche leader Peta Nocona, Nautdah’s husband. Nautdah tried to escape on horseback holding her baby, but Ross chased her and reined in her horse. She was filthy and covered in dirt, blood and grease from cleaning buffalo hides. Then Ross noticed she had blue eyes and—underneath the buffalo grease—white skin.
Both Charles Goodnight and Quanah Parker denied that Ross killed Peta Nocona during the raid and that Quanah and his brother were at the camp during the surprise attack.
In Charles Goodnight’s Indian Recollections compiled by J. Evetts Haley, Goodnight said that Ross had “a Mexican acting as a very poor interpreter” and “Ross got the wrong impression that he had killed her husband, Nocona.” What Nautdah said, according to Goodnight, was that she belonged to the Nocona band of Indians. Goodnight had an old Indian friend, George Hunt, confirm with the oldest members of the tribe on the Oklahoma reservation that the Indian who was killed was Nobah, the leader or chief of that band of hunters and squaws.
In a 1910 public appearance at the State Fair of Texas in Dallas, Quanah told his audience that “Texas history says General Ross killed my father…. He no kill my father; he not there. I want to get that straight here in Texas history. After that—two year, maybe three year—my father sick. I see him die. I want to get that in Texas history straight up.”
As Goodnight said in his Indian Recollections, he “got the facts from Quanah” in 1878 and was “confident that Quanah’s statement was correct” that Peta Nocona didn’t die during the attack and that neither Quanah nor his brother were at the camp. Two Indian guides did escape, however, and reached the main body of Indians with news of the attack. To complicate whatever the truth really is, author Sam Gwynne boldly contradicts Goodnight and states that Quanah was lying “to save his father’s reputation.”
The final battle scene of the film shows Marty sneaking into camp, rescuing a very willing Debbie, as Ethan and the others battle the Indians. Marty kills Scar, the Indian captor, and Ethan scalps him. As the battle rages, Debbie runs from the camp and Ethan pursues her—the viewer not convinced if he will kill or rescue her. When he picks her up and says, “Let’s go home, Debbie,” Ethan achieves the redemption that was previously uncertain. They return Debbie to her home where she is received warmly and presumably integrates easily into her former life. Ethan, in the film’s most iconic scene, walks away alone.
Nautdah may have escaped being killed with the other squaws on the Pease River, but she couldn’t escape the tragedy of life after her second captivity. Her Uncle Isaac Parker was convinced that Nautdah was his long-lost niece, so they began the trip home from Fort Cooper. This required them to make a stop in Fort Worth, which attracted a crowd to see the famous captive and her baby Prairie Flower. Bound with rope and set on top of a large box, Cynthia Ann was put on display in front of a general store as tears streamed down her face.
Nautdah never integrated back into white culture. She mourned for her husband and sons, refused to speak English and constantly tried to escape. Four years after her return to white civilization, she was shattered by the 1863 death of her daughter Prairie Flower from influenza and pneumonia. She began refusing food and water and died in 1870 of influenza, an illness likely brought on by self-starvation.
Quanah never saw his mother after her recapture in 1860, but he never forgot her and took her last name as his own. After he learned in his later years that a picture had been taken of his mother and sister in Fort Worth, Quanah advertised in a Fort Worth newspaper for a picture of his mother. Col. Sul Ross, her rescuer, saw the advertisement and sent a picture of Cynthia Ann and Prairie Flower to Quanah on the reservation.
The long-cherished dream of Cynthia Ann to be with her son came true in death. Quanah moved his mother’s body to Post Oak Mission Cemetery near Cache, Okla., in 1910. When he died in February 1911, he was buried next to her. Their bodies were moved in 1957 to Fort Sill Post Cemetery at Fort Sill, Okla. In 1965 the State of Texas had Prairie Flower moved from her grave in Edom, Texas, to join her mother and brother.
In contrast, The Searchers is held up for its sweeping cinematography, daring themes, transcendent acting performances and—at least in part—it’s salvation of the damsel in distress. The American Film Institute named it the greatest American Western and placed it in the top 15 of the Greatest American Movies of All Time. It is doubtful, however, that the somber and tragic real-world ending would have sold tickets on the big screen.
This article appears in the Spring 2022 issue of the Ranch Record. Would you like to read more stories about ranching life? When you become a member of the Ranching Heritage Association, you’ll receive the award-winning Ranch Record magazine and more while supporting the legacy and preservation of our ranching heritage. Become a member today.