Pease River Massacre: Texas Rangers Defeat Comanche, Rescue Cynthia Parker After 25 Years Captivity

 
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Pease River Massacre: Texas Rangers Defeat Comanche, Rescue Cynthia Parker After 25 Years Captivity

Cynthia Ann Parker, re-captured from Comanches at Pease River
Photographer unknown, image taken in 1860 or 1861
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are courtesy of Wikipedia)

Today in Military History: December 19, 1860

If any of the Gentle Readers out there have seen the 1956 film The Searchers – starring John Wayne, Ward Bond, Jeffrey Hunter, Vera Miles, and Hank Worden and directed by John Ford – then you will have a general idea of the theme of this post. It highlights an incident in the conflict between the Comanches and the people who settled Texas during the nineteenth century.

Background

The Native American tribe known as the Comanches were some of the best fighters which European settlers encountered in the taming of the American West. For most of the nineteenth century, the Comanches made nuisances of themselves to the Spanish and, later, American settlers who attempted to inhabit and develop that state. One of the Comanches less endearing acts was kidnapping young women and girls, often to replace wives or children killed by American/Hispanic settlers, and raise them as members of their own tribe.

Territory of Comanche Indians, early 19th century
Territory of Comanche Indians, early 19th century

In 1836, a Commanche raiding party attacked Texan settlers in the area of Fort Parker, in northern Texas near the Red River. Many of the white settlers were killed or captured. Most of the men were tortured and then scalped. One of the female captives was Cynthia Parker, a 9-year old child.

She was adopted by a Comanche family and treated like one of their own. She quickly adopted Comanche ways, including the language. A few years after her capture, she was taken as a wife by Comanche chief Peta Nocona. They enjoyed a happy marriage, and as a tribute to his great affection to her, he never took another wife, although it was traditional for chieftains to do so. They had three children, famed Comanche chief Quanah, another son named Pecos (Pecan), and a daughter named Topsannah (Prairie Flower).

The Parker family never gave up trying to rescue or ransom Cynthia Parker, especially her uncle James Parker, who invested his time and his fortune trying to recover his niece. As the years passed, the family began to doubt whether she was even still alive.

In the fall of 1860, the Nokoni Comanche band led by Chief Peta Nocona raided ranches and settlements in four counties in the area near the Red River west of Fort Worth. This most recent attack exerted political pressure in the state capitol, as Governor Sam Houston – a hero of the War for Texas Independence – sent orders to Texas Ranger Captain Lawrence Sullivan "Sul" Ross to retaliate. Houston ordered Ross to raise Texican militia to pursue and destroy the Nokoni Comance.

Lawrence "Sul" Ross, 19th Governor of Texas; Oil Portrait handing in Texas State Capitol
Lawrence "Sul" Ross, 19th Governor of Texas
Oil Portrait handing in Texas State Capitol

Texas Ranger Force

Captain Ross had a company of about 40 Texas Rangers as a starting point. The Rangers were the first line of defense for settlers of the Lone Star State against Indian attacks and to capture lawbreakers. He also raised between 68 and 92 northern Texas civilians to act as "militia" (read a "posse") to assist in the attack on the Comanche raiders.

As Ross's force began scouting the Red River country, reports came in which inflated the size of Peta Nocona's band to upwards of 500 men, women, and children. Realizing that his 100 or so men were likely too small to accomplish their objective, Captain Ross sent to nearby Camp Cooper and enlisted the help of 20 cavalrymen of Company H of the 2nd U.S. Cavalry.

Comanche Raiding Band

In his later years, Captain Ross would inflate the size of Peta Nocona's band to several hundred members. Later information set the size of the marauders nearer to 20-30 at the time of the battle. [Reports from Cynthia Parker, her son Quanah, and participants in the massacre indicate that the Indian encampment had been larger, but most of the Comanche had departed with their families and loot – some crossing the nearby Red River – when they received scouting reports of the approaching Rangers and U.S. Cavalrymen. In addition, Quanah Parkers claimed that his father, himself, and most of the band's remaining warriors had left the encampment the night before to go hunding.]

Prelude

Ross's pickup band rendevoused near Fort Belknap. On December 14, 1860 this force began its pursuit of the Comanche. Scouts soon picked up the trail of the marauders, and the Texas Rangers and the U.S. Cavalry rode ahead, as some of the "militiamen" had no horses or remounts and others were running low on supplies. These men turned back and headed for their homes.

Pursut of Comanche raiding party, December 1860 [Image courtesy of http://forttours.com/pages/pease.asp]
Pursut of Comanche raiding party, December 1860
[Image courtesy of http://forttours.com/pages/pease.asp]

Late on December 18, Ranger scouts reported the hostiles were camped along Mule Creek, a tributary of the Pease River. Their campsite had been used for many years, as it provided a range of sandy bluffs to protect the Comanches from inclement weather, offered good water, and was convenient to nearby buffalo herds. It was located where Mule Creek flowed into the larger Pease River.

A major storm was raging as the Rangers approached the Comanche camp. Early the next morning, Capt. Ross decided to scout the camp on his own. He saw activity, which to him indicated the Indians were preparing to leave their camp very soon. Moving quickly, Ross returned to his men and developed a battle plan. He sent the U.S. Cavalry troopers to the northwest of the camp to intercept any fleeing Indians, while he led the rest of his men – consisting of the Rangers – in a direct attack into the camp.

Pease River Massacre

At sunrise on December 19, the 2nd Cavalrymen took their positions; shortly afterwards, Capt. Ross led his Ranger company in pellmell charge into the Comanche encampment. A few Comanches managed to reach their horses and fled – right into the blazing guns of the U.S. cavalrymen; a few warriors managed to fire a few shots or loose some hasty arrows at the approaching Rangers.

Generally, however, the Rangers shot down anyone who did not immediately surrender, whether man, woman, or child. [One of the Texas Rangers who participated in the attack wrote years later that he felt no pride, but rather a sense of shame in his conduct that day at the Pease River.] The entire "battle"/massacre could not have lasted more than 20-30 minutes.

The most notable incident of the day was the re-capture of Cynthia Parker. This episode is shrouded in mystery, as Capt. Ross made a number of statements about the incident. Many of these were in answer to newspaper interviews, others during his political campaign to become governor of Texas. Ross claims to have participated in Ms. Parker's re-capture, but there is some doubt about this.

At some point near the end of the attack, a mounted Comanche warrior led another mounted person away from the encampment. If we discount Capt. Ross's participation in the incident, the two mounted ran into the U.S. Cavalry cordon, which then pursued the fleeing riders. The Comanche warrior was carrying another rider, who turned out to be a woman dressed in a large buffalo robe. The second horse carried another woman, who was holding a small child in her arms.

Gunfire from the attackers hit the woman riding behind the Comanche warrior, but both riders fell from the horse. The Comanche began firing arrows at the pursuers, but he was shot several times, and the last wounds proved mortal. As the cavalrymen approached, the Comanche crawled to a nearby tree, and began chanting his death song.

At this point, one of the riders cautiously approached the mortally wounded Comanche and advised the Indian to surrender. He responded by trying to throw his war lance at the approaching riders. One of the riders then rode up to the Comanche and administered a blast of buckshot from his shotgun as a coup de grace.

At some point afterward, some of the riders noticed the Comanche woman they had captured had blue eyes. She was obviously a white captive, raised among the Comanche. She spoke no English and was very protective of her daughter, who she was carrying during their escape from the massacre. [The many sources do not give a definitive answer as to how the Rangers present thought that the captured Comanche woman in her early- to mid-30's was Cynthia Parker. However, the efforts of her family to ransom or re-capture his niece were well-known in this part of Texas.]

Aftermath

Reports indicate that 12 Comanches were killed, 3 captured, and about 40 horse were taken. Ross's men apparently suffered no casualties.

Footnote #1: Capt. Sul Ross later claimed that the Indian warrior killed in the incident involving Cynthia Parker was the Indian chieftain Peta Nocoma. However, several U.S. military members testified that Peta Nocoma died two to four years after the Pease River massacre. Most telling of all, some 25 years after the Pease River incident, Quanah Parker, the son of Peta Nocoma and Cynthia Parker – who had become a noted chief among the Comanche in his own right – told the story that his father was not in the camp when the Rangers and cavalrymen attacked.

Footnote #2: Cynthia Parker's uncle Isaac identified the Comanche woman captured at Pease River as his niece. She was questioned by Mr. Parker, but she was so thoroughly Comanche, she had forgotten how to speak English. She also demanded to be returned to "her people," by which she meant the Comanche. When her name was mentioned in an off-handed conversation with some Texas Ranger within the woman's earshot, she slapped her chest and said, "Me Cincee Ann!"

Cynthia Parker's gravestone, Fort Sill Cemetery, OK
Cynthia Parker's gravestone, Fort Sill Cemetery, OK

Footnote #3: Cynthia Parker was reunited with her white relatives, but was essentially under "house arrest" for the rest of her life. She constantly begged to be returned to the Commanches. Cynthia managed to escape her family once, but was brought back to them. Her daughter died of pneumonia complicated by influenza in 1864. Overcome with grief, she began refusing food and water. She died in 1871.

Footnote #4: Quanah Parker went on to become a chief among the Comanches. He was also one of their leaders when the Comanches finally went on the reservation in Oklahoma. Quanah also had his mother's body disinterred and reburied in Fort Sill in Oklahoma. He became an influencial rancher, and even went on a wolf hunt with President Theodore Roosevelt.

Quanah Parker (1845-1911); Photograph at Pioneer West Museum, Shamrock TX
Quanah Parker (1845-1911)
Photograph at Pioneer West Museum, Shamrock TX

Footnote #5: Sul Ross would eventually serve two terms as the 19th Governor of the State of Texas. He would then

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IS THERE A LIST OF THE NAMES OF THE 40 RANGERS PARTICIPATING IN THE "RESCUE" OF CYNTHIA ANN PARKER? I'VE BEEN TOLD ALL MY LIFE THAT MY GREAT GREAT MAYBE ANOTHER GREAT GRANDFATHER WAS A TEXAS RANGER AND WAS IN THAT GROUP. MY MOTHER USED TO HAVE A TEXAS HISTORY SCHOOL BOOK THAT HAD HIS NAME LISTED. I BELIEVE HIS LAST NAME WAS "BOYKIN" I'D LIKE TO TELL MY GRANDCHILDREN ABOUT THEIR FAMLY HISTORY IF I CAN SUBSTANTIATE THIS.

THANK U
LINDA MERSCH

IS THERE A LIST OF THE NAMES OF THE 40 RANGERS PARTICIPATING IN THE "RESCUE" OF CYNTHIA ANN PARKER? I'VE BEEN TOLD ALL MY LIFE THAT MY GREAT GREAT MAYBE ANOTHER GREAT GRANDFATHER WAS A TEXAS RANGER AND WAS IN THAT GROUP. MY MOTHER USED TO HAVE A TEXAS HISTORY SCHOOL BOOK THAT HAD HIS NAME LISTED. I BELIEVE HIS LAST NAME WAS "BOYKIN" I'D LIKE TO TELL MY GRANDCHILDREN ABOUT THEIR FAMLY HISTORY IF I CAN SUBSTANTIATE THIS.

THANK U
LINDA MERSCH

I'm a native Texan who was born in Wichita Falls and grew up out in Munday--that's in Knox County and not very far from the site of the infamous Pease River battle in adjacent Foard County as referenced here. I must say it's damned shameful and awful to learn now that what happened there in 1860 was the killing of some number of NON-COMBATANT Native Americans, namely women and ? children. Not a proud thing, even if there was only just one helpless person killed. No wonder my family never told me about this atrocity. Shame on the reported self-aggrandizing behavior by Sul Ross thereafter.

I too , had an ancestor who was a Texas Ranger in that raid ( he was 18 yrs. old) , later fought for the confederacy .
Is there a list of those rangers' names ?

I have three ancestors whose last name was "Cowan" that were Texas Rangers in the Llano County area before and during the Civil War period. At the Texas Rangers Museum in Waco, I found files for each of my Cowan ancestors that contained personal communication they had mailed, most of which had been sent to their commanding officers.

I also found information on one of my Cowan ancestors in Mike Cox's book "The Texas Rangers", copyrighted 2008 by Mike Cox. I bought a copy of "The Texas Rangers" at the Rangers Museum.
Anyone that knows the full name of an ancestor that was a Texas Ranger already has a very good starting place from which to search for that special ancestor.

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