Rockford, Illinois, USA
February 05
I'm a regular middle aged guy, living in a regular middle class neighborhood, in a regular middle-sized community in the middle of America. I am an expatriate Texan transplanted to the Midwest, and wondering how I got here, and where I'm headed.

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DECEMBER 2, 2010 8:14PM

A Cycle of Tragedy 150 Years Ago

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So much happened in those days 150 years ago.  What was the greater tragedy?  The brutal attack on Martha Sherman, her belly swollen large with the child soon to be born?  Or was the greater tragedy that which befell her oldest son, seven year old William, who watched as seventeen warriors brutally raped and tortured her?  Once they had their amusement, they tied one end of a rope to her long locks of auburn hair and the other end to the neck of a horse stolen just a few days earlier.  William watched one of the men take a knife and cut a long slit from the hairline of his mother’s forehead to just above her ears, and then he whipped the horse’s haunch to send it into a panicked run.  Martha lay in shocked numbness, bleeding from her exposed skull, from multiple arrow and lance wounds, and from the opening of her brutalized vagina. 

How does a seven year old recover from a scene like that?  After the attack William and his younger siblings lived with the family of Martha’s brother.  How many times did young William wake up during the dead of night with nightmarish memories of that awful afternoon, with neither mother nor father there to comfort him?  What bitter prejudices did he harbor the rest of his life toward those whose vicious wrath he witnessed?

And what of the tragedy that befell Ezra, Martha Sherman’s husband, who did as the Comanche warriors ordered, fleeing with his two youngest children and leaving Martha to her fate?  Ezra lived with the shame of that afternoon for the remainder of his life.  He moved away from his Parker County home to someplace where the failure to defend his wife was unknown.  He tried to volunteer for the Confederate Army two years later, hoping to regain his honor on the battlefield.  To his disappointment, or perhaps relief, they would not have him; he was already too old for combat.  He died of a fever, thankful, most likely, that he would no longer be haunted by his own cowardice.

The Sherman’s were not the only ones to suffer great loss that holiday season of 1860.  When news of the attack reached the Texas Rangers, they sent a detachment to track the trail of the Comanche warriors as they made their way back to the western plains.  Along the way the Rangers encountered several teenaged victims of additional depredations who were wandering naked and violated through the late autumn chill of the North Texas cross-timbers.  The enraged Rangers eventually found Comanche chief Peta Nocona’s tribe some 150 miles from where the attack on the Sherman family had taken place.  It was then that a new round of tragedy unfolded.  Shots were fired, and many warriors fell.  Nocona slipped away, but many others did not.  Women and children were shot on the spot, their only crime to live among the men who had attacked the Sherman’s and other families that bloody autumn.  Women and children whose only crime was to be born Comanche.

One woman fled on her bareback mount, holding a toddler over her head hoping the sight of the small child would ward off gunfire.  Sul Ross, the Ranger captain, ordered that she be brought back to him.  Then he noticed the blue eyes.  The eyes of a white woman.  He spoke to her in English, but she seemed at first not to understand.  After a while, however, she was able to answer his questions in very halting, monosyllabic English.  The answers she gave seemed to correspond to an old story he had heard about a pioneer family who had almost been decimated by a Comanche raid 25 years earlier.  He asked the woman if she knew of the Parker family, if she knew of a little girl taken many years ago, a nine year old girl named Cynthia Ann Parker.  “Me Cinsee Ann,” she answered.

So what of the 25 year old tragedy of a young girl who watched her grandfather and four other family members die at the hands of her savage kidnappers?  What of the tragedy of her enslavement, alone and unable to speak the strange language of those with whom she was forced to live?  Eventually, as had been the case among diverse cultures throughout the centuries, the captive slave was adopted and allowed to assimilate among her captors.  Captive ceased to be captive and became, instead, one of The People, a Comanche woman.

And what of the later tragedy she experienced?  No longer Cynthia Ann Parker, she was now Naduah, which translates into “Someone Found.”  As Naduah, Cynthia Ann became an accepted member of Comanche society, and as a young woman she married the chief of the Nokoni band, Peta Nocona.  It is a testament to Cynthia Ann’s strength and beauty that Peta Nocona took no other wives, although as chief it was his right and his tribe’s custom for him to do so.  By the time of the Parker County raid and the death of Martha Sherman, Cynthia Ann/Naduah had borne him three children, two boys, Quanah and Pecos, and a two year old girl named Topsanna (“Prairie Flower”).

The Rangers took Naduah and Topsanna several hundred miles to the east and turned them over to their long forgotten family.  First they lived with Naduah’s brother, but he soon left Texas to join the Confederate Army.  Then they moved into her sister’s home.  It was not long after that when little Topsanna contracted influenza and died.  Aleady depressed at being separated from her beloved husband and sons who were nearly young men, Naduah refused to eat.  She continued to live several more sad and feeble years.  She died in 1870, just four years before her oldest son, Quanah, surrendered the last remaining band of Comanche Indians to the United States army stationed at Fort Sill, Oklahoma.  Quanah’s love for his lost mother never diminished, and shortly before his own death he had his mother’s body moved to the Comanche reservation.  When he died in 1911, Quanah was laid to rest next to his mother whom he had not seen since that bloody day 51 years earlier.

The wars waged between Native and European American societies were brutal and tragic.  There could be little doubt about the eventual outcome when one belligerent is a vibrant industrial society, and the other is little advanced from the stone age.  Neither side was innocent, however.  They each viewed their enemy as barely human.  Neither side felt squeamish at the murder of small infants or the rape of innocent young girls.  While it is true that the Comanche were already living in Central Texas when the first white men arrived there in the 1700’s, they were relative newcomers themselves.  Just as white settlers brutally forced the Comanche into submission, so, too, had the Comanche arrogantly forced Apaches, Huecos, Wichitas, and other native tribes from their ancestral homes.  “For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God,” said the apostle, and that was certainly true on the frontier of the American Southwest.

So what do we make of a story like this?  Tragedy is the story of the human race.  We are a cruel and brutal people.  Rousseau may have lauded the “Noble Savage”, but I see little nobility in the savagery of mankind.  I don’t know what to make of stories like this.  Is it even worth remembering them so many years later when there are countless similar stories happening right now in places like Dafur, Somalia, and Chechnya?  Or a little closer, in places like Ciudad Juarez or the southwest side of Chicago?  Maybe those are the stories that need to be told, not some obscure tale from a century and a half ago. 

Then again, we may not have achieved a Rousseau-like nobility, but at least nowadays we tend not to view our fellow human beings as savages to be exterminated.  The fact that we react with revulsion at reports of genocide in Darfur or Dachau indicates that repeated stories like those of Martha Sherman and Cynthia Ann Parker/Naduah have enabled many of us to be elevated to a moral plain somewhat higher than that of our forefathers of five or six generations ago.  Maybe we need to keep telling these stories, along with those pertaining to more recent events, so that we can rise above our current level of passive superiority.  By hearing and learning from stories of tragedy, both old and current, perhaps we can become a race of men and women who actively choose to make the world a better, more tolerant and peaceful place to live.  Maybe that is the goal of history.



cynthia ann parker
Cynthia Ann Parker/Naduah and her daughter Topsanna




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Maybe, maybe. The cycles of savagery continue. To say that the western industrial nations have advanced to a higher moral plane than our ancestors belies the horror of 100,000 killed in a war that should never have begun. And for the culture and society that saw a pinnacle of enlightenment when the rest of the known world was plunging into darkness, a culture that gave us algebra, from the Arabic al jabr, to descend into justifying murder of innocents because some don't believe as they do...I think we just haven't risen very far at all.

As usual Steve, you've provoked some thoughts in me, it's good to think some of these things through, your histories and commentary are always an interesting excursion, and not usually bringing such dark thoughts as I now have. Beautifully presented.
This is as element of the frontier story that I got into, as part of researching and writing Adelsverein. There are some accounts that I cannot read of, without becoming quite nauseated. Rousseau's accounts of noble savages ... required some adjustments.
Barry, thank you for your thoughtful comment. Yes, this tale is quite a bit darker than what I should have posted for my first OS entry in several months. Oh well, it's what was on my mind this week. While we are still capable of immense savagery, it seems to me that at least genocide is not our ultimate aim. I do think we are above that now. I hope I'm never proven wrong.

Sgt., some of the stories are indeed difficult to read. If the Comanche had been a literate society, they no doubt would have been able to write of terrible tales of European-American atrocities. Since they weren't, it's the other side that recorded the terror they experienced. It was certainly a bloody time, and no one could claim innocence.
When humans are no longer inhumane to humans we will finally have evolved. These stories are very important, and, overall, we have so few photos of the era in the context they all need to be gotten out where everyone can get a look at the truth.

Texas, like everywhere, has waxed and waned. I find the fact the Karankawa practiced Gay Marriage fascinating given the intense opposition to it now in the same geography.

Darfur, Congo, Cambodia- All horrid, all inexcusable given the resources of this Modern World. As this story focuses on an old standard, the abuse of women, I want to add to the list the estimated hundreds of thousands to millions of Iraqi women and girls, now refugees in Syria, where they are forced into prostitution or worse.

Steve, very nice to see a new post by you this evening! I remember your post from May, "A True Tale of the Frontier" and see how this adds additional stories to that first discussion about the Comanche Indians and the white settlers who fell victim to them. Not so far away these days, we have the huge death toll in Mexico from the unending drug wars. Seems like we never escape the death and mayhem that humans can inflict upon others!
Yes, maybe. But the worst tragedies in history, numbers-wise have been within my lifetime. I am always saddened but no longer shocked about what I have seen and read about here in this country, and in the world.
Glad to see you back!
Steve, it is wonderful to once again get to read your words. I grew up in Texas, listening to all the old tales from the bad old days. I was born and raised in a small town just down the road from an Indian reservation and went to school with many kids from that reservation and when I was a kid, the scars left by those horrible Indian wars were still fresh in the minds of Indians and Whites alike.

Thanks for the effort you put into this essay; it was a pure pleasure to read.
surfer, I am not familiar with the Karankawa acceptance of gay marriage. Interesting. That is a tribe now sadly gone forever. What you mention of the women in the Middle East is a story too often repeated during wartime. Talk about tragedy...

John, my hope is that the stories yet to be told will become less terrible as time progresses.

Lea, you are certainly correct about the numbers. Modern weaponry has certainly been effective.

Snoreville, they were the good ol' days, you know.

Torman, thank you for your kind words. I'll try not to be absent too much, and hopefully my next story won't be quite so dark.
I'm happy to see you again. We need to hear the brutal stories of history in order to fully appreciate the stories of kindness.
The aftereffects of war linger on for generations. When nomadic tribes meander unchartered territories, death and destruction become a permanent marker in history.

Watching someone you love be destroyed at the hands of others makes you question humanity.
Nice to see you back, Pro, and with another of your thought-provoking essays.
@stim and boanerges, sorry I chose such a downer story for my re-entry on OS. For some reason this is the one I couldn't get out of my head this week.

Jane, I do thinnk we have made progress, although we obviously have a long, long way to go.

Belinda, it's that cycle you allude to that is the most tragic thing of all. How do you bring the cycle to a quick end?
We must first address the quagmires which keep violent offenders from committing offenses against defenseless parties. Were these men charged with crimes and a trial had occurred, I'm sure they'd live out their remaining days in a cold cell.

The violence issue has to be addressed before any resolutions are considered.

I've no mercy for barbarians.