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.