ON THE MORNING OF MAY 19, 1836, a young Comanche Indian rode into Fort Parker, in East Texas, with a band of warriors, snatched a blue-eyed nine-year-old girl from her mother, and galloped off with her and her younger brother on the back of his horse, vanishing onto the prairie. The abduction, as swift and brutal as any during the 120-year conflict between the Plains Indians and the Texas settlers, turned the little girl into a cause célèbre, a symbol of the war against terror, as it were. Politicians invested her with heroic victimhood, mothers used her tale to keep children from straying far, and frontiersmen envisioned an innocent young beauty trapped against her will on the plains. Oh, to be the virile male who rescued her from those savages! Over time, the mystery of the little girl’s whereabouts became a treasured and carefully cultivated Texas legend.
Reality eventually caught up with myth. In the late 1840’s traders and military men began returning from Indian country claiming to have come across the girl, who had since grown into a woman, and shared a consistent revelation that flabbergasted Texans. The young woman had married and had children with a Comanche warrior, and she was unwilling to leave him or her family behind. It turned out that he was the very man who had kidnapped her—the most feared and loathed Comanche of them all. Few Texans openly blamed her for embracing the enemy; she was so young when she was taken. Still, she had a choice of cultures and allegiances, and even after repeated chances to return to her God-fearing Texas family, she infuriatingly chose to remain on the plains, the wife and lover of a killer. The girl who had once reminded every Texan why he fought so hard against the Indians now stirred emotions that were powerful, complex, and contradictory. One day, a group of Rangers unleashed a brutal raid of its own, snatched the white woman back, and delivered her to her family. It was a cruel reward. Amid storms of total violence, she was wrenched and stolen from her loved ones twice. And a few years later, sometime around 1870, the blue-eyed prairie girl, once the most talked about woman of her era, died in near obscurity in the Piney Woods of East Texas.
Her name was Cynthia Ann Parker, and to this day her tale continues to grip and haunt Texans like few others. There is the Alamo, then San Jacinto, and then there is the little white girl who became a Comanche. The facts, though, were long ago intertwined with fiction. Even as Cynthia Ann is celebrated—in histories, novels, movies, children’s literature, and opera—she continues to be mythologized. It is said that she was beautiful (in fact the years of hard living had been punishing), that she was a tragic victim (in fact she cherished her life with the Comanches), that she was a slave to an evil warrior (in fact she loved her husband deeply). Indeed, much of what has been said about her is fiction. But looking at the facts of her story now, even without some of these myths, there’s a more impressive truth. Strong as buffalo hide, family-loving, and high-spirited despite dire circumstances, Cynthia Ann demonstrated the same qualities that have ennobled iconic Texans from Mary Maverick to Barbara Jordan, Ima Hogg to Lady Bird Johnson. What’s more, she offered Texans and Comanches something no man on either side could provide: a means of finally putting 120 years of rage and hatred to rest. Maybe the reason we can’t let go of Cynthia Ann Parker is because she was the original tough Texas woman.
THE LITTLE GIRL’S ODYSSEY BEGAN on 14,000 acres of choice land near the headwaters of the Navasota River, where her family, immigrants to Mexican Texas in the 1830’s, built a stockade that came to be known as Fort Parker. Her family helped found the Texas Rangers, who rode as sentries along the Indian frontier, and during the revolt against Mexico, they fled Santa Anna’s army in the rain-soaked ordeal of refugees called the Runaway Scrape. But when that war was won, they returned home in 1836, disbanded the Ranger company, and began to rebuild their life on the frontier. Peace settled over their village, and one morning the Parker men went to work their fields, leaving the heavy gates to their fort open.
The Comanche riders who arrived that morning in May were joined by Kiowas and some local Caddos. Their faces were painted red and black, and they wore helmets of buffalo horns—they were a terrifying mob. Cynthia Ann’s father was one of the first men killed. Relatives were raped and scalped before her eyes. She and her six-year-old brother, John, were among a group of fleeing women and children cut off in a meadow and herded like calves. The Parker children’s captor was Puhtocnocony, He Who Travels Alone and Returns. Texans later rendered his name Nocona or Peta Nocona. He brandished a tomahawk and threatened to kill Lucy Parker if she didn’t hand over Cynthia Ann and John.
How could the Comanches make war on children? For one thing, kidnapping was an effective way of encouraging settlers to move somewhere else. Too, the Comanches found that some Texas families could pay ransom; the going price was about $400. That was a fortune for nomads who calculated their wealth in horses and mules but knew what money could buy. And as perverse as it seemed, there was a human side to the Comanche child stealing. Smallpox, cholera, and other diseases were decimating all the tribes, and Comanche mothers were believed to be unusually prone to miscarriage. The child captives helped a dwindling people believe they might have a future on this earth. John and his sister were split up, and Cynthia Ann was given to a couple who raised her as if she had been born to them.
By the early 1840’s John Parker—who according to one tale was traded off to the