Once upon a time everybody in Texas knew the story of Cynthia Ann Parker. They learned it along with the stories of the Alamo and Spindletop and the lyrics to “Get Along Little Dogies.” Not so much anymore.
Glenn Frankel’s new book, The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend(Bloomsbury), explores both the Cynthia Ann of history and the distantly related cinematic version in John Ford’s 1956 film of the same title. Frankel’s study follows hard upon Texas Monthly staffer S. C. Gwynne’s best-selling Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History and covers much the same ground. Film enthusiasts be warned: the first half of the book offers a lengthy historical prologue before the main feature begins. Both sections are interesting, but the connection between them is somewhat tenuous.
First, the history. In 1836 several Parker families and their in-laws were living in a homemade fortress near Groesbeck, about a hundred miles south of Dallas. (Frankel’s book could use a map and better site directions within his narrative.) On May 19 a Comanche raiding party killed five of the clan and took five more captive. One of the captives was a nine-year-old girl, Cynthia Ann. James W. Parker, her scapegrace uncle, made repeated journeys into Comanche country trying to find his niece. Eventually he gave up. Here lie the bones of Ford’s film: a lost child, a searcher.
By the time Cynthia Ann was “rescued” 24 years later, she had borne three children by her husband, the Comanche chief Peta Nocona. Frankel aptly identifies her story as an example of the oldest popular genre in American history, the captivity narrative, which dates to the seventeenth century. In the best known of these, Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson, a text often taught in American literature survey courses, the white woman avoids being defiled by Indians and through faith is returned to hearth and home unsullied. The formula, which amounted to a kind of Puritan porn, gave off the salacious whiff of sin as well as evoked the promise of salvation. Frankel, a Pulitzer Prize–winning former reporter for the Washington Post who now heads the journalism school at the University of Texas at Austin (note: though I teach at UT, we have never met), deals with such matters clearly, without resorting to the sort of academic jargon so common in articles about Rowlandson. “In the original captivity narratives,” he writes, “the white woman captive stood for the values of Christianity and civilization by resisting the threats and depredation of her godless savage captors.”
Cynthia Ann, however, didn’t want to be restored to her Parker relatives, and she and her daughter, Prairie Flower, never did adjust to being “civilized.” The Parkers had to watch Cynthia Ann every second because she was always trying to escape. Only one time did she seem truly happy, and that was when she and Prairie Flower fell upon a freshly slaughtered cow and gorged themselves on raw, bloody liver and kidneys, then started dancing and singing “in real savage style,” as an uncle recorded. The shocking truth was that Cynthia Ann preferred her life with the Comanche to anything that white civilization had to offer. She died an unhappy woman longing to