Early accounts of the Battle of Pease River read like Hollywood film treatments from the fifties. A dashing young hero, Sul Ross, led a small force of Texas Rangers, U.S. cavalry troops, and militia volunteers into combat against a much larger group of Comanche warriors led by legendary chief Peta Nocona. It was 160 years ago, on December 19, 1860—a frigid, blustery day—and the Rangers’ coalition had the element of surprise on its side. “The attack was so sudden that a considerable number [of Comanche] were killed before they could prepare for defense,” Ross said years later, in a statement supplied to historian James T. DeShields.
According to narratives popular at the time, after they defeated the warriors, Ross and another Ranger, Tom Killiheir, pursued Nocona, a girl, and a woman holding a toddler as they fled on horseback. Ross killed the girl and injured Nocona, then ordered his Mexican servant to dispatch him with a shotgun. Killiheir, meanwhile, captured the other woman, whose name was Naduah, and her young daughter.
Naduah later told the Americans that she was born Cynthia Ann Parker. Twenty-four years earlier, as a child, Parker had been kidnapped during a bloody raid at her family’s compound in Limestone County, thirty miles east of Waco: she was the best-known white captive on the Texas frontier. But by 1860, then in her mid-thirties, she had become a Comanche. She was married to Nocona and was the mother of three children, including Quanah Parker, who later became a notable Comanche leader and reservation chief.
The attack, and especially the Rangers’ capture of the woman who had been Cynthia Ann Parker, was big news in Texas. The event made Ross, just 22 years old, famous. “So signal a victory had never before been gained over the fierce and war-like Comanches,” DeShields wrote in his 1886 book Cynthia Ann Parker: The Story of Her Capture. “The great Comanche confederacy was forever broken.”
Building on his Pease River exploits, Ross went on to serve as a Confederate general, a Texas state senator, a two-term governor, and the president of what is now Texas A&M University, the position he held when he died in 1898 (Sul Ross State University was also named after him). Ross was inducted into the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame for his “skill and courage.” But as the popular Pease River narrative has been reexamined in light of long-ignored accounts and other evidence, so has Ross’s heroism.
On a sunny morning this past fall, I left Wichita Falls and traveled northwest to the confluence of Mule Creek and the Pease River, in Foard County, to meet Ron Parker, the great-grandson of Quanah Parker and the great-great-grandson of Naduah and Peta Nocona.
I wanted to see firsthand the site of this Texas legend, but once I arrived, it did not appear especially monumental. The Pease was not unlike the rivers I grew up around on the plains two hundred miles to the north. The soil ranged from red clay to sand, and the tracks of coyotes, feral hogs, and cattle marked the river’s banks along its slow-flowing saline waters. Nearby, thickets of mesquite and invasive salt cedars hugged Mule Creek, a spring-fed stream.
Parker and I followed the cattle trails near the creek and river. We stopped only once, when we flushed about twenty wild turkeys from the brush. As we walked on, Parker shared the version of the “battle” he’d been taught by the Comanche.
“Pease River was a Ranger-led massacre,” Parker told me. His great-great-grandfather Peta Nocona, he said, was nowhere near the action. “At the time, Nocona was with his teenage sons Quanah and Pecos and other warriors.” Nocona died several years later near the Antelope Hills in Oklahoma, Parker said. “He died of an infection.”
Parker, a Vietnam War vet, is also director of the Quanah Parker Society, headquartered in the nearby Hardeman County town of Quanah, named after his great-grandfather. His version of events definitively contradicts Ross’s story and accounts in history books. (The same account Ross provided DeShields also appears in John Wesley Wilbarger’s Indian Depredations in Texas, published in 1889, which the Texas State Library and Archives Commission deems “a valuable chronicle of the decades-long battle for control of Texas,” even though the book “harshly condemns the Indians and makes no attempt to consider their point of view.”)
The more materials I gathered on the events at Pease River, the more credible Parker’s version seemed. In an interview in 1928, one of the Rangers who took part, Hiram B. Rogers, also described a massacre: “I was at the Pease river fight, but I’m not very proud of it. That was not a battle at all, but just a killing of [women].” I wondered how a massacre had been inflated into a great Ranger victory. I would soon learn that Ross himself was largely responsible.
Naduah died in 1871, eleven years after being recaptured. “The dour Parker people to whom she was restored were utterly alien to her,” wrote J. Frank Dobie in 1926. “She belonged to the Comanches, to her children, and to nomadic life on the plains. She died of grief.
Born in 1838, Lawrence Sullivan “Sul” Ross grew up mostly in Waco, which was, at the time, on the Texas frontier. In 1858, Ross led a Native American auxiliary, comprising members of nations friendly with European Americans and hostile to the Comanche, which supported U.S. cavalry troops that fought the Comanche. Ross suffered serious arrow and bullet wounds in a battle near a village of the Wichita people. He reported that the Comanche who shot him was named Mohee—a name Ross would later use in an account of Pease River.
Ross completed a college degree in Alabama while he recovered from his injuries. Back in Texas in early 1860, he joined the Rangers just in time to captain a group from Waco in a notoriously inept campaign, led by Middleton Tate Johnson, to fight the Comanche. Poorly equipped and “mismanaged from the first,” in the words of historian Walter Prescott Webb, the expedition failed to defeat the warriors. Many of the Rangers drank heavily. Johnson even left his command for a while to get married in Galveston.
The Johnson campaign left a blot on Ross’s record—one he may have been anxious to remove. Later, in 1860, he got his chance when Governor Sam Houston appointed him to raise a Ranger company to pursue Comanche who had been raiding white settlements. He recruited forty men. About twenty U.S. cavalry troopers complemented the Rangers. They were also joined by around ninety local militiamen.
The subsistence farmers on the frontier of the 1850s feared the Comanche. Just a few decades earlier, the Comanche had ruled over most of what is now the Lone Star State, though you won’t see its empire represented among the “six flags over Texas” coats of arms at the Capitol. The Comanche were warlike and fiercely protective of their turf. They were also entrepreneurs who built a plains economy around their prowess in buffalo hunting and horse breeding. Skilled Comanche diplomats often bested the Spanish and French in negotiations, and their traders dominated fairs in New Mexico and Louisiana.
At the turn of the nineteenth century, some 40,000 tribal members inhabited Comanchería, which stretched across a broad swath of Central Texas and through Oklahoma and Kansas. But by the time Ross set out with his Rangers in 1860, the Comanche nation was in steep decline. Drought, starvation, and disease imported by floods of European Americans had reduced their population to about five thousand.
Beginning in the 1850s, the Comanche conducted vicious raids on the Texas frontier. As Ross and his troops made their way northwest toward the Red River, they found a Bible and other items that had been taken from farmsteads. Ross took this to mean he was on the trail of Comanche raiders. On December 19, he found Comanche encamped on Mule Creek, about a quarter- to a half-mile above its mouth on the Pease.
Landscapes change over time, especially somewhere like the Pease River country. But when Parker and I followed a cow path to a flat area along Mule Creek, where there was room for horses to graze, and where banks rose on each side, providing protection from the wind, I was able to envision the scene.
By the time I visited the site, I’d researched enough to know the undisputed facts of what had happened there: the Rangers and cavalry attacked; the militiamen’s horses were too “jaded,” or weary, so they did not participate. When it was over, Naduah, her young daughter, and a Comanche boy were taken captive.
The bodies of a few slain Comanche lay on the frozen ground. It was likely that a handful of Comanche—maybe six—escaped. Ross’s cohort suffered no casualties. The Rangers rounded up about thirty horses and mules. Four women were among the dead. Three males, likely still boys, also died. Everything took place in just a matter of minutes.
As he sought public office in the years after the Civil War, Ross embellished details of the event so that he would appear more heroic. Ranching legend Charles Goodnight, who inspired the character Woodrow Call in Lonesome Dove, once dubbed Ross “a lying four-flusher,” an old-fashioned term for someone who makes empty claims for personal gain.
To learn more about the four-flusher, I then drove two hundred miles to the house of retired attorney and former Hood County district judge Tom Crum, on the Brazos River southeast of Granbury. Crum has spent more than 25 years researching the 1860 massacre. He has located nine accounts Ross gave, all different. “He’d be the ideal person to have on the witness stand,” Crum said, “until he gets cross-examined.”
Crum and I spent two afternoons going over the collection of primary and secondary sources he and his friend Paul Carlson, an emeritus history professor at Texas Tech, used when cowriting a book about the day, Myth, Memory, and Massacre: The Pease River Capture of Cynthia Ann Parker. Eventually, Crum loaded my car down with stacks of material to take home. The most compelling resource was a fat three-ring binder containing hundreds of pages of single-spaced typed text, a firsthand record of nineteenth-century Texas events by a man named John Hamilton Baker.
Baker arrived in Texas in the 1850s intending to become a teacher. He opened a school in Palo Pinto, 56 miles west of Fort Worth, and then established the town’s first Methodist church before relocating to Granbury, almost 40 miles southeast. He also began keeping a diary and continued to do so for sixty years. Baker rode with the militia that supported Ross’s Rangers and cavalry troopers, and he recorded what happened on the river as a witness. After the shooting died down, Baker reported, the militiamen encountered Ross on the Pease. Ross shouted that he and his party had come across fifteen Comanche, killing twelve and taking three as captives. The militia members hurried up Mule Creek as fast as their worn-out horses could carry them.
Ross had become more creative in the years since the event. This time, he said a chief named Mohee was present, and professed that he fought him mano a mano, killing him.
“We found only four dead Indians, all [women],” Baker wrote. Baker also saw Naduah, her daughter, and a young Comanche boy, whom Ross would take home with him and name Pease Ross. But there was no sign of the eight other Comanche Ross claimed to have killed. Baker reported that about thirty Comanche horses and mules were seized, some of which the militiamen recognized as stock stolen from farmers. The next day, Baker wrote in his diary that the militiamen found three more dead Comanche, all male. Baker doesn’t specify their ages, but it is likely, based on Oxford professor Pekka Hämäläinen’s definitive The Comanche Empire, that two were boys—maybe as young as ten—who had the job of taking care of the horses in accordance with the traditional Comanche division of responsibilities. The third may have been an adult mistaken for a chief. Baker counted a total of seven dead, not the dozen Ross claimed. Baker also reported that as many as six Comanche escaped.
Just days after the event, Ross told a correspondent for the Dallas Herald that thirteen Comanche had been killed. Next, Ross filed his official report with Governor Houston. In it, Ross said the number of dead was twelve, and stated that the Comanche boy taken captive was the son of a chief. (Baker mentioned nothing about a chief in his diary.) Ross also said the number of animals captured was forty. In January 1861, a Pease River account appeared in the Galveston Civilian putting forth a claim that Ross had fought a Comanche chief hand-to-hand. Thereafter, various Pease River stories included a battle with a chief.
In June 1875 the Galveston News published a letter from Ross detailing the “correct history” of what happened on Mule Creek. He misstated the date as December 18, which led to decades of mistakes in Pease River accounts by other writers. Ross had become more creative in the years since the event. This time, he said a chief named Mohee was present, and professed that he fought him mano a mano, killing him. Mohee—the name that Ross applied to the Comanche who shot him at the battle at the Wichita village, apparently slain there by one of Ross’s fellow Rangers—had come back to life, only to die once more on Mule Creek. In this account of Ross’s, the number of Comanche horses scattered or killed swelled to 350.
Eventually, Ross morphed Mohee into Peta Nocona and said he, Ross, had directed the Comanche’s death on Mule Creek. Crum and Parker are certain, however, that Nocona was not killed at Pease River. Quanah Parker said on several occasions that his father died in the mid-1860s. U.S. Army interpreter Horace. P. Jones, who worked at Camp Cooper, in Texas and at Fort Cobb, in Indian Territory, and who knew Nocona, said he spoke to Nocona at Fort Cobb more than a year after the Pease River massacre.
At the time Ross’s letter to the Galveston News was published, Reconstruction was winding down in the South. Former Confederates like Ross were making their way back into public life. Ross had become sheriff of McLennan County in 1873, but he had grander political ambitions: He resigned two years later and was elected as a delegate to the 1875 Texas Constitutional Convention. In 1880, he ran for state senate and won. By 1885, he was eyeing a race for governor. A contemporary of Ross’s said it was the “Pease River fight and the capture of Cynthia Ann Parker that made Sul Ross governor of Texas.”
Victor Rose, a journalist from Victoria who had served under Ross during the Civil War, played a role in helping his former commander publicize his slant on the Pease River incident. In correspondence, Ross thanked Rose for the way the journalist “dressed up” Ross’s stories. He directed Rose to get the Pease River accounts published in newspapers not as advertisements, but as news or editorials. Crum, in his book, suggests that Ross was concerned the public would detect the political motive in an advertorial. “I am satisfied the publication of this would swell my vote greatly, ” Ross wrote to Rose. I did not dig up any additional accounts from Ross in newspapers after 1875, but he found a more effective method to spread the story. DeShields’s popular book, Cynthia Ann Parker, appeared just in time for the governor’s election in 1886. The book contained Ross’s entire multipage statement about Pease River. According to the statement, it was a major battle and many warriors were killed; Ross was responsible for the death of Peta Nocona, and Cynthia Ann Parker was heroically recovered. Ross handily won the election.
Moreover, DeShields’s account of Pease River came to be accepted as the standard. “Of such stuff,” author John Graves once wrote of the incident, “are true myths built, and among the myths we Texans have, the Parker story is one of the most potent of all.” Ross certainly understood the power of his own mythology.
This article originally appeared in the January 2021 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “The Battle That Wasn’t.”