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 Kiowa Apaches—and several other captives taken in the Fort Parker raid had been found and ransomed back to their families. But as the decade wore on, Cynthia Ann was just out there somewhere. One year, a Texas Indian agent named Leonard Williams and two other men finally stumbled across her in a Comanche camp on a High Plains river. Williams offered the Indians twelve mules and merchandise for her, but her adoptive parents said angrily that they would rather die than give her up. The chief ordered the three men out of his camp but did allow Williams to talk to the girl. He said she kept her eyes on the ground and said nothing but that her lips trembled as he spoke. Some years later, a trader named Victor Rose said that he too had seen and spoken to her. He quoted her devotion to her husband, Nocona, and two small boys with sympathetic if dubious Romantic phrasing but described Nocona as “a great, greasy, lazy buck.”

In East Texas Lucy Parker heard these stories and was desperate to have her daughter back. She sent her son John out to the plains to retrieve her. Some historians scoff at this claim—John would have been in his mid-teens at the time of this long horseback ride—but in 1852, in an authoritative report on the headwaters of the Red River for the U.S. Army, Captain Randolph Marcy matter-of-factly wrote: “There is at this time a white woman among the Middle Comanches, by the name of Parker, who, with her brother, was captured while they were young children. . . . This woman has adopted all the habits and peculiarities of the Comanches; has an Indian husband and children, and cannot be persuaded to leave them. The brother of the woman, who had been ransomed by a trader and brought home to his relatives, was sent back by his mother for the purpose of endeavoring to prevail upon his sister to leave the Indians and return to her family; but he stated to me that on his arrival she refused to listen to the proposition, saying that her husband, children, and all that she held most dear, were with the Indians, and there she should remain.”

Despite these accounts, Texans continued to spread their own ideas about what had happened to Cynthia Ann. It’s not difficult to understand why. At the time, Nocona had emerged as the leading Comanche war chief, a man who led unrelenting raids of vengeance on the outlying settlements north and west of Fort Worth. The news that he had captured the devotion of their blue-eyed white woman was too hard to swallow. In Weatherford a fired Indian agent and fervent Indian hater named John Baylor published a frothing newspaper called The White Man. Like other Texas men at the time—even as Cynthia Ann learned to put up and take down tepees and trailed after the bison herds and gave birth to her Comanche children—Baylor nurtured a more rapturous idea. In November 1860 Baylor ran on the front page a wholly fictional tale by a former Texas Ranger that stripped the clothes off a common sexual fantasy:

“We could not distinguish the traces of the woman’s flight for some distance up the ravine,” the frontiersman reported. “I could not help observing the delicate smallness of the wet foot marks she left upon the stones. . . . Poor creature! Her naked feet have been cut in the rapid flight.” Later: “I saw at once, from the fairness of her complexion, not only that she was not an Indian, but felt that hers must be the face that had so possessed my imagination. I could distinguish that she was a clear brunette, and evidently a foreigner. . . . She sharply asked me in French, ŒQui êtes-vous?’

“I speak French very lamely, and answered, as best as I could, ŒTexans, Americans, et amis.’ She smiled brightly . . . and came bounding down the rocks to join us.” Still later: “That night her small, graceful head lay upon my shoulder, while the long and silken hair streamed in a raven cloud to my feet. She was very lightly clothed, since the only garments of civilization her captors had left her was something like a chemise of fine linen, which left her breast exposed and the arms naked; she, however, had thrown over her shoulders, as a cape, the brightly rosetted skin of an ocelot, but this had now fallen off. From an instinct of delicacy which does not desert even rude backwoods men, I swept her long hair as the most appropriate veil over her bosom. It was sacred to me!”

A Texas Ranger who spoke French! In his rush to use Cynthia Ann as rhetoric to stir up the anger of white frontiersmen, Baylor had no idea that his paper was close to breaking a stunning exclusive about the comely captive. This time the tale would actually be true.

IN LATE 1860 NACONA LED a huge raid that set ablaze the settled frontier from Jacksboro to Weatherford. Afterward, a hard rain set in, and it was easy for the Texans to follow the Comanches’ horse tracks. A few weeks later, two companies of Rangers and a cavalry troop approached the Comanche camp on the Pease River. It was one of their favorite places; just north were the four sacred Medicine Mounds jutting up from the plains. A scout with the Texans was Charles Goodnight, the future trailblazer and Panhandle cattle baron. One of the young Ranger captains was Sul Ross, who would go on to become governor and the first president of Texas A&M University. Near the Pease, Goodnight found a Bible that had belonged to a young woman named Sherman. In a raid a few weeks before, the woman had been pregnant when the Indians surrounded her farm in the Palo Pinto country; they raped and scalped her and shot several arrows into her body. She lived long enough to have a stillborn baby, then died. For the Comanches, the stolen book was nothing more than tough packing material for their shields.

Enraged, the Texas avengers rode through the camp and just laid bodies in a heap. Ross took part in the killing of a chief who warbled his death song and tried to fend them off. Ross was convinced that the man he killed was Nocona. The Comanches later jeered at this account. They claimed that Nocona, his sons, and most men of fighting ability were engaged in a buffalo hunt; the camp was now just an outfitting station. But if Nocona lived, he vanished as a war chief after that day.

In the meantime, a figure wrapped in a buffalo robe and riding a fast gray horse led the Texans on a chase from the camp through the river bottom and trees. Concealed in the robe was Cynthia Ann’s two-year-old daughter, named Prairie Flower. Seeing that Ross was about to shoot her, the woman pulled up the horse, raised the infant, and called out, “Americano! Americano! Americano!”

Goodnight later wrote that he was the one who saw that the hysterical woman was blue-eyed, but Ross swore that he made the discovery, yelling at a lieutenant, “Why, Tom, this is a white woman! Indians don’t have blue eyes.” The angry and exhausted lieutenant yelled back: “Hell, no! That ain’t no white woman! Damn that squaw! If I have to worry with her anymore, I will shoot her!” They captured the woman and her infant and returned with her to a cottonwood grove along the river to camp. “We rode right over her dead companions,” Goodnight recalled. “I thought then and still think how exceedingly cruel it was.”

Ross always said that he suspected and verified that she was the long-lost captive. Others, however, claimed that a cavalry officer sent for Isaac Parker, Cynthia Ann’s uncle, who was a member of the Texas Legislature for its first twenty years. Living at Birdville, near Fort Worth, Parker rode out to see her. According to one witness at the interview, a neighbor of Parker’s, the woman “sat for a time immovable, lost in profound meditation, oblivious to every thing by which she was surrounded, ever and anon convulsed as if it were by some powerful emotion which she struggled to suppress.” Parker tried to question her in English but got little response. He turned to the neighbor and said, “If this is my niece, her name is Cynthia Ann.” The woman stood up, struck herself on the chest, and cried, “Me, Cynthia Ann!”

THE STORY RACED FROM the white man, which broke the exclusive, to a Dallas newspaper and then all over the state. Cynthia Ann’s mother was eight years dead by then, and her uncle took her to his farm, but first he practically roped her into sitting for a photographer in Fort Worth. She was no delicate maiden now, if she ever had been one. She was 34, and the years of extreme physical hardship had worn hard. The portrait was a grim, haunting image of an intently staring woman with a breast bared for a nursing infant. Her hair was hacked short—a Comanche demonstration of grief. She’d been separated from her two boys, and she would never see them again.

At Birdville, her kin and neighbors feared that Prairie Flower’s soul had been carried off by the “demon of barbarianism”; rigorous Bible study was required. Meanwhile, her mother continually tried to escape. In the end, the most idealized Texas woman of her time couldn’t fit in. The Texans couldn’t get through to her, couldn’t make her realize how much better off she was. In bitter irony, they became her captors.

At wits’ end, in 1862 Isaac Parker turned her over to her brother Silas Parker, Jr., who moved her to Van Zandt County, hoping the deep Piney Woods would convince her of the futility of longing for the plains. But Silas was drafted into the Confederate army, and Cynthia Ann’s sister-in-law was overwhelmed. Cynthia Ann and Prairie Flower were moved once again, this time to a house nearby built by relatives. There, Prairie Flower began to assimilate, just as her mother had among the Comanches. The girl spoke English more than Comanche, and she was doing well in school. But she caught the flu and pneumonia in December 1863, and she died the next year. Once more the wall of incomprehension shot up. Desperate with grief, Cynthia Ann wailed a keening song and, to the horror of the Parkers, slashed her arms and breasts with a knife.

Even then, the mythologizing of Cynthia Ann never relented. In telling the story of her life, most accounts claim that she passed away right after her child’s death—gave up and died of a broken heart. But in truth, she lived on at least until 1870. Probably she died of the flu.

IT WOULD BE A STRETCH to now make Cynthia Ann into a protofeminist who lived in a culture of extravagant machismo. In fact, she may have accompanied her husband on some of his ferocious raids. The wives of leading warriors were useful at managing horses and captives, and the buildup to the stealing and fighting was said to have an erotic charge. Still, something about her character did inspire the Comanches. She was torn from her family at a young age, yet she had become a survivor, one who had learned to live among them and had held up with a winsome quality. She named her first son Quanah, which translated as Fragrant (he was said to have been born in a bed of wildflowers), and her second son Peanut, in honor of her favorite treat when she was a child. The Comanches gave Cynthia Ann a name that reflected their respect: Naduah, which most often translated as She Who Carries Herself With Dignity and Grace

Almost in spite of themselves, Texans came around to sharing that same opinion. The Ranger company that caught up with her witnessed a mother who could ride a galloping horse bareback while holding a child secure in one arm. Neighbors who lived near her after her capture recalled a woman who could chop wood as ably as a man, who had a gift for sewing and weaving, and who was good-hearted, always eager to help. And she was stoic, a mother who was forced to endure the death of one child and the unknown fate of two others. Even under the worst of circumstances, Cynthia Ann Parker managed to remain tough, strong-willed, and a devoted wife and mother.

After she died, Cynthia Ann’s legacy lived on through her eldest son, Quanah. (Peanut had died years earlier of smallpox.) Like his father, Quanah had a brief reign as the Comanches’ principal war chief and fought bravely to keep his people off the reservations. But after losing the decisive battle at Adobe Walls in 1874 and suffering relentless pursuit all winter, Quanah and the last holdouts surrendered in 1875. The strapping Comanche resolved that he had to walk the White Man’s Road and became lionized in peace by cattle barons Charles Goodnight and Burk Burnett, and eventually even President Theodore Roosevelt. With friends like that, he received an $800 grant from Congress to move Cynthia Ann’s remains to the reservation prairie of her chosen people.

In 1910 he spoke emotionally at the reinterment service, praising education, farming, and the white man’s God. Certainly there was meanness and more on both sides of that bitter Texas conflict, but the note Quanah struck that day was one of reconciliation and tribute. “Forty years ago,” he said, “my mother died. She captured by Comanches, nine years old. Love Indian and wild life so well she no want to go back to white folks. All same people anyway, God say.” All Cynthia Ann had wanted was the freedom to love and be left alone, to the good of her family. It was a sentiment that still goes to the heart of what defines Texas women.