Friday, May 5, 2017

Comanche Captives: Taken, Part I

Note: There are records of white captives being taken since Colonial times. The following blog deals specifically with children taken captive during the Indian wars in Texas during the last half of the 19th century.
The story of Comanche Captives in popular culture: Movie poster for The Searchers
The first episode of AMC's The Son coincided with my reading of the book News of the World by Paulette Jiles. Both the TV series and the book deal with white children who lived with the Comanches after their capture. The Son centers around a ruthless Texas cattleman, played by Pierce Brosnan, his current shady dealings, and flashbacks to his life among the Comanches. News of the World is a quick read about an old man who makes his living traveling from town to town in Texas reading the newspaper to crowds. At one stop he's asked to take a young girl back to her remaining relatives after she's been released from the Kiowa. By this time the girl has lost her native language and is completely Indianized.

I enjoyed the News of the World, an obviously well-researched book, but when I finished it, it left me with a few questions. Luckily for me the author ended the book with a recommendation for further reading, The Captured:A True Story of Abduction by Indians, by Scott Zesch. I bought the book, thinking it would be dry reading. Oh, but it is not! This fascinating book read like fiction. Zesch became interested in the topic when he started to look into the story of his own relative, Adolph Korn, who had been a captive of the Comanches. Korn was reunited with his family three years after his abduction by which time he'd been living as a fierce warrior. He never was able to readjust to life back with the whites and eventually went to live by himself in a cave. While investigating his own family connection to this part of history, Zesch delved into other stories of "White Indians" who were taken about the same time.

My first question was why in the world would anyone plop their family smack dab in the middle of hostile Indian territory? During this time in Texas dozens of children were taken captive. I'm a mother, and I can't imagine putting my loved ones in such peril. Was any piece of land worth the risk?

Ranch in the Texas Hill Country
After reading Zesch's book, I learned the story was more complex. It wasn't so much a story of daring and hearty pioneers taming the land as it was a story of people who were lured to Texas with the promise of easy living and then found themselves stuck in a deteriorating situation.

German immigrants were the largest group of European settlers in Texas. In the 1800's a group in Germany, the Adelsverein  (the society for the protection of German immigrants), lured waves of families to Texas for the purpose of colonizing that area. They promised fruitful land in a temperate climate, but they forgot to mention some of the downsides--such as hostile Indians.

Comanche Warriors

At this point I'd like to mention that other Native American tribes regarded the Plains Indians as the most warlike Indians. In turn, the other Plains Indian tribes believed the Comanches to be the most fearsome. The Comanches used tools of terror such as gang rape and inventive ways of slowly torturing their victims to death (some methods they learned from the Spanish). This was the neighborhood the German immigrants found themselves in.

For a time, relations between the two groups showed promise. The Germans and Comanches signed the Treaty of Meusebach in 1847, promising to be good neighbors to one another and encouraging friendly transactions. The Comanche women were even known to care for the Germans' children while the parents went to work in the fields.

However, when the Germans met with the Comanches to sign the treaty in 1847 they saw something that must have given them pause. While at the Indian camp a warrior with blond hair entered the camp, followed by a cold, sickly Mexican child. When the delegation asked the "white Indian" if he wanted to be taken back to his people, he scoffed and said he'd never live with "the Palefaces" again. The child was a boy he'd captured in Mexico, who was now his slave.

Plaque commemorating the "Lasting Friendship" between German immigrants and Comanches after the Treaty of Meusebach

But then a few things happened to strain relations between the settlers and the Indians. First, the Germans who lived in tight communities to start with, discovered this was not the best way to farm in their new country, so they scattered over the land, setting up isolated farms. The Indians weren't too bothered by the small, contained communities, but now this new move infringed on their hunting grounds.

Next up the Civil War, which acted as a double blow to the immigrants. When the soldiers and Texas Rangers were moved east, this left the settlers under-protected. In addition, they lost their biggest customers when the army left town.

Texas Rangers, 1860's. Their dissolution during the Civil War years left a vulnerable population

And, life wasn't as easy as had been promised. It was hard to carve out an existence in their new land. They had to toil hard from dawn to dusk, living in one room log cabins that didn't keep out the elements. Always on the edge of poverty, the defection of the army left them more desperate.

The Indians watched with amusement as the settlers worked so hard to gain so little, while they lived off the land and enjoyed more leisure time. One Indian stated they killed the whites to "put them out of their misery."

Going out on raiding parties and taking captives was part of Indian culture since before the whites arrived. They took captives to barter for horses and also as a way to replenish their own numbers. In taking captives, they were color-blind. Mexicans, African Americans, other Indians, and Whites were fine as long as they were of a certain age. Children too young to take care of themselves or too old to be successfully incorporated into the tribe would likely be killed during raids.

The picture I have of the settlers in the Texas Hill Country is one of people living in constant fear. The saying "Comanche Moon" comes from the mistaken belief that the Indians only attacked during the full moon. Not true. Attacks came anytime, including broad daylight. A man setting off to help a neighbor might never come home, his mutilated remains found days later. Husbands returned from short trips to find their family dead or gone and their livestock stolen. Children would go out to the fields to do their chores and never be heard from again. Some settlers did pick up and move but many lacking the money to start over had to endure life under the worst circumstances imaginable.

Having children taken was considered a fate worse than death. Some families never learned the fate of their loved ones. Others got an occasional report of a sighting. The families never gave up on finding their children, seeking help from the government and army or enlisting the help third parties to negotiate with the Indians.

It's interesting to note the same debate raged then as now about paying ransom. Giving money in exchange for captives worked, but did it encourage more such acts? Also, less than sympathetic were the folks out east, who had the same initial reaction I did: If you live in Indian territory, what do you expect? Move. Just move.

The book The Searchers by Alan Lemay, which was later turned into the movie by the same name, staring John Wayne, was inspired in part by one man's attempts to rescue his family. The legendary black cowboy, Britt Johnson, born a slave, settled in Texas. When he came home to find his son dead and his wife and daughters gone, Britt went on a quest to find them, which lasted years. In that time he befriended the Comanches, even living with them for a time until his family was returned to him. Unfortunately, six years later he was killed in a Kiowa raid.

Britt Johnson, inspiration for The Searchers (photo from "Frontier Texas")
What actually became of the children captives is interesting. With some exceptions, the children were treated well and adopted into families who loved them like their own. I'll explore their stories in Part II, but one thing the white families who recovered their children learned was how fast the captives became Indianized. As early into captivity as six months the children forgot most of their native tongue and spoke in the language of their new Indian family. A child recovered after over a year of captivity was considered a lost cause. The boys became warriors, joining in war parties, setting upon their former neighbors. It was said the white Indians were the meanest Indians. They had the most to prove, I suppose. By this time they'd perhaps seen their own white family killed and now were identifying with a people who were suffering brutally at the hands of white soldiers. In this new shift, the whites became the feared enemy.

After the Civil War, the soldiers and Texas Rangers came back and helped restore order. A final blow came to the Indians with the arrival of the buffalo hunters. They watched as one of their main resources was hunted almost to extinction for their hides. With their food gone, they had to rely on government handouts. The Plains Indian way of life was coming to an end.

Buffalo Hide Hunters

In 1877 the army swooped down on an Indian camp, killing many and taking women and children captive. Along with the Indian's growing dependence on them for food, having these captives gave the whites one last, powerful bargaining chip. The Comanches under the leadership of Quanah Parker (himself the son of a white captive woman) began turning themselves and their captives in. Only a small band of renegades refused reservation life, and they continued to terrorize that part of the country until one by one they saw their old way of life was over and gave up.

In 1878 a warrior walked into the reservation near Fort Sill. He was the last Comanche to admit defeat. He had long red hair and his name was Herman Lehmann.

Next month: Comanche Captives: the Captives and Release, Part II

Spoiler alert: the family reunions weren't as happy as you'd imagine.


Andrea Downing said...

OMG, is this fascinating. the only relevant book I've read related to colonial America and a woman taken captive during that time who did not want to return to white culture. My feeling is that living close to nature and close to the land as native Americans leads to a more rewarding and happier life, though I can't account for killing people into the bargain!! Looking forward to Pt 2

Patti Sherry-Crews said...

Hi, Andi! Thanks for stopping by. You will have to stay tuned for Part II to find out how to captives fared after returning to white society and why it was such a failure. Every one of the captives' stories are so interesting that I spent hours reading about them--one leading to another. I knew about captives, but I didn't know there were so many! Stayed tuned.

Unknown said...

Great blog. I too have studied Native and immigrant lives and ways after finding out that I have a lot of Native blood. I can see atrocities on both sides. I really enjoyed your blog.

Patti Sherry-Crews said...

Hi, Margie, thanks for the comments! Yes, there were atrocities on both sides, that's for sure. One of the jaw-dropping things about this chapter in our history was how both sides found a new life reacting their battles against each other in the wild west shows, which included former captives. Did you discover you have native blood after a DNA test?