Friday, June 2, 2017

Comanche Captives, part II: the Captives

In 1860 Cynthia Ann Parker, who’d been living with the Comanches for twenty four years, was returned to her family. In 1871 weakened by self-imposed starvation, she succumbed to influenza following the death of her daughter. Her years back among the whites saw several attempts to escape back to her Indian family and her failure to readjust. Cynthia is perhaps the most well-known Indian captive, and unfortunately her story typifies the return of the captive.

Cynthia Ann Parker

During last half of the 19th century in Texas dozens of white children were taken captive by the Indians. When a former captive was returned to their families it was big news, and reporters were sometimes on scene to record the reunions. Except the reunions were oddly subdued. Newspapers found they had to stretch the truth to paint a rosy picture. The families were happy to have their children back, but the feeling was not reciprocated.

In his book, the Captured, author Scott Zesch focuses on the cases of children taken from German immigrants in the Texas hill country, including a relative of his own. The mystifying thing about the children taken captive was how quickly they became Indianized. In as little as six months the children had almost forgotten their native language and were speaking in the tongue of their new group. A child recovered after a year was feared to be a lost cause.

What happened to these children to make them switch allegiance? And remember some of these children had witnessed the cruel murders of their own family member at the hands of their captors. There is a little Stockholm Syndrome going on, I'm sure ("You didn't kill me. Thank you. I love you."), but there had to be more.

If you look at the lives of the children before capture it's a bleak picture. The German immigrants who were lured to Texas with the promise of an easy life were disappointed. Living in one room cabins that were inadequate against the elements, the settlers toiled from daybreak to nightfall.
The parents had little time for their children, who grew up illiterate and impoverished in many cases. And, I hate to say this, Germans, but the other immigrants and settlers regarded the German parents as overly stern and lacking in affection.

In contrast, the captive children were adopted into the tribe, often by a couple who had lost their own children, and lavished with attention. Compared to life on the ranch, there was much more leisure time. One girl who was returned to her family (after first trying to escape with her adoptive mother), had fond memories of riding on her pony with her hair ornaments blowing behind her. There existed a sense of community that was lacking in the isolated homes of the settlers. And the tepees were a better shelter than the drafty cabins.
Comanche Camp

The Indian boy was a pampered member of the tribe, and this was true for the so-called white Indian youths as well. The young boys spent their days swimming, hunting, learning to fight, riding, and playing games. At night they shared a tepee. They ate when they were hungry like the rest of the tribe. The pot of food was always out. I mean, what boy wouldn't love that?

There is a story of one returned captive going out hunting. When he came home and left his horse with a deer slung over its back out in front of the house, he couldn't understand why the women didn't rush out, lead his horse away, and dress the deer.

In addition, the captives were mentored by adult members of the tribe. And this is an important factor, I think, because remember they came from a situation where parents didn't have much room for "quality time" with their children.

The boys were taught the art of warfare, and eventually the time came when they were included in raiding parties. Not only did they go willingly, they were eager to prove themselves. In later years after these white Indians returned to white society they were reluctant to speak about this, but it was noted they had scalps hanging from their war shields same as any warrior.

One such boy while on out of a raid, passed by his former home. He said he could've looked in the window to see his mother if he wished. But, he didn't.

With the Comanches, a captive could rise in status within the tribe as if he had been born there. Cynthia Ann Parker was happily married to a chief, Peta Nocona, who cared for her so much he didn't take a second wife. Her son, Quanah Parker, became a leader of the Comanches and part of the last band to turn themselves in and move to the reservation. Quanah's right-hand man was Herman Lehmann, another child captive.

The stories Zesch followed didn't have happy endings. When the children returned to their families they typically became discipline problems in school and in their communities. They had trouble sleeping in beds. This was a common comment, which I find interesting. They preferred to sleep on the floor or even outside.

As adults, Zesch makes the point that none of the former captives (with one exception) seemed to have made a successful marriage or settle down to prosper in any way.

Two of the captives grabbed my imagination more than the others, Temple Friend and Rudolph Fischer. Friend because his story was so heartbreaking, and Fischer's because he was an exception to the rule.

Temple was captured during a raid on his family while the men were away. He witnessed what he thought was the murder of his stepmother, and then on route to the Indian camp, the murder of an infant and a toddler. The three adult women who were taken along with him were raped and brutally murdered. As it turns out his stepmother, Matilda Friend, who was heavily pregnant at the time didn't die. She was shot twice with arrows, had her hand hacked by a knife, and was scalped--all the while playing dead.
Temple Friend and Topish at Fort Sill, 1871 after being liberated from the Comanches. They had their long hair cut and their Indian clothes taken away.

Temple was ten at the time of capture. Six years later he was returned to his family during a general exchange between the army and the Comanches. His grandfather took him and a second unidentified boy, who's Indian name was Topish home. Temple couldn't adjust to the white world. He acted out and was teased in school to the point he was taken out. He and Topish would escape to the woods often to act as they used to.

A strange wasting disease took hold of Temple, and he died a year and a half after being returned to his family. Some said he died of a broken heart. His sister said probably the best thing would've been if they brought him home just to see he was all right and then let him go back to his Comanche family. After Temple's death, Topish (who may have been John Maxey) ran off and was never heard from again--presumably going back to the Comanches.

In contrast Rudolph Fischer was taken while he was out on his own and was older at the time of his capture. By the time his whereabouts were discovered, he'd lived with the Comanches for thirteen years and had a wife and two children. He had no desire to return to his birth family, but at last was persuaded. He didn't suffer the behavior problems the other returned captives did, maybe because he was older, but he clearly wasn't happy. His father even offered to send for his wife and children, but Rudolph turned down the offer saying they'd be miserable.

Rudolph Fischer and his adoptive father, Black Crow, 1878

One day he announced he was going off hunting and would be back in the winter. I think this was the 19th c equivalent of "I'm going out for a pack of cigarettes," because he never came home. He moved back to the Comanches and his wife and children. He only returned to his natural family two more times for brief visits to settle estates after the deaths of his father and brother.

Unlike many, Rudolph was able to adjust to reservation life, and in the end became a wealthy man when oil was found on his land. He had eight children with his Comanche wife with whom he seems to have had a happy life. For a time he was also married to his wife's sister, but when he converted to Catholicism, he gave up the second wife. Two of his children married two of Quanah Parker's children.

One explanation for the failure of the captives to reintegrate back into white society is that their lives as Comanches was better than life as a white. I think this is true, but not the whole explanation.

In the book News of the World by Paulette Jiles, the subject of which is the returning of a captive girl to her family, one of the characters compares the rescued captives to children who survived the Great Famine in Ireland. These survivors witnessed such unimaginable horrors, they were never quite of this world again.

I can't help but agree. These kids had trauma upon trauma heaped on them, witnessed brutalities on both sides and twice were ripped away from their families. Reading the accounts I'm bothered by the times it's commented that the returned captives looked younger and smaller than expected for their age. Failure to thrive comes to mind, especially when reading of their behavior as described by family members after their return. Look at the image above of Temple Friend. He's sixteen in that picture but looks much younger to me.

Some former captives did try and return to the tribe as adults, but by that time the lifestyle they knew was a thing of the past. The Indians were now trying to adjust to life on the reservation, so that refuge was lost to them too. It's no wonder that Scott Zesch's great uncle, Adolph Korn, gave up and went to spend his remaining years alone, living in a cave high above the ground. It was a cave with a view: spread out below for miles were the plains he'd once run free in.


Andrea Downing said...

Absolutely fascinating Patti. I don't know what else to say but this story really grabbed me. Great makings for a book!

Patti Sherry-Crews said...

Thanks, Andi! I got really hooked on this one and spent time looking up captive stories online. We were watching The Son on TV last night with Pierce Brosnan playing a fictional character who was a Comanche captive. It struck me again while watching this series how well the writer has captured the captive experience, and really the main character has so much in common with Rudolph Fischer--though Rudolph was a much nicer man by all accounts.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting, especially as for me as a German. But may I say something that contradicts your text? Please follow the link and you will find the gravesite of Lee Temple Friend with a picture of his gravestone. Accordingly to this stone he died just a few weeks after his 15th birthday in 1875. That said I think he was twelve years old when they took this photograph, they took that picture in the fall of 1872 in Fort Sill, so says the caption in the book of Scott Zesch "The Captured: A True Story of Abduction by Indians on the Texas Frontier".

Here the link:

thank you for your work!