Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

A Fate Worse than Death

To undertake to narrate their barbarous treatment would only add to my present distress, for it is with feelings of the deepest mortification that I think of it, much less to speak or write of it.

Rachel Parker Plummer, Rachael Plummer's Narrative of Twenty One Months Servitude as a Prisoner Among the Commanchee Indians

Previously we were inhabiting the sunnier world of children's literature, as evidenced by Darwin's post on re-reading Laura Ingalls Wilder, but now his leisure non-fiction reading has been increasingly grim, which is to say he's reading history. Atrocities in the Ukraine, mayhem in the trenches, malfeasance during the Spanish Civil War: these are the pleasantries that make for charming conversation here. Every time I see his current read, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, sitting on a table, I give it a wide berth because I don't want it to grab me and forcibly imprint the horrors of collectivization and famine and the killing fields of Europe on my brain. I am squeamish, and I make no apologies for it. History is a catalog of man's inhumanity to man, and were I not Catholic, I believe it would drive me to despair.

It makes one long for the simpler days of the Laura Ingalls' prairie, except that the book Darwin is listening to give us new insight into the hatred of Ma for the Indians which, in these tolerant and less turbulent times, seems like a throwback to an earlier age of prejudice. Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History is about the last chief of the Comanches and the drive in the 1870s to defeat that nation and make the frontier safe for white settlement. The havoc wreaked by the Comanches and the Texas Rangers in turn would have been current events to the Wilders, though they were dealing with less martial Osage tribe in Kansas. However, it's possible that what settled in Ma's psyche was not Quanah Parker's present warfare, but his family history.

Quanah Parker was a half-breed, the son of a Comanche chief and a white woman, Cynthia Ann Parker. Cynthia Ann had been captured in 1836 at the age of nine, in the Fort Parker massacre, along with her brother; her 17 year-old cousin Rachel Parker Plummer and her one-year-old son James Pratt Plummer; and her aunt Elizabeth Duty Kellogg, in her thirties. Although the others were ransomed at various times, Cynthia Ann refused to leave the Comanches. Adopted into the tribe and now called Nautdah, she was by all accounts happily married to Peta Nocona, an influential chief and one of the leaders of the Fort Parker massacre, and bore him three children. In the attack in which Peta Nocona was killed, Nautdah and her daughter Topsannah were recaptured and returned to the Parker family. This was no idyllic reunion: the 34-year-old woman remembered little of her life before the Indians and longed to return to her tribe, but her escape attempts were all foiled. After the death of little Topsannah from pneumonia, Nautdah seemed to lose the will to live. Six years later, she starved herself to death.

A melancholy narrative, but one which finds its counterpoint in a book written by Cynthia Ann's aunt, Rachel Plummer. Rachael Plummer's Narrative of Twenty One Months Servitude as a Prisoner Among the Commanchee Indians, one of the first published accounts of Indian captivity, was written in 1838, shortly after she was ransomed. At home and abroad, readers were agog at her detailed descriptions of Comanche life, psychology, and, of course, savagery.

The aftermath of the Parker raid was horrific: the captives were dragged naked, beaten savagely, and the two adult women were gang-raped in view of the children. Elizabeth Kellogg was sold to another tribe and ransomed after three months, but Rachel Plummer endured 21 months among the Comanche. Her son was taken from her after her captors realized that he'd been weaned, and she never saw him again. Rachel was pregnant when captured, and when her baby was six weeks old, the braves decided that he was slowing her down too much. They threw him repeatedly in the air and let him dash on the ground, only letting his mother go to him when it seemed he was dead. When she was able to revive him a bit, they tied him to a horse and dragged him through the cactus until his tiny body was torn to pieces. After months of brutal slavery, Rachel snapped and nearly beat to death one of the women tormenting her. To her surprise, this act of vengence won her the respect of her captors, and her lot improved as she began to return blow for blow.

Rachel Plummer was finally ransomed, but her return to her family was bittersweet. Her once beautiful red hair had turned gray; she was emaciated and scarred. Her wrists bore the marks of the leather thongs which had bound her in the first days of her captivity. She was tortured by thoughts of her sons, especially whether her baby might have been spared if she had lashed out earlier. She died a year later, exhausted from her sufferings and another childbirth, mourning to the end the loss of her little James Plummer, who would not be ransomed for two more years. She was 20 years old.

Rachel Plummer's ordeal was not unique, and stories of Indian captivity must have been vivid in the minds of pioneers such as Charles and Caroline Ingalls as they must have wondered whether each day could lead to a fate worse than death for themselves and their children.

8 comments:

Lauren said...

Thanks Mrs. D, for these happy thoughts! I too am sensitive to these sorts of horrors, and I'm happy to read about pleasant things if I can. We recently watched the John Wayne classic, The Searchers, which is about attempts to rescue two girls captured by the Comanche. Thankfully the movie is vague about the torture, but you get the gist of what's going on.

mrsdarwin said...

Lauren, The Searchers is said to have been based partly on the search for Cynthia Ann by her uncle, James Parker.

Anonymous said...

Good insights--Ingalls Wilder promoted a vision of humanity in keeping with Catholic teaching, as did E.F. Schumacher: http://www.ncregister.com/daily-news/the-vision-of-e.f.-schumacher

mrsdarwin said...

Anon, perhaps -- but I wonder if the Ingalls outlook as expressed in the books is too individualistic to fit with a truly Catholic understanding. Though I respect the bootstrapping approach of Pa, it seems that it could be isolating to be so determined to rely on no one else.

And in, in poignant counterpoint, the fact of Mary's blindness is a lovely example of how a family can treat a disabled member with dignity.

Gail F said...

Oh, the Ingalls family was a Protestant one all right! Not that I think anything is wrong with Catholics reading the books; but you won't get a Catholic view of the world from them.

The story you related here is horrible. It is the kind of thing cultural relativists need to remember when they start spouting stuff about how all cultures are inherently good. Of course I would never say Indian cultures were evil! People are savage and cruel everywhere. But there is a reason Europeans had a horror and fear of some Indians, and it is silly to pretend that all the atrocity came from the West.

mrsdarwin said...

Gail, one of the reasons I had to write this post was to exorcise the story from my mind. I've been brooding over it for the past two days, and it's making me sick.

And in this case it isn't even a "white man good, Indian bad" narrative: the Comanches were notorious for their treatment of other Indians as well; the Spaniards were warned about them by other natives in their early explorations.

The Opinionated Homeschooler said...

Though not all the details were covered, the story of Cynthia Ann Parker was part of the Texas history curriculum when I was in high school. And of course, we got to watch "The Searchers." Our teacher was particularly good at using the film as a teaching tool rather than just an hour and a half of not having to teach, and discussed with us where reality diverged significantly from Hollywood.

Class factotum said...

I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Chile, where I worked with a group of indigenous women (Mapuche). One of the women in my office told me that before us white people showed up, no Mapuche man had ever beat his wife - that they didn't even know how to make a fist.

I rolled my eyes.

Human nature has been pretty constant across time and cultures.