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.