June 25, 2008

Cynthia Ann Parker in Comanche Moon

The Comanche Moon mini-series portrayed the fate of Cynthia Ann Parker, a white woman captured by the Comanche. More correctly, it misportrayed her fate. Here's the story.

In Sources for Comanche Moon, I wrote:Comanche Moon showed her briefly but shortchanged her situation. She wailed when the Rangers removed her, but they said she'd get over it. Viewers were left with that as their final impression.Someone named IndianThenNowForever responded:If you watched the miniseries, the scene with Cynthia Ann Parker DOES NOT even imply "she'll get over it." It says, straightaway, that she WON'T get over it...and the DVD version, which I just watched, elaborates on that.He or another commenter (Anonymous) then quoted the dialog from the scene.

Since I was going by memory when I wrote my comment, I couldn't verify my claims. But now I've checked the Comanche Moon DVD. The characters didn't literally say Parker would get over it, which is why I didn't put the "get over it" claim in quotes. But I'd say the show implied it.

More to the point, the creators definitely shortchanged Parker's situation. It was arguably a whitewash of her case. The effect was to bolster Comanche Moon's underlying message: that the Americans were civilized and the Indians weren't.

The reality

Let's review the Parker story. First, the relevant historical facts:

Cynthia Ann ParkerOn May 19, 1836, Fort Parker was attacked by several hundred Caddo, Comanche and Kiowa. They killed several of its inhabitants. During the raid the Comanches seized five captives, including Cynthia Ann. Within 6 years, all the captives had been returned to their white families, except Cynthia Ann who remained with the Indians for almost twenty-five years, forgot white ways, and became thoroughly Comanche.

Although she was beaten and abused at first, she was soon integrated into the tribe. Cynthia was given to a Tenowish Comanche couple who cared for her, and who raised her like their own daughter. She became Comanche in every sense; was trained in Native ways and was totally devoted to her adopted parents. The memories of her white life quickly faded, and every attempt to ransom her was refused by the tribal council at her request.

It is said that in the mid-1840s her brother, John Parker, who had been captured with her, asked her to return to their white family, but she refused, explaining that she loved her husband and children too much to leave them. She is also said to have rejected Indian trader Victor Rose's invitation to accompany him back to white settlements a few years later, though the story of the invitation may be apocryphal.

A newspaper account of April 29, 1846, describes an encounter of Col. Leonard G. Williams's trading party with Cynthia Ann, who was camped with Comanches on the Canadian River. Despite Williams's ransom offers, tribal elders refused to release her. Later, federal officials P. M. Butler and M. G. Lewis encountered Cynthia Ann with the Yamparika Comanches on the Washita River; by then she was a full-fledged member of the tribe and married to a Comanche warrior. She never voluntarily returned to white society. Indian agent Robert S. Neighbors learned, probably in 1848, that she was among the Tenawa Comanches. He was told by other Comanches that only force would induce her captors to release her.
Cynthia Ann ParkerRecapture by Texas Rangers at Pease River

In December 1860, Cynthia Ann and her daughter were among a Native American party captured at the Battle of Pease River by Texas Rangers led by "Sul" Ross.

When Ross arrived back at the campground, he discovered that the woman his men had captured had blue eyes.

Though some of the Rangers urged Ross to set her free to return to the Comanches, he considered it best to try to return her to her white family.


Cynthia Ann never adapted to her new life among the whites, and attempted to escape on several occasions. Her brother, Silas Jr., was appointed her guardian in 1862, and took her to his home in Van Zandt County. When Silas was mustered into the Confederate Army, Cynthia Ann went to live with her sister, Orlena. According to some accounts, the Parker family was negotiating to return her to west Texas and her adopted people when the American Civil War broke out. The chief cause of Cynthia Ann's unhappiness was that she missed her sons and never knew what had happened to them. In 1863, her daughter, Prairie Flower, caught influenza and died from pneumonia.

In her grief, Cynthia Ann stopped eating. She became sick and died in 1870.
The fiction

Next, Comanche Moon's phony version of the same story and the problems with it:

  • There's no mention that the white men knew where Parker was and had negotiated for her release repeatedly. No mention that these white men were sensible enough not to try removing her by force. They understood, if only implicitly, that they couldn't compel her to prefer white society.

  • There's no mention that the Rangers captured Parker after they killed or scattered her people. That they didn't even know they had captured her at first. That a single Ranger, "Sul" Ross, arbitrarily decided to return her to white society

  • In the TV version, the Rangers identify her as Parker first, then decide to remove her. They act as if she's been missing and lost for 25 years, which is patently untrue (see above). They ignore the conventional wisdom that kidnapping her won't succeed--that the only way to secure her return is with her approval.

    In reality, "Sul" Ross had an excuse for ignoring the conventional wisdom: his Rangers had killed most of Parker's people. There were no Comanches nearby to return her to. In the fictional version, the Rangers have no such excuse. They take her despite the Comanches surrounding and shielding her.

    The implication? She'll get over it, eventually.

  • The key lines from Comanche Moon are these:

    MAJOR FEATHERSTONAUGH:  If you’re certain she’s a white woman, we have to take her back, Mr. Goodnight.

    GUS MCCRAE:  We know that, Major.

    The words put in Gus's mouth are absolutely false. The previous negotiators for Parker's release knew she was a white woman but didn't "take her back" against her will. They did not believe they had to take her back. Unlike these fictional Rangers, they recognized the complexity of the situation.

  • The implication? She'll get over it, eventually.

  • Gus McCrea and Woodrow Call weigh in against removing Parker. But they're talking to themselves more than they're objecting to the others. They don't raise their voices or precipitate an argument. They don't "urge" the Rangers to free her.

    Regardless of what they say, they offer no resistance to the decision. All they do is comment on a done deal. In other words, they acquiesce in Parker's removal. They implicitly--and in Gus's case, explicitly--agree she "has" to go back.

  • The implication? She'll get over it, eventually.

  • On the ride back to town, Parker doesn't scream or wail, thrash about, or try to escape. Other than one shot of her looking confused as she glances around the town, she shows no reaction to her captivity. It seems as though she's already adjusting to her new life.

  • The implication? She'll get over it, eventually.

  • The young men with the Rangers recount Parker's "rescue" to Woodrow's son Newt. They're almost gleeful, as if they've done a good deed. Judging by their attitude, they believe their actions are right and the warnings are wrong.

  • The implication? She'll get over it, eventually.

  • There's no further mention of Parker's return to "civilization." Nothing about her trying to escape repeatedly. Nothing about the Parker family planning to return her to the Comanches. Nothing about her dying in captivity like a caged animal.

  • The implication? She got over it, eventually.


    Comanche Moon presents a sanitized, pro-American version of Parker's return. In reality, it was an immoral and inhumane mistake that ended tragically. On TV, it was a justified act of duty with no negative consequences (despite a few unheeded warnings). The Rangers "had" to return her because, well, civilization is better than savagery.

    For more on the subject, see The Best Indian Movies.


    writerfella said...

    Writerfella here --
    White men see all history as white history. What else is new?
    All Best
    Russ Bates

    Rob said...

    What's new is your implicit criticism of Larry McMurtry. In the past you've defended him and other white men. You've touted their stereotypical portrayals of Indians, thus demonstrating you're as ignorant as they are.

    writerfella said...

    Writerfella here --
    Nonsense. writerfella merely has acknowledged that Larry McMurtry's films and TV have been successful. Compare his bank account with your own, and you will see the difference between your existence and his...
    All Best
    Russ Bates

    Rob said...

    Nonsense yourself. When I criticized the stereotypes in Comanche Moon, did you agree with me? No, you disagreed with me. Here's one of your typical responses:

    COMANCHE MOON, in part due to the paucity of new material on network television, both was a ratings and a financial success. The LONESOME DOVE television saga now is over and done, period. Apparently there are some in this world who do not realize WHY real life lies outside the ranges of their own lives, knowledge, accomplishments, and opinions...

    Rob said...

    Let me parse your response for you, since you apparently don't realize what you said.

    You touted the "ratings and financial" success as the only measure of success--as you've often done in the past. In other words, you don't grasp or acknowledge the concept of a critical success. Comanche Moon was a critical failure, but you don't care about that. All you care about is whether it succeeded by the white man's criterion.

    You've responded exactly as I imagine Larry McMurtry would respond. Namely, that Comanche Moon was a ratings and financial success so the negative reviews don't matter. In other words, you're shilling for the man. You're telling us that his measure of success is also your measure of success. According to you, it's the only measure that matters.

    Your comment about "real life" lying outside my experience is related to your latest comment: "Compare his bank account with your own, and you will see the difference between your existence and his." In both cases you've denigrated me and my criticism. Which you've done many, many times before. You clearly don't think there's any good reason to criticize Native stereotypes.

    Do you know the term "apple," Russ: red on the outside and white on the inside? Because it applies to you whenever you talk about movies. You've never met a Hollywood stereotype of Indians you can't excuse or ignore.

    I'll be glad to compare McMurtry's bank account with mine. Let's see...the main difference is that I have integrity when it comes to writing about Indians and he doesn't. I put authenticity first and he puts income first.

    You also favor income over integrity, apparently. You accepted Mel Gibson's falsification of Maya culture, and you're willing to falsify Anasazi culture. You'll tell the world the Anasazi aren't related to the Pueblo people when every archaeologist says they are.

    You're also willing to write for Redskin (not Red Skin) magazine even if most Natives consider the word offensive. You're consistent, at least, I'll grant you that--consistently a sellout. You'll sell out your fellow Natives when it comes to making a buck.

    Here's a question for you, apple. If you could write something as stereotypical as Comanche Moon, get it produced, and earn as much as McMurtry did, would you do it? I wouldn't, because money isn't my primary motivation. I'm guessing you would because you care more about promoting yourself than anything else.

    Let us know your answer, Russ. Yes or no: Would you do what McMurtry did? Go ahead and assure us that you wouldn't sell out for the money.

    If you're too stinking afraid to answer a simple yes/no question, I think I'll call you a banana instead of an apple. You know, white on the inside and yellow on the outside. Yes, I think that describes you well.

    writerfella said...

    Writerfella here --
    Critical success? ROTFLMAO!! That was great! We need more such comedy! Television is all about money, the ad time sold, viewer numbers and market shares counted, and the demographics scored. Period! Do you actually think that critics mean a dollar to a doughnut in such an arena? Not on your little Dutch boy tintype, sir...
    All Best
    Russ Bates

    Rob said...

    That would explain the inaccuracies in your Anasazi script and your fawning over Redskin magazine. You don't care if you offend Native people while you profit from them. In short, you're a sellout, just as I said.

    And thanks for proving your intellectual cowardice, banana. You couldn't answer a simple yes/no question. I guess you were too busy shilling for the man. Wipe your nose before it turns brown from kissing asses.

    In case you're as ignorant as you seem, many TV shows are put on the air as a gamble with no guarantee of success. The networks roll the dice because they believe quality will attract viewers. Examples range from Star Trek and All in the Family to Roots and Lonesome Dove.

    Let me repeat that: According to the Lonesome Dove DVD, the project was a huge gamble. Nobody knew whether an untried Western would succeed or fail. CBS execs put it on because they thought it was good and it might do well. Again, they hoped its quality would attract viewers.

    I could name thousands of movies and TV shows people made even though they didn't expect to earn big money. Why did they do it? Often because they had artistic passion and vision--something you evidently lack.

    Sheesh, are you really this clueless about how Hollywood operates? You stupidly claim that studios and networks base every decision on money. But when I challenge you to explain why they "waste" time and money making their stories historically accurate, you can't answer. You're struck dumb by your own ignorance.