Rachel Parker Plummer (1818–1839) was the daughter of James W. Parker and the cousin of Quanah Parker, last free-roaming chief of the Comanches. An Anglo-Texan woman of Scots-Irish descent, she was kidnapped at the age of seventeen, along with her son, James Pratt Plummer, age two, and her cousins, by a Native American raiding party.
Rachel Plummer's 21 months among the Comanche as a prisoner became a sensation when she wrote a book about her captivity, Rachael Plummer's Narrative of Twenty One Months' Servitude as a Prisoner Among the Commanchee Indians, which was issued in Houston in 1838. This was the first narrative about a captive of Texas Indians published in the Republic of Texas, and it was a sensation not just there, but in the United States and even abroad. In 1844, after Rachel's death, her father published a revised edition of her book as an appendix to his Narrative of the Perilous Adventures, Miraculous Escapes and Sufferings of Rev. James W. Parker. Her book is considered an example of the captivity narrative used as propaganda to justify war against Native Americans, and an invaluable look at Comanche culture before environmental destruction, disease, starvation, and war forced them onto reservations.
Birth and early years
Rachel Plummer was born in 1818 in Crawford County, Illinois1, the second youngest living child of James W. Parker (1797-1864) and Martha Duty Parker. She had two living siblings, and three siblings who had died at an early age. Her family and allied families, led by her father James and uncle Silas, moved from Illinois to Texas along with other sons of Elder John Parker (1758-1836) and Sally White Parker, as part of the large Parker family. From that moment on, her life became anything but ordinary.
Rachel Parker spent most of her youth in Illinois. At age 14, considered a grown woman in that era, described by her father in his later book as a "red haired beauty of rare courage and intelligence," Rachel married Luther M. Plummer, and moved with the Parker family in 1830 to Conway County, Arkansas, which her father used as a staging ground for exploratory trips to Texas. In 1832 her father proposed to Stephen F. Austin that the Parkers be permitted to settle 50 families north of the Little Brazos River, in what was considered part of the Comancheria. One of the 50 families was that of Luther Plummer and his wife Rachel. Austin did not reply to this proposal. James Parker was the first of the Parkers to come to Texas, and his persistence led to his being given a league of land north of the site of present Groesbeck on April 1, 1835. Luther Plummer was also awarded a league of land by his father-in-law's stubborn entreaties to the Mexican Government.
Establishment in Texas
The Plummers joined other Parker family members, including father James, his brothers Silas and Benjamin and their families, in moving to Texas. The older brother Daniel Parker was already in Texas, though not with the other Parkers. The Parker clan led by James, including the Plummer family, moved to their land grant, and built Fort Parker at the headwaters of the Navasota River. It was completed in March 1834, before they had even been legally awarded the land on which it was built. Rachel's grandfather, Elder John Parker, then joined them, with his second wife, Sally “Granny” (Duty) Parker. Fort Parker's 12-foot (4 m) high pointed log walls enclosed 4 acres (16,000 m2). Blockhouses were placed on two corners for lookouts and to make defense of the fort possible. Six cabins were attached to the inside walls. The fort had one large gate facing south, and a small rear gate for easy access to the spring waters.
Though the families in the Parker group were beginning to build cabins outside the Fort, the vast majority still slept inside for protection. Elder John Parker had negotiated treaties with local Indian chiefs, and believed they would protect the little colony. Luther Plummer believed his family was safe, but his father-in-law, James Parker, was not so sure, since he understood what his relatives did not, that the Comanche were not a unified "tribe" as the Europeans understood such, but a group of bands and divisions united by common cultural ties. His brother Silas had raised, and become Captain, of a local Ranger company, which James felt could attract the anger of Indians who felt abused by the Rangers.
Fort Parker Massacre
On May 19, 1836, at sunrise, everything appeared normal as the men went to the work in the fields. Plummer, three months pregnant with her second child, was in the fort caring for her firstborn, James Pratt, two years old, the first child born to the Parker family in Texas. It would be the last normal morning of Rachel Plummer's life, and the last time she would ever see her child. Her husband and father were working in the fields.
In her memoir, Plummer wrote that "one minute the fields (in front of the fort) were clear, and the next moment, more Indians than I dreamed possible were in front of the fort." As the Parkers debated what to do, one of the Indians approached the fort with a white flag. No one believed the flag was genuine, but Benjamin Parker believed it gave the family a chance for most of them to escape. He got his father's support to try a bold gamble, and went out to try to buy time for the family to escape - which most of them did. Only five women and children were captured.
As the other women and children were leaving, Plummer chose to stay in the fort out of fear that she and her son would not be able to keep up. After Benjamin Parker returned from his first talks with the Indians and warned them that they would likely all die, Plummer wanted to flee, but Silas told her to watch the front gate while he ran for his musket and powder pouch. “They will kill Benjamin,” she reported her Uncle Silas saying, “and then me, but I will do for at least one of them, by God.” At that moment, she said she heard whooping outside the fort, and then Indians were inside. She then ran, holding her little boy's hand, while behind her she said she saw Indians stabbing Benjamin with their lances.
Plummer was then seized by mounted warriors who threw her up behind them, and watched helplessly while another seized her son. She witnessed her grandfather's torture and murder and her grandmother's rape. Her cousins Cynthia Ann Parker and John Richard Parker were also captured. All five of the men present in the fort that morning were killed. That night the war party stopped and did a ritual scalp dance, and then raped the two women. Plummer never directly addressed the subject of rape in her book except to say dryly that anyone who said that a good woman died before being violated had not been forced to run naked tied by a rope to a horse for a day or two in the sun, and further:
|“||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 did, however, write candidly about the culture and psyche of the Comanche.
Captivity among the Comanche
Plummer's book is considered an invaluable glimpse into the culture and mindset of the Comanche as a people before disease and war forced them onto reservations. She not only recounted her feelings about her captivity, but detailed the life, lifestyle, and much as she could, the mindset of the Comanche. She detailed the roles men, women, children, and temporary captives or "slaves," played in that society, and why. In her account of her life among the Comanche, Rachel wrote that six weeks after giving birth to a healthy son, the warriors decided she was slowed too much by childcare, and threw her son down on the ground. When he stopped moving, they left her to bury him. When she revived him, they returned and tied the infant to a rope, and dragged him through cactuses until the frail, tiny body was literally torn to pieces.
In the meantime, her father, James Parker, was searching frantically for her. Rachel wrote that she had never seen open space the size of the Great Plains, and her travels with the Comanche took her to what her father later thought was Colorado in the northernmost part of the Comancheria. She attended a giant meeting of all divisions and bands of the Comanche, their allies the Kiowa and the Kiowa Apache, while the tribes considered whether to drive the Texans completely from the Comancheria, and conquer Mexico. There were thousands of Indians present, and Rachel Plummer wrote she had never seen so many people, nor imagined there to be so many Indians. Her accounts of her travels, and the untamed land she saw, remains one of the best descriptions of the early west in existence.
Ironically, Rachel's lot among the Comanche improved dramatically in the month before her ransom. The women charged with her supervision routinely beat and tormented her. One day, Rachel simply snapped, and began fiercely beating the younger of the two women who she was a slave to. She expected to be killed at any moment, writing “at any second I expected a spear in the back, but instead, the warriors seemed amused, and gathered and watched us fight.” Rachel's long captivity might have sapped her physical strength, but it had left her with a surfeit of rage and hate which enabled her to easily defeat the younger woman, and nearly beat her to death. After the fight was over, Rachel was astonished that no one helped the young Comanche woman, and she herself finally helped her to the lodge, and dressed her wounds. This did not however assuage the anger of the older woman, who tried to burn Rachel alive. Rachel ended up beating her nearly to death as well, after burning her. At that point, the tribal council intervened, and heard out all three women, and first, ordered Rachel to repair the lodge, which had been broken in the second fight as settlement for the fights. Realizing with astonishment she was being treated as an equal and full Comanche, Rachel spoke to the Council and told them she refused the judgment unless the other two women assisted her in the repair, since she had started neither fight, and since she was being judged as a Comanche, not a slave, should be more fairly treated. The Council agreed, and ordered the three to repair the lodge.
Rachel was stunned that she was treated as an equal by the council, which later, she understood came with her demonstration of the one quality which elevated anyone in the eyes of the Comanche - courage. Later, one of the Chiefs of the band she was with told her:
- ”You are brave to fight. Good to fallen enemy. You are directed by the Great Spirit. Indians do not have pity on a fallen enemy. By our law, it is clear. It is contrary to our law to show foul play. She began with you, and you had a right to kill her. Your noble spirit forbad you. When Indians fight, the conqueror gives or takes the life of his or her antagonist, and they seldom spare them.”
Plummer found her lot much improved by these encounters, as she was correct that nothing she could have done could have earned her more respect than standing her ground and fighting. She noted in her book "they respected bravery more than anything, I learned. I wish I had known it sooner." She wrote how that affected her quite simply: “After that, I took up for myself, and fared much the better for it.”
Of course, the knowledge that her courage changed her status dramatically led to her possible conviction that had she shown such elan from the onset, her child would be alive. That haunted her. What she did not know at this point, was that her captivity was coming to an end. Her father's desperate efforts to find her had finally begun to pay off. He had located Comancheros who were willing to go and trade for her, and his instructions were to ransom her at any cost. The Comanches were camped north of Santa Fe when they were approached by Comancheros who wanted to ransom Rachel in accordance with the instructions of her father. She wrote in her book of the agony of believing that the traders had not offered enough to buy her freedom - and her not knowing that in fact, they were simply trying to get the best bargain, because her father had told them to pay any price, no matter how high, to rescue her. She was sold to them on June 19, 1837. Her rescue had been arranged by Colonel and Mrs. William Donaho, acting for the Parker family, and to whom she was delivered in Santa Fe after a journey of 17 days. Two weeks after her arrival, the Donahos, fearing trouble as the native population of Santa Fe was in virtual rebellion, fled some 800 miles (1,300 km) to Independence, Missouri, with Rachel with them. Three months later, Rachel's brother-in-law, Lorenzo D. Nixon, escorted her back to Texas, since her father was still out in the Comancherio searching for her. She was reunited with her husband on February 19, 1838, nearly two years after the Fort Parker Massacre. She was gaunt to the point of near starvation, covered with scars and sores, and in very poor health.
Plummer became pregnant again almost as soon as she was returned home, and on January 4, 1839, bore a third child, a son, Luther Plummer II. She died in Houston shortly thereafter, on March 19, 1839; the child died two days later. Though medically she was listed as dying from complications after childbirth, James Parker did not believe that, and insisted she died from the mistreatment she suffered at the hands of the Comanche, the murder of one child, and not knowing what happened to her other child. However, the most likely cause of her death is the trek that she, her husband, her father and several others were forced to make during a night of freezing rain. During James Parker's search for her, he made more than a few enemies: in an unexplained incident, he was accused of murdering a woman and her child. The victims' family had finally found Parker and were going to avenge their murdered family members, so Parker snuck his family out of the house during the night, sleeping outdoors and staying off roads. Rachel and her baby died during that trek. The night before she died, Plummer reportedly told her father “if only I knew what had become of my dear little James Pratt Plummer I could die in peace.” At the time of her death, she was 20 years old and her fiery red hair had turned grey. Her oldest, and only living, son was recovered two years later. Late in 1842 James Pratt Plummer was ransomed, and in 1843 he was reunited with his grandfather.
James Parker felt that his son in law had not supported his efforts to reclaim his wife and grandson, nor done much to support the family while his father in law did the duty which should have been his. James Parker felt so strongly about Luther Plummer's failings that he refused to return his son to him, and despite the President of Texas ruling in Luther Plummer's favor, refused to honor the ruling, and the child never saw his father again. He grew up and lived with his mother's family. Luther Plummer knew enough of James Parker to not attempt to force the issue.
The Other Version of the Reverend James Parker Story: Seems Sam Houston had a totally different take on Rachel's husband, i.e., Luther Thomas Martin Plummer than his father-in-law and Houston puts the villain tag on the good Reverend rather than Plummer. In fact, the Old General seems to have dismissed anything Reverend Parker would have to say about Luther Plummer. The source of all the aforementioned comments can be read in former Dallas Morning News columnist the late Frank X. Tolbert's book, "An Informal History of Texas" in the chapter "Was Uncle James (Parker) The Villain?" Most Texans would be more inclined to believe Sam Houston rather than the rogue Reverend James W. Parker.Sam Houston communicated in a letter to Luther Thomas Martin (L.T.M.) Plummer that "Reverend Parker had quite a bad reputation with most all he ever had business dealings." Sam Houston did not trust the judgement of Rev. Parker and could not believe that he would not return young James Pratt Plummer to his natural father.
- Exley, J.A. Frontier Blood: The Saga of the Parker Family
- Fehrenbach, T. R. Comanches, The Destruction of a People
- Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History by S.C. Gwynne
- L.T.M. Plummer (1961). An Informal History of Texas, Harper, New York
- Bial, Raymond. Lifeways: The Comanche. New York: Benchmark Books, 2000.
- Fehrenbach, Theodore Reed The Comanches: The Destruction of a People. New York: Knopf, 1974, ISBN 0-394-48856-3. Later (2003) republished under the title The Comanches: The History of a People
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- Frazier, Ian. Great Plains. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1989.
- Lodge, Sally. Native American People: The Comanche. Vero Beach, Florida 32964: Rourke Publications, Inc., 1992.
- Lund, Bill. Native Peoples: The Comanche Indians. Mankato, Minnesota: Bridgestone Books, 1997.
- Mooney, Martin. The Junior Library of American Indians: The Comanche Indians. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1993.
- Native Americans: Comanche (August 13, 2005).
- Powell, Jo Ella Exley Frontier Blood: The Saga of the Parker Family,
- Cynthia Ann Parker
- Tolbert, Frank X., "An Informal History of Texas" published,1961, Harper,New York