Women Who Survived
Cynthia Ann Parker and Mary Jemison
As American pioneers pushed west to settle new lands, there were inevitable conflicts between the newcomers, and the Native tribes they encountered. Unfortunately, this brought death and injury to both sides, and occasionally this affected family groups. Yet the Native raiders often abducted American children to adopt into their tribes, and that’s something that happened to two American girls a hundred years apart and in different parts of the country. Both Cynthia Ann Parker and Mary Jemison were totally assimilated with their Native families, and each had the opportunity to return to resume their interrupted American lives. However, while Cynthia Ann reluctantly did so she remained at heart a Comanche. Meanwhile, Mary Jemison declined to return and continued her life a life in her Seneca community. Still, they also had one thing in common—and that was that while snatched from the familiar to face innumerable struggles—they survived.
Cynthia Ann Parker was born in about 1824 in Illinois then when she was about nine, her grandfather John Parker decided to move his extended family to a new life, in north central Texas. There, once ensconced in a fortified complex known as Fort Parker in what is now Limestone County, Parker possibly felt he was safe from Native raids. However, he was not.
In May, 1836 several hundred Comanche raiders swooped down on Fort Parker and took the defenders by surprise. During the attack as the women and children tried to escape, the warriors caught up several children, including Cynthia Ann and then escaped. Since Natives often ransomed captive children that was the case with several of the youngsters, but in the case of Cynthia Ann she was adopted by a Comanche family and raised as their daughter. Then several years later, the completely assimilated Cynthia Ann married a Comanche man named Peta Nocona, and they eventually had two sons and a daughter in what was apparently a very happy marriage. In fact, they were so devoted that Nocona declined to take a second wife, which was acceptable for a Comanche in his position. Meanwhile, as the years passed as Cynthia Ann’s family continued to try to find her, and her abduction became a well known story on the frontier.
Then in 1860 rumors came to the Texas Rangers, that a band of Comanche had been seen with American captives, so one Ranger unit staged a surprise attack on them. The Comanche attempted to flee, and as the Rangers started to follow a man they assumed was the leader, they realized there was a woman with a child was with him. A Ranger stopped her, while the others pursued the man and shot and killed him. He was identified as Nocona, believed to be the husband of Cynthia Ann.
The Rangers thought this woman was Cynthia Ann, so they sent for her uncle, Col. Isaac Parker to identify her. He was an important figure in the state at the time.
In his 2015 Parker County Today magazine article Mel W. Rhodes described what happened as Col. Parker arrived to question the captive as the stoic woman continued to remain silent to the English inquiries. Finally, Col. Parker told an associate, “If this is my niece, her name is Cynthia Ann.” Then according to Mr. Rhodes: “…Immediately the woman stood and stuck her chest. ‘Me, Cynthia Ann!’ she proclaimed. She had everyone’s attention.”
Local newspapers broke the story and soon the entire state knew about Cynthia Ann’s return to her family. Yet though there had been fanciful speculation that Cynthia Ann would be a beautiful young woman it was not the case. At age 34, as the author wrote, “…she looked used up. Her 25 years of rough living on the plains took their toll. And the rest of her life would be unkind—full of sorrow.”
Since her parents were dead, Col. Parker took her to his home north of Fort Worth and on the way through the city there she was photographed holding her toddler daughter Topsannah or Prairie Flower. With her hair shorn—a Comanche custom for grief—she presented a haggard picture.
In 1861 the Texas legislature granted Cynthia Ann a pension and a land grant and her cousins were appointed her legal guardians. However, for all the welcoming Cynthia Ann was still at heart a Comanche and was very uncomfortable about all attention and especially with her new—but strange—family. She continued to live with them though she was obviously suffering from depression as well as concern about her two sons, still with the Comanche.
Meanwhile Topsannah began to assimilate with the American family and to attend school as she spoke English more than Comanche. However, she caught the flu, then pneumonia and died early in 1864. Cynthia Ann responded as a grieving Comanche mother—she slashed her body and wailed uncontrollably.
Though some believed her daughter’s death, meant Cynthia was to die of a broken heart, actually she lived another six years. She died in i871 at the age of about 46 at her sister’s home and was buried near Tyler.
Meanwhile, Cynthia Ann’s son Quanah was proving to effectively lead his people first against the American military, then after a few years into a new life. After surrendering, he peacefully led his people, to live on an Oklahoma reservation. In retirement he became a prosperous rancher who continued to be an important representative of his people to the Americans. He died in 1911 and was buried at Fort Sill, Oklahoma and later the remains of his mother Cynthia Ann and sister were re-interred with him.
Though Cynthia Ann was reunited with her family and failed to adjust, a hundred years earlier and many miles away, another girl who had been abducted by Natives declined such a reunion and chose to remain with her Native family. This was Mary Jemison, who in 1755 was kidnapped and later became part of the Seneca community where she lived for the rest of her life. She also had her experiences published in a popular book at the time.
Mary was actually born at sea in 1743 when her family was en route to the American colonies from Ireland. After landing in Philadelphia, the Jemisons traveled west to settle into the area near what is now Gettysburg, Pennsylvania and eventually there were six children besides Mary. Then by 1755 the conflict known as the French and Indian War—with the British—was raging throughout the American Colonies and the people on the frontier were particularly affected.
In the spring of 1758, a force of French soldiers accompanied by their Native Shawnee allies swooped down on the Jemison family settlement and captured them. They headed west with their captives toward Ft. Duquesne (now Pittsburgh) and when pursued by the militia the raiders decided they had too many prisoners. They separated Mary and an unrelated boy from the others, and then the raiders slaughtered and scalped the others in the Jemison family.
According to Mary’s later account, her mother had had a feeling of the upcoming danger and told her daughter, “My dear little Mary, I fear that the time has arrived when we must be parted for ever…Oh! How can I think of your being continued in captivity, without a hope of your being rescued?…If you leave us remember my child, your own name and…be careful and not forget your English tongue…Don’t forget, my little daughter the prayers that I have learned you [sic] say them often: be a good child and God will bless you!”
At Ft. Duquesne Mary was acquired by a group of Seneca who traveled downriver on the Ohio to a Seneca settlement where she entered her new world. She was given the name of Dehgewanus or “Two Falling Voices.”
A few years later Mary married a Delaware man named Sheninjee and then in 1762 had a son she named Thomas after her father. Then as Mary and her husband traveled, to set out for his homeland along the Genesee River in what is now Upper New York State, on the way he became ill and died—leaving Mary alone with her child in a strange land. However, Shenijee’s family helped her find a home in the area that was the center of Seneca settlement, then later Mary married a Seneca man named Hiokatoo, and had six more children. Life was pleasant for her and peaceful. For a while.
However, as the Revolutionary War began the Seneca and other tribes joined the British, and thus became targets for American attacks. In 1779 General George Washington sent troops to attack the Seneca who were forced to flee, and Mary and her children sought refuge in a nearby town. She lived there for some sixty years, as over the years as Mary and her husband raised their family. However, there were new problems as there entered the Genesee River valley a new enemy. Not military but new settlers and financial speculators.
Finally in 1797 at a major council meeting, and after long and hard negotiations, there was written a treaty that paid the Seneca—and established reservations—as they gave up a large portion of their land. Mary and her family ended up with a home on a large reservation where they grew corn, beans and squash. Yet eventually the new influx of American settlers meant pressure and tension in the area and some tried to take Mary’s land from her. However, Mary or Dehegewanus was well loved by her community and was known as the “Old White Woman of the Genesse.”
Then in 1823 through neighborly influence, Mary met with an American writer and the result of their conversations there was published in 1824 a book titled The Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison. It was frequently reprinted, the last time in 1967. Though there was early speculation, that the author had inserted some of his own ideas, later scholars later believed it was a fairly accurate account of Mary’s experiences. As one source put it, “By staying with the Seneca, she showed that she preferred life with the Seneca to what she had seen of the lives of colonial British women.”
Mary died among her adopted people in 1833 at age 90.
Anne Adams is a retired church staffer. She lives in East Texas and has an historical column for a local newspaper. She has published in Christian and secular publications for more than 40 years.