Stolen and raised by a different tribe
As best I know, Australia has no true accounts of white people being kidnapped or rescued and raised by tribal Aborigines. In America’s West, punitive parties were always on the search for white women held captive by the feared Comanche tribes of Texas and New Mexico.
Repatriating stolen white women was a considerable political and military issue, so much so that it arguably contributed to the destruction of the Comanche people, the largest and most warrior-like of the native American tribes.
In Australia, stories of Aborigines raising whites really only exist in fiction. There’s Michael “Crocodile” Dundee, born in a Northern Territory cave and raised by a helpful tribe that schooled him in his broad Australian accent.
And there’s the potboiler Golden Urchin, by Madeleine Brent (pseudonym for English author Peter O’Donnell). In this 1986 novel, apparently set in the Western Desert, a white girl is raised by an Australian tribe but never quite fits in. She always suspects she’s a little different.
Things get really bad when she grows into a ravishing, shapely woman, whom the tribesmen find revolting. You can read the promo for yourself:
In the scorching Australian Desert, a wild beautiful woman recues a man from death ... He was a handsome English aristocrat, sprawled in the dunes, dying of thirst. She was a white-skinned savage, fleeing the Aborigine tribe that found her and raised her but still shunned the fiery—haired outcast.
In the American West, stories of captive white people – women, mainly – were commonplace. As the white settlers pushed into west Texas and New Mexico, they often lived without protection other than their clumsy single-load rifles, which were no match for the Comanche.
The Comanche mastered horsemanship from the Mexicans, who had learned from the Spanish. In the days before the advent of the revolver or the repeating rifle, the mounted Comanche, armed with bows and arrows, were the most formidable fighting force in the Americas.
In his 2010 book Empire of the Summer Moon, Dallas author S.C. Gwynne retells the legendary story of Cynthia Ann Parker, who was captured in a Comanche outpost raid when she was aged nine, in 1836.
Unlike Mitji, the white girl in Golden Urchin, who complained of being treated like a “freak” by the Aborigines, Cynthia, who became known as Nautdah, had the reverse reaction: she could not adapt into white life when she was eventually, and forcefully, taken back to it.
A version of her story is well known to any fan of the Western. John Wayne played Ethan Edwards in John Ford’s epic tale, The Searchers, about a man’s five—year hunt for his niece, who was abducted in a Comanche raid.
The story is loosely based on Cynthia’s uncle’s search for her. In real life, the search lasted a quarter of a century.
When the Comanche attacked the small Fort Parker outpost in 1836 (it was just a barricaded collection of farmhouses), Cynthia saw her family members scalped and butchered. The men had their genitals stuffed in their mouths for good measure.
Cynthia was in a group of five - three girls and two boys - who were kidnapped at Fort Parker. Gwynne imagines she would have been raped repeatedly in the first days of her capture and that she would have witnessed her older female cousins being raped.
But Cynthia survived. The Comanche became her life.
Cynthia - Nautdah - grew to become the wife of a war chief named Peta Nocona, who may well have led the raid against her family’s fort. One of her sons to Nocona was Quanah, a half-white boy, who would become in turn one of the last and greatest of the Comanche warriors.
For years, rumours persisted that Cynthia was alive. And for years the search stubbornly went on. Such searches could, in themselves, be a cruelty if they were successful.
White women were sometimes ransomed back into white society, usually in deals orchestrated by a group of mixed-blood Mexican traders called the Comancheros.
In that way, Cynthia’s cousins, Rachel and Elizabeth, were sold back to their white families by the Comanchero intermediaries. Such women lived out their remaining lives in shame. Everyone knew what they’d been through.
But bringing the women home held a powerful symbolism. In 1860, Texas Rangers, led by Sul Ross, who were still searching for Cynthia 24 years after she’d been taken, attacked a Comanche encampment at Pease River, in Texas, near the modern Oklahoma border.
Among those spared in the attack was Nautdah, who avoided being shot by holding her young daughter over her head. Her husband, Peta Nocona, was wounded and executed where he lay.
In Gwynne’s account, Ross rode to the spot where Rangers were holding the woman and her young daughter.
“The woman was filthy, covered with dirt and grease from handling so much bloody buffalo meat,” he writes. “But to Ross’s astonishment he noticed that she had blue eyes and he saw that under the grime her short-cropped hair was lighter in colour than Indian black.”
There is still bickering over who invented scalping. Most people say it was a white practice, designed to cash in on bounties. Either way, whites and Indians both did it.
Two Texas Rangers were fighting over the scalp of Cynthia’s husband, both claiming the kill. They ended up dividing the scalp.
She was observed wandering among the Pease River corpses, stopping to wail over the body of a young warrior who had white facial features. It was later learned he was the son of another white woman captive of the Comanche, who had died. Cynthia had become his adoptive mother.
She was taken to Fort Cooper, where she resisted attempts by white women to clean her up. Rangers summoned Isaac Parker, believing they had found his long-sought niece.
Isaac Parker approached her and spoke her name. She then said three of the most famous words ever spoken in the Old West: “Me Cincee Ann.”
Her repatriation was a disaster, but it was seen as a defining moment in the Indian wars, telling of the white capacity to endure. Cynthia was paraded around Texas as a sideshow, at one point standing on a box in a crowded town square while tears streamed down her face.
In private, the Parker clan could not deal with her. She continually tried to escape or rejected their attempts to assimilate her.
Politically, it was embarrassing. Cynthia, the white squaw, was written off as a mad woman. She remained unaware that her son Quanah – whom she believed had been killed at Pease River – was leading a dwindling band fighting the Comanche’s last battles.
Then her daughter died, taking Cynthia’s last connection to her Comanche life.
Inconsolable, in 1870, she starved herself to death.
The whites began to break the Comanche completely by bringing howitzers into battle on the plains. But they would not die out quick enough. Texas realised the best way to destroy the Comanche was to cull the giant plains’ bison herds, on which they depended.
Over in the parallel fiction world, about this same time, things were looking up for the ‘Golden Urchin’.
The “white savage”, Mitji, gets taken to a farm out of Perth, is renamed Meg, discovers she is the heiress to a huge fortune, proves a rapid study at English, attends a Swiss finishing school and learns the art of wandering on the decks of nice yachts.
“But through it all,” says one delighted reviewer, “the mystical teachings of the Aborigines course passionately in her blood, giving Meg the courage to face a future of uncertain peril and unexpected love.”
As for the Comanche, they believed they were the first people. They thought they would be the last.
They had never been a people to have spiritual ceremonies, but overrun and close to extermination, in desperation they borrowed dances from other tribes to try and summon the protection of the spirits.
It did not work.
It is a strange thing that one of the most stubbornly insistent among those final, free wandering Comanche people was a white woman named Cynthia.
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