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.

Read Paul Toohey’s American Story every Saturday on News Ltd’s iPad apps.

Most commented

22 comments

Show oldest | newest first

    • acotrel says:

      07:40am | 29/04/12

      Mitiji sounds like an Australian Tarzan.  I wonder if she also had a hairy offsider who ended up leading a political party ?

    • nihonin says:

      08:56am | 29/04/12

      You can’t call the next Labor PM hairy, we don’t know who it will be, but we probably don’t have to wait long.

    • Little Joe says:

      07:58am | 29/04/12

      “As best I know, Australia has no true accounts of white people being kidnapped or rescued and raised by tribal Aborigines.”

      White blood was poison in Aboriginal bloodlines and half caste children were often killed in tribal environments. This occurred through to the late 20th Century when a Aboriginal Man was tried for the murder of his grandchild. It was a front page story in the Courier Mail.

    • iansand says:

      08:09am | 29/04/12

      I recently read - probably in “1493” by Charles C Mann ( a great read) - that, particularly in the early years of colonisation, white women who joined Native American tribes were often very reluctant to return to white society.  The quality of life and the treatment of women was much better among the locals than they experienced with the blow ins.

    • Mik says:

      08:11am | 29/04/12

      There are non aboriginal Australians out there who have a very deep Aboriginal spiritual connection to the land and cultural practices of specific tribes, just as there are Aboriginal Australians who are deeply steeped in non Aboriginal urban culture and then there are those who have made an Aboriginal urban culture and v v.
      Often in supposedly redneck inland communities can be found very Aboriginal ways of thinking and practice. This was acknowledged by Noel Pearson in a speech he gave to a university gathering last year.

    • Onlooker says:

      08:21am | 29/04/12

      Enjoyed the read.. thank you

    • Peter says:

      09:47am | 29/04/12

      Excellent, informative article, blessedly free of progressive moralizing. More please.

    • stephen says:

      10:41am | 29/04/12

      The Comancheros were not spiritual because they were not nomadic - I think that’s the way it goes - except when they were chased by the law for trading guns to the Mexicans.
      I think I saw that in a movie sometime, and The Searchers is the best of them.
      Slightly long though ; it sags a bit in the middle.

      At the end of the movie, too, you can see Debbie’s head, (that’s Natalie Wood’s) on the other side of the sand dune as she waits for her cue to come on down. A little black dot is there.

      A good picture though.
      See it in blue-ray.

    • neil mooney says:

      11:10am | 29/04/12

      eliza fraser.

    • Blazes says:

      11:19am | 29/04/12

      The Searchers is the best. Western. ever.

      It’s available in full on youtube, everyone should watch it.

    • stephen says:

      02:53pm | 29/04/12

      Some lesser known ones are good too :
      Winchester ‘73.
      The Ox-Bow incident.
      Bend of the River.

      And try ‘Ride The High Country’ ... a Sam Peckinpah film, which is even better than The Wild Bunch.

    • Blazes says:

      04:33pm | 29/04/12

      I haven’t see the Ox-Bow incident or Bend of the River, thanks I’ll check them out sometime. I’ve seen both Winchester ‘73 and Ride the High Country, I agree they’re great.

      Probably my second favourite western is another John Wayne one, El Dorado. High Noon also has to be up there, although that’s more of a fantastic drama/character analysis than a western.

    • sunny says:

      05:36pm | 29/04/12

      I remember watching Centennial years ago. Great show. What a tough life they had. I reckon I could take on the Comanches if I had to, just spare me from those goddamn rattle snakes!

    • Michael in Braddon ACT says:

      12:46pm | 29/04/12

      The convict William Buckley, altho’ already a grown man when he absconded, was rescued and succoured by Aborigines in the Geelong region. He married a local woman too (but I think no record that they had children: infanticide might be hypothesised).

    • Aidan Kelly says:

      01:35pm | 29/04/12

      Great read, the sentiment is real, regardless of whether documentary fact or feature film fiction. Understanding the micro-level of human-relationships is incredibly hard. Those of captured kids even harder.

      The traumatic bonding of captor and captee - the Stockholm syndrome springs to mind. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stockholm_syndrome

      Personally, all stories of kid-napping and betrayal or any other form of switching sides, voluntary or involuntary would be absolutely fascinating to understand fully. In addition to the story of the liberation or the horror of the individual’s turmoil, it so often leads to a comparison of the contrasting motives, beliefs, values and morals of the opposing camps. I am thinking like Cynthia Ann Parker - Patty Hearst, Pannonica Rothschild and Peter Slipper!

      See here for a comparable story about another white women this time captured by the black jazz chiefs of new york.  

      http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/apr/22/hannah-rothschild-nica-jazz-thelonious-monk-interview

      As for Peter Slipper - the case of a man with no tribe - but a diatribe of buffoonery. Unfortunately that episode will not be the end of the Australian political system as we know it - but it again shows that pawns in the game - no matter which side they end up on - will always be used by one side to focus their resolve to assert their values (political religious artistic) upon the other with no real care or consideration for the individual. In some cases, the welfare and not the worth of the individual pawn may be what’s more important. Cynthia’s yes. She was the mother of Comanche children. Patty yes. She can be excused. Pannonica yes. She loved avant jazz. Peter no. He asked for it!

    • Richard says:

      02:08pm | 29/04/12

      Love your work Paul

    • Cynicised says:

      07:31pm | 29/04/12

      Children raised by a different family other than their natural birth family brought about by coercion of the mother is certainly analogous to this situation and has happened to many of our indigenous and illegitimate children.  This country cannot consider itself blameless in this regard.

    • Mik says:

      08:14pm | 29/04/12

      Brings to mind the tragedies portrayed in “Oranges and Sunshine”

    • Zaf says:

      08:45pm | 29/04/12

      [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.]

      A reminder that ethnic identity is a function of culture, not ‘race’.  So not so strange.

    • Kazz says:

      09:49am | 30/04/12

      I always had a fondness for the western “Soldier Blue”  which was a bit less pretty and probably a little closer to truth.Always found it interesting reading that so many white children seemed to assimilate well into life with native Americans but native American children forcibly removed from their tribes into white culture tended to commit suicide, succumb to despair and illness or spend their time running away. Possibly one of the reasons that attempts to turn them into slaves were unsuccessful.

    • qwerty says:

      11:19am | 30/04/12

      a fringe of leaves, patrick white?

 

Facebook Recommendations

Read all about it

Punch live

Up to the minute Twitter chatter

Recent posts

The latest and greatest

The Punch is moving house

The Punch is moving house

Good morning Punchers. After four years of excellent fun and great conversation, this is the final post…

Will Pope Francis have the vision to tackle this?

Will Pope Francis have the vision to tackle this?

I have had some close calls, one that involved what looked to me like an AK47 pointed my way, followed…

Advocating risk management is not “victim blaming”

Advocating risk management is not “victim blaming”

In a world in which there are still people who subscribe to the vile notion that certain victims of sexual…

Nosebleed Section

choice ringside rantings

From: Hasbro, go straight to gaol, do not pass go

Tim says:

They should update other things in the game too. Instead of a get out of jail free card, they should have a Dodgy Lawyer card that not only gets you out of jail straight away but also gives you a fat payout in compensation for daring to arrest you in the first place. Instead of getting a hotel when you… [read more]

From: A guide to summer festivals especially if you wouldn’t go

Kel says:

If you want a festival for older people or for families alike, get amongst the respectable punters at Bluesfest. A truly amazing festival experience to be had of ALL AGES. And all the young "festivalgoers" usually write themselves off on the first night, only to never hear from them again the rest of… [read more]

Gentle jabs to the ribs

Superman needs saving

Superman needs saving

Can somebody please save Superman? He seems to be going through a bit of a crisis. Eighteen months ago,… Read more

28 comments

Newsletter

Read all about it

Sign up to the free News.com.au newsletter