Named one of the best books of the year by:
The true story behind the classic Western The Searchers by Pulitzer Prize-wining writer Glenn Frankel that the New York Times calls "A vivid, revelatory account of John Ford's 1956 masterpiece."
In 1836 in East Texas, nine-year-old Cynthia Ann Parker was kidnapped by Comanches. She was raised by the tribe and eventually became the wife of a warrior. Twenty-four years after her capture, she was reclaimed by the U.S. cavalry and Texas Rangers and restored to her white family, to die in misery and obscurity. Cynthia Ann's story has been told and re-told over generations to become a foundational American tale. The myth gave rise to operas and one-act plays, and in the 1950s to a novel by Alan LeMay, which would be adapted into one of Hollywood's most legendary films, The Searchers, "The Biggest, Roughest, Toughest... and Most Beautiful Picture Ever Made!" directed by John Ford and starring John Wayne.
Glenn Frankel, beginning in Hollywood and then returning to the origins of the story, creates a rich and nuanced anatomy of a timeless film and a quintessentially American myth. The dominant story that has emerged departs dramatically from documented history: it is of the inevitable triumph of white civilization, underpinned by anxiety about the sullying of white women by "savages." What makes John Ford's film so powerful, and so important, Frankel argues, is that it both upholds that myth and undermines it, baring the ambiguities surrounding race, sexuality, and violence in the settling of the West and the making of America.
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THE SEARCHERSThe Making of an American Legend
By GLENN FRANKEL
BLOOMSBURY PRESSCopyright © 2013 Glenn Frankel
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Girl (Parker's Fort, 1836)
For three months they had trekked south from Illinois—some two hundred men, women, and children and twenty-five ox-drawn wagons, crossing the vast, alarming Mississippi near what is now the town of Chester, Missouri, tethered to long rafts like papooses strapped tightly to their mothers' backs, then navigating the tenuous Southwest Trail through Missouri, Arkansas, and Louisiana, a virgin landscape of rolling hills, deep valleys, and thick marshes. Because the wagons had no suspension to quell the jarring of deep furrows in the rough-cut dirt pathway, few of the pilgrims rode inside; instead they plodded on foot alongside the wagons with a steady, determined pace. The teamsters walked alongside as well, cajoling the oxen teams with a rhythmic monologue punctuated by the periodic crack of the whip, the entire wagon train a noisy, hesitant organism pulling itself toward an unseen destination, a colony with a name both blunt and mysterious: Texas.
The trek had a dual purpose: a fresh start on fertile soil for yeomen who relied upon the earth for sustenance and survival; but also a way and means to reconsecrate their covenant with God. Each Saturday evening as the autumn sun retreated, the pilgrims stopped to pitch tents and prepare for a Sabbath of worship and rest under the vigilant instruction of the Reverend Daniel Parker, farmer, politician, Indian fighter, and raw-boned Baptist preacher. "Thus was the wilderness—the home of the Savage and the wild beasts of the forest—made vocal with hymns of praise to the most high God, by this pilgrim brand of christians," wrote James W. Parker, Daniel's devoted younger brother.
In mid-November they reached the brown, placid Sabine River, bordered by pine trees as tall and erect as sentinels, and crossed over into Texas. They camped that first eve ning, November 12, 1833, near San Augustine, twenty miles deep inside their new promised land, just in time for one of the most awesome celestial events in human history.
On the Night the Stars Fell, the heavens blazed with shooting stars as large as moons trailing clouds of bluish light like divine afterthoughts. Although well past midnight, the bright burning sky illuminated the wide, awestruck faces of the pilgrims as if it were high noon. For some of them, already predisposed to millennial visions, it was impossible not to detect the hand of God. "The old women seemed to think the Day of Judgment had come like a thief in the night," recalled Garrison Greenwood, Daniel Parker's first cousin.
Daniel was equally stunned. Was God blessing their journey, or was He warning of dangers ahead? Daniel, within whom zealotry and common sense waged a ceaseless struggle, could not say for sure. But after the celestial light show he and his followers could not sleep. "The remainder of the night was spent in prayer," Greenwood recalled.
It was a fitting moment in the long spiritual and geographical journey of the preacher, his family, and his flock. The Parkers, after all, believed in omens, sought miracles, and created narratives out of the sky, the wind, and the weather.
As they traveled deeper and deeper into the American wilderness, they fashioned their own myth to fit their religious beliefs and their patriotic fervor, a myth in which the Lord and the Land were seamlessly interwoven. Although they seldom wrote it down, they were storytellers whose most compelling characters were themselves. According to the broad brushstrokes of their self-portrait, they were God's righteous pilgrims, preaching His gospel and living their lives according to His commandments. They were children of the Second Great Awakening, a burst of passionate, postmillennial fervor that inflamed the hearts, minds, and imaginations of Americans who believed they had a special mission and that their own good deeds and the rise of a great new nation would somehow hasten the day when Christ would return to rule the earth. And they were pioneers-rough-hewn, self-sufficient, beholden to no one but God—spreading their brand of civilization to a richly abundant but untamed territory. They were the living reality of George Caleb Bingham's painting of Daniel Boone, like a frontier Moses, escorting settlers through the Cumberland Gap to the promised land.
The Parkers had come to the American colonies a century earlier, refugees from the hierarchical but unstable world of seventeenth-century England. They were a restless, unschooled, and unruly clan, one of many that drove inland from the Atlantic seaboard in the years after the Revolutionary War shattered British colonial rule and kicked open the gates to western settlement.
The patriarch, Elder John Parker, was born in Baltimore County, Mary land, in 1758, moved to Culpeper County in the Virginia piedmont in the 1770s, and served two militia hitches with his younger brother in the War of Independence. Elder John moved to Georgia in 1785 in search of richer farmland and more pious brethren. There he unsuccessfully sought to start a cotton farm, then headed west, first to Tennessee in 1803 and then to Illinois in 1824—"the Bible in one hand and the reins of the future in the other," as a family history proclaims. Along the way he acquired a wife, eight sons, four daughters, and a primitive brand of Calvinism. He also acquired the nickname "Squealing Johnny" for his emphatic sermonizing. But his reputation for piety was mixed. The minutes of Turnbull Church in Dickson County, Tennessee, record that on April 7, 1809, John Parker came before the elders to acknowledge the sin of drunkenness. "The Church agreed to wait with him awhile," they noted. Another entry suggests that he was excommunicated after accusations of betting on a horse race.
By the time he got to Coles County in southeastern Illinois, John Parker called himself a "Two-Seed Baptist Traveling Preacher." He held the first church ser vice in the history of the county in his own log cabin with eleven people in attendance—the entire adult white population. He once closed a sermon with the announcement that he would be back again "to preach at that place, that day in four weeks if it was not a good day for bee hunting."
The Parkers were the thin edge of a rough-hewn frontier movement—not so much the paragons of civilization but, as Texas historian T. R. Fehrenbach put it, "civilization's heroic and necessary vanguard." A less forgiving observer might say they failed their way west. In each place they settled, they eventually wore out their soil and their welcome, then moved on to what looked like a better opportunity. They had little formal schooling. Daniel, the eldest child, born in Virginia in 1781 but raised in Georgia, said he grew up "without an education, except to read in the New Testament, but very imperfect." He added, "To this day I have never examined the English Grammar five minutes, neither do I understand even one rule in the Arithmetic." In his youth, he later wrote, he "ranged the woods as a hunter, nearly as much in company with Indians as with the whites." James Parker, the ninth child and sixth son, born in Georgia in 1797, said he was "raised a back woodsman ... the advantages for obtaining an education being very limited, I was not enabled to do more than learn to read." His own great pleasures, he reported, lay elsewhere: "hunting, fishing, and trapping."
Daniel and James emerged as the natural leaders of the new generation of Parkers. They left no photographs and few physical descriptions, but the impression they made on others was often enduring. Ordained in Tennessee in 1806, Daniel preached the gospel even though it was largely unpaid work. He farmed at night so that he would be free to sermonize during the day, and he rode a suffering, unshod horse for two years because he could not afford horse shoes. "Farming was my only way to make a support," he wrote. "I avoided everything like trade or traffic, lest I should bring reproach on the tender cause of God."
Some found him enchanting. James Ross, a church elder, was unmoved by Daniel's physical appearance—"a small, dry-looking man, of the gipsy [sic] type, with black eyes and hair and dark complexion"—nor by the ritual he performed before sermonizing: pulling off his coat and vest and laying them carefully on the pulpit, and unbuttoning his short collar as if preparing for fisticuffs. "After this preparation it is almost incredible with what ease and fluency he spoke," Ross wrote. "He seemed full of his subject, and went through it in a way that was truly wonderful."
Others were appalled. John Mason Peck, a rival Baptist minister in Illinois, depicted Daniel as "without education, uncouth in manners, slovenly in dress, diminutive in person, unprepossessing in appearance, with shriveled features and a small piercing eye ... with a zeal and enthusiasm bordering on insanity."
Daniel was devout, passionate, and demanding—an evangelical preacher in constant search of a new pulpit; James entrepreneurial, opportunistic, and impetuous—a land speculator, horse trader, and perhaps much worse. And as James idolized Daniel, so did Silas Parker, born in Tennessee in 1804, seem to worship his older brother James, following him faithfully down dangerous paths.
They were tribesmen and warriors, just one tenuous step removed from barbarism. Not so different, in truth, from the native peoples they fought along the way. In the story the Parkers and their fellow frontiersmen were creating about the conquest of the West, Indians were the Other—inhuman, barbaric, and easily manipulated. Even in the Declaration of Independence, among some of history's most ringing celebrations of the human spirit, Thomas Jefferson evoked the evil specter of Indians, accusing George III of having "endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes, and conditions."
John Parker, one of the brothers, was killed by Delaware Indians near Cape Girardeau, Missouri, in 1811. James wrote that his brother's death "awakened in me feelings of the most bitter hostility towards the Indians, and I firmly resolved upon and impatiently awaited for an opportunity to avenge his death."
Daniel and his younger brother Isaac served in the Tennessee volunteer militia of General Andrew Jackson under a young commander named Sam Houston, vanquishing Creek Indians allied with the British during the War of 1812. Indians and settlers traded massacres and retribution in an escalating spiral of bloody deeds. The Creeks carried out a brutal massacre at Fort Mims in Alabama in August 1813, slaughtering more than 250 volunteers and their families, mutilating women, and smashing small children's heads against the stockade walls. At Tallushatchee and Talladega, Jackson and his men took their revenge. "We now shot them down like dogs," boasted one of the volunteers, the soon-to-be legendary David Crockett. The myth of Indian fighters Jackson, Houston, and Crockett was born.
Daniel, the most impassioned preacher among the Parkers, was the most successful politician as well. He served as a state assemblyman for two terms in Illinois. Church and state were separate in practice as well as principle in the early days of the American republic, and Daniel's published appeal for votes made no mention of his religious beliefs. His neighbors described him "as a man of truth and as a man of talents and of liberal and Republican principles." In 1823 he and fourteen other Illinois lawmakers banded together to block an attempt to legalize slavery in the state.
Still, his Calvinism was anything but liberal, embracing a fierce, unyielding vision of mankind as pathetic and weak, devoid of free will, and incapable of virtue. It was a hard faith that mistrusted human nature as sinful and easily corrupted. "We believe that God created man good and upright," his church constitution proclaimed, "but that man by his sins and transgressions has become dead in trespasses and sins and is utterly unable to change his own heart, or to deliver himself from the fallen depraved state which he has fallen into under the influence of the Power of Darkness."
* * *
TEXAS SEEMED VAST ENOUGH to hold the Parker clan and their visions. American settlers had been trickling in since the early 1800s, but in 1824 the Mexican government officially opened the province to foreign immigration. Every able-bodied white man could claim 4,428 acres for just thirty dollars in one of the privately owned colonies that the Mexican authorities had sanctioned in hopes of creating a buffer between their small communities and hostile Indian tribes to the north. Stephen F. Austin, a young Virginia-born lawyer living in New Orleans who became an authorized empresario for the first colony, sang the praises of the gently rolling land between the burgeoning new town of Nacogdoches and the Sabine River: "The grass is more abundant and of a ranker and more luxuriant growth than I have ever seen before in any country and is indicative of a strong rich soil."
Like the Parkers, many of the newcomers were farmers who hauled their families and livestock to the new frontier seeking a fresh start on free land. The new American peasantry was hardworking, self-sufficient, and resolutely egalitarian: they shook hands rather than bowed. Many were refugees from the Panic of 1819, when the fledgling American banking system had collapsed and thousands of smallholders lost their farms. "Gone to Texas" became a familiar sign hung on the doors of log cabins across the South. Alongside the pioneers were men of greater ambitions and lesser repute, gamblers and adventurers like James Bowie, a Kentucky-born slave trader, Indian fighter, smuggler, and land speculator; William Barret Travis, an Alabama lawyer fleeing serious debts and an unfaithful wife; and Crocket himself, seeking new fortune and redemption after losing his seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. And some were far worse. "A great number of the foreigners who have entered the frontier are vicious and wild men with evil ways," reported Mexican general Manuel de Mier y Terán, who led a fact-finding mission to the colony in 1827. "Some of them are fugitive criminals from the neighboring republic; within our borders they create disturbances and even criminal acts."
James W. Parker was restless in Illinois—"that country being very sickly," he reported after three of his nine children died of fever—and always looking for new pastures. He was the first Parker to visit Texas; in 1831 he explored the forested eastern half, riding through areas teeming with wild game and fertile soil, and lived for a season along the Colorado River, which began in the High Plains of what is now the Texas Panhandle and flowed southeast to Matagorda Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. Hostile Indians, as always, were a problem: James noted that several of his neighbors were killed during his stay; one of them, a Mr. Wilbarger, "was literally shot to pieces, scalped and left as dead." Still, James traveled back to Illinois with a positive report for his brothers. He returned to Texas two years later with his wife and six children and three of his brothers: Daniel, Benjamin, and Joseph. Younger brother Silas came separately.
Doctrinal battles with Methodists and his fellow Baptists in Illinois had taken their toll on Daniel, and he was ready for a new spiritual home. The laws of Catholic-dominated Mexico forbade the organization of a new Protestant church within its borders, but they did not prohibit Protestants from bringing in a preexisting church from outside. He founded the Pilgrim Predestinarian Regular Baptist Church on August 11, 1833, in his house in Crawford County, with himself as moderator and six other members, then set out the next day for Texas with all six and their families, along with his father and brothers. Before he left for Texas, Elder John applied for and received a government pension of $80 per month for his Revolutionary War service.
Thirteen of Daniel's constituents in Illinois signed a character certificate that he carried with him to the new colony; Daniel Parker, they averred, was "an honest man and a good citizen" who had "discharged his duty faithfully to the satisfaction of a majority of his constituents." Others were less sorry to see him go. "Mr. Parker, you are an Enemy to truth and your doctrine came from hell and will go back there again," wrote one anonymous letter writer.
Excerpted from THE SEARCHERS by GLENN FRANKEL Copyright © 2013 by Glenn Frankel. Excerpted by permission of BLOOMSBURY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Introduction: Pappy (Hollywood, 1954) 1
I Cynthia Ann
1 The Girl (Parker's Fort, 1836) 11
2 The Captives (Comancheria, 1836) 25
3 The Uncle (Texas, 1837-52) 46
4 The Rescue (Pease River, 1860) 61
5 The Prisoner (Texas, 1861-71) 73
6 The Warrior (Comancheria, 1865-71) 91
7 The Surrender (Comancheria, 1874-75) 112
8 The Go-between (Fort Sill, 1875-86) 123
9 The Chief (Fort Sill, Oklahoma, 1887-92) 136
10 Mother and Son (Cache, Oklahoma, 1892-1911) 155
11 The Legend (Oklahoma and Texas, 1911-52) 173
III Alan Lemay
12 The Author (Hollywood, 1952) 185
13 The Novel (Pacific Palisades, California, 1953) 198
IV Pappy and the Duke
14 The Director (Hollywood, 1954) 211
15 The Actor (Hollywood, 1954) 225
16 The Production (Hollywood, 1955) 245
17 The Valley, Part One (Monument Valley, June 1955) 267
18 The Valley, Part Two (Monument Valley, June-July 1955) 284
19 The Studio (Hollywood, July-August 1955) 295
20 The Movie (Hollywood, 1956) 306
21 The Legacy (Hollywood, 1956-2010) 316
Epilogue: (Quanah, Texas, June 2011) 327
Note on Sources 341
Photograph Credits 385