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Saturday, October 26, 2013

Fateful journey into the wilderness for the Parker clan

Like other frontier folk, they were always on the move, relocating ever westward as settlements became too populous or their distinct brand of religion clashed with others, or for reasons known only to themselves. Sometimes the still, small voice of God called them forth and at others the land itself through earthquakes and floods and stars raining from the sky in signs and portends impossible to misread. For the Parker clan, led by Elder John, the constant push kept the family always on the outskirts of Indian territory where death was as common as sunrise and just as easily obtained. Through every move they maintained an air of invincibility, hard and unforgiving, confident that their God was bigger and badder than anything of the world and they his chosen people, while at the same time yielding to the inevitability of their predestinarian belief that their fate, their destiny, had been decided before the dawn of time. It was their one constant, and nothing could change that, not even a gate left open on their compound in south-central Texas on the morning of May 19, 1836.

The doctrine, equal parts fatalistic and arrogant, was not without its flaws. “The trick is that you don’t know if you’re doomed or saved until the end,” said Audrey Kalivoda, whose documentary on the Parker clan was aired to an overflow crowd at the Pawnee Indian Museum near Republic recently. “And then it’s too late.”

The 200-strong band of Comanche and Kiowa Indians who found the compound wide open had no such beliefs, nor were they in the mood for discussing the finer points of theological vagaries. Their demands for cows were met with disdain from Benjamin Parker, who strode forth unarmed to meet them; he was the first to die. In the ensuing battle Elder John and several others were killed, and five captives taken. Four were eventually released. Nine-year-old Cynthia Ann disappeared virtually without a trace into the vast barren lands of Comancheria, and wouldn’t be seen again for nearly 25 years.

If not for that raid and the subsequent events leading up to her recapture by the Texas Rangers in 1860, the Parker saga would have been no different than thousands of others of those who braved the frontier for freedom and opportunity. “Their story is really our story,” Kalivoda said. “It’s the story of what propelled them to go west, what kept them moving and moving and moving. It’s a heartbreaking story, a timeless story.”

For Kalivoda, that story began ten years ago during a wedding at Old Spencer Mill in Burns, Tenn., not far from her home in Nashville. The restored grist mill, now a wedding and event center, had a long lineage back to 1808, when a man named Moses Parker killed a bear and carved his name on a tree along what would become Parker Creek. Moses’ uncle was Elder John Parker. The famous Parkers of Texas had lived in what was now her own backyard. 

Intrigued, and finding little hard information about their peregrinations ever westward, Kalivoda, a documentary filmmaker from Brantford, Kan., decided to retrace their route through the wilderness. It would take her two-and-a-half years and 2,500 miles to complete the project. The result was a documentary entitled “Following the Parker Trail.”

***

“The Parker family left very few footprints,” Kalivoda said. “If not for the events in 1836, they would have been like most other pioneers, destined to live and die in obscurity.”

They moved frequently, often establishing primitive Baptist churches on the fringes of Indian territories and pulling up stakes when called or coerced into blazing their way on a circuitous route south and west. There was neither rhyme nor reason for their moves, or none that could be determined by the scant evidence she was able to unearth, Kalivoda said. “It was random, like throwing a dart at a board,” she said. “They were on a quest not even Elder John understood.”

The roads they took—the Wilderness Road, the Great Wagon Road, the Chickasaw Trail, the Buffalo Road—were little more than animal paths meandering through cloying deciduous woods riven by deep serpentine creeks and waterfalls. Step by laborious step, rarely exceeding seven miles per day in heavy, cumbersome Conestoga wagons eighteen feet long and four feet wide, they made their way from Maryland to Virginia, from Georgia to Tennessee. 

They were hardline Baptists with a relentless work ethic that brooked no laziness and offered little charity, and seemingly fearless. One of their favorite Old Testament quotes provided all they needed in the form of assurance when facing the unknown and its inhabitants: “The heathen shall fall down at your sight.” They feared God so much that they had no fear left in them for anything else, Kalivoda said.

Near present-day Nashville they sojourned for a while to build a mill and a church. The latter, named Turnbull Primitive Baptist Church after the creek which flowed past, is still active. When a series of strong earthquakes shook the region in 1811 and 1812, flattening homes and businesses and jarring waterways from their courses in an area encompassing more than a million square miles (the Mississippi River briefly reversed itself), Elder John and his son, Benjamin, thought it was the end of the world. No matter. As the aftershocks rumbled underfoot, they were already planning their way to a new promised land—Illinois.

It was there that Cynthia Ann was born. But even the promised land gets old, and more populated, and within a few years the Parkers were chafing to continue south toward the new frontier of Texas. According to author Jim Crutchfield, who had several cameo appearances in Kalivoda’s documentary, “There wasn’t much in Texas then but hostile Indians and rattlesnakes.” The Mexican government wanted Anglo settlers to improve the land and create buffers between the Mexicans and the Indians, knowing they were as plentiful as they were expendable. No matter. For Elder John and the other Parkers, their mission was to save the benighted people from Catholicism.

On the night of Nov. 13, 1833, shortly after crossing the Sabine River from Louisiana into Texas, a meteor shower of biblical proportions rained down in bright fiery trails. Most of the pioneers were certain that the end of the world was upon them. Women and children wailed in fear while the men consulted with two Baptist ministers among them, one of them Daniel Parker. Not so, the ministers said: God had not spoken to them about any apocalypse, therefore this was something else, though whether a message or an evil omen they could not say. Nevertheless, the group had an uneasy night spent in prayer, and made their way forward the following day with heavy hearts. 

“Maybe it was a harbinger of things to come,” Kalivoda said. “1836 wasn’t that far off. The wrath of God in the form of a Kiowa raiding party was their destiny.”

***

One of the first things Kalivoda discovered when she hit the road was the almost complete absence of diaries or journals by early pioneers. The first few generations to cross the Appalachians left behind few written histories. Their descendants, notably during the years of westward expansion known as Manifest Destiny, were altogether literate compared to their forbearers, something Kalivoda attributed to increased schooling and literacy.
But she kept hearing rumors of a journal that told the tale of the Parkers during the Tennessee years. Several publications and books mentioned the journal but never with reference to its location or its actuality. There were no photographs or sketches of it, no excerpts or entries. It was a ghost or phantom, there one minute and gone the next, always slipping from her grasp. 

Kalivoda asked everyone she met about the journal, and always to the same conclusion: what journal? She infiltrated their conversations, insinuated herself into their doings, visited museums, phoned historians, tenaciously followed every dead-end lead and scrap of information to its foregone conclusion. If there ever had been a journal, she decided, it was lost to time. And then she found a person who knew a person who lived down a certain road and she found herself burning up the asphalt getting there.

Yes, the elderly woman said when she answered the door, I have the journal. Moments later Kalivoda sat down with the journal in her lap.

“The Parkers left few possessions, and most of their things were destroyed at Fort Parker,” she said. “To see her take the journal out of the bureau, to hold something of theirs that was tangible, was one of the defining moments of the trip.”

There were a few others, such as coming across an old photograph of Quanah Parker, Cynthia Ann’s son, at his mother’s funeral. No references had even hinted at such a treasure, and there it was at the Panhandle Plains Museum in Texas. 

And then there was a morning when she stood outside the closed gates of the Parker compound, trying to imagine Benjamin Parker stepping out alone to face the hostile raiders. It was an imposing structure enclosing four acres with 12-foot log walls, twin two-story blockhouses at opposite ends and two entrances, one a large double gate facing south and the other a smaller gate offering easy access to a spring. None of that mattered with the gate left open.

“They were so certain that they were God’s elect that I think it bordered on arrogance,” Kalivoda said. They couldn’t foresee anything other than a favorable outcome—until, that is, the reality of their plight soaked in. According to Rachel Plummer, a family member who survived the attack, Benjamin told his brother and father that they were going to be killed, and told her to run for the trees. She was still running when lances pinned Benjamin to the Texas ground in a spray of bright blood.

Of the little blue-eyed girl taken that day nothing remained but a memory. A few scattered sightings, never proven beyond a doubt, gave the remaining family hope, but even that hope eventually burned to ashes. And when in the winter of 1860 a small force of Texas Rangers massacred an encampment of Indian women and children on the banks of the Pease River, and Ranger Tom Kelliher at the last second stayed his trigger finger to wrestle a blue-eyed woman with a young daughter to the ground, it wasn’t Cynthia Ann Parker but another, Naduah, wife of Peta Nacona. 

No matter. They cleaned her up and dressed her in the clothing of a white woman of means, and returning her to her family with great pomp and ceremony killed her just as dead as if Tom Kelliher had pulled the trigger. 

***

And that’s where Kalivoda’s story could have ended, and maybe should have ended, at the closed gates of Fort Parker. But after two-and-a-half years following their footprints across half the nation it wasn’t that easy. The sheer scope of the narrative, its pathos, the research and sleuthing, had become ingrained in her soul. 


“In some ways it was the end of the trail,” she said, “but I don’t think the trail has ended. I’m not sure it ever will. It’s not easy to let the Parkers go.”

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