Life in early Texas was perilous for the white settlers who swarmed here. Though the dangers of the frontier were many, what people feared the most (at least in North Texas) was attacks by Comanche and Kiowa. The Native People were angry, and rightfully so. They were being pushed from their land and they pushed right back. Quite often women and children were kidnapped for ransom and rarely treated kindly while in captivity.
Perhaps you have heard the tragic story of Cynthia Ann Parker, who was abducted from her family by the Comanche when she was about nine years old. She was one of the lucky ones. Cynthia Ann was adopted into the tribe and treated like a daughter. She married Chief Peta Nocona (who loved her so much he didn’t take any other wives) and had three children with him.
Later, her white family abducted her again (VERY much against her will) to take her back to her “people.” But, she was thoroughly Comanche. She tried repeatedly to escape and return to her Comanche family. For this picture, taken with her daughter Topsannah, she had chopped her hair short in mourning, and some say she died of a broken heart. I know you have heard of her. Heck, if you have Texas ancestry, you probably claim kinship with her, because her son, Quanah, had forty-eleven wives at one time (technically eight or maybe thirteen, but I’m a storyteller, and I am prone to exaggeration).
While Cynthia Ann, who preferred her Comanche name of Naduah, thank you very much, has a sorrowful story, I think that another frontier woman had an even more heartbreaking life.
Her full name was Elizabeth Ann Bishop Carter Sprague FitzPatrick Clifton.
I’ll just call her Elizabeth.
Elizabeth Ann Bishop was the name pinned on her when she was born in Alabama in 1825, the child of Joseph Bishop and Millie Simpson. By the time she was sixteen, in 1841, the family was living in The Republic of Texas (it would be another four years before Texas became the 28th state).
Although it is difficult to tell in this picture, she must have been an attractive woman. She had four husbands, and outlived them all (well, one of them might have “R-U-N-N-O-F-T”). Despite the fact that she was illiterate and had epilepsy, she was one of the most successful businesswomen on the Texas Plains. She was kidnapped in a raid by Comanche and Kiowa, rescued a year later … well, let me get to all of that.
Elizabeth married Alexander Joseph Carter, who was a free black man, in 1841 when she was sixteen years old. That must have raised some eyebrows in those days among her white neighbors and family. They had two children, Mildred Susannah “Milly” (in 1843) and Elijah “Joe”(1850) and they lived with Alexander’s parents near Fort Belknap in Young County. His Daddy had a farm, a ranch, and a cargo transport business. Elizabeth managed the ranch and ran a boarding house.
Life was good until the Wheel of Fate turned: Alexander and his father were mysteriously murdered in 1857. All of her father-in-law’s assets were given to his grandchildren, leaving Elizabeth nothing except a lot of hard work ahead to run the ranch and Carter Trading House. After all, Milly was only fourteen and Joe was only seven. They couldn’t be expected to run it by themselves.
Fourteen-year-old Milly got married, the same year her Daddy died, to a man named Durkin. The following year (1858) Elizabeth Carter married Lt. Owen A. Sprague. The Wheel of Fate turned again, and after eight months of marriage he disappeared, never to be seen again. Some say he was ambushed by Indians, others say he was dissatisfied with his living arrangements and moved on down the road. At any rate, Elizabeth had her hands full taking care of the Trading House and the ranch.
In 1862, Elizabeth Sprague married a ranch cowhand named Thomas FitzPatrick … and eight months later he was murdered. That Wheel of Fate was doing a number on Elizabeth, but the worst was ahead as she continued her success with the ranch and trading house near Fort Belknap.
The worst was later called The Elm Creek Raid. Several hundred Comanche and Kiowa raided the valley near Fort Belknap in October of 1864. No men were at home at the FitzPatrick household. The people there were Elizabeth, her 13-year-old son Joe, her 21-year-old (widowed) daughter Milly Durkin, Milly’s children Lottie (5 years) and Milly (2 years) and her newborn infant, and a 24-year-old black woman named Mary Johnson(who was pregnant) and her three children (ages 4-7). What chance did they have?
None at all. Brave Milly Durkin tried to fend the attackers off with a shotgun. For her trouble, she was tomahawked, gang-raped, and beaten to death while her mother was made to watch. One of Mary Johnson’s boys was killed when he tried to escape. Milly’s newborn son was slammed against the wall to kill him. Everyone else was tied onto ponies and dragged away when the Kiowa warrior, Satanta, blew the bugle.
When they camped, the attackers noticed that Elizabeth’s son was too ill to sit up. They tied Joe to a bush and burned him alive while his Momma was forced to watch. Her granddaughters were taken from her and taken to different camps. Elizabeth spent a year in captivity, during which time (according to a book called Circle The Wagons by Gregory and Susan Michno) she worked as a slave and was repeatedly raped, starved, and beaten. Though I don’t find reference elsewhere, that book claims that forty-year-old Elizabeth was pregnant when she was rescued and the baby was “apparently stillborn.”
Rescue came on November 2, 1865 when Colonel Jesse H. Leavenworth, with the help of Jesse Chisholm (of Chisholm Trail fame) and Britt Johnson, found Elizabeth Carter Clifton Fitzpatrick and traded for her. Those men had been searching for surviving captives the whole time, and that is another story with great drama (in fact it inspired a movie). When she got to safety, she discovered that her granddaughter, Lottie, had been returned to Texas four months before. Though they told her that her granddaughter Milly Jane had frozen to death, Elizabeth refused to believe it to her dying day.
It took nearly another year before Elizabeth was reunited with Lottie, who was living in Parker County. There, Elizabeth FitzPatrick met and married her fourth husband in 1869, a widower named Isaiah Clifton. They moved to Shackelford County near Fort Griffin. Elizabeth continually petitioned the government to search for her granddaughter Milly Jane, as she had heard rumors of her being sighted. When that Wheel of Fate turned again, and Isaiah died of a stroke in 1880, Elizabeth lost all her spunk.
They say she became depressed and morose (and who could blame her). She slowly deteriorated and died in 1882 at the age of 57. Elizabeth Ann Carter Clifton is buried in the oldest cemetery in Shackelford County next to Isaiah Clifton.
Although the saga of The Elm Creek Raid (or, rather, the search to find the captives) was the inspiration for The Searchers (Warner Brothers, 1956), featuring John Wayne, I think Elizabeth’s story would make an intriguing film. Yes, it is brutal, harsh, and sad but it gives the sense of what life was like for women on the plains. Elizabeth Ann Carter Clifton was a frontier woman who kept right on plugging when adversity got in her way — just like every woman who helped pioneer the West. Let’s make some movies that feature the women who braved the dangers.