I'm a man of a certain age, which is to say I grew up watching Western Films. True, most of them were made before I was born, but I grew up with them nonetheless. "The Searchers", made in 1956 (the same year I was born), is one of my favorites. It was based upon a novel written by Alan Le May of the same title. Le May, however, did quite a bit of research before writing "The Searchers", reading memoirs of Texans who grew up on the Texas frontier during it's early years, and historical accounts from newspaper and magazine accounts of over 64 documented accounts of Texan settlers who were captured and taken into captivity by the various bands of Comanches whose lands those settlers intruded upon.
The movie gets mixed reviews these days, even though the American Film Institute designated it the "Greatest Western of All Time" in 2008, and film makers such as Martin Scorsese, Stephen Spielberg, Jean-Luc Goddard, George Lucas and John Milius have either paid homage to the film in works of their own, or publicly professed their admiration for the Ford film. The opening scene says "Texas, 1868." The events actually occurred some 30 years earlier. The movie was filmed in the Monument Valley, which straddles Northern Arizona and southwestern Utah, on land belonging to the Navajo Tribe. It was the 5th Western film that Ford made in the one of a kind landscape, his first being "Stagecoach", also starring John Wayne.
John Wayne was famously quoted as saying that the Navajo lands comprising Monument Valley were "where God put the West." The scenery is so spectacular, so iconic, so married to the Westerns that Ford is famous for, that most Americans, when they envision the Western landscape, immediately conjure up images of the vast open plateaus and solitary rock formations that Monument Valley is famous for.
It was probably wise of Ford not to shoot "The Searchers" in the comparatively barren, flat, featureless area of the Texas Frontier where the historical antecedent of the story actually took place. The land that the unfortunate settlers who experienced in real life what the film only suggests was granted to them for free by the Mexican government. After describing the land as free, positive adjectives become harder to find.
I recently read a rather negative and silly criticism of The Searchers at Slate Magazine. The critic found the movie sort of dull, and more than a little racist. As it happens, I'm also in the middle of reading a riveting book entitled "Empire of the Summer Moon", by S.C. Gwynne, which is a history of the rise and fall of the Comanche Indians on the Great Plains, with most of the focus on the Texas frontier Indian Wars. I recommend the book to anyone who enjoys American History in general, and Western history especially.
The family that "The Searchers" is based upon is most probably, but not certainly, based upon the events which befell the Parker family, who moved from Illinois to Texas in 1833. They were attacked by a band of Comanches in 1836, not 1868, as the film suggests. 1868 was much closer to the end of what had been a nearly 4 decade long conflict between White settlers in Texas and the Comanche Indians. No other Indian group proved as hard to vanquish, as dangerous to live in the vicinity of, or as much of a military equal in the field of battle as the Plains tribes, and among them, the Comanches were peerless.
To move from the East in the 1830's, as the Parkers did, and settle on the western fringe of the Texas frontier, was in many ways crazy. To read about it only suggests at the lunacy, the optimism, the grit and determination that must have been required. The Parkers had these qualities in spades, and for 3 years they were lucky.
Until one morning in 1836, when a mixed band of some 100 to 200 Comanche and Kiowa warriors appeared at the fort they had built for themselves. The event which unfolded took only about 30 minutes, but it permanently installed the Parker Clan into the pantheon of Texas history. It became Texan lore, American lore...even International lore. For decades, children in Texas schools learned the story of the Parkers in their history classes.
The opening scene of The Searchers establishes the main character, Ethan Edwards, as a morally ambiguous man. Wayne's character appears out of nowhere, framed by the rectangular doorway of his brother's simple frontier cabin...approaching from the wide expanse of the Texas (Arizona) landscape. The character that Le May's novel is based upon is also morally ambiguous. Not to jump the story, but after the Comanche raid upon the Parker Clan, who were quite wealthy by Texas standards, and quite intertwined with the history of the incipient state...one James Parker, who survived the attack, spent many years of the rest of his life, and much of his fortune, trying to find his surviving relatives. He was as dogged in his search for his missing relatives as the Ethan Edwards character. According to S.C. Gwynne, he was also
the man whose breathtaking lack of judgement had been largely to blame for the disaster that had befallen the clan in May of 1836. Like many other members of the Parker clan, James was a colorful figure. But he was much more than that. He was one of the most outrageous, extreme, obsessive, ambitious, violent, dishonest, morally compromised, reckless and daring characters ever to stake a claim on the early Texas frontier. He was a man of more contradictions than anyone could keep track of: a prominent citizen who was accused at various times of being a murderer, counterfeiter, liar, drunk, horse thief, and robber. He was kicked out of two churches for lying and drunkenness. And yet during his lifetime he was an elected Justice of the Peace, one of the original Texas Rangers, and a friend of Sam Houston. Though an odor of impropriety, untruth and general malfeasance haunts his life, he was never convicted of anything.
That is the story of The Searchers.
But first...the story of their abduction, and the attack. Because the real history seems to pull the rug out from beneath critics such as the one who writes for Slate Magazine. I don't, not for one minute, suggest that the history between American settlers and the Indians they rubbed up against, isn't replete with stories of horrible acts on both sides. It is. But what follows is true history...and it should give pause to anyone who feels compelled to object that any negative depiction of American Indians in popular culture is tantamount to racism. I apologize in advance for the length of this diary...but it's just too riveting a story to cut corners on, and as long as it is...there's so many more details that could be added. History on the micro level is almost always more interesting than history on the macro level.
The Parkers had built a fort well beyond the line of most settlements in Texas at the time. They were on the farthest western finger of what was, nationally, already a finger of settlements poking into Indian Territories. To the west of their fort their was not a single settlement nor a single settler until you reached Santa Fe, New Mexico. To the east, they were probably 100 miles in the vanguard of the nearest settlers. There was no military presence there. Only the promise of free land could have lured someone to take upon themselves such a risk. Which is exactly the lure that attracted them.
Mexico, whose territory Texas belonged to at the time, had a long history of fighting the Comanches, and a long history of getting their asses whupped. They fell upon the plan of offering free land to naive Americans, in exchange for their allegiance to Mexico, in order to populate this badland with Americans whom the Comanches would prey upon instead of Mexicans. The early Texan settlers snapped up the deal, with no intention for anything other than the opportunity to get land. Any oath given to Mexico was given the same weight as any treaty given to the Indians. It was all about getting land, in a time in our history when land in the Eastern states was already spoken for, and 4th generation Americans or newly arrived immigrants found that there was no land to be had.
The Parkers were a large clan, with extended family, and between all of them they had managed to acquire some 25 square miles of Texas land, through grants from Mexico and subsequent purchases. Their fort was well built, with cedar posts 12 feet tall and towers at the corners from which to man a defense with rifles. The cabins were built inside the fort, but their farming land was outside.
On the morning of the attack, the double gates were left wide open, inexplicably. Several men were away from the fort working in the cornfield. There were only about a half dozen left close in, when the Indians suddenly appeared. The Comanches carried a white flag, signally it was a peaceful visit. But the settlers were leery.
The Patriarch was named John Parker. He, two of his sons and some extended family were alone at the fort when the Comanches appeared. His son Benjamin went out to parlay with them. They said they only wanted a cow to butcher and directions to the nearest water. But their horses were wet. Benjamin went back into the fort, and to paraphrase, told the others "we're fucked." His brother Silas wanted to fight, but there were so few of them. They knew they were fucked, and at this point it was just about buying time. Benjamin gathered a few staples and went back oiutside the fort to meet the Indian party. His brother Silas urged the women and children to flee via a back door to the fort that led to the stream from which they got water. Elder John, his wife Sallie, and some Parker in laws made their exit out of the back gate.
Silas, a hot blood, called after the men who made their escape and questioned their courage. Yet he, at that point, was both unarmed and his gunpowder was in his cabin. When his brother Benjamin went back outside to resume negotiations with the band of Comanches he was immediately impaled on one of their 14 foot long lances. He was then clubbed mercilessly, shot at close range with arrows and, while still alive, scalped. The Indians rushed the fort and mayhem ensued. Silas was chased down and killed, as were two in laws, and they, too, were scalped. 17 year old Rachel Parker Plummer, who was pregnant at the time, was clubbed in the head with a garden hoe. She awoke,bleeding profusely from her scalp wound, to see her uncle Silas being scalped.
She was taken captive by the Comanches, along with her 14 month old son. After they had dispatched everyone in the fort, they set off after those who had fled out the back door towards the creek. They soon caught up with elder John Parker, then 78 years old, his wife Sallie and their daughter Elizabeth Kellogg, a young widow. They were stripped naked, as was customary, and tormented for several minutes. They scalped the elder John as he was alive, then cut off his genitals and stuffed them into his mouth, along with fingers, as was also customary, and then killed him. Granny, his wife, tried to look away but her captures grabbed her face and forced her to watch.
She was then gang raped, after being pinned to the ground with their Lances. When they were through they shot an arrow deep into one of her breasts, and left her for dead. Her daughter, 17 year old Elizabeth Kellogg was abducted, along with Cynthia Ann Parker, 9, and her younger brother John, 7.
The survivors of this raid fled through thickets, along streams and generally amongst the thickest cover they could find, on foot, to Fort Houston...the closest fort. It took several days, and covered some 65 miles on foot. They had no arms, and grew so hungry that one of the men captured and drowned a skunk for food. They didn't return to Parker Fort for over 30 days in order to collect and bury their dead.
As for the captives...
Elizabeth Kellogg: probably in her 30's when captured, Elizabeth probably suffered the worst fate. Too old to be adopted into the Comanche band, she was fated to constant torment, torture and sexual degradations. She was raped repeatedly, in front of her niece, nephew and sister in law, over a period of several days. The torments included horrific physical abuse...blows to the head with bows and clubs, burning over various parts of her body with embers from campfires. Several months after her captivity, she was returned to the Texas Authorities during an illfated attempt at brokering a peace on the frontier. Her nose had been cut off to the bridge, and burned into one large scab. Her body was covered in bruises and scars from having been tormented with sticks that had been pulled from a fire and used to torture her. She was taken back in by her family, but no doubt lived the rest of her life as an object of shame, pity and gossip (everyone on the frontier knew what happened to female captives, and had she been returned without a mark upon her, few White men would have considered her worthy of marriage..she had already been "despoiled" by a band of Indians.
Rachel (Parker) Plummer: Rachel was 17 at the time of her abduction, and pregnant. She also had an infant son, James Pratt Plummer, who was taken along with her. Like Elizabeth, she was subjected to repeated gang rapes upon her abduction. One of the first things the Comanches did with female captives was to strip them naked. She and her child were thrown on a horse and driven north into southeastern Colorado. She almost froze. Her son Pratt was hard to console during the first week, and she could not stop him from crying. The Comanches took him away from her, and she never saw him again, nor learned of his fate. She spent nearly a year in captivity, an abject slave of the band, and they travelled over 1000 miles throughout the southern Plains. In October of the year she was taken, she gave birth to another son. She managed to hold onto him for about seven weeks before her captors decided he was distracting her from the tasks they had assigned to her. They took the baby away and attempted to strangle it, but it still showed signs of life. So then they tied a rope to his ankles, and drug him from horseback through a patch of prickly pear cactus, which almost dismembered the child. They continued to drag him behind a horse around in a circle over the ground, while Rachel watched her baby literally torn to pieces. Rachel was purchased from her Comanche abductors by some Mexican Comancheros, slang for Indian Traders, and taken back to a family of White pioneers living in Spanish Santa Fe, New Mexico. They arranged for her travel back to Texas, via the Santa Fe Trail...a grueling trip of almost 1500 miles directly through Indian Territory at a time when there was no federal troops to protect the trail. Miraculously, she made it home. Much of what we know about what happened to the Parker captives comes from her memoirs, written shortly before her death. Her husband took her back...another rarety on the frontier, and she became pregnant again less than a year after her return. She either died in childbirth, or shortly thereafter.
Cynthia Ann Parker: The most compelling story of the Parker captives belongs to Cynthia Ann. She was 9 years old when taken, along with her younger brother John Richard, seven. She witnessed all of the attrocities committed against her older relatives, and much of the same harsh treatment...at least at first. But Cynthia was adopted by the Comanches, as was her younger brother John. She grew up and became married to a Comanche Chief, and bore him three children...one of them being Quanah Parker, the last great Warrior Chief of the Comanches. She lived with them until she was captured by a troop of Texas Rangers in December of 1860...22 years after she was taken captive. She had been spotted only a couple of times prior to this, and on both occasions the mediator who approached the band who held her were rebuffed in their efforts to purchase her back from them. She refused to even speak with on of the party's who managed to get close enough to talk to her, beyong saying that these were here people, she had a husband and children, and that that was where she belonged. White people on the frontier simply could not wrap their head around that. That cannot be overemphasized.
When the band she was living with was finally attacked and mostly killed (two of her boys escaped), she was taken back to her extended family in Texas. She did not re-aculturate well to White Society. She had forgotten most English, though she had learned Spanish reasonably well, since the Comanches made many raids into Mexico, and traded with the Comancheros on a regular basis. Her family and neighbors tried to "clean her up" and dress her again like a White Woman...but she always refused to go along, and would always revert to Comanche garb. She did not live to welcome her reunion with family and White culture...she attempted on many occasions to escape and reunite with her Comanche brethren...always unsuccessfully. She died an unhappy woman, longing for the two boys she bore to a Comanche Chief who was himself killed in the attack that "liberated" her. Her one infant daughter that was recaptured with her, died of influenza about a year or so after her return to Texas.
John Richard Parker: Cynthia's 7 year old brother, was traded off to another Comanche band shortly after their capture, and similarly adopted into the tribe. He was "rescued" by James Parker, "The Searcher", in 1843...five years after being taken captive. He no longer spoke English, and like Cynthia, his transition back into White Society did not go smoothly. He rebelled. He ran away. He tormented his peers. He did not "readjust." He eventually ran away and made his way back to the Comanches, where he felt he belonged. Later in life, he contracted smallpox during one of their raids into Mexico, and the band left him in the care of another Mexican captive, to die. But he recovered. History is unclear on what later transpired in his life, though some believe he remained in Mexico and became a prosperous rancher.
As for The Searcher? James Parker spent several years and much of his personal fortune conducting various expeditions into Indian Territory searching for his lost relatives. Some of those expeditions were almost suicidal. One one trip he lost his horses and carried on on foot far into Comanche Country. On another he was unarmed at one point, and still pushed on. Somehow he survived.
He also managed to recover, often with the help of intermediaries, Rachel Parker Plummer, John Richard Parker and John Pratt Plummer. 3 out of 5 isn't bad, especially when one considers the time, the terrain and the obstacles. These captives were transported by the Comanches over thousands of miles throughout the southern Plains. The Southern Plains, west of the 98th longitude, was a treeless, dry, featureless, flat expanse of almost terrifying dimensions to settlers of the time. It was hard to navigate...there were few landmarks in the form of mountains, outcroppings, rivers, or whatever. Really, only the Comanches knew how to traverse the Plains without getting lost.
James Parker did not let that deter him. He devoted several years of his life after the raid on Parker Fort trying to rescue his relatives...and in retrospect, he was remarkably successfull.
So...that's the real story behind the movie. As for how it came to be filmed in Monument Valley? John Ford was quoted as saying that
The real star of my Westerns is the land. A Western is all about the land.
The area of Monument Valley had long ago been designated as a Navajo Reservation when a guy by the name of Harry Goulding, who owned a trading post on the outskirts of the reservation, saw an ad in a paper saying that a Hollywood Studio was looking for settings for upcoming western films. Goulding took several photographs of the distinctive rock formations in the valley, along with photos of its Navajo inhabitants, and set off for Hollywood with his wife, convinced that they would immediately recognize the potential of the scenery.
He walked into Ford's studio and asked the receptionist if he could see someone...anyone...about a location he knew of that would be perfect for their next Western. She blew him off. He sat and waited. He threatened to get his sleeping bag out of the trunk and camp out there until he got to talk to someone, when she finally called for security. A man walked out of the office and tried to escort him off of the studio premises, but as he hurriedly took a number of photos out of his folder and thrust them into the man's hand...the Studio man took a look at them and paused. He looked at all of them, very carefully, and then invited Mr Goulding into the back office.
John Ford's first movie set in Monument Valley, as I noted, was Stagecoach. The rest is history. Mr Ford's movies pumped thousands of dollars into the local Navajo economy each time he shot a film there. For The Searchers he even hired the tribal Shaman for $15 a day to "ensure that the sky was sufficiently blue, with just the right kind of clouds" for his cinematographer. Ford's crew always stayed at Goulding's trading post and small motel when they were on location...often for 3 or 4 months at a time, and the local Navajos were often used in his films as extras and for other production work.
I've never been to Monument Valley before. But one of these days I will get there.
I've seen the Searchers countless times. If you have too, now you know what it's based on. If you haven't yet seen it...what are you waiting for?