I was reading the story of Quanah Parker and his mother Cynthia Ann Parker the other day (or night, if you know me … I’m a night owl). The book, “Empire of the Summer Moon,” was not a historical fiction book like I usually read. It followed Cynthia Ann Parker, who was captured in Texas by the Comanches when she was a girl, and she made a life with them. She grew up in the tribe, took a husband and by all accounts was integrated into the tribe and would have stayed her whole life there. She had a son, Quanah, and another son and daughter. It was at the end of the Indian wars, and the book goes into the history of the Texas Rangers, the effects of the Civil War on Texas, and the other hardships the Army, settlers, and Commanches had at the end of the Indian wars. The Comanches were the last tribe to be able to continue their way of life, following the buffalo herds. Cynthia Ann was recaptured and lived out the rest of her life in Texas with relatives. Her son Quanah grew up to become a leader for the Comanches once they were ensconced onto a reservation in Oklahoma. It was very, very interesting. I hadn’t ever read much about Comanches before. I’d read Don Coldsmith’s Spanish Bit Saga books, but those are a fictitious tribe. And, of course, my dad wore out two sets of “Lonesome Dove” VHS tapes, so I had exposure to Blue Duck. Other than that, Comanches and their ultra aggressive and defensive tactics were foreign to me.
But what really struck me is the dates that this was set in. I kept reading when this thing happened and that thing happened, and these Indians were going to New Mexico and these Indians were coming to San Antonio, and they went up into Oklahoma and parts of Kansas and I kept reading the dates in the 1860s and 1870s and 1880s. Something just kept sticking in my mind. My alma mater, Bethany College, was founded in 1881. So all of the stuff in the book, which included very brutal tactics, happened within 10 to 20 years of my college being founded. Even after the brutality and hardships were known from this timeperiod, settlers still came. They felt comfortable enough in this wide open, grass forever, country to build a college. It just really blew my mind. When you look at the vast empty spaces that we occupy in the middle of Central Kansas, I just can’t imagine what it took to be a settler here.
The feeling of being a little tiny speck in a great vast nothingness in a sea of grass with no trees and no water had to be an overwhelming feeling. If you add onto that if you were a woman coming out here it has a little bit more complexity to it. Especially in Post Rock Country, where I come from, there are a lot of limestone barns and limestone houses. Settlers would come out here and there were no trees to build with. Where are you going to live with no trees to build a house? Well first, of course, you have your tent; but then what happens? You build out of sod and you live in a hole in the ground. Snakes and mice and spiders and all other kinds of creepy crawlies had to be constant companions. Then what probably happens is that you build a barn out of limestone you have to quarry yourself. You have to use feathers and wedges to quarry it. You have to move massive blocks of heavy heavy stone, point and tuck it, and put on a roof. Boom, now your animals have a place to stay but you’re still in a sod house. I honestly think if that was me, I would’ve moved into the barn and said “Hey, Hon, go ahead and make me a house and I’ll move back in with you. Until then, I’ll stay out here with the milk cows.” But I’m kind of sassy like that so I don’t know how that would’ve worked out. So you scratch the ground and if you’re west of the 98th Meridian, you’re right at the eastern edge of the Great American Desert. What would grow out here? Grass, of course. Grass for miles and days and weeks and months. Not much water. You put your vegetable seeds in the ground, plant some wheat and corn, and hope you don’t starve.
The distances you have to go to get help — it’s just mind-boggling. On a horse or in a carriage you’re 15-plus miles from town; you’re 2 miles from your neighbor. Your kids learn at home because at first there’s no school to go to. You can’t go to church if you don’t have a priest close by (if you are Catholic, as I am). I just think that the loneliness and the hard work and the questions and all of that would just have to be overwhelming.
I really enjoyed watching a Tommy Lee Jones movie called “The Homesman.” He was wrangled into helping bring four women off the plains in Nebraska back to Iowa because they had prairie fever. It wasn’t a typical sickness. It didn’t come from a virus or a bacteria. I honestly think it was caused by the wind. The unyielding, unrelenting, oh-my-god-would-you-please-stop-blowing, it’s-as-hot-as-a-furnace-and-you’re-making-it-worse wind. It shakes your house, it blows over trees (if you have trees), it makes your animals go crazy, and, honestly, it makes people crazy, too. I might be wrong in that assessment, but my goodness the wind in Kansas will blow you over. It is relentless.
An aside: my son had an assignment where he read a book where the setting was on a prairie, and he was to determine if it could be in Kansas using clues from the book. My first question: “Did any character ever at any point complain about the wind?”
But they also dealt with loneliness, children dying, unrelenting hard work and despair. This was before vaccines, of course. Before penicillin, you could get a scrape on your hand and you could die. Cholera, typhoid, diphtheria — I mean, we’ve all played Oregon Trail, right? Rattlesnakes falling from your ceiling in the dugout, falling off a cliff, animals run you over — I mean, how many accidents could be deadly in the middle of nowhere with no doctor or modern medicine in sight? My son and I sometimes walk through old cemeteries, and it is very sobering to see the little children’s graves. All of that contributed to prairie fever, and the movie brought it out in stark relief. And the one thing about that movie that was so striking is that when they finally got to Iowa, and there was a church there that took these women in and took care of them, they said, “Oh, this winter — it must’ve been bad for you to bring in four.” Yet they expected them to bring at least one or two every spring. It was just so foreign to the way that people lived on the East Coast or in Europe or wherever they came from that it just broke so many people.
I can relate to living miles from people. I can relate to losing children. I can relate to accidents happening. But the scale and the hardiness required for these families to move thousands of miles from where they were to decide to settle here in a sea of grass, I feel it’s important to look back and see our ancestors who scratched out a living in this vast openness that has a great reward but great challenge as well.