My parents were Primitive Baptists. Primitive Baptist churches are few, and their preachers are fewer. Many of the churches meet monthly—a tradition born from necessity. One preacher served several churches and made a monthly circuit on horseback or foot. These days, one preacher still serves several churches, so the churches still only meet once a month, though the preacher generally gets there by car. That’s the only thing that has changed for the Primitive Baptists.
That’s why we drove three hours once a month to go to church when I was a kid. Mama and Daddy woke my sister Erin and me up at 5:00 to make it to Pilgrim Church in Elkhart before 9:00.
Pilgrim Primitive Baptist Church is the oldest non-Catholic church in Texas. When Daniel Parker and family founded it in 1833, Texas was still under the rule of Mexico.
Neither my sister nor I enjoyed sitting in the one-room church during the slow, a capella singing, the extemporaneous preaching, or the prayers, any of which could last for two hours or more. During the spring and summer, the windows and doors were open for a breeze, and the woods, wildflowers, and wildlife called us outside where we wandered for hours.
We’d play in the cemetery amongst the rusted iron fences and weathered markers, many of which were nearly 150 years old, and most of which had the Parker name. Erin picked flowers and chased butterflies while I caught lizards. The old outhouses were still in the woods, though falling and overgrown (as opposed to the new outhouses, which were at the edge of the woods and made of plywood). At the bottom of a draw in the woods was a fresh spring, which I imagined Indians drinking from. There was also a replica of the original log-cabin church, complete with split log benches and a pulpit, which we took turns pretending to preach from.
In 1836, Comanches from the plains of Texas raided Fort Parker, not far from the church. They killed several Parkers, including John, Daniel’s father, and Silas, Daniel’s brother, and they took Silas’s children John and Cynthia Ann, who was about 10 at the time, along with a few other captives.
Cynthia Ann lived with the Comanches for 25 years, marrying Chief Peta Nocona. Their son became the famous Comanche Chief Quanah Parker.
In 1860, the cattleman Charles Goodnight (whose adventures the book Lonesome Dove is loosely based upon) led a group of Texas Rangers after a band of Comanches who were suspected of raiding settlers in present day Weatherford (Parker County, ironically). They came upon a group in Foard County, near present day Crowell (160 miles to the northwest), of mostly Comanche women and children. Captain Sul Ross and about 20 men killed most of the people who didn’t escape in what is known as The Battle of Pease River, though there wasn’t much of a battle. In his official report, Sul Ross wrote that the rangers killed Chief Nocona, although Quanah Parker later said that he and his father were out hunting when the attack occurred. According to Quanah, Nocona died years later from sickness.
After the raid on the Comanches, Sul Ross noticed that one of his captives had blue eyes. After questioning, the woman affirmed that she was Cynthia Ann. She and her two-year-old daughter Prairie Flower were sent east to Birdville to live with Isaac Parker. Prairie Flower died of the flu in 1864, and Cynthia Ann, never having adjusted to life away from the Comanches, died grieving in 1871.
Quanah became the last of the Comanche war chiefs, but had many white friends later in life, including Charles Goodnight, and spent a lot of time in the small ranch towns in the rolling plains of Texas.
When my wife and I lived in Matador, Texas, our neighbor was Ms. Mary Mason. Ms. Mason was well in her 90’s and was a teacher in Motley County during the dust bowl. Her father had been friends with Quanah Parker.
When my sister and I played in the woods at Pilgrim, I felt like the story of Cynthia Ann and Quanah wasn’t that distant. And as my baby daughter and I sat visiting with Ms. Mason, I realized just how recent it had been.
At my urging and to her displeasure, my wife and I visited Charles Goodnight’s grave outside of Goodnight, Texas. His house is also still standing vacant not far west of Clarendon. You would miss it if you didn’t know where it was—I recognized it from a picture. I once got my pickup stuck on the JA Ranch, which Goodnight ran, also near Clarendon.
Today, I live 70 miles west of Parker County. Comanche County borders us to the south. Quanah is a short drive northwest, and Nocona is a short drive northeast. This was Comanche country, but other than names, there are few reminders of what the land was like just a few generations ago.
Before his death, Goodnight recognized that he was at a historical turning point. He, among many things, rescued several Texas buffalo from those being slaughtered. He kept them in the canyons along the edge of the Llano Estacado, where their descendants still live today in Caprock Canyons State Park. My son and I camped and hiked with them last weekend.
I’m thankful that I was born and raised in Texas, and I don’t ever want to live anywhere else. The landscape and climate are beautiful, diverse, and harsh. And our culture is unique—shaped by the Native Americans, Spanish, Mexicans, and the roughest of settlers. War chiefs, conquistadors, banditos, cowboys, rattlesnakes, and coyotes. No stories of any land or country give me as much a sense of pride as the stories of Texas. No wonder Davy Crockett said, “You may all go to hell, and I will go to Texas.”