People throughout time have altered historical narratives or created entirely new ones to buttress particular agendas. Texans are no different. Such narratives serve a variety of purposes, such as putting a new spin on an embarrassing event, padding one’s resume, or shaping public memory. An illustrative example of such historical spin is the December 19, 1860, Battle of Pease River.
In Myth, Memory, and Massacre, authors Paul Carlson and Tom Crum cut through the heretofore-accepted fiction to reveal the unvarnished facts. First of all, this was no battle but a massacre. A combined force of Texas Rangers and U.S. soldiers surprised a small Comanche hunting camp composed mostly of women and children. Second, the engagement took place not on the Pease River but on a tributary, Mule Creek, located in present-day Foard County, Texas. Third, Lawrence Sullivan “Sul” Ross, a participant in the massacre, altered the facts to pad his resume and launch a successful political career that culminated with two terms as governor of Texas (1887–91). Until now, Ross’s version of what occurred on that December morning has been the dominant narrative in Texans’ collective memory.
In some books dealing with the Comanche Indian period in Texas, a minor and inconsequential engagement such as Mule Creek might merit but a footnote. This event is different, however, because of its connection to the Cynthia Ann and Quanah Parker saga that has fascinated both Texans and non-Texans for more than a century. It was during this massacre that soldiers “rescued” Cynthia Ann (a white captive taken by Comanches in 1836), forever separating her from her Comanche family and friends. Today the Parker story still generates considerable interest, as evidenced by numerous references to both mother and son in the plethora of Comanche-related works currently lining bookstore shelves.
Sul Ross often claimed that during the Mule Creek fight, he killed the “famous Comanche chief” Peta Nocona, Cynthia Ann’s husband and Quanah’s father. Ross also stated that Quanah was present during the attack but managed to escape. In fact, Peta Nocona was not a Comanche chief and did not die during the engagement. On the date in question, Nocona and his son Quanah were miles away from Mule Creek. The facts notwithstanding, such “eyewitness accounts,” through their recounting year after year, often become part of the historical narrative.
Myth, Memory, and Massacre is an intriguing blend of part history and part legal brief. Carlson, professor emeritus from Texas Tech, and Crum, a retired state district judge, compile a convincing counter-narrative to Ross’s version of events, [End Page 91] arguing their case much like a lawyer before a jury. In presenting their historical “brief,” the authors utilize a variety of sources, including period documents, military reports, manuscripts, and reminiscences from the National Archives, the Texas State Archives, the Haley Library in Midland, Texas, the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum in Canyon, Texas, and the Center for American History at UT-Austin.
Because their work focuses so narrowly on one particular event, however, some might overlook it amidst the many broader studies and fictional works that deal with the Comanche period in Texas. Such an oversight would be remiss, as Myth, Memory, and Massacre is a textbook example of how to utilize the historical record when confronting inaccurate myths and public memory. Whether Texans’ collective consciousness regarding events on that wintry December day in 1860 is altered by this book’s findings is another matter. Carlson and Crum, like many other Texas historians, are well aware that in the Lone Star State, longstanding legends and myths often prove impervious to historical correction.