Stories from Summer Vacation: Eddie Whitewolf Visits Old Fort Parker

Next up is a travelogue from Eddie Whitewolf, who describes his journey to Old Fort Parker, the site of the Fort Parker Massacre:

This summer has been spent working.  Thrilling, right?  However, my wife Brandi and I have spent each Sunday going on a road trip to the surrounding areas of Austin and/or visiting different Travis County and Texas State parks.  We’ve become incredibly familiar with the hiking trials of Inks Lake State Park, we’ve gone swimming in the Pedernales River the past three Sundays at Milton Reimer’s Ranch, and we’ve climbed to the top of Enchanted Rock (remembering why we shouldn’t while wearing only our jogging shoes).

However, for most of the summer I was looking forward to one road trip in particular.  This was my trip to Fort Parker State Park to visit Old Fort Parker, just north of Groesbeck, Texas.  In 1836, my great-great-great grandmother, Cynthia Ann Parker, was abducted by a group of Comanches during the Fort Parker Massacre.  The first I heard of this story was when my grandmother, Ann Whitewolf (maiden name Parker), told it to me.  She passed it down to me as a sort of watered down family history: Cynthia Ann was kidnapped, assimilated to Comanche life, took a husband and gave birth to the famous Comanche chief Quanah Parker, my great-great-grandfather.  The history is of course a lot more complicated, as I’ve learned over the years, but I’ve always wanted to visit the site where two sides of my family violently clashed in what is a truly mythic story from the American frontier.

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There are a number of books and films, fiction and non-fiction, that tell the story of the Fort Parker Massacre and the life of Cynthia Ann Parker.  I had a pretty distinct image in my head: a fort surrounded by rolling fields of high grass close to the Navasota River.  Instead, I found it to be situated in a small clearing that was almost completely surrounded by a forest.  Additionally, the fort seemed to be missing certain structural features that played a large part in the history.  Where, for instance, was the giant door into the fort that was fatefully left open on that day in 1836?  Finally, everywhere I looked I was reminded of the fact that this recreation was available for a number of uses.  Electric extension cords and twinkling Christmas lights stretched over the entire fort.  It was a constant reminder to me that the fort, a mythic site of American frontier history (at least to me), can be rented out for private parties and weddings.

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The strangest feature of all, however, was the educational video that seemed to be the centerpiece of the fort. When Brandi and I got to the fourth cabin while touring the fort, there was a small television set and a DVD player with a nearby remote.  We had to restart the DVD, which began to play a video that had obviously been poorly transferred from VHS. Written and directed in 1986 by eighth-grader Jillian Preet, the video was titled “The Blue-Eyed Comanche,” and it told the story of Cynthia Ann Parker.

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The video featured a number of problematic issues.  It used imagery of American Indians that had no relation to the story being told, thereby conflating all American Indians under the banner of “Comanche.” Additionally, it seemed to imply that all Comanches are now simply figures of a brutal and romanticized past of truly mythic proportions, thereby ignoring the modern Comanche Nation and our continued existence.

And yet, the video was strangely endearing.  Ms. Preet actually did a remarkable job on the research for the time and for her age.  She gave a truly balanced history, not privileging either the side of the white Parker clan or the group of American Indians that banded together to raid Fort Parker.  Finally, given the image and sound editing facilities that the normal eighth-grader had access to in 1986, the video had a pretty complex sound design!

What did this visit to Fort Parker teach me?  As someone who comes from a background in cinema studies, wherein research trips really only took the form of visiting an archive or spending some time on Netflix, the trip to Fort Parker reminded me of the importance of tempering my preconceived notions of what a historical site could or should be.  Additionally, it also pointed out the dangers of presenting educational material to the public that was wildly out of date and potentially biased (as some of the displays really seemed to be).

I now have a new goal in regards to Old Fort Parker now that I’ve visited it: looking into helping them update their educational displays.  As interesting as “The Blue-Eyed Comanche” was for me, perhaps it’s time to update the version of the story told by an eighth-grader in 1986.  Maybe that can be a project for an upcoming summer.

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