Plains Folk

Captive of Cinema


In 1997 a made-for-TV movie called Stolen Women, Captured Hearts offered a new version of the life of Anna Brewster Morgan, of Delphos, Kansas. This is the woman captured by Lakota in 1868, traded to Cheyenne, and eventually brought out of captivity by George A. Custer. As related in a previous column, she, along with her mixed-blood son, Ira, is buried in the neatly kept Delphos cemetery.

The TV movie casts Nebraskan Janine Turner (known to many as Maggie from the series, Northern Exposure) as Anna and tells, so the PR blurbs say, “a unique and true story of a woman whose life was spared because of the vision of a Lakota warrior.” In other words, Anna’s experience, which by all contemporary accounts was horrific, is turned into screen romance.

There is another, older cinematic version of Indian captivity on the plains. This is The Searchers, 1956, directed by the venerable John Ford. It casts Natalie Wood as the captive Debbie and John Wayne as the obsessed Uncle Ethan, who thinks she would be better off dead. Her brother, Martin, searches throughout the west for her, saying, “I gotta fetch her home.”

Most people think the story line of The Searchers is based on the experience of the most famous of all Indian captives on the plains, Cynthia Parker, mother of the great Comanche leader, Quannah. (I have visited her grave, too, at Fort Sill.) That’s probably true, but it seems likely that elements also are lifted from the story of Anna Brewster Morgan. She had a devoted brother who searched for her, joining up with Custer’s campaign into the Indian Territory in 1868. In My Life on the Plains Custer describes the emotional reunion of sister and brother.

Both women, Anna and Cynthia, are buried alongside their mixed-blood sons.

Viewers and critics have objected to The Searchers because of its racist themes and the disturbing behavior of Uncle Ethan. Stolen Women, Captured Hearts lacks the genius of the earlier film but is just as objectionable. Anna’s experiences are trivialized. As Gregory and Susan Michno detail in their book, A Fate Worse Than Death, Anna’s unfortunate life was not the stuff of politically correct romance.

The Michnos go too far, however, in detailing the tragedy of Anna’s life on her return, post-captivity, to Delphos. They repeat the standard story of her sad trajectory. Anna had children with her white husband, Civil War veteran James S. Morgan, but their marriage was troubled. He never could put the facts of Anna’s captivity behind them, and he treated her badly. She separated from him, they divorced, and she lived in a little house in Delphos, an outcast, until being carted off to the mental hospital in Topeka, where she died.

The thing to note is that all known facts about Anna’s post-captivity life come from her own accounts. We do not hear from her husband, who might not have been such an ogre after all. We cannot know, but only suspect, how deeply her trauma affected her and incapacitated her for life. We can, however, visit her grave in Delphos.

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