For many children captured by Indians on Texas frontier, the greatest challenge was returning home.

To the Editors of the San Antonio Herald: On the first day of January, 1870, the son of the undersigned was stolen by the Indians at or near the settlement of Castell, Texas, on the Llano River. Description of the boy: age about 10 years and 8 months, height 4 feet 10 inches, light flaxen hair, grey eyes, broad face, high forehead, has a scar on his chin, speaks the German language exclusively. The undersigned, his father, prays that you use your efforts to recover the child. Yours respectfully, Louis Korn, January 10, 1870.

My great-great-great-grandfather wrote that letter. The newspaper that published it was one of the most widely circulated in the Southwest, but no one answered Louis Korn’s cry for help. General William T. Sherman once pointed out that trying to find a child captured by American Indians was “worse than looking for a needle in a haystack, rather like looking for a flea in a large clover field.” The Korn family soon lost hope that their son and brother, Adolph, would ever return.

Adolph Korn did come home three years later, but he was never the same. He hated his parents. At first he spoke only Comanche. He ate raw meat and refused to sleep indoors. The teenage boy caused so much trouble in San Antonio that the local law officers told his parents to take him out of town. For a while, he lived as a hermit in a cave.

Young Korn’s story was unusual but certainly not unique. Dozens of children on the southern Plains were captured by Comanches, Apaches or Kiowas during the 19th century. But the strange American phenomenon known as “Indian captivity” was not limited to the Plains. It occurred throughout North America, and the experience was remarkably similar in every area. Though terrifying at first and filled with hardship, captivity gave immigrants to the New World a deeper understanding of the continent’s native cultures. In colonial days, the practice gave rise to one of the earliest forms of American literature, the captivity narrative.

Abductions took place in the western United States until the early 1880s. The frontier settlements of central and north Texas frequently drew Indian raiding parties because the farms were several miles apart and made easy targets. General Sherman, who became the commander of the U.S. Army in 1869, upbraided the Western settlers for not taking more precautions to protect themselves. He fumed that they “expose women and children singly on the road and in cabins far off from others, as though they were safe in Illinois.”

The southern Plains Indians, particularly the Comanches, raided frontier communities mainly to get horses for both transport and currency. Raids were also rites of passage, the primary means by which young men proved themselves and gained status in the tribe. Now and then, the raiders took captives in addition to horses. Most were settlers’ children, although the Indians sometimes carried off adult women as well. (Men were almost always killed if they got in the way or put up a fight.) In some cases, children were abducted when the Indians launched an attack on an isolated homestead, as portrayed in John Ford’s classic 1956 film The Searchers. Others were captured without violence while they were working in fields or herding livestock a short distance from home.

The harrowing getaway ride following a kidnapping usually lasted from seven to 10 days. Raiding parties would take their captives into Indian Territory, the Texas Panhandle or eastern New Mexico—places where there were few permanent settlements. Attempted rescues were hardly ever successful. The Indians usually had too great a head start and knew the wilderness routes well.

Indians had two reasons for taking captives. First, kidnapped children, as spoils of war, were considered the property of their captors and therefore could be traded to another tribe or sold to the government for ransom. By the 1870s, captives had become an important bargaining chip in negotiations between the southern Plains Indians and the federal government. Second, in many cases, the captives were adopted as full-fledged members of an Indian family either as a way to replace sons and daughters who had died, or just to build up tribal numbers generally.

Adoption became the more important of these two reasons in the mid-1800s, which is not surprising in light of what was happening on the southern Plains at that time. Indians had suffered very heavy losses from smallpox, cholera and warfare. According to some estimates, the Comanches may have lost as many as three-fourths of their own people between 1849 and 1866. Furthermore, population growth was naturally hampered by low birth rates. Hard work and constant horseback riding may have caused many native women to miscarry.

Most kidnapped children were between the ages of 7 and 14. Younger children were too much trouble to care for during the getaway ride. Older children were considered unlikely to adapt and would usually try to escape. The Indian raiders seemed more interested in taking boys than girls, which suggests their immediate need for new fighting men. Captured boys could serve that purpose within a few months. By the early 1870s, the Comanches were training their own sons as young as 12 to be warriors.

The majority of the children taken by southern Plains Indians were either Mexican or Mexican-American. Those stolen during raids into Mexico were likely to spend the rest of their lives with the Indians, for the Mexican government had no direct relations with the tribes that resided in the United States and could not press for the children’s release. The Indians also captured a sizable number of Euro-American children and a few African Americans as well. In addition, they abducted natives from other tribes.

As soon as the child captives arrived in an Indian village, they were placed in a home, usually with the family of their captor. By and large, the Indians rarely guarded them or kept them in confinement, because there were no nearby settlements to which they could escape. Sometimes they were tested to see how well they could ride or shoot.

In the first weeks of captivity, the boys performed menial chores such as herding horses. The girls carried firewood, hauled water or helped move camp. Comanche captive Bianca Babb wrote: “I was made to know and realize that my life was to be a regular Indian life. Children came to play with me and tried to make me welcome into their kind of life.”

Unlike adult women captives, who were viewed as prisoners of war and were typically raped, tortured or even killed, the captured children were almost universally well treated. The southern Plains Indians wanted the youngsters to remain with the tribe and one day help defend their adoptive people. As Comanche elder Vernon Cable explained recently: “They wanted someone to ride the horse, to be a warrior, to help them in their battles. It didn’t matter if they were black or Mexican or white.” Many of the stolen children eventually married into the tribe. “We are all descendants of captives,” added Ron Red Elk, a Comanche educator who is working to preserve the tribal language and culture.

The adopted captives spoke fondly of their native families. Bianca Babb noted, “My Comanche mother was always very thoughtful of me and seemed to care as much for me as if I was her very own child.” Her older brother and fellow captive, Dot Babb, agreed: “Generally the Indians were very considerate of their captives.” A great-grandson of Comanche captive Malinda Caudle recalled: “Grandma said she was not mistreated in any way. The woman that took care of her would cook her meat better than she would for the Indians. When they passed by salt licks, they would get some salt so they could season her food for her.” Former captive Jeff Smith said: “After I learned to talk like the Apaches and understand everything, I was satisfied living with them. I suppose I was too small to worry much about my situation.”

The adopted children became converts to the ways of the native people, usually within a year or less. As friendships grew deeper, the children’s desire to escape faded. Comanche captive Clinton Smith said, “I had become so attached to my chief and members of the tribe I could not muster courage enough to try to make my getaway.” Some captives even came to idealize their captors’ culture and despise their own. Herman Lehmann, who spent six years with the Apaches, said, “I did not want to leave them, for I had learned to hate my own people.”

To understand how so many captives could have come to prefer the natives’ way of life, it is necessary to consider what life was like for children on the Texas frontier in the 1860s. They lived with their families in cramped log cabins that were sweltering in the summer heat and even more miserable when blasted by winter winds. The children often had no shoes and only one extra suit of coarse clothing. Supper was normally a bowl of corn mush. Adolph Korn’s stepsister recalled: “It was a ‘lucky’ that could afford corn bread, black molasses, bacon and beans six days in the week and biscuits for dinner on Sunday. The children always dreaded to have visitors come for dinner on Sunday, because they had to wait and eat at the second table.”

Most of the children were uneducated. Many rural settlements had no schools within walking distance. Nor did the parents have much time to teach them. The children seldom got to play with anyone other than their brothers and sisters, because families lived too far apart and were too busy to go visiting. Instead, these children spent long hours every day carrying out tedious and repetitive chores. Some were even hired out to other families as day laborers by age 10.

The child captives suddenly moved from that world into a society that imposed few rules and did not value work for its own sake. As long as the tribe had enough to eat and was not being threatened by enemies, camp life was relaxed. The southern Plains Indians gave their young free rein, seldom punishing them. They ate whenever they were hungry. If they wanted anything, they simply asked and usually got it.

Children grew to appreciate their freedom, mobility and leisure. Bianca Babb observed, “Every day seemed to be a holiday.” Her brother Dot remembered, “I joined the Indian boys in catching, riding, and breaking wild horses, which was an exciting sport and an excellent pastime.” Clinton Smith told a similar tale: “The Indian boys and I would go in bathing every day, run horse races, rope buffalo calves and ride them, and take wild horses out into deep sand and ride them.” Herman Lehmann, who spent time with both the Apaches and the Comanches, said, “I took an active part in all their festivities whether social, carnal or religious.”

Popular culture has depicted the southern Plains Indians as stoic and humorless. However, Caudle claimed that the Comanches “were real jokesters,” according to her great-granddaughter. “They’d stampede their own horses right through the camp, and just laugh! One of the horses stepped on the edge of the tepee, and it grazed her head. From then on, she always put her bed away from the wall.”

The boys thrived on the challenges to prove themselves, and many even took a liking to raids and battles. Adolph Korn was one who did. According to his fellow captive, Clinton Smith, the Comanches called Adolph “Cachoco,” which loosely translates “Not an Old Man.” “One day we came to a little lane which led to a cabin,” Clinton recalled. “We secured four or five horses and mules here, and Cachoco went into the house, got fire out of the fireplace and set the house on fire, then went to a hay stack and set it on fire also.”

One evening their Comanche raiding party infiltrated a small prairie town after dark. Adolph advised Clinton, “Now go slow, and don’t be afraid, and I will get the horses.” The Comanches cautioned the white boys not to go any farther, but Adolph “went into the stables, cut the ropes and brought the horses out one by one.” On another occasion, Adolph and a Comanche named Twovanta were sent to challenge a posse of white men, leading them into an ambush. Captives sometimes took greater chances than natural-born Indians. This may have been a matter of conversion zeal. It was also a means by which they could prove their worth. Stealing horses under risky conditions was a surefire way to win admiration.

The adopted warriors came to see the Indians’ dilemmas as their own. Lehmann gave a deposition in which he spoke candidly about attacking a buffalo hunter’s camp in the Texas Panhandle in 1877: “We destroyed everything at every camp as near as we could. We burned the wagons and buffalo hides, put fire to them. We done that because we thought the men was killing our game.” When the raiders returned to their village and found that it had been attacked by Captain Phillip L. Lee and the 10th Cavalry, Lehmann said: “Our rage knew no bounds. We swore to take ten captive white women and twice as many white children.” “We destroyed,” “we thought,” “we swore”—these first-person pronouns suggest how strongly the captives identified with their adoptive people.

The captives not only enjoyed the thrills of Indian life, but they were also impressed by the Indians’ generosity. Adopted children were received without racial prejudice and were given full tribal rights. Their adoptive parents invested much time teaching the boys how to ride, hunt, shoot and fight. If they proved themselves, they could go on to become headmen or even chiefs. Girls were instructed in tribal lore and customs, preparing them for their future roles as wives and mothers. Bianca Babb wrote, “If anything out of the ordinary happened, I would go to my Comanche mother and ply her with questions until I found out all I could about the matter.”

Eventually, most of the captured children were sent back to their families, often against their will. Usually, a federal Indian agent, working together with a friendly Indian chief, arranged their release. But the redeemed captives found it much harder to readjust to their own people’s ways than it had been to adapt to Indian society. Jeff Smith put it best: “Everything seemed mighty tame by comparison after I got back home.”

As adults, many of the former child captives lived in limbo between their original and adoptive cultures. A number of common characteristics set them apart. They were often reserved and did not talk much. According to one news article, Dot Babb “had the reticence of the red man among strangers, but once his friendship was gained, he talked freely.” A journalist who interviewed Jeff Smith noted, “It took a three-year acquaintance with him to induce him to say anything.” Adolph Korn’s stepsister recalled: “Always restless, he would sometimes take up his gun, leave home and be gone for days in the woods. When he came back he said little about where he had been.”

When Lehmann’s mother made him attend school after he returned home, he threatened to tear down all the lattice in the schoolhouse so he could see out. His teacher wrote, “As one in prison, he pined for the companionship of his Indian friends, and their manner of life.” Most of the former boy captives eventually became cowboys and worked the great cattle drives of the 1870s and 1880s. “We couldn’t content ourselves to stay indoors and naturally went to working cattle,” explained Jeff Smith.

Like the Plains Indians, they could not settle in one place. Bianca Babb’s grandson recalled: “Grandmother had the Indian travel fever in her, because she was always buying a new house and moving. She said a person gets tired looking at the same old things all the time.” Clinton Smith’s granddaughter related: “My grandpa never could settle down when he came home. When he wasn’t at a goat show, he was at a rodeo as a participant, even when he was up in years.”

The former captives held fast to many of their Indian customs and teachings. One man reminisced that whenever Jeff Smith came to visit, he always slept outside under a big tree: “Sometimes, if it was raining or real cold, he would come indoors, but even then, he would sleep on the hard floor with only his blanket. He didn’t like to sit at the table to eat, choosing instead to sit ‘Indian style,’ eating in the corner or outdoors.”

They were tougher than the average person and had no use for luxuries. Lehmann’s hands were so hardened that he could grab a coal out of a fire and use it to light a cigarette. When Jeff Smith talked about his trail-driving days, he pointed out: “As far as I was concerned, the usual occurrences that sometimes upset the other boys in the outfit had no weight with me. I had gone through so many worse things that they were scarcely noticeable.” One journalist noted that Bianca Babb, at age 82, preferred to sit on a hassock, scorning soft cushions and easy chairs.

A number of the former captives could not hold a regular job and were never very successful financially. They resented any type of work that tied them down, such as farming or routine manual labor. The former boy captives thought those sorts of jobs were undignified. Some were too generous for their own good, giving away everything they had to anyone they liked. The Indians had taught them that wealth should be shared and enjoyed in the present, not hoarded or put away for the future. Several had failed marriages. Lehmann divorced his first wife and spent his later years estranged from his second wife. Clinton Smith and his wife divorced after a rough marriage of 40 years. Caudle divorced her first husband, then divorced her second husband to go back to her first, placing her son in an orphanage.

A few of the former captives published accounts of their experiences—Dot Babb’s In the Bosom of the Comanches appeared in 1912; Lehmann’s Nine Years Among the Indians and the Smith brothers’ The Boy Captives both came out in 1927. But most spent their lives in obscurity. By the early 1930s, this last generation of American Indian captives had started to die off. When Bianca Babb died in 1950, few people realized that the nation had lost its last Comanche captive. Unfortunately, hardly anyone had bothered to interview them and preserve their recollections, and many of their tales have been lost forever.

Even so, the stories of their remarkable experiences still have a strong hold on our imaginations. They have inspired countless novels and films, from The Searchers to Little Big Man to Dances With Wolves. But the true stories are fragmentary and leave many questions unanswered. Nor do they have a happy ending, or even an ending at all, because most of the captives never really resolved the tension between the two very different cultures that had shaped them.

Involuntarily plunged into an alien culture, these children came away from the experience having learned a critical lesson: that the best way to dispel bigotry and fear of those who are different is to actually live among them. For the child captives, however, that knowledge came perhaps too early in life and certainly too traumatically. They did not know how to deal with their hard-earned experience, and it left them forever conflicted. These children got to see the world through the eyes of another people, but for that rare opportunity, they paid a heavy price.


Originally published in the June 2007 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here