SCOTT ZESCH, thanks so much for the interview. “The Captured” is a fascinating book about ten children taken (mostly) by Comanche Indians and what happened to them when they were returned to their families.
Q. Can you tell us what made these children interesting to you?
SCOTT ZESCH: There were two things. First, one of these children was an ancestor of mine. Our family knew very little about him, and I wanted to see if I could follow his trail.
Second, I was a Peace Corps teacher in Kenya when I first got out of college. One of the clichés of Peace Corps is that coming home is harder than going over. These captured young people had that same experience, so I felt a sort of kinship with them.
Q. You did an excellent job investigating what happened to these children, both how they were kidnapped and their later life. You discovered none of the children did well after they were released.
They couldn’t stay married, they couldn’t keep a job, some of them never learned to read and write, they couldn’t stay in one place, they had a hard time communicating and generally seemed like unhappy people.
Can you explain why being a captive had this effect on the children?
ZESCH: I think the children responded very positively to the freedom of the Comanche way of life.
Most of them had known nothing but hard work on frontier farms before they were captured, and they discovered for the first time that there was another way to live.
Once they got back home, I think they felt terribly confined. By then, their Comanche friends had been sent to the reservation, so there was no way the former captives could go back to the roving life they had known with them.
Q. The children did not seem angry at the Comanches, although the Comanches killed some of the children’s families, and committed atrocities in front of them. Can you explain why?
ZESCH: They didn’t seem to transfer their hatred of the individuals who killed their relatives to the Comanche people as a whole. Former captive Dot Babb put it best: “You wouldn’t want to kill every white person you saw because some white person had killed your mother.”
Q. Quanah Parker, who was born half-Comanche and led the tribe as it was fighting the U.S. Army, led a well-adjusted life after his surrender, becoming a prosperous land and cattle owner and maintaining successful relationships.
Why did Quanah do well compared to the children?
ZESCH: Quanah, unlike his white mother and the other captured children, hadn’t grown up in two worlds.
For all practical purposes, Cynthia Ann Parker was a Comanche by the time he was born. When Quanah came onto the reservation, he knew who he was, and he wasn’t torn between competing ways of looking at the world.
Q. You presented the Comanches in a sympathetic light, yet these children’s lives were seemingly ruined by their captivity. Can you explain more about this?
ZESCH: It’s interesting that you used the word “ruined,” because one of my fellow volunteers once told me half-jokingly: “Peace Corps ruined my life.”
ZESCH: In my opinion, immersing yourself in a very different culture is one of the most rewarding experiences you can have, but it comes at a cost, and that cost is usually a sense of rootlessness, of never completely belonging to one place or one people.
Q. The chapter about the two white women who were gang-raped and tortured is horrific. Didn’t Texans hate the Comanches because the Indians did regularly rape white women and keep them in their camps as sexual slaves?
ZESCH: Those incidents certainly fueled the fire, but when you look at the actual numbers, the capture and torture of adult women was relatively rare.
The Comanches preferred to take children who were young enough to be re-trained and would eventually come to identify with them. They seemed to think that grown women could never become assimilated, so when they did take them as prisoners, they used them as menials.
Q. It’s difficult for me to understand how a people can rape women (and they almost always did before killing them, as well as keeping them as sex slaves in camp), and practice lengthy torture, both on the trail and in camp, but at the same time love their own children, as well as adopted children. Do you have any thoughts on this?
ZESCH: Julia, the closest analogy I can draw is wartime atrocities. And, of course, what was happening in Texas at that time was war. There seems to be something in the human character that provokes people to brutalize and dehumanize “the enemy” in that situation (including civilians), but I’m afraid I can’t explain it.
Q. Adolph Korn, your relative, had the most difficult time adjusting to white society. For instance, at the end of his life, he chose to live in a cave near Mason, Texas. Have you ever understood why adjusting was so difficult for him?
ZESCH: His fellow captive Clinton Smith described him as “about as mean an Indian as there was in the tribe at that time.”
According to Smith, my ancestor’s exploits during horse-stealing raids were more daring than those of the natural-born Comanches. This was probably a form of conversion zeal. Because his assimilation was so extreme, I think he had a harder time readjusting.
Q. You seemed to feel a closeness and compassion for Adolph (which you also elicited from readers). Can you tell us more about that?
ZESCH: He was plunged into an amazing but bewildering experience at a young age, and I think he went through too many changes too fast.
Later in life, there was no one who knew how to reach out to him, and people saw him as a freak. I think that’s very sad.
Q. You said you sensed Adolph’s spirit in his cave. Did you mean that literally?
ZESCH: I felt a sense of invading his space. I already had qualms about putting the story of my very private and reclusive relative before the public, but visiting his home in the bluff seemed like too direct an intrusion.
Several people have asked me to take them to the cave, but I don’t want to go back.
Q. How did Adolph die?
ZESCH: I don’t know. He spent his last days in the home of his stepsister, my great-great-grandmother. His obituary mentioned “an illness of several months,” but no one in my family knows the actual cause of death. He was only 41.
Q. You wrote some of the children’s real families did not treat them with a great deal of love, but the children’s adopted Comanche families often did. You seemed to feel that might have something to do with why so many of the children were not happy with their white families when they were returned. Did I understand that correctly?
ZESCH: Basically, yes. It’s not that their white families didn’t love them, but the parents were working so hard to survive on the frontier that they didn’t have a lot of what we would call “quality time” to spend with their kids.
The children’s adoptive Comanche parents, on the other hand, invested a lot of time teaching them how to ride, hunt, shoot, swim, etc.
Q. What do you do for a living and are you writing? If you are writing, what are you working on?