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Columns | "A Balloon In Cactus"

The Harrowing Life and Times of
Elizabeth Ann Bishop

by Maggie Van Ostrand
Maggie Van Ostrand

One of the Texas frontier women who taught the wilderness to quit howling and behave itself was Elizabeth Ann Bishop. Any time you might be thinking you're having troubles, no matter if they're small or very, very big, compare them to the trials and tribulations of Elizabeth Ann. What she endured is testament to the strength of frontier women.

Historians write and talk a lot about the brave men of the Old West, their adventures, their fortitude, their foresight, and the things they write and talk a lot about are true enough. After all, men had cattle, horses, and each other to be boisterous buddies with.

And they're portrayed in movies by such studly men as John Wayne, Sam Elliott and Clint Eastwood.

Little is written about the frontier women of the Old West whose duties included raising families, growing food, and the steadfast support of their men. They supplied doctoring (gunshot wounds, snake bites, broken bones) and offered the stability of religion and serenity. It doesn't sound that interesting when the women are lumped together but taken individually, there are quite a few standouts. One was Elizabeth Ann Bishop, born March 19, 1825 in Alabama.

She gave the phrase "cutting edge" new dimensions way back nearly two hundred years ago when she married Alexander Joseph Carter, a free black man. It takes guts to be "different" today; can you imagine what it took back then?

The Carters had two children, Joe and Mildred, and lived with Alexander's parents in Red River and Navarro counties before moving west to Fort Belknap in Young County. Frontier women of that time were generally middle-class easterners enjoying good health (otherwise they would've died on the trail west), had awesome responsibilities (you try skinning and frying a rabbit in the middle of a rainstorm) and were subject to great loneliness (due to scarcity of other women to talk to). Even then, it was probably not so easy to talk to a man who isn't listening. One of the only social outlets for a woman then, and it would have to have been a relatively large settlement, was the quilting bee. Nothing dramatic or romantic, just women chatting with one another as they quilted. Even when they were having "fun," they were working.

The Carters raised stock and farmed, with Elizabeth managing the ranch owned by her father-in-law who also owned a cargo transportation business. Elizabeth paid no attention to the fact that she was both illiterate and epileptic as proven by the fact that she also ran a boarding house (the Carter Trading House) as well.

It is at this point in Elizabeth Ann's life that mysterious things commenced happening, and her future, once bright and predictable, became a nightmare of hardship and heartbreak.

In 1857, person or persons unknown murdered both her husband and her father-in-law. Her children inherited the boarding house and business from their late grandpappy, she got nothing, unless you count despair and calluses. She did, however, continue to operate the boarding house and manage the ranch.

A rare bit of good fortune came Elizabeth's way in 1858 when the Butterfield Overland Mail began stopping in Fort Belknap which was very good for business. She became one of the most successful women on the frontier, but her good fortune was short-lived.

The following year, she did the only thing an illiterate frontier woman could do for protection, she married again. This time she hooked up with an Army officer, Lt. Owen A. Sprague, but luck failed her again and Lt. Sprague disappeared eight months later. Nobody knew if he ran off or got shot or was kidnapped by hostile Indians. It remains a mystery.

Undaunted, in 1862, Elizabeth Ann married Thomas FitzPatrick, a cowhand who worked on the ranch. He, too, met his fatal finish, possibly at the hand of a Union soldier. Another mystery.

If you think all this was pretty tragic, you ain't heard nothin' yet.

During the latter days of 1864, the people were suffering from the effects of a long and bitter war. Furthermore the year brought one of the most devastating draughts ever witnessed in West Texas. Indian pillaging and plundering had made life miserable and the despondent citizens were already living in despair.

On October 13, 1864, as Confederate forces vanquished the Union army on Darbytown Road in Virginia with 950 lives lost, Elizabeth was fighting a battle for her own life in her Texas hometown.
The FitzPatrick ranch, as it was now called, about nine miles west of the present town of Newcastle, was attacked in the Elm Creek Raid, one of the largest raids ever made in West Texas, reportedly by between 600 and a thousand wildly painted savages who called out in English that they were friendly to whites. "But the arrows still sticking in several of the dogs that had run to them for their protection, gave the lie to all such assertions" writes J.W. Wilbarger in his book "Indian Depredations in Texas."
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Elizabeth was taken captive by Comanche Chief, Little Buffalo, after first refusing to go with him. Her 21-year-old daughter, widow Mildred Durgan, fired away with her shotgun as Indians broke down the door. She was thrown to the ground "while one Indian split her skull and scalped her, another Indian struck Mrs. Fitzpatrick with his spear to force her to look upon her daughter's torture," writes David Paul Smith in "Frontier Defense in the Civil War." Mrs. Durgan's infant son was also slaughtered, and the Indians took Elizabeth's 13-year-old son, Joe Carter, and two other granddaughters, Lottie (5) and Milly (2). Shortly after the raid, the Indians saw that young Joe Carter was too ill to sit up and travel, so "they tied the boy to a brush heap, set fire to it, and forced his mother, Mrs. Elizabeth Fitzpatrick, to watch him die."

Indian Raid on Elm Creek, C.S.A. Historical Marker
Photo by Susan Dial
Courtesy of TexasBeyondHistory.net.
Marker Title: Indian Raid on Elm Creek, C.S.A
Address: US 380, W of Newcastle
City: Newcastle
Year Marker Erected: 1964
Marker Location: From Newcastle, take US 380 West about 8 mi.

Elizabeth was held in captivity by Kiowa Indian Chief Sun Boy in northwestern Kansas on the Arkansas River. It is believed that her granddaughter Milly was held in Comanche Chief Iron Mountain's camp and froze to death there, while Lottie spent nine months as captive, and was tattooed on her arms and forehead by Comanche who later released her.

In November 1865, General J.H. Leavenworth rescued Elizabeth and took her to the Kaw Mission at Council Grove, Kansas, where she was put to work caring for another recently released woman and her children. For almost a year, Elizabeth nursed, cooked, and sewed for a growing number of newly released women, and was paid $3.00 a week. She became spokeswoman for the released captives, complaining that adequate and safe transportation back to their homes was taking too long and more should be done to free those still held captive.

Elizabeth continued to speak up for them until August 27, 1866, when she and several others began their long trek home. She was reunited with freed granddaughter Lottie in Parker County. It was time to start looking for another husband.

In 1869, Elizabeth married Isaiah Clifton, a Parker County farmer and widower, though some say they never actually married since no marriage license was ever found. Let's give Elizabeth a break and say they were, even though Clifton's children did not acknowledge her as their father's wife. The Cliftons moved to Fort Griffin with granddaughter Lottie and Clifton's youngest four children, to manage what remained of the land left to Lottie after her mother's murder during the Elm Creek Raid.

In 1880, Isaiah Clifton died of natural causes and was buried in the oldest cemetery in Shakelford County. Elizabeth herself died just two years later at the age of 57, still believing that her other granddaughter, Millie, might be alive.

After years of backbreaking labor, unbearable personal losses, and monumental suffering at the hands of savages, Elizabeth Ann Bishop Carter Sprague FitzPatrick Clifton died, alone and penniless.

© Maggie Van Ostrand
"A Balloon In Cactus"
August 15, 2007 column
The devastating Elm Creek Raid has been immortalized in several movies including John Ford's The Searchers starring John Wayne and Black Fox starring Christopher Reeve.

The spelling of Mildred Durgan's name shows up several ways, Durkin, Durgen and Durgan
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Texas Myths and Legends: Stories of the Frontier, John C. Ferguson

Handbook of Texas Online

Fort Belknap Frontier Saga: Indians, Negroes and Anglo-Americans on the Texas Frontier (Burnet, Texas: Eakin Press, 1982) Barbara A. Neal Ledbetter


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