People realize, of course, that life in the 19th century was hard; how could it not be? They didn’t have wifi or GPS, after all. But it is one thing to be aware of a fact and another thing to be confronted with the messiness of reality.
Elizabeth Clifton lived one of those lives, messy with the vagaries of reality and in its own way, her life was just as heroic as any gun slinging man. She endured poverty, death, more death and Indian capture and through it all she maintained an optimism that could read as defiance.
Elizabeth was born in Alabama in 1825. When she was 16 she married Alexander Carter, a free black man.
Thus she became Elizabeth Carter. She had no education and was illiterate. She had two
children with her husband and then the family moved to Fort Belknap, Texas. Elizabeth began running the ranch that they established, while her husband and his father ran a cargo hauling business. Elizabeth was epileptic, which did not stop her from starting another business: a boarding house.
However, in 1857, her husband and father in law were murdered. The next year she married an Army lieutenant, becoming Elizabeth Sprague. Eight months later, however, she was again widowed. She married a ranch hand a few years later, becoming Elizabeth Fitzpatrick until his seemingly inevitable murder 18 months later in 1862.
In 1864, Elizabeth and her family were the victim of a Comanche raid. Elizabeth’s daughter was murdered and scalped. Elizabeth’s granddaughter, an infant, was also killed. Not long after their capture, Elizabeth’s 13 year old son was killed. The Indians moved north with their ill gotten band.
Eventually they wound up camped on the Arkansas River, in northeastern Kansas. Early in 1865, one of her granddaughters froze to death, along with a number of other children. Finally, at the end of 1865, she was rescued by General Leavenworth (of eventual Fort Leavenworth fame).
Elizabeth began caring for other kidnap victims, spending 10 months doing just that in Kansas. She was an advocate as well, demanding better care and transportation for released hostages. At the end of summer, 1866, she finally took the return journey home to Montana.
Three years later she married again, becoming Elizabeth Clifton. She moved to Fort Griffin, Texas, where she remained until her death at 57 in 1882. Yes, she outlived her husband, Isaiah Clifton, thus becoming a widow four times over.
During a hard time, Elizabeth Clifton lived an especially hard life. But she persevered and did not allow circumstances to bring her down. Her granddaughter, found frozen in the snow of a Comanche camp, was thought to be alive by Elizabeth even to the end of her life. She never surrendered the hope, the determination, that her granddaughter Milly had somehow survived.