Saturday, December 14, 2019

A New Look at Nine Years with the Indians - Herman Lehmann

A New Look at Nine Years with the Indians is by far the best reading surprise I’ve had all year. That’s partially, I know, because I expected so little of it when I picked it up, but as I got deeper and deeper into Herman Lehmann’s memoir, I began to realize that this is a really good book despite any misgivings about the complete accuracy of the story I still may have. I’m still a bit skeptical that all of it happened exactly the way Mr. Lehmann says it happened, but I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt more times than not. Oh, I expect there are some exaggerations and the like, but how surprising would that be, really, for a book written some fifty or so years after the events being described happened to its author.

On May 16, 1870 eleven-year-old Herman Lehmann and his eight-year-old brother Willie were taken by a small band of Apache Indians from their family homestead near Fredericksburg, Texas. Willie was forcibly abandoned a couple of days later and was returned to his family eighteen days after his abduction. Herman, on the other hand, lived with the Apaches, and later the Comanches, for the next eight or nine years before the Army forced him to return to his white family. I say “eight or nine years” because the book’s title says it was nine years despite there being at least one reference in the book to eight years of captivity. And in addition, the book tells us that Herman was eleven when taken by the Indians and nineteen when he returned to his family.

Herman Lehman
Herman, in a surprisingly short period of time, fully adopted the culture and lifestyle of his Indian captors, even to going on horse and cattle rustling raids in Texas and New Mexico during which he took great delight in killing farmers, ranchers, and prospectors and taking their scalps. In the process, he came to hate the white and Mexican interlopers in Indian country as much as his Apache brothers and sisters hated them. Herman, in fact, came to consider the band of Apaches he lived and fought with to be his true family, and even after he returned to his German-American family he felt most comfortable when surrounded by his old Apache cohorts.

Herman, in fact, only even returned to his family because he was physically carried there by Army troopers after almost all the Indians in the region had been forced to surrender into the “care” of the U.S. government at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. Even then he would have tried to escape on his own if his adoptive father, the great Chief Quanah Parker, had not advised him that it was time to go home. Sadly, going home would not solve Herman’s problems. For the rest of his life he suffered from the trauma of having been violently jerked out of one culture, immersed into a shockingly different one for almost a decade, and then almost as violently being forced to return to the original culture (which itself had already drastically changed). Herman never managed to make a complete return to the white-man culture of his day. Both of his marriages failed, and he never mastered a trade that would have made his and his family’s living.

Gerda, standing; Esther, seated
Willie, on the other hand, did very well in life, probably because he was not held captive long enough to have lost his “personal identity” to his captors. He likely looked back on his kidnapping as one of the great adventures of his life, one in which he beat the odds and came out whole. Willie married for a second time after the death of his first wife, and this second marriage produced two daughters, Gerda and Esther. The copy of the book that I now own was inscribed by Gerda to family friends in 1997 (some sixteen years before her death at age 94). I’ve attached a copy of that inscription and a picture of Gerda and the rest of her family (from the book) that was taken around 1930.

Bottom Line: A New Look at Nine Years with the Indians is a fascinating account of what life was like in central Texas right up into the 1880s. It was a time in which farmers and prospectors daring to push further and further west were in constant danger of being picked off by raiders from several different Indian tribes that considered that part of the country to be their own. Not surprisingly, this is not a politically correct book and it displays numerous unconscious racist overtones when describing the Indians and their way of life. For instance, Willie is described on page 271 as having been “taken away by animal-like men” and Herman tells an “amusing” story on page 180 about a black man who was forced to dress as an Indian during one skirmish with Rangers so that the Rangers would mistakenly kill him as he ran for his life back toward the Texans. Herman Lehmann was a real life Little Big Man, no doubt about it.

Gerda's Handwritten Inscription 


  1. Wow, what a fascinating account of an amazing but tragic life. Excellent review, Sam.

    1. The amazing thing is how many children this happened to, Cath. I'm not sure of the reason that the Indians of that day were so prone to kidnap so many small children. It's not like they were turning them into slaves, because if they survived the early-on harsh treatment, they were often adopted into the tribe and given full rights. Many of them refused to go home when given the chance because that was the only life they remembered and they had family in the tribe.