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Richard Allen Burns

LEE, NELSON (1807–?). Nelson Lee, who depicted himself in his autobiography as having been a Texas Ranger, a soldier, and an Indian captive, was born in Brownsville, Jefferson County, New York, in 1807, the son of Parmer Lee. An account of his life was published in 1859 by a group of editors in New York, who titled the book Three Years Among the Camanches [sic]: The Narrative of Nelson Lee, the Texas Ranger, containing a Detailed Account of His Captivity . . . . Unfortunately, nothing is known of Lee's activities except through this book. According to the editors Lee spent his early life as a raftsman on the St. Lawrence and Mississippi rivers. Beset with "an intense longing to rove out into the world," he claimed to have participated in the Black Hawk War, served as a seaman on the Delaware and Ontario chasing pirates between Africa and Brazil, and moved to Texas in 1840. Further, his book maintains that after joining the Texas Navy, he sailed to Yucatán with Commodore Edwin Ward Moore. He allegedly joined the Texas Rangers under John Coffee Hays in the early 1840s and fought in numerous Indian battles, including the engagement at Enchanted Rock. He claimed to have participated in the battle of Plum Creek and the battle of Salado Creek. On October 17, 1842, he is supposed to have joined the Somervell expedition as a member of Capt. Philip Haddox Coe's company, First Regiment. He claimed to have participated in the Mier expedition, to have escaped capture when the Texans surrendered, and to have been the first to bring news of the expedition's defeat back to Texas. Between 1844 and 1846 Lee was, he said, a mustanger and cattle drover who gathered and bought herds in far western and southern Texas to be sold in Louisiana. Lee claimed that he was one of Samuel Hamilton Walker's scouts in the Mexican War, that he served under John C. Hays on the Rio Grande, in the battle of Monterrey, and on Hays's march to Mexico City. Lee or his editors wrote that he again worked with livestock from 1848 to 1855, when he and some other men left Brownsville for California with a herd of horses; that on April 2, 1855, his party was attacked by Comanches; and that all members except Lee and three others were killed. Subsequently, he was supposedly held captive by the Comanches for three years, during which he claimed to have seen two of his comrades tortured to death. He was, it is claimed, able to observe closely the way of life of his captors. The narrative reports that in 1858 he escaped and made his way to El Paso after suffering great hardships and near starvation, sailed to New York, where he arrived on November 10, 1858, and immediately dictated an account of his life and captivity to the editors of Baker Taylor Company.

Of this probably spurious classic work, Walter Prescott Webb stated that "there is no better description of the life of the Texas Rangers than that of Nelson Lee." The book has since been a source for several writers about Comanche culture. But in 1982 anthropologist Melburn D. Thurman called Lee's account of Comanche ceremonies "blatantly erroneous" and demonstrated that Ernest Wallace and E. Adamson Hoebel's discussion of the "Comanche" Green Corn Ceremony in The Comanches: Lords of the South Plains (1952) employed questionable data from Lee's book. Though noted Indian scholars have long identified the Comanches as a nonsedentary and therefore nonagricultural people, Lee narrated to his New York editors that Comanches planted corn, beans, and tobacco. Other wildly erroneous claims abound. Lee said that the Comanches wrote hieroglyphics on tree bark; built villages with central squares, streets, and houses of important men located on the squares; and resolved irreconcilable differences between two adversaries by lashing them together with a cord and requiring them to fight to the death. Accordingly, Thurman and other specialists of Plains Indians disputed Lee's captivity claims and, by extension, other claims he makes concerning his exploits. Indeed, Nelson Lee's name does not appear on muster rolls, in newspapers, or other documents that would support his stories of serving in various battles and with the Texas Rangers. His near-death escapes-surviving a shipwreck by clinging to rigging, remedying a rattlesnake bite by applying portions of the snake's flesh to his wound, outswimming a fourteen-foot alligator who pursues him across a stream, avoiding death by Comanche captors when his alarm watch goes off as they search him-place Lee's work firmly in the realm of literary hoax. The book is one of several Indian captivity narratives of the early nineteenth century whose "chief concern," wrote one critic, "was neither accuracy of sensation nor fidelity to the hard facts of frontier life, but rather the salability of pulp thrillers." Lee himself gave hints. His tales were, the editors admitted, "not precisely in his own words," and Lee hoped the book would "be the means of improving, in some measure, his present impoverished condition." The book does, however, suggest that Lee was quite a raconteur who put himself in the ranks of other larger-than-life heroes prominent in Texas folklore.


Melburn D. Thurman, "Nelson Lee and the Green Corn Dance: Data Selection Problems with Wallace and Hoebel's Study of the Comanches," Plains Anthropologist 27 (1982). Richard VanDerBeets, The Indian Captivity Narrative: An American Genre (Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, 1984). Walter Prescott Webb, "Introduction," in Nelson Lee, Three Years among the Comanches (new ed., Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1957).

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The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.

Handbook of Texas Online, Richard Allen Burns, "LEE, NELSON," accessed July 10, 2020, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fle17.

Uploaded on June 15, 2010. Modified on August 29, 2019. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
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