The Extinct Karankawa Indians of Texas

Karankawa Indians of the Gulf Coast. Watercolour by Lino Sánchez y Tapia

Karankawa Indians of the Gulf Coast. Watercolour by Lino Sánchez y Tapia

The Karankawa Indians were a group of now-extinct tribes who lived along the Gulf of Mexico in what is today Texas. Archaeologists have traced the Karankawas back at least 2,000 years. The tribes were nomadic, ranging from Galveston Bay to Corpus Christi Bay and as far as 100 miles (160 km) inland. During much of the 18th century, the Karankawas were at war with the Spaniards in Texas. They then fought unsuccessfully to stay on their land after it was opened to Anglo-American settlement in the 1800s. The last known Karankawas were killed or died out by the 1860s.

The Karankawa tribes

The Karankawa Indians were made up of five main tribes, related by language and culture: the Carancaguases (the Karankawa proper), Cocos, Cujanes, Guapites and Copanes. They depended on fishing, hunting and gathering for their food, particularly the fish and shellfish found in the shallow bays and lagoons of the central Texas coast. Their dugout canoes were not designed for travel in the open Gulf of Mexico. The Karankawas lived in wigwams – circular pole frames covered with mats or hides. They did not have a complex political organization. The Karankawas were unusually large for Native Americans. The men grew as tall as six feet and were noted for their strength.

Contact with white men

The first white men to encounter Karankawas were probably survivors of the Spanish Narváez expedition in 1528. Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca and his men received mixed treatment from the Indians along the Texas coast.

When French explorer Sieur de La Salle settled at Matagorda Bay in 1685, the number of Karankawa was estimated at about 400 men. One of the settlers, Henri Joutel, wrote that the Karankawas “came frequently in the night to range about us, howling like wolves and dogs; but two or three musket shots put them to flight.” (1) In 1688, after bad relations and killings on both sides, the Karankawas attacked the 20 or so remaining French colonists, massacring all but five children. They tattooed the children and held them captive until 1690-91, when Spanish authorities succeeded in bargaining for the children’s release. In 1698, two of the survivors, Jean Baptiste and Pierre Talon, were interrogated in France about their experience.

As for trade among [the Karankawas], nothing appeared easier, for they communicate voluntarily with the Europeans, whom they call the Sons of the Sun. They consider this celestial body, as well as the moon, to be some sort of divinity, without, however, their rendering them any worship; they do not think that they ever showed veneration for them. M. de la Salle would never have had war with the Clamcoëhs [Karankawas] if on arriving he had not high-handedly taken their canoes and refused them some little article of use that they asked him in return for them and for other services that they were ready to render to him. Nothing is easier than winning their friendship: a hatchet, a knife, a pair of scissors, a pin, a needle, a necklace or a bracelet or glass, wampum, or some other such trinkets being ordinarily the price, because they love passionately all sorts of knickknacks and baubles that are useful or ornamental. But also, as they give voluntarily of what they have, they do not like to be refused. And, while they are never aggressors, neither do they ever forget the pride of honor in their vengeance. But one need not fear their numbers, no matter how great. They never dare attack from the front Europeans armed with muskets and other firearms. There is nothing to fear from them but surprise attacks…. An unfailing means…that the Europeans still have of winning their friendship… is to take part in the wars that they often wage against others. They believe themselves unconquerable when they unite with Europeans and spread terror and fright everywhere among their enemies by the noise and effects of firearms, which they have never used and which they have always looked upon as inconceivable marvels. (2)

Karankawa relations with the Spaniards

In 1722, the Spanish colonial government established Mission Nuestra Señora del Espíritu Santo and its attendant Presidio La Bahía near the site of La Salle’s former fort, in an attempt to convert and civilize the Karankawas. The Spaniards were unsuccessful in persuading the Indians to stay at the mission. A fresh attempt to convert the Karankawas by establishing Nuestra Señora del Rosario mission in 1754 also met with minimal success. By the 1780s, fighting between the Karankawas and the Spaniards in Texas had become chronic. The founding of Nuestra Señora del Refugio mission in 1793 was the last effort to convert the Karankawas. By 1824, 224 Indians were living at the mission. But attacks by Comanches and hostile Karankawas, as well as an unstable food supply, led to gradual abandonment of the Refugio Mission. It was closed in 1824.

Karankawa relations with American colonists

By this time Mexico had achieved its independence from Spain and Anglo-Americans were moving into Texas. During his first trip to Texas in 1821, Stephen Austin developed a dim view of the Karankawas, despite a peaceful encounter with the Cocos.

Started early and continued a SE course along the Lake. At the lower end the Indian war whoop was raised… and I immediately descried an Indian coming towards me, who beckoned me to stop & made signs of friendship. He advanced towards me into the prairie and was followed at a short distance by 14 warriors. I advanced about 20 yards ahead of my company directing them to be prepared for battle if necessary. Chief asked me in Spanish where I was from and where going. I informed him, he said they were Coacos, who I knew lived with the Karankawas. This induced me to watch them closely and refused to go to their camp or to permit them to go up to the men, until one of the chiefs laid down his arms and five squaws and a boy came up to me from their camp. This satisfied me they believed us to be too strong for them and therefore that they would not attack us (of their disposition to do so I had no doubt, if they thought they could have succeeded). Some of the warriors then went up to the men and appeared friendly. I gave the chief some tobacco and a frying pan that we did not want and parted apparently good friends. There was 15 warriors in the group. The chief informed me that they were going to encamp on the road to trade with the Spaniards and Americans. He said we could not reach the mouth of the river with horses owing to the thickets. He also said that there was a large body of Karankawas at the mouth.

These Indians were well formed and apparently very active and athletic men. Their bows were about 5 1/2 to 6 feet long, their arrows 2 to 3 well pointed with iron or steel. Some of the young squaws were handsome and one of them quite pretty. They had panther skins around their waist painted which extended down to the knee and calf of the leg. Above the waist though they were naked. Their breasts were marked or tattooed in circles of black beginning with a small circle at the nipple and enlarging as the breast swelled.

These Indians and the Karankawas may be called universal enemies to man – they killed of all nations that came in their power, and frequently feast on the bodies of their victims. The approach of an American population will be the signal of their extermination for there will be no way of subduing them but extermination. (3)

The colonists’ view of the Karankawas as ferocious savages was not helped by the failure of the latter to distinguish between the settlers’ livestock and the feral cattle they were used to hunting. The Karankawas also helped themselves to provisions that the settlers stockpiled along the shore. In 1823, the Karankawas killed two settlers and injured two others. The settlers retaliated by murdering nearly two dozen Karankawas. More killings followed. Colonist John H. Moore later recalled:

The Carankawaes were a tribe of large, sluggish Indians, who fed mostly on fish and alligators, and occasionally, by way of feast, on human flesh. They went always without moccasins, striding through briars unharmed, making such tracks as would hardly be attributable to a human being. Each man was required to have a bow the length of himself. The fight was an entire surprise. We all felt it was an act of justice and self-preservation. We were too weak to furnish food for Carankawaes, and had to be let alone to get bread for ourselves. Ungainly and repugnant, their cannibalism being beyond question, they were obnoxious to whites, whose patience resisted with difficulty their frequent attacks upon the scanty population of the colonies, and when it passed endurance they went to their chastisement with alacrity. (4)

It is in this context that Napoleon Bonaparte and his men come to the aid of Austin’s colonists against the Karankawas in Napoleon in America.

In late 1824, the Karankawas sued for peace with Austin’s colony. In return for an end to the colonists’ attacks, the Karankawas agreed to abandon their use of the lower Brazos, lower Colorado and lower Lavaca rivers and remain west of the Guadalupe River. This proved difficult, as other Native American tribes were already using that area. In September 1825, Austin accused the Karankawas of breaking the treaty. He gave orders to his militia to pursue and kill any Karankawa Indians found east of the Guadalupe.

The road to extinction

In 1827, the official campaign of extermination ended with a new treaty between Austin’s colony and the Karankawas. But the killings, along with disease, had taken a toll. When French naturalist Jean-Louis Berlandier visited Texas in 1828, there were about 100 Karankawa families left. Berlandier described them as follows.

The Carancahueses have many pirogues, and one can see their little fleets moving from one island to the next in search of food. Fishing is their principal occupation and their main diet is fish, augmented with tortoises and alligators which they hunt in the rivers. These island people, since many of them live on the Bay islands, have a reputation as the most skilled of all savages with the bow and arrow. I have seen them attract fish in the bays and inlets by flailing the water around their pirogues, then use their bows and arrows to shoot the fish that came to the surface. …

The people of all these coast tribes are extremely brave and all are excellent swimmers. They have a musky odor about them, which the Spanish call amizle, which they doubtless acquire from eating alligator. Most of the Carancahueses used to live at the Refugio Mission near the Bahia del Espiritu Santo. Father Muro kept them busy at agriculture there, but when the revolution came they were scattered.

The Carancahueses are a big people, with robust, well formed, athletic bodies. They wear their hair loose to the shoulders but cut in front to the level of the eyebrows, like the Mexicans. They wear cock feathers behind their ears and a wreath of Indian grass or palm leaves on their heads. They paint lines of vermilion around their eyes and often smear their brown bodies with white or black or red paint. They never wear teguas [buckskin footgear], their peregoso [breechclout] is white, and their favorite weapons are the bow and dagger. This does not mean that they underrate the gun, which they highly appreciate. It is just that they are usually too poor to buy one. (5)

During the Texas Revolution of 1835-36, the Karankawas switched sides several times. By then, the Karankawas had been pushed off their traditional lands. They tried to rebuild their lives on the plain between the Lavaca and Nueces rivers, but the disproportionate loss of men made it hard to survive. Some worked as day laborers for ranchers. When British writer William Bollaert looked for surviving Karankawas on the Gulf Coast in 1842-43, he learned of “only some dozen individuals of the Karonks at Corpus Christi and another small remnant at Matagorda.” (6)

In 1858, a rumour circulated that the last of the Karankawas were killed in an attack led by the outlaw Juan Nepomuceno Cortina. Whether or not the rumour was true, by the 1860s the Karankawas were considered extinct. Some may have actually gone to Mexico or joined other tribes. In 1891, the ethnologist Albert Gatschet published a guide to Karankawa culture and language. (7) He found no actual Karankawas, but obtained the Karankawa vocabulary from an elderly white woman named Alice Williams Oliver who claimed to have lived near the last Karankawa band during her childhood.

Were the Karankawas cannibals?

You will note from the above that white people believed the Karankawas were cannibals. Lurid tales circulated, such as this story told to John R. Fenn by his grandfather David Fitzgerald, a settler in Austin’s colony.

During the early settlement of the country a tribe of Coast Indians called Craankaways made a raid on some of the colonists below, killed some of the people, and carried off a little girl captive. After proceeding some distance, they camped, killed the child, and proceeded to eat her, first splitting open the body, then quartering it, and placing the parts on sharp sticks and cooking them. They had just commenced this cannibal feast when a band of settlers dashed upon them, having been on their trail. The Indians were so completely absorbed in their diabolical and hellish orgie as to be oblivious to their surroundings and taken by surprise. In the fight which ensued all were killed except a squaw and two small children. (8)

Reports like this are unsubstantiated and may have been concocted to legitimize the extermination campaign. According to historian David La Vere, there is little direct evidence to support the claim that the Karankawas were cannibalistic.

No reliable eyewitness accounts of such behavior exist; nor has archaeology turned up shattered or scraped bones to support it. Most of what has been said is hearsay or came from the mouths of their enemies. To be sure, many American Indians, including Caddos and Atakapas, practiced a form of ritual cannibalism, in which bits of one’s enemies were eaten to gain spiritual power, but eating humans for sustenance on a regular basis just does not seem to be the case. (9)

The Karankawas expressed shock at the survival cannibalism they witnessed among the starving members of the Cabeza de Vaca expedition in the 16th century. If the Karankawas practiced cannibalism, it is likely to have been the ritual variety.

You might also enjoy:

The Texas Hurricane of 1818

Caddo Indian Chief Dehahuit

Cherokee Indian Chief Bowles (Duwali) and his tragic quest for land

Indian Interpreter Gaspard Philibert

Stephen F. Austin, the founder of Anglo-American Texas

When the Great Plains Indians met President Monroe

  1. F. French, Historical Collections of Louisiana, Part 1 (New York, 1846), p. 111.
  2. Pierre and Jean-Baptiste Talon, “La Salle, the Mississippi, and the Gulf: Three Primary Documents,” in Alan Gallay, ed., Voices of the Old South: Eyewitness Accounts, 1628-1861 (Athens, GA, 1994), pp. 32-33.
  3. “Journal of Stephen F. Austin on His First Trip to Texas, 1821,” The Quarterly of the Texas State Historical Association, Vol. 7, No. 4 (April 1904), pp. 304-305.
  4. “Reminiscences of Capt. Jesse Burnam,” The Quarterly of the Texas State Historical Association, Vol. V, No. 1 (July 1901), pp. 15-16.
  5. Jean Louis Berlandier, The Indians of Texas in 1830, edited by John C. Ewers, translated by Patricia Reading Leclercq (Washington, 1969), pp. 147-149.
  6. Eugene Holon and Ruth Lapham Butler, eds., William Bollaert’s Texas (Chicago, 1956), p. 174.
  7. Albert S. Gatschet, The Karankawa Indians, The Coast People of Texas (Cambridge, MA, 1891).
  8. Andrew Jackson Sowell, History of Fort Bend County (Houston, 1904), p. 91.
  9. David La Vere, The Texas Indians (College Station, TX, 2004), p. 62.

14 commments on “The Extinct Karankawa Indians of Texas”

  • Sheila Myers says:

    Great article. I didn’t know anything about this tribe.

    • Shannon Selin says:

      Thanks, Sheila. Because the Karankawas were a relatively small group and died out so long ago, they receive less attention than the Comanches, Apaches, Caddos and other still-extant Texas tribes.

  • Christoph Fischer says:

    Amazing content. Not what I had expected from a blog on Napoleon. Gets to show how much more there is to know about the man and the era. Thanks!

  • ron hansing says:

    “Reports like this are unsubstantiated and may have been concocted to legitimize the extermination campaign. According to historian David La Vere, there is little direct evidence to support the claim that the Karankawas were cannibalistic.” I think this comment is subjective and equally unproven.

  • Larry Moniz says:

    Fascinating article. Once again, early writings either fail to note, or minimize the abuses European explorers heaped on Native Americans. The earliest example would be Christoper Columbus who captured those who welcomed him and took a number back to Spain as slaves. Later, he systematically wiped out the Taino tribe in his lust for gold and other valuables.

  • Mike says:

    I grew up south of Houston, about 30 minutes from Galveston Island. There have been middens of freshwater oyster shells found on the banks of the bayous yards deep, around there. To the best of my memory, as far back as the Narvaez expedition and the journal of Cabeza de Vaca, the Karankawas were styled a sympathetic and friendly if primitive tribe that practiced ritual cannibalism. One wonders how many tribes of the region and areas further south could be described in that manner.

  • Maxie Taylor says:

    The Karankawa are not extinct. The ones who refused or ran away from missions populated several small towns along the coasts and inland. Some migrated South to Mexico. The women married other Negro men and many are misnomered black or African Americans.

  • Carl Erdmann says:

    Having grown up in Galveston, all children were taught the myths of the evil Karankawa cannibals.
    As I got older I learned why the Karankawas were brought to relative extinction. Six flags over Texas means that the land was repeatedly fought over for it’s strategic position and coastal access as well as it’s fertile lands. The history of Texas is a bloody one and represents some lessons on the brutality of greed.

Join the discussion

Your e-mail address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

The Karankawas may be called universal enemies to man – they killed of all nations that came in their power, and frequently feast on the bodies of their victims.... There will be no way of subduing them but extermination.

Stephen F. Austin