The Karankawa Indians of Texas

The Karankawa Indians were a group of 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. By the 1860s, the Karankawas were thought to be extinct, although some probably still existed.

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 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 probably went to Mexico, or integrated into colonial society, 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.

In the 21st century, a group known as the Karankawa Kadla (mixed Karankawa) formed to gather and organize people who identify as being partially Karankawa.

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.

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  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.

59 commments on “The 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.

  • Elena G. Brewer says:

    I’m a Nuñez… I have often wondered why all my relatives are from Texas. If Alvar Nuñez Cabeza DeVaca was the first Spanish explorer to set foot on American soil, what are the chances that I could be related? My grandfather was born 94 miles from where the Karankawas finally made there home. I just find it ironic and extremely interesting. Elgin also has many people with the Last name Nuñez. Just trying to find a connection.

    • Shannon Selin says:

      Hi Elena, Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca doesn’t appear to have left any descendants, so your family probably comes from a different line.

  • Nikkole Trevino says:

    Hi Shannon,
    I do believe yes the tribes are extinct.
    But Karankawas are here, I am part Karankawa. My dad’s dad is Karankawa Indian from the gulf around the Corpus Christi. Unfortunately I wasn’t raised around my dad and he wasn’t raised around his dad either. So we have very little information on our Ancestors. But knowing that my ancestors were Karankawa answers many questions for me too.

  • Nikkole Trevino says:

    I’ve actually been wanting to find a place that I could find out about my karankawa grandpa, it’s almost like a hole that will never get filled. 25 years young and always knew just so little information.

    • Shannon Selin says:

      I’m glad this article has helped you find out a bit more about your Karankawa ancestors, Nikkole. For more information, you might want to read The Karankawa of Texas by Greg Roza (Rosen Publishing, 2005), and The Karankawa Indians of Texas: An Ecological Study of Cultural Tradition and Change by Robert A. Ricklis (University of Texas Press, 1996). Albert Gatschet’s 1891 book, The Karankawa Indians, The Coast People of Texas, is available for free on the Internet Archive:

  • anonomous says:

    Make one about George Washington Carver.

  • Alexander Joseph Perez says:

    Nayi kaupn ale’n Karankawa. I speak Carancahua. Kaninma na behma he’h esto’k wana ak Aj’Te’Gah. My grandmother is native here in Galveston Island. Nayina kam komkomdem kamla Aj’Te’Gah nya Corpus Cristi. We are native to the coastal region of Galveston to Corpus Cristi. Nayi naytza gahiametet ale’n Carancahua. I am the one speaker of Karankawa.

  • Donna Kinsella says:

    I need to change the plaque in Jamaica Beach that states them as cannibals. Could you help me, going to City Council soon, but it won’t be easy without help!

  • Shannon Selin says:

    Good luck with that, Donna. I live in Canada and am not an expert on the Karankawas, so would not be of much help. You might want to contact David La Vere, who is an expert on the Texas tribes and might have some documentation you could use to support your case:

  • Amanda says:

    My husband is native but not sure what tribe. How does he find out? We do know he is Texas Indian.

  • Matthew says:

    My mother was born here in Texas City, and I have been here since I was 2 weeks old. I’ve always been interested in ancient religions and cultures. It is documented that Jean Lafitte battled against the Karankawa Indians and is said that they retreated to the mainland. Could they have been on the location of Shoal Point (now Texas City)? I believe there may be artifacts, and maybe not to be found because of all of the process of turning things over and building on top of everything .. what a shame! 🙁

  • Shannon Selin says:

    I don’t know whether they were on the Shoal Point location, though it seems quite possible, Matthew. That is a shame that artifacts may have been covered by buildings.

  • Jack Slater says:

    Almost ALL tribes known to have inhabited Texas were cannibalistic to some degree. This is WELL documented in MANY Spanish mission logs and can actually be seen in Mission Espiritu Santu, Goliad TX mission museum. Some of the tribes ate humans more ritually while others it was more of a “norm” for retaliation from other cannibalistic enemies if not as to almost having a taste for it. Coahuiltecans, Apache, Comanche, Cherokee, Tonkawa, etc. all participated in this practice, well documented. The Karankawa were hated by ALL the rest for having the worst flesh-lust of all. They often joined white man to help hunt them down. It was a very effective “Terror” weapon. For much more on this read “South of the Guadalupe” by Donald D Hoffman

  • Ryan Smith says:

    I didn’t know about the tribe until I read this article and it was really helpful because I learned more about them.

  • Rene’ says:

    I lived on the island for many years, moved there in the mid 60’s. There was at one time a (sort of) mini museum on the west end where a Karankawa village was located. There was a lot of interesting info about this tribe. The fact that they were extremely large, cannibalistic, and buried their dead standing straight up so the spirit wouldn’t be trapped in the body when it was time to move on to the afterlife, are just a few of the things that made a lasting impression on me.

  • Rene’ says:

    Sorry, probably should have stated that the island was Galveston.

    • Shannon Selin says:

      Thanks, René. I didn’t know that about their burial practices. Sounds like that would have been an interesting museum.

  • Alejandro Oyoque says:

    Hello Shannon The South Texas Historical Association, will be having their Fall Symposium in Alamo Texas, The City of Alamo Museum will host the event for two days November 1st &2nd 2019 we have 15 speakers lined up and Enrique Gonzales will be doing a presentation on his Karankawa origin hopefully we can have the Karankawa bow he donated to the museum in Goliad. For More information call us Alamo Museum (956) 961-4398 Ask for Alex

  • Shannon Selin says:

    Thanks for letting me know about the symposium, Alejandro. It sounds excellent. I wish I lived closer to Texas so that I could attend.

  • Terry Mc Cormick says:

    When I was a teenager in the early 1960’s ….I was lucky enough to participate in the digging of a site on the West end of Galveston……( conducted by The University of Houston ???)….slicing through the soil I found a finger bone with previous cut marks & a small piece of chain …..( was told off a ship )…..was told this was a Campsite of the Karankaw Indians … a kid this was fascinating

  • Terri says:

    My Great Grandmother was a Karankawa and was traded to a white man with the last name of Welch and he was in his thirties, at the age of 13 for a horse. She married the man and had my aunt at the age of 14 and my grand father at the age of 18.

  • Stephen Johnson says:

    Interesting article and comments from Karankawa descendants. I was fascinated by the brief historical mention of the Karankawas at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge when I moved to the area as a child. Even more interesting to learn that there are Karankawa people still around.

  • Jason says:

    The napoleonic reference is to a fiction piece, if I am reading this correctly.

  • Mark says:

    Per Rene above………….My dad and cousin and I used to fish the west end of Galveston Isle in the late 50s and early 60s. We heard of the discovery of the Indian remains………I believe it was where Jamaica Beach Subdivision was just being started. No houses yet. Coming back from one fishing trip we stopped in and found the site. When we saw it, there was just a small tent over the excavation, and a few bones visible.

  • Laura Kanter says:

    Since I live on Karankawa territory, I am trying to learn about this history. I am curious about the choice of quote you are using from Stephen Austin, stating that the Karankawa were cannibals, when it is more accurate (as you state above) that this was exploited to justify the genocide of these people. Why is this the comment that you are promoting as a lead-in to this history? Does this not contribute to a racist stereotype?

  • Shannon Selin says:

    That’s great that you’re learning about Karankawa history, Laura. I quote Stephen Austin because that section of the post is about “Karankawa Relations with American Colonists” and Austin established the first colony of American settlers in Texas. Austin’s negative view of the Karankawa and his colonists’ relations with them played a key role in what ultimately happened to them.

  • Q says:

    Karankawa’s are not extinct. Their heritage lives on in us with their DNA. Karankawa survivors assimilated into the local populations to hide from both the Texicans and the Mexicans. Through genealogical research, family lines can be traced. Efforts are being acted on to bring this tribe back together.

  • Roxanne E. R. says:

    Your writing here is riddled with colonialism. This history (without recognition of what truly happened) only furthers coloniality while deliberately ignoring the travesties that occurred. You never mention the brutal raping of women, the killing of children and the genocide that the colonists did to first nation tribes. You write, “After bad relations and killings on both sides,” ARE YOU SERIOUS? Who is your audience here? Furthermore, the Karankawa tribes are NOT EXTINCT! Their lineage lives on regardless of the genocide and attempts to exterminate caused by the white men that you mentioned, and memorialized. Stephen F Austin should not be quoted in a revered way. If you quote him, please acknowledge his racism and attempt at genocide because many people will believe this claim. This is very bad research and extremely colonial. I suggest you read something with truth and honesty like An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States. Please, you have a voice, use it for good.

  • Jay Jones says:

    Tell this to my Karankawan girlfriend. Her father is indigenous to Corpus Christi and traced his roots back to the Karankawa. I am Cherokee/Choctaw (Mom), Seminole/Haitian (Dad). We, thankfully, are not dead and the rhetoric that we are truly ticks me off because you all love to write us out of history. Ever heard of Confederations? This is how we survived. Chief Osceola came to visit my family in hopes of gathering more people to fight his colonist issues, the same that we were dealing with. By the time he went back home, his people were gone, he came back and became a Red Stick. Ever since, we have been her in the South of GA and North FL. We will never die. If you would like to know more, please never hesitate to ask.

  • Shannon Selin says:

    That’s great that the Karankawa live on, Jay.

  • allison says:

    This was great info for me!

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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