These Indians are very dirty, and the stench which they emit is enough to turn one's stomach. They are fond of all that is foul and pestiferous, and for this reason delight in the odor of the polecat and eat its flesh. They pierce the lobes of the ear and nose and hang from them beads, small shells, and feathers of various colors. Among these Indians there can also be found a great number of hermaphrodites, or monanguias, as they call them. They take these with them on their campaigns, not only to make use of them in immoral ways, but in order that the hermaphrodites may drive off the horses and mules that are being stolen while they themselves attack the owners.

--diary of Father Fray Gaspar José de Solis (1767)

Fray Gaspar's description of the Karankawa Indians is fairly typical of the attitudes of most of the Europeans who tried to settle along the south Texas coast prior to the mid-1800's, when the five bands collectively known as the Karankawa, who had never numbered more than a few hundred, were finally driven to extinction. We will never have a full accounting of their ways because they passed from the scene before cultural anthropology got a crack at them, but there is evidence that there was more to them than the monstrous image given to us by the victor's history.

The Land

The coast lands of Texas from the Trinity River basin, around Houston, down to the Nueces River, at Corpus Christi, are an inhospitable place. The land can't seem to decide whether to be arid or swampy, and sometimes it seems to manage to be both at the same time. Inland, it is an unremittingly sun-drenched plain, and if you drive through there today, all that meets the eye is mesquite and prickly-pear plagued ranch land interspersed with perfect, irrigated fields of cotton, maize and sorghum that have spread like a thin mold over the acidic sands and dense, black alluvial clays of the region.

The rivers that flow down that way flood destructively in the springtime, but most of the year, they meander in a slow, brown dudgeon toward their slimy estuaries in the salt grass marshes and live oak thickets of the gulf coast. In many of the bays and lagoons in that area, you can wade 500 feet from shore and still find yourself no more than hip deep in brownish green salt water.

Farther out, a few miles into the Gulf of Mexico, there is a great chain of sandy barrier islands that stand guard over the brackish inland waters. The largest of them is called Padre Island, but Mustang Island, Matagorda Island, and Galveston Island are all part of the same group. They are long, pure stretches of sand - 300 miles of beach and dunes that face the mighty Gulf of Mexico, sequestering the tumid estuaries, lagoons and bays behind.

Even today, with all the oil business, big agriculture, and suburban development that the local chambers of commerce can muster, that coast, to about a hundred miles inland is still one of Texas' less civilized areas - full of snakes, javelinas, giant mosquitos, and a wealth of other spiny, poisonous, smelly, cantankerous things. One of the area's few claims to fame is that it is the last wintering ground of the endangered whooping crane, but in relatively recent times, it was also populated by a great many alligators, ocelots, buffalo, puma, and even the odd black bear. Nobody really knows how long people have lived there, but when the history of that area began to be written by Europeans, it was the home of five clans - the Coco, Hans, Kohanis, Kopanos, and Korenkake - who came to be known collectively as the Karankawa.

First Contact

Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca was the treasurer on an expedition to the New World, mounted by Charles V in 1527 and led by Panfilo de Narváez. Their original charter was to found a Spanish colony in Florida, but by 1528, the enterprise was thoroughly screwed up. Narváez led a group of 300 on overland reconnaissance, where they encountered rough travel conditions, nasty natives and other unfortunate nuisances. The ships sailed away and left them stranded on Florida's inhospitable shores.1 The surviving 250 built five crude boats and set out for Mexico.

The whole Mexico plan didn't quite work out, and about eighty men lived to wreck on some little island near present-day Galveston, Texas. Some of the locals, who looked like giants to the Spaniards, brought them some food, then went to get their women and children to see the strange newcomers. Cabeza de Vaca tells us that when the savages got a good look at the dead washed ashore:

"The Indians, understanding our full plight, sat down and lamented for half an hour so loudly they could have been heard a long way off. It was amazing to see these wild, untaught savages howling like brutes in compassion for us."

In short order, half the Indians died from dysentery, and everyone involved was sick and starving. When the natives found some of the Spaniards resorting to cannibalism, they resolved to kill the remaining fifteen, but were talked out of it by a kind, articulate warrior. Cabeza de Vaca went on to live among them for six more years, and his account is the best direct source of information about the Karankawa.2

They were consistently stubborn in their resistance to European ideas about how they should behave, and later information from others, such as Henri Joutel (of La Salle's equally screwed-up foray into the area), Missionary Inspector Father Fray Gaspar José de Solis, naturalist Jean Louis Berlandier, and even Texian hero Stephen F. Austin, viewed them from the perspective of embattled outsiders describing enemy warriors. No New World settler ever chose to live among them voluntarily.

What They Were Like

Karankawas were tall. History tells us that the men averaged six to seven feet in height. They covered themselves with alligator grease to repel insects and to mask their scent for hunting ("Mask their scent" is a euphemism for "make them stink to high heaven"). They decorated themselves with all manner of savage piercings, tattoos, and odd haircuts. They had no agriculture, and they moved their villages from inland to the coast according to the seasons. They did a little trading with the Tonkawa of central Texas, and they hated the Comanches to the north, but for the most part were left to their own devices. They were fierce warriors when called to defend their range, but they showed no interest in expanding their territories.

Cabeza de Vaca described them as

"having large heads with a queer grin. They had a piece of cane inserted in their lower lip and reeds in their nipples from side to side about one foot long. They had multi-colored splotches on their faces and wild Tattoo's on other parts of their bodies. Their hair was coarse and dark, although it sometimes assumed a reddish hue owing to its constant exposure to the sun."

Joutel, from La Salle's last expedition, noted that

"the Karankawa men shaved their heads except for a patch of hair long enough to be braided on the top of their heads. One distinguishing mark of the Karankawa was a small circle of blue Tattooed over each Cheekbone. Through out life each one retained a splendid mouth full of white teeth. Dress was scarce, the men wore breech cloths, the women had knee length Skirts with no tops and the children went naked. Some Karankawa wore deerskin bracelets on the left wrist and the men wore small shells, glass beads, or small disks of tin, brass, or other metal strapped to their throats."

Jean Louis Bernaldier reported that

"They wear Coak feathers behind their ears and 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, which is Buckskin foot gear. Their Peregoso, or breech cloth, is white, and their favorite weapons are the Bow and Dagger. The Bow and Arrows which Caranchuases use are of extraordinary size; the Arrows are two-and-a-half to three feet in length and the bow is the height of the Indian who used it. Among the other Indians of Texas, these weapons do not have such large dimensions."

In 1822 Stephen F. Austin enthusiastically described some of the Karankawa women as handsome and one of them quite pretty.

"They had Panther Skin around their waist,which extended down to their knees and above the waist they were naked. Their breasts were marked or Tattooed in circles of black, beginning with a small circle at the nipple and enlarging so the breast swelled."
Nevertheless, Austin was a proponent of exterminating them all.

As a kid growing up in Texas, about the only thing I learned about the Karankawa in school was that they were cannibals. Cabeza de Vaca's diary indicates that they found the survival-oriented cannibalism of the Spaniards abhorrent - even grounds for capital punishment - but Fray Gaspar Jose de Solis describes a three day (and night) ritual called the "mitote".

"The dance is carried on in this fashion. They drive a stake into the ground at the place where they are going to hold the mitote. They then kindle a huge fire and bind to the stake the victim whom they are to make dance or whom they are going to sacrifice. All of them gather together, and as soon as the discordant notes of the caymán are heard they begin to dance and to jump about the fire, making a great number of gestures and terrible grimaces and uttering sad, unnatural cries. Dancing and leaping and with sharp knives in their hands, they draw near to the victim, cut off a piece of his flesh, come to the fire and half roast it, and, within sight of the victim himself devour it most ravenously. Thus they continue cutting him to pieces and dismembering him, until, finally, they have cut away all of the flesh and he dies. They cut off the skull and, with the hair still clinging to it, place it on a stick so as to carry it in triumph during the dance. They do not throw away the bones, but pass them around, and whoever happens to get one sucks it until nothing of it is left. They act in like manner toward the religious and toward the Spaniards whenever they capture them. Sometimes they hang the victim by the feet and beneath them start a fire, and after the body is roasted they devour it. Other times they cut stakes, about an inch in thickness, from the pitch-pine, which grows so plentifully in these parts; they stick these stakes to the victim and then set fire to him, and as soon as he is half roasted they eat him. Some, instead of using knives to cut up their victim, tear him apart with their teeth and devour him."
If this actually took place, it was apparently a ritual of warfare, and was considered different in kind from merely eating somebody as a snack. There is no archaeological evidence to indicate that any of this ever happened at all, but it's certain that they were not kind to their enemies.

Their Language and Origin

The best "dictionary" of the Karankawa language is the recollection of Alice Williams Oliver, recorded in 1880 by Charles Hammond for the Peabody Museum. When she was a child in the 1830's, her father had allowed Karankawan bands to use his land along the Texas coast, and she had spent time in their camps. Neither she or her father found them threatening, and she remembered about 100 words of their language, along with some details about their phonology. There were a few other Europeans who learned their language, but no systematic record of it remains.

I'm not a linguist, and my research indicates that the linguistic genealogy of Karankawan may be a matter of some contention (Coahuiltecan? Hokan? Athabascan?), but it seems safe to say that their language was at least strongly influenced by that of the neighboring Tonkawa tribes. Beyond that, I'll leave it to the experts.

One of the reasons that their language is of such interest is that their origin is still uncertain. Their body morphology and folkways were dramatically different from almost all other Amerind groups. Some people think they were related to some tall California coastal tribes, and a few trace them to the Big Bend area of Texas, as far back as Abilene Man, the oldest Texas hominid. The most accepted explanation is that their ancestors were Caribs of the West Indies who rowed to Florida, then were successively driven by other tribes around the Gulf Coast to south Texas.

Legends and Legend-like Truths

René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle was the first European to navigate the full length of the Mississippi River, and he named Louisiana, claiming it for the French Crown in 1682. That was a good trip. Two years later, he tried tackling the Big Muddy from the south, and that didn't go so well. His group ended up in South Texas, and he wandered off with one contingent and was murdered by mutineers. The rest were left at an encampment they called Fort St. Louis, near present-day Victoria, Texas. That group was killed by Karankawa, except for the six children, who were spared, and taken to live with them. Those kids grew up and had famous adventures of their own later on.

Pirates used the Gulf of Mexico as a place of refuge, rest, and recreation well into the 19th century. The Karankawa didn't like them, and sometimes killed them when they were on the beach, burying treasure and stuff. In about 1819, Jean Lafitte's mateys stole one of their women, and about 300 warriors headed out to get her back. Lafitte's cannons gave them a mighty whacking, and their numbers never really recovered.

It is a historical fact that there was a Karankawa elder who spoke excellent English that he had reportedly learned from a mad hermit down around Rockport (a place where mad hermits still go). The legend is that this elder carried a golden locket that he said was given to him by his white wife, who he had rescued from a shipwreck after a great storm. There is reason to believe that she may have been Theodosia Burr Alston, the only (legitimate) daughter of Aaron Burr. She and the ship she was on had disappeared off the South Carolina coast years earlier, possibly taken by pirates. That story has a lost treasure, too.

The End of the Karankawa

The Spaniards tried for over a hundred years to Christianize the Karankawa. They established three or four missions in the area over the years, all of which ended up fading away or moving away in defeat. They just could not be domesticated, but their numbers were steadily dwindling, mainly due to European diseases until the Lafitte incident, which wiped out a substantial fraction of them in one day.

In 1821, Mexico won independence from Spain, and created incentives for Anglos to settle in what's now Texas. They tried to make peace with the Karankawa, but the Karankawa wouldn't settle. Stephen F. Austin, who was the empresario of the colonists, decided that genocide was the only answer, and led raids that forced the remaining bands to take shelter at La Bahía Mission in Goliad, which was one of the ones they had driven out of the coastal region. The priests negotiated a treaty between the Karankawa and the settlers, but neither side kept it, and conflicts continued, much to the disadvantage of the Indians. They fled to present day Mexico, but they weren't welcome in Mexico. They escaped back across the Rio Grande, but in 1858 a Texan force, led by Juan Nepomuceno Cortina, killed off the last of them.

It was inevitable, because they were among the most uncompromising people ever born. They were so stubborn and obnoxious that the other Caribs probably drove them across the ocean to Florida, and nobody could put up with them there, or in Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, or most of Texas. They finally found a place that nobody else wanted, and there they were content to stay, eating oysters and polecats, smearing themselves with alligator livers and piercing their nipples.

It was too good to last.


1 I don't know where the ships went. I'm sorry.

2 Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca's Adventures in the Unknown Interior of America, or Relación, which can be found online in English translation, is his report to the King of Spain about the expedition. It tells the whole saga right through to the succor of the four survivors at Culiacán, western Mexico. Along the way, little Álvar Núñez was a conquistador (of sorts), an accountant, a merchant, a witch-doctor, a slave, and a noder. They would have to tone it down to make a movie. You should read it.

Interesting sidenote:

In addition the cannibalism practiced by the Karankawa, they engaged in another bizarre dietary habit: When food supplies were low, they picked out undigested bits of food from their fecal matter, like whole seeds, and ate them again. A kind of Second Harvest, if you will.

I learned this in seventh grade history; at the time, the teacher told us this was the only thing we would remember from the class. He was, in fact, correct about the minds of thirteen-year-olds.

Please let me know if I am factually inaccurate.

Just a bit of information about the Karankawa. We're not extinct, yet. I believe that my family from my father's side are direct descendants of the Karankawas. My family came from the Matagorda area and almost all of my Uncles were well over 6 ft. My oldest Uncle was 6ft. 6in.

My belief is that when the Spanish missions took in the Karankawas and converted them to Christianity, they gave them common Spanish names. The one name that is extremely common among the people around the Matagorda and Corpus Christi area is Rodriguez. I've met quit a few people from that area with the last name of Rodriguez that fit the general characteristics. Namely, most of their family members are well over 6ft tall, and there are stories amongst the families of being Indian.

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