Maritime History

Karankawa Indians of the Texas Coast

The Karankawa, loosely translated to ‘dog lovers’, lived along the coast of Texas long before French and Spanish explorers settled the area. It is unknown when the Karankawa first established themselves in small units of 30 – 40 people along the Texas coastline, but the first recorded encounter with the Karankawa Indians was initiated accidentally when shipwreck survivors landed on a small island to the west of Galveston. These survivors lived and hunted with the Karankawa for several years in a peaceful co-existence. Much of our knowledge about the Karankawa tribe comes from these early interactions with the Spanish. Many other friendly encounters have been recorded, including that of Mrs. Alice Oliver in the 1830s, who became some close to the Karankawa that lived near her father’s ranch, that she learned their language.

The Karankawa were described as muscular men and women who wore little to no clothing, sometimes wearing breechcloths or skirts fashioned out of animal hide. They used alligator or shark grease to protect themselves from mosquitoes. In combination with the tattoos worn by both men and women, they were an imposing force. They were nomadic, moving from campsite to campsite using dugout canoes as the seasons changed and the food supply shifted. They hunted with bows and arrows, fished, and gathered along the Texas coastline from Galveston to Corpus Cristi, moving between the barrier islands and the mainland with the seasons, sometimes traveling far inland along the bayous in their canoes.

Painting, Karankawa Native Americans by Frank Weir. Courtesy of Texas Beyond History.

Often engaging in territorial battles with the nearby Tonkawa and Coahuitecan tribes, the Karankawa were fierce warriors who occasionally participated in cannibalism of the captured enemy to gain the magic forces within their bodies. This was a widespread practice among all tribes in the area, and there is no recorded or archeological evidence to imply that cabalism was ever used as a food source.

Unfortunately, the story of the Karankawa does not have a happy ending. Because of their cultural tendency to defend their territory and their reputation for being skilled warriors, the Westerners who came to explore and settle the area did not take kindly to the Karankawa, and a decades-long battle for territory began. The people are now entirely extinct, with only about 100 words from their language saved from eradication.

In 1685 when the French expedition of Rene Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle anchored in the heart of Karankawa territory, a colony was established for the new settlers. Initially, the colony was undisturbed but when La Salle and most of the colony’s men went on an expedition to Canada to secure additional supplies, the Karankawa attacked the colony, which they viewed to be invading their territory, killing all but 6 children, holding them captive until they were rescued by the Spanish more than 15 years later.

The Karankawa were left alone until their land happened to fall between the battling settlements of the Spanish and the French. The Karankawa land was used almost as a neutral zone between the French and Spanish, but as colonizing expanded into Karankawa territory, two missions were built with the purposes of ‘civilizing’ the Karankawa and converting them to Christianity. The Karankawa were vehemently against these efforts and proved to be very hostile towards the missionaries and troops. Eventually, the mission was moved up the San Antonio River, away from the heart of Karankawa territory, but still failed due to the Karankawa wanting nothing to do with this westernization of their culture.

Going from bad to worse, Athanase de Mezieres, a Frenchman working with the Spanish, authorized the complete extermination of the Karankawa. The plan was never carried out; however, disease was quickly wiping out the remaining population.

An encounter with Jean Laffite ended in disaster for the Karankawa when Laffite’s pirates captured a Karankawa woman. The Karankawa took heavy losses when 300 of their men attempted to free her. This marked the final decline of the Karankawa tribe. As tempers rose between the Westerners and the Karankawa in their territory, even historical Texan heroes, such as Stephen F. Austin, condoned and encouraged the slaughter of the remaining fragments of the tribe. Although an arms treaty was in effect for a short time in which the Karankawa leadership agreed to stay west of the Lavaca River, many members of the tribe wandered to the east in search of food and supplies.

The tribe’s population was reduced to the point where the French and Spanish no longer considered them a threat. The Karankawa, having been reduced to small tracts of land to hunt, fish, and survive on, often raided settlements for food and supplies. Many tribesmen were killed in retaliation to these raids, and the population continued to dwindle. Fleeing from Westerners, the remnants of the once-great Karankawa Indians moved towards Mexico in search of stability but where chased back into Texas near the Rio Grand River. This was short-lived, as the settlers in the area did not welcome the despondent natives and in 1858, a Texan unit lead by Juan Neopomuceno Cortina wiped out the remaining Karankawa Indians.

It is a very unfortunate end to a once powerful and unique culture at the hands of our predecessors. We hope to honor their cultural significance and steadfastness in retaining their culture and heritage until the bitter end. A handful of artifacts have survived and can be found in museums throughout Texas.

There is some documentation to support the existence of modern Karankawa peoples, with the prevailing ancestral stories being that the Karankawa would capture slaves before the Civil War, integrating into their band and having children with these former slaves. Any modern Karankawa would be of mixed race; however, there is hope that there are some ancestors of the Karankawa people.

For more information about the Karankawa Indians, you can visit our sources for this article below:

Texas Indians

Texas State Historical Association

Calhoun County Museum

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