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The Karankawa Indians
by R. Edward Moore
| Just the facts
| Sources | The map
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The Karankawa Indians lived
along the Texas coast of the Gulf of Mexico. See the map . Their territory was from the west
end of Galveston Island down the coast to where Corpus Christie is today.
There were several bands, or maybe even several tribes. We are not sure,
because much of the history of the Karankawa is lost. No one bothered to
study them in any detail while they were still around to study. Making
things worse, the Karankawa were favorite targets of many false myths and
made up stories.
One false myth is that
they were cannibals. Yes, they sometimes ate the captured enemy warriors
and leaders after a battle or war. They did not do this for food. They
did it to get the magic power of the dead warrior or leader. Almost every
other Texas Indian tribe did the same thing. This cannibalism is presented
as one of the most important things about the Karankawa. That is not fair.
Even though other Indian cultures did the same thing, it is not the first
or most important thing you find out about them.
When Cabeza de Vaca told
the Karankawa his starving companions had eaten the bodies of other expedition
members the Karankawa were shocked. Why would so-called cannibals be shocked
if they really were cannibals?
They were pretty good fighters
and European settlers feared them. The Europeans also wanted the Karankawa's
land. This may be why they made up so many bad myths about them. Many of
the Karankawa warriors were over 6 feet tall. People were shorter back
then and 6 foot tall Indians were really big. They had bows almost as tall
as they were and shot long arrows made from slender shoots of cane. It
is said they would suddenly show up in their canoes, seemingly out of no
where, to attack. They would run away and retreat or escape the same way.
They would go into the swamps and swampy woods were Europeans had a hard
time following. There was a good reason why they were such good fighters
and why they were so unfriendly to American settlers.
By the time American settlers
came in contact with the Karankawa the Karankawa had already had some pretty
bad experiences with Europeans. Early on, Spanish slave traders cruised
along the coast of Texas and they would kidnap Karankawas by force or trickery
and make slaves out of them. Later, the French, under the explorer LaSalle,
were very unfriendly. The French stole two canoes without asking. They
just took them. When the Karankawa asked that the canoes be given back
the French refused and a shooting war between the French and Karankawa
started. The French lost and LaSalle's small colony was destroyed by the
Karankawas. From the Karankawa's point of view, every time the Europeans
came around, the Europeans would try to steal from, kidnap, or kill the
Karankawa. No wonder they were not very friendly. Seems like this happened
to all the Indians in Texas and America. This was not always the case.
The Friendly Karankawa
When the Spanish explorer
Cabeza de Vaca was shipwrecked on Galveston Island in 1528, the Karankawa
treated him very well. They gave de Vaca and his companions food, shelter,
and support. Cabeza de Vaca gives us the first recorded, and one of the
better, accounts about the Karankawa. De Vaca lived with one of the Karankawa
bands for several years and joined the band.
Mrs. Alice Oliver, as a
child in the 1830s, spent so much time with the Karankawa she learned their
language. Her father owned a ranch near the coast and was friendly to the
Karankawa. He let them camp on and pass through his land. While they were
camped on his land he let his daughter, Mrs. Oliver, hang around the camp
with them. That is how she learned their language. They never tried to
kidnap or hurt her, they were very friendly. Her 1880 account of their
language is the only good surviving example of their language we have.
Her recollections recorded by Charles Hammond for the Peabody Museum are
one of the best eyewitness accounts we have because it is not biased. This
doesn't sound like the untrustworthy, savage, bloodthirsty Karankawas we
find described in so much of the literature. So, be friendly to them and
they are friendly back to you. Shoot at them and steal from them and they
will defend themselves and their families.
Notice I use the word "band"
for groups of Karankawa and not tribe. We are not sure just how the Karankawa
were organized politically. Judging by de Vaca's descriptions of the group
sizes and the number of persons in band of Karankawas he lived with and
the other Karankawa bands he met, they seem to be organized at a band level.
( If you don't know what I am talking about go back to the home page and
read the anthropology stuff under read me first. and look up bands.) New research and archeology now give
us more information to consider on Karankawa political organization. During
the summer the Karankawa seemed to move inland and during the winter they
seemed to camp near the water on the large bays and islands on the sea
coast. Food is the reason for this.
During the winter large
schools of several kinds of fish would come into the shallow water of the
bays. These bays are shallow enough to wade around in. This made the fish
easy to catch and there were lots and lots of them. They would catch fish
like red fish and drum. There are also lots of easy to get shell fish like
oysters and clams near the shore in the bays. These can only be safely
eaten during the winter months.
The Karankawa seemed to
like certain camp sites for these winter camps and would make a camp in
the same place year after year. The Karankawa collected and ate so many
oysters and clams the shells they threw away made big piles several feet
high under these camp sites. The newest data from the archeologists seems
to indicate that some of these winter camps were really good sized villages
of several hundred persons living in huts. NEW 10-20-99 pictures of the kind
of hut the Karankawa built -- the wickiup page!!! This is important because villages this size should
require a tribal level of organization. So who was in charge or chief?
What happened to these villages? Why is there not a historical record of
them? One answer is that European diseases killed quite a few Indians very
quickly. As many as 80 percent, thats 8 out of every ten, of the Indian
people died. The Spanish slave raiders may have given these diseases to
the Karankawa, de Vaca and his people certainly did. So much for the winter
camps, what about the summer?
During the summer the schools
of fish moved back into deep water off shore in the Gulf where the Karankawa
could not reach them. The oysters and clams are not safe to eat in hot
weather. So, to find food the Karankawa would break up into smaller groups
or bands and go inland to hunt and gather. In the summer there are lots
of berries and edible plants and plant roots. Early accounts, like de Vaca's,
tell that the Karankawa seem to like a certain root that grew in shallow
water. They would wade into the shallow water and collect lots of these
roots. No one nowadays is really sure just what plant these roots came
from. There are also deer, rabbits, turtles, turkeys and other edible animals.
De Vaca tells about how sometimes food was hard to find and they went hungry
for days at a time.
The Karankawa are all gone
now. They disappeared sometime in the early 1800s. In 1840 only about 100
Karankawas were left. By 1850 they were gone.