Karankawa Fact Sheet

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Their environment, physical and social. ( What is around them. )

Physical: The Karankawa lived along the "coastal bend" of Texas. Look at this map first. The coastal bend starts at the west end of Galveston Island and extends southwest down to Corpus Christi. It has several large, shallow bays that reach miles inland and long narrow barrier islands that protect lagoons between the islands and the mainland. (You better look up what a barrier island is and what a lagoon is if you don't know. Or, ask your teacher. That will make your teacher glad that you asked such a good question ;-) The Karankawa lived around these bays and along the lagoons, mostly in the winter. These bays and lagoons supported a rich variety of wildlife. There were many kinds of fish and oysters in the salt water and brackish water. Most of these bays have large rivers that empty into them, such as the Colorado and the Guadalupe. There are also many large creeks in the coastal bend along with swamps and bayous and wetlands. There are many kinds of ducks and waterfowl in this environment. Alligators and large turtles are also found in wetlands and swamps and are good to eat. Just inland there are deer and turkey along with rabbits. In the spring and early summer there are blackberries and many other kinds of plants and roots to eat.

This is a semi tropical environment. It is hot and humid in the summer and warm too cool in winter. It rarely freezes in the coastal bend. Cold fronts come through in the winter and it gets cold for a few days or a week and then it warms up again.

Social: We do not know very much about how the Karankawa related to the other Indian cultures around them. The newest theories suggest that the Karankawa would share camps with and trade with the Coahuiltecans at the west end of their territory. Cabeza de Vaca, who lived with the Karankawa tells us that the Karankawa traded regularly with inland tribes to the north of them, probably the Caddo and Tonkawa. They traded conch shells and other sea shell for pigments like ocher and for buffalo robes.

Social Organization:

We are learning more about the Karankawa social organization. While Cabeza de Vaca seems to describe bands or maybe even just groups, the new evidence from archeological excavations seems to indicate large villages. Large villages usually require a tribe level of organization. If you do not know what the heck I am talking about with all this band, tribe, group stuff you should read the Read Me First part of this site. These are the groups, or tribes, recorded in the histories.

Houses: We got pictures now, 10-20-99

The houses were small huts made of long sapling tree trunks or limbs bent over and tied together. They would stick one end of the tree limb or saplings into the ground in a big circle. Then they would bend them over towards the middle and tie them together making a framework. They would cover this framework with woven grass mats, palm leaves or with animal skins. They would cover the floor with woven grass mats. Now I am describing a NICE Karankawa house -- probably one made for the winter camp. Many times, especially in the summer when they were moving around a lot, they would just lean some deadwood limbs together and throw a few mats or some grass or palm leaves on the limbs. This is a lean-to shelter.


They got around mostly by canoe and by foot. They knew where and how to wade across the bays and lagoons. With all the water around them they used hollowed out logs for canoes. They used these canoes a lot to get around. Some of these canoes were pretty big.


Living in a hot humid climate that does not get very cold very often they did not wear very much. Men wore simple breach cloths and women wore grass skirts. Often the men simply went naked. The kids always went naked in warm weather. Because their environment has lots and lots and lots of insects that bite, they would smear animal fat and grease all over their bodies. Sometimes they would smear mud all over their bodies too. This would protect them from bug bites. They also liked tattoos. Men and women would tattoo themselves from head to foot with bold designs.


The Karankawa's favorite weapon, the weapon they are famous for, is the long bow. The Karankawa used powerful bows that were as long as the bow user was tall. Remember, the Karankawa men were often over 6 feet tall. The arrows they used were long lengths of slender cane. These arrows were often 3 feet or more long. Long arrows like these are better than short ones when shooting at fish, alligators, and things under shallow water. The end of the arrow would stick up above the water surface and show where the animal was. It made these arrows easier to retrieve. Short arrows would go under the surface and get lost.


They made and used very simple pottery. There was little, if any, decoration on these pots. These pots were often so badly made they would not even hold water very well. So, the Karankawa would use tar like stuff called asphaltum and smear it all over the insides of the pots. Asphaltum washes up on Texas beaches naturally and come from all the offshore oil. Those of you who have been to the beach here in Texas and stepped on a sticky yucky "tar ball" know what I am talking about. Being nomadic they did not make a lot of pottery. They also made and used baskets for many things. Those of you who took the time to read "Read me first" know what I am talking about here. See the nomadic section of Read me first to find out.


They made and used a lot of tools. Some of these tools were made of stone. Many other tools were made from wood, bone, sea shells, and cane.  They had knives, scrapers, and, of course, arrow and spear points made of flint and chert stone. They also had baskets.