Karankawa people

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Wohngebiet Karankawa.png
Karankawa territory
Total population
Regions with significant populations
United States United States (Texas Texas)
Karankawa language
traditional tribal religion
Related ethnic groups
possibly Atakapa and Island Carib

Karankawa (also Karankawan, Coco, in their language Auia) are a collective group of Native Americans who occupied portions of what is now southern Texas. They played a pivotal part in early Texas history.

The term Karankawa has been popularly applied to a group of American tribes who have a common dialect and culture. These people are specifically identified as the Capoque (Coco),[1] Kohani, Kopane, Kronk, and Karankawa (Carancaquaca) bands. They inhabited the Gulf Coast of Texas from Galveston Bay in the present-day Greater Houston area, and south toward Corpus Christi Bay. Exposure to new infectious diseases carried by Spanish colonists, annexation of territory, conflict with the newly arrived Europeans, and war forced them to intermarry or relocate to Spanish mission encomiendos before 1860.


Linguists have been unable to classify the Auia language, of which only about a hundred words are preserved, as so little is known of languages in this region. The meaning of the name Karankawa is not certain. It is believed to mean "dog-lovers" or "dog-helpers." That rendering seems credible, since the Karankawa kept and used dogs to carry or pull loads for their nomadic travels. They were a fox or coyote-like species. In a nomadic-type culture, the people seasonally migrated between the mainland and the barrier islands.


The indigenous peoples who lived along the Texas Coast from Galveston Island to a location southward past Corpus Christi, Texas endured much hardship from the elements, but they also adapted well to the rich fishing and hunting. The bays, back bays, lagoons and bayous along the Texas Coast were the tribal hunting and harvesting grounds. Men waded from the shallow waters in the bays to the deep pools, using lances or bows and arrows, to spear fish. Older men, women and children harvested waters for blue and stone crabs, oysters, mussels, sea turtles, shellfish, and other edible crustaceans.

They traveled the coastal bays with the seasons. They ate oysters, clams, shellfish, black drum, redfish, spotted seatrout and the other abundant species of fish from the nutrient-rich waters. During the summer months and hot weather, when the oysters, clams and other shellfish are not safe to eat and the fish migrate annually out of the pass, the tribal bands would migrate inland. This was also in order to avoid the danger of summer tropical storms and hurricanes. Historic accounts tell of Karankawa bands encountered as far inland as Colorado County at Eagle Lake, nearly 100 miles (160 km) from the coastline. No evidence shows they made permanent camps there.

They traversed the bays in dugouts. They built round huts covered in thatch. Some of the campsites have evidence of populations of several hundred. The Karankawa discarded clam and oyster shells, heaping them in huge midden mounds around the campsites. Their most prized hunting tools were the long bow (some over six feet long) and arrows, with shafts as long as three feet to make it easier to spot and retrieve them from the shallow waters. Archeological excavation of campsites has also found evidence of discarded remains of deer and buffalo, the major inland game for the tribe. The Karankawa also harvested a variety of local roots, berries including hackberries and nuts. They used the leaves of Ilex vomitoria or yaupon holly to prepare their ceremonial black drink. The men drank it in quantity for the psychoactive effects of its caffeine.[2]


The Karankawa decorated their bodies and faces with tattoos, piercings, and paint. Some had ritual purpose for specific ceremonies, or were markers for clans and life passages.

They made a strong impression on the Europeans who wrote of encounters. The men were strikingly tall, described as between six and seven feet (180–213 cm). This is attributed to Allen's rule. They had numerous tattoos and wore shell ornaments. Many greased their bodies with alligator fat[3] to ward off mosquitoes and other biting insects. The men pierced each nipple, as well as the bottom lip of the mouth, with small pieces of cane.

Women wore their coarse hair long, down to their waist. The Karankawa practiced head flattening, binding the heads of infants against boards for extended periods of time to produce this effect.


According to some sources, the Karankawa practiced ritual cannibalism of blood enemies, in common with other Gulf coastal tribes of present-day Texas and Louisiana.[4] In 1768, a Spanish priest wrote an account of the Karankawa ritual ceremonies.[citation needed] He said that the Karankawa believed that eating a captive's flesh would allow a person to take on the captive's power and strength. The natives tied a captive to a stake. While dancing around him, they would dart in, slice off a piece of flesh and roast it in front of the victim in a prepared campfire. Then they would devour it.[citation needed]

Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, a Spanish conquistador who lived among the Karankawa for several years in the 1530 and wrote a memoir, made no mention of cannibalism. Cabeza De Vaca admitted that he and his fellow survivors had committed acts of cannibalism of their own, eating their dead in order to survive after shipwrecking off Galveston Bay. The Karankawa people were shocked at the Spanish cannibalism, which they found to be repugnant. Most of the later accounts of Karankawa cannibalism are second or third-hand.[5]

Some recent authors have suggested that the Karankawa were mistaken for the Atakapa (Atakapan or Attakapan) people, Gulf Coast tribes whose lands stretched from Galveston Bay to Bayou Teche and Vermilion Bay in Louisiana. The Atakapa people were known for their body tattoos and cannibalism, which was performed by at least some of their sub-tribes.[6]

Gender roles

One unusual aspect of the Karankawa culture was their recognition of three gender roles: male, female, and a third role taken on by some males and women in this type of tribe. Males who took on this third role are called berdache (Karankawa: monanguia.[7]) They generally took on female roles and activities in daily life, while playing a special role in religious rites. According to some accounts, the berdache also performed as passive sexual partners for other males.[8]

Housing and location

The Karankawa used willow saplings and animal skins to make huts, sometimes known as wikiups. They often set up camp by the ocean. They lived along the Texas coast of the Gulf of Mexico, near the modern-day Mexican border. The Tonkawa, Atakapa,[9] and Coahuiltecan peoples were neighbors.


Speculation on origins

Scholars have speculated that the Karankawa were descended from a group of Carib Indians who arrived by sea from the Caribbean basin in the seventeenth century. This is based on their physical appearance: the Karankawa were reported to be taller than other Indians in the region and similar in appearance to the Carib. They also shared certain cultural practices, such as cannibalism. Unsupported linguistic studies also suggest this connection. No ethnographic or archaeological evidence has been found to support this speculation.[10]

Encounters with the Spanish

Karankawa Indian campsite and burial ground historical marker located in Jamaica Beach on the west end of Galveston Island

In 1528, one of two barges put together by survivors of the failed Pánfilo de Narváez expedition to Florida struck aground at Galveston Island. Survivors, including Cabeza de Vaca, were cared for by the Capoque band of Karankawa.[1] Ultimately, only Cabeza de Vaca and three companions survived years of travel to rejoin the Spanish in Mexico City.

The Spanish later started to colonize this area, constructing missions for converting natives to Christianity and developing agriculture. By 1793, some of the Karankawa were converted to Christianity and lived at the mission Nuestra Señora del Refugio. It had been built in 1791 at the mouth of the Mission River. Karankawa who practiced their traditions lived among the Lipan Apache.[4]

Encounters with Jean Lafitte

During the time when the pirate Jean Lafitte was based on the island of Galveston with his followers, they had at least one altercation with the native Karankawa. In 1819, 300 Karankawa warriors tried to retrieve one of their women from captivity at Lafitte's settlement. Lafitte had 200 pirates as defenders and used two cannons against the natives, causing numerous casualties and deaths. The Karankawa had to retreat.[4]


Soon after arriving in Galveston, American settler Stephen F. Austin had a peaceful meeting with Coco Indians. They warned him against going where the Karankawa lived. Later that night, Austin wrote in his diary that these Indians will have to be "exterminated". Despite the warnings, in 1823, Austin founded a settlement in Karankawan territory. The settlers eventually exterminated the Karankawa, with incidents including the Skull Creek Massacre and the Dressing Point Massacre. The tribe sided with Mexico in the Texas War of Independence. In that war, Karankawa chief Jose Maria and most of his 20 warriors were killed.

In the year 1840, some observers claimed that 100 karakawa remained.[citation needed] In 1858, it was rumored that the last of the Karankawa known bands had been killed in an attack of settlers led by Juan Nepomuceno Cortina. This has been disputed by historians.[citation needed]

On September 7, 2009, The Brownsville Herald reported that Enrique Villarreal Del Toro III, a 65-year-old man from Brownsville, Texas, claimed to be the last descendant of the Karankawa people. He claimed descent from a band who had retreated into a secluded area called El Gato, south of what is now Alamo and Donna, Texas. He said that both his maternal grandfather and paternal grandmother were full-blooded Karankawa. Experts said it was unlikely that he was Karankawa, although he could be of Native American descent.[11]


  1. ^ a b Fogelson 2004, p. 659
  2. ^ Newcomb 1961, p. 79
  3. ^ Himmel 1999[page needed]
  4. ^ a b c "Karankawa Indian Tribe History." Access Genealogy.
  5. ^ Newcomb 1961, p. 77
  6. ^ Newcomb 1961, p. 327
  7. ^ De Solis, Fray Gaspar José. Diary, 1767. (Op.cit. "Karankawa".)
  8. ^ Himmel 1999, p. 20
  9. ^ Fogelson 2004, p. 6
  10. ^ Rickliss, Robert. The Karankawa Indians of Texas: An Ecological Study of Cultural Tradition and Change, University of Texas Press. Austin: 1996. p. vii
  11. ^ Travis M. Whitehead, "Calling all Karankawas: Man claims to be descendant of native tribe"[permanent dead link], The Brownsville Herald,7 September 2009, reprinted in The Monitor"


External links

  • E. Dan Klepper, "Written in Smoke: The mysterious Karankawa tribe wore facial tattoos, wrestled competitively and sent letters through the sky", Texas Parks and Wildlife magazine, 2005
  • Lipscomb, Carol A. (May 10, 2016). "Karankawa Indians". Handbook of Texas (online ed.). Texas State Historical Association. 
  • The Karankawa Indians, the Coast People of Texas, 1891, hosted by Portal to Texas History
  • Travis M. Whitehead, "Calling all Karankawas: Man claims to be descendant of native tribe"[permanent dead link], The Brownsville Herald, 7 September 2009, reprinted in The Monitor"
  • [1], "Nuestra Señora del Refugio (41RF1) Refugio County, Texas", 2002 Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) and Center for Archaeological Research, The University of Texas at San Antonio (CAR–UTSA)
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