Atakapa Indians

By: Dorothy Couser

Type: General Entry

Published: 1976

Updated: July 1, 1995

The Atakapa (Attakapa, Attacapa) Indians, including such subgroups as the Akokisas and Deadoses, occupied the coastal and bayou areas of southwestern Louisiana and southeastern Texas until the early 1800s. Such groups as the Akokisas and Deadoses lived west of the lower Neches River, while the Atakapas proper occupied the territory east of the lower Neches extending into Louisiana. Archeological studies of this area suggest that settlements have been present since before American Indians learned to make pottery, about the time of the birth of Christ. Atakapa means "eaters of men" in Choctaw, but the question has been raised whether the Atakapas' cannibalism was for subsistence or ritual. Village chiefs in the mid-1700s included Canoe, El Gordo, Mateo, and Calzones Colorados. Atakapan society consisted of loose bands that moved from place to place within a set area or territory gathering, hunting, and fishing. The alligator was important to them, for it provided meat, oil, and hides. The oil of the alligator was used as insect repellent. The Atakapan language has fascinated linguists and is among the better-recorded Indian languages. In 1721 Jean Béranger recorded and analyzed the language of nine Akokisas, members of a group closely associated with the Atakapas proper. Studies done in the 1920s by John R. Swanton and Albert Gatschet led to the Smithsonian publication A Dictionary of the Atakapa Language in 1932. Swanton and Gatschet associated the Atakapas with the Tunican Indians of the lower Mississippi River. Some later linguists have abandoned this linkage and classified Atakapan as an isolated language.

The bands of the Atakapas, including the Akokisas, were reported to have engaged in some type of trade not only with other Indians but also with the French and Spanish. Evidence indicates that the Hans people, whom Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca encountered in 1528, may have been part of the Atakapan group. French contact was established after François Simars de Bellisle found himself stranded among the Akokisas in 1719. French exploration and trade of Atakapan territory continued throughout the early 1700s. The Spanish responded to the French presence on the Texas coast by establishing a series of missions along the San Gabriel River. The mission of San Ildefonso was briefly home to a number of Atakapas from the Deadose, which as a whole the Spanish had little success in converting. The San Xavier missions were abandoned in 1755.

Much of what is known about the Atakapas' appearance and culture comes from eighteenth and nineteenth century European descriptions and drawings. They were said to have been short, dark, and stout. Their clothing included breechclouts and buffalo hides. They did not practice polygamy or incest. Their customs included the use of wet bark for baby carriers and Spanish moss for diapers. Customarily, a father would rename himself at the birth of his first son or if the son became famous. In the Atakapan creation myth, man was said to have been cast up from the sea in an oyster shell. The Atakapas also believed that men who died from snakebite and those who had been eaten by other men were denied life after death, a creed that may give support to the idea that they practiced ritual cannibalism. With the coming of the Europeans, the ranks of the Atakapas thinned rapidly. According to Swanton, there were 3,500 in 1698 and only 175 in Louisiana in 1805. By 1908 there were only nine known descendants. Their demise was primarily caused by the invasion of European diseases rather than through direct confrontations with European settlers.

Lawrence E. Aten, Indians of the Upper Texas Coast (New York: Academic Press, 1983). Lyle Campbell and Marianne Mithune, eds., The Languages of Native America: Historical and Comparative Assessment (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1979). Joseph O. Dyer, The Lake Charles Atakapas (Cannibals) Period of 1817 to 1820 (Galveston, 1917). Henri Folmer, "De Bellisle on the Texas Coast," Southwestern Historical Quarterly 44 (October 1940). William W. Newcomb, The Indians of Texas (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1961).
  • Peoples
  • Native American
  • Tribes (Major)

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Dorothy Couser, “Atakapa Indians,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed June 25, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

July 1, 1995