Joseph María (unknown–1789)

By: Tim Seiter

Type: Biography

Published: October 30, 2019

Updated: February 24, 2021

Joseph María was the most prominent Karankawa figure during the Spanish-Karankawa war in the late eighteenth century. He united different Karankawa Peoples, he sparked the abandonment of Nuestra Señora del Rosario Mission, and he demonstrated that the Karankawas held the most outstanding power on the Texas Coastal Bend.

Of the Guapite tribe of Karankawas, Joseph María grew up in and out of Mission Rosario where he learned the Catholic faith and Spanish language. In the mid-1770s the presidial captain Luis Cazorla imprisoned Joseph María, because the Guapite leader slaughtered a cow without Friar Joaquín de Escobar’s permission. After being imprisoned for an undisclosed amount of time, Joseph María escaped to the coast where he led a band of apostate Native Peoples on raids against the presidio La Bahía and the missions of Rosario and Nuestra Señora del Espíritu Santo de Zúñiga. The Spaniards responded by sending expeditions, unsuccessful and punitive in design, that targeted all Karankawas, not just those of Joseph María’s band.

In March 1778 Joseph María and eleven other Karankawas killed all the members, save one, of Luis Antonio Andry’s nautical expedition that was mapping Texas’s bays. The Karankawas’ murder of shipwrecked personnel had become normalized on the Texas coast and exemplifies what little power the Spanish had in the region and how harvesting these shipwrecks served as a valuable source of trade goods for the Karankawas.

On July 25, 1778, with a substantial amount of rifles, bullets, and powder acquired from Andry’s ship, Joseph María and his apostate group forced the abandonment of Mission Rosario. Twenty-two out of thirty-one remaining neophytes decided to accompany Joseph María to the coast. The captain of La Bahía, with fifty-seven men, sallied after the fleeing Karankawas, but Joseph María’s forces ambushed the chasing party, killed one pursuer, and caused the rest of the Spanish troops to retreat. Three months later, the governor of Texas, Barón de Ripperdá, granted a pardon for the neophytes—excluding Joseph María and his companion, Matheo—but the runaway American Indians remained on the impenetrable coast.

The Spanish saw Joseph María as the primary agitator among the coastal American Indians and believed that his death would result in the rest of the Karankawas returning to “civilized” life. Accordingly, the Spaniards concocted all manner of plans to apprehend or assassinate the fugitive. They requested fake peace talks with the Karankawa leader but planned to hang Joseph María as soon as he appeared; they implored other Karankawa chiefs to capture and imprison him; they jailed his brother, José Luis, as leverage; and they even discussed having a ship full of soldiers feign a shipwreck to lure the apostate Karankawas into a trap. Yet, Joseph María remained out of the Spaniards’ reach, and the conflict between the colonizers and the Karankawas increased, as did their suspicion toward each other. Most significantly, the Karankawas suspected that the Spaniards sought their absolute annihilation. These suspicions were well-founded. The Spanish attempted at least three different extermination plans. Each failed.

War with the Karankawas was a major detriment to the Spaniards. Primarily, it contributed to the near total collapse of a Spanish presence in Texas from 1780 to 1785. It also devoured much-needed manpower and left the citizens of La Bahía paralyzed, unable to tend to their cattle and fields. And when presidials made their expeditions against the Karankawas, a lack of watercraft meant that they could never follow the American Indians through the maze-like bay systems to attack the Karankawas on their islands. Often Spanish patrols would spot the coastal American Indians off-shore in their canoes and shout at them to come to shore so they could properly enact their punishment. Joseph María and other Karankawa chiefs further confounded the Spanish patrols by employing elaborate smoke signals and using information from Native Peoples living in La Bahía and Espiritu Santo to learn troop movements. Moreover, the Karankawas traded their weaponry directly and indirectly to other American Indian groups opposing the Spaniards—which bolstered the pressure on the Spanish elsewhere across Texas and which limited reinforcements to La Bahía.

Following an abundance of successful raids and skirmishes against the Spaniards, including another massacre of a shipwreck, Joseph María’s influence among the Karankawas flourished. His marriage with the daughter of a prominent “Carancaguazes” chief that the Spaniards labeled “Capitan Grande” allowed him to unify even more disparate Karankawas. Nevertheless, war was as analogously costly for the Karankawas as for the Spaniards. The Spanish barred other Native groups from trading with the Karankawas and implored their allies to attack the coastal peoples. And although the repeated week-long Spanish forays to the bays may have been consistently fruitless in terms of bodies, they nonetheless limited the Karankawas’ ability to hunt large game on the mainland. European goods that once were reliably-acquired from the missions and presidios now had to be acquired through middlemen, including the Akokisas, Bidais, Cocos, and Mayeyes. And lastly, a large-scale outbreak of disease in late 1780 ravaged Texas’s First Peoples and killed an untold number of Karankawas.

Therefore in 1780 and 1781 Joseph María, with the backing of other Karankawa chiefs, probed the Spanish to cease hostilities. Domingo Cabello y Robles, governor of Texas, knew that peace was greatly advantageous, but thought the Karankawas incapable of keeping their word because they had “experienced no persecution or punishment whatsoever by the armed forces.” Cabello believed that accepting peace without a show of force against the coastal American Indians signified weakness of the Spanish forces. Commandant general Teodoro de Croix, saw that the Spanish forces in Texas were, in fact, weak and implored Cabello to explore the option of reconciliation with the Karankawas, but upon Croix’s promotion as Viceroy of Peru, the rumblings of peace were brushed away in favor of continued war. From 1782 to 1786 hostilities persisted. Stock continued to be stolen, fear continued to entrance citizens, and the Karankawas remained the dominant coastal power.

When Rafael Martínez Pacheco became the interim governor of Texas in 1786, the war drastically shifted. Martínez Pacheco believed the best way to end American Indian hostilities was through gift-giving, or more accurately, annual tribute. He showed the effectiveness of this policy by first making peace with the Apaches, then the Norteños, and then by reinforcing the peace with the Comanches through the aid of Pedro (Pierre) Vial. After stabilizing Texas’s northern frontier, Martínez Pacheco turned his attention to the war between the Spanish and the Karankawas. While keeping his belligerent superior Juan de Ugalde in the dark, Martínez Pacheco sent four mission American Indians from San Antonio to make contact with Joseph María, to offer the Karankawas a pardon, and to extend an invitation to discuss reconciliation in San Antonio.

On June 26, 1787, Joseph María and nine prominent Karankawas representing the Guapites, the Cujanes, and the Carancahuas visited San Antonio. In a sudden reversal from having been bitter enemies, Martínez Pacheco wrote, “They were greeted with such rejoicing at this capital that they seemed to be long lost sons of our people.” After being ladened with gifts by Martínez, Joseph María made his own demonstrations of goodwill by giving speeches in Castilian Spanish, by confessing to the parish priest, and then by taking Communion.

In the fourteen-day-long discussions with the Spanish governor, Joseph María and the other Karankawa chiefs intended to end Spanish sorties, to regain access to Spanish missions, and to open up trade opportunities with the Spanish. Martínez Pacheco agreed on all three counts, and in exchange, he wanted the Karankawas to relocate from the coast to the mainland. Joseph María gave a faux agreement, only fully complying with having a royal engineer named Angel Anglino accompany the peace party back to Karankawas’ territory with twelve Spanish soldiers to map their bays. That the Spaniards still needed accurate maps of the Karankawas’ lands after more than 100 years in Texas is further testament to the Karankawas’ control of the coast.

By late July 1787 Angel Anglino’s mapping expedition on the Gulf Coast had gone according to plan. This altered when Joseph María ordered his wife to accompany him back to San Antonio for the second round of peace talks with Martínez Pacheco. She refused. Joseph María became angry. The Karankawas then became angry at Joseph María. With arguments escalating, the commanding officer of the Spanish soldiers, Pedro Perez, stepped in with his troops to calm the situation. An intoxicated Karankawa named Chepitto walked behind Pedro Perez and shot and killed him. A skirmish between the Karankawas and Spanish ensued, resulting in two Karankawas deaths and the Spaniards fleeing to La Bahía.

The death of Pedro Perez revitalized the Spanish-Karankawan war. Martínez Pacheco’s superior Ugalde thought him incompetent and foolish in attempting to deal with these coastal peoples and read the death of Perez as another ploy by Joseph María to murder Spaniards. But the Karankawas gained nothing from the death of Perez. For the past six years they had made repeated overtures of peace, Angel Anglino had toured their lands without the least bit of trouble until the unfortunate conflict, and these same Karankawas agreed on an identical peace treaty a year and a half later. Nevertheless, Ugalde saw Joseph María as “a traitor whom there were infinite reasons to distrust” and ordered an expedition to “domesticate or wipe out once and for all” the Karankawas.

The cycle of violence began anew. In February 1789 the Spaniards finally scored their first major success in battle. After the Karankawas killed three inhabitants around La Bahía, the captain of the presidio gathered ninety-two troops and attacked roughly 400 Karankawas at the convergence of the San Antonio and Guadalupe rivers (near present-day Tivoli). Initially surrounded by the Karankawas, the Spaniards drove the Native Peoples back, and then both sides retreated. The Spaniards had two men wounded. The Karankawas had eleven killed.

Commandant general Ugalde, overjoyed at the news of battle, pressed for continued attacks on the Karankawas and reiterated that peace was not an option. Nevertheless, in October 1789 an emissary named Manuel Delgado representing the Copane Chief Balthasar came to La Bahía and requested peace on behalf of multiple Karankawa tribes. Martínez Pacheco went against Ugalde’s orders, opened up talks with the Karankawas, and ultimately agreed on peace.

This peace was precariously achieved. One of the foremost challenges to the peace talks came in December 1789 when a rumor spread that “that the Spanish had captured José María and his son through treachery, bound them, and shot them to death.” Because Sgt. Antonio Treviño happened to be in Joseph María’s father-in-law’s settlement at the time, the rumor was squashed. Treviño explained that the Apaches (“Lipán Indians”) had killed Joseph María and his son—not the Spaniards. How, where, and why the Apaches killed Joseph María and his son are unknown.

War between the Karankawas and the Spanish ended with the reestablishment of the Rosario Mission in 1789 and the founding of the Nuestra Señora del Refugio Mission in 1793. Joseph María sparked the conflict more than a decade earlier, and by uniting discordant Karankawa tribes, asserted his control over the Spaniards. Although Joseph María attacked the Spanish, he did not intend to rid them from the coastal plains, rather, he wanted to continue using the Spaniards as a resource. The Guapite leader derived a portion of his power from his enemy. His familiarity with the Spaniards’ customs and language gave him a diplomatic and military edge when compared to other Karankawa leaders. And the Spaniards, inclined to cloak their worldview over other Native Peoples, unknowingly reinforced Joseph María’s authority by treating him as the centralized leader for all of the Karankawas. After Pedro Perez’s disastrous death, Joseph María lost his influence, and other Karankawa leaders, such as Chief Balthasar, stepped into the position created by Joseph María to win peace with the Spaniards.

Bexar Archives, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, the University of Texas at Austin. Herbert Eugene Bolton, ed. and trans., Athanase de Mézières and the Louisiana-Texas Frontier, 1768–1780 (2 vols., Cleveland: Arthur H. Clark, 1914). Kelly F. Himmel, The Conquest of the Karankawa and the Tonkawas, 1821–1859 (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1999). Elizabeth A. H. John, Storms Brewed in Other Men’s Worlds, the Confrontation of Indians, Spanish, and French in the Southwest, 1540–1795 (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1975). Lawrence Kinnaird, Spain in the Mississippi Valley, 1765–1794, Translations of Materials from the Spanish Archives in the Bancroft Library, Part II: Post War Decade, 1782–1791 (Washington: United States Government Printing Offices, 1949). 

  • Peoples
  • Native American
  • Chiefs and Other Leaders
Time Periods:
  • Spanish Texas

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

Tim Seiter, “Joseph María,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed July 05, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

October 30, 2019
February 24, 2021

This entry belongs to the following Handbook Special Projects: