Karankawa Indians

By: Carol A. Lipscomb

Revised by: Tim Seiter

Type: General Entry

Published: 1976

Updated: November 13, 2020

The Karankawa Indians are an American Indian cultural group whose traditional homelands are located along Texas’s Gulf Coast from Galveston Bay southwestwardly to Corpus Christi Bay. The name Karankawa became the accepted designation for several groups of coastal people who shared a common language and culture. Those groups, identified in early historic times, included the Carancahuas, Coapites, Cocos, Cujanes, and Copanes. All of these Indians spoke a language called Karankawan, of which around 500 words are preserved. The significance of the name Karankawa has not been definitely established, although it is generally believed to mean "dog-lovers" or "dog-raisers." That translation seems plausible, since the Karankawas reportedly kept dogs that were described as a fox-like or coyote-like breed. The Karankawas were a nomadic people who migrated seasonally between the barrier islands and the mainland. Their movements were dictated primarily by the availability of food. They obtained this food by a combination of hunting, fishing, and gathering. Bison, deer, and fish, were staples of the Karankawa diet, but a wide variety of animals and plants contributed to their sustenance.

The Karankawas’ principal means of transportation was the dugout canoe, a watercraft made by hollowing out the trunk of a large tree. Those dugouts, unsuited for deep, open water, were used primarily in the relatively shallow waters between the islands and the mainland. Each canoe was spacious enough to carry an entire family along with their household goods. The Karankawas also traveled overland by foot, and were often described as powerful runners, as well as expert swimmers. Upon the Spaniards’ introduction of horses, these coastal Indians maintained their own herds along the coast.

A portable wigwam, or ba-ak, provided shelter for the coastal people. Large enough to accommodate seven or eight people, the structure consisted of a willow pole frame that was covered with animal skins and rush mats. Karankawas crafted baskets and pottery, both of which were often lined with asphaltum, a natural tar substance found on Gulf Coast beaches. The chief weapon of the tribe, for both hunting and warfare, was the long bow and arrow. Bows were made of red cedar and reached from the eye or chin level to the foot of the bearer. Controlling most of Texas’s shallow bays and coastline, the Karankawas also acquired guns from shipwrecks or by raiding passing vessels.

Karankawas were known for their distinctive physical appearance. In the sixteenth and seventeenth century the men were described as tall and muscular, and during the summer wore deerskin breechcloths or nothing at all. Come winter, these Indians donned buffalo and deer robes for warmth. They painted and tattooed their bodies, and also pierced the nipples of each breast and the lower lip with small pieces of cane. They often smeared their bodies with a mixture of mud and alligator or shark grease to ward off mosquitoes. Women also painted and tattooed their bodies and wore skirts of Spanish moss or animal skin that reached to the knees. The social and political organization of the Karankawas was determined by their nomadic lifestyle. While the Karankawas traveled in small bands of around fifty kinsmen headed by a chief during most of the year to facilitate optimal hunting and foraging, those bands converged into much larger groups of five-hundred plus individuals around winter when food was most plentiful. A well-developed system of smoke signals enabled scattered groups to come together for social events, warfare, or other purposes.

Karankawa ceremonialism centered around gatherings which the Spaniards’ labeled "mitotes." The ceremonies often included dances and the consumption of intoxicating beverages brewed from the parched leaves and berries of the yaupon (Ilex cassine or vomitoria), a small shrublike tree native to south Texas. One observer in the sixteenth century witnessed that the "black drink" was consumed exclusively by the men of the tribe. The Karankawas also participated in competitive games demonstrating weapons skills or physical prowess. Wrestling was so popular among Karankawas that neighboring tribes referred to them as the "Wrestlers." Warfare was a fact of life for the Karankawas, and evidence indicates that the tribe practiced a ceremonial cannibalism prior to the eighteenth-century that involved eating the flesh of their traditional enemies. That custom, widespread among most Texas tribes during that era, involved consuming bits and pieces of the flesh of dead enemies as the ultimate revenge or as a magical means of capturing the enemy's courage. In later years, Europeans and Anglo-Americans utilized the Karankawas’ cannibalism as justification for annihilating them, despite the Karankawas having seemingly ceased the practice in the eighteenth century.

The Karankawas' entrance into the historical record in 1528 represents the first recorded contact between Europeans and American Indians in Texas. Two small boats carrying survivors of the ill-fated Spanish expedition of Pánfilo de Narváez landed on a small island to the west of Galveston Island. That island, named Malhado, or Isle of Misfortune, by the Spanish, was inhabited by Karankawa speakers. The written account of Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, one of those shipwrecked survivors, provides our earliest knowledge of these coastal people. Cabeza de Vaca lived among those hunting and gathering groups for several years and provided invaluable ethnological accounts of those Native Americans. After Cabeza de Vaca's encounter with them, the Karankawas were not substantially visited again by Europeans for more than a century and a half. In 1685 a French expedition, led by René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, established Fort St. Louis on Garcitas Creek near Matagorda Bay, in the heart of Karankawa country. When the French settlers’ ship Aimable broke apart on Matagorda Bay in February 1685, the Karankawas acquired some debris from the wreckage. Hoping to reclaim the goods taken by the Karankawas, La Salle sent a party of aggressive Frenchmen to the Karankawas’ campsite where they retrieved their merchandise and stole canoes and other items. Armed conflict between the two groups broke out thereafter. Suffering from repeated attacks by the Karankawas, La Salle and a contingent of men set out for Canada to find help for the struggling colony. That help never came. La Salle’s own men murdered him on the expedition north, and in 1689, after an outbreak of smallpox on the Gulf Coast, the Karankawas attacked the remaining settlers at Fort Saint Louis and killed all but six children who were taken captive. Those children, four of whom were members of the Talon family, were later rescued by Spanish expeditions in the early 1690s. Two of the former captives, Pierre and Jean-Baptiste Talon, were returned to France in 1698 where they were interrogated by French officials (see TALON CHILDREN). The resulting transcript provides valuable information on Karankawa culture in the late seventeenth century.

In the early years of the eighteenth century, French interest in the Texas coast was rekindled, and Karankawa country again became the center of Spanish-French rivalry. In 1721 a French land expedition, led by Jean Baptiste Bénard de La Harpe, approached Karankawa territory. In response to that French incursion, the Spanish established Nuestra Señora de Loreta Presidio and Espíritu Santo de Zúñiga Mission near the site of former Fort St. Louis. Because of their locations near Matagorda Bay, both became known as La Bahía. The mission was established specifically to civilize and Christianize the Karankawas and make them loyal Spanish subjects, but hostilities between the two parties quickly developed when the captain of La Bahía detained some Karankawas that attempted to flee the settlement into a hut and fired a cannon at them. The cannonball missed and a Karankawa ultimately killed the captain with a half-pair of shears. By 1726 no neophytes remained at La Bahía, and the fort and the mission were moved to the Guadalupe River where they remained until 1749. At that time, they were relocated to the San Antonio River near present Goliad.

Despite the lack of success at La Bahía, the Spanish continued their efforts to missionize the Karankawas for the dual purposes of subduing the tribe and establishing a permanent hold on the Texas coast. In 1754 a new mission, Nuestra Señora del Rosario de los Cujanes, was established for the Karankawas on the San Antonio River, upstream from La Bahía. Rosario Mission enjoyed some success, and in 1764 it boasted a neophyte population of 101. That success was short-lived.

In 1779, the Karankawa-Spanish War erupted after Indian leader Joseph María assaulted the Andry expedition and he liberated around ten Karankawa families from Mission Rosario. While most Karankawas preferred peace—the war being spurred on by a small contingent of individuals—the Spaniards saw the conflict as a ripe opportunity to gain control of the Karankawas’ lands and open up access to the Texas coast. The Castilians predicted an easy victory. Instead, the war dragged on for more than a decade and resulted in three failed attempts at genocide led by Athanse de Mézières, Nicholas de La Mathe, and Domingo Cabello y Robles. When a smallpox pandemic ravaged Texas in 1780, the Karankawas sued for peace, but were repeatedly refused until interim-Governor Rafael Martínez Pacheco took control of Texas, defied the orders of his superior, and negotiated a ceasefire with the coastal tribes around 1790. By war’s end, the Karankawas remained in control of their territory and the Spanish agreed to build a new mission, Nuestra Señora del Refugio. The mission relocated three times, but was finally situated at Rancho de Santa Gertrudis, near the site of present Refugio. A reported 190 mixed Karankawas and Coahuiltecans occupied Refugio Mission in 1814, but by the early 1820s repeated Comanche attacks had caused the virtual depopulation of that mission. The two struggling Karankawa missions (Refugio and Rosario) continued to operate until they were secularized in 1830 and 1831.

An 1819 confrontation with Jean Laffite's pirate colony on Galveston Island marked the next major conflict for the Karankawas. The incident reportedly occurred when Laffite's men kidnapped a Karankawa woman, and the tribe retaliated by assembling a reported 300 warriors to attack the pirate compound. Laffite's force of 200 men armed with two cannons inflicted heavy losses on the Indians and forced them to retreat.     

Mexico won independence from Spain in 1821, and the new government encouraged Anglo-American immigration to the sparsely populated province of Texas. As settlers entered the Karankawas’ land, confrontations became frequent. Mexican authorities attempted to protect the colonists by making peace with the Karankawas, but their efforts were unsuccessful. The colonists, spurred by empresario Stephen F. Austin, banded together to rid themselves of the Indian threat. Austin was convinced that extermination provided the only acceptable solution to the Karankawa problem, and in 1824, he personally led an expedition of some fifteen men and encouraged the colonists to attack American Indians. This ultimately drove the Karankawas to seek sanctuary at La Bahía. A priest at the mission arranged an armistice between the two groups. According to terms of the agreement, the Karankawas, led by Chief Antonito, agreed to remain west of the Lavaca River. That treaty was renewed in 1827 by empresario Green DeWitt and two Karankawa chiefs, Antonito and Delgado.

As Anglo settlers flooded coastal Texas, the Karankawas’ time-worn subsistence strategies were increasingly threatened. Small groups subsequently attached themselves to individual settlers, such as Phillip Dimmitt, who could provide protection against marauding colonizers in exchange for work and trade.  On the eve of the Texas Revolution, both Mexicans and Anglo-Texans sought Indian neutrality, but the Karankawas’ loyalties to specific settlers, who had their own various loyalties, proved troublesome. The governments of Mexican Texas and the Republic of Texas regarded the Karankawas as enemies, and although no Karankawas deaths are directly attributed to military actions during the rebellion, their status as hostile inhabitants encouraged subsequent exterminations.

By the conclusion of the Texas Revolution, port towns, ranches, and roads engulfed the Karankawas’ landscape. Prominent businessmen, including the well-known James Power, promoted the annihilation of the coastal tribes. Anglo-Texans utilized propaganda popularized since to the seventeenth century to legitimize massacres. By the 1840s only scattered remnants of the culture remained along the Texas coast. Disinformation about the Karankawas remains in circulation, including descriptions as seven-foot-tall giants.

Generally, Karankawas either incorporated themselves into the colonizers’ society, integrated into other Native American groups, or moved south to Tamaulipas, Mexico, to escape pressure from the growing Texan population. Karankawas encountered similar problems south of the Rio Grande. Accused of plundering settlements in the Reynosa area, the tribe came under continued attack from Mexican authorities. By the late 1850s these Karankawas had been pushed back into Texas, where they settled in the vicinity of Rio Grande City. Local residents did not welcome the tribe, and in 1858 a Texan force, led by Juan Nepomuceno Cortina, attacked that small band of Karankawas. Following that defeat, the coastal Texas tribe was considered extinct, but surviving Karankawas across the Gulf Coast retained and passed down aspects of their culture generation after generation. In the twenty-first century, the Karankawa Kadla (mixed Karankawas) formed to gather and organize individuals who identified as being partially Karankawa. The Karankawa Kadla has since revitalized the Karankawan language, worked with local authorities to protect burial sites, and developed education programs that combat traditional Anglo education. After centuries of strife, Karankawas remain on their homelands as a persistent people.

Martin A. Favata and José B. Fernández, The Account: Núñez Cabeza de Vaca's Relación (Houston: Arte Público Press, 1993). Albert S. Gatschet, The Karankawa Indians, the Coast People of Texas (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Peabody Museum of American Archaeology and Ethnology, 1891). Dina Hadley, Thomas Naylor, and Mardith Schuetz-Miller, The Presidio and Militia on the Northern Frontier of New Spain: A Documentary History, Volume Two, Part Two (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1997). William W. Newcomb, The Indians of Texas (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1961). Richard P. Schaedel, "The Karankawa of the Texas Gulf Coast," Southwestern Journal of Anthropology 5 (1949). Robert S. Weddle et al., eds., La Salle, the Mississippi, and the Gulf: Three Primary Documents (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1987). Robert Ricklis, The Karankawa Indians of Texas (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996). Béxar Archives, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, the University of Texas at Austin. Kelly F. Himmel, The Conquest of the Karankawas and the Tonkawas, 1821-1859 (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1999). William C. Foster, Spanish Expeditions into Texas, 1689-1768 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1995). Frank Wagner, ed., Béranger’s Discovery of Aransas Pass: A Translation of Jean Beranger's French Manuscript (Corpus Christi: Friends of the Corpus Christi Museum, 1983). Robert S. Weddle, The French Thorn: Rival Explorers in the Spanish Sea, 1682-1762 (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1991).

  • Peoples
  • Native American
  • Tribes (Major)

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

Carol A. Lipscomb Revised by Tim Seiter, “Karankawa Indians,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed July 02, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/karankawa-indians.

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November 13, 2020