Karankawa Indians. A term that seems to have the Brazos in 1823 began the decline of been given originally to a small tribe near the tribe near Matagorda Bay, Texas, but its application has been extended to include a number of related tribes between Galveston Bay and Padre Island. The signification of the name has not been ascertained. Although the linguistic material obtained is not sufficient to show positive relation to any other language, there are very strong indications of affinity with the dialects of the Pakawa group, Pakawa Comecrudo, and Cotonam, still recognized as a part of the Coahuiltecan family. On the other side they were probably connected with the Tonkawa. If any of the coast tribes mentioned by Cabeza de Vaca was identical with the Karankawa, which is not unlikely, it is impossible to determine the fact. The first positive notice of them is found in the accounts of La Salle’s ill-fated visit to that section. It was on Matagorda Bay, in the country of the tribe at that time, that this French explorer built his Ft. St. Louis. Joutel (1687) mentions them under the name Koïenkahé, probably a misprint for Korenkake, which is also given. They are represented as living at that time chiefly between St Louis bay (a part of Matagorda Bay) and Maligne (Colorado) River, but are the Indians, though mentioned under the name Clamcöets, who massacred all except 5 of the people left by La Salle at his fort in 1687. If the Ebahamo, Hebobiamos, Bahamos, or Bracamos were identical with the Karankawa or with a portion of the tribe, which is probable, they were living on St Louis or St Bernard Bay in 1707, and are noticed as living at the same place in 1719-21. Their abode is spoken of as an island or peninsula in St Bernard Bay.
It appears from documents in the Texas archives that in 1793 a part of the Karankawa had become Christianized and were then living at the mission of Nuestra Señora del Refugio, established in 1791 at the mouth of Mission river emptying into Aransas Bay. The pagan portion of the tribe lived at that time contiguous to the Lipan. Later a number of the tribe were living at the mission of Espíritu Santo de Zúñiga. According to Orozco y Berra the territory of the Lipan near the lower Rio Grande bordered that occupied by the Karankawa in 1796. An incident in the history of the tribe was a fierce battle with Lafitte’s band of pirates in consequence of the abduction of one of their women by one of the former; the Indians, however, were forced to retreat before the heavy fire of the buccaneers.
With the settlement made by Stephen Austin on the Brazos in 1823 began the decline of the tribe. Conflicts between the settlers and the Indians were frequent, and finally a battle was fought in which about half the tribe were slain, the other portion fleeing for refuge to La Bahia presidio on San Antonio river. They took sides with the Americans in the Texan War of Independence, in which their chief, Jose Maria, was killed, as were most of his warriors, amounting, however, to only about 20.
Mention is made of 10 or 12 families living between 1839 and 1851 on Aransas Bay and Nueces River. According to Bonnell the Karankawa in 1840 had become reduced to 100, living on Lavaca Bay. In 1844, having murdered one of the whites on Guadalupe River, they fled toward the mouth of the Rio Grande, one part stopping on Padre Island and the other passing into Mexico. But few references are made to them after this date, and these are conflicting. A report quoted by Gatschet says the history of these Indians terminates with an attack made on them in 1858 by Juan Nepomuceno Cortina with other rancheros, when they were surprised at their hiding place in Texas and exterminated.
The men are described as very tall and well formed, the women as shorter and fleshier. Their hair was unusually coarse, and worn so long by many of the men that it reached to the waist. Agriculture was not practiced by these Indians, their food supply being obtained from the waters, the chase, and wild plants, and, to a limited extent, human flesh; for, like most of the tribes of the Texas coast, they were cannibals. Travel among them was almost wholly by the canoe, or dugout, for they seldom left the coast. Head flattening and tattooing were practiced to a considerable extent. Little is known is regard to their tribal government, further than that they had civil and war chiefs, the former being hereditary in the male line.
The following tribes or villages were probably Karankawan:
The following tribes or villages were in the country of the Karankawa, but whether linguistically connected. with them is not certain:
- Las Mulas
- San Francisco
A family established by Powell on the language of the Karankawa tribe as determined by Gatschet. Although this and the related tribes are extinct, investigation has led to the conclusion that the Coaque, Ebahamo, and other tribes or settlements of the Texas coast mentioned under Karankawa should be included in the family.
For Further Study
The following articles and manuscripts will shed additional light on the Karankawa as both an ethnological study, and as a people.
- Gatschet, Karankawa Indians, 1891.
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