Karankawa people

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Wohngebiet Karankawa.png
Total population
(a tribe,
Unknown number of descendants.)
Regions with significant populations
United States United States (Texas Texas)
Karankawa language
traditional tribal religion
Related ethnic groups
possibly Coahuiltecan and Tonkawa

Karankawa (also Karankawan,Carancahua, Clamcoëhs, and called in their language Auia) was a tribe of Native Americans, now a tribal group, who played a pivotal part in early Texas history.

The term Karankawa persisted and has been popularly applied to a group of Native American tribes who have a common dialect and culture. These people can be more specifically identified as the Capoques[1] (Cocos), Kohanis, Kopanes, Kronks, and Karankawa (Carancaquacas) bands. They inhabited the Gulf Coast of Texas from Galveston Bay in the present-day Greater Houston area, then south toward Corpus Christi Bay.

Exposure to new infectious diseases, loss of control over territory, conflict with the newly arrived Europeans, and war brought them to lose their land before 1860.


The Karankawa language, of which only about a hundred words are preserved, cannot be classified, 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 Karankawas had dogs,which 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 with 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 travelled the coastal bays with the seasons. They ate oysters, clams, shellfish, black drum, redfish, spotted seatrout and the other abundant species of fish in the nutrient rich waters. During the summer months and hot weather, the oysters, clams and other shellfish are not safe to eat and the fish make an annual migration out of the pass. During this period, tribal bands would migrate inland. Moving back from the damage of summer tropical storms and hurricanes was another reason for their yearly migration. Historic accounts tell of Karankawas encountered as far inland as Colorado County at Eagle Lake, close to 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 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 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 ceremonial black drink. The men drank it in quantity for psychoactive effects by its caffeine.[2]


The Karankawa were a heavily tattooed, pierced, and painted nomadic people. 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 were tattooed and wore shell ornaments. Many greased their bodies with alligator oil[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.[4]


According to some sources, the Karankawa practiced ritual cannibalism of blood enemies, in common with other coastal tribes of Texas and Louisiana.[4] In 1768, a Spanish priest wrote an account of the Karankawa ritual ceremonies. He portrayed the Karankawa as believing that eating the captive's flesh would transfer the captive's power and strength to those who consumed him. 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.

However, Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, a Spanish conquistador who lived among the Karankawa for several years in the 1530s made no mention of cannibalism. To the contrary, Cabeza De Vaca acknowledged that he and his fellow Spanish conquistadors committed acts of cannibalism on their own to stay alive after shipwrecking off Galveston Bay. The Karankawa (or possibly the Atakapa) 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 by at least some of their sub-tribes.[6]

Gender roles

One unusual aspect of the Karankawa culture was their distinction in having 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]), and generally took on female roles and activities in daily life, while playing a special role in religious rites. According to some accounts, the berdache were passive sexual partners for the other males.[8]

Housing and location

The Karankawa used willow saplings and animal skins to make huts, sometimes known as wikiups. They often built 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 their neighbors. They stayed by the coast in the winter and moved further inland in summer, when fish moved into deep water and clams were not safe to eat.


Speculation on origins

Scholars have speculated that the Karankawas were descended from a group of Carib Indians who arrived by sea from the Caribbean basin in the seventeenth century. This is based on the appearance of the Karankawa, who were reported to be taller than other Indians in the region and similar in appearance to the Carib, as well as sharing certain cultural practices such as cannibalism. Unsupported linguistic studies 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

The Karankawa people were living a nomadic existence in 1697 when they first encountered Spaniards, led by Alonso Álvarez de Pineda, who were surveying the coast. Governor Francisco de Garay of Jamaica had commissioned de Pineda to explore the Gulf Coast from Florida to Veracruz. In 1528, one of the two barges belonging to the Pánfilo de Narváez expedition struck aground at Galveston Island, and the survivors, including Cabeza de Vaca, were cared for by the Capoques band of Karankawas.[1]

By 1793, some of the Karankawa were converted to Christianity and lived at the mission Nostra Señora del Refugio, built in 1791 at the mouth of the Mission River. The traditional Karankawa lived with the Lipan Apache.[4]

Encounters with Jean Lafitte

After being run out of New Orleans around 1817, the pirate Jean Lafitte relocated to the island of Galveston, where he established another "kingdom" named Campeche. In Galveston, Lafitte either purchased or set his claim to a lavishly furnished mansion used by French pirate Louis-Michel Aury, which he named Maison Rouge. The building's upper level was converted into a fortress where he placed a cannon to command Galveston harbor.

In 1819, 300 Karankawa warriors tried to retrieve one of their women from Lafitte's men at the Maison Rouge compound. Lafitte had 200 pirates as defenders and also used two cannon against the natives, causing numerous casualties and deaths. The Karankawa had to retreat.[4]


Stephen F. Austin founded a settlement in their territory in 1823. The settlers frequently fought with the Karankawa. The tribe sided with Mexico in the Texas War of Independence. In that war, the Karankawa chief, Jose Maria, and most of his 20 warriors were killed.[4]

In the year 1840, there were claims that there were 100 people remaining. Finally, in 1858 the Karankawa population was wiped out by an attack of settlers led by Juan Nepomuceno Cortina.[4]

On September 7, 2009, The Brownsville Herald carried an article reporting that Enrique Gonzalez, a 65 yr. old man from Brownsville, Texas, claimed to be the last descendant of the Karankawa people. He claimed descent from a band of the tribe who retreated into a secluded area called El Gato, south of what is now Alamo and Donna. He said that 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]

“I’ve got artifacts that date back, way, way, back, ” says Gonzalez. “I’m that last one that has the gene... I’m that last one that knows the language. I know words of it, not the whole language.[11]


  1. 1.0 1.1 Fogelson 659
  2. Newcomb 79
  3. The Conquest of the Karankawas and the Tonkawas by Kelly F. Himmel
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 4.5 "Karankawa Indian Tribe History." Access Genealogy.
  5. Newcomb, Jr., W. W. The Indians of Texas: From Prehistoric to Modern Times Austin: University of Texas Press, 1999, p. 77
  6. Newcomb, p. 327
  7. De Solis, Fray Gaspar José. Diary, 1767. (Op.cit. "Karankawa".)
  8. Himmel (1999), p. 20.
  9. Fogelson 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. 11.0 11.1 Travis M. Whitehead, "Calling all Karankawas: Man claims to be descendent of native tribe", The Brownsville Herald,7 September 2009, reprinted in The Monitor"


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