When shipwrecked survivors of the ill-fated 1528 expedition of Pánfil de Narváez reached Malhado (or Isle of Misfortune), west of Galveston Island, they encountered friendly natives. One of the Spaniards, Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, reported that these coastal people provided food and shelter and otherwise treated them well. De Vaca lived and hunted with the Indians for several years, and his written accounts provided a treasure-trove of information. The swampy, mosquito-infested coastline of what would become Texas was home to bands of natives— Capoques (or Cocos), Kohanis, Kopanes and Carancaquacas (or Karankawas)— who spoke a common language and who became collectively known as the Karankawas. After de Vaca’s extended visit, it would be more than 150 years before any Europeans would again have contact with the Karankawas. Today only about 100 words of the long-extinct tribe’s language have been preserved.
Of course, other southern Indians, such as the Coahuiltecans and Tonkawas, knew the Karankawas before the Spaniards came along in the 16th century. Their name has been called a Choctaw translation for “maneater,” but other translations of “Karankawas” include “keepers of the dog” and “dog lovers.” Indeed, these natives raised and kept a breed of dog that had the characteristics of coyotes and foxes. A nomadic people who traveled by foot and dugout canoe, the Karankawas moved between the mainland and the barrier islands, and ate a wide assortment of food, including fish, shellfish, turtle, alligator, bear, deer, turkey, duck and rabbit. For hunting and warfare, they usually used the longbow and cedar arrows. Jean Louis Bernaldier, a French naturalist who observed Texas Indians in the 1820s, noted that the Karankawas even killed large fish with their arrows in the many bays and inlets along the Texas coast.
They supposedly engaged in cannibalistic rites but to what degree has never been established. Devouring the flesh of dead or dying enemies was not uncommon among Texas tribes. Apparently they were taller than their neighbors and their European visitors. In the 1960s and ’70s, archaeologists determined through excavation of skeletal remains that male Karankawas averaged at least 6 feet 6 inches tall and that females were rarely less than 6 feet tall. According to Cabeza de Vaca, they had large heads, multicolored splotches on their faces, tattoos on their bodies and “amazing physical prowess.” As they lived in a hot, humid climate, their clothing was scarce, the men wearing only breechcloths and the women knee-length grass skirts with no tops. In the 19th century, Texas Ranger Noah Smithwick called them “the most savage human beings” he had ever seen.
In 1685 explorer René Robert Cavelier, sieur de La Salle, led a French expedition in search of the Mississippi River and sailed into the heart of Karankawa country. His navigation far off course, La Salle reached an inlet at the mouth of the Brazos River that became known as Garcitas Creek, near Matagorda Bay. The explorer established an outpost there that he called Fort St. Louis in honor of the king of France. The Karankawas were not happy with the fort or the attitude of the intruders. After several Frenchmen stole a couple of native canoes, a Karankawa headman went to the fort and asked that the canoes be returned. He was refused. Assorted peace councils failed, and attacks from both sides became the daily routine. One day, near their village, Karankawas captured a few foraging Frenchmen. The Indians tied and staked their prisoners, sliced flesh from their bodies, roasted the meat and consumed it.
This cannibalistic orgy led to retaliation by the French, who bombarded the village with “strong medicine”—cannons and muskets. The villagers beat a hasty retreat, but they had hardly given up the fight. Though poorly armed, the Karankawas also saw the limitations of the French muzzleloaders. By spreading a mixture of mud and fish oils over their bodies to repel insects, the natives were able to remain motionless when hiding during night fighting. The French had neither pacified the marsh dwellers nor befriended them. By mid-1687, the French were running short of critical supplies, so La Salle took many of his most able-bodied men north toward Canada to obtain gunpowder, medicines and other commodities. The other men were left at Fort St. Louis to guard the women and children and the sick; soon more than a few Indians contracted white man’s diseases, which proved deadly.
Suspecting treachery, the Karankawas attacked and destroyed Fort St. Louis, sparing only the lives of six children, who were taken captive. The attackers, fearing La Salle’s return, quickly pulled up their portable wigwams, or ba-aks, and moved to a new location. The French explorer never did return, but in the 1690s, Spaniards rescued some of the children, two of whom (Jean-Baptiste and Pierre Talon) were returned to France in 1698.
In the 1700s, the French again took interest in Karankawa country, and in so doing sometimes bumped heads with the rival Spanish. In 1719 a shipwrecked French sailor, François Simars de Bellisle, fell into the hands of the natives and lived with them for 15 months before he escaped to Louisiana. Bellisle passed on his knowledge of the coastal people to French authorities, which led to Jean Baptiste Bénard de La Harpe’s 1721 land expedition to the Karankawa homeland. To counter this French meddling, the Spanish built a mission, Espíritu Santo de Zúñiga, and the Loreto Presidio not far from the site of old Fort St. Louis. Together, the new structures became known as La Bahía.
The Spanish planned to convert the Karankawas to Christianity and to have them become loyal subjects of Spain. Instead, in 1726, the Indians left La Bahía to live in the swamps. But if the natives were stubborn, the Spanish were persistent, continuing to establish mission after mission. In 1754 they built Rosario Mission, on the San Antonio River upstream from La Bahía, and a dozen years later, 101 Karankawas were there learning about Catholicism. The Indians eventually deserted the area, and a third mission, Nuestra Señora del Refugio, was built in 1791. Because of desertions and attacks by other Indians, that mission had to be relocated three times. By 1814 the mission had a population of 190 Karankawas and Coahuiltecans, but most of them would leave in the early 1820s because of Comanche attacks. The missions would be secularized in the early 1830s.
The failed efforts to Christianize the Karankawas were followed by a few failed Spanish attempts to establish peace through trade. At one point, the Spanish were so desperate that they hired Frenchman Athanase de Mézières y Clugny as an Indian agent, but he couldn’t win over the natives. Meanwhile, European diseases wiped out many of the uncooperative natives. For instance, in 1766 the Karankawas suffered what was described as a “devastating scourge” (probably a measles or smallpox epidemic).
The natives also suffered a blow in 1819 in a confrontation with famed pirate Jean Lafitte on Galveston Island. After Lafitte’s men kidnapped a Karankawa woman, the Indians sent 300 warriors to rescue her and to drive off the pirates. Instead, Lafitte’s 200 men, armed with a pair of large-bore cannons and flintlock muskets, decimated the Karankawa ranks. Just two years later, Mexico won independence from Spain and began encouraging Anglo-Americans to emigrate to the province of Texas. The Mexicans, in an attempt to protect the newcomers from the States, talked peace with the various Karankawas bands, but never reached any real agreement. The Karankawas were said to be preying on the shipping that came into Texas harbors.
The colonists, led by Stephen F. Austin, assembled 90 men in 1824 and led an expedition into Karankawa territory. The frightened Indians sought sanctuary at the old La Bahía mission, where a priest intervened to prevent bloodshed. Karankawa Chief Antonito reached an agreement with Austin—the Indians would remain west of the Lavaca River, opposite the settlers’ lands. In 1827 Antonito and Chief Delgado renewed the treaty after meeting with another colonist leader, Green DeWitt. Settlers continued to complain that the Indians often ranged east of the Lavaca River, resulting in periodic confrontations. The tall, muscular Karankawas were fighting not only a losing battle against the Texans but also against the better-armed Tonkawas and Comanches.
When Texas became an independent republic in 1836, the Texans still had plenty of Indian troubles but not from the Karankawas. There were just too few of them left, their dwindling bands occupying territory from the west end of Galveston Island to where Corpus Christi would later spring up. In early 1840, some of the Karankawas were still raiding the settlers, so a group of well-armed Texans retaliated, attacking a band camped on the Guadalupe River near Victoria.
Just prior to the Mexican War of 1846-47, most of the Karankawas relocated south of the border to the Tamaulipas region of Mexico. Because they allegedly attacked Mexican settlements around Reynosa, the Indians were pursued by Mexican authorities. After the war, the Mexicans continued to put pressure on the Karankawas, and by the end of the 1850s, most of the surviving Indians were back in Texas, pitching their camps in the vicinity of Rio Grande City.
As might be expected, the Texans there were not happy to see them. In the summer of 1858, Juan Nepomuceno Cortina did something about it. He led a Texas military force in a raid that all but wiped out the last band of Karankawas. More than 170 years earlier, the theft of two canoes by Frenchmen had caused the Karankawas to distrust white men and to generally avoid their brand of civilization. The Karankawas’ insistence on being true to their own ways and on avoiding assimilation, combined with the white man’s diseases and extermination policies of the Mexicans and Texans, doomed them. It didn’t matter that they were tall, strong and ferocious; by 1860 they were extinct.
Originally published in the August 2006 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.