The Karankawa Indians


The Karankawa Indians were a group of Indian Tribes that lived along the Texas Coast. Ironically, by the year 1860, on the eve of the American Civil War, they had been completely exterminated. There are lagoons, or bays, spread out along the Texas Coast where the Karankawa made their camp sites; mainly because the bottoms were mostly smooth and the water was shallow. These waters enabled them to go out into the pools and in the clear, slowly ebbing water taking the fish and oysters they desired.

The first of these Bays is Galveston with its subdivisions, East Bay, Turtle Bay, Trinity Bay, West Bay, Dollar Bay, Clear Bay and Oyster Bay.
To the Southwest is Matagorda Bay which has parts known as Oyster Lake, Trespalacios Bay, Carancahua Bay, Kellers Bay, Cox Bay, Chocolate Bay, and Lavaca Bay.
Next is Espiritu Santo Bay, with its northern extension, San Antonio Bay.
Fourth is Aransas Bay, which has parts know as St. Charles Bay, Copano Bay, Mission Bay and Fuerte Bay.
Fifth is Corpus Christi Bay with its extension, Nueces Bay. The Last Bay is Laguna de la Madre.

There were reports that the Karankawa were spotted at Eagle Lake in present Colorado County, almost one hundred miles from the Coastline. Thus the Karankawa land consisted of four hundred miles of Coast-line and extended approximately one hundred miles inland. It is from the Bays the Karankawa would hunt, fish, and take oysters for food. Oysters were one of there main food sources. Wherever you find oyster shell deposits on land, there too do you find their camp site.

The age and origin of these Indians has not been fully established. It is believed by some scholars the Karankawa may be related to a tribe of giants found on the Coast of California. There are other scholars that believe they may have been related to a group of aborigines who inhabited the Texas Big Bend area thousands of years ago and they go on to tie them in with the Abilene man, the oldest known type of human to reside in Texas. There's another viewpoint that the Karankawa were related to the Caribe Tribes of the West Indies, based on similarity of language, the size of their bodies, and both tribes had "barkless dogs". It is believed that they may have migrated to Florida, where they were driven out by other tribes to Louisiana, then to Trinity Bay area and then driven along the Texas coast where no one else lived. The word Karankawa translated in their language means "dog lover".

The speech of the Karankawa belongs generally to the Coahiltecan family found to the south west of them. The Karankawa had much in common with the Coahuiltecan, Tonkawa, and the East Texas Caddoan Tribes. Among the Indians only the Comanches were there deadly Enemy. The Tribes had five major groups, Cujane, Guapite (Coapite), Coco, Copane, and Karankawa. The entire group came to be known as the latter group, Karankawa. The Karankawa ferocious appearance and smell with the fact they were Cannibalistic would put fear and terror in all who visited them, so much so, they wanted to avoid seeing the natives again. The Karankawa were about 7 feet tall and naked for the most part.

Cabeza de Vaca described them as "having large heads with a queer grin. They had a piece of cane inserted in their lower lip and reeds in their nipples from side to side about one foot long. They had multi-colored splotches on their faces and wild Tattoo's on other parts of their bodies. Their hair was coarse and dark, although it sometimes assumed a reddish hue owing to its constant exposure to the sun."

Joutel, from La Salle expedition, noted that  "the Karankawa men shaved their heads except for a patch of hair long enough to be braided on the top of their heads. One distinguishing mark of the Karankawa was a small circle of blue Tattooed over each Cheekbone. Through out life each one retained a splendid mouth full of white teeth. Dress was scarce, the men wore breechcloths, the women had knee length Skirts with no tops and the children went naked. Some Karankawa wore deerskin bracelets on the left wrist and the men wore small shells, glass beads, or small disks of tin, brass, or other metal strapped to their throats".

In 1822 Stephen F. Austin described some of the Karankawa women as handsome and one of them quite pretty."They had Panther Skin around their waist,which extended down to their knees and above the waist they were naked. Their breast were marked or Tattooed in circles of black, beginning with a small circle at the nipple and enlarging so the breast swelled."

Jean Louis Bernaldier, a French naturalist who studied the Indians of Texas in 1800, had written several things about the Karankawa Indians. Berlandier reported that," the Karankawa wore their hair loose to the shoulders but cut in the front to level of the eye brows, like the Mexicans. They wear Coak feathers behind their ears and wreath of Indian grass or Palm leaves on their heads, they paint lines of Vermillion around their eyes and of ten smear their brown bodies with white or black or red paint. They never wear Teguas, which is Buckskin footgear. Their Peregoso, or breechcloth, is white, and their favorite weapons are the Bow and Dagger. The Bow and Arrows which Caranchuases use are of extraordinary size; the Arrows are two-and-a-half to three feet in length and the bow is the height of the Indian who used it. Among the other Indians of Texas, these weapons do not have such large dimensions. When they used the Bow unhurriedly, it is well seated using the Knee to support it. Thus they launch arrows with a truly surprising force, capable of piercing a Bull from one side to the other. When some obstacle prevents them from seeing the object at which they are shooting, like artillery men with a shell, they shoot their Arrows in such a way that they will fall perpendicularly on the object they wish to kill. A matter which surprised me was their fishing. After beating the water and gathering together in a small inlet the fish which they encountered, they kill the largest with Arrows, and with such skill that often they designate the species of fish which they thus want to catch."

The Karankawa had a strong love and affection for their children. When a child died the entire Tribe mourned for a year, at dawn, noon, and sunset they performed their mourning rite. If a Son or Brother died the family would mourn for a month, and remain in seclusion, refusing to get food. Other Tribe members would bring eatables to the family. This practice could have been carried to the extremes if a member in every family would have died. There is little known about the Karankawa Religious beliefs except for their festivals and Mitote, a ceremony performed after a great victory in battle. The festivals were performed during a full moon, after a successful hunting or fishing expedition in a large tent with a burning fire in the middle.

Fray Gaspar Jose de Solis reported that the Mitote lasted three day and three nights. De Solis described the Mitote as follows:" They set a nailed stake in the ground on the place where they are to dance the Mitote; they light a big fire,tying the victim who is to be danced about or sacrificed to the stake. All assemble together and when the harsh instruments, the cayman, begins to play they begin to dance and to leap, making many gestures and very fierce grimaces with funereal and discordant cries, dancing with well sharpened knives in their hands. As they jump around they approach the victim and cut a piece of flesh off of his body, going to the fire and half roasting it in sight of the victim,they eat it with great relish, and so they go on cutting off pieces and quartering him until with the scalp and put it on a pole in order to bring it to the dance as a trophy." These acts of Cannibalism were presumably to prevent the victim from having a second or third life. The Karankawa believed that it transferred the fortitude, courage, and fighting skills of the victim to who ever consumed him. This was also the ultimate revenge, to devour an enemy's flesh while he watched.

Smithwich points out that cannibalism was practiced as a ritual, not as a steady dietary preference. Eating the flesh of an enemy was considered the most complete possible form of vengeance, and this is why often in their summons to wars of revenge, they might say, "Let us go and eat this Nation." Noah Smithwich, recorded that " they were the most savage humans beings he had ever seen, over six feet tall carrying Bows and Arrows of equal proportion. Their ugly faces were rendered hideous by the alligator grease and dirt with which they were besmeared from head to foot as a defense against mosquitoes".

The Karankawa communicate with smoke signals with distant groups. They used sea-shells for making tools and ornaments, and manufactured a distinctive thin-wall pottery which they decorated with a natural asphalt that washed ashore on the beaches. The Political structure of the Karankawa indian tribes is rather simple. The chief got his position by being born the Son of the Chief, making the title hereditary in the male line. The Chief did delegate some of his authority by appointing a war chief. The Chiefs names took on a Spanish sound, which reveals the influence the Spanish had. Some of the names of the Chiefs were Llano Grande, Prudentio Miguel, Antonito, Fresda Pinto, Chepillo, and Antonio.

There is no evidence that the Karankawa banded together to defend themselves against intruders. Instead, they fought as separate tribes: Cojane, Coco, Copane, Guapite, or Karankawa. The horse was not known to the Karankawa until the Spanish bought them in the sixteenth century. For the most part the Indians traveled afoot in the Sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries, which made them good pacers.
The Karankawa used a crude canoe, commonly known as a Dugout, to travel by water. They would take a large tree trunk,about twenty feet long and hollow it out. The Indians used a crude tool called a Adze to hollow out their Conoes.The Indians would take hot coals and place them on top of the tree trunk, then taking the Adze they would hollow it out. They propelled themselves, in their dugouts, by hand or erected a crude sail out of animal skins.

Because the Karankawa Indians were Nomads and moved their camp sites from one place to another, they either carried their shelter with them or built it with material available in the area. Some of the lodging was consisted of around tent-like hut supported by slender Willow poles . These shelter could hold seven to eight people.The top of the Wigwam act like a funnel for catching rain water and let it come down though a small hole. The hole also helped smoke from the fire to escape from the wigwam. The Karankawa also build grass huts which resembled large ovens. These were made from material found in the area of their camp site. The Indians would use oyster shells as a base for their floors, covered with animal skins.

Marriage in the Karankawa Tribes was arranged between the man and the parents of the girl. The man would present gifts to the girls parents. If accepted, they would present the girl to the man, then the newlyweds would settle down in their hut. For a time the man would give all that he had hunted to his bride, who would give them to her father. The father would return just enough for the couple to survive on. After a specific period of time the man and his bride would join his band, ending the mans association with his wife's father or mother.

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