Why are the Karankawas maligned as savage cannibals?

Why are the Karankawas maligned as savage cannibals?

In 1767, Fray Gaspar José de Solís toured the faltering missions of Texas. When he visited the mission of Nuestra Señora del Rosario, which the Spanish built to convert the Karankawa Indians to Christianity, he wrote a lengthy report on their cannibalism in his journal: “Dancing and leaping and with sharp knives in their hands, they draw near to the victim, cut off a piece of their flesh, come to the fire and half roast it, and, within sight of the victim himself devour it most ravenously.” Despite captivating readers for generations, Padre Solís’s account of the Karankawas’ cannibalism has a major problem—it is almost certainly fictitious. Although the Karankawas did, in fact, practice a rare exo-cannibalism, this disgruntled priest likely fabricated an exaggerated version of the custom. He has tarnished the image of the Karankawas for the past two-hundred and fifty years. This article explains why Fray Solís’s account, a source utilized by numerous scholars, should be used selectively and with caution.

I published this article as a guest post. To view its entirety, visit Texas History Notebook.

Nicholas de La Mathe: Handbook of Texas Entry

Nicholas de La Mathe: Handbook of Texas Entry

Recently I wrote an entry for the Handbook of Texas on Nicholas de La Mathe. I have included the encyclopedic entry below with attached source footnotes.

LA MATHE, NICHOLAS DE (?-?). Nicholas de La Mathe lived as an Indian trader, a rancher, and a militia captain in Spanish Louisiana and Spanish Texas. He made overtures of peace with the Norteños, he smuggled goods from Louisiana into Texas, and he proposed an unsuccessful plan to exterminate the Karankawa Indians.

A wealthy merchant of Pointe Coupee, Louisiana, La Mathe acquired a passport to enter Texas in 1775 to collect debts at the virgin settlement of Nuestra Senora del Pilár de Bucareli. Supposedly having a fondness for the town’s namesake saint, La Mathe offered to construct an impressive church for which he hired two workers to build in 1776. While some historians believe that La Mathe’s religious fervor alone “moved him” to erect this sumptuous church, in all likelihood it served as a means of forging a positive reputation for future smuggling operations among the citizens of Bucareli and its leader, Antonio Gil Ibarvo, whom La Mathe had traded with for several years prior. While in Bucareli, La Mathe acquired a small herd of cattle by selling an enslaved black child. He increased his cattle, mustang, and mule holdings in Texas until he had accumulated over 700 stock animals by 1779. Continue reading “Nicholas de La Mathe: Handbook of Texas Entry”

Karankawas: Reexamining Texas Gulf Coast Cannibalism Honors Thesis

Karankawas: Reexamining Texas Gulf Coast Cannibalism Honors Thesis

After two years of work, I have finally finished my senior honors thesis. The full document is included below and I will be adding its content to this website over the summer.

Karankawas – Reexamining Texas Gulf Coast Cannibalism

Abstract: In 1688, the Karankawa Peoples abducted and adopted an eight-year-old Jean-Baptiste Talon from a French fort on the Texas Gulf Coast. Talon lived with these Native Americans for roughly two and a half years and related an eye-witness account of their cannibalism. Despite his testimony, some present-day scholars reject the Karankawas’ cannibalism.

Because of an abundance of farfetched and grisly accounts made by Spanish priests, bellicose Texans, and sensationalist historians, these academics believe the custom of anthropophagy is a colonial fabrication. Facing a sea of outrageously prejudicial sources, these scholars have either drowned in them or found no reason to wade deeper. Underneath the swamp of disinformation, historical truth is discernible: the Karankawas practiced a community-oriented, post-mortem, rare, and ritualistic cannibalism that colonizers embellished and used as a mechanism to destroy the Karankawa Peoples.

Although some historians believe that “cannibal” is a term too tainted by colonial rhetoric to hold any semblance of truth, to outright deny or overlook this cultural trait washes away Native American history and agency. Fully treating First Peoples as human means that as historians we must recognize that Indians, like Europeans, had cultural practices that are considered stomach-churning.

The entirety of my award-winning honors thesis can be accessed here.

Continue reading “Karankawas: Reexamining Texas Gulf Coast Cannibalism Honors Thesis”

Who Rescued and Enslaved Simars de Bellisle?: Part Two

Who Rescued and Enslaved Simars de Bellisle?: Part Two

A surprising number of historians consider the Native Americans that saved and later enslaved de Bellisle to be the Karankawas.[1] Instead, these First Peoples are almost certainly the Akokisas, the north-eastern neighbors of the Karankawas. This mistake is somewhat understandable. The Native Americans who resided on the Texas coast, although having widely different cultures, lived nearly identical migratory lifestyles and to Europeans—the primary writers of the most accessible History—all “savages” looked the same.[2] Expressing the Europeans frustration is the interrogator of Jean-Baptiste Talon, who lived with the Karankawas as a child:

All the different nations of savages in this whole country live in a rather uniform manner and resemble each other so much that it is very difficult, not to say impossible, to distinguish them except with respect to their different dialects and the different geographical regions inhabited by those who have villages.[3]

Continue reading “Who Rescued and Enslaved Simars de Bellisle?: Part Two”

The Marooning of Francois Simars de Bellisle on the Texas Gulf Coast: Part One

The Marooning of Francois Simars de Bellisle on the Texas Gulf Coast: Part One

In 1719, off the coast of Galveston, the French Maréchal d’Estrées ran aground due to the negligence of her captain: Gervais de La Gaudelle. On deck, the sailors and the mate milled around contemplating their hopeless situation. Gaudelle retreated to his cabin, locking himself away.

A day passed, and through the door of the captain’s quarters, the mate asked for Gaudelle’s plan. The captain replied, “that they could do what they wanted.”[1] Hearing this, the mate resolutely gathered all the sailors on deck and ran from one side of the ship to the other in an effort to dislodge the craft from the silty Gulf mud.[2] To aid in their efforts, the sailors unfurled the sails and with a strong seaward wind, the grounded ship careened free.

Back at sea, Simars de Bellisle, a twenty-four-year-old officer; four other men of the same rank; and two pilots met in secret.[3] The ineptitude of their captain, the lack of potable water, and an illness spreading through the ship worried them greatly.[4] Therefore, the clandestine body decided to send de Bellisle and the four other officers (Alain, Courbet, Duclos, and Legendre) to shore and have them walk to Ship Island for help.[5] They believed Ship Island to be only a few dozen miles away, not three hundred and fifty.[6] Continue reading “The Marooning of Francois Simars de Bellisle on the Texas Gulf Coast: Part One”

Interview with Dr. Orellano Norris: “General Alonso de León’s Expeditions into Texas, 1686-1690”

You said your book took quite a long time to write, how long exactly?

Well, it started as a project in one of my classes. I was taking Colonial Spanish Paleography when I was doing my PhD and we were working on some texts from the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century—we wanted to see how the Spanish language had changed over time. Remember, I am a linguist, not a historian. We were analyzing the text from a linguistic point of view, looking at the way it was written in seventeenth century Spanish. I was given a fragment of Alonso de León’s 1689 expedition. I looked at secondary sources and found that there were some discrepancies. I started to ask myself why does it say one thing in the English translation and something completely different in the Spanish original text. That’s how it all started. It took several years to do the research and a few more to write the book.

You made quite a few corrections to previous translations of the 1689 and 1690 Alonso de León expeditions.

Those were the two English translations  that had the most errors in them, specifically that of the 89’ expedition. De León lead five expedition in search of the French in Texas. The 89’ expedition is the most important one because during this entrada they actually found La Salle’s Fort Saint-Louis and located Jean L’Archevêque and Jacques Grollet [two surviving colonists from Fort Saint-Louis]. That 89’ expedition diary is the most published one, yet it’s based on a faulty translation.

In 2005, when I finished the class I mentioned, I said to myself, I really want to look into Alonso de León’s expeditions further. My degree was supposed to be in Spanish Golden Age Literature, but it changed completely after that Colonial Spanish Paleography class. I talked to my professor and went into Historical Linguistics. He provided me with some initial manuscript copies, then I did some additional research, applied for research grants, traveled to different archives, and in the end, I located the sixteen manuscript copies I am analyzing in my book. The reason why the most published English translation of the 1689 manuscript had so many errors is, in part, because it was based on the least reliable manuscript copy   Continue reading “Interview with Dr. Orellano Norris: “General Alonso de León’s Expeditions into Texas, 1686-1690””

Sizing-up the Karankawa: Were the Karankawa Giants?

Sizing-up the Karankawa: Were the Karankawa Giants?

In 1827, the Karankawas spied a schooner cruising into Matagorda Bay. In carved canoes, they went out to meet the vessel. Aboard was a young man named Noah Smithwick who simultaneously aimed to make his fortune in the wilds of Texas and also a cannon at the curious Karankawas, “eager for a chance to turn it loose.” Upon witnessing these Native People, Smithwick comments, “they were the most savage looking human beings I ever saw.”[1]

For centuries European and Anglo-American powers pushed closer to the Karankawas’ land. During this period, the depiction of the Karankawas inflated into the realm of absurdity.[2] This propaganda served to dehumanize and other the Karankawas, making their extermination all the easier to stomach. Today similarly harmful disinformation survives and thrives. In junior highs around Texas, on Galveston ghost tours, at boy-scout campouts, the Karankawas are represented as giants “between seven and eight feet tall.”[3]

In 1720, more than a hundred years prior to the Karankawas’ encounter with the brash Noah Smithwick, the Karankawas spotted the French Captain Jean Béranger anchoring in the protected waters of Aransas Bay to repair two of his vessels. When sailors from Béranger’s ship went ashore to fetch fresh water, they “were seized by fear” upon sighting the Indians. The sailors swiftly paddled back to their ship.[4] A short while later, the Karankawas saw a launch headed their direction. Captain Béranger shifted nervously within it. Continue reading “Sizing-up the Karankawa: Were the Karankawa Giants?”