Sizing-up the Karankawa: Were the Karankawa Giants?

Standing beside the largest Live Oak in Texas, the Saint Bernard Oak.

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.

Informed of the Karankawas’ presence, Béranger did something exceptional, something countless Europeans found unthinkable—Béranger made the Karankawas acquaintance.[5] With cordial relations between both groups, the Karankawas served as Béranger’s guides around Aransas and Copano Bays and helped the French Captain acquire what he needed to repair his vessel. In turn, Béranger provided the Karankawas with valuable trinkets and documented their way of life. Of interest to the topic of the Karankawas’ stature, Béranger managed to measure the height of his hosts:

I measured some of them six feet two inches tall. They are usually five and a half feet [tall, and have] a very solemn look and a handsome countenance.[6]

As explained by Frank Wagner, the English translator of Béranger’s account, the Captain likely made the measurements using the Paris foot, which is longer than the U.S. foot by two centimeters.[7] A recording of six feet two inches converted into American standard is thus six feet six inches. A measurement of five feet five inches is changed into five feet nine inches. An appraisal of the Karankawa at six feet and six inches is the tallest any eye-witness source has ever attested to and does seem an immense size. However, there is reason to believe that Béranger’s “measurement” is inaccurate. The French Captain had both an aptitude for diplomacy and for exaggeration. When describing an incident in which he encountered two snakes, Béranger relates:

While going back on board, we met with a snake the size of one’s thigh and about 15 [16] feet long. Missed by a gunshot, it rushed into a pond. The next day…we caught sight of a big rattlesnake coiled like a cable on some oyster shells. After cutting off its head with a shovel I had in my hand, I measured it and found [the snake to be] 7 feet 8 inches long and 8 inches thick [8 feet long and 8.5 inches thick]. I put it on high ground, hoping to get it back again on my return, but I was not a hundred paces off when I caught sight of a flock of eagles carrying it away and letting it fall into some marshes.[8]

There has never been a snake captured in Texas that reaches near the length of sixteen feet long.[9] Burmese pythons of that size do occasionally make an appearance slithering through suburbs, but their nativity is that of Southeast Asia and their presence in Texas is due to irresponsible herpetologists.[10] Granted, Béranger eyeballed the reptile that rushed into the pond; he did not claim to have measured it. But Béranger does claim to have measured the rattlesnake at eight feet long—which would be record-breaking size.

In Sweetwater, Texas—town size of roughly 10,000—there is a yearly rattlesnake roundup; a festival of blood and death where hunters go to the surrounding countryside and pour gasoline in snake dens to flush out reptiles who are subsequently captured, tortured, and killed.[11] An award is given to the hunter who nabs the longest snake. In 2016 the roundup produced over 24,000 pounds of rattlesnake flesh; the largest snake came in at barely over six feet. In 2017, five feet flat.[12] The longest reported rattlesnake in the state of Texas: seven feet and six inches.[13] An eight-foot rattlesnake is what Béranger claims to have measured, but rattlesnakes of that size do not seem to exist; the eagle population has presumably devoured them all.

When Béranger wrote about his experiences on the Gulf Coast and among the Karankawas he did so well over a year after they occurred. Just enough time for pesky embellishments to bore their way into the French Captain’s account. That numerous Karankawa-speaking Peoples were six feet six inches tall seems like one such embellishment.[14] That most of the Karankawas were five feet nine inches tall sounds closer to the mark.[15]

Beyond Béranger’s report, there are a handful of other eye-witness accounts testifying to the stature of the Karankawas. The majority come from early settlers of Texas whose statements must be taken into consideration—these settlers had the most to gain in characterizing the Karankawa as inhuman or gigantic. Noah Smithwick, the young gun who hoped to turn a cannon loose on the Karankawas in 1827, estimated that “many of the bucks were six feet in height, with bows and arrows in proportion.” Eduard Ludecus, a German immigrant attempting to settle on Dr. John Charles Beales’s land grant in 1834, described the Karankawas as “tall, with a powerful build, well over six feet tall.”[16] Another colonizer of Texas, John Jenkins, is one of the first to have actually labeled the Karankawa as giants: “they might well have been termed giants, for they were most magnificent men in size and strength, seldom below six feet in height.”[17] Jenkins adds that the “[Karankawa] carried bows as long as [they were] tall, with arrows of proportional length.”[18] Stephen F. Austin, the proclaimed father of Texas, wrote that “their bows were about 5 to 6 ft long.” Joseph Linn remarks that “the Carankuas were tall, athletic specimens of physical manhood, many of them exceeding six feet in height,” and Alice Oliver, who interacted with a composite band in the early nineteenth century, “ventured the opinion that [the Karankawas] measured about five feet and ten inches.”[19] A Swiss ethnologist, Jean Louis Berlandier, labeled the Karankawas as “a big people, with robust, well-formed, athletic bodies.”[20] Texas settler and historian J.W. Wilbarger encountered a group of Karankawas near Refugio and recollects seeing fifty warriors of which “there were a dozen under six feet in height, and many of them, I am sure would have stood six feet two or three inches in their stockings, if they had worn such articles of apparel.[21]

In 1687 a Spanish pilot, Juan Enríquez Barroto wrote of a memorable anecdote about the Karankawas’ physique when attempting to kidnap Karankawa-speaking individual: 

[The Capitan] persuaded two or three of the Indians and regaled them with [wheat] that they should come aboard. Seeing that they did not wish to, he ordered Juan Poule to take hold of one and make him do so, and the ensign and another together, but the three could not subdue [the Karankawa], because all these Indians are of great stature and very robust of limb.”[22]

Adding more accounts, Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, marooned and rescued by the Karankawas on Follets island in 1528, wrote that they “were tall and well-formed.”[23] Jean Baptiste Talon, an adopted member of the Clamcoeh—a Karankawa-speaking Peoples—mentioned that “one sees among all these peoples only males [that are] well built and well-formed.”[24] Some historians claim—Albert Gatschet in The Karankawa Indians being one—that the women were “just the reverse of their male companions.”[25] John Jenkins and Eduard Ludecus counter that assertion by stating that the women were similarly well-built (albeit Jenkins does so to justify the murder of a Karankawa mother who was “mistaken for a warrior”).[26]

With every mention of the Karankawas’ stature, there are an equal if not greater number of sources that make no acknowledgment to the size of the Karankawas—an oddity if these First People were truly colossal in proportion. Of the varying chroniclers of the Karankawas—Henri Joutel, Captain Francisco Martinez, Governor Alonso de León, Juan Bautista Chapa, Fray Damian Massanet, Father Francisco Céliz, Pedro de Rivera, Marques de Rubí, Father Gaspar José de Solís, Juan Nepomuceno Almonte, William Bollaert, Mary Holley Austin, Annie Harris, Horatio Chriesman, Judge Thomas M. Duke, Jesse Burnam—not one comments on Karankawa stature.[27] Father Gaspar José de Solís instead found it pressing to report that the Karankawas were “so savage, indolent and lazy, and…so greedy and gluttonous that they devour meat that is parboiled, almost raw and dripping in blood.”[28]

The dehumanizing myth of the Karankawas as giants emerged from early Anglo-American Texas settlers, but the myth flourished among Texas’s early twentieth-century historians. Joseph Oysterman Dyer, a doctor and prolific and long-winded writer for the Daily Galveston News, latched onto the label of “giant” as the calling card for the Karankawas.[29] Many historians, like the popular Edward Kilman, followed suit and eventually, the myth became so widely accepted that it found its way into Texas’s school systems and subsequently into the impressionable minds of Texas’s students.[30]  

In our culture, Native Americans hold a certain level of mysticism. The untruth of gigantic Karankawas has gone largely unchecked because it satisfies this mysticism; it provides a fantastical trait that the general public expects all Native Americans to have. When averaging the seven sources that give tangible measurements of the Karankawas height (most of which come from Anglo-American settlers) it comes out to be 5’11”—which although quite tall for the time period, is not of monstrous proportions.[31] By comparison, the average height of an American is around 5’9 or 5’10.

This will be a two-part blog post. The second part will look at the archaeological aspects relating to the question of Karankawa height. I particularly want to look at the bones uncovered at missions established for the Karankawas and at other uncovered burial grounds found in their geographical range. Additionally, the second part will include a few more primary sources that I didn’t get a chance to check thoroughly. If you happen to know of any sources that mention the Karankawas’ height that I missed, please do let me know.

 

CITATIONS

[1] – Noah Smithwick, The Evolution of a State or Recollections of Old Texas Days (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1983) 3.

[2] – This is not new. Cultural Historian Surekha Davies has a great chapter in Renaissance Ethnography and the Invention of the Human: New Worlds, Maps, and Monsters discussing how First People in Latin America were labeled Patagonians and giants.

[3] –  Karankawa People,” Wikipedia, April 3, 2018, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Karankawa_people&oldid=833945810

[4] – Jean Beranger, Béranger’s Discovery of Aransas Pass, trans. Frank Wagner (Corpus Christi: Friends of the Corpus Christi Museum, 1983) 20.

[5] –  My statement that other is reaching. Europeans, Anglo-Americans, and the Mexicans all made acquaintanceships with the Karankawas. Yet, at the time (to this day) the Karankawas were characterized as too fierce and savage to build any lasting relationships.

Beranger, in recalling how this friendly relationship formed, writes: “I managed, however, to make their acquaintance by presents that I gave them, of which they are very fond, especially clothes, knives and axes,” see Beranger, Béranger’s Discovery of Aransas Pass, 20.

[6] – Béranger, Béranger’s Discovery of Aransas Pass, 21.

[7] – Ibid., 21.

[8] – Ibid., 23.

[9] –  The overestimation of snake sizes in colonial chronicles isn’t all that unusual. Eduard Ludecus, in one letter he sent back to Germany, claims to have “found a copperhead snake that must have been twelve feet long.” Eduard Ludecus, John Charles Beales’s Rio Grande Colony, ed. Louis E. Brister (Austin: Texas State Historical Association, 2008) 226.

[10] – Fares Sabawi, “15-foot python found along I-35 in Texas,” My San Antonio, December 5, 2017,https://www.mysanantonio.com/news/local/article/North-Texas-police-department-cross-paths-with-12407713.php

[11] –  Danny Lewis, “Controversial Texas Rattlesnake Roundup Nets Largest Catch to Date,” Smithsonian.com, March 25, 2016, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/controversial-texas-rattlesnake-roundup-nets-largest-catch-date-180958575/; Sam Schipani, “At Rattlesnake Roundups, Cruelty Draws Crowds,” SierraClub.org, March 10, 2018, https://www.sierraclub.org/sierra/rattlesnake-roundups-sweetwater-texas-cruelty

[12] – The longest snake ever to be caught at the round up had been a bit over six and a half feet. There is a $900 prize to beat that record, see: “2016 Roundup,” Sweetwater Jaycees, http://www.rattlesnakeroundup.net/2016.html;“Roundup Totals,” Sweetwater Jaycees, http://www.rattlesnakeroundup.net/roundup-totals.html; “Snake Hunters,” Sweetwater Jaycees, http://www.rattlesnakeroundup.net/snake-hunters.html.

[13] – Western Diamondback Rattlesnake,” https://www.uta.edu/biology/herpetology/western_diamondback_rattlesnake.htm

[14] – Giving a generalized height to a whole cultural group poses its fair share of difficulties. Some Americans reach heights of 7’8” and others stop growing at 3’0”, but the average American is 5’9”. Certainly a Karankawa individual could have been 6’6” as Béranger insisted see: David Moye, “George Bell, Tallest American, Meets Gabriel Pimentel, The Smallest At Venice Beach Freakshow,” Huffington Post, August 23, 2013, https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/08/23/george-bell-gabriel-pimentel_n_3804813.html; “List of Average Human Height,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_average_human_height_worldwide.

[15] – An archaeological study done by George and Edna Woodbury analysed sixteen specimens of prehistoric bones found on the Texas Coast. The average height was concluded to be 5’7”. The Woodbury’s, however, recognize the constraints of their study in that the skeletons were “limited in number and fragmentary in condition,” see: George Woodbury and Edna Woodbury, Prehistoric Skeletal Remains from the Texas Coast (Arizona: Gila Pueblo, 1935) 1.

[16] –  Eduard Ludecus, John Charles Beales’s Rio Grande Colony, ed. Louis E. Brister (Austin: Texas State Historical Association, 2008) 79.

[17] John Holland Jenkins, Recollections of Early Texas: The Memoirs of John Jenkins, ed. John Holmes Jenkins (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1958) 162.

[18] – John Holland Jenkins, Recollections of Early Texas: The Memoirs of John Jenkins, 161.

[19] – Joseph Linn, Reminiscences of fifty years in Texas (Austin: The Steck Company, 1935), 335; Albert Gatschet, The Karankawa Indians: The Coast People of Texas (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Peabody Museum of American Archaeology and Ethnology, 1891) 56. A composite band is the intermixing of Native Americans from different tribes due to the stresses of population decline. George Castor Martin derogatorily labels composite bands as “mongrel bands” in his book The Mission Nuestra Senora del Refugio.

[20] – Jean Louis Berlandier, The Indians of Texas in 1830, ed. John C. Ewers (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1969) 149.

[21] – J.W. Wilbarger, Indian Depredations in Texas (Austin: Pemberton Press, 1967), 198-199.

[22] –  Robert Weddle, La Salle, the Mississippi and the Gulf (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 1987), 174.

[23] –  Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, Chronicle of the Narváez Expedition, trans. Fanny Bandelier (New York: Penguin Books, 2002), 37.

[24] –  Robert Weddle, La Salle, the Mississippi and the Gulf (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 1987), 254.

[25] –  Albert Gatschet, The Karankawa Indians: The Coast People of Texas, 57; also Himmel, “The women were short and stocky. Kelly Himmel, The Conquest of the Karankawa and the Tonkawas, 1821-1859 (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1999), 20; and Gary Cartwright, Galveston: A History of the Island (Fort Worth: TCU Press, 1991), 20. And Smylie, Vernon Smylie, Conquistadores and Cannibals (Texas News Syndicate Press, 1964), 14.

[26] –  John Holland Jenkins, Recollections of Early Texas: The Memoirs of John Jenkins, 161; Eduard Ludecus, John Charles Beales’s Rio Grande Colony, ed. Louis E. Brister (Austin: Texas State Historical Association, 2008) 86.

[27] – Henri Joutel, The La Salle Expedition to Texas: 1684-1687, ed. William C. Foster, trans. Johanna S. Warren (Austin: Texas State Historical Association, 1998); Francisco Martinez, Save the Young: The 1691 Expedition of Captain Martinez to Rescue the Last Survivors of the Massacre at Fort St. Louis, Texas, ed. and trans. William C. Foster (Corpus Christi: American Binding and Publishing, 2004);  Herbert E. Bolton, Spanish Exploration in the Southwest: 1542-1706, (New York: Barnes and Noble Inc., 1908); Juan Bautista Chapa, Texas and Northeastern Mexico, 1630-1690, ed. William C. Foster, trans. Ned F. Brierley (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1997); Weddle, La Salle, the Mississippi and the Gulf; Francisco Céliz, Diary of the Alarcón Expedition Into Texas, 1718-1719 (Los Angeles: The Quivira Society, 1935); Pedro de Rivera y Villalón and Marqués de Rubí, Imaginary Kingdom: Texas as seen by the Rivera and Rubí Military Expeditions, 1727 and 1767, ed. Jack Jackson, annot. William C. Foster (Austin: Texas State Historical Association, 1995); Jack Jackson, Almonte’s Texas (Austin: Texas State Historical Association, 2003); William Bollaert, “Observations on the Indian Tribes in Texas,” The Journal of Ethnological Society of London 2, (1850): 262-283; Annie Harris, “Memoirs of Mrs. Annie P. Harris,” Southwestern Historical Quarterly 40, no. 3 (1937): 231-246; J. H. Kuykendall, “Reminiscences of Early Texans,” The Quarterly of the Texas State Historical Association 6, no. 3 (1903): 236-241; Sada Burnham, “Reminiscences of Capt. Jesse Burnham,”  The Quarterly of the Texas State Historical Association 5, no. 1 (1901): 247-253. I have recently come across the testimony of the sailors of the shipwrecked La Superb who refer to the Karankawas as “small men.” 197

[28] – Gaspar Jose de Solis, “The Solis Diary of 1767,” Sons of Dewitt Colony Texas, 1767, http://www.sonsofdewittcolony.org/alarconex5.htm.

[29] – Joseph Osterman Dyer, The Dyer Scrapbook (Rosenberg Library). You can also see the myth beginning to grow in Jesse A. Ziegler’s memoir of the Gulf Coast, in which the Karankawa are labeled “giant-cannibals”. See Jesse Ziegler,Wave of the Gulf: Ziegler’s Scrapbook of the Texas Gulf Coast Country (San Antonio: The Naylor Company, 1938), 16-17.

“Six-to seven footers, they [the Karankawa] towered as giants among savages of ordinary stature, magnificent physical specimens, but facially hideous,” see Edward Kilman, Cannibal Coast (San Antonio: The Naylor Company, 1959) vii. “Giant” is the fourteenth word in Cannibal Coast.  

[30] – Vivien Geneser, “Native Transgressions: A Look at the Portrayal of Karankawa Natives in Texas History Textbooks and Trade Books,” American Educational History Journal 38, no. 1 (2011): 219 -235.

[31] –

Jean Béranger: 5’9” [69 inches]

Noah Smithwick: 6’0” [72 inches]

Eduard Ludecus: 6’0”+ (6’2” for the purpose of this estimate) [74 inches]

John Jenkins: 6’0”+ (6’2” for the purpose of this estimate) [74 inches]

Alice Oliver: 5’10” [70 inches]

Austin, through his measurement of the Karankawas bows: 5’6” [66 inches]

Wilbarger: 6’1” as an average. [73 inches]

Linn: 6’1″ as an average. [73 inches]

Total: 5’11” [71.375 inches]

3 thoughts on “Sizing-up the Karankawa: Were the Karankawa Giants?

  1. That is an incredibly large oak tree that you are pictured standing next too! I wonder how old it is and if area Indians made use of it.

    Like

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