Historiography of the Karankawa Indians

Karankawa Historiography

This article is a history of the historical works about the Karankawa Indians of the Texas Gulf Coast. Recently, the Karankawas’ image in the historical record has improved greatly, but I argue there is still an immense amount of work to do. Scholars need to better integrate Karankawa historical actors into their work. Authors need to start their histories of Native Peoples prior to European contact. And finally, Karankawas are alive today—the writing of their history requires their voice.

To keep the post manageable, I only touch on a handful of secondary works related to the Karankawas. 

In 1772, Spanish viceroy Antonio María de Bucareli y Ursúa ordered officer Antonio Bonilla to compile a history of the troublesome province of Texas. In fifteen days, Bonilla vigorously compiled a roughly seventy-page document entitled A Brief Compendium of Events in the Province of Texas.[1] With a single offhand mention of the Karankawas, A Brief Compendium seems like an unusual place to begin a historiography.[2] But this work is important because it inspired a far more influential text: Father Juan Agustín Morfi’s History of Texas.

Bonilla’s A Brief Compendium claims that the colonization of Texas failed because of the incompetence of mission priests. Padre Morfi, an accomplished Franciscan friar, became so incensed upon reading Bonilla’s conclusion, that he spent the next decade writing his own history of Texas—this time shifting the blame for Texas’s failures to Indians, presidials, and the Spanish government. While Bonilla had never set foot in Texas, Morfi had toured the country extensively in 1777 (albeit he never actually passed through the Karankawas’ territory).[3]

As Father Morfi wrote his history of Texas, the Karankawas and Spaniards were at war—a one-sided war at that. The Spaniards seeking to control the Karankawas’ coast, attempted to commit genocide on three separate occasions.[4] Each time they were handedly repulsed. By 1780, the Commandant General Teodoro de Croix proposed abandoning all Spanish holdings on Texas’s coast.[5] With the Spanish presence in Texas in such dire straits, Padre Morfi found little issue depicting the Karankawas as demonic: “the Carancaguases are a vile nation, pusillanimous, treacherous, and extremely cruel. They do not number even 150 warriors, if that, but their cunning and treachery make them more to be feared than if they numbered 1,500.”[6]

Father Morfi finished his history in 1783 due to an untimely death. It set in stone the image of Karankawas as inherently hostile, and mythologized the Karankawas as impossible to civilize—as a Natives who carried off children to eat.[7] Ultimately the Karankawas triumphed in their war with the Spaniards, but the history Father Morfi produced served as a mighty weapon in future conflicts.

In 1821, thirty-eight years after Morfi published his History, Stephen F. Austin crossed the Sabine River and upon encountering the Karankawas, wrote: “The Karanquas may be called universal enemies to man…there will be no way of subduing them but extermination.”[8] While an Anglo-American tradition of seeing First Peoples as sub-human certainly shaped Austin’s views, so too did Father Morfi’s writings as Tejanos who grew up learning about the “pusillanimous” Karankawas guided Austin on his trek across Texas. Later, when Anglo-American colonizers settled in the middle of the Karankawas’ territory, they had a base of propaganda at their disposal to justify exterminating the original occupants.[9] And while they harped on Karankawas’ incivility and cannibalism as Morfi did, the new settlers also created their own propaganda: particularly the notion of the Karankawas being giants.[10]

Fast-forwarding again, this time to the late 1800s, Texas became a hot topic in the United States. People wanted stories of the frontier before the frontier as they knew it “disappeared.” Capitalizing on this craze, numerous early settlers of Texas produced memoirs of their time in the Lonestar state. And because the Karankawas’ genocide is central to the settlement of Texas, these autobiographies justify the killings by, once again, referring to these Native Americans as “the most savage looking people [ever] seen.” [11] They then glorify the massacres by saying that they were heroically protecting their families.

J.W. Wilbarger’s Indian Depredations in Texas (1890) best illustrates this sort of lore. Spanning almost 800-pages of personal and secondary anecdotes, Wilbarger’s history treats First Peoples as only capable of violence. “They were the Ishmaelites of Texas,” warns Wilbarger “for their hands were against every man, and every man’s hand was against them.”[12] When addressing the fact that Karankawas peacefully co-existed among the very first Anglo-Americans of Texas, Wilbarger comments “it is true they sometimes professed to be friendly to the whites who had settled near the coast…but no one had any faith in their sincerity, as it was well known that they always took a white man’s scalp whenever they thought they could do so with impunity.”[13]Amazon.com: Indian Depredations in Texas eBook: J. W. Wilbarger ...

Whenever Native Peoples fought against colonizers, they often faced an unexpected and powerful weapon—that colonizer’s history. While the Karankawas defeated the Spaniards during Father Morfi’s time in the 1780s, the history the Spanish Padre wrote played a significant role in the Karankawas’ genocide by Anglo-American hands fifty years later.


When professional historians in the early twentieth century began writing about Karankawas, they had an extremely misleading historical record at their disposal. French, Spaniards, Mexicans, Tejanos, and Anglo Americans all blamed Karankawas for their troubles. Herbert E. Bolton, who is considered the father of borderlands studies, is one of the first professional historians to write extensively about these Indians. He continued to perpetuate perceptions of Karankawas as inherent barbarians.[14] “These tribes represented perhaps the lowest grade of native society in all Texas,” comments Bolton in 1906, “their tribal organization was loose, and their habits were extremely crude.”[15]

With the Karankawas scholastically labeled as the “lowest grade of native society” by the most respected historian in the field, a deluge of other historians and anthropologists reinforced this view. Carlos Eduard Castañeda, another big-name, echoed Bolton almost word for word in 1936: “The Karankawas represented the lowest grade of native society in all of Texas.”[16] Being the first Hispanic hire at the University of Texas at Austin, Castañeda’s name currently dons their main library—as well as a series of books which earned him renown: Our Catholic Heritage in Texas, 1519-1936. In the same vein as Bolton, but to a much greater degree, Castañeda valued Spanish perspectives over Native perspectives. In most of the behemoth volumes of Our Catholic Heritage, padres who sought the cultural erasure of Indians are deemed heroic. Karankawas who denied this cultural annihilation are deemed animalistic. While Bolton’s and Castañeda’s historical contributions to Texas are immense, they too fell prey to propaganda created by Spaniards and Anglo-Americans decades prior.

As dehumanizing depictions of the Karankawas bloomed in academia, they absolutely flourished in popular literature. Journalist Edward Kilman’s Cannibal Coast (1959) represents a particularly low trough in the Karankawas’ representation.[17] In the first five pages of Kilman’s work, Karankawas are identified as seven feet tall, inherently aggressive, and having a voice like a turkey’s. “The Karankawas,” assures Kilman, “are the meanest, greediest, laziest, most treacherous, lecherous, vicious, cowardly, insolent aborigines of the Southwest, the scourge of the frontier.”[18] Cannibal Coast’s issues are apparent. Unfortunately, it offers the closest thing to a comprehensive history of the Karankawas. Earlier academics found themselves reliant on it despite its pure racism.

In the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, scholars began situating Native Peoples at the center of their histories. Labeled New Indian History, this movement hit Texas rather late. Whiffs of this campaign inspired W.W. Newcomb, Jr.’s The Indians of Texas: From Prehistoric to Modern Times (1972). Reprinted five times, Newcomb is one of the first writers to refute the theory of Karankawas as being inherently savage because they practiced cannibalism and moved nomadically. Albeit, Newcomb still ranks their culture as “inferior to and lower than those of Central Mexico and the Southeast area in the sense that much less energy per person was harnessed.”[19] A hierarchical ranking of cultures is problematic, but it shows that academics began to look at Karankawas in a more objective, and by the numbers point of view. In other words, scholars began to destroy overt instances of prejudice—even if they replaced these prejudices with subtler versions.

Renowned archaeologist Robert Ricklis finally deconstructed the prevailing notion of Karankawas as culturally deficient Indians in 1996. His archaeological study, The Karankawa Indians of Texas, rightfully portrayed these Indians as ingenious, innovative, and imaginative. Instead of mindlessly wandering in search of sustenance, Ricklis showed that the Karankawas mastered their environmental niche. Instead of attacking any white who landed on their shores, Ricklis showed that the Karankawas were willing to meet intruders with open attitudes. And instead of being taken advantage of by missionaries, Ricklis showed that the Karankawas beguiled the Christians to their own advantage. Making Ricklis’s work unique is the ecological foundation the book rests firmly upon. By analyzing osteological evidence, Ricklis uncovered the Karankawas’ population sizes, demystified seasonal migration patterns, and highlighted these Indians ability to constantly adapt to a changing landscape.The Karankawa Indians of Texas: An Ecological Study of Cultural ...

Following in the footsteps of Ricklis, academics pushed back on stereotypes related to the Karankawas. Such works include Kelly Himmel’s The Conquest of the Karankawas and the Tonkawas (1999) and David La Vere’s The Texas Indians (2004). Himmel and La Vere began revisiting overwhelmingly propagandized descriptions of Karankawas and pointed out biases and inconsistencies. Soul-hungry priests, like Father Morfi, were refuted and dismissed. Belligerent Anglo-Americans, like Stephen Austin, were rightfully rebuked. Kelly Himmel’s and Robert Ricklis’s books are the two best books on these Indians in press.

The dismissal of the embellished Anglo-American and Spanish sources has created some surprising outcomes. For instance, a large number of contemporary historians believe that Europeans and Anglo-Americans completely fabricated the Karankawas’ cannibalism as a means to justify their conquests of these Peoples.[20] While colonizers did use tales of the Karankawas’ cannibalism as a rationale for their onslaughts on these Indians, the Karankawas did practice a rare and ritualistic cannibalism prior to the nineteenth century.[21] With cannibalism seen in such a negative light, present-day historians feel that if they admit to the Karankawas’ cannibalism, they admit to the Karankawas’ “savageness.” But by dismissing the Karankawas’ anthropophagy, historians are dismissing a deeply meaningful cultural practice. Nevertheless, Karankawas being identified as man-eaters truly is problematic—especially considering the practice ceased two hundred years ago.

Today, Carol Lipscomb’s online encyclopedia entry is perhaps the most-read history of the Karankawas. Last updated in 2016, the piece shows that there is still a great deal of progress to be made. It has a host of errors, such as the statement that Karankawas traveled and gathered “in small bands of thirty to forty,” despite Ricklis and other primary sources showing that the Karankawas consolidated into macro-bands of hundreds of individuals.[22] Yet, Lipscomb’s most egregious error—an error nearly every historian has thus far shared—is visible in her first sentence: “The now-extinct Karankawa Indians played an important role in the early history of Texas.” The Karankawas are not extinct. They continue to reside and thrive on their homelands.[23]

While Carol Lipscomb’s history is likely the most read, Stephen Harrigan’s 925-page Big Wonderful Thing: A History of Texas is the most recent. Harrigan brings nothing new to the table in regard to the Karankawas, but his work highlights two repeated issues in present-day histories of these Indians. The first is that he tells the Karankawas’ history from the Europeans’ perspective. There exists thousands of narratives on the shipwrecked Spaniard Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca. They all sound the same. They are all written the same. They all are choked for creativity—I would know, I am one of the thousands of historians who have written about this encounter from the Christians’ perspective.[24] Not one scholar tells the tale from the perspective of the Karankawas—the Indians among whom saved Cabeza de Vaca.Big Wonderful Thing: A History of Texas (Texas Bookshelf ...

The second issue is that Harrigan fails to insert Native characters into his history. While the Texas Observer writes that “Harrigan is at his best when he concentrates on the state’s abundance of big personalities,” the big personalities among the Karankawas are invisible.[25] Harrigan, who utilizes secondary sources throughout his work, is not to blame. Although there exists an incredible assortment of fascinating Karankawa characters such as Joseph María, Manuel Alegre, Balthasar, Llano Grande, and Capitan Grande, historians have failed to feature them in their work.[26] Harrigan had no knowledge of these characters. He, therefore, could not spread their stories to the general public.

In looking to the future, scholars need to better integrate the Karankawas’ point of view and historical actors into their histories. They also need to utilize alternative sources and methodologies like the environment or oral histories. Furthermore, scholars need to build upon the notion of starting their histories of Native Peoples prior to European contact—as La Vere does quite well in The Texas Indians. And finally, Karankawas are alive today—the writing of their history requires their voice.


[1] Antonio Bonilla, “Bonilla’s Brief Compendium of the History of Texas, 1772,” The Quarterly of the Texas State Historical Association 8, no. 1 (July 1904): 65.

[2] This mention of the Karankawas being, “The Carancaguazes Indians were asking to be brought into missions, allowances for ten soldiers were added to the Presidio of la Bahia del Espiritu Santo, in the year 1758; yet even to this day they abide in their heathenism, becoming apostates when the inclination ceases them.” Bonilla, “Bonilla’s Brief Compendium of the History of Texas,” 57.

[3] Over the span of six months (1777 to 1778), Morfi toured Texas with the new Commandant General of the interior, Theodore de Croix. Croix and Morfi never made it to the Karankawas homelands. Instead, the touring party stopped in San Antonio—100 miles short. In San Antonio, they might have encountered some mission Indians of the Karankawa culture.

[4] I am submitting an article to the SWHQ on this war over the summer.

[5] Teodoro de Croix, Teodoro de Croix and the Northern Frontier of New Spain, 1776-1783: From the Original Document in the Archives of the Indies, Seville, trans. and ed. Alfred Barnaby Thomas, (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1941), 75-85.

[6] Juan Agustín Morfi, History of Texas, 1673-1779, trans. Carlos Eduardo Castañeda (Albuquerque: The Quivira Society, 1935), 79-80.

[7] Father Solis popularized this account of baby-eating Karankawas. See Gaspar José de Solís, “The Solis Diary of 1767,” Sons of Dewitt Colony Texas, accessed Feb 13, 2018, http://www.sonsofdewittcolony.org/alarconex5.htm.

[8] Stephen F. Austin, “Journal of Stephen F. Austin on his first trip to Texas, 1821,” The Quarterly of the Texas State Historical Association 7, no. 4 (April 1904): 305

[9] For more on the Karankawas’ genocide, see Kelly Himmel, The Conquest of the Karankawa and the Tonkawas, 1821-1859 (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1999), 15-22.

[10] See Tim Seiter, “Sizing-up the Karankawas: Were the Karankawas Giants?,” Karankawas, June 10, 2018, /https://karankawas.com/2018/06/10/sizing-up-the-karankawa-were-the-karankawa-giants/.

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

[12] J.W. Wilbarger, Indian Depredations in Texas (Austin: Pemberton Press, 1967), 198.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Herbert Bolton, “The Founding of Mission Rosario: A Chapter in the History of the Gulf Coast,” The Quarterly of the Texas State Historical Association 10, no. 2 (October 1906): 115; Carlos E. Castañeda, Our Catholic Heritage in Texas, volume 3 (7 vols., Austin: Von Boeckmann-Jones, 1936–58; rpt., New York: Arno, 1976), 3. Anthropologist John R. Swanton later  depicted these Coastal Native Americans as residing at the bottom of a “cultural sink,” or in other words, a Peoples who meagerly scratched out an existence with dregs of a culture thrown in. See J.R. Swanton, Southern Contacts of the Indians North of the Gulf of Mexico (Annaes, XX Congreso Internacional de Americanistas, pp. 53-59, Rio de Janeiro, 1924).

[15] Bolton, “The Founding of Mission Rosario,” 115.

[16] Castañeda, Our Catholic Heritage in Texas, volume III, 3.

[17] For similar examples of this style of journalistic reporting of the Karankawas see Joseph Dyer, in Joseph Osterman Dyer Scrapbook 1915-1923, (Rosenberg Library, c. 1920s); Gary Cartwright, Galveston: A History of the Island (Fort Worth: TCU Press, 1991), 18-19.

[18] Edward Kilman, Cannibal Coast (San Antonio: The Naylor Company, 1959), x.

[19] William W. Newcomb, Jr., “A Reappraisal of the “Cultural Sink” of Texas,” Southwestern Journal of Anthropology 12, No. 2 (Summer, 1956): 145-153.

[20] Himmel, The Conquest of the Karankawa and the Tonkawas, 21-22; David La Vere, The Texas Indians (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2013), 62; Gary Clayton Anderson, The Conquest of Texas: Ethnic Cleansing in the Promised Land 1820-1875 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2005), 53; Todd Smith, From Dominance to Disappearance: The Indians of Texas and the Near Southwest, 1786-1859 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2005), xii; Robert Lee Maril, Cannibals and Condos: Texans and Texas along the Gulf Coast (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 1986), 49-50; John Tunnel and Jace Tunnel, Pioneering Archaeology in the Texas Coastal Bend (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2015), xiv

[21] Tim Seiter, “Karankawas: Reexamining Texas Gulf Coast Cannibalism,” Karankawas, May 11, 2019, https://karankawas.com/2019/05/11/karankawas-reexamining-texas-gulf-coast-cannibalism/.

[22] Ricklis, The Karankawa Indians of Texas, 138. For quick historical example, see Jean Béranger, Béranger’s Discovery of Aransas Pass: A Translation of Jean Beranger’s French Manuscript, ed. Frank Wagner (Corpus Christi: Friends of the Corpus Christi Museum, 1983), 22. Béranger describes visiting the Karankawas’ and seeing “a large market town…[with] five hundred persons, at least, well sheltered.”

[23] Most recently, see Ryan Garza, “City council proclaims ‘Indigenous Peoples’ Day’ in October,” Kris 6 News, Corpus Christi, https://www.kristv.com/community/city-council-proclaims-indigenous-peoples-day-for-oct-2.

[24] I would know—I am one of the thousands of historians who have written about this encounter from the Christians’ perspective.

[25] Steven Kellman, “‘Big Wonderful Thing’ Valiantly Fits Much of Texas History Into a Single Book,” Texas Observer, texasobserver.org/big-wonderful-thing-valianty-fits-much-of-texas-history-into-a-single-book/.

[26] Correspondence between Espadas and Martínez Pacheco on the subject of the coastal Indians, October 26, 1789, Béxar Archive; Cabello to Croix, reporting massacre committed by the Karankawa Indians on the coast, May 30, 1780, Béxar Archive; Proceedings concerning Croix’s instructions on method of warfare against the Karankawa Indians, November 25, 1782, Béxar Archive; Espadas to Martínez Pacheco, reporting the arrival of a messenger from the Cuxan Indians, making overtures for peace, October 26, 1789, Béxar Archive.

One thought on “Historiography of the Karankawa Indians

  1. My family are descendants of the Karankawa people and I have spent so much time trying to find our history accurately depicted so I humbly thank you for this blog. I created a website to help meld my roots with modernized spirituality, with a focus on moon rituals and cleansing as my ancestors did. Feel free to check it out if you’d like. Love and light.

    Liked by 1 person

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