Research, Photos, and a Blog about the Karankawa Peoples of the Gulf Coast
Author: Tim Seiter
I am a Ph.D. student in the Clements Department of History at Southern Methodist University. I am writing a history of the Karankawa Indians of Texas while developing an online archive that is hosted on this website. In addition to the Karankawas, I do research on colonial Texas more broadly. I'm currently working on an overview of presidial life in eighteenth-century Texas, and another piece on the Akokisas, Bidais, Cocos, and Mayeyes, Native Peoples who united and participated in a weapon trading network that spanned from Great Britain to Texas.
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.”
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. 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.”
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. 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?”→
A few months back I commissioned the talented Michelle Huang to paint a portrait of two Karankawa Native Americans: one male, one female. Often being caricatured, this painting of the Karankawas served as a more accurate depiction of the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Karankawas. In creating the piece, Michelle used first-hand descriptions from those eras, photography on this website for the portrait’s environment, and live models. I purposefully avoided providing her with other artists’ interpretations of the Karankawas (Tapia’s among others) and more telling quotes from different time periods for fear that it would influence the painting.
You can see the sources Michelle worked with below. These first-hand descriptions of the Karankawa make up almost every account of these coast people in a nearly two hundred year span. They come from primarily three sources: Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, who in 1528 crash-landed on what was likely Follets Island among the Capoque (a Karankawa-cultured tribe); Henri Joutel, a trusted captain of Sieur de La Salle’s ill-fated mission to locate the Mississippi; and Jean-Baptiste Talon, who as a boy was abducted from Fort St. Louis by the Clamcoeh. More Europeans encountered and wrote about the Karankawa during this time period, but few provided further information on what they looked like.
Short Answer:The most important food sources for the Karankawaswere scallops, oysters, buffalo, deer, various plants like cattail and dewberries, and fish like red and black drum, trout, and sheepshead.
Long Answer: What the Karankawa ate varied depending on the season. During the summer months, the Karankawas focused on larger game like deer and buffalo; while in the colder months, the Karankawa focused on marine resources like fish and shellfish. This is not to say that the Karankawas neglected hunting mammals during the winter or neglected fishing during the summer, rather these resources were not as nutritionally economic.
This seasonal availability of food created a push and pull factor that, in large part, is responsible for the millennium-long semi-nomadic lifestyle of the Karankawas. In the fall and winter, the aquatic resources were more abundant and the Karankawa were more active on barrier islands and around the bays. In the spring and summer, with the influx of the buffalo and with fruits becoming ripe, the Karankawas moved further inland. This roaming lifestyle allowed the Karankawas to encounter other inland Indian tribes who together cooperatively hunted buffalo and traded information, goods, and possibly blows. Continue reading “What did the Karankawa eat?”→
When the Panfilo de Narváez expedition devolved into desperation in modern-day Florida, the conquistadors decided to build five make-shift rafts in an attempt to make their way to a possible source of salvation—Pánuco. They believed Pánuco to only be a week or so away. In actuality, Pánuco was over a thousand miles distant.
In 1528, the Narváez expedition launched their rag-tag fleet of rafts on the Bay of Horses, so named because every third day while constructing their boats, the Spaniards slaughtered a horse for food. All five rafts began to drift west, and all ultimately crash landed on the coast of Texas. Exactly where on the Texas coast has been a point of contention for the past hundred years. This week Taylor Ferguson and I took pictures of where I believe Cabeza de Vaca’s raft landed: not on Galveston Island as many think, but instead on Follets Island to the south.
I have a yaupon tree in my backyard. Today I picked its leaves, roasted them, boiled them, and drank the tea that was produced. The Karankawa, the Gulf Coast Native Americans I study, regularly did the same a couple hundred years ago.
Some folks believe this yaupon tea is the same beverage consumed during the Karankawas male-only purification ceremonies in which puking was standard fare. As one writer describes, “warriors poured vast amounts of this vile liquor down their throats until they began to sweat profusely and vomit.” With the yaupon holly having the scientific name Ilex vomitoria, the tea does seem like a natural contender in inducing vomitting. Fortunately, my stomach and I had no such experience.
Yaupon is the only tree native to Texas that naturally produces caffeine and the tea made with its leaves provides about as much punch as a small cup of coffee. It isn’t something that should ever make you hurl. Alice Oliver, in Albert Gatschet’s history of the Karankawa, witnessed a band of Karankawa drinking this beverage and it “never seemed to produce any visible effect upon the Indians.” Cabeza de Vaca, who also observed the brewing of this type of tea, makes no mention of it causing vomiting in his narrative, only that the men spit out the drink if a woman moved during the ceremony. Even Gaspar de Solis, in his notoriously biased account of the Karankawa, makes no remark of yaupon tea causing vomiting. Instead, I believe that another beverage, one that was limited to these purification ceremonies and consisted of different ingredients, is probably the drink with the emetic properties.Continue reading “Ilex vomitoria”→