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 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.
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”→
A surprising number of historians consider the Native Americans that saved and later enslaved de Bellisle to be the Karankawas. 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” lookedthe same. 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.
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.” 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. 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. The ineptitude of their captain, the lack of potable water, and an illness spreading through the ship worried them greatly. 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. They believed Ship Island to be only a few dozen miles away, not three hundred and fifty. Continue reading “The Marooning of Francois Simars de Bellisle on the Texas Gulf Coast: Part One”→
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””→
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.