Frequently Asked Questions

Who are the Karankawas?

Where do the Karankawas live?

Are there multiple Karankawa tribes?

What did the Karankawas eat?

Were the Karankawas nomadic? Did the Karankawas have homes?

What do the Karankawas look like?

What does the Karankawas’ land look like?

How long did the Karankawas protect their land?

What language do the Karankawas speak?

Did the Karankawas originate from the Caribbean?

Were the Karankawas giants?

Did the Karankawas practice cannibalism?

Why are there so many misconceptions and myths surrounding the Karankawas?

Can you improve this page or a question’s answer? Let us know.

Who are the Karankawas?

The Karankawa people are a Gulf Coast cultural group. Prior to European contact, the Karankawas likely numbered more than eight thousand.[1] They thrived. After European contact, the Karankawas remained in control of their Coastal Bend territories and advantageously played would-be colonizers off each other. Foiled by these Natives, Europeans depicted the Karankawas as the most savage people in Texas—a myth that persists to this day.

Over time, the Karankawas’ population dwindled from appropriation, disease, displacement, and warfare. In the middle of the nineteenth century, after being forcibly removed from their homelands, the Karankawas were either compelled to integrate into Mexican and Anglo-American society or tracked down and killed. Even so, surviving Karankawas retained and passed down aspects of their culture generation after generation. 

In the twenty-first century, the Karankawa Kadla (mixed Karankawas) formed to gather and organize individuals who identified as partially Karankawa. The Karankawa Kadla has since revitalized the Karankawan language, worked with local authorities to protect burial sites, and developed education programs that combat traditional Anglo education. After centuries of strife, Karankawas remain on their homelands as a persistent people.

Karankawa Chiara Sunshine Beaumont. Photographed by Liz Moskowitz

[1]  Robert Ricklis, The Karankawa Indians of Texas: The Karankawa Indians of Texas: an ecological study of cultural tradition and change (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996); 127-130.

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Where do the Karankawas live?

Generally, the Karankawas lived on the land between Corpus Christi Bay and Galveston Bay. It’s important to note that the Karankawas’ territory shifted depending on the time period. Upon first contact with Europeans in 1528, for instance, these people’s northern range was likely near the edges of Galveston Bay, but throughout the next hundred years, the Karankawas seem to have incorporated Akokisa peoples into their culture and at the beginning of the 1800s, they resided around Galveston proper where they found the notorious pirate Jean Lafitte trespassing on their land. Today, Karankawas live throughout Texas in cities such as Alamo, Corpus Christi, Dallas, Donna, Houston, and Galveston, and even as far west as California.

We can sketch the Karankawas’ traditional territory with relative accuracy because of the unique Rockport pottery they produced. Throughout Texas, they were one of the only tribal groups that regularly decorated their ceramics with asphaltum (naturally occurring tar). With that in mind, archeologists can determine the Karankawas’ tribal boundaries by pinpointing the furthermost extent of this Rockport ware. 

“Idealized decorated Rockport pottery vessels from central Texas coast.” For more on Rockport Pottery, visit Texas Beyond History.

Robert Ricklis, an accomplished archeologist, determined the inland boundary of the Karankawas as being 25 miles from the coast.[1] Beyond that point, excavations uncovered pottery without asphaltum and pottery without fine sandy coastal paste; these other ceramics, which heavily utilized crushed bone tempering belonged to inland groups such as the Aranamas and the Tonkawas. Gayle Fritz, in her surveys around the Colorado River and East Matagorda Bay, saw pottery attributed to groups like the Akokisas (Goose Creek and San Jacinto ceramics), which determined the northern boundary of the Karankawas around present-day Matagorda City.[2] The work of Robert Mallouf and associates placed the southern boundary of the Karankawas beneath Baffin Bay. There, archeologists could not locate any pottery shards from the Rockport phase.[3]

By examining Anglo, Spanish, Mexican, and French sources, we see the Karankawas moving well beyond their archeologically-defined boundaries. For example, during the Karankawa-Spanish War, the renowned chief Joseph María and his brother, Mateo, demonstrated a thorough understanding of the lands south of Corpus Christi Bay when they led fifty-five warriors two hundred miles along the seashore south to Camargo (near present-day Reynosa), where they stole a large herd of horses and goats.[4] And the Coco-Karankawa tribe, which is usually placed around the mouths of the Brazos and Colorado Rivers, is found in the historical record ranging as far inland as 150 miles. [5]


[1] Ricklis, The Karankawa Indians of Texas, 187.

[2] Gayle Fritz, Matagorda Bay Area, Texas: A Survey of the Archeological and Historical Resources, research report 45 (Austin: Texas Archeological Survey, University of Texas, 1975), 100. For more on Goose Creek and San Jacinto pottery see especially, Lawrence E. Aten, Indians of the Upper Texas Coast (New York: Academic Press, 1983).

[3] Robert J. Mallouf, Barbara J. Baskin, and Kay L. Killen, A Predictive Assessment of Cultural Resources in Hidalgo and Willacy Counties, Texas, archeological survey report number 23 (Austin: Texas Historical Commission, 1977), 189, 196.

[4] “Proceedings,” Nov. 25, 1782, BA; “Expedition Against the Karankawas, 1779,” in Kinnaird (ed.), Spain in the Mississippi Valley, the Revolutionary Period, 334.

[5]  William C. Foster, Historic Native Peoples of Texas (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2008), 84.

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Are there multiple Karankawa tribes?

“Karankawas” is an umbrella term and refers to multiple groups that spoke the same language and shared a similar culture. Prior to the 1780s, these tribes viewed themselves as autonomous entities. When the Spanish attempted genocide on the Karankawas in the late eighteenth century, various Karankawa clans unified to fight a common enemy. After neutralizing the Spanish threat, these clans mostly returned to governing themselves independently.

There were five major Karankawa clans during Texas’s colonization: 

  • Copanos, who resided near Corpus Christi and Copano Bay.
  • Coapites, who resided near San Antonio Bay.
  • Cujanes, who resided near Matagorda Bay.
  • Carancauhauses, the most populous Karankawa group and the culture’s namesake, resided near Matagorda Bay.
  • Cocos, who resided near the Colorado River and Galveston Bay.

Today, the two largest Karankawa clans are the following:

  • The Coyote Clan, which is based out of Houston and Galveston.
  • The Hawk Clan, which is based out of Corpus Christi.

When researchers delve into the Karankawas’ past, they are often overwhelmed by all the different names colonizers gave these coastal peoples. There are at least thirty name variations. These divergences are listed below and are important to enumerate for two main reasons. First, it allows researchers to identify Karankawa groups that are recorded with these unique names. Second, when scholars are working through the archives and wish to use a search function, they will have a list of terms to input.[1]

CarancauhausCoapitesCocosCopanosCujanesKarankawas
Carancowasos 
Carancouas
Carancaguases
Carancahuaces
Carancahuaz
Carancahuazes
Carancaguas
Carancaguaces
Caranhuase
Clamcoest
Guapites









Copanes









Cuxanes
Cuzanes
Clamcoest
Cujanos
Kohini





Carankuas
Craunkaways
Carankawaez
Coastal people
Indios bravos
Karankaways
Koronkaway
Coronks
Kronks


[1] See also, Albert Samuel Gatschet, The Karankawa Indians, the Coast People of Texas (Cambridge: Peabody Museum of American Archaeology and Ethnology, 1891), 43.

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What did the Karankawas eat?

“Rangia shell mounds or “middens” are common archeological features along the marshes, bayous, and upper bays of the upper Texas coast.” For more information visit, Texas Beyond History.

The most calorically dense sources of food for the Karankawas were bison, deer, and fish. These first peoples also captured and cooked animals ranging from bears to porpoises. In terms of gathered sustenance, the Karankawas ate a wide array of vegetables and fruits such as cattail roots, blackberries, and prickly pear tuna. Oysters and other mollusks were also staples, and these Native peoples’ villages are often identified by oyster shell middens, which are essentially centuries-old trash heaps of discarded shells.

Listed below are the faunal remains identified in Karankawa middens (refuse heaps). While finding specific animal bones in a midden does not necessarily mean the Karankawas ate that animal, it does give an idea of the potential diversity of their diet. As archeologist Lawrence Aten explains, “Over 125 animal taxa have been recovered archeologically as food remains.” [1]

What the Karankawas ate varied by season. During summer months, Karankawas focused on larger game like bison and deer; while in colder months, they targeted marine resources like fish and shellfish. 

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 moved to their settlements around the bays and on barrier islands. In the spring and summer, with the influx of the bison and with fruits becoming ripe, the Karankawas moved further inland to hunt. This shift to the interior also allowed the Karankawas to encounter inland Indian tribes like the Aranamas, Coahuiltecans, and Tonkawas. The Karankawas cooperatively hunted bison with these other cultural groups and also traded information, goods, and occasionally, blows.

Because the Karankawas lived among estuaries, which as one archeologist labeled as “the most fertile waters in the world,” their population held a steady upward growth prior to European contact.[2] Past historians have inaccurately stated that these Indians spent “most of their waking hours committed to the quest for basic survival in a harsh climate.”[3] Rather, the Karankawas had mastered their environmental niche and, as such, lived a healthy lifestyle. A French child adopted by the Karankawas in 1688 reported that the Karankawas “live to an advanced age, and are nearly always in an excellent state of health.” The adopted child continued by stating that “during [his] entire time there, some six or seven years, [he] saw none of the natives die of illness.”[4] 

Larger Game and Non-FishFish, Shellfish, and Marine MammalsPlants
Most found:
– White tailed deer
– Bison

Lesser found:
– Bear
– Bobcat
– Coyote
– Duck
– Frogs and toads
– Gopher
– Great horned owl
– Javelina
– Lizards and salamanders
– Opossum
– Prairie dog
– Rabbit
– Racoon
– Rats
– Shorebirds
– Shrew
– Skunk
– Snakes
– Squirrel
– Turtles and tortoises
– Wolf
Most found:
– Oysters
– Red and Black Drum
– Scallops
– Sheepshead
– Speckled Sea-trout

Lesser found:
– Catfish
– Clams
– Conch
– Crabs
– Crayfish
– Croaker
– Dolphin
– Flounder
– Mollusks
– Mullet
– Porpoise
– Quahog
– Rays
– Sea snails/Whelk
– Shark
– Whale

Most mentioned in primary sources:
– Berries
– Nuts
– Oak acorns
– Prickly pear tunas

Lesser mentioned:
– Anacua berries
– Granjeno fruit
– Mesquite beans

More coming soon!














[1] Lawrence E. Aten, Indians of the Upper Texas Coast (New York: Academic Press, 1983), 20.

[2] Darren Schubert, “Population Dynamics of Prehistoric Foraging Groups Along the Upper Texas Coast” (Unpublished MA Thesis, University of Houston, 2008), 50.

[3] 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. 1-2 (2011): 221.

[4] R.T. Huntington, “The Interrogation of the Talon Brothers, 1698,” The Iowa Review 15, no. 2 (Spring-summer, 1985), 103.

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Were the Karankawas nomadic? Did the Karankawas have towns?

The Karankawas were a semi-nomadic people. In the spring and summer, familial groups temporarily moved inland and hunted game and foraged local flora. In the winter months, they lived in large towns of upward of five-hundred individuals. 

This distinction of being semi-nomadic is significant because it acknowledges that the Karankawas had settlements. They did not wander to and fro eating whatever passed in front of them. Instead, the Karankawas repeatedly inhabited the same pieces of land—land they still defend and reside on today.  

McGloin’s Bluff, which is situated on the north-eastern side of Corpus Christi Bay (present-day Ingleside on the Bay), was a Karankawa town. It spanned around five football fields in length, was inhabited from the 1300s to the 1700s, and archeologists have located over 40,000 artifacts with thousands more still buried under sand dunes. This land, sold by the Port of Corpus Christi to oil companies, is currently being threatened with destruction by Enbridge, a natural gas distribution company. The efforts of the Indigenous People of the Coastal Bend, the Ingleside on the Bay Coastal Watch Association, and the Karankawa Kadla have temporarily halted Enbridge. 

For more information on McGloin’s Bluff and the Karankawa Kadla’s fight against Enbridge, visit StopEnbridge.com

When conquistadors, errant sailors, or French colonists landed on Texas’s coast, they had a hard time locating fresh water in these bayside environments. The Karankawas, for centuries, passed down knowledge of where springs, seepages, and nearby creeks could be found. With knowledge of where to locate fresh water and with abundantly stocked bays, the Karankawas sustained their large settlements. With rapid industrialization and threats from oil companies such as Enbridge and Moda Midstream these springs and these marine resources are disappearing.

In 1720, the French Captain Jean Béranger, encountered another Karankawa settlement of similar size as the town at McGloin’s Bluff. Sent by the Governor of Louisiana to reconnoiter Saint Bernard Bay (Galveston) in search of a feasible French settlement site, Béranger accidentally sailed past his intended destination and entered Aransas Bay. Béranger stayed in the area for an unspecified amount of time to repair his ship and Biscayan launch “that were springing many leaks.”[1] While there, he encountered, as he put it, “A large [Karankawa] market town built of hide huts that housed over five hundred people.” Later, the Karankawas took him to another village, which he described as a “permanent village of about a dozen large, quite round huts where they kept most of their food for the winter.”[2] 

A depiction of a Karankawa settlement painted by artist Frank Weir.

Most Europeans who encountered Karankawa towns did so through the harrowing experience of being shipwrecked or by becoming adopted or enslaved by these peoples. Only a handful of individuals ever encountered the Karankawas’ settlements overland. This was because colonizers rarely had the knowledge or the transportation (dug-out canoes) necessary to navigate through the labyrinthine coast.

Artist Michelle Huang‘s depiction of the Karankawa Spanish War.

During the Karankawa-Spanish War, the Crown’s troops attempted to exterminate the people of the Coastal Bend, but the Karankawas’ coastal-plains environment acted as an impenetrable barrier for Spain’s punitive expeditions. The sun blistered soldiers’ skin as they aimlessly trudged through putrid marshlands. Knife-like oysters lacerated soldiers’ feet as they waded across shallow lagoons. Wind swept away words and drained energy, and throughout their struggles, the troops saw smoke signals unfurling in the air—the Karankawas tracked their progress. “The Carancahuazes Indians,” wrote an exasperated Spanish Captain, “[have] lost the fear that they had for the armies of my command.”[3]

Spanish sergeant Antonio Treviño was one of the first Europeans to reach the Karankawas’ heartland through an overland path in December 1789. He achieved this feat with multiple Karankawa guides. When Treviño finally reached a Carancahua settlement he described having to walk across “a very narrow entrance nearly surrounded by ocean water.”[4] 

A year and a half later, twenty-nine Karankawas and Antonio Treviño guided two Franciscan priests through the coastal peoples’ territory. The barefoot Fray Manuel Julio de Silva, who wore a heavy chain vest at all times as a means of penance, wrote a detailed letter about his reconnaissance of the Karankawas’ coast. Silva described the Indians’ intricate roadways and waterways, how each of their villages possessed nearly a hundred individuals of whom he ladened with gifts of tobacco, grain, and corn biscuits, and the attractive lands that he believed were the “best and most beautiful that the king of Spain possesses.”[5] 


[1] 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), 20.

[2] Béranger, Béranger’s Discovery of Aransas Pass, 22.

[3] “Charges Made Against Captain Don Luis Cazorla and his Affirmative Defenses,” June 30, 1773, BA.

[4] “Antonio Treviño’s diary of expedition against the Carancaguazes,” December 12, 1789, BA.

[5] Fray Manuel de Silva, Fray José Francisco Mariano Garza and Muñoz, “Concerning missionary work with the coastal Indians,” April 26, 1791, BA.

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What do the Karankawas look like?

Only two images exist of the Karankawas from the colonial period—they are two watercolors sketched by the naturalist Jean Louis Berlandier and painted by Matamoros artist Lino Sánchez y Tapía. During José Manuel Rafael Simeón de Mier y Terán’s 1828-1831 trip through Texas, Berlandier and cartographer José María Sánchez y Tapía (a likely relative of Lino), sketched numerous portraits of the region’s Native peoples. Two images depict the likeness and attire of two Karankawa clans, the Carancahuas and the Cocos (pictured below). After Téran’s trip through Texas ceased and after José María Sanchez y Tapía passed away, Lino Sanchez y Tapía painted Berlandier’s sketches.

As historian John C. Ewers writes when describing these portraits, “these watercolors of Indians are not true scenes, but rather representations of folk costume in the tradition of the European fashion plate. They are not intended as portraits of particular Indians.”[1] 

Fortunately, there are an abundance of photos and videos of present-day Karankawa Kadla tribal members:

Using descriptions of the Karankawas made in the 1500s and 1600s, artist Michelle Huang produced the following depiction of a Karankawa couple which is almost assuredly the most accurate depiction of the Karankawa peoples during these centuries. Even so, the descriptions of the Karankawas that Huang worked with are severely limited and come from the mouths of Europeans. 

Another accurate painting of the Karankawas comes from artist Frank Weir depicting a typical Karankawa settlement and a Karankawa family hunting:

Artist Charles Shaw composed the following two images of the Karankawas for the book From a Watery Grave which describes La Salle’s arrival on the Texas coast:

For all other illustrations of the Karankawas, view the following:


[1] Emphasis my own. Jean Louis Berlandier, The Indians of Texas in 1830, ed. John C. Ewers (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1969),154.

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What does the Karankawas’ land look like?

In 2017, Tim Seiter and Taylor Ferguson received funding from the University of Houston’s Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship to take pictures of the Texas Gulf Coast. The photos show the diverse environment of the Karankawa people. Unfortunately, they cannot depict the environment that the Karankawas lived among more than a hundred years ago. Cattle driving, channel building, and invasive plants have done their fair share to transform the Coastal Bend. 

These are only a handful of photos captured. For the rest, view the photography page. All photos are free to use.


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How long and how well did the Karankawas protect their land?

The Karankawa people protected their land for longer than the United States has been a nation. And today, the Karankawa Kadla still fights for the conservation of the Gulf Coast. Most recently the Karankawa Kadla, with the aid of Indigenous People of the Coastal Bend, with Ingleside on the Bay Coastal Watch Association, and with numerous other organizations ranging from the Sierra Club to Healthy Gulf, is halting the destruction of the McGloin’s Bluff Karankawa settlement site and the further pollution of Corpus Christi bay.

Historically, we see the Karankawas exerting tremendous power and influence from their coastline from first contact with colonizers. Generally, when Europeans intruded on their land, these Native peoples welcomed them with open arms, seeking trade opportunities and seeking to strengthen their own clans. As one adopted member of the Karankawas remembered, “nothing is easier than winning their friendship.”[1] When Europeans overstayed their welcome, committed thefts, or murdered coastal people, the Karankawas forced the outsiders from their lands. 

Below is a short history of the Karankawas that describes how they managed threats from the Spanish, the French, and the Anglo- and Euro-Americans.

First Contact

“Survivors of the Narváez Expedition Shipwreck by José Cisneros.” For more on the Narváez Expedition see the Handbook of Texas.

During the frigid winter of 1528, the Karankawas first encountered Europeans.[2] A makeshift raft of the abortive Pánfilo de Narváez expedition landed on Follets Island off the coast of Texas. Jolted to their senses after a wave “hurled [them] a horseshoes throw out of the water,” forty ailing conquistadors crawled out of the Gulf of Mexico to a rocky spot where they built a fire, ate the last of their corn, and drank some standing rainwater.[3] “Upon seeing the disaster we suffered, our misery and misfortune,” wrote one of the marooned men, “the Indians sat down with us and began to weep out of compassion.”[4] The Karankawas sheltered and fed the conquistadors. When these Native people realized that the Spaniards could not provide for themselves, cannibalized their own, and brought diseases, they felt far less pity. Some of these would-be conquerors were adopted, others killed, and four made an incredible 2,500-mile overland trek to Mexico City.

The French

The second major interaction the Karankawas had with Europeans came more than a century later, in 1685, when the intrepid and intractable explorer Sieur de La Salle established a military settlement (Fort Saint Louis) with roughly two hundred and fifty French nationals on what is today known as Garcitas Creek. During the initial encounter between the French and the Karankawas, both sides had to communicate through sign-language. One member of La Salle’s expedition explained that the Karankawas “rubbed their hands on their chests and then rubbed them over our chests and arms. They demonstrated friendship by putting their hands over their hearts.”[5] This peaceful encounter directly contradicts other historians who blame the Karankawas for “immediately beginning depredations upon the colony.”[6] 

“Situated on a high point on the banks of Garcitas Creek, the small French settlement later to be known as Fort St. Louis consisted only of a two-story building made of salvaged ship timbers, a chapel, and some small jacal structures. Crudely built with roofs of thatch, the huts offered little protection from the natural elements and even less from the Karankawa. Illustration by Charles Shaw (from Bruseth and Turner 2005; courtesy of the Texas Historical Commission).” For more, see Texas Beyond History.

When La Salle’s ship, Aimable, broke apart while attempting to enter Matagorda Bay, the Karankawas collected some of the flotsam that landed on the beach. The Frenchmen saw the Clamcoehs (Carancahuas or Cujanes) with “bolts of Normandy blankets” and other goods from the shipwreck and a small number of hot-headed Frenchmen went to the Karankawas’ camp with their weapons on display. “These [Frenchmen] had more passion than sense,” recalled Henri Joutel, a lieutenant of the expedition, “the Indians returning to their camp and seeing that someone had taken their canoes, skins, and blankets, believed that war had been declared and resolved to take revenge.”[7]

The Karankawas proved adept at ambushing and killing stray Frenchmen. The French proved far less adept at ambushing and killing the Clamcoehs. In late 1685, La Salle resolved to make a sweeping attack on the coastal people to end hostilities once and for all. He achieved little more than the temporary capture of two women, a young child, and the greater infuriation of the Karankawas.

In 1687, La Salle departed Fort Saint Louis to acquire aid for his fledgling colony. Only forty-six of the original two-hundred and eighty French colonists remained. For nearly two years settlers at Fort Saint Louis waited. Anxiety broke out—as did a wave of smallpox. La Salle never returned. Unbeknownst to the colonists, his men murdered him in the woods of northern Texas. Word of La Salle’s assassination trickled down to the Gulf Coast reaching the Karankawas’ ears. Around Christmas time in 1688, the Clamcoehs, blaming the settlers for the outbreak of disease, raided Fort Saint-Louis and annihilated the colonists—save six children who they abducted and adopted.

The Spanish

The ever-cautious Spaniards, worried that the French might attempt to reestablish a colony and encroach on the northern edge of New Spain, built the fort (presidio) Nuestra Señora Santa María de Loreto de la Bahía del Espíritu Santo atop the ashes of the La Salle’s failed settlement. A mission to provide the Karankawas with eternal salvation was established soon after: Nuestra Señora de la Bahía del Espíritu Santo de Zúñiga (Mission Espíritu Santo). 

After antagonistic actions soldiers and missionaries committed against the Karankawas, such as the attempted massacre at Mission Espirítu Santo, La Bahía and Espíritu Santo were relocated to the Guadalupe River for their own safety in 1726. At the command of José de Escandón in 1749, the Spanish military post and mission moved once again for its own protection, this time to the San Antonio River at present-day Goliad, where they both stand today.

Presidio La Bahia currently maintained by the Catholic Diocese of Victoria. Photographed by Taylor C. Ferguson

Seeing La Bahía and the surrounding missions as a free source of goods, the Karankawas regularly visited the two institutions. They were not particularly eager students of the Christian faith. The coastal people “slept through mass, avoided confession, and refused to recite the creed or answer questions on their knowledge of the catechism.” These missions, besides being an easy means of obtaining sustenance and European goods, had little else to offer the Karankawas in exchange for their cultural erasure and their labor. Therefore, when the conquistadors of spirit ran out of food and presents or requested too much toiling, the Karankawas simply fled back to their coast.

When the Spaniards established themselves in Texas, they sought to control and conquer the Karankawas’s coast. In doing so, the Spanish could protect their shipping lanes, they could open their own ports, and they could protect against foreign powers making any further intrusions into Texas. The Spaniards also wanted to stop the Karankawas from raiding their pueblos and their ships. 

With the shallow water of the Texas Gulf Coast, shipwrecks occurred frequently. Sometimes the Karankawas guided Europeans to La Bahía. Other times, they killed or incorporated survivors into their societies and looted the vessels—giving them access to large quantities of valuable items such as guns and powder.   

Due to raids on Spanish ships and the total abandonment of Mission Rosario, the Spaniards declared war on these coastal people around 1778 and over the course of a decade tried multiple times to commit genocide. Led by two war chiefs with the Christian names Joseph María and Mateo, the Karankawas avoided the exterminations and successfully attacked the Spanish until the Iberians considered abandoning La Bahía. 

An exposed foundation of Mission Rosario. Photographed by Taylor C. Ferguson.

In 1789, the Karankawa Spanish War ended. In exchange for peace, the Spaniards reopened Mission Rosario with the provision that the Karankawas could come and go as they pleased. The Spanish also constructed a second mission for these coastal people, Nuestra Señora del Refugio. Secular authorities saw these spaces less as places of conversion but rather as tribute dispensaries—locations to supply and supervise Karankawas.

Anglo-Americans

Peace between the Spaniards and the Karankawas generally reigned on the Texas Coast up until the beginning of the 1800s when Anglo- and Euro-Americans arrived in Texas in force.  After hundreds of years of enduring European diseases, after defending against pressures from other Indian groups, after dealing with a constantly changing and less productive environment, cracks formed around the Karankawas territory.

Between the 1820s and the 1803s, more than 30,000 Anglo- and Euro-Americans settled in and near the Karankawas boundaries. These Americans, instead of settling in self-contained towns like the Spanish and Mexicans, homesteaded in the middle of Native territory and aggressively defended their space—attacking coastal peoples they deemed as “intruders.” 

By the mid-1840s, Texas had an Anglo-American population of 100,000. The Karankawas, at that same time, had a population of a few hundred souls.[8] 

To survive in an increasingly hostile world, the Karankawas united with other first peoples. They also moved south, in some cases into Mexico. Other tribes tried to negotiate and live among the new settlers, but these groups were either exterminated over the course of a few decades or forced to assimilate. In one instance in late 1844, after a tussle between Captain John A. Kemper and a group of Karankawas left Kemper dead, a posse of Anglo-Americans hunted down the Karankawa clan involved and murdered every individual except for a single survivor who hid for a week in the bay marshes. Thereafter, this unnamed Karankawa went into the settlement of Refugio and surrendered. As one chronicler wrote, “he then carried the mail” for the settlers.[9]

Present Day

In 1858, after Juan Nepomuceno Cortina attacked a small band of Karankawas near the Rio Grande, colonizers claimed that these coastal peoples were extinct. Nevertheless, surviving Karankawas across the Gulf Coast retained and passed down aspects of their culture generation after generation. In the twenty-first century, the Karankawa Kadla (mixed Karankawas) formed to gather and organize individuals who identified as being partially Karankawa. The Karankawa Kadla has since revitalized the Karankawan language, worked with local authorities to protect burial sites, and developed education programs that combat traditional Anglo education. After centuries of strife, Karankawas remain on their homelands as a persistent people.

Melissa Zamora and Love Sanchez (Karankawa Kadla) of Indigenous People of the Coastal Bend. For more on the “water wars” in Corpus Christi, see Rolling Stone. Photographed by Rahim Fortune

[1] Robert Weddle, La Salle, the Mississippi and the Gulf (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1987), 251.

[2] Slave raiders might have made earlier contact.

[3] Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, Chronicle of the Narváez Expedition, trans. Fanny Bandelier (New York: Penguin Books, 2002), 30, 37.

[4] Cabeza de Vaca, Chronicle of the Narváez Expedition, 33.

[5] Henri Joutel, The La Salle Expedition to Texas: 1684-1687, ed. William C. Foster, trans. Johanna S. Warren (Austin: Texas State Historical Association, 1998), 88.

[6] Kathryn Stoner O’Connor, Presidio La Bahía (Austin: Von Boeckmann-Jones Co, 1966), 3.

[7] Joutel, The La Salle Expedition to Texas, 93.

[8] Aten, Indians of the Upper Texas Coast, 43-67.

[9] Kelly Himmel, The Conquest of the Karankawa and the Tonkawas, 1821-1859 (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1999), 81.

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What language do the Karankawas speak?

The Karankawa people speak Karankawan. This language is partially preserved with around 500 words known. Alex Pérez of the Karankawa Kadla is the reigning expert on Karankawan. For a guide to speak this language, purchase his book Karankawa Kadla Mixed Tongue: Medicine for the Land & Our Peoples

Our knowledge of Karankawan comes from eight individuals:

Jean Baptiste Talon (1698): Talon lived among the Karankawas as a child in the late seventeenth-century. He provides the most reliable source on the Karankawan language. An interrogator who interviewed Talon in Brest, France listed 29 words.

Jean Béranger (1720): Béranger was a French captain who associated with the Karankawas while repairing his ship in Aransas Bay. Béranger penned 100 words in his journal.

Jean-Louis Berlandier and Rafael Chovell (1828-1829): Berlandier was a young naturalist who encountered the Karankawas while touring Texas with the Mexican Boundary Commission under General Manuel Mier y Téran. Rafael Chovell also accompanied the Mexican Boundary Commission as a mineralogist. Berlandier and Chovell jotted down 158 words. At this point, Karankawa-cultured groups had intermixed with other Native peoples in Texas such as the Akokisas, Aranamas, Coahuiltecans, Mayeyes, and Tonkawas. The Karankawan language, therefore, had shifted and morphed. Even so, this is a phenomenal source of Karankawan.

Old Simon (1884): Simon was a Tonkawa informant for the ethnographer Albert Samuel Gatschet.  Simon knew pieces of Karankawan because he lived among some Karankawas as a child. Gatschet believed Simon was around seventy-five years old, and stated that it “was a difficult matter to obtain any reliable information from him on account of an extreme debility of body and memory.”[1] Simon fuzzily remembered 17 words.

Sallie Washington (1884): Sallie Washington served as another Tonkawa source on Karankawan. Washington lived with a Karankawa man as a younger woman. Gatschet believed Sallie was around seventy-five years old, too. She recollected 6 words.

Alice W. Oliver (1888): Alice Oliver’s father settled in the Karankawas territory in 1838, and as a girl of around 10 years old, Alice met with Karankawas who seasonally visited her small farm. She learned some Karankawan words over the course of a decade, wrote them down, but lost her notebook. At the age of sixty, she tried to remember as many Karankawan words as possible for ethnographer Albert Gatschet. She recollected 137 words. Oliver is a problematic source. In her “Notes on the Carancahua Indians” at the beginning of Gatschet’s report, which is based off her memory, there are a litany of factual errors. Oliver, for example, states that the Karankawas had 3,000 warriors during the Texas Rebellion when in reality the number was likely around a hundred or two.[2] Regardless, the Karankawan she remembered is a decent match with the aforementioned sources.

Guy M. Bryan (late 1800s or early 1900s): Galveston physician Joseph Osterman Dyer interviewed Guy M. Bryan who claimed to know 7 words—how Bryan learned these words is unmentioned. This list is untrustworthy. Dyer is infamous for his misinformation. In one instance, he insisted that the Karankawas subsisted only off “roots, beetles, and the dung of deer,” in another he expounded that these peoples had “a mucous membrane unaccustomed to spiced and hot dishes” and therefore could only eat cold and raw fish.[3] 

This is a compiled document of the above word lists. 

Anthony P. Grant, a linguist from the University of Bradford, has written extensively on the Karankawas’ language. His paper serves as the basis for this section.


[1] Gatschet, The Karankawa Indians, the Coast People of Texas, 79.

[2] Gatschet, The Karankawa Indians, the Coast People of Texas, 15.

[3] Dyer, “Corrected and Epitomized Lessons of Texas History, part 1, period of 1518 to 1807,” and “Reminiscences of Early Galveston,” in Joseph Osterman Dyer Scrapbook 1915-1923, (Rosenberg Library, c. 1920s).

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Did the Karankawas originate from the Caribbean?

The Karankawas have lived on the Texas Gulf Coast for centuries—they did not migrate from the Caribbean and there is no substantial evidence that they are related to the Carib people, or the Kalinago. 

Herbert Landar, a professor of linguistics, started this myth in 1968 when he published “The Karankawa Invasion of Texas.” He argued that the Karankawan language “belongs to the Cariban linguistic stock.” As his evidence, he compared various Karankawan words with the Arawakan, the Cariban, and the Hokan languages. After spotting similarities in words such as “deerskin” and “fly,” Landar concluded that the Caribs invaded Texas.

Landar believed the “invasion” occurred in the 1400s in the form of a Kaliña [Carib] naval raid. The linguist explained that this raid likely skirted the Gulf Coast from present-day Venezuela to Central America and then sailed past Tamaulipas, and landed on the coast of Texas. If true, this means that the raiders traveled over 3,000 miles of treacherous seas to reach their destination. 

Landar got much wrong.[1] Most damning is the copious amount of archeological evidence that places the Karankawas on the Texas gulf coast for thousands of years. For example, the Karankawas’ distinct Rockport pottery can be dated as far back as 1250.[2] The Karankawas’ artifacts easily predate Landar’s idea of a Carib invasion.

Landar’s myth is extremely problematic because it implies that the Karankawas invaded their own sacred spaces. Stating that the Karankawas are Caribs implies that the Karankawas are foreigners on their own land.


[1] Another issue with Landar’s article is that the word lists he relied on were a combination of various languages, not just Karankawan. The majority of the Karankawas’ language was recorded after 1828. At this point, the Karankawa people intermixed with other tribes in the region because of their dwindling population numbers. With this ethnogenesis, it’s likely the Karankawas’ language became a mixture of multiple languages.

[2]  Also see Aten, Indians of the Upper Texas Coast, 297-302.

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Were the Karankawas giants?

A fake “11-foot rattle-snake” killed near San Antonio. By holding the animal closer to the camera, the forced perspective makes the snake look larger than it truly is.

The average height of a Karankawa during the colonial period was around 5’8”.[1] This was certainly taller than the average European and Anglo-American at the time and was because the coastal people, generally, lived a healthier lifestyle with a more diverse diet. They were not the behemoth 7’ height that is mythicized. This misconception is important to debunk because Anglo- and Euro-Americans used the Karankawas’ supposed giantness as evidence of their “unnaturalness.” 

Upon first contact with the Karankawas, Europeans did remark on these coastal peoples’ “tall and well-formed” stature, but these conquistadors never referred to these coastal peoples as giants.

In 1687, three Spanish sailors failed to abduct a Karankawa because, as one of the kidnappers wrote, “all these Indians are of great stature and very robust of limb.” In 1720, French Captain Jean Béranger measured the height of some Karankawas as being roughly 5’8”. Béranger claimed that a few individuals supposedly reached 6’6”! In all likelihood, Béranger exaggerated these first peoples’ height. We know this because Béranger overstated the measurements of the local animals. For instance, he stated that he saw a 16-foot long rattlesnake and that he killed another rattler at 8 feet long and almost 9 inches thick, but could not preserve the snake because “a flock of eagles carried it away and let it fall into some marshes.”[2] Rattlesnakes do not reach such lengths. 

Although Béranger and the Spanish kidnappers commented on the Karankawas’ stature, most chroniclers who lived among or around these coastal peoples make no comment about their height at all.[3]

A rare photo of Joseph Oysterman Dyer, author and originator of many myths related to the Karankawas.

In fact, the legend of giant Karankawas emerged in the early nineteenth century, among Anglo-Americans. John Jenkins, a Texas pioneer, 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,” but the fiction of giant Karankawas flourished most in the hands  of Texas’s early twentieth-century historians. For example, 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. Other historians, like the popular Edward Kilman, followed suit, writing, “Six-to seven footers, they [the Karankawa] towered as giants among savages of ordinary stature, magnificent physical specimens, but facially hideous.”[4] 

Eventually, the myth became so widely circulated and accepted that it found its way into Texas’s school systems and subsequently into the minds of Texas’s students.[5]

When Karankawa remains are unearthed and the long bones are still intact, it’s plain to see that these coastal peoples were not giants. A study done by George and Edna Woodbury in 1935, analyzed sixteen specimens of “prehistoric” bones found on the Texas Coast, near or in the Karankawas’ territory. The Woodburys concluded that the average height of the specimens were 5’7”.[6]


[1] The Karankawas’ average height was equivalent to the typical American’s height today.

[2] Béranger, Béranger’s Discovery of Aransas Pass, 23.

[3] 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.

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

[5] See particularly, 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. 1-2 (2011)

[6] The Woodbury’s, however, recognize the constraints of their study in that the skeletons were “limited in number and fragmentary in condition.”

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Did the Karankawas practice cannibalism?

The Karankawas, along with most other Native groups in Texas, practiced a limited form of anthropophagy prior to the 1800s. The Karankawas’ exocannibalism served to dishonor an enemy (similar to how scalping functioned culturally) and as a means of absorbing a foe’s power.[1]  Anthropophagy was reserved for “ancient enemies” and was meant as the highest level of disrespect.[2] Lack of sustenance did not drive any form of cannibalism.[3] And the anthropophagy occurred on deceased bodies—not on a living and breathing victim.[4] By the mid-eighteenth century, the Karankawas’ anthropophagy diminished after repeated contact with Europeans.[5]

The only legitimate first-hand account of the Karankawas’ cannibalism comes from Jean-Baptiste Talon in 1698. Talon, who the Karankawas abducted and adopted at the age of ten described the following to an interrogator in Brest, France:

“The only meals that horrified him were those [the Karankawas] made of human flesh, as they are all cannibals, but toward their savage enemies only. They never ate a single Frenchmen that they had killed because, they said, they do not eat them. And the said Jean-Baptiste Talon vouches that he once went three days without eating because nothing presented itself during that time except some human flesh of the Ayennis whom they had killed on one of the expeditions.”[6]

Stephen Fuller Austin. “’The Settlement of Austin’s Colony,’ a painting by Henry Arthur McArdle, hanging in the House of Representatives chamber in the Texas Capitol.” New York Times

There are no legitimate eye-witness or insider accounts attesting to Karankawas cannibalism thereafter.

Even though the Karankawas ceased practicing cannibalism, Anglo-Americans, Europeans, and Tejanos used their reported anthropophagy to justify genocidal acts.[7] For example, Stephen F. Austin, in his first contact with the Karankawas, exclaimed, “The Karanquas may be called universal enemies to man—they killed of all nations that came in their power, and frequently feast on the bodies of their victims…there will be no way of subduing them but extermination.”[8] Of note, Austin’s land grant included the Karankawas’ land, and he sought to rid them from the valuable coastline. Over the course of the next decades, Austin’s settlers used the propaganda of cannibalism to commit genocide on the Karankawas.

Throughout the 1900s, historians aggrandized the Karankawas’ anthropophagy as a means to fit the popular stereotypes of these Native peoples as fierce barbarians.[9] These sensationalist scholars trusted accounts made by belligerent Whites, like Stephen F. Austin, as wholly factual. Consequently, these writers had no qualms describing the Karankawas as “the meanest, greediest, laziest, most treacherous, lecherous, vicious, cowardly, insolent aborigines of the Southwest, the scourge of the Frontier.”[10]

Around the 1980s, with the rise of New Social history, New Western history, and a wave of revisionism in Texas, some writers rejected that the Karankawas practiced cannibalism.[11] Robert Lee Maril, in his vignette-packed Cannibals and Condos, provides a particularly powerful example: 

Accusations that the Karankawas ate human flesh are always third-, fourth-, or fifth-hand, never eyewitness accounts. Not a one. Cabeza de Vaca, who lived among the Karankawas for some years, never mentioned cannibalism in his journals. The practice of cannibalism is not found in neighboring coastal tribes to the north or south….By branding these Indians as cannibals, Europeans who explored and finally settled the Texas Coast justified their policy of extermination.[12] 

Present-day academics are rightfully skeptical of accounts made by colonizers and rightfully skeptical of histories that intend to depict the Karankawas as ferocious fiends. But, in short, the Karankawas did practice a limited cannibalism. Colonizers exaggerated this anthropophagy and used it as justification for murdering innocent Karankawas.


[1] For accounts that indicate this, see Weddle, La Salle, the Mississippi and the Gulf, 253; Mattie Austin Hatcher, Descriptions of the Tejas or Asinai Indians, 1691-1722, II,” Southwestern Historical Quarterly 30, no. 4 (1927): 294, 303; John R. Swanton, Indian Tribes of the Lower Mississippi Valley and Adjacent Coast of the Gulf of Mexico (San Francisco: Dover Publications, 2013), 143-149; James Mooney, “Our Last Cannibal Tribe,” Harper’s Magazine, September 1901, 555, https://harpers.org/archive/1901/09/our-last-cannibal-tribe/; Jenkins, Recollections of Early Texas, 76-77; Andree Sjoberg, “The Culture of the Tonkawa: A Texas Indian Tribe,” Texas Journal of Science 5, no. 3 (1953): 292-293; Smithwick, The Evolution of a State, 130. For further information, see Seiter, “Karankawas: Reexamining Texas Gulf Coast Cannibalism Honors Thesis,” 78-94.

[2] As Jean-Baptiste Talon recalled, the Karankawas cannibalized “their savage enemies only….they never ate a single Frenchmen that they had killed because, they said, they do not eat them.” There are multiple reasons for this restrictive and ritualistic cannibalism. The first is that the Karankawas likely associated the Europeans with noxious spirits. The Karankawas bathed each day, ate plenty, and knew the land intimately. The French lived in squalid conditions, scared away game, and ignored customs of the land. And when the Europeans arrived at Fort Saint Louis, disease broke out. The second reason is that the Karankawas saw Europeans as outsiders who held differing cultural beliefs, and with such cultural illiteracy, they could not fully comprehend the damning spiritual implications of exocannibalism. A third reason is that the Karankawas did not consider the various groups of Texas colonizers as “ancient enemies.”

[3] Some scholars erroneously exclaim that the Karankawas spent “most of their waking hours committed to the quest for basic survival in a harsh climate.” Such connotative images of the Karankawas struggling to survive on the Gulf Coast are grossly inaccurate and feed into false notions of Karankawas who needed to practice cannibalism to glean some source of sustenance, but acquisition of sustenance never precipitated cannibalism. The Karankawas had much easier and safer means of acquiring calories. Archaeologist Robert Ricklis puts it best: “Hunting down a buffalo is much less dangerous than hunting a human.” Darren Schubert, “Population Dynamics of Prehistoric Foraging Groups Along the Upper Texas Coast” (Unpublished MA Thesis, University of Houston, 2008), 50; 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. 1-2 (2011): 221; Robert Ricklis, personal conversation, recorded.

[4] The notion that the Karankawas ate the flesh of their victim before their very eyes stems from the heavily biased account of Father Gaspar José de Solís. For more on the issues with Solís’s account see, Seiter, “Why Are The Karankawa Indians Remembered as Savage Cannibals?,” https://texoso66.com/2019/09/24/why-are-the-karankawa-indians-remembered-as-savage-cannibals/.

[5] This is likely due to repeated contact with Spaniards in the eighteenth-century, which as Robert Ricklis explains, “catalyzed a significant degree of acculturation to the previously resisted Christian ideology, as well as to behavioral patterns derived from European culture.” Ricklis, The Karankawa Indians, 155-157.

[6] Weddle, La Salle, the Mississippi and the Gulf, 238.

[7] First Peoples also labeled their enemies as “cannibals” to dissuade Europeans from making contact with opposing Indians, see Kathleen DuVal, The Native Ground: Indians and the Colonists in the Heart of the Continent (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006), 34-35; Amanda Snyder, Slavery in Indian Country (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010), 56-58. Native American groups used this label as a deterrent, not as justification for wanton murder. Some historians have read DuVal and Snyder and concluded that Gulf Coast cannibalism was “not a physical cannibalism, but a way that Native groups conceptualized and discussed the violence of slave raids. So, in other words, cannibalism or ‘child eating’ is absolutely about slavery.” Anonymous, email message to author, January 11, 2018. This view does not align with the multiple first-person sightings of anthropophagy along the Gulf Coast. There is, however, truth that Native Americans stole and enslaved their enemies’ kin.

[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] See Edward Kilman, Cannibal Coast (San Antonio: The Naylor Company, 1959); Cartwright, Gary Cartwright, Galveston: A History of the Island (Fort Worth: TCU Press, 1991), 17-24; A.B.J. Hammet, The Empresario Don Martín de León (San Antonio: Texian Press, 1973), 62-65; Gerald Ashford, Spanish Texas: Yesterday and Today (Austin: The Pemberton Press, 1971), 16; Carlos E. Castañeda, Our Catholic Heritage in Texas: The Mission Era, the Missions at Work, 1731-1761, vol. 3 (Austin: Von Boeckmann-Jones, 1938), 3; David McComb, Galveston: A History (Austin: University of Austin Press, 1986), 32-34. For a general look into how the Karankawas have been sensationalized in schools across Texas, see 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. 1-2 (2011): 219-236.

[10] Kilman, Cannibal Coast, x.

[11]  Kelly Himmel, The Conquest of the Karankawa and the Tonkawas, 1821-1859 (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1999), 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. Of note, Anderson, La Vere, and Smith rely on Himmel as their main source of repudiation. Himmel’s work, in nearly all regards, is wonderful, hence why authors have taken him at his word. Anderson discusses that the Karankawas “used a form of ritualistic cannibalism in ceremonies, consuming bits of a conquered enemy’s flesh to acquire his or her strength” in an earlier work, but seems to have changed his mind in Conquest of Texas, see Anderson, The Indian Southwest, 1580-1830 (Norman: The University of Oklahoma Press, 1999), 40.

[12] Maril, Cannibals and Condos, 49-50. Included in this paragraph is also the following statement: “To date, no archeological evidence suggests cannibalism occurred among these Indians.” Although some archeological evidence suggests cannibalism in the Gulf Coast region, this evidence is, quite frankly, based on sub-standard archeological work done in the early twentieth-century. See particularly J. E. Pearce, “The Archaeology of East Texas American,” American Anthropologist 34 (1932): 670-687; George Castor Martin, “Notes on Some Texas Coast Campsites,” Texas Archaeological and Paleontological Society Bulletin 1 (1929): 50-57; Tunnel and Tunnel, Pioneering Archaeology in the Texas Coastal Bend, xvi, 6, 174. To learn about the modern archeological criteria for cannibalism see Tim White, Prehistoric Cannibalism at Mancos 5MTMUR-2346 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), 9-10; Christy Turner and Jacqueline Turner, Man Corn: Cannibalism and Violence in the Prehistoric American Southwest (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1999), 1-9. In asking archeologist Robert Ricklis, author of The Karankawa Indians of Texas, if he had ever encountered signs of cannibalism among shell middens (refuse piles), he responded, “I’ve excavated a bunch of sites, and found a lot of bone, refuse bone not burial [bone]. You find deer bone, you find bison bone, you find turtle bone, you find alligator bone—I never found a single piece of human bone. Not one. So if they were cannibals, they did not do it on a regular basis and it was not a dietary habit.” Recorded discussion with Robert Ricklis, Tape 4.  The archeological case for the Karankawas’ cannibalism is lacking.

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Why are there so many myths and misconceptions surrounding the Karankawas?

There are an abundance of myths surrounding the Karankawas because these people so effectively challenged European and Anglo-American control of Texas. These fictions are tenacious because most histories of the Karankawas have either been written by their enemies or rely on accounts made by their foes. This section will provide a brief historiography (a history of written history) on all the books written about the Karankawas.

Indian Depredations in Texas constitutes one of the most biased texts written about Native peoples in the Lone Star State.

One of the first seeds leading to the Karankawas’ mythicization occurred during the Spanish era of Texas. From 1778 to around 1789, the Karankawas and the Spaniards were at war, and the Karankawas were proving victorious. With the Crown’s presence in Texas in dire straits, Iberian chroniclers had little issue depicting the Karankawas as a demonic force. In an early history of Texas, Father Juan Agustín Morf explained that “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.”[1] Anglo- and Euro-American intruders remembered these comments decades later. 

In the late nineteenth century, misconceptions surrounding the Karankawas truly sprouted. Anglo-American colonizers such as Henderson K. Yoakum, John Henry Brown, and Andrew Jackson Sowell wrote their own histories of Texas and having also waged war against the Karankawas, followed in the footsteps of Father Morfi by portraying these coastal peoples as  “a fierce and warlike tribe…that gave the most trouble to early settlers.”[2]

When professional historians in the early twentieth century wrote 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, and these new professional historians believed them. 

Herbert E. Bolton, known as the father of borderland studies, was one of the first professional historians to write extensively about the Karankawas. He continued to perpetuate perceptions of these people as inherent barbarians.“These tribes represented perhaps the lowest grade of native society in all Texas,” commented Bolton in 1906, “their tribal organization was loose, and their habits were extremely crude.”[3]

Edward Wolf Kilman, Texas folklorist and author of the racist Cannibal Coast.

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.[4] Carlos Eduard Castañeda, another large name in the field of Texas history, echoed Bolton almost word for word in 1936: “The Karankawas represented the lowest grade of native society in all of Texas.”[5]

As dehumanizing depictions of the Karankawas blossomed in academia, they flourished in popular literature. Journalist Edward Kilman’s Cannibal Coast (1959) represents a particularly low trough in the Karankawas’ representation.[6] 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.”[7] 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. Archeologist Robert Ricklis deserved credit for fully deconstructing the prevailing notion of Karankawas as culturally deficient people in 1996. His study, The Karankawa Indians of Texas, rightfully portrayed these people 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. 

After 1996, academics continued to push back on stereotypes related to the Karankawas. Such works that do so 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. 

Recently, the Karankawas’ image in the historical record has improved greatly, but 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.


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

[2] Andrew Jackson Sowell, Rangers and Pioneers of Texas with a Concise account of the Early Settlemeents, Hardships, Massacres, Battles, and Wars, by which Texas was Resecued from the Rule of the Savage and Consecrated to the Empire of Civilization (San Antonio: Shepard Bros. & Co., Printers and Publishers, 1884), 36.

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

[4] 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).

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

[6] 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.

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

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