Sign Language

The following are a collection of sources that in some way describe the Karankawas’ use of sign-language:

[1684-1687] The La Salle Expedition to Texas: 1684-1687

Author: Henri Joutel

Written In: ~1691

Description: Henri Joutel served as a trusted lieutenant during Sieur de La Salle’s attempt to establish a military settlement deep within the Karankawas’ territory in 1685. When French settlers and the Karankawas first encountered each other, they maintained cordial relationships. Trouble began when one of La Salle’s ships Aimable became grounded and split-up in the Bay. Some days after Aimable grounded, La Salle’s men saw the Clamcoehs (Karankawas) with goods from the shipwreck. A small number of hot-headed Frenchmen went to the Karankawas’ camp with their weapons on display and started a war. The Karankawas proved adept at ambushing and killing stray Frenchmen. The French proved less adept at ambushing and killing the Clamcoehs.

With La Salle’s colony floundering, the cavalier decided to traverse a thousand miles northward to Canada and acquire aid. Before doing so, La Salle made peace with the Karankawas. Forty-six of the original two-hundred and eighty colonists remained. Sixteen men accompanied La Salle, including Joutel. Twenty-five men, women, and children remained at the colony. Moreover, four deserters (or men purposefully left by La Salle among Native Americans groups) lived among the Caddos and Coahuiltecans.

On La Salle’s trip north, his men murdered him and would have murdered Joutel had they not been calmed by La Salle’s brother, Jean Cavelier. Joutel and those who did not participate in the assassination traversed to Canada and returned to France in late 1688. His journal is widely considered the most accurate source concerning the La Salle colony. 

Relevant Information:

(1) La Salle’s first encounter with the Karankawas is mutually friendly. They swim to his ship, he provides clothing and food and asks about his location. Karankawas return to the beach and invite the French to land, but with seas too rough, La Salle continues further down the Texas coast. Karankawas follow his progress (72-75). This is key because often historians blame Karankawas for “immediately beginning depredations upon the colony.” Kathryn Stoner O’Connor, Presidio La Bahía (Austin: Von Boeckmann-Jones Co, 1966), 3. Instead, the Karankawas treated the newcomers with respect.

(2) In search of the Mississippi, La Salle lands his men on Matagorda Island and has them march along the coast until they encounter the river. On this march, they notice that the Karankawas had previously burned the prairie—likely to drive out game and attract buffalo to new sprouts (83, 139). Moreover, men are anxious about Karankawas. Not because of anything the Karankawas had done, but rather the European idea that Natives were inherently “savage” (84).

(3) The Karankawas second major encounter with La Salle is, again, quite favorable (88-89). Joutel describes the Karankawas’ sign language. Specifically, “demonstrating friendship by putting their hands over their hearts” (88).

(4) Karankawas invite a few of La Salle’s men to their village. Joutel describes their  settlement in detail (89-90).

(5) La Salle’s ship Aimable wrecks (91-92). La Salle’s men spotted some Karankawas with bolts of Normandy blankets from the wreckage (93). A group of men, unwisely chosen by La Salle, recklessly march into the Karankawas’ camp with their weapons on display, causing most Karankawas to flee. These Frenchmen reclaimed their goods and in turn, stole canoes and other items from the Karankawas. They started a war. Karankawas ambush and kill two of these men shortly after (94).

(6) Karankawas are watching the French in their fort (98-106). They are keeping the men anxious and unable to stray too far. In short, they are making the living experience horrendous.

(7) La Salle makes a sweeping attack against the Karankawas. He and his men killed four and captured three women (117). One woman died from her wounds. A young girl was baptized and then shortly after perished (136). What became of the last woman is unknown. 

(8) Karankawas kill six men in revenge (120).

(9) Another skirmish with the Karankawas takes place (141-142).

(10) Yet another skirmish is recorded, one Karankawa is wounded, presumed possibly dead (147-148).

(11) La Salle is preparing to leave for French-Canada, but before doing so he tries to make peace with the Karankawas so they will no longer attack Fort Saint Louis (155-159). Joutel writes, “if these precautions of [peace] had been taken from the moment we arrived in the country, the natives would not then have killed so many of us” (157).

Access: Henri Joutel, The La Salle Expedition to Texas: 1684-1687, ed. William C. Foster, trans. Johanna S. Warren (Austin: Texas State Historical Association, 1998). Unfortunately, educational fair-use only allows me to post 10% of this text. If you have the means, this source is well worth acquiring. There is a great deal of additional information that I wish I could upload. And more generally, Joutel’s account is plain fascinating. If additional context is required, contact me.

Further Reading: Robert Weddle has written prolifically on the La Salle expedition. See particularly: Weddle, The Wreck of the Belle, the Ruin of La Salle (College Station: Texas A&M University Press), 2001; Weddle, Wilderness Manhunt: The Spanish Search for La Salle (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1973); Weddle, “La Salle’s Survivors,” The Southwestern Historical Quarterly 75, no. 4 (April, 1972): 413-433.

Tags: Appearance, Canoes, Disease, Dress, Environment, Hunting, Shelter, Sign-language, Trade, War


[1687] Juan Enríquez Barroto’s Voyage and Diary

Author: Juan Enríquez Barroto

Written In: 1687

Description: When the Spaniards learned that the French had settled in Texas, they sent numerous expeditions to locate and ultimately destroy the French establishment. Juan Enríquez Barroto served as chief pilot on one of these searches by sea in 1687. He mapped geographical features and recorded all that he saw. Sailing north from Veracruz, this expedition hugged the entire coast of Texas and treated with nearly every Native American group along that coast.

Relevant Information: 

(1) Spaniards attempt to kidnap a Karankawa. With a knife, the Karankawa wounded three of his would-be captors and caused the Spaniards to flee. See April 7th, pg. 173.

(2) A war between the Atakapas and Karankawas during this period is implied. In 1719, a shipwrecked Frenchman who the Akokisas enslaved, validates a conflict between the Akokisas and the Karankawas. See April 23rd, pg 184. And the Simars de Bellisle entry.

(3) The Karankawas geographical range is labeled as from around Aransas Bay to Matagorda Bay. From Corpus Christi southward, Enríquez labels as being the lands of “pelones y rayados” (bald and tattooed), or Coahuiltecans. From Galveston Bay northward, Enriquez labels as being the lands of the Akokisas and Atakapas. Karankawa Indians increased their borders in both directions over time. 

Access: Robert Weddle, La Salle, the Mississippi and the Gulf (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 1987) 173-174. I am unable to post a full copy of this text because of fair-use conditions, so I have only uploaded the sections that have relevance to the Karankawas. If additional context is required, contact me.

Further Reading: For more on how the Spaniards learned of the French settlement of Fort Saint-Louis, see Weddle, Wilderness Manhunt: The Spanish Search for La Salle (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 1973), 7-14.

Tags: Appearance, Canoes, Environment, Height, Sign Language, Trade, War


[1690] Alonso De León’s Second Expedition

Author: Alonso De León, the younger; Damián Massanet

Written In: 1690

Description: After Alonso de León’s expedition to the coast, the Viceroy of New Spain ordered Alonso de Leon back to Fort Saint-Louis to burn it completely to the ground. Suspicious as usual, the Spaniards had no intention of giving the French an opportunity of repopulating their failed fort. The Viceroy also ordered De León to capture the remaining French interlopers living among the First Peoples in the area. 

Analogous to the 1689 expedition, two authors are represented in this entry. Alonso de León, who kept a detailed diary during the entrada (pages 405-425), and Father Massanet, who accompanied de León and wrote a letter about his experiences after these expeditions occurred (pages 367-388). Of note, both chroniclers thought very little of the other. Both de León and Massanet discuss an “old Frenchman” who helped guide the expedition. That Frenchman is Jean Henri. These sources also discuss the “Tejas,” these Indians are Caddos, not Karankawas.

Relevant Information:

(1) The expedition arrives at Fort Saint Louis and burn it to the ground. Pages 369 (Father Massanet), page 409 (Alonso de León Diary).

(2) In an attempt to acquire children that the Karankawas abducted and adopted from Fort Saint Louis, violence breaks out. Spaniards, in-turn, kidnap three children from the Karankawas: Marie-Madelaine, Robert, and Lucien Jr. Talon. Three more children remain among the various Karankawa groups on the coast: Jean-Baptiste, Eustache Brahman, and an unnamed French girl. Father Massanet and De León’s testimony on this event differ dramatically (see my honors thesis, page 29). Juan Bautista Chapa also relates this event, but his loyalties lie with De León. Jean-Baptiste Talon’s testimony (see Jean Baptiste Talon’s entry, page 241) is likely the most accurate accounting of this incident. Pages 384-385 (Father Massanet), pages 419-421 (Alonso de León Diary).

Access: Herbert E. Bolton, Spanish Exploration in the Southwest: 1542-1706, (New York: Barnes and Noble Inc., 1908), 367-387; 405-424.

Further Reading: Lola Orellano Norris, General Alonso de León’s Expeditions into Texas: 1686-1690 (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2017). Bolton’s version has numerous errors. Lola Orellano Norris’s recent translations are the best available. She also gives fantastic background information on the expeditions themselves. Bolton’s version is nonetheless represented because the document is in the public domain. To see the path De León took, see William C. Foster, Spanish Expeditions Into Texas (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2000), 17-33.

Tags: Environment, Migrations, Shelter, Sign Language, Smoke Signals, War


[1718] Diary of the Alarcón Expedition Into Texas

Author: Fray Francisco Céliz (I will write a Handbook of Texas entry)

Written in: 1718-1719

Description: In 1718, Governor of Texas Martin de Alarcón was tasked with establishing a mission and presidio on the San Antonio River, with resupplying the missions among the Caddos in East Texas, and with selecting potential settlement sites “for the purpose of repelling all foreign invasion or commerce.” During his expedition, Alarcón took twenty-nine troops, nineteen religious, and three Hasinai Indians to explore the Karankawas’ territory (pg 58). They brought trade goods in hopes of winning the trust of these coastal Peoples. Alarcón made contact with a group of eighteen Karankawas. After both parties exchanged goods, the Karankawas told Alarcón the location of the razed Fort Saint-Louis where he took official possession of the bay in the name of the Crown. Alarcón made no further contact with the Karankawas.

There are two known written accounts of Alarcón’s expedition into Texas. Fray Pedro Perez de Mezquía wrote a diary that covers a small portion of the expedition without any mention of Karankawas. Fray Francisco Céliz wrote an exhaustive journal of the expedition, which is attached to this entry. There is no extant record kept by Martín de Alarcón, the expedition leader.

Relevant Information:

(1) Two local Indians guiding the expedition (perhaps the Pacuache Indians) fled because of their fear of coastal Indians (pg 50).

(2) Two more Indian guides, a Moruame Indian and a Payaya Indian, fled the expedition. Again, likely a fear of conflict with the coastal Indians which demonstrates that these Coahuiltecan-speakers and the Karankawas must have been in a larger conflict (pg 59). The three Hasinai Indians who Talon labeled as being the “ancient enemies” of the Karankawas sometime in the late 1680s, did not abandon the expedition. This is likely because they had closer ties with the Spaniards and Alarcón’s expedition planned to head to Caddo lands after exploring the coast. A similar instance of Hasinai’s occurred in 1690 during Alonso de León’s second expedition into Texas, see Bolton, Spanish Exploration in the Southwest, 384.

(3) Alarcón’s party encounters two Karankawas, who upon seeing the expedition, “threw themselves into the water and crossed the cove by swimming” (pgs 64-65).

(4) Alarcón once again makes contact with Karankawas, this time a group of eighteen: two on the beach and four men, four women, and eight children in a single canoe (pgs 65-66). This impressively sized canoe is significant because past historians have incorrectly labeled Karankawas’ sea-faring vessels as simply being “logs upon which they sprawled on their stomachs and paddled with their hands.” Kathryn Stoner O’Connor, Presidio La Bahía (Austin: Von Boeckmann-Jones Co, 1966), 246.

(5) This group of eighteen Karankawas treats with the Alarcón party (pgs 65-67). Both groups talk peace through sign-language and gifts.

(6) A short distance out of the Karankawas’ land, an uncountable number of Aranama Indians sought to ally with the Spaniards. They asked for a mission to be placed near the razed location of Fort Saint Louis. This tells us that the Aranamas and Karankawas were on good terms as the proposed mission would be on both their lands. Moreover, Aranamas believed by acquiring a mission, they could acquire a somewhat regular stream of trade goods as the Hasinais enjoyed.

Access: Fray Francisco Céliz, Diary of the Alarcón Expedition Into Texas, 1718-1719 ( The Quivira Society, 1935).

Further Reading: William C. Foster, Spanish Expeditions Into Texas (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2000), 127-143. Fritz L. Hoffmann, “The Mezquía Diary of the Alarcon Expedition into Texas, 1718,” The Southwestern Historical Quarterly 41, No. 4 (Apr, 1938): 312-323.

Tags: Canoes, Customs, Environment, Sign Language, Trade