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The Karankawa (also Karankawan, Clamcoëhs, and called in their language Auia) were a group of Native American peoples, now extinct as a tribal group, who played a pivotal part in early Texasmarker history.

The term Karankawa has been popularly applied to a group of Native American tribes who had a common dialect and culture. These people can be more specifically identified as the Capoques (Coaques, Cocos), Kohanis, Kopanes (Copanes), Kronks and Karankawa (Carancaquacas) bands. They inhabited the Gulf Coast of Texas from Galveston Baymarker in the present-day Greater Houston area, then south toward Corpus Christi Baymarker.

Exposure to new infectious diseases, "land acquisitions", troubles with the newcomers to the land, and wars brought them to extinction before 1860.


Their language (ISO 639-3: zkk), of which only about a hundred words are preserved, is also called Karankawa. It may have been related to the Coahuiltecan. Researchers cannot be certain as so little is known of languages in this region, and there was not a single 'Coahuiltecan' language. The meaning of the name Karankawa is not certain. It is believed to mean "dog-lovers" or "dog-raisers." That rendering seems credible, since the Karankawas had dogs that were a fox or coyote-like species. As a nomadic-type culture, they seasonally migrated between the mainland and the barrier islands.


The indigenous peoples who lived along the Texas Coast from Galveston Islandmarker to a location southward far past Corpus Christi, Texasmarker endured much hardship from the elements but they also adapted well to the rich fishing and hunting. The bays, back bays, lagoons and bayous along the Texas Coast, were the tribal hunting and harvesting grounds. Men waded from the shallow waters in the bays to the deep pools with lances or bow and arrows, to spear fish. Older men, women and children harvested waters for blue and stone crabs, oysters, mussels, sea turtles, shellfish, and other edible crustaceans. They also ate deer and turtles.

They wintered around the coastal bays, eating oysters, clams, shellfish, black drum, redfish, spotted seatrout and the other abundant species of fish. During the summer months and hot weather, the oysters, clams and other shellfish are not safe to eat. The fish made an annual migration out of the pass. Tribal bands would migrate inland during this period. Trying to escape the damage of summer tropical storms and hurricanes was another reason for their migration inland. There are accounts that Karankawas were seen as far inland as Colorado Countymarker at Eagle Lakemarker, close to from the coastline. No evidence shows they made permanent camps there.

They traversed the bays in dugouts and lived in round thatch huts. Some of the campsites show a population of several hundred. They discarded clam and oyster shells and heaped them in huge mounds around the camp sites. Their most prized hunting tool was the long bow, some well over six foot long and arrow shafts as long as three feet, making it easier to spot and retrieve them from the shallow waters. Their major inland game were deer and American Bison, as discarded remains of these animals have been found at the camp sites. They also harvested local roots, berries and nut. They used the leaves of Ilex vomitoria, the Yaupon Holly, to prepare as a tea. They drank it in quantity for the psychoactive effects from its caffeine.(Newcomb 79).

Encounters with Spanish Conquistadors

The Karankawa peoples were living a nomadic existence in 1519 when they first encountered Spaniards, led by Alvarez de Piñeda. They were surveying the coast. Governor Francisco de Garay of Jamaicamarker had commissioned de Piñeda to explore the Gulf Coast from Floridamarker to Veracruzmarker.


The heavily tattooed, pierced, and painted nomadic Karankawa tribe held the islands for the most part in south Texas. Their territory was perhaps from the west end of Galveston Islandmarker down the coast to the mouth of the Rio Grandemarker, and inland about 25–65 miles depending on the region. Superb hunters, fisherman, warriors and longbow archery experts, they were a powerful enemy to anyone wishing to take their prime hunting grounds away.

They made a strong impression on those who wrote of encounters. The men were strikingly tall, described as between six and seven feet (180-213 cm). They were tattooed and wore shell ornaments. Many greased themselves with shark liver oil to ward off mosquitoes and other biting insects. The men pierced each nipple as well as the bottom lip of the mouth with small pieces of cane.

Encounters with Jean Lafitte

After being run out of New Orleansmarker around 1817, the pirate Jean Lafitte relocated to the island of Galvestonmarker, where he established another "kingdom" named Campeche. In Galveston, Lafitte either purchased or set his claim to a lavishly furnished mansion used by French pirate Louis-Michel Aury, which he named Maison Rouge. The building's upper level was converted into a fortress where he placed cannon to command Galveston harbor. In 1819, a brief encounter between the Karankawa and Lafitte's men proved to be a great loss for the natives. Three hundred Karankawa warriors tried to retrieve one of their women from Lafitte's men. Lafite used the cannons against the natives, causing numerous casualties and deaths.


In common with other coastal tribes of Texas and Louisiana, the Karankawa practiced ritual cannibalism of blood enemies. In 1768, a Spanish priest wrote an account of the Karankawa ritual ceremonies. He portrayed the Karankawa as believing that eating the captive's flesh would transfer the captive's power and strength to those who consumed him. The natives tied a captive to a stake. While dancing around him, they would dart in, slice off a piece of flesh and roast it in front of the victim in a prepared campfire. Then they would devour it.

Some recent authors have suggested that the Karankawa were mistaken for the Atakapa (Atakapan or Attakapan) people, Gulf Coast tribes whose lands stretched from Galveston Bay to Bayou Teche and Vermillion Bay in Louisianamarker. The people of these tribes were known for their body tattoos and their cannibalism of enemies.

Recent scholarship has questioned traditional claims that the Karankawa were cannibals. It has drawn attention to accounts of the Karankawa made in the record of Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca in 1528. Finding Cabeza de Vaca lost and frightened when washed ashore on Galveston Islandmarker with the few survivors of the ill-fated Pánfilo de Narváez Expedition, the Karankawa sat down and wept with them.

Housing and location

The Karankawa used poles and animal skins to make huts. They often built by the ocean. Their neighbors were the Caddos, among others.

External links


  • Andrés Reséndez. A Land So Strange: The Epic Journey of Cabeza de Vaca. Basic Books, Perseus, United States of America, 2007. ISBN 0-465-06840-5

  • Newcomb, W. W. (1961). The Indians of Texas, from prehistoric to modern times. Austin: University of Texas Press.

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