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Karankawa: First People

For thousands of years, the Karankawa people lived on the Texas Gulf Coast, primarily from north of Galveston Bay and to south of Corpus Christi Bay. Archaeological excavations have dated their civilization from before 4,000 years ago.


Neighboring tribes called them the “Klam” (or “Glam”) “kawa” or those who loved dogs since they used coyote-like dogs for hunting. The Karankawa consisted of at least five independent groups who shared a common language and some cultural practices. The names of these tribes were the Carancahuas, Coapites, Cocos, Cujanes, and Copanes.

They lived off the rich food of the coastline, bays, and rivers using dugout canoes. They caught and gathered oysters, mollusks, bay scallops, clams, quahogs, crabs, black drum, redfish, speckled sea trout, Atlantic croaker, sea catfish, southern flounder, silver perch, mullet, sea turtles, and alligators. During the colder months, they moved inland to hunt white-tailed deer, rabbit, birds, and buffalo or bison. They also gathered live oak acorns, pecans, berries, persimmons, wild grapes, sea-bird eggs, nopales (prickly pear cactus fruit), and various roots. They made and baked bread with crushed acorns and pounded roots.



Painting, Karankawa Native Americans by Frank Weir. Courtesy of Texas Beyond History. Image available on the Internet and included in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107.


The Karankawa were adept at archery with bows made of red cedar wood and arrows tipped with flaked stones. They cooked in ceramic pots, stored food in baskets coated with asphaltu or black tar, used adzes or axes, and enjoyed tobacco in smoking pipes, and sewed hides with deer bone awls. Their homes consisted of circular pole frames covered with mats or hides.

Karankawa warriors were tall and well-built with distinctive tattoos. They practiced forehead flattening from birth by placing a piece of cloth, then a thin board, and then a wadded cloth tied to the head with a bandage. The people rubbed sharks or alligator oil on their entire bodies regularly to repel mosquitoes.

The first recorded contact with Europeans was in the Fall of 1528 when a Spanish ship was wrecked on or near the Galveston Island. Eighty men survived the wreck but only 15 lived past that winter. One of those survivors was Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, who lived with the Karankawa for about a year and recorded his experiences in his memoirs.



In 1685, French explorer Robert Sieur de la Salle sailed into Matagorda Bay and built Fort St Louis. When his ship Aimable was wrecked, the Karankawa collected some of the debris and items from the ship. La Salle sent a party to the Karankawa camp where they retrieved their merchandise and then stole the Karankawa canoes. This lead to armed conflict and the Karankawas attacked the remaining settlers at Fort Saint Louis and killed all but six children who were taken captive.

In 1689, the Spanish expedition of Alonso De León and Damián Massanet reported meeting the Caddo people who called themselves “teycha” or “friends.” The word was spelled in such ways as tejas, tayshas, texias, thecas, and eventually “Texas” as a reference to the land.
In 1720, Jean Beranger, a Breton sea captain in service of the French Company of the Indies, reached Aransas Pass and reported “I was surprised, since I least expected to see in a moment a large market town built of these kinds of houses [hide-covered huts] and five hundred persons, at least, well sheltered.”

By 1722, the Spaniards had established the Mission of Nuestra Senora del Espiritu Santo near Fort Saint Louis, on Garcitas Creek upsteam from Lavaca Bay and attempted to convert Karankawas to Christianity. However, according to Father Ignacio Antonio Ciprian, “The mission had little effect on these tribes, who returned to their savage ways.”


Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca is shipwrecked on or near Galveston Island.


In 1821, The Spanish government in Mexico granted Moses Austin land to settle 300 families between Galveston Bay and the Colorado River. Based on their previous experience with Europeans, the Karankawa killed settlers who were guarding the ship John Motley and stole their supplies. However, the plan for settling the area was disrupted by Mexico’s gaining independence from Spain that same year. The new temporary government refused to recognize the land grant. Steven F. Austin, son of Moses, travelled to Mexico City and persuaded them to approve the grant in 1823.


In 1823, Austin commissioned Captain Robert Kuykendall who led 26 members of the Texian Militia to Skull Creek where they killed at least 19 inhabitants of the village, stole the villagers' possessions, and burned their homes to the ground. Kuykendall went on to expel the Karankawa from the territory.



Historical Marker for a Karankawa campsite and burial ground located on Jamaica Beach on Galveston Island

By the 1840s, the Karankawa had split into two groups: one settled on Padre Island, while the other fled into the Mexican state of Tamaulipas. In 1858, Mexican Juan Nepomuceno Cortina led an attack against what was believed to be the Karankawa’s last refuge. By 1891, the Karankawa ceased to exist as a functioning tribe.


  • Adorno, Rolena, and Pautz, Patrick Charles, translators and editors. 1999. The Narrative of Cabeza de Vaca, 1542. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

  • Ciprian, Fr. Ignacio Antonio. 1749. Report of Fr. Ignacio Antonio Ciprian, 1749, and Memorial of the College of the King, 1750. Transcript of the Spanish original and English Translation by Fr. B. Leutenegger. Old Spanish Missions Historical Research Library at San Jose Mission, San Antonio.

  • Cox, I.J., editor. 1905. The Journeys of René Robert Cavelier de la Salle, in 2 Volumes. New York: Barnes.

  • Gatschet, Albert Samuel; Hammond, Charles Adrian; Williams Oliver, Alice (1891). The Karankawa Indians: The Coast People of Texas. Archaeological and Ethnological Papers of the Peabody Museum; Vol. 1, No. 2. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

  • Gatschet, Albert S. 1891. The Karankawa Indians, the Coast People of Texas. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Peabody Museum Press.

  • Linden, Christian. 2023. “A Name with History: Texas and its Fascinating Origins,” Texas View.  

  • Lipscomb, Carol A. 1976. Karankawa Indians.

  • Ricklis, Robert A. 1996. The Karankawa Indians of Texas: An Ecological Study of Cultural Tradition and Change. Austin: University of Texas Press.

  • Smith, F. Todd. 2006. From Dominance to Disappearance: The Indians of Texas and the Near Southwest, 1786-1859. Lincoln: University of Nebraska.

  • Texas Capital Forum, “Native American Tribes in Texas.” 


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