Fourth Grade ESL

 Mr. Mamontoff - Piney Point E.S. - Houston ISD

The Karankawa

The Karankawa lived south of the Caddo in the grasslands and brush-lands of the Coastal Plains Region. The karankawa were nomadic (moved from place to place), and were hunters and gatherers. In the winter they lived along the gulf coast, fishing and gathering oysters. In the summer, they moved inland to hunt wild animals and gather wild roots, berries and fruits.


The Karankawa built “wikiups” (huts) so they could be moved from place to place. The wikiups were made of wooden poles covered with woven grass or animal hides. In the winter they added more coverings, and in the summer they would adjust the wall coverings to allow a breeze to pass through.

Karankawa diorama in the Brazoria County museum

The bays, back bays, lagoons and bayous along the Texas Coast, were the Karankawa’s hunting and harvesting grounds. Men waded into the waters with lances or bows 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 (passed their winters) 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 and the fish make an annual migration out of the pass. During this period, tribal bands would migrate inland.

Karankawa "wikiup" on the bay

The karankawa’s traversed the bays in dugout canoes. Some of the campsites have evidence of populations of several hundred. The Karankawa discarded clam and oyster shells, heaping them in huge mounds around the campsites. Their most prized hunting tools were the long bow, some well over six feet long, and arrows, with shafts as long as three feet to make it easier to spot and retrieve them from the shallow waters. Archeological excavation of campsites found evidence of discarded remains of deer and American Bison, apparently the major inland game for the tribe. The Karankawa also harvested a variety of local roots, berries and nuts.

Contact with Europeans

The Karankawa were often the first Native Americans encountered by the Europeans who arrived on the Texas Gulf Coast. They made a strong impression on the Europeans who wrote of encounters. The men were strikingly tall, six to seven feet, were heavily tattooed, pierced, and painted. Many greased their bodies with shark liver oil to ward off mosquitoes and other biting insects. They also wore shell ornaments. They were superb hunters, fishermen, warriors and longbow archery experts, being a powerful enemy to anyone wishing to take their hunting grounds away.

Some historians believe that the Karankawa practiced ritual cannibalism of 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.

Other historians believe that that the Karankawa were not cannibals. In 1528, the Spanish explorer Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca was found by the Karankawa after he was shipwrecked (naufragado). According to the account, the Karankawa helped him and even sat down and wept with the survivors. Others believe that this account does not mean that they were cannibals. It simply means that they did not consider the helpless shipwrecked Spanish to be enemies.

After being run out of New Orleans around 1817, the French pirate Jean Lafitte relocated to the island of Galveston, where he established his "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, three hundred Karankawa warriors fought with Lafitte's men at the Maison Rouge compound. Lafitte had two hundred pirates as defenders and also used two cannon against the Karankawa, causing numerous casualties and deaths.

By the mid-1800’s, the Karankawa had died out from European diseases and battles with European groups.

Historical marker of a Karankawa Indian campsite and burial ground.
It is located in Jamaica Beach on the west end of Galveston Island


There are only about one hundred words preserved of the Karankawa 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, which were a fox or coyote-like species, which accompanied them as they seasonally migrated between the barrier islands of the Gulf Coast and the mainland.

Alice Oliver, daughter of a Captain who settled in Matagorda bay, spend a lot of time with the karankawas when she was a child in the 1830s. In fact, she spent so much time with the Karankawas that she learned their language. Her father owned a ranch near the coast and was friendly to the Karankawa. He let them camp on and pass through his land. While they were camped on his land he let his daughter Alice spent time in the camp with them. That is how she learned their language. They never tried to kidnap or hurt her, they were very friendly. Her 1880 account of their language is the only good surviving example of their language we have. Her recollections were recorded by archeologist Charles Hammond for the Peabody Museum. It is one of the best primary eyewitness accounts we have.


Next article: The Jumano