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History of the Karankawa Tribe

Tanaya Navalkar Mar 18, 2020
The Karankawa tribe, now extinct, resided along the Gulf Coast of Texas and played a vital role in the early history of Texas.

Did You Know?

As very little is known about the language, it is believed that Karankawa meant 'dog-lovers' or 'dog-raisers,' which sounds logical as they had dogs, which were fox-like or coyote-like breeds.
Karankawas were a Native American tribe that played an important part in establishing the early history of Texas. They were also known as Carancahua, Clamcoëhs, and were called Auia in their language. They inhabited the Gulf Coast of Texas from Galveston Bay to Corpus Christi Bay.
Their first historical recorded was reported in the 1520s, and they completely disappeared by the 1850s. The European explorers and American settlers gave valuable information about the tribes and their lifestyle. What we know about the Karankawas today comes from the written accounts of them.

Read on to know the history of the Karankawa Indians.

History of Karankawa Indians

❑ The Karankawas were first reported of in the year 1528 when a Spanish explorer, Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, arrived near Galveston, and was among the survivors who were shipwrecked from the Panfilo de Narváez expedition.
❑ He was cared for by the natives and lived with them for several years, and what we know of the tribe today is from his written accounts. He generated the most apt and valuable records of the Karankawas till date.

❑ The stories showed that they had come from further west to escape their enemy, the Comanche, and in search of better hunting areas.
❑ It is believed that they may be related to a tribe of giants on the Coast of California.

❑ They were not visited by the Europeans again for about a century and a half, when in 1685, a French expedition arrived.
❑ The expedition was led by René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, who established a French colony named Fort St. Louis in Matagorda Bay, in the heart of Karanakawa area.
❑ The Karankawas then soon attacked the other settlers and held the small children captive, who were later rescued by the Spanish expeditions in early 1690s. Eventually, Texas was taken over by the Spanish, who tried to get Karankawa into their missions, but proved to be unsuccessful.
❑ The Karankawa held on to their nomadic lifestyle until they fell prey to an epidemic disease and warfare in the 1850s, which marked the end of the tribe.

Lifestyle and Culture of the Karankawas


As per the records, only about 100 words of the Karankawa language are preserved, which has not been classified because of very little information about it. Whatever little known is that Karankawa means 'dog-lovers' in their language, although it is not certain.

Appearance and Clothing

The Karankawas were observed to be tall and heavily built because of the physical strength that was needed to travel constantly. The men were remarkably tall, mostly between 6-7 feet in height. They adorned themselves with tattoos, piercings, paints, and ornaments made of shells.
The tattoos were meant to scare off the enemies. They pierced their lower lip and other body parts with small pieces of cane. They greased their bodies with alligator or shark oil to keep away the mosquitoes and other insects. Due to humid climate, they wore minimal clothing that was made of animal skin or Spanish moss.


The Karankawa men were expert in hunting and fishing. They used a long bow and arrow for hunting as well as warfare. The bow stood well over six feet in length, and the arrows were about three-feet long. The bows were made up of the wood from cedar trees that were quite old and rigid.
Several strips of the cedar wood were sandwiched together to make one bow. The fresh cedar wood was used to make the back of the bow because it was flexible and stretchy. The arrows were made from reeds that were found along the seashores and riverbanks. They were lightweight and sturdy.
The arrows when fired, could traverse a distance of about 200 yards. Soon enough, the bows and arrows were made longer as it became easy for them to catch fish and alligators.


The Karankawa tribe was controlled by two chiefs, civil chief and war chief, who were appointed by other people. They were responsible for leading the tribe wherever they went. The civil chief would also plan and arrange gatherings and celebrations that were held in the tribe.
The war chief took over only when there was a war or battle situation. The other members of the tribe looked up to them for advice and support. These positions were reserved only for men, and not women. If the chief died, the tribe would mourn for at least a year before cremating his body.

Food and Shelter

The Karankawa mainly survived on fishing, hunting, and gathering for food and sustenance. They traveled constantly between the mainlands and islands because of the seasonal changes in climate. They never would stay put at a place for more than a few weeks, and were constantly on the move.
Their lifestyle was a result of so much traveling over land and sea, which made them strong swimmers and runners. They traveled in large groups of 30-40 and stopped whenever the chief commanded them to. They used portable wigwams for shelter. The women cooked meals in clay pots and dishes in their wigwams itself.
The basic food of the Karankawa included seafood like fish, crabs, shellfish, turtles, and oysters, deer, and other fruits. In warmer months, they moved to mainlands to hunt for deer and bison, and to gather other food.
The Karankawas built their shelters from tree branches that were roughly bent by hands, rounded up, and woven together. The outer parts of the shelter were then covered with grass, leaves, or animal skin for protection from rain and wind. They were sturdy, and could be built and taken off easily.
They abandoned their shelters whenever they were on the move. They were made large enough to occupy 6-7 people. The shelters were meant only for resting and sleeping at night.

Religion and Customs

The Karankawa Indians indulged in religious gatherings that were called 'mitotes.' Mitotes were usually held on full moon nights. It was often held for celebrating a handsome and generous catch of fish or other animals, or while preparing for a war.
The celebration included music, dances, and consumption of an intoxicating drink by men that was made from yaupon leaves. They also took part in competitive games like wrestling or other games that showed their weapon skills.
It also involved ceremonial cannibalism of their enemies, wherein they would eat pieces of their enemy's flesh in order to gain his power and courage. It was their major cultural tradition. Other customs were that whenever two men spoke, they did not look each other in the eye. Eye contact was looked upon as a challenge, especially between two warriors.
A man who married a woman from another tribe was not supposed to enter the woman's former home. Even his parents-in-law could not visit him or his children in his village. The Karankawa viewed other tribes as their potential enemies. To avoid picking up fights and loyalty, the woman's family from another tribe was not allowed to visit them in their village.

The End

In the early 1800s, an epidemic disease took a toll on the Karankawas, and the population of the tribe immensely reduced. They also had to face the invasion of their lands by the European and American settlers, who overpowered them easily. In the 1850s, the tribe was completely extinct because of the battle between them and the Texas military force.
This was all about the Karankawa Indians, a relatively small Native American tribe, but indeed rich-cultured and interesting, which can be credited for laying the foundation of the society of what it is today.