TONKAWA INDIANS (Extract from the Handbook of Texas Online article Indians.)

Ethnologists have identified hundreds of groups of Texas "Indians," as the first European explorers to arrive called the peoples they found. Some of these were true tribes, accumulations of families or clans with social customs, traditions, and rules for order; these were occasionally quite large. At the opposite extreme, some were merely small family groups whose names or ethnic designations were taken for "tribal" names by the Spanish and French and in subsequent secondary literature. The extant names of Texas Indian groups present a dazzling array of variants, partly because the Spanish, French, and English heard the newly "discovered" peoples differently and recorded their names differently. Some names in the historical records are mistakes for groups that never existed.

The Tonkawas were a small group shoved out of the South Plains buffalo range by the Comanches. Unlike the Lipans, they practiced no agriculture. Though originally known to the Spanish as four distinct bands, the Tonkawas unified in the mid-1700s as a response to epidemics and war losses. They were despised by other Indians not just for their raiding and competition for hunting grounds but also because they had a reputation for cannibalism. Tonkawa warriors ceremonially cut off the hands and feet of slain enemies and ate them; this practice, described first-hand by a few white witnesses (such as John S. "Rip" Fordqv in the 1850s), led enemies to seek even greater vengeance for the desecration of their dead kinsmen's bodies. The Tonkawas were even more outcast than the Lipans. The Lipans also allied briefly in the 1780s with groups of East Texas Indians, mainly to establish a source for guns and ammunition other than San Antonio. They made contacts with the small Atakapaqv bands on the lower Trinity River, who had been given two meager Spanish missions in an attempt to block French expansion. The missions never successfully reduced these hunter-gatherers, who had French contacts through the Caddos. At a trade fair held on the Guadalupe River in 1782, Lipans met Tonkawas, Atakapas, and Caddos and traded 1,000 Spanish horses for 270 guns. Such trade continued for four years, and the Caddos, although friendly to the Spanish, were oblivious to Spanish warnings to end it. By the end of the decade, the Caddos were forced to abandon the trade with the Lipans, as the Spanish again turned all the other tribes (including the Tonkawas, briefly) against the Lipans.

Unlike the other groups discussed earlier, the Tonkawas and Lipans allied early with the Republic of Texas. They did so for the same reasons they had previously sought the friendship of Spain, Mexico, and the Caddos-they were small, shrinking groups, and they needed allies to defend themselves against the Comanches when they ventured onto the buffalo range west of San Antonio. They resided between the Colorado and San Antonio rivers in the 1830s and 1840s. They assisted Texans in retrieving horses taken by raiding Wichitas and Caddos, and they joined Texas Rangers in campaigns against the Comanches, as noted earlier. Unfortunately for them, such assistance did not make the Texans treat them differently from other Indians. In one case, a group of Texans and Mexicans in Goliad stole horses from a Tonkawa camp while the warriors were serving with the Texas army on the Nueces frontier. Though many Texans recognized the injustice of the incident, too many potential jurors in the Goliad area were involved in it for the authorities to prosecute the thieves. The Tonkawas responded by robbing and killing some whites, thus arousing residents of Goliad to talk of exterminating them. Thereupon the Tonkawas moved and by the 1840s were living near Bastrop, begging for food, hiring out as cottonpickers during the harvest season, and buying liquor from unscrupulous storekeepers. Members of the Texas Congress attempted to recognize their service to the republic by reserving for them two fourteen-square-mile reservations on the Brazos and Colorado rivers beyond white settlement, a location where they could serve as a buffer against Comanche raids; this proposal, however, was defeated, as were all other similar measures.

George Klos

 Citation: "Tonkawa Indians," extract from The Handbook of Texas Online, Texas State Historical Association, 2001, <> [Access Date].

For bibliography and complete article go to Indians.
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