The Indians of Texas

[ Texas ]

The Indians of Texas

From Prehistoric to Modern Times

By William W. Newcomb, Jr.

A classic work on the indigenous peoples of Texas.

Texas History Paperbacks



33% website discount price


6 x 9 | 440 pp.

ISBN: 978-0-292-78425-3

  • Foreword
  • Acknowledgments
  • Part I: Before the Written Record
    • 1. The Beginnings
  • Part II: Savages of the Western Gulf Culture Area
    • 2. The Coahuiltecans: South Texas
    • 3. The Karankawas: Gulf Coast
  • Part III: Nomads of the Plains
    • 4. From Foot to Horse
    • 5. The Lipan Apaches: Conquerors Dispossessed
    • 6. The Tonkawas: Central Texas
    • 7. Comanches: Terror of the Southern Plains
    • 8. Kiowas and Kiowa Apaches: Far-Ranging Raiders
  • Part IV: Barbaric Gardeners
    • 9. The Jumanos: Southwestern Borders
    • 10. The Witchitas: Nations of the North
    • 11. The Caddo Conferedacies: East Texas
    • 12. The Provincial Atakapans
  • Part V: Bitter Bread of Banishment
    • 13. Extermination and Oblivion
  • Bibliography
  • Index

To most Americans the life and livelihood of our Indian predecessors is a romantic and fascinating subject but often a sketchily understood one. The peoples who inhabited present-day Texas at the dawn of historic times are even less well known by the public than most North American Indians and consequently there are probably more myths, absurdities, and falsehoods connected with them than with the natives of any other state. There is good reason for this ignorance and misunderstanding: most Texas tribes disappeared many years ago, some before Americans entered what is now Texas. This has meant that ethnographers—those anthropologists who describe primitive cultures—have not been able to gather firsthand facts about most Texas Indians. What is known about their habits has to be gleaned from the written accounts left by the soldiers, missionaries, and explorers who first visited them. Ethnographers have had their hands so full describing the surviving North American Indian tribes it is no wonder that Indians who can never be known in the flesh have been neglected. As a result no one has written a comprehensive book about the natives of Texas.

My own ignorance of Texas Indians and the conviction that as an anthropologist I should be able to answer questions about these bygone peoples started me on a search for this information. What I learned I have tried to put down in a nontechnical manner, yet this may sometimes be a difficult and unsatisfactory book to read. There are several reasons for this. The life of Texas Indians was often as different from our own as any to be found throughout the entire spectrum of human behavior—any time, any place. Because it was so different and because it is difficult at best mentally to shift gears and put yourself "inside" another culture, the reader, unless he is uncommonly imaginative and perceptive, may find himself unable to appreciate the nature and inner workings of Texas Indian cultures. He may come away puzzled and confused. It is also unfortunately true that some of the Texas Indians are so poorly known that only the major features and landmarks of their cultures can be described. Here the scantiness of details is also apt to leave the reader frustrated. Happily, some tribes intimately associated with Texas are well known. But here, too, the reader is asked to be indulgent, for there is so much information available about some tribes, the Comanches, for example, that it is difficult to cram a balanced yet condensed account of their cultures into single chapters. Nor is this book in any sense an exhaustive, final study of Texas Indians. It is instead a first attempt to put together between two covers the fundamental facts about all Texas Indians. It is not a product of original research; it is a synthesis from many sources, including many modern authorities.

I must confess to having another reason for writing this book. It is the conviction, shared by other anthropologists, that by knowing and understanding tribes and nations far removed from ourselves in time or space, we can gain perspective and objectivity in evaluating ourselves and our age. Such knowledge also sets the stage for a more intelligent and rational appreciation of other peoples in the modern world. To some it may seem odd, even grotesque, that a knowledge of savage Karankawas or bloodthirsty Comanches can be of help in this respect. But it is. Knowledge of others forces us to realize that our ways, our beliefs and ideals, are only our own solutions to what may be common human problems. We come to see that there are many ways of thinking and acting, and that simply because other ways are different from our own does not inevitably make them inferior or wrong. In short, comparative studies of cultures help to lessen the provincial, parochial belief in the superiority of one's own culture. In a day when we are closer than ever before to the rest of the world, it is vital that we have the capacity to understand others and to appraise ourselves realistically.

It is all too obvious that in our shrunken, wrangling world the ways in which different groups of men live and die, think and dream, are tremendously varied. Men, insofar as they have been aware that there were other groups of men, have always attempted to explain these differences. But it has been only within the past century that a science seeking to investigate and appraise all of humanity in a relatively dispassionate way has developed. Since the Texas Indians are treated in this book from this special viewpoint it is necessary to explain briefly what it is. The special viewpoint and concepts are those of anthropology, the broad and inclusive science of human races and civilizations.

One possible answer to the question of why various groups of men— tribes or nations—customarily behave differently from one another (i.e., speak different languages, worship various gods, support different social systems, and prefer to eat different foods), is that they are innately different in their temperaments and biological being. Certainly men do differ from one another; some are short, some tall, some dark, others light, a few stupid, a few brilliant, ad infinitum. Moreover, various geographically distinct populations, such as the American Indians or the natives of Australia, often tend to be physically similar to one another and unlike others. These racial groups are real enough, that is, a number of subspecific, interfertile varieties of Homo sapiens can be distinguished (the number depending upon the criteria used to differentiate them). But the most significant fact about the varieties of mankind is that in important anatomical features (lungs, circulatory system, nervous system, etc.) all men are impressively similar. It is the minor details—hair form and color, skin color, nose shape, and so forth—that distinguish them. The numerous differences in custom and behavior that characterize various groups of men have never been traced to differences in the innate capacities of the races involved. All races seem to have intrinsically about the same capabilities. When groups of men do differ in their customary behavior—when, for instance, some avoid their mothers-in-law, believe that disease is caused by witches, and consider the bloody, raw liver of a buffalo the finest delicacy ever to cross the human palate—it is not attributable to their differing biological or racial affiliations. This does not necessarily mean that human races are esactly equal in inherent intellectual capabilities. The members of some races, on the average, may be inherentlv superior or better able to perform certain activities than the average members of another race. But even if this is so it is still of small moment, for the overlap between racial abilities, whatever they are, must be tremendous. If such differences do in fact exist, their nature is wholly unknown.

We are forced to assume that all groups of men, whatever their racial affiliations, have intrinsically about the same capabilities. Specifically, a Karankawa Indian acted, thought, and dreamed in a particular way not because he, as a representative Karankawa, was different in his biological or physical equipment from other men, whether German, Texan, Hottentot, or Comanche, but because he had learned to be a Karankawa from the moment of his birth. To state it another way, given the opportunity a normal child born of Karankawa parents could have grown up to be—to think and act—like a normal individual of any human society on earth. The Texas Indians are particularly pertinent to this discussion since, racially or biologically speaking, they are a rather homogeneous entity. A11 are members of the Mongoloid race and belong to its American Indian subdivision. The physical variations of Texas Indians were minor, being confined to slight differences in stature and skin color. If the differences in the behavior of various peoples were rooted in their varying race or biology, we should expect all Texas Indians to have had similar, if not identical, customs and patterns of behavior. Nothing could be further from the actual case. The various tribes of Texas Indians were about as diversified in their behavior as Texans, Frenchmen, Chinese, and Bantus are in theirs.

Since the varying biological make-up of various groups of men fails to explain why these groups can consistently behave so differently, what can? Some would immediately claim that the natural environment or habitat is responsible for the diverse behavior of tribes and nations. Surely the snow, ice, and cold do have a great deal to do with why the Eskimos behave like Eskimos and not like Tahitians. But is it as simple as this? Obviously not, for if the habitat determined how men live, could there ever have been a change from one way of life to some other in an unchanging habitat? The present denizens of Galveston are not Karankawas, not nearly. Yet this habitat has not changed perceptibly since the Karankawas roamed the region. There is a close and intimate relationship between habitats and the ways in which men live, but it is not a determinative one. Habitat I does not produce civilization A, nor habitat II nation B. For any habitat, even those that are restrictive and difficult, there are at least several different methods of living possible and usually a great many more. Anthropologists often dispose of this problem by stating that the habitat limits but does not determine the way of life of a people. To be more concrete, Eskimos cannot raise bananas or figs, and the Tahitians could not utilize the igloo for housing. A knowledge of a people's habitat is important in understanding some of the more immediate problems with which they are faced, and this is certainly so for Texas Indians. But it is not the key to understanding them; it is but the stage on which they tread.

Why, then, were Karankawas Karankawas? Why did they think and act differently from Comanches, Lipans, or for that matter, modern, urban Texans? The answer is their culture. The human organisms called Karankawas behaved in a distinctive Karankawan manner because of the culture that possessed them. This, of course, is not a real answer to our question; it merely gives a name to the phenomena responsible for distinctive Karankawan behavior. "Culture" is a word which is slowly seeping into the public vocabulary, but with a vague, shadowy meaning. It could hardly be otherwise when anthropologists themselves currently use the term in many different ways and with a variety of meanings. Originally most anthropologists embraced the definition set forth by the great English anthropologist Edward B. Tylor: "Culture or civilization, taken in its wide ethnographic sense, is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society," and this remains one of the more useful definitions of culture. For the purposes of this book a culture may be taken to mean that "organization of objects (tools, ritualistic paraphernalia, materials of art, etc.), acts (patterns of behavior, customs, rituals, institutions), ideas (belief, knowledge, lore), and sentiments (feelings, attitudes)" which characterize a particular tribe or nation.

Every human organism is born into one culture or another, and quite literally it embraces and envelops him at the moment of birth. We may liken a human infant to a sponge with a thirst for liquids. What it does soak up—oil, salt water, vinegar, ditch water—is determined by the liquid in which it is immersed. Similarly, whether the child grows up to become preacher or cannibal, business tycoon or naked hunter, streetwalker or gleaner in the bush, is determined by the particular culture into which the fates drop him. Different individuals, because of their varied potentialities and the happenstances of their lives, respond in various ways to the cultures in which they find themselves. But a person born in Dallas, no matter what his or her inherent potentialities, cannot grow up there to be a Chinese peasant, a Tibetan lama, or an Eskimo hunter. The native-born Dallas youth learns to speak a variety of American English, drive an auto mobile, kiss girls, believe that polygamy is wrong, call his mother's brother "uncle," and so forth. If he does not learn to do and believe these things it is because he either is naturally defective or has learned otherwise from a foreign cultural source. He cannot, of course, help himself; the human sponge absorbs that culture of which he is a part. In most cultures, in fact, the beliefs, habits, and actions acquired as a member of society are so unquestioningly, unconsciously absorbed that a person does not realize he has "learned" them, nor that there may be alternatives to them. How many Americans (or Dallas youths, if you prefer) ever think that kissing is anything but a "natural" way for the human organism to express affection? Yet in many cultures people do not kiss at all. Much more could be said about the pervasiveness, the hold, which men's cultures have over them, but it is not necessary for our purposes to do so. It is enough to realize that from birth to death, awake or asleep, man is immersed in culture; that men are gripped by cultures which existed centuries before they were born and, barring nuclear annihilation, will continue after they are gone.

We may view culture, too, as something like a stream, flowing down through the ages, gaining mass and momentum as it moves, parting here, rivulets joining there, and farther on maybe an old oxbow, its waters stagnating in the sun. For the great enveloping blanket of culture, this design for living, is an accumulating, changing, moving product of the ages. A half million or a million years ago man's ancestors developed the unique capacity to be cultured, and humanity was born. Early cultures were crude; they did not equip men with effective, efficient ways of living. But as the ages coursed by, knowledge about the world accumulated, men learned how to live in it more efficiently and effectively. The transition from brutish, club-wielding cave dweller to well-fed, long-lived, literate modern has been a slow, arduous, though accelerating climb, a magnificent, overpowering tale of triumph. And today civilization stands on the threshold of even greater triumphs, of developing superior ways of harnessing the forces of nature, of achieving more effective ways of living.

The story of the Texas Indians concerns but a minute segment of human existence, a cupful taken in a moment from the stream of human events. For our interests lie in the nature of historic Texas Indian cultures (Plains tribes excepted) prior to the time they were greatly changed by the contagion of Western civilization.

The chapters have been arranged in an ascending order of technological productivity. Those tribes who, because of environmental restrictions or other reasons, produced the least amount of food and other useful goods have been placed first, the more productive, richer tribes later. Thus, the savages of the Western Gulf culture area—Coahuiltecans and Karankawas—are discussed before the Wichitas and Caddoes. It should be noted, too, that the terms "savage" and "barbaric" are used to indicate levels of technological productivity and are not meant in a disparaging sense. The ranking used is, however, only of the roughest sort; convenience has also played a part. The Lipans should perhaps be placed above the Tonkawas, and the Atakapans, or at least some of them, might well be placed with the Karankawas.

W. W. Newcomb, Jr.


"Newcomb's book is likely to remain the best general work on Texas Indians for a long time."

—American Antiquity

"The Indians of Texas, by W. W. Newcomb, Jr., is an excellent and long-needed survey of the ethnography of the Indian tribes who resided within the present limits of Texas since the beginning of the historic period.... The book is the most comprehensive. scholarly, and authoritative account covering all the Indians of Texas, and is an invaluable and indispensable reference for students of Texas history, for anthropologists, and for lovers of Indian lore."


"Dr. Newcomb writes persuasively and with economy, and he has used his material very well indeed.... his presentation makes good reading of what might have been a book only for the specialists."

—Saturday Review