Podcast: The Karankawa and Their Ancestral Homeland of Galveston, Texas

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Galveston, as we know it today, has a rich cultural history. The Spanish, Germans, French, Italians and more have all contributed to create the island city that we love. However, there is one group of people that claimed this sandbar long before the Spanish arrived in the 16th century. There have been hundreds of separate groups of Native peoples in this section of North America that we know as the Coast of the Gulf of Mexico.

One of the more well-known Indigenous groups along the Texas coast are the Karankawa. Evidence suggests that they may have existed as a distinct group for over 10,000 years. The Karankawa people lived a semi-nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle along the Texas Gulf Coast. They traveled between the barrier islands and the mainland using dugout canoes. What we now know as Galveston island lies at the northeastern most edge of Karankawa's traditional homeland. Most sources regard the Karankawa people as a single tribe with distinct clans and language groups that shared a common culture.

These groups included The Copanes, Cujanes, Cocos, Coapites, and the Carancahuas. They typically live in groups of 50 but when gathered could reach numbers well over 500. They utilized temporary shelters made of animal hides that were easily packed when traveling. They used natural resources such as deer skin and alligator fat for clothing, shelter, and bug deterrent. While very few physical landmarks remain beyond indigenous garbage piles known as shell middens, if you are on the west end, near pirate’s beach, check out the historical marker of a Karankawa campsite & burial ground that was rediscovered in 1962.

Like most native American people, one of their main hunting and protection tools was the bow and arrow, although they also used harpoons and spears to fish in shallow water. Their diet was seasonal and travel-dependent. In the Winter, it consisted mainly of Shellfish, fish, and turtles and various vegetation that was available on the gulf coast. During warmer months, they would travel further inland to hunt mammals. The Karankawa were easily identified from other native people based on their muscular stature and tattooed appearance. First-hand accounts from Spanish explorers describe their food source being generally stable year round and because of this plentiful diet, the Karankawa were strong, healthy, and tall people. One claim that lacks the proper evidence is that the Karankawa practiced cannibalism as a means to absorb the strength of their enemies.

This claim has been challenged and rehashed by historians and descendants of the Karankawa for the past century. The Karankawa were one of the first indigenous people in Texas to interact with Europeans in 1528 When Cabeza De Vaca shipwrecked near Galveston. Over 100 years later, The Karankawa met the French expedition led by Rene Robert Cavalier, Sieur de La Salle. Relations took a negative turn and both sides suffered losses to materials and lives. The Talon children were the only four to survive from the French Expedition.

Their report after returning to France provided a lot of insight to native cultures. In the early 1700s relations stabilized but the land was entrenched in the Spanish-American conflict, as a result the Spanish set up nuestra Senora de Loreta Presidio and Espiritu Santo de Zuniga Mission which became known as La Bahia with a goal to Christianize the Karankawa people.

A conflict at the fort ended in cannons being fired at the Karankawa and the death of the Spanish fort captain. Following that event, the Spanish moved their fort from the area yet continued to attempt to bring the Karankawa under Spanish control. This continued until 1779 when war broke out between the two parties and lasted over 10 years, only brought to an end by the smallpox epidemic. This resulted in the Karankawa maintaining control of their lands, and the Spanish establishing several new forts finally sitting with the Refugio Mission in 1814, this mission faced a new challenge of repeated Comanche attacks and a new threat, Pirates!

Members of Jean Laffite’s pirate colony kidnapped a Karankawa woman and the resulting retaliation caused the pirates to retreat though they stayed in the area. Following Mexican independence from Spain, settlers began arriving to establish homesteads on the Texas Gulf coast creating yet another group invading the Karankawa land. Peace was attempted, but unsuccessful and violence between parties seemed to be encouraged.

This pattern of new threat, attempted peace, violence and attempted genocide continued through the Texas Revolution and by the 1840’s the remaining Karankawa people had assimilated

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J.R. Shaw Creator & Host of Galveston Unscripted

J.R. Shaw is the creator and host of Galveston Unscripted Podcast & audio tour. Shaw recognizes that history is nuanced and learning it can be powerful. He's made it his mission to reduce the friction between true history and anyone who is willing to listen! J.R. Shaw focuses on telling the full story through podcasting and social media with the goal of making learning accurate history easy and entertaining for all who seek it.

J.R. grew up along the Texas Gulf Coast, where he learned to love talking with anyone about anything! He started Galveston Unscripted after he realized how much he loved talking to people about their stories related to Galveston Island and Texas History. "So much of our history is lost when we don't have the opportunity to hear from those who lived it or have second-hand knowledge."