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 many more contributed to creating this island city that we love. However, one group of people 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 now know as the coast of the Gulf of Mexico.

They traveled between the barrier islands and the mainland using dugout canoes. What we now know as Galveston island lies at the northeasternmost edge of Karankawa's traditional homeland. Most sources regard the Karankawa people as a single tribe with distinct clans and language groups that share 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 deerskin and alligator fat for clothing, shelter, and bug deterrent. 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 and burial ground rediscovered in 1962.

Portions of the burial ground have been preserved but are surrounded by modern development. One of their main hunting and protection tools was the bow and arrow. They also used harpoons and spears for fishing in the shallow water. Their diet was seasonal and travel-dependent. In the winter, it consisted mainly of fish, shellfish, turtles, the occasional alligator, and various vegetation available on the Gulf Coast. During warmer months, Karankawa would travel further inland to hunt mammals. The Karakawa were easily identified from other native people based on their muscular stature and tattooed appearance. Firsthand accounts from Spanish explorers describe their food source as generally stable year-round. Because of this plentiful diet, the Karankawa were strong, healthy, and tall people. One claim that lacks the proper evidence is that the Karankawa people practice cannibalism to absorb their enemies' strength.

This claim has been challenged and rehashed by historians and descendants of the Karankawa for the past century. The Karankawa were among the first indigenous people on this continent to interact with Europeans. In 1528, Alvar Nunez Cabeza De Vaca Shipwrecked with a crew of approximately 80 men on or near Galveston Island. 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 the French and the Karankawa suffered losses to materials and lives. A few children, known as the Talon children, were the only four to survive the French expedition when they finally returned to France.

Their report provided a lot of insight into native culture. In the early 1700s, relations between outside settlers and native peoples stabilized, but the land was entrenched in conflict. The Spanish setup missions, one of which became known as La Bahia, 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. The Spanish moved their fort yet continued to attempt to bring the Kowa under Spanish control. In 1779, war broke out between the Karankawa and the Spanish. It lasted over 10 years, only to be ended by a smallpox epidemic, which mainly affected the Spanish. This resulted in the Karankawa maintaining control of their lands and the Spanish establishing several new forts, which faced repeated Comanche attacks. The Karankawa would face a new threat on Galveston Island: Pirates.

Firsthand accounts and documents suggest that Jean Lafitte's pirate colony were social and traded with the Karankawa on Galveston Island in the early days of settlement, but ended when the pirate colony kidnapped a Karankawa woman and the resulting retaliation caused the pirates to retreat to the east side of Galveston. Battles between the Pirates and the Karankawa took place until the Karankawa were effectively driven off the island.

Jean Lafitte was eventually forced out of Galveston by the United States Navy in 1820. In 1821, following Mexican independence from Spain, settlers began arriving to establish homesteads on the Texas Gulf Coast, leading to another group invading the Karankawa land. Peace was attempted but unsuccessful, and violence between parties seemed to be encouraged. This pattern of attempted peace, violence, and attempted genocide continued through the Texas Revolution.

By the 1840s, the remaining Karankawa people had assimilated into society or had migrated away from the area, giving up their land to the relentless encroachment of colonization. One of the last struggling and retreating groups of Karankawa landed near Rio Grande City, where the remaining population was nearly decimated. Considered extinct, the surviving Karankawa integrated themselves with other tribal factions in southern Texas and northern Mexico. Today, they are far from extinct. The Karankawan culture lives on through descendants.

The Karankawa language is spoken, and their culture is celebrated by the Karankawa-Kadla or culturally mixed Karankawans.

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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."