The Tonkawan Indians of Texas

The Tonkawa were a nomadic buffalo hunting people roaming from somewhere around what is now Hillsboro, Texas to the vicinity of present day San Antonio, Texas. They lived in scattered villages of tepees constructed from buffalo hides or arbors made from brush and grass. They ate most kinds of small game, fish and shellfish. They excepted the coyote and wolf from their diet for religious reasons. They collected nuts (especially pecans), herbs, acorns and fruits to supplement their meats. They even attempted some farming in the latter part of the eighteenth century.

Their tribal culture was similar to many Plains Indian tribes, especially the Crow. Each band of Tonkawa elected a chief to lead them under an elected tribal head chief. Clan membership, determined by the mother's clan, was another important aspect of Tonkawa society. Marriage came with little ceremony, but funeral rites were extensive. Mourning lasted three days and was followed by a four day pipe smoking purification.DressThe Tonkawa were notable warriors who used bows, spears and firearms. The warriors wore protective leather jackets and caps decorated with horn and brilliant plumage. They traded tallow, deerskins and buffalo robes to the Spanish to obtain their first firearms in the late 18th century. The Tonkawa are known to have worn breastplates, chokers and ear pendants made with hair pipes. Breechclout, leggings and moccasins completed their warm weather clothing. A buffalo robe would be added on top for cold weather.

Male and female Tonkawans tattoed and painted their bodies for adornment or religious purposes. A picture taken in 1871 shows Castile, a Tonkawan, with a long belt made of linked silver conchos, each an oval of about four by six inches. A line of small silver buttons or beads runs down the outside of each of his leggings. He is wearing a beaded feather hanging from over his right ear and dangling in front of his shoulder. Castile is reported to have been chief of the Tonkawas and a scout for both the Texas Rangers and the U.S. Army.

Reports of cannibalism among the Texas tribes were often applied to the Karankawa and the Tonkawa. Other tribes, Hispanics and Anglos spread these tales, occasionally claiming to have witnessed the severing, cooking and consumption of enemy flesh, hands and feet. Noah Smithwick and Rip Ford both claimed to have witnessed Tonkawas celebrating victory with a feast of their fallen enemy (fixed as a stew with potatos and carrots). Smithwick reported that the feast was followed by a scalp dance, depicting a mock battle. This reputation for cannibalism is often mentioned in nineteenth century accounts of the Tonkawa.

Though no specific Tonkawan instances are mentioned in the history books, the impact of Spanish horses and European diseases on Texas tribes was tremendous. The horse revolutionized the nomadic way of life, while the diseases brought by explorers, missionaries, soldiers and settlers wiped out perhaps 95 percent of Texas Indians by 1890. Also, the pushing of Northern and Eastern tribes into Texas by European encroachments embroiled the Texas tribes in many inter-tribal conflicts. These may have been reasons for the merging of several bands and tribes which created the Tonkawa nation.

An early Spanish letter lists the Tonkawans (a group of three or four different tribes including the Mayeyes) as being west of the Karankawas, who dwelt between the mouths of the Neches and Nueces rivers on the Gulf Coast. The Tonkawa, as they came to be called, may be interrelated to the Lipan, Karankawa, Wichita and other tribes which joined together in the early eighteenth century. The name Tonkawa is a Waco word meaning "they all stay together". The Tonkawa of this period were also reported as fighting with the Caddo tribes in East Texas over hunting grounds.MissionsFrom 1746 to 1756, the Spanish operated three missions on the San Gabriel (then called San Xavier) river for the Tonkawa. In 1758, the Tonkawa joined with the Comanches, Wichita, Caddo and others in a raid on the Apaches at the San Saba Mission, killing thirty-five people and burning the mission. Following this raid, the Spanish treated the Tonkawa as enemies, even conspiring to assasinate their chief, an Apache captive named El Mocho. In 1782, he traded guns to the Lipans for Spanish horses. El Mocho hoped to lead a united Apache and Tonkawa nation, but was murdered in 1784. Relations between the Spanish and the Tonkawa improved following his death.

By the early nineteenth century, the Tonkawa had allied themselves with the Apaches and the new Anglo settlers against the Comanches. Stephen F. Austin entered into a treaty with the Tonkawa in 1824. In the 1830's and 1840's, the Tonkawa and Lipan were said to have resided between the Colorado and San Antonio rivers. They assisted the Texas Rangers against the Comanche, Caddo and Wichita. The Republic of Texas concluded agreements with them in 1837 and 1838, even though they were officially considered to be natives of Mexico, not Texas.

In August of 1840, following the Council House Fight in San Antonio, 500 Comanches led by Buffalo Hump went on a raid straight into the heart of eastern Texas. Homes were burned, hundreds killed, and before they stopped, the Comanches had reached the Gulf of Mexico near Victoria. Then, loaded with loot, the war party began an unusual slow retreat to the north. Perhaps because of their numbers, the Comanches were overconfident, but this gave the Texans time to organize. With the help of Chief Placido and thirteen of his Tonkawa scouts, Texas militia from Bastrop and Gonzales ambushed the main body at Plum Creek (Lockhart, Texas). John Jenkins, in "Recollections of Early Texas", tells us that after Jonathan Burleson recruited the Tonkawas, Chief Placido placed his hand on Burleson’s horse’s rump and trotted with his scouts the entire thirty miles to Plum Creek without rest. According to Noah Smithwick, the militia killed about eighty Comanche warriors and suffered no casualties. Other accounts tell us of one dead and seven wounded among the milita. Abandoning most of their spoils, the surviving Comanches escaped north.

In 1854, the United States and the State of Texas established a reservation for the Tonkawas and other tribes on the Brazos river below Fort Belknap near present day Graham. Camp Cooper (commanded in 1856 by LTC Robert E. Lee) was built nearby. In May, 1858, Colonel John "Rip" Ford's Texas Rangers, ignoring minor legalities like a state-line, attacked a Comanche village on Little Robe Creek in the Indian Territory. Three months later his Caddo, Delaware, and Tonkawa scouts were expelled from Texas as undesirables. In 1859, Tonkawas scouted with the U.S. Army. However, following attacks by Anglo settlers on the reservation, the Tonkawas were relocated to the Wichita Reservation in the Indian Territory that same year.

During the Civil War (October, 1862), a group of Comanche, Delaware, Shawnee, Caddo, Wichita and other tribes attacked the Tonkawa reservation in the Indian Territory, killing 300 (about half?) of the Tonkawans. The attack was probably a retaliation for the scouting done by the Tonkawa against these tribes. The Comanche were also said to detest the Tonkawa for the killing and eating of a brother of one of their chiefs. The survivors returned to Texas, where the Governor and the legislature donated a league of land and some supplies. They settled near Fort Griffin and worked for the U.S. Army again.

In the early days of the Buffalo War of 1874-75, Tonkawa scouts killed Comanche warriors in the Staked Plains region of Texas. In September, 1875, Tonkawa scouts were awarded 100 Comanche horses by Colonel Ranald MacKenzie for their assistance in the battle at Palo Duro Canyon. Tonkawan scouting for the army ceased when the end of the Indian Wars caused Fort Griffin to be abandoned in 1881.

In 1884, the Tonkawa were again relocated, along with some Lipan Apaches, to the former Nez Perce reservation in the Indian Territory. This reservation, present day home of the Tonkawa Nation, is in northern Oklahoma, near the town of Tonkawa on Interstate Highway 35. Tribal members from the reservation attend the annual public school sponsored Powwow each November in Austin. On the reservation, a powwow is held each June or July.

Many Tonkawa archeological sites are known in Central Texas. The latest was discovered northwest of Georgetown while preparing for building of the new Sun City resort. Through an agreement with the tribe, artifacts from the site are planned for a display in the resort's visitor's center when completed.

The Tonkawa language may indicate that they migrated to Texas from the northern plains. Sadly, the only tapes of the language were buried, in a fit of grief, with the last native speaker in the 1960's. Most of the dances and songs of the Tonkawa have also disappeared. One ethnologist even reported the tribe to be extinct. Another reported, in 1951, their disappearance as a distinct tribe due to intermarriage with Lipans, other Indians and whites. Most of the Tonkawa on the reservation live well below the poverty line.

Recently, Tonkawa descendants in the Central Texas area have attempted to organize themselves to preserve their heritage and reclaim their tribal rights. The local Austin paper has also run a couple of articles featuring the Tonkawa.


From BSA web page "The Tonkawa Story" by Jerry Withers