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The Tonkawas: Texas Originals

Updated: Sep 30, 2023

Four poeple in a camp.
A Tonkawa village, unknown date, from Texas Beyond History.

One of the more fascinating cultures of the original Red River Valley people are the Tonkawas, a very distinct Texas tribe.

Vilification of the Títskan wátitch

Let's just get this out of the way first: the jury's still out if the Tonkawas, a hunter-gatherer tribe that was original to central Texas, were actually man-eaters. The Comanches, Wichitas, and Caddos accused them of cannibalism, and European accounts have verified this custom. This practice may have been ritualistic instead of a dietary preference. However, their reputation as cannibals made the Tonkawas outcasts among other tribes, and this aversion to them, coupled with Tonkawan allegiance to the Americans, led to their near-annihilation.

The Tonkawas called themselves Títskan wátitch, "the most human people," but their Anglo name derives from a Wichita term meaning "they live together." This might be because they had their own linguistic group and did not seem to be kin to any of the other Texas tribes except for the disorganized tribes they absorbed. They lived along the Balcones Fault in Texas, around today's Austin, and down into San Antonio, and ranged from the Trinity River to the Nueces River. They may have been pushed out of their original homelands in the plains by larger tribes like the Caddos, Comanches and Wichitas. Or, they may be an original Texas group, like the Karankawas, who lived at the shores of the Gulf Coast when the Europeans made contact with them, and were also reputed to be man-eaters.

Both the Tonkawas and the Karankawas (who were completely annihilated by the Anglo Americans prior to the Civil War) ate fish and oysters at a larger volume than bison and venison. The Tonkawas and the Karnakawas may have had linguistic kinship, and both also practiced a form of kinship called "levirate" (taken from biblical descriptions of the Hebrews) which meant that brothers married their dead brother's widows. As the Tonkawas were matrilineal and the men joined their wives' clans upon marriage, this may have been a practice that kept family ties strong as well as a prevented of possible cousin marriages, as this was a great taboo.

Mission Horrors

The Spanish opened missions for the Tonkawas, but instead of salvation, the Tonkawas found disease and mistreatment; they were enslaved at the missions and faced hostile attacks from other tribes as well. The Tonkawas began destroying the missions. According to Spanish accounts, the Tonkawas, together with the Comanches and Taovayans, specifically targeted the San Saba mission that had been designated for the Lipan Apaches in 1756. However, Americans recorded that the Comanches were at continuous war with the Tonkawas, and that the Tonkawas had allied themselves with the Lipan Apaches against the Comancheria, so the Spanish account may have been mistaken.

Alliance but no Succor

The American period aided the Tonkawas, as both cultures were at war with the Comanches. Tonkawa men became scouts and joined Republic of Texas militias against the Comancheria, and they continued to do so after Texas became a state, though their fidelity to the Anglo Americans was not rewarded. They removed willingly to the Brazos Indian Reservation in 1858, where Tonkawa men became trusted allies. However, Anglo Texan settlers did not differentiate between friendly and enemy tribes, and they attacked the reservation. Thus, in 1859, the U.S. government moved the tribe to the Caddo/Wichita reservation near Anadarko in Indian Territory.

It was at Anadarko where annihilation warfare visited the Tonkawas. The Caddos, Wichitas, Shawnees, Delawares, and other tribes massacred the Tonkawas, leaving over 300 of them dead; the tribe never recovered from this extermination attempt. The reasons for this attack vary. Some scholars believe that sectional differences between the North and South led to the massacre, while (more likely) the enmity rested on ancient tribal disdain for the Tonkawas as well as their roles as military soldiers and scouts for the Texas army.

I agree with Dunlay (1981) that the Wichitas and Caddos may have been so hostile to the Tonkawas because they continued to practice what other tribes had left behind, such as ritualistic cannibalism. The mini-ice-age of the 14th century may have led to the decentralization of the big cities and the southern movement of the tribes associated with the high culture who then, in return, pushed other, less organized tribes further south. Warfare during these invasions may have been incredibly brutal, and may have included consuming the enemy once he was vanquished. The Tonkawas may have simply continued a tradition that had become less acceptable to more settled tribes.

After the massacre, the Tonkawas returned to Texas to settle around Fort Griffin, but marriage into other tribes led to declining numbers. By 1890, the Tonkawas once again moved to Indian Territory, but not under any official tribal organization or treaty. The 1934 Indian Reorganization Act led to the Tonkawas once again becoming a recognized tribe, who now live mostly in northern Oklahoma.

The Tonkawas are noted in a 1740 map of French and Spanish territories west of the Mississippi River. They lived west of the Cenis, the Caddoan villages around Nacogdoches. Note the "mines of lead" south of the label, a place where they might have been enslaved. Aboriginal Texan tribes were considered "wandering Indians & Man-eaters" as this map tells (LOC).
Field and hills and sky
The massacre site near Anadarko, Caddo County, where a clash in 1859 between the Tonkawas and the Caddos, Wichitas, and Comanches led to the Tonkawa's near-annihilation. Astute readers have noticed the streak in the picture, a visual phenomenon I cannot explain.

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