Rio History: The Matagorda Massacre


Special to the PRESS

The following is an excerpt from Old Indio Last of the Karankawa Indians on Padre Island and other short stories by Steve Hathcock.

By the end of Spanish rule in Texas, the Karankawa, never numbering more than a few thousand, had been greatly reduced by epidemic diseases and other effects of European invasion.

Although there had been several families murdered and homes plundered on isolated ranches, the massacre of Matagorda in 1836 was the first real commencement of hostilities between the Texians and their red neighbors. The attack was organized and carried out with a savagery that outraged the Texians. The settlers were warned by local frontiersmen that there was a growing hostility among the Kronks, so a large part of the community decided to evacuate. Those who did not leave were slaughtered and houses were torched. The destruction was so complete it would be some time before the whites returned.

A series of battles flowed in quick succession. The Kronks were successful in both the battle of Buckner’s Prairie and Jones Creek but met their Waterloo at the appropriately named “Battle Island.” The Texians relentlessly pursued their savage foe through cane breaks and swamps but the Indians hiding skills were considerable. However the frontiersmen who accompanied the Texians were also skilled in tracking. The number of footprints left in the mud told them they were pursuing a much larger force than their own. Undaunted, the Texians continued their pursuit.

For days their quarry eluded them, sometimes afoot, sometimes in canoes.

Ironically, a change in the weather brought about an unexpected break for the Texians. One night the Indians built their camp in a mot of shrubby timber that rose a few feet above the mouth of a bayou. During the morning hours a fierce “norther” struck and the temperature dropped to near freezing. An infant’s cry was carried upon the wind and to the trained ears of the frontiersman it may as well have been the bawling of a modern foghorn. Scouts quickly located the Kronk’s camp among the myrtle bushes growing along the banks of the stream.

The cold gray dawn had barely begun before the rattling crack of muskets announced the death of a People.
The well coordinated attackers killed or wounded dozens of Indians, and though the warriors raised a defense, they were so caught by surprise that it was all they could do to hasten the women and children to the relative safety of the boats. Many a brave died that morning. From this time forward the days of the Karankawa were numbered.
A peace treaty was soon concluded and the Kronks were confined to the country west of the Lavaca River. Over the next few years, the Karankawa braves, no longer warriors, had been reduced in status to that of prowlers and predators who skulked about the settlements seeking food and generally “trespassing.”

Retaliation came in 1840 on the Guadalupe River south of Victoria. There at Kemper’s Bluff, the only remaining white ranch near the Indian camp, an altercation took place.

While butchering a cow, Kemper was approached by three Kronks who demanded the meat. Refusing their demands, Kemper was killed.

The Karankawa fled down the Guadalupe River in their canoes until reaching the Gulf of Mexico. From there they coasted their way south to the mouth of the Rio Grande River. Some of the tribe went into Mexico. The balance took refuge on the Padre’s Island about sixty five miles southwest of Corpus Christi, which would put their encampment near or at the site of the Padre’s mission.

Having knowledge of secret places among the dunes where just below the surface lay large pools of sweet water, the Karankawa could live off the area’s resources. Wild game and fish would provide much sustenance as well as the seasonal abundance of cactus pear. But the battle weary Kronks would not find peace for long on the Padre’s Island.

Next week: An Island Legend is born. Indian Joe, who was a babe at the time, somehow managed to remain on Padre Island. Perhaps his parents left him with a family in Point Isabel or maybe he was found at the site of the massacre. Either way, he survived.

Want the whole story? Pick up a copy of the Port Isabel-South Padre Press, or subscribe to our E-Edition by clicking here.

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