By STEVE HATHCOCK
Special to the PRESS
Much has been speculated about the indigenous people who inhabited the lands that lay between the mouth of the Rio Grande and the Nueces River 130 miles to the north. Oftentimes, the Spaniards would accuse the local populations of horrible crimes against humanity. In this way, they could justify any actions they themselves took against the natives.
While on a mapping expedition, Alonso Álvarez de Pineda sailed past the Isla Blanca (White Island) in the summer of 1519. Though historians argue about where exactly along the coast he and his four ships dropped anchor, there is no doubting his reports of a tribe of tall indigenous people who frequented this coast and were rumored to be very warlike, but Pineda stopped short of branding them as, “eaters of men.”
In late November, 1528, Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, and other members of an expedition led by Pániflo de Narváez, were shipwrecked on the Texas coast near Galveston Island. Cabeza de Vaca and three others were enslaved by the Karankawa, spending 8 years as captives of the tribe. Over the years, Cabeza de Vaca acquired a reputation as a healer. The natives trusted him and he traveled amongst the various tribes at will.
Eventually, Cabeza de Vaca and his companions traveled across west Texas, wandering through what would become the southwestern United States until, in 1536, they reached a Spanish settlement in Mexico. Cabeza de Vaca’s account of his life with the Karankawa and Coahuiltecan Indians continues to be one of the most quoted works about the coastal indigenous population of Texas.
There were five large groups of Karankawa that called the Gulf Coast home. Those bands included the Capoques, Cocos, Kohanis, Copanes and Karankawa. They inhabited the Gulf Coast of Texas from Galveston Bay southwestward to Corpus Christi Bay. The Karankawa lived along the coastal areas while the Coahuiltecans inhabited the interior.
They were very similar in many ways. Both groups hunted and gathered, which, of course, meant they traveled to where the nuts and prickly pears grew in abundance, oftentimes setting up camp for as long as the harvest lasted. Once the fruit was out of season, the whole tribe would pack up their households and set off for their favorite hunting grounds. Bison was much sought after, as were deer and fowl.
During the summer months, the tribes would head to the shore where it was cooler. The Laguna Madre teemed with nature’s abundance and the tribe feasted on redfish and trout. When they tired of fishing they could hunt for clams, oysters and shellfish in the shallow bay waters. The shells were harvested for trade while the creature inside went into the stew pot.
Sometimes, and this was a rare delicacy, an alligator would be killed. The meat was wrapped in leaves and left to cook atop the hot coals of a banked fire. The reptilian skin was valued for the articles that could be made from it, while the yellow fatty tissue below the flesh was smeared upon naked bodies to act as an insect repellant. The teeth and claws were often strung together on strips of the animal’s own skin and worn about the neck. A badge of honor, reserved only for those who had actually engaged the beast in mortal combat.
Food was scarcer inland and the Coahuiltecans hunted in smaller groups, bringing down rabbits and birds alike. The names of several hundred groups of the Coahuiltecans were recorded by the Spaniards, though some historians feel many more went unnamed and thus are forgotten to history.
While searching the Island for British spies in 1768, Ramon Falcon wrote of several small tribes of indigenous people who lived very near the southern tip of Isla Blanca, today known as South Padre Island.
In 1803, Padre Ballí, from whom the Island subsequently derived its name, built a mission for a group of them on his rancho Santa Cruz located about 26 miles north of the southern tip of Padre Island. Remnants of these groups merged with others and often times the names of the tribes became lost. Many people of Coahuiltecan descent still live in South Texas today. Theirs is a constant struggle to retain their heritage.
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