Rio History: Last of the Karankawa Indians of Padre Island

Special to the PRESS

Though the basic story line is different from that penned by James Fenimore Cooper, Old Indio’s story is an accurate portrayal of the lives and times of the once proud Karankawa Indians of Padre Island.

He was all-Indian and the influence of Europeans did little to change him.

In his younger days, everyone called him “Indian Joe.” It wasn’t until his senior years he became known as “Old Indio.” He claimed to be the last living full blooded descendant of the Karankawa Indian tribe that once roamed Padre Island. He had a talent for drying or semi mounting trophy fish for people. It was said that he sucked the blood out of any creature that he dried or mounted. He would eat nothing but raw meat and went bareheaded and barefoot year around. It wasn’t until his later years that he took to wearing the clothes of civilization.

The true origins of the Karankawa are unknown. Due to their extraordinary stature, early anthropologists believed they were related to a tribe of “giants Indians” last known to be living off the coast of California in the 1840s. Others claim they were loosely related to the “Abilene Man,” the earliest known humans in Texas. Another theory asserts that the Karankawa were in fact related to the Carib Indians of the West Indies because both tribes had bark-less dogs, the men were reputedly very tall. It’s believed they first traveled to the Florida peninsula, and when attacked by other native tribes, traveled west reaching the extreme eastern Texas Coast a few thousand years ago.

The men carried bows that were sometimes longer than the hunter was tall (some well over six feet long) and three-foot long arrow shafts. They seldom strayed from the coastal area though early Texas historians claimed to have seen some Karankawas on the shores of Eagle Lake, in Colorado County, which is about 100 miles from the coastline. 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.

An 1821 confrontation with Jean Lafitte on Galveston Island was particularly costly for the Karankawas. The incident occurred when Lafitte’s men kidnapped a Karankawa woman. Approximately 300 warriors attacked the famous buccaneer’s compound but Lafitte’s force of 200 men, armed with muskets and two small cannon, inflicted heavy losses on the Indians, forcing them to retreat.

That encounter was a major defeat for the once powerful Karankawas and set the tone for the next half century. In retaliation for Karankawa raids on area settlers during the summer of 1840, one of the bands camped on the Guadalupe River below Victoria, was attacked by a large group of determined Texans. Many Indians were killed in the attack, and the survivors fled down the coast where they settled about 50 miles southwest of Corpus Christi. Other small groups of Karankawas settled along Aransas Bay near the mouth of the Nueces River and in the vicinity of Lavaca Bay.

Alexander Singer, who lived on the Island during the 1850s, wrote about a great battle that took place. A large band of Comanche braves had followed their ancient enemy across the Laguna Madre to a high spot on the Island located about 40 miles north of the present day City of South Padre Island. How many of the Karankawa fell beneath the arrows of the Comanche will never be known but a great number of the fierce Comanche were said to have been slain by the stone axes and arrows of their giant foes. Singer did not mention whether a Mitote (victory celebration) was danced but this was the last time the two ancient enemies would meet in battle. Most of the surviving Karankawa fled into Northern Mexico where they blended into the great ethnic melting pot of that country.

Indian Joe however, 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. As a young man Joe scratched out a living digging oysters in the bay or catching fish in Padre’s surf. Eventually he grew old and his vision left him as did his health until all he had left were his memories. Did he wander up the Island one last time only to never return? Or did he die in his bed somewhere on the Island or in nearby Port Isabel? One long-time reader informed me he had passed away in Corpus Christi. I believe that version to be true but I have not been able to find his obituary, either way, Old Indio’s spirit has carried forward and today he is part of the legend of Padre Island.

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