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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    • Dan Grandell on March 4, 2019 at 12:17 am
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    Thank you for the local legend about Joe. Stephen F. Austin used the word “exterminate” in his journals, so I can’t help but believe he was at least part of the Karankawa disappearance. Supposedly a general from Mexico had written encouraging him to kill 10 of them for every one colonist and not pay attention to age or gender. Nasty times. I wonder what it would be like to meet them in a non-hostile setting. From the manuscript from the La Salle children they were reported to start every day by running and jumping in the river. Not too different.
    The colonists, spurred by empresario Stephen F. Austin, banded together to rid themselves of the Indian threat. Austin was convinced that extermination provided the only acceptable solution to the Karankawa problem. In 1824 he personally led an expedition of some ninety men that drove the Karankawas to seek sanctuary in La Bahía Mission. A priest at the mission arranged an armistice between the colonists and Indians. According to terms of the agreement, the Karankawas, led by Chief Antonito, agreed to remain west of the Lavaca River. That treaty was renewed in 1827 by empresario Green DeWitt and two Karankawa chiefs, Antonito and Delgado. Despite the treaty the Karankawas continued to range east of the Lavaca River, and conflicts between colonists and Karankawas were frequent.

    • Corley Walsh on March 9, 2019 at 10:50 pm
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    So since they are more than likely related to the Caribs and amazon tribes does that mean they have genetic ties to Australian Aboriginals just like the Caribs and amazon tribes do

    • Justin on October 23, 2019 at 1:11 pm
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    • Flying Bear TwoWinds on January 14, 2020 at 1:08 am
    • Reply

    Karankawa people are still here. We are small in numbers and until recent generations seeking other relatives and through social media, we have found each other. If there is anyone else out there who was told by their grandparents that they are not Mexican or Tejano, but Karankawa, please text 713-562-1398. We just want to find our relatives. You have relatives. You are not alone. None of us is the last one anymore.

      • Shannon on July 10, 2021 at 12:49 pm
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      My Son’s Father is of Karankawa decent, altough not of pure blood of course. I am of Spanish and Irish decent myself. But regardless, my son is very interested and curious about his native heritage . I will forward this article to him. Much love and respect from South Texas.

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