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First Spring Breakers?

Mankind may have arrived in East Texas during the Early Archaic period (1250-1300 A.D.)[i]  These early peoples found the land well suited to their lifestyles. Archeological sites along the coast indicate that some of the tribes were primitive hunter-gatherers. Others had developed a highly advanced culture. Post holes and charcoal evidence proved that groups, presumably nuclear family units, built circular homes from slender trees, tied together at the top and covered in skins or reeds. Cooking fires in the center of the shelter provided warmth and heat.

Debris fields prove these tribes knew the art of creating arrow points as well as scraping and cutting tools. There is also evidence of clay vessels for cooking known as Rockport pottery, some with decorative black stripes made of asphaltum, a form of tar. Carbon dating also shows that different tribes often occupied the same areas.

At one site on the top of a hill, two different forms of pottery were found on either side of a distinct line of demarcation. The boundary line separating the two groups suggests that they shared the space but did not infringe on each others’ domains. In other instances, as one tribe left for the coast in the fall, another tribe coming from farther inland, might take up residence on the same site.[ii]

From September to March, groups of several hundred people settled near the coast and stayed for extended lengths of time. Much like our current Spring Breakers, at these congregations along the coast the natives found mates, exchanged information, and created kinship ties that established a safety net that could be called on in times of need. The forms of kinship varied. Blood kin made up the immediate family— mother, father, brothers and sisters with whom one lived. Marriage provided affinal kin such as wives, cousins and in-laws who could be counted on for protection and support.

Fictive kin were outsiders who could be added through an exchange of gifts. When the Europeans arrived, in particular the French, the gifts they offered, whether beads, knives, metal objects or cloth, united the Frenchmen to a tribe as fictive kin. The Spanish, who also provided gifts to the tribes, never did understand the importance of the gift-giving as a reciprocal exchange of protective favors.[iii]   

Later Spanish and French visitors, described the food sources of these early peoples. During the winter and early spring months, the coast offered fish and roots that created a predictable and abundant food supply sufficient to feed any large gathering.  Using reed weirs in the protected estuaries, families caught Black drum and Red fish, or shellfish and oysters. Salt-tolerant cattails produced root bulbs that the women ground for meal.

In the nearby forests, hunters trapped or used spears or bows and arrows to shoot small mammals such as rabbits, wild hogs, turkey and white-tailed deer. During the winter, bears provided abundant meat and thick warm pelts. Bear fat was used for seasoning, drinking or as protection against mosquitoes. Few of the coastal tribes hunted bison. The normal ranges of the bison lay 80 to 100 miles inland, and with only dogs as pack animals, the tribe had difficulty in carrying the meat and heavy hides back to the coast.[iv]

 During the spring and summer, from April through August, the large gatherings on the coast broke up into smaller family bands. These groups of ten to twenty people moved inland onto the coastal plains where food was sufficient only for small family groups. Women and children gathered mustang grapes, mesquite beans, anacua berries, granjeno or spiny hackberry. These fruits and nuts were ground together to form sweet cakes.

Later in the fall, the tribe moved south to collect tuna, the fruit from thick stands of prickly pear cactus. These grew abundantly in the drier lands of South Texas. As late fall approached, the tribes moved to river valleys where they collected acorns and pecans from the thick oak mottes and pecan bottoms. The men hunted white-tail deer or wild turkey, squirrels and other small game in the nearby forests along the rivers.[v]

According to carbon dating and archeological studies, these traditional patterns among the hunter-gatherer tribes such as the Karankawa existed for thousands of years. Even with the arrival of the Spanish, the natives continued to carry out these annual migrations from coast to inland plains and back to the coast.

 The Spanish did their best to convince the tribes to congregate and move to the missions where they could be converted. The natives refused. The Karankawa and other wandering tribes continued their customs from first contact in the 1530s throughout the next two hundred years. Only after the Spanish missionaries established Mission Rosario in the 1790s, within the traditional borders of the Karankawa, were they at last willing to become part of the Spanish mission system.

Rather than move into the missions, however, the tribes merely incorporated the mission as one part of their annual migratory pattern. The frustrated mission fathers, after spending years sending soldiers out after the recalcitrant families, at last came to accept the regular movements of the tribes. Most of the native hunter-gatherer tribes, however, never did adopt Christianity.[vi]


[i]  Donald E. Chipman, Spanish Texas, 1519-1821 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1992), 2-15; T. R. Fehrenbach, Lone Star: A History of Texas and the Texans (New York: Collier Books, 1968), 3-19; Robert A. Rickliss, The Karankawa Indians of Texas: An Ecological Study of Cultural Tradition and Change (Austin: University of Texas, 1996), p. 44-45; W. W. Newcomb, Jr., The Indians of Texas: From Prehistoric to Modern Times (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1961), pp. 21-25. Newcombe argues that early Texas tribes did not come from Mexico but were part of a seaborne settlement pattern, p. 21; Robert A. Calvert, Arnoldo de León, The History of Texas (Illinois: Harlan Davidson, 1990), 2-6; David J. Weber: The Spanish Frontier in North America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 10-16; Elizabeth A. H. John: Storms Brewed in Other Men’s Worlds: The Confrontation of Indians, Spanish and French in the Southwest, 1540-1795 (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1975), 155-220; Juliana Barr, Peace Came in the Form of a Woman: Indians and Spaniards in the Texas Borderlands (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007), 17-25, 31-37.

[ii]  Rickliss, The Karankawa, p. 68, No. 1 (January 2011), p. 15-16, 94-97; Juliana Barr, “Geographies of Power: Mapping Indian Borders in the ‘Borderlands’ of the Early Southwest,” The William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. 68, No. 1 (January 2011), p. 9.

[iii]  David LaVere, “Between Kinship and Capitalism: French and Spanish rivalry in the Colonial Louisiana-Texas Indian Trade,” Journal of Southern History, Vol. 64, No. 2 (May 1998), pp. 199-200.

[iv]  Rickliss, The Karankawa, p. 18, 21-23, 54, 72; F. Todd Smith, The Caddo Indians: Tribes at the Convergence of Empires, 1542-1842 (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1995), p. 12-13; Barr, “Geographies of Power,” p.16.

[v]  Rickliss, The Karankawa, p. 22.

[vi]  Rickliss, The Karankawa, p. 22-23, Barr, “Geographies of Power,” p. 12.