This is an artist’s interpretation of a campsite on Guadalupe Bay and Cocos (Karankawa) portrayed by Berlandier in 1830
By PAM STRANAHAN
The local band of Indians was known as Copane for whom Copano Bay was named. They were one of five bands identified as Karankawa based on language and life style. The oldest local archeological sites can be documented back to 2,000 years ago – a prehistoric time period called Archaic.
The Karankawa were huntergatherer-fishers who possessed an excellent working knowledge of their environment. While often portrayed as barely surviving, they had time to enjoy games (dice), music (flutes) and decorative attire (jewelry and tattoos). They were sometimes described as giants but their average height was 5’6” to 6’. While historic accounts relate stories of ritual cannibalism that was practiced by many tribes, no archeological evidence of this practice has been found.
Karankawa were masters at adapting to the environment. They had no reason to change the way that they lived over thousands of years. Archeology shows that they lived along the bay shorelines in fall and winter where they lived on fish, oysters, cattail roots, acorns and a few deer. In spring and summer they moved to the edge of the prairie (40 km inland) where they harvested grapes, prickly pears, persimmons, mesquite pods, bison, white tail deer, turtle and clams. Archeologists can identify their seasonal rounds by pollen and growth rings in shellfish, among other techniques.
Evidence of campsites during the late prehistoric times (500 AD) consists of stone tools, ornaments made from shell and bone and a distinctive pottery named Rockport ware. The vessels were round-based bowls, jars and ollas made from local clay using a coil technique. They were also decorated with designs. An excellent interpretation of the prehistoric life of the Karankawa can be found at www.texasbeyondhistory.net. Archeological sites to explore on that web site include Guadalupe Bay, Morhiss Mound and Mitchell Ridge.
The historic times brought changes to the Karankawa who adapted to the Spaniards who hoped to entice them to the missions. They were responsive as long as the mission was located in their traditional hunting grounds. The Karankawa visited the missions with their corn and cattle as another resource in their seasonal round. The Refugio mission was the most popular.
European and American colonists, however, came for land acquisition. Their goals and revulsion to the native people soon brought an impasse. The Karankawa bands were depopulated by European diseases, especially measles and smallpox. The estimated number of Karankawa who lived along the coast declined from 8,000 in 1685 to 80 in 1850. They dispersed to northeast Mexico and were integrated into the local tribes there.
Numerous historic accounts tell of the Karankawa and their life styles. Cabeza de Vaca described them in 1528; de Bellisle in 1719; Beranger observed them in 1720; and Gatschet reported sightings in the 1800s. The Spanish priests and soldiers also wrote accounts of their activities. These reports make fascinating reading although the filter through which the authors viewed the Karankawa must be taken into consideration.
The History Center for Aransas County at 801 Cedar Street will showcase regional history for visitors of all ages.