The name Tonkawa is from the Waco term
tonkaweya, meaning "they all stay together."
Belonging to the Tonkawan linguistic family, once made up of a number of small sub-tribes that lived west from central Texas and western Oklahoma to eastern New Mexico. They had a distinct language and were the leading tribe of their linguistic family.
In 1542, the tribe lived on the
Trinity River in Texas. In 1719, the French and Spanish described them
as one of the "roving nations" in the upper Red River region.
From about 1800, the Tonkawa were allied with the Lipan Apache and were
friendly with the Texans and other Southern divisions. By 1837, they had
drifted toward the southwestern frontier of Texas and were among the
tribes identified in Mexican territory. Treaties of peace with other
tribes and one with the U.S. settled the Tonkawa on the Lower Reserve of
the Brazos River in Texas.
In their early history, the Tonkawa were
nomadic, moving tepee villages according to their chiefs' lead. They were
known among the Spanish and the later American traders for the large
quantities of tallow, deerskins, buffalo robes and tongues they sold.
Tonkawa Tribal Museum (Ft. Oakland); Center of the American Indian (OKC); Ponca City Cultural Center and Museum; State Museum of History (OKC); Gilcrease and Philbrook Museums (Tulsa).
The Tonkawan Indians of Texas
Tonkawa were a nomadic buffalo hunting people roaming from somewhere
around what is now Hillsboro, Texas to the vicinity of present day San
Antonio, Texas. They lived in scattered villages of tepees constructed
from buffalo hides or arbors made from brush and grass. They ate most
kinds of small game, fish and shellfish. They excepted the coyote and
wolf from their diet for religious reasons. They collected nuts
(especially pecans), herbs, acorns and fruits to supplement their meats.
They even attempted some farming in the latter part of the eighteenth
Their tribal culture was similar to many Plains
Indian tribes, especially the Crow. Each band of Tonkawa elected a chief
to lead them under an elected tribal head chief. Clan membership,
determined by the mother's clan, was another important aspect of Tonkawa
society. Marriage came with little ceremony, but funeral rites were
extensive. Mourning lasted three days and was followed by a four day
pipe smoking purification.
The Tonkawa were notable warriors who used bows,
spears and firearms. The warriors wore protective leather jackets and
caps decorated with horn and brilliant plumage. They traded tallow,
deerskins and buffalo robes to the Spanish to obtain their first
firearms in the late 18th century. The Tonkawa are known to have worn
breastplates, chokers and ear pendants made with hair pipes.
Breechclout, leggings and moccasins completed their warm weather
clothing. A buffalo robe would be added on top for cold weather.
Male and female Tonkawans tattoed and painted their
bodies for adornment or religious purposes. A picture taken in 1871
shows Castile, a Tonkawan, with a long belt made of linked silver
conchos, each an oval of about four by six inches. A line of small
silver buttons or beads runs down the outside of each of his leggings.
He is wearing a beaded feather hanging from over his right ear and
dangling in front of his shoulder. Castile is reported to have been
chief of the Tonkawas and a scout for both the Texas Rangers and the
Reports of cannibalism among the Texas tribes were
often applied to the Karankawa and the Tonkawa. Other tribes, Hispanics
and Anglos spread these tales, occasionally claiming to have witnessed
the severing, cooking and consumption of enemy flesh, hands and feet.
Noah Smithwick and Rip Ford both claimed to have witnessed Tonkawas
celebrating victory with a feast of their fallen enemy (fixed as a stew
with potatos and carrots). Smithwick reported that the feast was
followed by a scalp dance, depicting a mock battle. This reputation for
cannibalism is often mentioned in nineteenth century accounts of the
Though no specific Tonkawan instances are mentioned
in the history books, the impact of Spanish horses and European diseases
on Texas tribes was tremendous. The horse revolutionized the nomadic way
of life, while the diseases brought by explorers, missionaries, soldiers
and settlers wiped out perhaps 95 percent of Texas Indians by 1890.
Also, the pushing of Northern and Eastern tribes into Texas by European
encroachments embroiled the Texas tribes in many inter-tribal conflicts.
These may have been reasons for the merging of several bands and tribes
which created the Tonkawa nation.
from the Four Winds
An early Spanish letter lists the Tonkawans (a
group of three or four different tribes including the Mayeyes) as being
west of the Karankawas, who dwelt between the mouths of the Neches and
Nueces rivers on the Gulf Coast. The Tonkawa, as they came to be called,
may be interrelated to the Lipan, Karankawa, Wichita and other tribes
which joined together in the early eighteenth century. The name Tonkawa
is a Waco word meaning "they all stay together". The Tonkawa
of this period were also reported as fighting with the Caddo tribes in
East Texas over hunting grounds.
From 1746 to 1756, the Spanish operated three
missions on the San Gabriel (then called San Xavier) river for the
Tonkawa. In 1758, the Tonkawa joined with the Comanches, Wichita, Caddo
and others in a raid on the Apaches at the San Saba Mission, killing
thirty-five people and burning the mission. Following this raid, the
Spanish treated the Tonkawa as enemies, even conspiring to assasinate
their chief, an Apache captive named El Mocho. In 1782, he traded guns
to the Lipans for Spanish horses. El Mocho hoped to lead a united Apache
and Tonkawa nation, but was murdered in 1784. Relations between the
Spanish and the Tonkawa improved following his death.
By the early nineteenth century, the Tonkawa had
allied themselves with the Apaches and the new Anglo settlers against
the Comanches. Stephen F. Austin entered into a treaty with the Tonkawa
in 1824. In the 1830's and 1840's, the Tonkawa and Lipan were said to
have resided between the Colorado and San Antonio rivers. They assisted
the Texas Rangers against the Comanche, Caddo and Wichita. The Republic
of Texas concluded agreements with them in 1837 and 1838, even though
they were officially considered to be natives of Mexico, not Texas.
In 1854, the United States and the State of Texas
established a reservation for the Tonkawas and other tribes on the
Brazos river below Fort Belknap near present day Graham. Camp Cooper
(commanded in 1856 by LTC Robert E. Lee) was built nearby. In May, 1858,
"Rip" Ford's Texas Rangers, ignoring minor legalities like
a state-line, attacked a Comanche village on Little Robe Creek in the
Indian Territory. Three months later his Caddo, Delaware, and Tonkawa
scouts were expelled from Texas as undesirables. In 1859, Tonkawas
scouted with the U.S. Army. However, following attacks by Anglo settlers
on the reservation, the Tonkawas were relocated to the Wichita
Reservation in the Indian Territory that same year.
During the Civil War (October, 1862), a group of Comanche, Delaware, Shawnee, Caddo, Wichita and other tribes attacked the Tonkawa reservation in the Indian Territory, killing 300 (about half?) of the Tonkawans. The attack was probably a retaliation for the scouting done by the Tonkawa against these tribes. The Comanche were also said to detest the Tonkawa for the killing and eating of a brother of one of their chiefs. The survivors returned to Texas, where the Governor and the legislature donated a league of land and some supplies. They settled near Fort Griffin and worked for the U.S. Army again.
In the early days of the Buffalo War of 1874-5, Tonkawa scouts killed Comanche warriors in the Staked Plains region of Texas. In September, 1875, Tonkawa scouts were awarded 100 Comanche horses by Colonel Ranald MacKenzie for their assistance in the battle at Palo Duro Canyon. Tonkawan scouting for the army ceased when the end of the Indian Wars caused Fort Griffin to be abandoned in 1881.
In 1884, the Tonkawa were again relocated, along
with some Lipan Apaches, to the former Nez Perce reservation in the
Indian Territory. This reservation, present day home of the Tonkawa
Nation, is in northern Oklahoma, near the town of Tonkawa on Interstate
Highway 35. Tribal members from the reservation attend the annual public
school sponsored Powwow each November in Austin. On the reservation, a
powwow is held each June or July.
Many Tonkawa archeological sites are known in
Central Texas. The latest was discovered northwest of Georgetown while
preparing for building of the new Sun City resort. Through an agreement
with the tribe, artifacts from the site are planned for a display in the
resort's visitor's center when completed.
The Tonkawa language may indicate that they
migrated to Texas from the northern plains. Sadly, the only tapes of the
language were buried, in a fit of grief, with the last native speaker in
the 1960's. Most of the dances
and songs of the Tonkawa have also disappeared. One ethnologist even
reported the tribe to be extinct. Another reported, in 1951, their
disappearance as a distinct tribe due to intermarriage with Lipans,
other Indians and whites. Most of the Tonkawa on the reservation live
well below the poverty line.
Recently, Tonkawa descendants in the Central Texas
area have attempted to organize themselves to preserve their heritage
and reclaim their tribal rights. The local Austin paper has also run a
couple of articles featuring the Tonkawa.
Tonkawas believe they originated from the wolf. The Wolf Dance celebrates the creation of the Tonkawa people. For many years this dance was kept secret from outsiders. By the mid 1800's settlers had observed the dances. All the dancers are dressed in wolf skins. They dance low to the ground and periodically scratch at the dirt in the central area. Toward the end of the dance all dancers gather at the center and vigorously dig up the dirt. A man emerges from the earth. This is the Tonkawa legend in the form of a dance.