The Karankawa Indian tribes played a pivotal part in early Texas history. The meaning of Karankawa is a bit misleading. The name Karankawa was the popular naming for various groups of Native Americans. The reason was because they all had a common dialect and culture. Those people were the Capoques (Coaques, Cocos), Kohanis, Kopanes (Copanes), and Karankawa (Carancaquacas) bands. They inhabited the Gulf Coast of Texas from Galveston Bay southwestward to Corpus Christi Bay. Their language, of which only about a hundred words are preserved, is also called Karankawa and is believed to have been related to the Coahuiltecan, but researchers cannot be certain as so little is known of languages in this region. The significance of the name Karankawa is not known, but it is generally held to mean "dog-lovers" or "dog-raisers." That rendering seems creditable, since the Karankawas had dogs that were a fox or coyote-like species. A nomadic-type culture existed and they seasonally migrated between the mainland and the barrier islands.
They were living that nomadic existence when Spaniards, lead by Alvarez de Piñeda, probed the coast in 1519. Governor Francisco de Garay of Jamaica had commissioned him to explore the Gulf Coast from Florida to Veracruz.
The heavily tattooed, pierced, and painted nomadic Karankawa tribe, held the islands for the most part in south Texas. The territory they held was from the west end of Galveston Island down the coast to the mouth of the Rio Grande perhaps, and inland about 25-65 miles depending on the region. Cannibalistic, superb hunters, fisherman, warriors and longbow archery experts, they were a powerful enemy to anyone wishing to take their prime hunting grounds away.
The impression they left on those that wrote of encounters with the tribes were monumental. The men were strikingly tall, described to be between six and almost seven feet. They were tattooed and wore shell ornaments and many greased themselves down with shark liver oil to ward off mosquitoes and other biting insects.
The true origins of this tribe of peoples is unknown to date. Some believed the Karankawa are related to a tribe of "giants Indians" located off the coast of California at the time. This is due to their strikingly tall appearance.
Still others are of the opinion they're related to an aborigine people from the Big Bend region thousands of years ago, linking them to the "Abilene Man," the most ancient known type of human in Texas. Most hold though, that the Karankawa were in relation with the Carib Tribes of the West Indies. The findings are grounded on the fact that both tribes had barkless dogs, on body sizes and on the fact that both are reputed to have participated in cannibalistic rituals. The belief is widely held they emigrated to the Florida peninsula, and when persecuted by other native tribes, struck out hugging the coast and reaching other lands, perhaps Louisiana or the extreme eastern Texas Coast, and likewise, driven from there till they reached the mostly uninhabited coast of Texas. The Karankawas, Coahuiltecan, Tonkawa, and the East Texas Caddoan peoples all had many things in common. They (Karankawas) were known to be the arch enemy of the Comanches.
The Indian Tribes that lived along the Texas Coast from Galveston Island to a location southward far past Corpus Christi, Texas endured much hardship from the elements. The bays, back bays, lagoons and bayous along the Texas Coast, were the tribal hunting and harvesting grounds. The shallow waters in the bays allowed them to wade out into the deep pools with lances or bows and arrows, to spear fish as the older men, women and children harvested the waters for blue and stone crabs, oysters, mussels, sea turtles, shellfish, and other eatable crustaceans. There are accounts that some Karankawas were seen in Colorado County at Eagle Lake, close to 100 miles from the coastline, but no evidence shows they made permanent camps there.
A few of their campsites have been discovered in recent years, giving us better clues on daily life and activities. Disease, 'land acquisitions", troubles with the newcomers to the land, wars, and general genocide condemned them to extinction before 1860 arrived.
It is now known that they wintered around the coastal bays, eating oysters, clams, shellfish, Black Drum, Redfish, Sea Trout and the other abundant species of fish. During the summer months, and hot weather the oysters, clams and other shellfish are not safe to eat, and the fish make their yearly migration out the pass, which in turn would send the tribal bands migrating further inland as well. Undoubtedly summer tropical storms and hurricanes would have a impact on this decision to move further inland as well.
They would traverse the bays in dugouts and lived in round thatch huts. Some of the campsites show a population of several hundred. The discarded clam and oyster shells would make huge mounds around this camp site. Their most prized hunting tool was the long bow, some well over six foot long and arrow shafts as long as three foot, making it easier to spot and retrieve them from the shallow waters. Their major inland game was the deer and American Bison, as the many discarded remains of these animals has been found at these camp sites. They also harvested local roots, berries and nuts.
In 1768, a Spanish Padre gave detail to their ritual flesh eating ceremonies. The "savages" would lash a captive to a stake and then, dancing around the sacrifice, they would dart in, slice off a piece of flesh with a sharp blade, then roast it in front of the victim, in an already prepared campfire. Then they would devour it, as the victim watched in horror at consumption of himself, before his very eyes.