Tonkawa Indians have been gone from Central Texas for more than a
century, but it's hard to spend much time in Central Texas without
finding evidence of the life they once lived here.
From Mother Neff
State Park in Coryell
County to the San
Gabriel River and Sugarloaf Mountain in Milam
County - and many points between and beyond those landmarks -
the Tonkawa left their mark here. They were generally friendly toward
the Texas settlers because they shared common enemies - the Comanche
and Apache, who drove them from the plains and the buffalo on which
they had lived for centuries.
Tonkawa comes from a Waco name, Tonkaweya, which, in that simple but
descriptive way Indians named themselves, means "they all stay together."
They called themselves tickanwatic, which translates roughly to "the
most human of people."
The Tonkawa were comprised a group of several independent bands, including
the Mayeye, Yojaune, Ervipiame and others in addition to the main
tribe. They were referred to in historical texts as Tonkewega, Tanacaoye,
Tancagua sand Tonguay. A lot of early Texas settlers simply called
The Tonkawa and Spanish got to know each other in the mid 1700s through
establishment of three missions on the San
Gabriel River, not far from the present-day community of San
Gabriel. The Spanish used the missions as a base of evangelical
operations, and as a defense against Apaches marauding from the west
and the threat of French and English encroachment from the east.
The Tonkawa paid dearly for their protection at the missions. Apache
raids and smallpox decimated the tribe. The Spanish soon abandoned
the missions on the San Gabriel in favor of a mission for the Lipan
Apache at San
Saba, which did not sit well with other tribes. Tonkawa war chief
El Mocho and other Indians believed the Apache would use the mission
as a supply base for attacks on their tribes. El Mocho was a prime
instigator of the attack that destroyed the mission.
As offended as the Spanish were at this affront, the government was
forced to recognize El Mocho as the Tonkawa chief. Smallpox had claimed
Tonkawa peace chief Neques and many of the elders, including some
the Spanish had bribed to assassinate El Mocho. After conferring him
on the official title, the Spanish invited El Mocho to a conference
at the presidio of La Bahia, where they killed him.
From that time on, the Tonkawa were considered among the most friendly
of Indians not only to the Spanish but also to the Texas settlers.
Tonkawa proved especially valuable as scouts in the Red River Wars
in the Texas Panhandle.
The Tonkawa were described as slender and fleet afoot, able to walk
or run long distances with little or no food or water. They ate fish
and oysters, which most Plains Indians disdained, and they also ate
rabbits, skunks, rats, turtles and rattlesnakes. They almost certainly
practiced ritualistic cannibalism. Comanche was said to be their favorite
A reservation for the Tonkawa and other tribes was established on
the Brazos River in Young
County but settlers, upset over recent Indian attacks against
them, attacked the reservation and killed many of the Indians living
there. In 1859, the Tonkawa were removed to a reservation in Indian
territory where a group of Deleware, Shawnee, Wichita, Caddo and other
tribes attacked the Tonkawa to settle old scores against the tribe.
About half of the 300 native Tonkawa were killed in that attack.
The Tonkawa straggled back to Texas and settled near Fort
Griffin in Shackleford
County where they were used extensively as scouts in the last
Indian wars in Texas. When the Indian troubles were over, the Tonkawa
were sent back to Indian territory, where the surviving Tonkawa live
While the more aggressive tribes like the Comanche and Apache have
survived in Texans' memory as a noble enemy, the Tonkawa receive passing
mention in most state histories.
W.W. Newcomb in his book "Indians of Texas" wrote that the Tonkawa
had little to recommend them to memory, and what details did survive,
such as reports of cannibalism, did nothing to endear them to history.
"The southern plains were preempted by the Comanches, and soon the
mission-weakened Tonkawas were between a Comanche anvil on the west
and the advancing hammer of the American frontier on the east," Newcomb
wrote. "Some other people might have made a better show of resistance,
but such was not the nature of the timid Tonkawa."
© Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas"
August 26, 2005 column