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"Letters from Central Texas"

Tonkawa Tales

by Clay Coppedge
The 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 them "Tonks."

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 human entrée.

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 today.

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
This column is included in Clay Coppedge's "Hill Country Chronicles"
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