Why Are The Karankawa Indians Remembered as Savage Cannibals?

By Tim Seiter

In 1767, Fray Gaspar José de Solís toured the faltering missions of Texas. When he visited the mission of Nuestra Señora del Rosario, which the Spanish built to convert the Karankawa Indians to Christianity, he wrote a lengthy report on their cannibalism in his journal: “Dancing and leaping and with sharp knives in their hands, they draw near to the victim, cut off a piece of their flesh, come to the fire and half roast it, and, within sight of the victim himself devour it most ravenously.”[1] Despite captivating readers for generations, Padre Solís’s account of the Karankawas’ cannibalism has a major problem—it is almost certainly fictitious. Although the Karankawas did, in fact, practice a rare exo-cannibalism, this disgruntled priest likely fabricated an exaggerated version of the custom. He has tarnished the image of the Karankawas for the past two-hundred and fifty years. This article explains why Fray Solis’s account, a source utilized by numerous scholars, should be used selectively and with caution.

Father Solís Visits Mission Rosario

When Father Solís inspected Mission Rosario he encountered a healthy drove of stock animals, a devout and loyal minister, and an “extremely neat” place of worship.[2] “As far as its temporal goods are concerned,” Solís recalled, “[Mission Rosario] is in a flourishing condition.”[3] But not all was well. Mission Rosario lacked spiritual goods—Indian neophytes. The majority of Karankawa-speaking families had abandoned the immaculate mission and fled to the impenetrable coast. And what purpose does a mission serve without heathens to convert?

To explain the mission’s failure, Solís blamed the Karankawas’ innate barbarisms:

All of these Indians, who are savage, indolent and lazy, and who are so greedy and gluttonous that they devour meat that is parboiled, almost raw and dripping in blood, prefer to suffer hunger, nakedness and the inclemencies of the weather provided they be left free to live indolent in the wilds or along the seashore, where they give themselves over to all kinds of excesses, especially to lust, theft and dancing.[4]

Continuing his tirade, Solís describes the Karankawas’ music as “emit[ting] a mournful, inharmonious sound,” the Karankawas’ ceremonial dances as accompanied by “horrible grimaces” and demonic appearances, and the Karankawas’ marriages as sacrilegious, in which husbands “traded their wives for those of other men.”[5] Yet the practice Solís really used to solidify the Karankawas’ savageness, and in turn provide a scapegoat for their reluctance to become “civilized,” was cannibalism:

In their tribal wars they are cruel, inhuman and ferocious toward the conquered….The children are carried off and eaten, the little boys and girls are sold, and the fighting-men, the grown-up women and the larger girls are taken off and made to serve the victors. The dance is carried on in this fashion. They drive a stake into the ground at the place where they are going to hold the mitote. They then kindle a huge fire and bind to the stake the victim whom they are to make dance or whom they are going to sacrifice. All of them gather together, and as soon as the discordant notes of the caymán are heard they begin to dance and to jump about the fire, making a great number of gestures and terrible grimaces and uttering sad, unnatural cries. Dancing and leaping and with sharp knives in their hands, they draw near to the victim, cut off a piece of his flesh, come to the fire and half roast it, and, within sight of the victim himself devour it most ravenously. Thus they continue cutting him to pieces and dismembering him, until, finally, they have cut away all of the flesh and he dies. They cut off the skull and, with the hair still clinging to it, place it on a stick so as to carry it in triumph during the dance. They do not throw away the bones, but pass them around, and whoever happens to get one sucks it until nothing of it is left. They act in like manner toward the religious and toward the Spaniards whenever they capture them. Sometimes they hang the victim by the feet and beneath them start a fire, and after the body is roasted they devour it. Other times they cut stakes, about an inch in thickness, from the pitch-pine, which grows so plentifully in these parts; they stick these stakes to the victim and then set fire to him, and as soon as he is half roasted they eat him. Some, instead of using knives to cut up their victim, tear him apart with their teeth and devour him.[6]

The most gruesome depiction of the Karankawas’ cannibalism known, Solís does not acknowledge where he acquired this information. Considering that he never went out into “the wilds” to meet with First Peoples, extreme doubt exists whether Solís witnessed this act in-person.

Nonetheless, historians have taken Solís’s “eyewitness account” of cannibalism as trustworthy because of its first-person perspective.[7] But Solís’s description is fundamentally misaligned with other first-hand reports of Texas Gulf Coast cannibalism.[8] Legitimate first-hand accounts of Texas Gulf Coast cannibalism depict the practice as being post-mortem, rare, ritualistic, and reserved for Native enemies who fully understood the practice—not white Spaniards. Solís’s description, on the other hand, is chock-full of Christian iconography (a victim bound christ-like to a stake “whom they are going to sacrifice”); embellishment (“Some, instead of using knives to cut up their victim, tear him apart with their teeth and devour him”); scare tactics (“They act in like manner toward the religious and toward the Spaniards whenever they capture them”); and finally, the ritual occurs as the victim looks on in horror—not post-mortem.

Two-Hundred and Fifty-Year-Old Propaganda That Still Lives

In Texas, children grow up hearing stories of giant, cannibalistic, baby-eating Karankawas.[9] In large regard this is because Padre Solís’s journal is one of the most accessible and pervasive primary sources on the Karankawa-speaking Peoples. For centuries their image has remained locked in his shadow, and for centuries their image has been repeatedly sullied. This begs the question, how could a source with a myriad of problems become so popular?

The most worrisome answer is that Solís writes about the Karankawas in a way that we all want to hear. Cannibalistic warriors captivate students of today. Hedonistic brutes reassure Spanish Padres of the past. The savage Indian is a comfortable stereotype.[10]

Whatever the reason, as soon as Solís finished his tour of the missions, his writings on the Karankawas exploded across the historical record. Father Juan Agustín Morfi in the 1780s, known as “Texas’s first historian,” copied Solís almost word for word in the Historia, while also adding his own personal flourishes:

The Carancaguases are a vile nation, pusillanimous, treacherous and extremely cruel….When they surprise their enemies in any way, they unpardonably take the lives of the old of both sexes, whom the capture, eat the children, sell the boys, and keep the warriors for the dance and sacrifice to their false divinities. At the place where they hold the mitote they drive a big strong stake deep into the ground; to this they securely tie the unhappy prisoner; they build a big fire all around him; all of the rancheria, the tribe or the confederation arrive, and when they sound the funeral instrument called cayman, all begin to dance in a circle carrying in their hands well sharpened knives of iron or flint, or a piece of shell. When they see fit they go up to the patient, cut off a piece of his flesh, pass it over the fire and dripping in blood, they eat it in sight of the victim, accompanying this by horrible gestures and incomparable voices. In this way they go on tearing the victim to pieces until he dies. Some do not put this flesh near the fire but eat it raw, making themselves festive, by spotting their faces with blood.[11]

Such traditions have continued. “They were fierce warriors and cruel cannibals,” writes Joseph Clark in his 1939 Texas History textbook, “early Spaniards in Texas recorded that in their cannibalistic feasts these Indians tied the captive to a post, and circling the victim in their frenzied feast dance, each would clip from his body a piece of flesh and devour it.”[12]Edward Kilman, the author of a 1959 narrative history of the Karankawas, calls Solís’s writings a “classic description of these and other coastal tribes’ character, mores, and practices,” and then goes on to quote the near-entirety of Solís’s account for the next seven pages.[13]“According to the diary of a Spanish priest,” writes Gary Cartwright in his widely sold 1991 Galveston: A History of the Island, “the tribe had a taste for young children.”[14]Solís’s journal needs to be acknowledged as propaganda. Deadly propaganda. His contemporaries, and those who followed them, used such descriptions to justify the Karankawas’ extermination. Moreover, Solís’s journal demonstrates the power history holds—a Spaniard who wrote derogatory, off-handed comments in his journal two centuries ago has taken over what we think about the Karankawas today.

What to do with Solís’s Testimony?

With Solís’s journal the pinnacle of prejudice, it might be tempting to label the entirety of his testimony untrustworthy and to disregard it. But although dangerously inaccurate in instances, Solís’s diary still holds value. Historians need to aspire to understand all the viewpoints in the history they study, and Solís allows us to delve deep into the mentality of Spanish missionaries.

Frontier friars saw missions as places to cleanse the “unhealthy” attributes of Native Peoples and then to replace them with “cleaner” and “healthier” European attributes.[15] Through his journal, we see that Solís ultimately intended to “save” the Karankawas by wiping clean their culture and inserting one deemed superior. But the damned First Peoples abandoned the missions and, in the process, damned themselves. Solís’s frustration is palpable.

But more than giving us a look into the zealous mind of the Spanish missionary, Solís’s journal contains corroborated and unique ethnographic information on the Karankawas, such as their governmental structures, marriage customs, and religious deities.[16] Padre Solís clearly spoke with someone who knew the Karankawas well, most likely Reverend Joseph Escobar, the head attendant of Mission Rosario. And although Padre Solís never visited the Karankawas’ villages, Father Escober had fewer qualms.[17] Visiting the Karankawas in their lands allowed the Spanish to keep tabs on the apostate Peoples, to build deeper connections, and to diversify their diet with fresh fruits, herbs, and game that the Karankawas provided.[18] Fray Escobar likely never found himself in the position to view the Karankawas’ anthropophagy—a ritual undergone among community members—but assuredly after nearly two decades of living on the Gulf Coast he knew a great number of their cultural practices.

When confronted with plainly biased sources like Solís’s, ignoring the entire source comes easily. But ignoring such European sources puts us in the same predicament as when we ignored Native sources mere decades ago. The history becomes half-blind. Solís’s accounting of the Karankawas’ cannibalism is not reliable, it is not first-hand, and it has unfairly caricaturized the Karankawas for nearly the past two-hundred and fifty years. As a consequence, Solís diary is dangerous and needs to be recognized and treated as such. But dangerous sources are never worthless. Beyond giving us a glimpse into the mind of a frustrated missionary meaning to do good as he paradoxically did bad, Solís’s journal ironically contains rare ethnographic material on the Karankawas and helps scholars piece together their culture, lifeways, and history.

[Tim Seiter earned his Bachelor of Arts in History at the University of Houston and is currently a Ph.D. student at Southern Methodist University. He is writing a history of the Karankawa Indians. If you have any information on these First Peoples, get in touch with Tim at https://karankawas.com/tim-seiter/.]


[1] Gaspar José de Solís, “The Solis Diary of 1767,” Sons of Dewitt Colony Texas, accessed Feb 13, 2018, http://www.sonsofdewittcolony.org/alarconex5.htm.

[2] Solís,“The Solis Diary of 1767,”Feb 26. Solís resided at Rosario for eleven days total: Feb 26-29, March 1-4, and March 12-14.

[3]  Ibid, March 4.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Solís might have heard rumors of the Karankawas’ cannibalism from Fray Joseph Escobar, Rosario’s chief priest; from Captain Francisco Tovar, the captain of the Bahía del Espíritu Santo mission; or from some other presidial or missionary. I am hesitant to assume that the Karankawas told Solís about their anthropophagy: these Native Americans recognized him as an authority figure because of all the pomp surrounding his arrival, and the Karankawas knew feigning interest and leaving a good impression could lead to further gifts and positive diplomatic connections. They had little reason to broach discussions of cannibalism which they knew the Spaniards looked at with disgust. Proof of this is seen when thirty-three apostate Karankawa families revisited the mission wanting to test out Padre Solís’s temperament, see March 3: “I continued the Visit. On this day the captain called on me and remained for dinner. At night thirty-three of the Indian families that had fled off from the mission came to see me, and I received them gladly and kindly.”

[8]  See particularly Robert Weddle, La Salle, the Mississippi and the Gulf(College Station: Texas A&M Press, 1987), 238; Henri Folmer, “De Bellisle on the Texas Coast,” The Southwestern Historical Quarterly44, no. 2 (1940): 219-220; Noah Smithwick, The Evolution of a State(Austin: University of Texas Press, 1983), 179; John Holland Jenkins, Recollections of Early Texas: The Memoirs of John Holland Jenkins (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1958), 77-78; Robert Hall, Life of Robert Hall: Indian Fighter and Veteran of Three Great Wars, also Sketch of Big Foot Wallace(Austin: State House Press, 1992), 57.

[9]  “Ask any school-aged child in a Texas public school what they know about the Karankawa,” writes Vivien Geneser, “and you will, most likely, receive a testimony about their despicable savagery, gruesome cannibalism, and general lack of civility and appeal.” Geneser, “Native transgressions: a look at the portrayal of Karankawa natives in Texas history textbooks and trade books,” American Educational History Journal38, no. 1-2 (2011): 219.

[10]  It has come to my attention after reading Devon Mihesuah’s “Special Issue on Writing about American Indians” that Vine Deloria, Jr. has a similar concept, “comfortable fictions.” See Mihesuah, “Voices, Interpretations, and the ‘New Indian History’: Comment on the ‘American Indian Quarterly’s Special Issue on Writing about American Indians,” American Indian Quarterly, Vol. 20, No. 1, Special Issue: Writing about American Indians (Winter, 1996),  91-108; Deloria, “Comfortable Fictions and the Struggle for Turf,” review of The Invented Indian: Cultural Fictions and Government Policiesby James A. Clifton, American Indian Quarterly 16, no. 3 (Summer, 1992): 397-410.

[11]  Juan Agustín Morfi, Excerpts from the Memorias for the history of the province of Texas : being a translation of those parts of the Memorias which particularly concern the various Indians of the province of Texas ; their tribal divisions, characteristics, customs, traditions, superstitions, and all else of interest concerning them, revised and trans. Carlos E. Castañeda and Frederick C Chabot (San Antonio: Naylor Publishing, 1932), 1, 51; Morfi, History of Texas, 1673-1779, trans. Carlos E. Castañeda (Albuquerque: The Quivira Society, 1935), 79-80. Morfi almost undoubtedly used Solís’s journals as his source of information on the Karankawas. First, Morfi says he acquired his information from various Padres, and Morfi copies other information found in Solís’s journal, such as the two divinities that the Karankawas worship, their governmental structure, their marriage customs, see Morfi, History of Texas, 21, 48, 45. Newcomb also points this out in W. W. Newcomb, The Indians of Texas: From Prehistoric to Modern Times(Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990), 64. José Antonio Pichardo probably has the best refutation of Solís and Morfi, see Pichardo, Pichardo’s treatise on the limits of Louisiana and Texas; an argumentative historical treatise with reference to the verification of the true limits of the provinces of Louisiana and Texas to disprove the claim of the United States that Texas was included in the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, trans. Charles W. Hackett (Freeport: Books for Libraries Press, 1971).

[12] Joseph L. Clark, A History of Texas: Land of Promise(New York: Heath and Company, 1939), 16-17.

[13]Edward Kilman, Cannibal Coast(San Antonio: The Naylor Company, 1959), 119-125.

[14]  Gary Cartwright, Galveston: A History of the Island(Fort Worth: TCU Press, 1991), 18-19. For more corresponding comments, see Eugenia Reynolds Briscoe, “A Narrative History of Corpus Christi, Texas—1519-1875” (Dissertation, University of Denver, 1972), 19-20; Mildred Mayhall “The Indians of Texas: the Atákapa, the Karankawa, the Tonkawa” (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Texas, 1939), 210; Vernon Smylie, Conquistadores and cannibals : the early history of Padre Island, 1519-1845(Texas News Syndicate Press, 1964), 14; A.B.J. Hammet, The empresario Don Martín de León (San Antonio: Texian Press, 1973), 62-65.

[15]Mark Goldberg, Conquering Sickness: Race, Health, and Colonization in the Texas Borderlands(Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2016) 53, 55.

[16] For some shared cultural traits between Solís’s account and Jean-Baptiste Talons’s, see marriage customs, scarring with a comb, and the scalp pole, Weddle, La Salle, the Mississippi, and the Gulf, 253-254.

[17] Cabello to Croix, “Explaining delay to San Luis Potosí, and reporting murder of the captain and crew of Spanish vessel by Aranama and Karankawa Indians,” (Bexar Archives, 2C32, March 14, 1779); Weddle, Changing Tides: Twilight and Dawn in the Spanish Sea, 1763-1803(College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1995), 155.

[18]Juliana Barr, Peace Came in the Form of a Woman: Indians and Spaniards in the Texas Borderlands (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007), 143.

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