The Tonkawa Indians

by R. E. Moore

Back to the Texas Indians home page


 The Tonkawa People: A Tribal History from Earliest Times to 1893

by Deborah Newlin

This is the best book I know of on the Tonkawa. This is the Journal of the West Texas Museum Association at Texas Tech University. The whole journal is devoted to the Tonkawa book. It is well written at a level for ordinary people.  It is now out of print.

Visit our store for books and maps on the Tonkawa

PayPal Support Texas Indians. Even $1.00 helps. It costs to keep things going. So help. PayPal or a credit card in PayPal. It's safe and YOU really help. You can afford one soda? Then send the same amount and support us. It really helps.

This is a short Tonkawa page. A longer one is coming. We are working on it. Finding good source material on this tribe is surprisingly hard for such a prominent and important tribe. I did not want to repeat all the junk material that is out there and have tried to go to better sources and use them. There is a lot source material on the history on this tribe after the Texas revolution. The ethnological material is the material that is so poor and wanting. So, I have left out most of the history and tried to include the cultural information. I will be adding more of the history later.

The Tonkawa lived in central Texas near modern Austin. Their historical territory was along the Balcones Escarpment between Austin and San Antonio. Originally the Tonkawa had a larger territory that included the hill country around Llano and Mason Texas. This is the Edwards Plateau region west of Austin and San Antonio. See the map below. They would roam all the way over to the Brazos river. Later, around 1600, the Apache and even later, around 1750, the Comanche moved into the region and pushed the Tonkawa out and east of the Edwards Plateau. This is where they were in most of the Spanish period and all of the Texan/ American periods of history. They lived just to the east of, and along, the Edwards escarpment. They were friendly with the Karankawa and shared the lands between the Karankawa homelands and their homelands. The Spanish often found these two tribes camped out together in these shared lands. They also shared land with the Coahuiltecan tribes to the south of them. Bexar county (San Antonio) was a mix of Tonkawa in the north and Coahuiltecan tribes in the south. Travis and Williamson counties shared land with the Wichita tribes.

The Tonkawa also seem to have been hosts for many other tribes. At the springs in San Marcos and New Braunfels a dozen or more tribes from all over Texas were found by Spanish travelers. These were trade camps where the Caddo, Jumano and Coahuiltecan tribes would come to camp with the Tonkawa for several months in the summer. While there they would hunt buffalo on the blackland plains just to the east and trade goods and news. This region the Tonkawa lived in was a sort of crossroads between the tribes from north east south and west. All this means the Tonkawa were friendly and wanted to get along with other peoples. Later, this can be seen in the way they seem to have been able to get along with the American settlers better than the other tribes. See the map to find the modern counties were they lived.

Tonkawa means, "the people of the Wolf". The Tonkawa claimed they were all descended from a mythical wolf. For this reason the Tonkawa would never kill a wolf. This way of claiming an animal or thing as a first ancestor is called a totemic belief system by anthropologists. As in most societies with totemic ancestors, the Tonkawa were divided into clans. Each clan had a mythical animal or spirit they believed guarded them.

The Tonkawa Wolf Dance. Drawn in the 1850s

They refused to farm because they said they were wolves and wolves hunted for food and did not farm. So they got their food by hunting and gathering. This makes them hunter gatherers. They lived in a region with lots of animals to hunt. This region is still one of the best deer hunting regions in Texas. The blackland prairies at the base of the Edwards Plateau had lots of buffalo. There are huge and beautiful springs in the region too. The springs at New Braunfels and San Marcos are so big they turn into rivers. In Austin Barton Creek springs and others are huge. San Antonio also has a number of good springs. The Colorado and Guadalupe rivers run right through the Tonkawa lands. These rivers and springs have fish, crawfish and clams and mussels in them. Pecan trees grow along the rivers and streams and all over this region. So with all the animals to hunt, fish to catch and pecans to pick up the Tonkawa did not need to farm. All the springs and rivers also means there are plenty of plant foods like blackberries roots. The the Tonkawa had a good supply of food from hunting and gathering. Here is a list of the food sources from the paragraph above; deer, buffalo, fish. crawfish. mussels, pecans. blackberries, roots. Can you think of more?

Did you know the the San Marcos, Comal and Guadalupe rivers used to have a species of crawfish in them that was as big as a lobster? These crawfish, also called prawns, were so good to eat the Anglo settlers caught almost all of them. They are now extinct in the Guadalupe and Comal rivers. A few still live in the San Marcos river. I have seen some of these and they are so cool I had to say sumthin about them here. Makes you think about how how fragile our environment is when we can almost wipe out a species like this.

The Tonkawa lived in both huts, wickiups and tee-pees. If you do not know what a wickiup is go here and take a look. Be sure and come back! You better know what a tee-pee is without a picture or me telling you!!! If you don't know go to the Comanche page and look at the picture of tee-pees. The huts described by Americans were probably wickiups. The Tonkawa wickiups were described as being very crude and covered with brush and anything available.

The Tonkawa tattooed their bodies and faces. They would have black tattooed lines all over their bodies. The Karankawa, Wichita and Jumano also tattooed themselves in the same way. This caused the Spanish to confuse these tribes when they based their identification on appearance. This makes Spanish records hard to use as sources to identify tribes for works like this one.

They were friends and allies with the Caddo, Karankawa, Jumanos and Coahuiltecans. They were enemies of the Comanches and Apaches. They were friendly with the Anglo - American settlers or at least they were not very aggressive. In the mid 1800s they were moved to a reservation in north Texas. Later they were moved to reservations in Oklahoma.

The Tonkawas would often ally themselves with the Anglos against the Comanches and Wichita. Remember it was the Comanches who pushed the Tonkawa out of their land in the hill country. They acted as scouts and troops for the Texas Rangers and the U S Army on several occasions. The most notable time they allied with the Texans was at the battle of Plum Creek against the Comanche Indians.

In the 1960s there were only 35 Tonkawa left in Oklahoma. But, I understand there are still some Tonkawa living secretly up around Bastrop east of Austin.

Copyright by R. Edward. Moore and Texarch Associates, 1998, 2000, 2012 all rights reserved. Graphics may not be used or reproduced without prior permission. Short parts of text may be quoted in school reports. Longer quotes require prior written permission. This is a part of




Hit Counter Since 2-1-2005