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Tonkawa Indians

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A tribal group or confederacy, of low culture status and constituting a distinct linguistic stock, formerly ranging about the middle Trinity and Colorado Rivers, in Eastern Texas, and now represented by a single rapidly dwindling remnant of about forty souls. They may have numbered originally 2000 souls, including the Tonkawa proper, the Yojuane, Mayeye, Ervipiame, and others. The origin and meaning of the name Tonkawa are unknown. They call themselves Titskan-watich, "natives". They were inveterate rovers, planting nothing, but subsisting entirely by the buffalo and other game, the fruit of the mesquite and cactus, and wild roots. They dwelt in buffalo skin tipis or brushwood shelters, were notable horsemen, and carried the bow, spear, shield, with the usual headdress of feathered cap and buffalo horns on ceremonial occasions. They were superior hunters and brave and active warriors, but were hated by all the neighbouring tribes by reason of their cannibal habit, on account of which they were universally known among the other Indians as the "Man Eaters". Of their cannibal practices there is abundant record and it is this propensity which led to their outlawry and final destruction. Almost nothing is known of their myths and ritual, beyond the fact that they had a Wolf Dance and claimed the wolf as an ancestor. They were also leaders in the ritual cult of the peyote, a cactus eaten with ceremonial accompaniment to produce waking visions.

The Tonkawa are first mentioned by name in a Spanish document of 1691. In 1719 they first became known to the French through La Haye's expedition into what is now Eastern Oklahoma. In response to their request, the Franciscan Father Francisco Ano de los Dolores in 1748 established for their benefit the Mission of San Francisco Xavier de Horcasitas on San Xavier (now San Gabriel) River, about nine miles northwest of the present Rockdale Nilamco, Texas. Shortly afterward the Tonkawa together with other tribes of Central Texas, were greatly wasted by a smallpox epidemic. The mission also suffered from the attacks of the Lipan Apache, in consequence of which and another epidemic most of the inmates were removed to a mission on Guadalupe River about 1755. Another band of the same connection, the Ervipiame, established on request of their chief in the Mission of San Francisco-Xavier de Náxera on San Antonio River in 1722, had later been consolidated with the larger body at the second San Xavier. With the decline and abandonment of the Texas missions, 1790-1800, the mission Indians for the most part rejoined their tribes and relapsed into barbarism. In 1778 the Tonkawa were still estimated at about 1200 souls, but another smallpox epidemic immediately thereafter cut them down one-half. In 1855 the Government settled them, with several other tribes, on a reservation on the Clear Fork of the Brazos River, but in consequence of the opposition of the Texans it was found necessary to remove them in 1857 to a new reservation on Washita River, Oklahoma, the Tonkawa camp being just above the present Anadarko. Taking advantage of the confusion of the Civil War, a combination of the neighbouring tribes--who had a hatred toward the Tonkawa on account of the cannibalism and their activity as scouts for the troops--surprised the Tonkawa camp in a night attack, 25 October, 1862, killing 137 out of a total of 305. they never recovered from this blow. After years as refugees about Fort Griffin, Texas, under military protection, the remnant numbering only 90, were gathered together in 1884 and again removed to a small reservation in Oklahoma, near the present Ponca. They are now citizens, with lands allotted in severalty. Our knowledge of the Tonkawa language is based chiefly on Gatschet's studies of manuscript material with the Bureau of American Ethnology.


BOLTEN'S ZONKAWA, SAN FRANCISCO XAVIER DE HORCASITAS, etc., in Handbook of Am. Inds., ed. HODGE, for Bull. Bur. Am. Ethnology (Washington, 1907-10); Annual Repts. Commissioner of Ind. Affairs (Washington); GATSCHET, Remarks upon the Tonkawa Language in Am. Philos. Soc. Proc. (Phila., 1877); LA MAYE, Journal historique, etc. (New Orleans, 1831), tr. in French Hist. Colls. of La., III (New York, 1851); MOONEY, Our Last Cannibal Tribe, in Harper's Mag. (New York, Sept., 1901); SIBLEY, Hist. Sketches of the Ind. Tribes in La., etc., with original Presidential Message conveying report of Lewis and Clark discoveries (Washington, 1806).

About this page

APA citation. Mooney, J. (1912). Tonkawa Indians. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Mooney, James. "Tonkawa Indians." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 14. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Calvin H. Marousch. Dedicated to Andre Deslauriers.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. July 1, 1912. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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