Members of Tonkawa Tribe
Whenever the early Texas settlers needed a good, stand up ally, they could find one in the Tonkawa Nation. Of all the Native American tribes in Texas, the Tonkawa were always quick to offer assistance to their Anglo neighbors. Stephen F. Austin developed cordial relations with them and welcomed them into his colony. At every social affair held by the settlers, members of the Tonkawa tribe would often show up uninvited. Texas rangers used them as scouts and auxiliary troops against the Comanches.
For decades, the Tonkawa inhabited Central Texas near present day Austin. Advancing pressure from the Comanches in the North and the Apaches to the West forced them to seek alliances with any group that could help fend them off. The Anglo settlements offered them a powerful deterrent against their long time enemies. It's not surprising they were friendly towards them.
The Tonkawa adopted the customs of the Plains Indians with its emphasis on the horse and buffalo hunt. Tonkawa families lived in crude tepees within a maternal clan. They wore little or no clothing; the men wore excessively large breechcloths and the women donned short skirts and painted breasts. During the winter, they wore buffalo robes. The Tonkawa had a preference for facial ornaments such as earrings, necklaces and tattoos. Subsistence came from anything they could hunt or gather. This included, buffalo, deer, jackrabbits, pecans, oysters, crayfish, and dogs. Pecans were used as a form of barter. Farming was tried but with little success.
The Tonkawa had one abhorrent custom: cannibalism. Like the Karankawas, the Tonkawa didn't consume human flesh for food, but as a ritualistic means of acquiring a dead persons spirit and strength. During a "Scalp Dance," they bit off portions from the cooked limbs of a slain enemy. The Comanches, along with the other neighboring tribes, greatly detested this practice, especially when members of their own tribe were consumed.
The period of close relations with the settlers came to an end in the 1850's. The Tonkawa were forced on to a reservation in Young County near the Brazos River. Because of the incessant Comanche raids on their settlements, Texans began to regard all Native Americans as hostile. In some cases, Tonkawa villages were attacked by angry settlers who wanted them removed. Before the start of the Civil War, the Tonkawa were moved across the Red River into the Indian Territory (now present day Oklahoma).
During the war, the Tonkawa continued to serve as scouts for the Texas rangers and backed the Confederate authorities that managed their reservation. The other tribes hated the Tonkawa for helping the Texans and their continued practice of cannibalism. On October 23, 1862, a coalition of the Osage, Shawnee, Kiowa, Caddo and Comanche tribes attacked the Tonkawa's Wichita Agency near present day Fort Sill. The Confederate agent, Mathew Leeper, escaped out a back window in his nightshirt while his agency was burned to the ground. The Tonkawa were forced to flee but many were caught and killed on the spot. Their long time leader, Chief Placido, was slain along with 137 men, women and children. Already decimated from disease, the Tonkawa were almost wiped out .
The survivors fled back to Texas near Fort Belknap. Like today's homeless people, they lived in squalor near Fort Griffin until the late 1880's. They were later moved to the Sac and Fox agency in Oklahoma. Because of their dwindling numbers, the Tonkawa language was lost along with many of their songs and dances. Today, the tribe has only 600 members that reside in Oklahoma.
Tonkawa Scouts and U.S. Cavalrymen