Lyn Cote: Native American Tribes in 19th Century Texas

lyn_coteWhen I began doing research on early Texas history for my new series, “Texas Star of Destiny,” I found out what a complex setting I had chosen for my three books. (The first, The Desires of Her Heart, debuted Feb 10, 2009.)
Texas has an extremely varied climate (cold to tropical) and geography (piney woods, prairie, grassland, Gulf coast, etc.). As for its population, generations of head-butting between the descendants of Spanish vs. English colonists, coupled with a complex population of Native Americans, this variety made for interesting research and three exciting (I hope) stories.

I was surprised by the variety of Native Americans in one place, and most of them lived very differently from each other.

In Texas in the 19th century, the tribes were:

in East Texas: the Caddo, the Karankawas;
in Central Texas: the Tonkawas;
in South Texas: the Coahuiltecan,
and in West Texas: the Comanche, Apache (including the Lipans and Mescaleros.)

Now I don’t know about you but I had only heard of three of these: the Karankawas, Comanche and Apaches. So let me introduce you to the Caddo.

The Caddos lived in the far eastern Piney Woods of Texas and westward onto the prairie. They were peaceful farmers and had permanent settlements. The quanahname, Texas, is from the Spanish word tejas which was the Caddo word for “friend.”

The Karankawas were primarily fishermen in the Galveston area.

The Tonkawas were horsemen and hunted buffalo and small game such as deer.

The Coahuiltecan lived along the Rio Grande. They eked out a life on native plants and hunting. (Not horsemen.)

The Apache had two groups which roamed virgin Texas: the Lipan, and the Mescalero. (horsemen.)

The Comanche were latecomers to Texas, migrating from the northern plains after acquiring the horse. Taming the horse and using it to hunt buffalo revolutionized the Comanche society. The Comanche were the most feared by all.

This is proven by the fact that the Lipan Apaches started out fighting the newcomers, the angloamericanos, but ended up allying themselves with the Anglos against the Comanche.

hillcountryThe Comanche was the consummate Texas horse warrior. You’ve heard, “Don’t mess with Texas,” right? Well, in 19th century Texas, it was “Don’t mess with Comanches.” This was true because Comanche life was essentially centered around war.

Finally, as the white Americans moved west, they pushed the eastern tribes, such as the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Kickapoo, and Shawnee into Texas territory. This also brought tribal warfare against these new encroachers.

Thinking about the Texan Native Americans as active participants Texas history brought back other research I had done.

My American history Masters thesis used early novels (not the classics like Louisa May Alcott but pulp fiction of the time) as a way to glean and understand 19th century social attitudes. I had no preconceptions of what I would find as I read early American novels from around 1820 to 1914. I came away however with certain “stock” characters” or “stereotypes” that appeared over and over in these novels.

Native Americans had two faces in these books. There was the NOBLE SAVAGE and its opposite THE BLOODTHIRSTY SAVAGE.  I think we still struggle with the desiresofherheart1conflict between these two opposites. When I was thinking of writing an article about the Native tribes in Texas, I skimmed Karen Kay’s very illuminating posts here on Petticoats and Pistols about Native Americans. I especially was impressed by her post on the fact that southern tribes did torture their enemies.

Today we all know about the white man’s depredations on the Native tribes, but if I were faced with a Comanche in war paint, I’d run. Fast.

(Digression: This might be an interesting start of a time-travel story. How a 21st century man or woman would react to being sucked into this bit of unpleasant history.)

So were the Native tribes–the Caddo, Karakawa, Tonkawa, Comanche, Apache, etc. in Texas — noble savages or bloodthirsty savages? Or something else? 

How should Native Americans be portrayed in today’s historical novels?   What’s your opinion?

Lyn Cote
The Desires of Her Heart, 2-10-09

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24 thoughts on “Lyn Cote: Native American Tribes in 19th Century Texas”

  1. Dear Lyn, You have given me loads of food for thought. My grandmother always said she was part Indian but we have never been able to prove it. I hate to think that back in my family tree there are savages. But wait just a minute, I’m thinking that there were plenty of other nationalities who were also savage. I’m not sure that we can point a finger at any one race without exposing many others. The movies are great entertainment but more fiction than fact.
    I shall be looking forward to reading this series. You are right Texas is very diverse. I love traveling across.

  2. Hi, Lyn. Thanks for coming to Petticoats & Pistols.
    I think we all have to be so careful these days to NOT stereotype anyone or any group that we end up almost ignoring huge chunks of history because it’s difficult.

    I’ve really enjoyed Karen Kay’s posts because they do give us a closer look at Native American life, outside the Noble Savage or Bloodthirsty Savage molds.

    I’m interested to see how you deal with native people in your books.

    I think the real reason we tend to be either too kind or too cruel is simply because we don’t know. The native culture is somewhat shrouded because so little of it was written down. Which left their history to be written by others, or at a later date.

    I’ve got an old Shoshone women in my WIP and I’m trying really hard to have her be NOT a stereotype, wise, quiet, at home in nature, nurturing….okay wait…maybe she is a two dimentional character. I think I’ll go back and give her a bad attitude somehow. 🙂

  3. Good Morning, Thank you for a most comprehensive read about Native people. Since my husband is full blood (California Tribes) I am quite aware of the Tribes in other areas. Even if a tribe is a ‘warring’ tribe, their home life was very structured. Not only that, but loving. Many times we hear of small children being kidnapped or carried off from a raid. That reason, in most cases, was to give an Indian mother a child to replace the one she lost. The white people at that time were interlopers to these people and they were seen as the enemy.
    And that ‘old Shoshone’ lady has the greatest sense of humor you will ever know. In fact, most Natives have the best sense of humor known.

  4. Hi Lyn, I think the Native Americans should be portrayed as they really were, weather it be noble savages or bloodthirsty savages. I want the real truth! I would say they were a little of both.

  5. Great topic, Lyn. Thanks for being our guest this weekend.

    I think any culture is what they are perceived by either themselves or outsiders or enemies. That was true in ancient times and is still true today. We’re the good guys to us, but the bad guys to others.

  6. Hi Lyn,

    A big welcome back to P&P! We’re so happy to have you blog with us again. Always a treat.

    Good blog subject. I enjoyed learning more about what part of Texas each tribe lived. I’m only familiar with the Comanche because North Texas where I live was their stomping grounds. I think movies (especially the earlier ones) unfairly portrayed the Native Americans. Not all were bloodthirsty killers. But Hollywood tends to sensationalize everything and I hate that. Some books do too and that’s too bad. I think in instances where the settlers treated the Natives as equals they coexisted much better.

    I wish you lots of success with your book. It looks intriguing.

  7. Hi, Lyn,

    Welcome back to Wildflower Junction. We always enjoy having you and hearing what you have to say!

    I think Quilt Lady said it best – every culture should be portrayed as they really were. It’s the writer’s, or the director’s, or whomever’s responsibility to do so. To do anything less is terribly unfair.

    Good luck with your book! Love the cover!!

  8. Thank you for this amazing information, Lyn.

    I grew up on TV and movei Westerns and the Cowboys vs. Indians thing, but teaching American Lit really educated ME. The tribes who welcomed Christopher Columbus thought he was a god! It was easy to take advantage although COlumbus himself insisted the natives be treated with respect. I think it’s fascinating that native people like Squanto and Pocahantas helped save the early colonists. As Linda says, I do think most tribes wanted to co-exist peaceably; most didn’t understand the concept of land ownership…everybody shared, so “white eyes” coming in and just taking land would to them, be like to us, somebody coming into your house and saying I want to live here. Get out.

    Thanks again, Lyn, and congrats on your three books. Wow.

  9. Hi Lyn and thanks for all the interesting research. Since moving to the Florida Panhandle, a little closer to Texas, I have been surprised to learn how varied Texas climate and life styles are. As you pointed out, I think there were tribes, like the Comanches, who seemed pretty brutal and savage, even to other Native Americans. But I bet there were lots of Native Americans who would have been friendly if treated with friendship and not attacked or driven away from the natural areas and resources that they needed. Your books sound good and I will look forward to reading them!

  10. I think also that every culture should be portrayed as they really were.

    As my mother always said all races have good people and all races have bad people.

  11. Thanks for all the interesting feedback. I think it’s hard to get away from stereotypes when writing about different cultures. I try to but do not always succeed. Unfortunately, throughout history human beings have a way of de-humanizing anyone who is different from themselves.

    My heroine Dorritt is anti-slavery at a time when that movement in the US was in its infancy. She saw the slaves her stepfather owned as people not property. That indeed sets her apart and makes her life more difficult.

    There is a book which is hard to find but worth reading titled, Wau-Bun by Juliette Kinzie. If you’ve ever been to Chicago, there is Kinzie Avenue which is named for her husband’s family.

    Her husband was the first Indian Agent in the Northwest Territory in 1810 when the Upper Midwest was the NW Territory. She wrote about the Ojibwa and Pottawatomi tribes accurately. She neither wrote about the bloodthirsty or noble savage. She saw them as people and portrays their ways that appall her and the ways that fill her with respect.

    The house she and her husband lived in for just one year still stands in Portage WI. My dh and toured it one Sunday afternoon. That’s where I bought her book.

    I think anyone who wants to get a taste of the barely “Westernized” Native American would do well to read Juliette’s account. It’s very readable and gives a real feeling of what it must have been like to be one of the few white women in the NW territory in 1810.

    Well, it’s Saturday. I’m working on a couple of podcasts for It’s a site that features multi-cultural romance. So back to talking into the phone!

  12. I would portray them as everyday natives who face all the problems which go along with having people
    coming along and driving you off your land!

    PS, in your description of the areas of Texas
    don’t forget the 3,000 – 8,000 foot Davis Mountains, the rocky Big Bend area, and the dry and windy Panhandle!

    Pat Cochran

  13. I think they were a little of both. I have read too many accounts of savagery to completely discount it.
    I think they should be portrayed as they really were, be it savage or not.

  14. I only knew about two – thanks for the added information. There aren’t enough books about American Indians in my opinion. Considering this is really their country, we ought to have been taught a lot more. I think we were totally wrong and things very possibly could have been a lot different. I very much think a lot of their ways made more sense than the puritans (not condoning any kind of torture on either side) but I guess they had a lot to be angry about.

  15. I am another “Karen Kay”, not the author from this blog, just to clarify.

    I am a member of “Nativeland”, a social networking site for those of us with a passion for the red path. I enjoy your enthusiasm for Native Americans on this site and invite you all to join us. It is free, no obligation. All are welcome! Please join and add me as your friend.

  16. They should be represented as people. They would have the basic characteristics of their tribe, but as in all groups, there are noble individuals and savages. As a group, some tribes were more likable than others. But even in a warrior culture that used torture, there was a code of conduct, nobility of spirit and sacrifice. When you look at the pressures that were put on all the tribes by the western expansion of white settlers from the 1400’s on, one can hardly blame them for some of their actions no matter how vicious? By comparison, the actions of the British towards the Scotts, Irish, and native americans were often more savage and unreasonable than any actions taken by the American tribes and often with much less justification.

  17. Don’t forget about the Tigua outside of El Paso. They are a Texas Native American tribe, related more closely to those of New Mexico then anywhere else. Also, historically many Apaches roamed along the Texas Rio Grande border area.

  18. I hadn’t heard of the Tigua, probably because the history of TX 1821-1847 didn’t go farther west than San Antonio. But thanks for the heads up.

  19. i agree with you about the how the Tiguas should be mentioned here. and the Wicitas, atakapans, and those guys in the far south of texas

  20. I shutter when I read the word “savage” I am a Shoshone woman so I understand most of what we learned was from French trappers–scalping being one of them–and you are right when you say many cultures have a savage nature to them–I believe all of man kind has a dark side—I grew up with Apaches and Navajo–I love them and always will have a special place in my heart–but I am Shoshone–love Doc

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