The Historic Round Rock Collection

The Tonkawa Indians

The Historic Round Rock Collection is a project documenting Round Rock’s history, funded in part with a grant from the Texas Historical Commission. These pages are adapted from the original 1991 print version.  

The earliest residents of the Round Rock area were the two hundred tribes that were the ancestors of the Tonkawa Indians (Scarbrough 25).  As early as 8000 B.C., groups of hunter-gatherers roamed the plains from the Guadalupe River north to the headwaters of the Neches (Jones, Map 1).  They often made their temporary villages along the banks of rivers and streams, including Brushy Creek and the San Gabriel River.


Their wanderings followed the path of the buffalo, their main source of food, all over central Texas (Newcomb 196). The Tonkawas hunted these animals with spears and arrows and by driving herds over cliffs, such as Tonkawa Bluff, near Georgetown. Like many Native Americans, they used the buffalo for food, clothing, tools and decoration (Scarbrough 26). In a letter to the Barron de Ripperda, the governor of Texas, dated July 4, 1772, Athanase de Mezieres wrote:

“In truth, one cannot exaggerate the inestimate benefits for which these natives are indebted to divine providence.  The buffalo alone, besides its flesh, which takes first place among healthful and savory meats, supplies them liberally with what ever they desire in the way of conveniences.  The brain they use to soften skins; the horns for spoons and drinking vessels; the shoulder bones to dig and clear off the land; the tendons for thread and for bow strings; the hoof, as glue for arrows; with the mane they make ropes and girths; from the wool…belts, and various ornaments.  The skin furnishes harnesses,…shields, tents, shirts, leggings, shoes, and blankets for protection against the cold–truly valuable treasures, easily acquired, quietly possessed and lightly missed, which liberally supply an infinite number of people, whom we consider poverty-stricken with an excess of those necessities which perpetuate our struggles, anxieties, and discords.” (Quoted in Jones 66).

A group of Tonkawa Indians in 1898. Photo: the Tonkawa Tribe of Oklahoma
A group of Tonkawa Indians in 1898.
Photo: the Tonkawa Tribe of Oklahoma

The Tonkawa also hunted deer and augmented their diet with a variety of animals, including fish and oysters (Newcomb 138).  They practiced agriculture at times, but the historic record indicates that these attempts were isolated and short-lived.

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries,1 the Tonkawas lived in huts made of willow branches and some hides, as they were too poor to use hides exclusively (Berlandier 42-43). Some of their dwellings were flat on top and open on one or two sides (Hasskarl 218). While travelling, they abandoned their huts each morning and built new ones of green branches each evening (Berlandier 42-43). A Mexican draftsman on a boundary survey expedition described a Tonkawa village:

“It was situated in the center of a thick grove at the entrance of which several horses were tied, apparently all very good… Their huts were small and barely numbered thirty, all conical in shape, made of light branches, covered with the same material and an occasional buffalo skin.  In the center of each is located the fireplace…” (Quoted in Jones 67-68).

Another account by a member of the same expedition reported:

“…tents of skin or huts made of green branches. In the two rancherias I observed, I noted that the houses were cone-shaped, some 5 feet high and 8 to 10 feet in diameter. In them, men, women, young girls, and infants live crowded together, as many as 15 to a house as each family is make up of many individuals. The fireplace is in the center of the hut and around it are the beds, pallets of Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides) covered with furs.” (Berlandier 147).

The Tonkawa wore little clothing, except as protection against the cold. Men frequently wore long loincloths or leggings and skin shirts. Men also wore bone, shell and feather earrings and necklaces. The women wore short shirts made of deer or bison skin and little else. During cold spells, both sexes used bisonhide robes for warmth. While the Tonkawa placed little emphasis on clothing, they were fond of tattooing themselves and painting designs on their torsos (Newcomb 137-138).  Settlers and other observers often wrote about this aspect of the Tonkawa’s appearance. Jean Louis Berlandier commented that the Tonkawa “particularly are overly given to tattooing” (Berlandier 51).  And “[t]he most distinctive feature of the [Tonkawa] women is their way of decorating their faces, beginning on the forehead and running across the nostrils and down to the chin. The breasts are painted with numerous concentric circles around the nipples.” (Ibid. 147).

Tonkawan culture was very different from our own. Their society was organized into clans of related families. Tonkawas belonged to the clan of their mother and intermarriage within a clan was considered incestuous (Hasskarl 219). Thus, a father was not of the same clan as his children so when he died, his property was inherited by his brothers and sisters or their families. This ensured that wealth and property did not leave the clan (Newcomb 142).

It was not uncommon for Tonkawan men to marry more than one woman, especially if they were sisters. A man was also required to marry his sister-in-law if his brother died. These customs were very common among other Native American groups and were a successful survival strategy (Hasskarl 220). Life on the plains was very difficult, and individuals could not survive alone; marriage was an opportunity to establish family ties and find security.

When Europeans first contacted the Tonkawa, clans were organized into bands, with each band having a chief and a tribal council made up of all adult men in the band, an early form of democracy. Some bands were even large enough to form their own tribes (Ibid. 219). In the late eighteenth century, in response to decimation by disease and warfare, the numerous bands and tribes of the Tonkawas formed a confederation and united into a single tribe (Ibid.).

Few Europeans wrote anything of the Tonkawa’s day-to-day life, so fairly little is known (Newcomb 146). Their elaborate funeral rites, however, are an exception. When a member of the tribe was believed to be near death, friends and relatives gathered in a circle around that person and performed a “death watch,” singing and talking until the person died (Hasskarl 220). After death, the deceased person’s hair was cut, their face painted yellow, and they were wrapped in robes. Often, valued possessions were buried with the body (Newcomb 148). For three days, the tribe mourned and was prohibited from singing (Ibid.).  During this time, three women walked all night wailing for the dead person (Hasskarl 220).  After the days of mourning had passed, a smoking ceremony was performed (Ibid.; Newcomb 148).

Decline of the Tonkawa

Even though this fascinating tribe was the most important in central Texas, its history in Williamson County was largely over when the first U.S. settlers began arriving in the 1830s (Hasskarl 221). At that time:

“The Tonkawa were…a poor, wandering remnant of a once larger tribe.  They grew no crops, owned few horses, and feared to hunt buffalo farther west lest they encounter the numerous and hostile Comanche.  Sometimes they suffered starvation in late winter.” (Ewers 9).

The tribe’s decline began in the eighteenth century when many of them contracted smallpox while living on a Spanish mission in 1779. The epidemic killed as much as half the tribe (Scarbrough 37). In 1778, there were an estimated three hundred warriors for a total of perhaps 1000 members of the tribe (Hasskarl 221). A year later, the Spanish reported only 150 warriors (Scarbrough 38). After this devastating loss and frequent warfare with the Spanish and the newly arrived Comanches and Witchitas, the number of Tonkawas dwindled rapidly. While confederating distinct groups into a single tribe in the late eighteenth century may have slowed their disappearance, in 1847 the official estimate of the Tonkawa population was only fifty warriors (Ibid.).

As the Tonkawa disappeared, they also became poorer. A visitor to Texas in 1830 described them as “ill-clad people, dirty and disgusting. Forced to live far from where the buffalo roam, they make due with deerskin, though most often [they]…go naked, and they suffer greatly from hunger” (Berlandier 51). Their weakened condition forced them to “roam about the white settlements for protection” because they “have suffered much from the Comanches” (Quoted in Jones 69). The Texans, however, did not like Native Americans around them, and it was government policy to keep them out. The Superintendent of Indian Affairs, Thomas Western, informed one of his officers that “it is absolutely necessary that these Indians (Tonkawa and Lipan) should be removed out of the settlements, as fast as practicable, to this end you will select a Suitable place for their Camps on the St. Marks (San Marcos) either above or below the San Antonio” (Ibid.).

The Tonkawa and White Settlers

The strange customs and habits of Texas’ Native Americans kept the Indians and settlers apart. The settlers, coming from a culture were nudity was unacceptable, were uncomfortable around Tonkawas wearing little clothing (Newcomb 137). The Tonkawa had no concept of land ownership and wandered freely over the plains, a practice at odds with the settlers’ habit of carving land into separately-owned plots. These cultural differences made it difficult for white Texans and the Tonkawa and other Indian groups to co-exist. Even though the Tonkawa were friendly and often worked as scouts during missions against the more violent Comanches, all they were treated with distrust (Mayhall 447; Kelley 158).

During the 1840s, the Indian Bureau of the Republic of Texas settled the Tonkawa near San Marcos, gave them hoes and corn seed, knives, gun powder, lead for bullets and guns so they could hunt and grow corn for a living. While living there, the Tonkawa and other Indian tribes in the area began to fight amongst themselves. To prevent all out tribal warfare, a meeting was held between the chiefs of all the tribes and officials from the Indian Bureau.  At the council, Tonkawa Chief Campo made an address, one of the only recorded accounts of a Tonkawa speaking for himself. Chief Campo, a great leader said:

“I have heard nothing today but what I am pleased with, for it is all good talk. It is not worth while for me to promise anything more than I have already promised, I have always been friendly with the whites, and have fought for them, and I shall continue to do so, and I want now to be friendly with all my Red brothers, and walk with them the white path of peace. I want all of our women and children to be no more afraid in traveling about, either of their lives or property. All are welcome to come to my camp, and among my people, I will treat them well, and I want all to treat me and my people in the same way.  If there are any of my Red brothers here who I have not made peace with my people want them to do so now; of young men of other tribes come among my people I want them to dance with my young girls, and marry them, for I see none here that I am not willing to meet as brothers. We are now without horses, for the Waco came down and stole all we had, but we will soon have more, and then we intend traveling about and to see our Red brothers, and all live in peace. If the Great White Chief tells his people to make war with the Waco, I want them and all others whom may make war against them, to try and get the horses which they stole from my people.” (Hasskarl 223).

Ten years after Chief Campo made this speech, the Tonkawa and other friendly Indians were moved to reservations on the Brazos River.  Some Texans, in the 1850s, argued for putting Indians on reservations because many of them had “to choose between stealing and starving” (Webb 161). Their traditional hunting grounds were gone along with the buffalo, and the increasing white population squeezed Native Americans in Texas into smaller and smaller territories, making conflict inevitable. Crushed between hostile Indians and hostile whites, many governmental officials favored placing the Tonkawa and other peaceful tribes on reservations where food, clothing and protection could be provided for them (Ibid. 161-162).

Helping the Indians was not the only reason for putting them on reservations. “If Texas would give the Indians a defined territory, a reserve, the government could restrict them to it and the military could take control of them if they were found elsewhere” (Ibid. 162). The government made treaties with the Indians that stated that the U.S. government had the sole right to trade with them, thus making it illegal for Native Americans to buy goods at regular stores. However, these agreements were often illegal as the U.S. Constitution requires the Senate to ratify all treaties. The treaties were binding on the Indians but not the U.S. government (Ibid. 138-139).

In practice, Indians seen off the reservations were considered hostile. In 1854, in response to a petition from the citizens of Williamson and three other countries, the governor of Texas, E. M. Pease ordered Texans to promptly “turn out and punish” the Tonkawas “without waiting for a call from the executive” (Quoted in Jones 70). In February of that year, the Texas legislature created three Indian reserves and the Department of Indian Affairs began to resettle Native Americans on them.

The presence of these tribes soon antagonized the local settlers, who charged that the reservation Indians were stealing from their communities (Hasskarl 224-225). It is unclear whether this was the case or whether they were blamed for the actions of other tribes (Webb 166). On August 1, 1859, under military escort, all reservation Indians including the Tonkawa were forced to leave Texas, leaving any of their cattle behind (Hasskarl 225). The Indian Affairs Agent Neighbors, who assisted the forced relocation wrote:

“I have this day crossed all Indians out of the heathen land of Texas and am now out of the land of the Philistines. If you want to have a full description of our exodus, see the Bible where the children of Israel cross the Red Sea. We have had the same show only our enemies did not follow us to Red River (the border of Texas and Oklahoma).” (Quoted in Kelley 162).

The fortune of the Tonkawa did not improve in Oklahoma. On October 23, 1862, a small army of Shawnees, Delawares, Kickapoos, Caddos, Comanches, and Kiowas attacked the Tonkawa settlement near the Whasita River, killing 137 women, men and children, more than half the tribe (Jones 71). The massacre was, in part, politically motivated. The Tonkawa supported the Confederacy during the Civil War, while the other tribes sympathized with the Union. This created friction as supporters of the South received supplies first and lived well while the northern sympathizers barely survived (Hasskarl 225). Other motives included revenge for their cannibalism and for serving as scouts and guides against other Indians (Kelley 162). The few remaining Tonkawas live on a small reservation in Oklahoma.

Other Williamson County Tribes

Two Indian groups migrated into Williamson County in the eighteenth century: the Lipan Apaches and the Comanches.  Both tribes migrated into the region and competed with the Tonkawa for territory. Most of the recorded deaths of white people caused by Indians were committed by Comanches.  The last in Williamson County occurred in 1863 (Scarbrough 44). Approximately 24 murders were recorded in the county (“Some Early…” 81). No estimates exist of the number of Native Americans killed by white settlers. A Comanche chief explained his point of view:

“We have set up our lodges in these groves and swung our children from these boughs from time immemorial. When game beats away from us we pull down our lodges and move away, leaving no trace to frighten it, and in a little while it comes back. But the white man comes and cuts down the trees, building houses and fences, and the buffaloes get frightened and leave and never come back, and the Indians are left to starve, or, if we follow the game, we trespass on the hunting ground of other tribes and war ensues.” (Quoted in Scarbrough).

The Lipan Apaches followed the Tonkawa into near extinction, with smaller and smaller groups living in Oklahoma and across the Rio Grande in Mexico. The Comanches, always a large tribe, now live on reservations in Oklahoma in relative poverty.  No Lipan Apache or Comanche tribes, native or immigrant, now live in Texas.


1 There is little archaeological evidence, other than arrowheads, of the Tonkawas.  Most of what we know is derived by accounts by European and U.S. observers.  return to text

2 Throughout this description Smithwick makes very disparaging comments about various ethnic groups.  These references have been left out as they are inappropriate and add little to his observations.  return to text

3 A loincloth.  return to text

Works Cited

Berlandier, Jean Louis.  1969  The Indians in Texas in 1830.  John C. Ewers (ed.).  Smithsonian Institute press, Washington D.C.

Ewers, John C. 1969  “Introduction” in Berlandier (1969).

Hasskarl, Robert A.  1962.  “The Culture and history of the Tonkawa Indians.”  Plains Anthropologist. Vol. 7, No. 18.  November.

Jones, William K.  1969.  “Notes on the History and Material Culture of the Tonkawa Indians.”  Smithsonian Contributions to Anthropology.  Vol. 2, No. 5.

Kelley, Dalton.  1971.  “The Tonkawas” in Dorman H. Winfrey et al.  Indian Tribes of Texas.  Texian Press, Waco, Texas.

Mayhall, Mildred.  1939.  The Indians of Texas: the Atákapa, the Karankawa, the Tonkawa.  Unpublished Ph.D dissertation.  The University of Texas at Austin.

Newcomb, W. W.  1961.  The Indians of Texas: from Prehistoric to Modern Times.  University of Texas Press, Austin, Texas.

Scarborough, Clara Stearns.  1973.  Land of Good Water, Takachue Pouetsu: A Williamson County, Texas History.  Williamson County Sun Publishers, Georgetown, Texas.

Smithwick, Noah.  1983.  The Evolution of the State, or Recollections of old Texas Days.  Barker Texas History Center Series, No. 5.  University of Texas Press, Austin, Texas.

“Some Early Williamson County History” in Frontier Times.  No date.  Photocopy in Round Rock Public Library.  Article reprinted from Williamson County Sun (Georgetown) April 7, 1936.  Original W. K. Makemson.  Historical Sketch of First Settlement and Organization of Williamson County.  Sun Print, Georgetown, Texas.  1904.

Webb, Walter Prescott.  1965.  The Texas Rangers.  University of Texas press, Austin, Texas.

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