Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


The Tonkawas were a combination of a number of independent bands. The name "Tonkawa" translates as "they all stay together." From at least the eleventh century until their removal to a reservation in Indian Territory in 1884, the Tonkawas occupied the pin oak prairie and grassland that stretched from the Llano River in central Texas to the Canadian River in Oklahoma.

The Tonkawas, who numbered several thousand before contact with Europeans, were led by a selected tribal chief. Maternal clans were the basic societal unit, with children becoming members of the mother's clan and the husband living with his wife's clan. The Tonkawas subsisted by hunting bison and other game and by gathering a wide variety of wild fruits, roots, and nuts. Unlike most other Plains Indians, they also ate fish and shellfish. They practiced agriculture, unsuccessfully, and only when the elimination of the bison drove them to it. Their traditional homes were short tipis made of bison hides. When this resource was no longer available, in the second half of the nineteenth century, they lived in tipilike structures made of brush and grass, and later in flat huts roofed with brush. The Tonkawa language is thought to be unrelated to any other Native American language.

The Tonkawas initially came in contact with Spanish explorers in the sixteenth century. They came into permanent association with European settlers in 1722, when Juan Rodriguez, the chief of the southern Tonkawas (Ervipiames), demanded and received a mission, San Francisco Xavier de Najera, at San Antonio de Bejar in Texas. Although the Ervipiames and their allies never settled at San Antonio's missions in any numbers, the Tonkawas began to interact with the Spaniards as allies against the Lipan Apaches and Comanches. But Spain saw the advantages of Comanche friendship at the expense of the weaker Tonkawas, and by the 1770s the Tonkawas were left to make a place for themselves on the borderland between the Comanches and the Europeans. Under a chief named El Mocho they aligned themselves with the Lipans and Bidais. While successfully fending off Spanish and Comanche attacks, they moved closer to the forests of East Texas and absorbed the remnants of the Karankawas, a coastal tribe.

By 1821, when Stephen F. Austin's colonists arrived on the Brazos River, the Tonkawas were in need of powerful allies. They offered to serve the American settlers as scouts and fighters. Throughout the years of the Austin Colony, the Texas Revolution, and into the decade of Texas's independence, the Tonkawas served loyally as auxiliaries to the military arm of Anglo Texas in its battles with Iscanis (a subtribe of the Wichitas) and Comanches. Their reward, after the United States had annexed Texas, was to be removed to a reservation on the Clear Fork of the Brazos in 1856, a time when Texans were demanding that all Indians be exiled from the soil of the state. In 1859 the Tonkawas were removed to Fort Cobb on the Washita River in Indian Territory, along with the other tribes of the Texas frontier.

Old enmities died hard, however, as did old friendships. Tonkawas continued to help United States and Texas troops fight the Comanches. With the outbreak of the Civil War, the Tonkawas sided with the Texans, while most Indians at Fort Cobb favored the Union. On October 24, 1862, pro-Union Indians attacked the Tonkawas, killing half the tribe and driving the survivors back into Texas, where Confederate authorities provided them with food and clothing and enlisted them as scouts on the frontier.

When the Civil War ended, the relentless push of Americans westward into Comanche country once again provided the Tonkawas with employment. Enlisted by the U.S. Army as scouts, they were settled at Fort Griffin in north-central Texas and employed continually until the Comanche defeat in 1878. Tonkawa scouts distinguished themselves in every major action of the post-Civil War era in Texas. When the Comanches and their allies had been confined to a reservation, the Tonkawas expected to be rewarded for their long service to the United States. Instead Fort Griffin was abandoned in 1881 and the Tonkawas' funds were cut off. For three years the tribe survived mostly on rations, until they were forcibly removed to lands abandoned by Chief Joseph's Nez Perces near the present-day town of Tonkawa, in Kay County, Oklahoma. In 1896 their reservation was allotted, and their land base was further reduced. They now hold 399 acres of land. Their population plummeted to 34 in 1921, then began a slow revival to 43 in 1936 and 186 in 1993.

In recent years Tonkawas have developed an interest in their past and their role in Texas settlement. A powwow in Austin and local gatherings in Oklahoma have served to create a renewed interest in a people who are among the original settlers of what is now Texas and the most loyal of American allies.

Thomas F. Schilz

San Diego Miramar College

Carlisle, Jeffery D. "Tonkawa Indians." In The New Handbook of Texas, edited by Ron Tyler, 6:525-26. Austin: Texas State Historical Association, 1996.

Smithwick, Noah. The Evolution of a State, or Recollections of Old Texas Days. Austin: Gammel Book Co., 1900.

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