Great Plains Studies, Center for


Date of this Version

Summer 1981


Great Plains Quarterly Vol. 1, No. 3, Summer 1981, pp. 147-158.


Copyright 1981 by the Center for Great Plains Studies, University of Nebraska-Lincoln


Historical models of Indian-white contact on the frontier emphasize conflict and hostility, yet historians are not unaware that whites and Indians interacted in many different ways in different regions and time periods. Even in cases of Indian-white conflict, it was not at all uncommon to find Indians fighting beside the whites against other Indians, often greatly enhancing the capabilities of the white forces. Some tribes were notable for their long-standing alliance with whites against other Indian tribes; examples include the Catawbas of South Carolina, the Pawnees of Nebraska, the Wyoming Shoshonis led by Chief Washakie, and the Crows of Montana.

A particularly striking example is the Tonkawa tribe of Texas, whose military cooperation with the Anglo-Americans, though intermittent, covered more than half a century. For the Tonkawas it was a period of repeated disasters and inexorable decline, during which they were forced into increasing dependence on the whites for survival. For the military forces of Texas and the United States, the Tonkawas' assistance meant a sometimes decisive improvement in their ability to cope with the Comanches and other tribes of the southern plains.

The reason for the Tonkawas' peculiar relation to the whites lay in their status in relation to other tribes in the region. According to eighteenth-century Spanish officials they were "disliked and even abhorred" by other Indians, although they were sometimes included in alliances of convenience. In the nineteenth century Captain Randolph Marcy described them as "renegades and aliens from all social intercourse with the other tribes." Captain John Ford of the Texas Rangers noted that they were the "black beasts" of the Brazos River Reservation in the 1850s, blamed by the other tribes located there for causing, through sorcery, various unfortunate occurrences. Even in the twentieth century older members of various southern plains tribes described them as witches.1

Why was this small, nomadic hunting tribe in such bad repute with its neighbors? The obvious and often-cited reason was their known cannibalism. There are enough accounts from eyewitnesses to confirm beyond reasonable doubt that the Tonkawas did, on occasion, have ceremonies in which they ate portions of their dead enemies, undoubtedly for religious purposes. For this reason, members of various tribes asserted, they killed Tonkawas when the opportunity offered, especially if they believed one of their kinsmen had recently been devoured by the abhorred tribe. Every man's hand was against them, and their hand was against every man.2

Yet there may have been an element of hypocrisy and rationalization in this attitude. The Comanches evidently found the Tonkawas' habits tolerable when the two tribes were allies against the Apaches in the 1700s. The Comanches and other tribes of Texas were accused of similar practices, though the evidence is not clear. It seems fairly certain that the Karankawas of the Gulf Coast, believed to be linguistically related to the Tonkawas, also ate human flesh. Perhaps the Tonkawas were particularly blatant and enthusiastic in their anthropology, and perhaps they clung to it in a period when other tribes were giving it up. Some historians suggest that the special hatred for the Tonkawas arose from their assistance to the whites, rather than vice versa, yet the attitude apparently existed in the eighteenth century when the Tonkawas were by no means on friendly terms with the Spanish. In any case, once they were established as pariahs and scapegoats, the common attitude apparently supplied its own confirmation: persecution no doubt prompted responses that in turn seemed sufficient justification for further persecution.3