Native American Occupation (1500-1700)

Beginning in the late 1500s, Europeans sporadically entered South and Central Texas, although they did not settle there until the early 1700s (Pupo-Walker 1993; Webb 1952). The early contact period is not well documented in the archaeological record, and the indigenous people of central Texas are some of the most poorly known of all the Indian groups in North America. Spanish explorers recorded insightful information on various Native American tribes, whom the Spanish collectively referred to as the Coahuiltecans (kwa-weel-tay-kans). The Coahuiltecans, despite the single overarching name, represented many different ethnic groups, tribes, and nations native of the South Texas and Northeast Mexico region. Historic accounts describe these people as highly mobile family units of hunters and gatherers that resided near rivers and streams. They revisited their camps on a seasonal basis interacting with other groups as they moved from place to place in search of buffalo, wild plants, and nuts (Campbell 1983).

By the late 1600s, outside Native American groups with access to European horses began moving onto the South Texas Plains.

Among the northern newcomers were the Lipan Apaches, the Tonkawa, and later the Comanches. These groups, who were displaced from their own home territories, forced out and contributed to the dispersion of the Coahuiltecan peoples (Newcomb Jr. 2006).

Southern Plain Indians, like the Lipan Apaches, the Tonkawa, and the Comanches, were nomadic people who dwelt in bison hide tepees that were easily moved and set up. They traditionally lived in villages near creeks and rivers, from spring until fall, gathering nuts and wild plants. In the autumn, they followed and hunted the buffalo, which was their principal food source and also was used to make essential items such as clothes, blankets, and tepees. Other animals including deer, antelope, and rabbits were also hunted for food.

While firearms become available with the arrival of the Europeans, the bow and arrow remained the trusted weapon for both hunting and warfare.

Trading was another practice that was important to the livelihood of the South Texas Plains Indians. They traded animal skins, weapons, and food with the early European explorers and settlers in return for horses, firearms, glass, and metal. They also traded with other Native American groups. The Tonkawas, for example, appear to have obtained some of their pottery from Caddo tribes residing to the east (Newcomb Jr. 2006).

When first encountered, there were likely hundreds of native bands living in central Texas. However, within just a few centuries, most native populations were gone forever. Conflict among rival native tribes as well as conflict between Native American groups and European settlers combined with newly introduced European diseases devastated the native societies (“Native Peoples” 2013). Gradually, the archaeological and archival record provides more information about European settlers than about the native groups living in central Texas.

Coahuiltecan Indian

Coahuiltecan Indian as drawn by Frank Wier

Coahuiltecan Encampment

Coahuiltecan encampment

Lipan Apaches

Lipan Apaches drawn by Lino Sanchez Y Tapia

Image Sources

  • Weir, Frank. “Native Man Wears a Cross” [Drawing]. In T. N. Campbell (1988), The Indians of Southern Texas and Northeastern Mexico, Selected Writings of Thomas Nolan Campbell. Austin: Texas Archaeological Research Laboratory, Department of Anthropology and the Institute of Latin American Affairs, The University of Texas at Austin.
  • Weir, Frank. “Coahuiltecan Indians”. Drawing. 13 July 2015. <>
  • Sanchez y Tapia, Lino. “Lipan Apache”. Painting. 13 July 2015. <>
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