© 2012 Steve Hathcock
Though the basic story line is different from that penned by James Fenimore Cooper, Indian Joe’s story is an accurate portrayal of the lives and times of the once proud Karankawa Indians of Padre Island.
He was all Indian and the influence of civilization did little to change him.
Everyone called him, “Indian Joe” He claimed to be the last living full blooded descendant of the Karankawa Indian tribe that used to roam Padre Island. He had a talent for drying or semi mounting trophy fish for people. It was said that he sucked the blood out of any creature that he dried or mounted. He would eat nothing but raw meat and went bareheaded and barefoot year around. It wasn’t until his later years that he took to wearing the clothes of civilization.
The true origins of the Karankawa are unknown. Due to their extraordinary stature, early anthropologists believed they were related to a tribe of “giants Indians” last known to be living off the coast of California in the 1840s. Others claim they were loosely related to the “Abilene Man,” the earliest known humans in Texas.
Another theory asserts that the Karankawa were in fact related to the Carib Indians of the West Indies because both tribes had bark-less dogs, the men were reputedly very tall and both are reported to have participated in cannibalistic rituals involving warriors captured in battle. It’s believed they first traveled to the Florida peninsula, and when attacked by other native tribes, traveled west reaching the extreme eastern Texas Coast a few thousand years ago.
The men carried bows that were sometimes longer than the hunter was tall (some well over six feet long) and three foot long arrow shafts. This made them easier to spot and retrieve from the shallow waters. They seldom strayed from the coastal area though early Texas historians claimed to have seen some Karankawas on the shores of Eagle Lake, in Colorado County, which is about 100 miles from the coastline. By the end of Spanish rule
in Texas, the Karankawa, never numbering more than a few thousand, had been greatly reduced by epidemic diseases and other effects of European invasion.
An 1819 confrontation with Jean Lafitte on Galveston Island was particularly costly for the Karankawas. The incident, known as the Battle of Three Trees, occurred when Lafitte’s men kidnapped a Karankawa woman. Approximately 300 warriors attacked the pirate compound but Lafitte’s force of 200 men, armed with muskets and two small cannon, inflicted heavy losses on the Indians, forcing them to retreat. That encounter was a major defeat for the once powerful Karankawas and set the tone for the next half century. In retaliation for Karankawa raids on area settlers during the summer of 1840, one of the bands camped on the Guadalupe River below Victoria, was attacked by a large group of determined Texans. Many Indians were killed in the attack, and the survivors fled down the coast where they settled about fifty miles southwest of Corpus Christi. Other small groups of Karankawas settled along Aransas Bay near the mouth of the Nueces River and in the vicinity of Lavaca Bay.
Alexander Singer who lived on the Island during the 1850s wrote about a great battle that took place. A large band of Comanche braves had followed their ancient enemy across the Laguna Madre to a high spot on the Island located about 40 miles north of the present day town of South Padre Island. How many of the Kronks fell beneath the arrows of the Comanche will never be known but a great many of the fierce Comanche were said to have been slain by the stone axes and arrows of the Kronks. Singer did not mention whether a Mitote (victory celebration) was danced but this was the last time the two ancient enemies would meet in battle. Most of the surviving Karankawa fled into Northern Mexico where they blended into the great Indian melting pot of that country.
Indian Joe however, who was a babe at the time, somehow managed to remain on Padre Island. Perhaps his parents left him with a family in Point Isabel or maybe he was found at the site of the massacre. Either way, he survived. As a young man Joe scratched out a living digging oysters in the bay or catching fish in Padre’s surf. Eventually he grew old and his vision left him as did his health until all he had left were his memories. Did he wander up the Island one last time only to never return? Or did he die in his bed somewhere on the Island or in nearby Port Isabel? I have not been able to find his obituary, either way, Indian Joe’s spirit has carried forward and today he is part of the legend of Padre Island.
Steve Hathcock’s book, Old Indio Last of the Karankawa Indians of Padre Island and other short stories is available at Paragraphs Book Store on South Padre island and Rio Bravo Gallery in Port Isabel, or can be purchased on this website. (Email your request to firstname.lastname@example.org )