AUSTIN — Among Native Americans in Texas, Comanches get all the ink.
And no wonder. For more than two centuries, the Comanches ruled a vast horseback realm that included much of Texas. They held off the Spanish, Mexicans, Anglos and competing tribes, shaping the slow settlement of the state. Austinite S.C. Gwynne’s “Empire of the Summer Moon” is proof that they still make riveting reading, more than 140 years after Quanah Parker, the last great Comanche chief, was defeated.
Yet for early Austinites, the Tonkawas, not the Comanches, were the regular fact of life. While the Comanches raided far and wide, these hunter-gatherers lived in comparative peace with their neighbors along the Balcones Escarpment.
During the mid-19th century, the buffalo-hunting Tonkawas were never far from daily life in the capital city and, at one point, they were reported to camp in what is now Republic Square Park.
Their numbers dropped precipitously, however, and it was once rumored that the Tonkawas disappeared altogether. Not so. In 1884, remnants of the tribe were removed from Fort Griffin northeast of Abilene and forced, like the Cherokees and others, on a “Trail of Tears,” this one ending near Ponca City, Okla.
Today, according to the Oklahoma Indian Affairs Commission, more than 600 people, many of them living in or near Tonkawa, Okla., can claim tribal blood.
Although some Tonkawa sacred ground has been recognized by modern Central Texans, there is little — a street here, a spring there — to remind us of their long tenure there. One reason might be the extremely variable responses from the newcomers who encountered them.
Early on, not every settler distinguished among the local tribes. The oft-repeated case of Josiah P. Wilbarger makes a good example.
In August 1833, the Bastrop resident had joined a surveying team when his group clashed with a party of Native Americans. He was left for dead, naked, scalped and covered with blood. Rueben Hornsby, whose family is the namesake for Hornsby Bend in eastern Travis County, set out to find Wilbarger after his wife dreamed of the survivor’s exact location.
The story had been told so often that by the 20th century it had accrued many suspiciously concrete details. What stands out, however, is the repetition in those reports of phrases such as “implacable savages” or “marauding savages” — with no tribal attribution.
“It was the beginning,” wrote Josiah’s brother J.W. Wilbarger in “Indian Depredations in Texas,” his 1888 compendium of frontier warfare, “of a bloody era which was soon to dawn on the people of the Colorado.”
Yet how irredeemably bloody were the Native Americans along the Colorado River? For their part, the Tonkawas often allied with the settlers, especially against the Comanches.
“They were especially valuable to Texas as spies and trailers,” wrote soldier, settler and physician John Lockhart.
When Austin was founded in 1839 as the new capital of the republic, it was indeed vulnerable to attack.
“Many of Austin’s oldest residents can recall hearing their parents tell of Indians who lurked around the tiny new settlement,” reported the Austin Statesman more than a century later in 1956. “Even as late as the 1850s, Indians still sometimes raided homes.”
Families warned children not to wander as far as Shoal Creek, which was considered particularly unsafe.
“The war-cry of the Indians could be heard in the night-time within the very gates of the capitol,” wrote J.K. Holland in his reminiscences published in Southwestern Quarterly. “It was not safe for any men to go alone or without his gun beyond the limits of the town; for there was great danger of being shot or captured by the redskins who lay waiting in the mountains for an opportunity to steal, rob or murder.”
By the 1860s, the apparently more peaceful Tonkawas were easily distinguished from raiders filtering down from the western plains.
Which is not to say they were treated with dignity and respect. A story in the Nov. 2, 1865, edition of the Southern Intelligencer newspaper makes “our friends the Tonkaway Indians” the object of easy ridicule. Their curiosity about machinery was turned into an extended comic episode.
The same paper reported that the “Tonks,” who wandered freely in and out of town, were seen as objects of interest for younger people.
“The tribe is gradually wasting away,” the Intelligencer stated with presumed authority. “And in a few years more will be extinct.”
First viewed with horror, then with ridicule, the Tonkawas were inevitably mythologized.
As late as 1924, an article in the Austin American — under the headline “Austin’s Romantic History” — retold chilling stories of brutal murders and kidnappings pinned on unidentified local tribes.
Yet, while 20th-century anthropologists and archaeologists looked for more solid evidence about their daily lives, the Tonkawas and their supporters also began to rescue the tribe’s legacy.
In 1940, for instance, many artifacts were found at Travis Peak, exciting University of Texas scholars. The site was later flooded by the impounding of Lake Travis.
In 1975, Austin reporter Pete Szilagyi gave a fair accounting of Central Texas natives based on what was then the current scholarship. He explained that the name Tonkawa is derived from the Waco word for “they stay together” and that the tribe called themselves “the most human of people.” These days, the Tonkawas update that translation to the “right people.”
Szilagyi described in some detail how they lived and their close interaction with white settlers.
“If they had reason to fight, they’d fight fiercely and to the death,” he wrote. “But they rarely went looking for trouble.”
In the 1980s, the tide of opinion had definitely turned, thanks in part to organized projects to preserve tribal cultures, activism by Native American student groups and, after 1983, annual Austin pow-wows that served as reunions and opportunities to share family stories.