Tonkawas – Man-eaters of the Texas Plains

Tonkawas – Man-eaters of the Texas Plains

by Richard Stickman — Photos by the Smithsonian Institute National Anthropological Archives

“Some historians believe that animosity toward the Tonkawas caused that tribe to act as scouts and guides for the whites…”

The Tonkawa Indians were a small tribe who once claimed part of south-eastern Texas as their home. By 1862 their tiny population was erecting grass-thatched huts and teepees along the high plateau which overlooked the valley of the Washita River.

Five years before, in 1857, the government gathered up the Tonkawa along with other small Texas tribes and moved them to the Wichita Reservation near Fort Cobb in Indian Territory (now Oklahoma). For several years there was peace on this reservation on the Washita. But in the late night cold of Oct. 22, 1862, that tranquility was shattered. For one tribe this night, the Tonkawa, what befell them changed their already meager existence forever. On this night an explosive attack was carried out by the other tribes on the reservation. It began at the agency, a small conclave of buildings which included the commissary, store and main agency office. When the Indians finished, four white men, all agency employees, were dead, the buildings were plundered and the agency burned to the ground.

The tragedy that took place at the agency, though appalling in itself, was only a dress rehearsal for the slaughter that followed. The attacking Indians, numbering about 140 men made up of Shawnees, Delawares, Wichitas, Kickapoos and a scathering of others, headed for the nearby Tonkawa camp, the apparent main objective in this night of terror. All of these tribes held the same grudge against the Tonkawas. One group in the attacking force approached the Tonkawa camp from the rear, riding around the camp in a wide circle to avoid detection. Another group concealed itself in the the timbered bottomlands below the camp, awaiting the right moment to spring on the Tonkawas. It was nearly morning when the attack commenced, though the first streaks of daylight had not yet begun to spread over the Wichita hills. The Tonkawa camp, 306 men, women and children, were asleep.

Tonkawa Council

Eight Tonkawas. From left, sitting, John Williams, Chief Grant Richards and Sherman Niles. Standing; Winnie, wife of Richards, others unidentified.

The surprise attack was not the only factor working against the Tonkawas. The attackers were mounted and armed with the newest rifles available. The Tonkawas, for the most part, had only bows and arrows. Under their chief Placida, however, the Tonkawas quickly rallied to the defense of their camp. They displayed a stubborn resistance against the attacking force. Because they were able to put up such a strong stand despite their inferior defensive position, a number of Tonkawa women and children escaped. But their fighting ability was not enough to prevent 137 Tonkawas, almost half of their already scant population, from being killed. More than 100 of that number were women and children. The attacking force lost 27 killed and wounded, a substantial number considering the competitive edge they held. The loss sustained by the Tonkawas brought them closer to extinction. It was a blow from which they never recovered.

Why, when the American Indian had suffered so much at the hands of the white man, would Indian turn against Indian in such a devastating way? The answer never was given, but historians suggest two primary reasons. The first is because the Tonkawas had, for several years prior to 1862, acted as scouts for the whites on expeditions against other Indian tribes. The second reason, and the more unsettling one, is that the Tonkawas were cannibals. Thomas Battey, a Quaker Indian agent during that period, thought the cause to be the latter one. He believed the Tonkawas had eaten “a couple of Shawnees,” and this was revenge motive of the other Indians.

But the appetite for human flesh did not belong exclusively to the Tonkawas. For instance, Cheyenne Indians were able to remove certain taboos by eating the heart of an enemy.  Kiowas who were members of a secret brotherhood were obligated to eat the heart of the first enemy they killed in battle. Incidents of cannibalism among some tribes in Texas prompted missionaries to ask as the first question in confessions, “Have you eaten human flesh?” If some kind of cannibalism was practiced by other Indian tribes, why then were the Tonkawas dealt with so severely? One reason is that the Tonkawas were not secretive about their preoccupation of eating human flesh. The word cannibalism conjures a detestable feeling in men. But this strange and gruesome practice was not detestable in the Tonkawa world. And it was not merely warriors who ate the heart of a slain enemy. In the Tonkawas tribe everyone participated in eating enemies who fell into their hands – men, women and children. Some historians believe it was logical for the Tonkawa to eat human flesh given their beliefs about the spirit world. By consuming parts of an enemy’s body, the cannibal could acquire either some or all of the enemy’s power, courage or fighting ability. By eating an enemy, the cannibal would insult the soul of the enemy. The acquisition of power or courage was the reason why other tribes consumed the heart of a slain enemy. To a greater degree, the eating of more than only the enemy’s heart was thought to completely destroy the soul of that enemy thereby giving the Tonkawa the greatest victory he could achieve. Whatever the reasons, Tonkawa cannibalism had a very real and lasting effect on other southern Plains tribes.

Four Tonkawas

Group of four. From left, seated, Lamar Richards and John Williams; standing, Peter Dryer (who was half white and half Iowa), and Chief Grant Richards.

One man who lived among the Texas tribes for some time, James Mooney, reported that he had heard a number of “gruesome tales” of the Tonkawas. Their cannibalism was not reserved for war prisoners. It was not unlike the Tonkawas to ambush lone Indians from other tribes who might be unlucky enough to wander their way. Mooney writes, “More than one missing person was thus traced to the Tonkawa camp where all clews(sic) abruptly ended.” The Tonkawas did not discriminate when it came to choosing their dinner, although it has been reported that they feasted more on Comanches. This is probably because Comanche Indians were more numerous in the area and because there existed a deep hatred between Tonkawa and Comanche. Tonkawas often aided whites in tracking down hostile Comanche bands.

Noah Smithwick, Texas Ranger and blacksmith, witnessed a Tonkawa feast on a Comanche Indian. After killing and scalping the captive, the Tonkawas “fleeced off the flesh of the dead Comanche (and) they borrowed a big wash kettle from Puss Weber, into which they put the Comanche meat, together with a lot of corn and potatoes – the most revolting mass my eyes ever rested on. When the stew was sufficiently cooked and cooled to allow of its being ladled out with the hands the whole tribe gathered around, dipping it up with their hands and eating it as greedily as hogs. Having gorged themselves on this delectable feast they lay down and slept till night, when the entertainment was concluded with the scalp dance.”

One early Texas pioneer, John H. Jenkins, experienced Tonkawa cannibalism at about the same time Smithwick did. He describes how the Tonkawa persuaded him to show them the body of a Waco warrior he had shot. Jenkins describes how “when they discovered the body, they seemed wild with delight or frenzy. They sprang upon the body, scalped him, cut off both legs at the knees… They then went back to the house and camped, getting me to furnish them some beef. They boiled their beef and the hands and feet of the dead Waco together.”

Mooney tells of a Comanche boy captured by a Lipan Apache Indian. One day the boy disappeared after having been reported seen near a Tonkawa camp. The Lipan Indian, named White Tooth, rode over to the Tonkawa camp to find the boy. As he approached, some Tonkawas greeted him with a pipe – a sign of peace – and offered it to him. After smoking the pipe, the Tonkawas told him that because they were hungry, and because the boy was a Comanche, a tribe both the Tonkawas and Lipan Apache hated, they had killed the boy and put him in the pot to cook. They told White Tooth, however, that they were prepared to compensate him for the loss of his captive and proceeded to invite him to share their feast.


Tonkawa Chief and wife, Grant Richards and Winnie.

Even after the massacre of the Tonkawa in 1862, there were reported incidents of their eating human flesh. As late as 1874, Comanches complained that Tonkawa scouts for the United States Army had been found eating dead Comanches. Several years later a Tonkawa informant told the American Ethnologist Albert S. Gatschet that “human flesh tastes like bear meat.” Some historians believe that animosity toward the Tonkawas caused that tribe to retaliate by acting as scouts and guides for the whites; for self-protection the Tonkawas became allies of the United States Army. Others believe that the animosity resulted from the expeditions the Tonkawas led. Whatever the sequence may be, it is clear that cannibalism was not the only reason other tribes tried to eliminate the Tonkawas. From 1856 through the summer of 1860, the Tonkawas aided the United States Army and the Texas Rangers in expeditions against the Comanche and other hostile tribes. In December of 1857, about 20 Tonkawas accompanied the 7th Infantry through an area of Texas occupied by the Kickapoos. The following year Tonkawa chief Placido led 100 warriors as scouts against Comanches on the Canadian River. The Comanches, led by Iron Jacket, were defeated in an attack led by the Tonkawa. In the summer of 1860, Tonkawa scouts accompanied Texas Rangers in an attack on a Comanche and Kiowa camp on the Canadian River in the Indian Territory panhandle. According to Texas Ranger James Pike, who took part in that attack, when the fighting was over, the Tonkawa commented roasting and eating some of the dead Comanches.

After the Civil War broke out the white man, whom the Tonkawas had served so loyally, became too involved in their problems to worry about their red allies. With the white man’s protection removed, the way was open for massacring the Tonkawas. By the 1870s, the Tonkawas had become a shadow of what once was a tribe of some consequence in Texas. In 1874, a few Lipan Apaches joined them and in 1884, the combined Tonkawa-Lipan group was moved to Indian Territory. By 1944, only 56 Tonkawas remained, the remnants of the tribe who had called themselves “tickanwatic” meaning “the most human people.” It was a tribe which had the distinction of being the last cannibals in the United States.

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