Chapter 2 - Native People of the Hill Country
I believe these people see and hear better, and have keener senses than any other in the world. They are great in hunger, thirst, and cold, as if they were made for the endurance of these more than other men, by habit and nature.
Spanish explorer Cabeza de Vaca
on Texas Indians, 1528
There shall be a firm and lasting peace forever [between whites and Indians].
First president of the Republic of Texas, 1836–1838
The white man and the red man cannot dwell in harmony together.
Second president of the Republic of Texas, 1838–1841
In the 1980s, University of Texas archeology student and Lakeway resident Scott Brosowske roamed the area looking for Indian artifacts. Because many of the sites archeologists and anthropologists had explored in the 1930s were now impounded by Lake Travis, Brosowske turned his attention to the banks of Rough Hollow Creek and Hurst Creek. He discovered considerable evidence of human activity dating back at least 10,000 years, when wooly mammoths, mastodons, and an ancient species of buffalo dominated the area, along with Homo sapiens who predated modern Indians. More recent stratifications of limestone produced tiny flint arrowheads, which led him to conclude that the bow and arrow probably did not appear in Central Texas until about 700 A.D., by which time the giant creatures who had earlier roamed the area no longer existed.
Other Lakeway residents have also found ample evidence of the Indians who occupied the area. Tim Henderson discovered a small cave along Marina Cove below Star Street that appeared to be an ancient cliff dwelling. According to Lakeway historian Byron Varner, the Lakeway Company thought the cave might make a good beer garden, which happily did not happen. Varner further explained, “Indians occupied the area from the present Inn site along Lakeway Drive to Comet Street and along both sides of Comet. A clump of trees in the front yard at 304 Lakeway Drive is a well-defined Indian mound.” Varner also targeted another cave dwelling behind 603 Robin Dale Drive and pointed out that “most of the houses on Edgewater Cove are built atop large Indian mounds.”
Most anthropologists believe that the ancestors of native peoples of North and South America originally walked across a long-vanished land bridge from Asia; in fact, recent DNA studies suggest that a single Siberian group, crossing some 10,000 to 12,000 years ago into what is now Alaska, possessed the genetic link to most native groups found in the Americas.
Precisely how and when these original “immigrants” dispersed southward is not clear, but archeologists and physical anthropologists, who labeled them and their immediate progeny Paleo-Indians or Paleo-Americans, have found remnants of their primitive tools and weapons in Central Texas. They were hunters and gatherers who formed small, highly mobile groups that moved from place to place in pursuit of food. With handheld lances or throwing spears tipped with stone or flint, they hunted for long-extinct and very different species of elephants, horses, camels, and bison. They also dined on smaller creatures, fish, and a variety of flora. Eventually, the advent of agriculture, the domestication of animals, and improved metal tools led to more complex societies.
Over the millennia, these earliest Americans evolved into countless tribes or clans known collectively as “Indians.” Of course, none of these groups called themselves Indians. No, that name was the work of a fifteenth-century Italian explorer named Christopher Columbus, who made one of the worst geographical guesses in recorded history. Native Americans also take issue with any European declaration of New World discoveries. As one copper-hued observer put it, “How does one discover a land where there are already people living?”
The precise nomenclature for these early tribes or clans is equally obscure, as early Spanish and French explorers reproduced names phonetically in their own languages. Nevertheless, white Americans historically lumped them together as Indians, and seldom in very complimentary ways.
Nineteenth-century Texans accepted the prevailing view of most white Americans, immortalized in Hartley Alexander’s 1902 poem, “The Only Good Indian Is a Dead Indian.” Theodore Roosevelt was scarcely more temperate when in 1889 he declared, “I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are the dead Indians, but I believe nine out of every ten are, and I shouldn’t inquire too closely into the case of the tenth. The most vicious cowboy has more moral principle than the average Indian.”
U.S. Army Colonel Richard I. Dodge was also sure that a sense of right and wrong was absent from the Indians he fought against on the Texas frontier:
Where all are such magnificent thieves, it is difficult to decide which of the Plains tribes deserves the palm for stealing. The Indians themselves give it to the Comanche. . . . For crawling into a camp, cutting hobbles and lariat ropes, and getting off undiscovered with the animals, they are unsurpassed and unsurpassable.”
Only slightly less judgmental were those nationalist historians, politicians, and clergy who drummed up images of the noble but doomed savage who stood in the path of what they labeled manifest destiny. It was an unfair battle for the greatly outnumbered and outgunned Indians, but in reality it was disease and the loss of the buffalo that killed more Indians than the white man’s bullets. According to anthropologist John C. Ewers, between 1528 and 1895, as many as 95 percent of Texas Indians died from diseases, mostly smallpox and cholera.
The nomadic tribes of Lipan Apaches and Tonkawas established themselves in the fourteenth century in what would become Travis County, with Kiowas and Comanches moving into the area in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, in part to be closer to the Spanish horses they so dearly loved. All moved freely up and down the Colorado River. Some of the earlier tribes farmed and others set up trading centers for bartering with each other and with the Europeans after their arrival in the sixteenth century.
The Lipan Apaches lived in small villages that later made them particularly vulnerable to marauding Comanches and Kiowas. The Tonkawas, who believed they originated from a hole in the ground after being uncovered by an eagle or a wolf, were timid hunters and gatherers. As part of a boundary commission sent by the Mexican government in 1827, José María Sánchez visited and later wrote a rather whimsical description of Tonkawa domestic life:
In the center of each Tonkawa hut is located the fireplace around which lie the male Indians in complete inaction, while the women are in constant motion either curing the meat of the game, or tanning the skins, or preparing the food, which consists chiefly of roast meat, or perhaps making arms for their indolent husbands.
The Tonkawas, like the Lipan Apaches, were caught between the Spanish and Mexicans moving up from the south, the French from the southeast, the Kiowas and Comanches from the north and west, and white Americans from the east.
The Tonkawas did give Texas the word pedernales, meaning “flint,” evidence of which abounds in the Lakeway area; in fact, according to Byron Varner, the Abe and Jeanne Hutto ranch on Flintrock Road contained “a veritable flint factory,” as did the site for the Hills Country Club.
The nomadic Comanches became the scourge of both Indians and white settlers. According to historian W. W. Newcomb, “The Comanches were the principal and most stubborn adversaries the Texans had . . . . They raided . . . and killed or captured men, women, and children, carried off what they could, and burned the rest.” The Comanches also fought against Spaniards, Mexicans, and other Indians. They tied their existence to the buffalo, and when the buffalo began to disappear, so did their nomadic way of life, although disease, the Texas Rangers, and the U.S. Army hastened their demise.
Stories of marauding, scalping Indians were common in Central Texas, but none received more publicity than J. W. Wilbarger’s 1889 Indian Depredations in Texas and its description of his brother, who in 1833 survived being scalped just east of Austin:
Josiah fell apparently dead, but though unable to move or speak, did not lose consciousness. He knew when the Indians came around him—when they stripped him naked and tore the scalp from his head. He says that though paralyzed and unable to move, he knew what was being done, and that when his scalp was torn from his skull it created no pain from which he could flinch, but sounded like distant thunder.
Wilbarger chronicled every Indian “depredation,” real or imagined, that anyone passed on to him. Although his treatment of marauding Indians was decidedly one-sided, the danger to isolated families on the frontier was real, as Lakeway resident Peg Hein relates in her account of her great-grandparents homesteading in the San Saba area in the 1850s:
There were numerous stories of mothers taking their children into the fields to hide from Indians, of children being stolen by Indians, or settlers being brutally scalped and killed by Indians. One day, Esther saw a lone Indian sneaking towards the cabin. She hid behind the door with her heavy iron skillet in her hands, and when the Indian opened the door, hit him over the head with all her strength. The Indian was knocked unconscious, and she took the children and ran to the field to get David. When they returned the Indian was gone. At least six men were killed by Indians in the surrounding area before 1860 and several more later. Dogs became necessary to warn and guard families.
Bee Cave resident Emmett Cade told of his mother “going to bed with the hogs” when Indians were reported in the area because Indians disliked the taste of pork and believed that pigs, unlike cattle, could not be herded.
The rugged terrain of western Travis County made an ideal sanctuary for marauding Indians to launch their raids on Austin and nearby settlers. They were primarily interested in stealing horses, but they remained a threat to isolated settlers. Years after the fact, Alma Buchanan Babb described what happened to her great-grandfather, John Henry Lohmann, shortly after he built his new home along the banks of the Colorado River in what would one day become Lakeway:
He was about 70 when he personally undertook the building of his new home, a large two-story, of native stone. . . . Indians lurked from time to time in the cedar brakes - Apaches Lipanes, or Comanches. Once his stout walking stick, aimed like a gun, was enough to scare off a party of them. And his stepson was killed by Indians about 10 miles from home, some said. Others said it was bushwhackers who accused the boy, not yet 18, of running away [from his Civil War obligations], and shot him.
There had been an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 Comanches in Texas in the late eighteenth century. That number had been reduced to less than 1,500 by 1875, when they and the Kiowas surrendered at Fort Sill. The Comanches, like most Texas Indians, were decimated by disease. Anthropologist John C. Ewers chronicles thirty major epidemics, particularly smallpox and cholera, but also measles and mumps, that by 1890 had wiped out all but a handful of Texas Indians. The Comanches alone lost an estimated half their population to smallpox and cholera epidemics in 1848 and 1849. Also taking its toll was poverty and malnutrition, particularly after the buffalo were wiped out. The U.S. Army and the Texas Rangers, however, delivered the final blows.
The Texas Rangers had been reorganized into two groups in 1874, one for controlling bandits along the Rio Grande and the other for eradicating hostile Indians. The final conquest of the Comanches and Kiowas took place in the Red River campaigns of 1874–75, after which the few survivors were pushed onto reservations in Oklahoma.
Of the vanquished Comanches, Larry McMurtry, who wrote Comanche Moon, penned a haunting epitaph:
They were deadly, merciless killers, but they were also the last free Indians on the southern plains. When the last of them had been killed, or their freedom taken from them, their power broken, the plains . . . would be a different place. It would be a safer place, of course, but a flavor would have been taken out of it—the flavor of wildness.
Unfortunately, precious few Indians have told their own stories, and even fewer have written them down for posterity. During the Great Depression, the New Deal’s Work Progress Administration (WPA) did sponsor a series of oral histories with surviving Indians from Texas and Oklahoma who had been herded onto local reservations. The following example from an old Comanche warrior suggests that the “Hollywooden” Indian, first made popular by the dime novels and perpetuated in our broader popular culture and even in early textbooks, greatly distorted the lives of this continent’s earliest indigenous human beings.
The older Indians taught the younger ones to live a true life. Be true to the Great Spirit, which was the man above the sun. I was taught to always be kind to those that aid you and never take anything that doesn’t belong to you. If a task is done, we owe it to the Great Spirit for enabling us to do the task. Always be kind to father and mother. Never make fun of any older person, for we some day may be old and make the same mistakes as they make. . . . This is the truth, and the way the Great Spirit meant for us to live. We must love our God.
Except for their cooking utensils, flint tools, arrowheads, and parched bones, little remains of the Indians who inhabited Texas for several thousand years. Locally, there are private collections of arrowheads and tools, numerous burial mounds, and a few cave dwellings carved into the ridges overlooking the old river bottom. Then, too, older settlers told stories of hearing Indian chants on quiet, moonlit nights along Hurst Creek. There is also the question of the naming of the Union’s twenty-eighth state, although that story too is a bit murky. Was it lifted from the Tejas Indians or did it come from the Caddo Indian word tesha, meaning, ironically, “friend”?