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Prehistoric Texas Main

Old Records and Archeological Remains: Making Sense of the Evidence

In this section:

photo of excavations
This site in rugged Musk Hog Canyon in Crockett County (41CX131) contained the remains of a earth oven where historic native peoples used hot rocks to roast the nutritious "hearts" of desert plants, such as sotol, just as their prehistoric counterparts did for thousands of years. TARL archives. Click to enlarge and learn more.
The Plateaus and Canyonlands region has a long and rich archeological record of human cultures spanning more than 13,000 years. Oddly, it is the most recent of the native peoples that we probably understand the least, based on archeological remains.
photo of rock art
A Spanish mission looms from the tall canyon wall where it was painted by a historic native artist in a Val Verde County rock shelter (site 41VV343) in the Lower Pecos region of southwest Texas. TARL archives.
photo of charred corn
Mission diet. Remains of charred corn and prickly pear (Opuntia sp.) seeds (top row) were recovered during excavations at Mission San Lorenzo de la Santa Cruz, suggesting the Indians-and possibly the Spanish occupants, as well, mixed wild plants with their domestically grown foods. Early accounts tell of priests and expedition leaders having to rely on native peoples to provide food, such as roasted agave hearts, during lean times. TARL archives.
painting of Spanish soldier
Spanish soldier on the Texas frontier. Watercolor painted by Ramón de Murilla, circa 1804, and included in his report to upgrade the condition of troops in New Spain. This image identifies suggested changes in uniform and armaments. Original painting, Archivo General del Indios, Seville.
photo of Mendoza diary
Page from the record of Juan Dominguez de Mendoza's expedition into Texas in 1684.
map of presidio san saba
Plan map of Presidio San Saba, by Jose Urrutia, 1767. The presidio was repeatedly attacked by hostile native peoples, particularly the Comanche. On an inspection tour of the presidios in Texas in 1767, Marques de Rubi sharply criticized the frontier outpost: “This is a fortification that is as barbarous as the enemy who attacks it.” Map, “ Plano Presidio del San Saba,” original in British Library, London.

Several times some horses were lost to the enemy Comanches and their allies of the north. We stayed here until August 3 without other events, except for seeing the tracks of spies and some smoke signals, by which they communicated their arrival to one another. Marques de Rubi, July 25, 1767, Presidio San Saba.

photo of bear
Spanish documents record numerous sightings of black bears on the Edwards Plateau. The animals were hunted by Native Americans and Spanish explorers alike. Pelts of very black bears, killed before winter, were highly valued by some native groups.

Historical researchers draw on many different lines of evidence to paint the faint pictures we have of Texas’ native peoples during historic times. Written documents, such as diaries of missionaries or explorers; expeditionary maps, with their depictions of native encampments; paintings and drawings, both by observers as well as the native peoples themselves; and archeological evidence, the physical traces left by native groups, all offer glimpses into the past.

None considered alone provide a satisfactory rendering of any one group. Taken together, however, the various pieces of information help us understand what life was like for native peoples during a critical juncture in their history. The Native Peoples exhibits rely on a combination of ethnohistory—the study of documents to describe and study groups that may or may not have a written history—and archeology, the study of past cultures based on the material evidence they left behind. In this section, we look at examples of the different types of information and the larger picture that is cumulatively revealed.

The Archeological Record

Archeological excavations indicate that people have lived in the Plateaus and Canyonlands region for the last 13,500 years. Their material culture shows that they were clever, industrious individuals, living in groups and ably sustaining their families and group members by fishing in the rivers and streams, hunting deer and other mammals for meat and hides, and roasting large bulbs of sotol and lechuguilla. The beautiful rock art they painted tells us that they had a rich spiritual tradition as well.

Yet, oddly, it is the most recent of these native peoples—the people who occupied the region when Europeans came to northern Mexico and Texas—that we probably understand the least, based on archeological remains. Only a handful of sites have been identified that can be related to recent native occupation of the region. Remarkably, some of these sites, such as 41CX131 excavated in Crockett County in west Texas, indicate the continuation of a similar lifeway and subsistence over thousands of years. There, an earth oven was used by native peoples perhaps as recently as 300 years years ago to roast the hearts (stem bases) of desert plants, a practice employed by native peoples in Texas for more than 8,000 years.

A quite different lifestyle is suggested in the findings from Infierno Camp in Val Verde County. Archeologists have identified the remains of a large encampment with what appear to be more than120 wickiup rings (small rings of stone of less than 3 meters in diameter) and 7 large tipi rings (circles of stone measuring from 3 to 10 meters in diameter.) The stones were apparently placed to hold wood supports for the shelters; in the case of the large rings, they may have supported large wooden poles for tall, hide-covered tipis. A remarkably low frequency of burned rock at this and other "Infierno phase" sites stands in sharp contrast to the older, more prevalent burned rock midden sites with their large heaps of spent cooking stones. There are few artifacts, other than sherds of pottery and occasional chipped stone arrowpoints, such as Perdiz and and no acceptable radiocarbon assays to date these sites. The large tipi rings, however, point to a time when native peoples were moving their camps with the aid of horses. Other sites are rock art sites of the historic period, with vivid depictions of figures in European garb, horses, and mission-like structures.

Investigations of contact sites—places where native peoples encountered or lived with Europeans, such as Spanish priests or settlers—show that native customs were practiced even in mission contexts. At the site of Mission San Lorenzo de la Santa Cruz (see Historic Encounter exhibit) in Uvalde County, archeologists found chipped stone tools and late-period triangular arrow points inside the structure. They also found gunflints, likely made by the Lipan Apache who were living there.

Documentary Evidence

Most of our knowledge of native peoples in the region comes from the records kept by Spanish priests and government officials. In comparison to other parts of the state, however, expeditions into the Plateaus and Canyonlands were few and records scant. The dry, desert conditions of the region generally were viewed as undesirable by both the Spaniards when they claimed these lands in the sixteenth century and by the Americans who came overland or by sea to settle in Texas during the nineteenth century.

Economics and the need for cheap labor drew some of the first expeditions. During their first 100 years of colonization, the Spanish discovered rich silver deposits in Mexico about 300 miles south of modern Texas. Miners flocked to those mines to find work and, hopefully, wealth. But, silver mining required large labor forces and Spanish labor was inadequate to fill the need. As a result, many Indians were pressed into labor, and many of the earliest encounters of the native peoples with Europeans were during hostile Spanish raids to capture and enslave Indian workers.

The first Spanish expedition into the Plateaus and Canyonlands that was not for the purpose of capturing slaves was that of Gaspar Castano de Sosa in 1590. Departing from Mexico, he took men, women, and children via wagon train to settle in New Mexico. His route was from Almaden (today Monclova, Mexico) north-northwest to the region of Santa Fe in New Mexico. Had he known the difficulty this route would cause the expedition, he might have had second thoughts. Researchers believe that his route took him across the Rio Grande at Del Rio. Up to this point, the expedition had encountered little trouble. Water was sufficient and the topography mild. However, once they left the Rio Grande, their travel was plagued by the ravines and canyons that dominate the region. They could see water in the ravines, but could not reach it. De Sosa' s experience exemplifies the challenges of the canyonlands terrain.

We continued in search of the Rio Salado [ Pecos River], the object of our journey; and Captain Cristobal de Heredia sent out [several men] for this purpose. They succeeded in finding the river, which pleased them very much. Domingo de Santiesteban came back to convey the good news that he and his companions had at last discovered the Salado [Pecos River], although it was impossible to reach it because of the many high rocks and gullies. We spent the night in a ravine where there was a pool that supplied water for our people…. We tried every means of reaching the stream, but to no avail.

While the expedition eventually reached New Mexico, the journey was grueling. Accounts of the route, describing the hardships, were circulated shortly after the trip and no Spaniard ever repeated this route to New Mexico.

Castano de Sosa reported seeing only a few native peoples during his journey. They found “rancherias” (a small camp or hamlet) and huts, but rarely found them occupied. It was only when they finally were able to descend to the Pecos River, likely in the vicinity of Sheffield, Texas, that they came upon a group of people who called themselves “Depesguan,” a name that apparently was not used again. These people gave the Spanish buffalo meat and chamois skins and used dogs to carry their camp supplies. Beyond this, we know little of the people encountered by de Sosa.

Later expeditions record more contact with native peoples. Juan Dominguez de Mendoza’s expedition from 1683-1684 was made in response to requests by the Jumanos and their allies for protection from the Apaches and for increased Spanish settlements and friars. Mendoza's journey from El Paso del Norte to southwest Texas and on to the eastern Edwards Plateau provides vivid descriptions of encounters with aboriginal peoples, particularly with lesser known native groups such as the Gediondo (or Jediondo).

When the expedition neared the ranchería on the east side of the Pecos River (in present-day Crockett County), they were met with a joyful ceremony. The captains of the Gediondo, mounted on horses, came out to welcome them; other natives on foot carried a heavy wooden cross painted in red and yellow and a flag of white taffeta decorated with two blue crosses. They kissed the frocks of the friars, and both groups proceeded toward the rancheria where they were welcomed by the majority of the women and children with shouts and expressions of happiness. Several huts made of tule reeds were offered to the visitors, although Mendoza declined to use them.

The writer found the Indians to be “docile and affectionate,” although greatly fearful of the Apache. The party was given food and deer skins, and during the week-long stay, they killed 24 buffalo. An assembly was held with other Indian groups who pleaded with Mendoza to make war on the Apaches.

Many accounts reported threats of hostilities with groups such as the Comanche, including raids on the expedition camps. Marques de Rubi, while conducting an inspection tour of the presidios from 1776 to 1768, traveled over the Edwards Plateau to visit Presidio San Sabá.

July 25. … To conduct the inspection of the presidio, we were in constant danger and constantly had to guard the horse herd. Several times some horses were lost to the enemy Comanches and their allies of the north. We stayed here until August 3 without other events, except for seeing the tracks of spies and some smoke signals, by which they communicated their arrival to one another. Marques de Rubi, July 25, 1767.

During their journeys, many Spanish travelers made notes on the natural world—the region’s varied terrain, plants, and animals.

Rubí writes:

August 4, 1767. We went constantly downward until reaching the Rio de Janes ( Llano River). This day we found enormous numbers of small bison herds, to which we gave chase and killed four. Also, a bear was roped and caught alive, and three wild turkeys…, all of which was a great bounty for the convoy.

Swiss botanist Jean Louis Berlandier, traveling with the Mexican Boundary Commission in the early 1800s, accompanied a party of Comanches on a bear hunt near the headwaters of the Medina River. He noted two varieties on bear in Texas at the time,

These documents contain wonderful information but they are also flawed in some respects. They present the native peoples from the writer’s unique perspective. Few of the early travelers could speak native languages, and the native people who spoke Spanish, at least in the earliest encounters, understood those languages imperfectly. Thus, when we use these documents to make better sense of the past, we must accept their inherent flaws.

photo of cover
Front page from diary of the Marqués de Rubí, made during an inspection tour of presidios in Texas and the northern frontiers of New Spain between 1776 to 1768. Diaries and journals of government officials and priests often contained important information on native peoples and the environment in which they lived. Image courtesy of the Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin-CN 08492.
photo of landscape
Circles of stone, such as the one pictured above, covered large portions of this site in Val Verde County. Archeologists believe the area was the site of a large encampment in historic times; they have identified more than 125 wickiup (small shelter) rings and 7 large tipi rings. According to historic accounts, native peoples lodged stones around the supports for the shelters (branches , in the case of wickiups, and tall wooden poles, in the case of tipis) to hold them firmly in place. Photo by Steve Black. Click to enlarge.
photo of gunflint
Chipped stone gunflints for flintlock firearms, likely made by Lipan Apache knappers. The flints were recovered during archeological excavations at the site of Mission San Lorenzo de la Santa Cruz, a Spanish mission for the Lipan on the San Saba River from 1762-1771. Investigations there and other mission sites in Texas indicate native peoples continued traditional practices, such as making chipped stone tools and arrow points, even while growing crops and learning the Christian rituals of the Spanish priests. Photo by Susan Dial. TARL collections. Click for more examples.
photo of Miile Canyon
The torturous terrain and arid conditions of the canyonlands area made Spanish expeditions north of the Rio Grande grueling, as Gaspar Castano de Sosa was to discover in 1590 when he attempted to bring a wagon train across the Pecos River and on to New Mexico.
drawing of slaves
Mines being worked by Spanish slaves. Many native peoples were captured by the Spanish to work silver mines in Mexico during the early years of colonization. The image shown depicts a scene in Peru.
photo of transcript
Transcript from sacramental records of the 1700s-1800s at Mission San Bernardo, Mexico, showing types of information available from such resources. From Kenmotsu and Wade 2002: Fig. 5.

The captains of the Gediondo, mounted on horses, came out to welcome Mendoza; other natives on foot carried a heavy wooden cross painted in red and yellow and a flag of white taffeta decorated with two blue crosses. They kissed the frocks of the friars, and both groups proceeded toward the rancheria where they were welcomed by the women and children with shouts and expressions of happiness.

painting of Comanches
Comanche couple, as depicted by Lino Sánchez y Tapia, based on drawings of Indians made during a Mexican scientific expedition into Texas from 1828-1829. A group of Comanches from San Antonio led the party onto the Edwards Plateau to hunt for bear, and the trek was excitedly described by Jean Louis Berlandier in his journal.
photo of map
Inset of map of Coahuila, Nuevo Leon, and Texas in 1729, drawn by Francisco Alvarez Barreiro exemplifies the types of geographical distortions recorded in early depictions of the region, including errors in river drainages such as Pecos and Rio Grande. Image, "Plano corographico de los dos Reynos de Nuevo Estremadua o Coaguila y el Nuevo Leon," courtesy of the Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin (JBP 42,1729). Click to see full image.
map of lipan apache
Depiction of Lipan Apache on a map of the Sonora, Mexico, area. Note bow and quiver of arrows, feather headdress, and scant apparel. Map drawn by Juan de Pagazaurtundua, 1803; original in British Library, Dept. of Manuscripts., London.
photo of shelter
Like their prehistoric predecessors, native groups of the Plateaus and Canyonlands lived, in many cases, in temporary shelters constructed of branches and reeds or even more simple wickiups (lean-tos), such as those shown in this image of a southern Paiute encampment in Utah. As noted in historic accounts, this simple mode of shelter enabled native peoples to move frequently from place to place as resources, such as cactus fruits, nuts, or deer, were depleted.
Scalp dance. A late 1800s watercolor by Silver Horn, a Kiowa, depicts an Indian with a scalp and bow facing an Indian with a drum. Drawings and hide paintings such as these bring to life the memories and traditions of historic native peoples. (Smithsonian Institution National Anthropological Archives NAA INV 09062500).

Spanish observers generally described native peoples as practicing a mobile lifestyle, that is, moving several times during any given year. The moves were not haphazard. They knew the land and its resources, and when they moved, they went to an area they knew would provide another food source.

photo of native painting
Historic native artists painted these enigmatic figures on a wall at Castle Canyon, which empties into the Devils River. Watercolor rendering of rock art by Forrest Kirkland (Plate 65), TARL collections.

Other sources of information are historic maps. Again, the maps reflect an imperfect knowledge of the geography of the region. For instance, as late as 1836, the Pecos River is depicted flowing into the Gulf of Mexico. Yet, many maps rendered by members of Spanish expeditions denote, on a broad scale, locations of different native groups, even depicting encampments and people, such as the Apache figures shown in the map drawn by the Spanish Royal Corps of Engineers in 1803.

Tracking Names through Time

For researchers, tracking individual historic native groups through time to try to get a sense of their culture is a labor-intensive process with rare successes. Historical researchers, combing archives and journals, have identified the names of more than 600 native groups in Texas during Historic times. Native peoples changed locations frequently and—with pressures from invading tribes such as the Apache and Comanche —often merged with others, losing their original group identities and, eventually, their group names. Although many native peoples could speak several native languages—including those of their allies—the names by which they referred to other groups were usually in their own tongue.

Spaniards added their own twists in recording the multi-syllabic Indian names, and it is likely that they gave different names to the same peoples, depending on their location. The people seen in the El Paso area in the 1580s were called Gorreta (meaning small cap) because their haircut resembled a cap. In other cases, the first name given a native people was based on a place. As will be apparent in the subsequent sections on the Apache, Kiowa, and Gueisquale, there were many variants for names of native groups.

Intriguing Insights

In spite of the scarcity of accounts and some of the possible flaws in the evidence, we nonetheless can draw several interesting conclusions about the historic native peoples of the Plateaus and Canyonlands. First, the documents and the archeology demonstrate that the region was chiefly occupied by hunters and gatherers who moved frequently from place to place as resources were depleted. The archeological evidence points to small encampments as the rule. Clearly, there is no evidence of large villages like those of the Caddo of East Texas or the pueblos of the El Paso region which stretched for as much as a mile along stream courses.

Spanish observers generally wrote of native peoples who had a mobile lifestyle, moving several times during any given year, a necessary adaptation to their desert homelands. That is, food resources such as tuna (the fruit of the prickly pear) only ripen once a year. When the food within easy access of their camps was nearly used up, they would move to a new location. Such moves were not haphazard. The native peoples knew the land and its resources, and when they moved, they moved to an area that they knew would provide another food source, such as agave, sotol, pecans, blackberries, and a host of animals—from bison and deer to rabbits, rats, birds, and snakes.

Other information we have pertains to the camps of native peoples. The physical size of most camps that have been identified archeologically is small and circumscribed, suggesting the camps were occupied by a family (man, wife, and children) or an extended family (man, wife, children, grandparents, and/or close relatives). We also may be able to identify features such as campfires (hearths) and several special activity areas where stone tools were made or sharpened or food was prepared. Special food preparation features include burned rock middens—the remains of earth ovens in which hot rocks were used to bake bulbs of lechuguilla or other desert succulent plants. Correlating relatively recent archeological sites to specific historic events, however, is challenging. Ethnohistorian Mariah Wade has suggested that some archeological sites along the Pecos River may be the site of Jumano or Gediondo rancherias visited by Mendoza; however, there is no “smoking gun” or substantive evidence to support this.

In a few cases, native peoples of the Historic Period left ephemeral traces of their world views in paintings on canyon walls or in rock shelters. Some rock art panels, such as those at Vaquero Shelter in Val Verde County and Paint Rock in Concho County, record significant and often seminal events, such as the coming of Anglo priests and soldiers, the establishment of missions, or warfare with invading native peoples. Horses, crosses, European costume and hats, bows and arrows, guns, and other symbols distinguish these late rock art displays from the many earlier artistic expressions of prehistoric peoples in the region.

Indian artists also left behind painted hides—calendar books and tipis—that record events that were significant to their people. During the late nineteenth-century Indian Wars and reservation period, artists from the Kiowa and other tribes painted people and events that were significant to their people.

Finally, we know, based on historic documents, that the native peoples were not isolated small families wandering across the Plateaus and Canyonlands. Rather, they had ties, connections, and alliances with many other groups. No doubt, some of those connections were with people whom they considered to be of the same group, much as we today say we are “central Texans” or “east Texans”. Some bonds between these people were based on periodic events, but this intermittent contact would result in deeper alliances. For example, when the fruits of the prickly pear ripened, family bands came together to harvest and celebrate the bounty. Such closely shared endeavors would have enhanced and cement ties of the various families.

As they moved to other resources, other groups would be present and the family band would cement/renew an alliance with those groups. Hence, each family and group operated within an area where they not only knew and appreciated the food resources, but also knew and had alliances with other native peoples. These strengths enabled native peoples of the region to withstand many times of hardship. Ultimately they were not sufficient to withstand the rapid and devastating changes of the Historic Period.

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photo of tuna plants
According to historic accounts, the ripening of fruits, such as the red "tunas of the prickly pear cactus, brought hunting and gathering groups together seasonally to harvest the fruit and to socialize with other peoples. In some cases, territorial warfare among native groups erupted over areas with the largest cactus fields. Photo courtesy Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
painting of encampments
Encampments of native peoples and Spanish missions are depicted on this detail from a 1769 map of the northern Spanish frontier. The map was executed by Jose de Urrutia who traveled with expeditions throughout the provinces. Click to see larger versions. Visit the Library of Congress American Memory site to explore “Mapa, que comprende la Frontera, de los Dominios del Rey, en la America Septentrional.”
rock art
Native artists of the Historic Period painted scenes of everyday life on cliff walls and in rock shelters. In this scene from Paint Rock in Concho County a hunter stalks a buffalo with a bow and arrow. Other paintings in the same panel which help establish its Historic-Period date are a mission with crosses atop two turrets (For more detail, see the Paint Rock exhibit in Historic Encounters). Watercolor rendering of the rock art by Forrest Kirkland, circa 1930. TARL collections.
metal point
A metal point from a Pecos River campsite in West Texas (41CX209). As more Europeans entered the Plains, native peoples traded extensively for metal items, such as barrel staves, with which they could make sharp projectile and spear points. Many continued making chipped stone arrow points, as well. Photo by Steve Black, TARL Collections.