The Tonkawa lived in the area roughly marked by the Edwards Plateau to the coastal plains of Texas and along the Brazos River and its tributaries. In the period that they inhabited Central Texas, small game and berries were plentiful. Buffalo herds roamed the plains and deer were abundant. The climate was temperate and water was available year round. The Tonkawas were nomadic, rebuilding their teepees as needed. As a people, members of the group gathered as they moved, hunting small game individually. Larger game demanded group effort. Although the historic range of the Tonkawa was not in the heart of the buffalo country, and despite the fact that the buffalo disappeared relatively early in central Texas, the buffalo provided their principal food source, as well as much of the raw material for clothing and other equipment. Their diet varied including buffalo, deer, turkey, rabbits, squirrels, rats, skunks, and turtles. Fish, crayfish, snails, and clams were gathered from the river. Rattlesnake was considered a special delicacy. Roots, herbs, nuts, berries, and leaves were gathered daily.
The physical appearance of the Tonkawa are not well known. Probably because they were not tall, as were the Karankawa, or as dark skinned as the Caddo, they did not stand out as much and therefore were not as recorded. They wore clothing for protection from the elements, not to enhance their appearance or to indicate status. There was one unique feature of the Tonkawan attire, an extremely long breechclout, otherwise they wore buckskin or buffalohide moccasins, leggings, and buffalohide robes as the weather dictated. On the otherhand, the body, particularly the male torso, was richly adorned by painting and tattooing. They also adorned themselves with earrings and necklaces.
Tonkawas originally lived in Central Texas along the streams and rivers. There were several bands that made up the Tonkawa tribe. The independent bands were the Tonkawa proper, the Mayeye, Yojaune, Ervipiame, and a number of smaller more obscure groups, the Cavas, Emet, Sana, Toho, and Tohaha. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries these bands were reduced so that by the beginning of the nineteenth century the surviving remnants had united to become the Tonkawa. They were all buffalo hunters and gatherers. Shelter in the northern range of the Tonkawas was usually in buffalo hide teepees. The scarcity of buffalo hides at the southern regions brought a need to use brush and tree branches in the construction of teepees. Dogs were used to assist in the transport of belongings from site to site. Tonkawa developed a complex social organization, primarily based on maternally related kinship units, but included both civil and military leadership.
The Tonkawa elaborated and emphasized death. When a person was on the verge of death, his friends and relatives entered the teepee where he lay. They would form a circle around the dying person and put their hands on his body. Others formed another circle around the first group and placed their hands upon the shoulders of those in the first circle. They would sway and chant over the dying person throughout the night until the person died. Generally the dead were buried immediately. The hair of the corpse was cut, yellow paint was put on the face, and the body was wrapped in buffaloskin robes. Possessions such as guns, saddles, clothing , and enemy scalps were placed in the grave with the corpse. Other possessions were burned, and the ashes from a man's pipes were hidden.
The burial was also ritualized. For three days the band would mourn. No singing was allowed and at sunrise and dusk the entire band would wail. Near relatiaves would mourn their dead more violently and for a longer period of time. Mothers wailed and slashed their breasts. After the mourning period the name of the deceased was never spoken again. This was because of the belief that the use of the deceased's name would so disturb and anger his spirit that he might come back to plague the living. The spirits of the dead journeyed to a home in the west, and as a result the dead were buried with their heads toward the west, and the living slept with their feet in this direction for fear their spirit might commence on the journey prematurely. Their spirits took on the form of owls or wolves, therefore the Tonkawa never killed these animals.
AD 1600 is known as the beginning of the end of native cultures in Texas. These tribes are described by Cabeza de Vaca in 1535 and DeSoto in 1542. Tribes in Central Texas had changed dramatically from those discovered at the time of the Spanish missions. Stephen Austin found still another group of tribes. There are several reasons for these changes.
Diseases introduced by the first Europeans killed an estimated 80% of the Indian populations. No immunities existed within the Indians to fight such disease as smallpox and diphtheria.
The drastic reduction in population brought a loss of culture and traditions. Families, groups, and tribes were forced to regroup to survive. Other groups banded to form new groups and tribes and in turn became extinct before any description could be recorded of their existence.
More aggressive and powerful tribes descended from the north. The Apaches began to settle in the Panhandle before Coronado's arrival in 1541. Southern plains tribes, such as Pueblo, acquired the horse and became more formidable in expanding their territory. Eastern tribes made contact with traders along the Mississippi and Missouri rivers and acquired firearms. These factors produced less area for the more passive Central Texas tribes to occupy.
The Tonkawas realized the need to form a peaceful relationship with the settlers in the region. Members of the tribe became scouts for the army. Tonkawa fought with the Army and the Texas Rangers against other warring Indians, such as the Apache and Comanche. By the time the German settlers arrived in the early and mid-1880s, the Comanche controlled the Edwards Plateau. The warring Apaches had been removed or killed. The Tonkawa tribe, now one smaller unit, had moved from North East Texas into the Central Texas region just east of the plateau.
The tribe was now a small band, with few warriors remaining. Tonkawas were late to acquire firearms and the use of horses. By the mid-1800s, the buffalo was gone, white settlers were farming the land, and game became scarcer as demand increased. In 1859, prior to the beginning of the Civil War, the remaining Tonkawas were removed to a reservation in Oklahoma.
In 1862, warriors from the Delaware, Shawnee, and Caddo tribes united to attack the Tonkawas. One hundred thirty-three (133) out of the remaining 309 Tonkawas were killed in the massacre. Why they were attacked by their fellow natives is not known. It was reported that the Tonkawas had eaten a couple of Shawnees, and that the slaughter of the Tonkawa was for revenge. It is known that they did ritually consume the flesh of their enemies, however, the Civil War had started and the Tonkawa continued their allegiance with the south and their refusal to fight Texans were more likely the cause of their massacre. At the conclusion of the Civil War, and with the increased need for open land in Oklahoma, the Tonkawas were moved back to Texas. They again served as scouts for the United States Army. No open land remained and few provisions were made for the tribe by the government. Tonkawas became destitute and were forced to beg and steal for necessity. Alcoholism was now a formidable enemy of the Tonkawa. The life span of the Tonkawa at this time was no more than thirty-five or forty years of age.
In the late 1870s, the Tonkawas were again moved to Oklahoma, near Ponca City. This reservation, as cited in Texas public record, was listed at thousands of acres "of natural hunting land for all times." In reality, the acreage was measured at under 100 acres for the remaining 146 Tonkawas.
Less than fifteen families remain on the reservation today. The rest have been assimilated into the white man's culture. The Tonkawas lived as a people for more than five hundred years in peaceful existence with nature. They developed a complex social structure, organized for the benefit of the whole family, group, or tribe. The Tonkawa tribe and its heritage serve as an example of the affects of societal change within the Central Texas region.