Long before these vast tablelands would become Texas, it was home to a mosaic of Native peoples as diverse as the terrain itself.
From the piney woods of East Texas to the sweeping plains of the Panhandle, tribes great and small roamed the rivers and prairies, hunting bison, gathering wild foods, and cultivating crops. They wove complex worlds—worlds now mostly forgotten.
In the wooded country of East Texas dwelled the Caddo, one of the most advanced tribes. These agriculturalists constructed extensive mound sites and presided over trade routes spanning thousands of miles.
Their weapons were fearsome, their political sway formidable. Yet they welcomed the Spanish explorers who first breached their forests in the sixteenth century—men like Moscoso, who in 1542 led what was left of de Soto’s expedition into Caddo country after the conquistador met his end on the banks of the Mississippi. Little did Moscoso know the Caddo domains stretched far beyond the Piney Woods into the Plains.
There roamed the fierce Apache and Comanche, nomads who struck terror in settlers with swift raids. The Spanish tried in vain to missionize these proud warriors, but olive branches often became arrows, and by the eighteenth century Spain’s imperial grip was slipping.
Far west, along the Rio Grande, agricultural Pueblos like the Tigua carved irrigated fields from the desert scrub. In the Gulf Coast lowlands dwelled canoe-faring bands like the Karankawa, surviving off oysters and fish.
But sweeping change was afoot in the continent. With European colonizers penetrating the frontiers, the indigenous balance of power would be upended. Texas’s first peoples stood on the precipice of disaster. Their story was just beginning.
First Glimpses: Early European Expeditions
As the 16th century dawned, Spain turned its conquistador gaze northward, enticed by rumors of wealthy lands beyond the Rio Grande.
Dispatching intrepid explorers, they became the first Europeans to traverse the Texas wilderness and encounter its native inhabitants. It was a pivotal moment, though none could yet grasp its magnitude.
In 1528, the hapless Narváez expedition shipwrecked near Galveston Island, with Cabeza de Vaca and a handful surviving.
Adopted into Native tribes, Cabeza de Vaca spent six years living among them before embarking on a remarkable overland trek to Spanish settlements in Mexico.
His chronicle of this “New World” offered Europeans their first account of Texas Indians. More expeditions followed.
In 1541, Hernando de Soto’s army became the first Europeans to cross the Mississippi River near present-day Memphis. Pushing west after de Soto perished, his successor Moscoso ventured into East Texas, welcomed cautiously by the Caddo confederacy.
Though Moscoso’s men found no riches, word of the formidable Caddo realm was now out. Back in Mexico, dreams of conquest kindled. Antonio de Espejo explored the Trans-Pecos in 1583, encountering the agriculturally-adept Jumano along the Pecos River.
Each expedition encountered native power and complexity exceeding anything Europeans had fathomed. While conflict was still limited, seeds were planted for the violent struggle to come.
Tribes in the Crossfire: 18th Century Upheaval
As the 18th century unfolded, Texas’s tribal nations found themselves caught in the throes of imperial competition as France and Spain vied for control of the frontier. For Native peoples, territorial dominion that had long seemed fixed was suddenly fluid and hazardous.
With France expanding from Louisiana, Spain grew alarmed at French influence among tribes like the Hasinai Caddo.
To counter it, Spain dispatched expeditions like the one led by Domingo Ramón in 1716. Bearing gifts, Ramón sought Caddo allegiance, but his entry unsettled the East Texas tribes.
Spain soon erected military presidios across its northern frontier, like San Antonio de Béxar in 1718, and missions to convert the natives.
To the Caddo and Comanche, these outposts looked like beachheads for invasion. Their lands were turning into pawns between imperial powers.
Even seemingly peaceful contact brought turmoil. When Hasinai leaders allowed Franciscans to found missions in East Texas in the 1690s, conflict with traditionalists erupted within the confederacy. By the early 18th century, nearly every mission had been burned down in uprisings.
Farther west, the once formidable Jumano saw their trading sway disrupted by Spanish intrusions and tribal warfare. As France and Spain clashed, Native groups faced wrenching choices, with their fate no longer wholly their own.
A new uncertain epoch was dawning.
The Unrelenting Tide: 19th Century Dispossession
As the 19th century dawned, Texas’s tribal nations faced an unrelenting tide of American expansion that would engulf their homelands. The great Comanche empire that had dominated the southern Plains for generations would be systematically broken and confined to reservations.
After Mexico’s 1821 independence from Spain, American settlers flooded into Texas, facilitated by generous Mexican land grants. This set off a cycle of raids and reprisals with tribes like the Comanche, whose lands were being encroached.
“The white man…wanted all our hunting grounds,” a Comanche chief named Ten Bears lamented.
After Texas independence in 1836, outright war erupted as the Republic of Texas fought to drive Native peoples from their lands. In 1840, Comanche leaders were killed after being lured to peace talks in San Antonio, sparking a decade of brutal violence.
By the 1870s, after decades of relentless warfare, the Comanche were utterly defeated.
Leader Quanah Parker surrendered in 1875, knowing the end had come. “We are all Comanches,” he told his broken people. “We must listen to the government.”
Other tribes like the Apache, Kickapoo and Kiowa also faced confinement on reservations.
In less than fifty years, Native sovereignty over Texas lands had been decisively shattered. The unrelenting tide of white expansion could not be held back.
As old Chief Ten Bears mourned, “I was born upon the prairie, where the wind blew free…But it is all changed now.”
“There can be no peace,” insisted Buffalo Hump, leading punishing raids against settlers.
The Long Twilight: Early 20th Century Struggles
As the 20th century dawned, Native peoples in Texas entered a long twilight period of struggle and adaptation.
Confined to reservations, tribes faced an onslaught of government policies aimed at forced assimilation and the dissolution of traditional cultures. Many Native children were sent to boarding schools that sought to erase tribal languages and beliefs.
“They cut my long hair,” recalled one former student. “They didn’t want me to dance or speak Navajo.” Tribal spiritual practices were outlawed. Leaders who resisted faced arrest.
The reservation system also bred economic dependence for tribes like the Alabama-Coushatta and Tigua. But just as Native peoples were adjusting to reservation life, the government pivoted again.
The Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 ended allotment, but then came the heavy-handed Termination policy of the 1950s which aimed to sever tribes from federal recognition.
Whether confined on reservations or coerced into cities, Native peoples in Texas faced a pressure cooker of assimilation. Traditional lifeways were disrupted.
“We were torn between two worlds,” remarked Comanche elder Rita Coosewoon.
The Long Road Back: Late 20th Century Renaissance
As the late 20th century unfolded, glimmers of a Native renaissance slowly emerged in Texas after decades of suppression. Spurred by activism and expanding rights, tribes began reclaiming their sovereignty, cultures and identities.
The American Indian Movement, founded in 1968, staged dramatic protests that focused the nation’s attention on broken treaties and entrenched discrimination. Legislative milestones like the Indian Self-Determination Act of 1975 affirmed tribal self-governance.
Tribes in Texas also regained state and federal recognition, rebuilding their governmental autonomy. The Alabama-Coushatta Tribe achieved federal restoration in 1987, while the Lipan Apache secured state recognition in 2009. Other tribes followed.
There was also a cultural revival. Tribes launched language immersion programs to save endangered indigenous tongues.
Saginaw Grant, the venerated Sac & Fox elder, returned to his roots after years of suppressing his identity, becoming a leading advocate.
By the dawn of the 21st century, glimmers of a Native American renaissance were visible across Texas, from the urban streets of Dallas to the remote colony of El Niño in south Texas. But much work remained in writing future chapters of the epic Native story.