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Native Peoples in the Plateaus and Canyonlands During the Historic Period


painting of native people
Encampment of native peoples in the Plateaus and Canyonlands, as envisioned by artist/archeologist Reeda Peel. Click to view full image.

photo of rock art
Rock art of native artists often documented events that rocked their world view, such as the coming of Spanish soldiers and priests and the establishment of missions in their lands. This panel, from a rock shelter (41VV77) in the Lower Pecos area of southwest Texas, shows a figure dressed in European clothing, a structure topped by a cross, and horsemen—possibly Spanish vaqueros—with a herd of cattle. TARL archives. (Click to see full image.)

By the 1670s, the Apache were pushing south off the Southern Plains due to Comanche intrusion into their former homeland. This pattern—interlopers moving into territory occupied by others—can be seen time and again in the history of the native peoples of Texas after contact.


painting of Apache
Aggressive Plains groups—first the Apache and then the Comanche—swept into Texas, pushing indigenous peoples to the south and into Mexico. The Plains warrior shown, likely a Lipan Apache in the Hill Country area, was painted by German artist Fredrich Richard Petri circa 1850.

photo of cover
Cover of report on the ethnohistory of the Amistad Recreation Area by Nancy Kenmptsu and Mariah Wade (2002, Texas Department of Transportation and National Park Service) from which much of the information in these exhibits is drawn.

Like whispers on the wind, the many names of native groups that roamed the Texas Plateaus and Canyonlands are haunting in their strangeness, the ephemeral reminders of a vastly different, yet relatively recent, time. The Historic Period was a time of conflict and cultural upheaval for Texas' native groups, as new peoples—both Indian and European—pushed into the area, intent on establishing a presence, exploiting natural resources, or, in many cases, fleeing in the advance of aggressors.

Some relative newcomers to the region, such as the Apache, Comanche, and Kiowa, were established, aggressive and large enough to withstand the depredations brought on by forced migration and European diseases. But hundreds of smaller groups native to the region were pushed about and preyed upon to the point of extinction.

Today, the names and fleeting accounts of some of these native groups, dutifully recorded by Spanish explorers, missionaries, and government officials, are all that remain today of what must have been a rich and colorful tapestry of cultures.

During the Historic Period (the time of written records; beginning roughly in the mid-1500s in the region), literally hundreds of groups of native peoples were in flux across the southeastern United States and in the area that is now Texas and northern Mexico.

Explorers, missionaries, and government officials, scouting new territory for Spain and France, encountered band after band of native peoples in the area that is now Texas. Scribes and soldiers enlivened their official diaries and journals with descriptions of the aboriginal peoples and their lifestyles. Spanish priests lived or traveled among some of the groups and, at mission outposts, compiled long lists of the natives who they baptized and hoped to convert to Christianity and a settled lifeway. Some observers made note of the natural resources that the Indians hunted and gathered, even as they were being taught to grow corn and other crops at the missions.

Accounts such as these provide brief but often compelling glimpses of the myriad native groups traversing the region. Limited and culturally biased though these records may be, they nonetheless contain the earliest written accounts of native peoples practicing traditional lifeways in what is now Texas. They are, in effect, our bridge from the near-present to the prehistoric past—in some cases, the eye-witness accounts of the activities we see represented in artifacts and archeological sites.

By the 1670s, the Apache were pushing south off the Southern Plains due to Comanche intrusion into Apache territory, further altering the cultural landscape. This pattern—interlopers moving into territory occupied by others—can be seen time and again in the history of the native peoples of Texas after contact. The disruption of native lands, along with epidemics, and other disastrous effects of colonization, resulted in the loss of many of these groups. In other cases, groups found comfort in joining other larger groups—even the Apache. And, in some cases, people moved to remote regions of northern Mexico and later became part of the population that still occupies those lands today. For all these reasons, dozens of native groups dropped from sight in a relatively short period, their names absent in later reports written by Spanish priests and soldiers.

TxDOT archeologist Nancy Kenmotsu and University of Texas anthropologist Mariah Wade have intensively researched the southwest portion of the Plateaus and Canyonlands region to produce an ethnohistory of the Amistad Recreation area. They also reviewed numerous late period archeological sites in the region, particularly those with arrow points, stone tipi rings, or historic rock art which might be linked to historically documented native encampments. The results of their work, compiled in a 2002 report, provide much of the data for this exhibit. Wade also has researched the native groups of the Edwards Plateau, mining the relatively few accounts of explorers and priests who traversed the region for insights about these little-known peoples.

Their findings show that well into the Historic Period, native groups of the Plateaus and Canyonlands region continued practicing a traditional hunting-gathering, mobile lifeway, subsisting on the varied plants and animals of the plateau and desert lands to the west, and making periodic forays into neighboring areas to hunt bison or harvest fruits and nuts in season. Several known groups who frequented the area, including the Jumano and Apache, were known to have periodically planted crops along the Nueces and other rivers to supplement their diet.

That hunting and gathering continued to be the predominate lifeway, however, points up the skillful and ingenious adaptation strategies practiced by native peoples over thousands of years in the Plateaus and Canyonlands.

The following sections provide a brief look at three of the region’s native groups: Gueiquesale, Kiowa, and Apache. Two—the Apache and Kiowa—were able to withstand, by various means, the forces that drove other groups to extinction. Today, they still maintain certain tribal identities and work to preserve traditional customs. Less successful, the Gueiquesale were devastated by disease and other pressures and ultimately faded into history, like most of the hundreds of native groups who once roamed Texas.

The Native Peoples exhibits begin with Making Sense of the Evidence: Old Records and Archeological Remains, a look at the various types of information used to form a picture of the native peoples and their lifestyles several hundred years ago. Sections on the Gueiquesale, Kiowa, and Apache offer readers a cross-section of the variety and uniqueness of the Native American stories and a view on how these groups accommodated—or failed to accommodate—change, as the Spanish and later Anglo-Europeans came to settle in their homelands. The Credits & Sources section lists provides sources consulted during research and suggestions for further reading.

Additional information on Texas’ native peoples is available in several other exhibits on Texas Beyond History. The Historic Encounters layer of the main Plateaus and Canyonlands map is an annotated map denoting sites of missions and a variety of other historic places in the region. The Passing of the Indian Era in the TBH Texas Frontier and Forts exhibits traces the demise and removal of native peoples in the state as white settlers surged into the state.

See also Native Peoples of the South Texas Plains, a parallel regional exhibit set, for an in-depth look at the Coahuiltecan groups of south Texas and northeastern Mexico.

In forthcoming exhibits over the next two years, the Prehistoric Texas Project will examine other historic native groups in adjacent regions of the state, including the Comanche and Jumano (who also ranged over portions of the Plateaus and Canyonlands), as well as more localized groups, such as the Coalhuiltecans of the Rio Grande Plains and the Alabama Coushatta and Karankawa of the Texas coastal areas.

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Names of native groups in the region in late 1600s and 1700s:

Ape, Arame, Bagname, Bibit, Babole, Catujano, Ervipiame, Geniocane, Gueiquesale, Jumee, Machome, Manos Prietas, Ocane, Pachal, Papaya, Pinanaca, Saesser, Siano, Teaname, Teimamar, Terocodame, Tilijae, Tilpayay, Yorica.


painting of priests
Spanish priests, sent into New Spain from the late 1500s to late 1700s to establish missions for the Indians, recorded their observations of the native peoples they hoped to convert to Christianity.

painting of Lipan Apache
Native peoples engaged in traditional activities were documented in text accounts as well as in paintings by artists on the frontier. Detail from scene of Lipan Apaches in the region, painted by Fredrich Gentilz during the 1840s, original painting, Witte Museum.

These records contain the earliest written accounts of native peoples practicing traditional lifeways in what is now Texas. They are, in effect, our bridge from the near-present to the prehistoric past-in some cases, the eye-witness accounts of the activities we see represented in artifacts and archeological sites.


painting of native people
Indians on the move, with possessions loaded onto travois-sled-like carriers pulled by horses. In earlier days, dogs hauled the camp equipment from site to site.