The Coahuiltecan Myth
Much attention is given to the Apache and Comanche in San Antonio history, but these two groups were relative latecomers. At the time of the first Spanish expeditions into Texas the Medina and San Antonio River valleys in Bexar County were occupied by other less known Indian groups. The San Antonio Missions were constructed to convert and “civilize” these native people.
For over a century historians and anthropologists have categorized the native people of South Texas and Northeastern Mexico into a false classification of “Coahuiltecan” Indians. However, this was a result of early researchers lumping together the sparse information available to them and applying broad generalizations to form a monolithic Coahuiltecan “culture.” The truth is that South Texas was never occupied by a unified linguistic and ethnic tribe of Coahuiltecan Indians, but rather by dozens or even hundreds of independent small groups who shared similar lifeways. The original idea of lumping these groups together came from the false assumption that they all spoke the same or a related language. Over time this idea of linguistic similarity morphed into ethnic similarity and thus the myth of the Coahuiltecan Indians was born. Modern historians now recognize that these people were not a single group, nor did they all share a common language. At least seven distinct language groups have been positively identified: Coahuilteco, Karankawa, Comecrudo, Solano, Tonkawa, Aranama and Sanan. Though a language now called “Coahuilteco” did exist, the term Coahuiltecan to refer to the native peoples of South Texas serves no useful purpose and will not be used in this context by this author.
A short list of words in the Coahuilteco language was recorded by Fray Bartolome Garcia in 1760 at Mission Espada in a manual on how to teach new Indian converts. Fray Garcia noted that only 18 groups spoke dialects of this language and that in four of these, only the young knew how to speak it, indicating that it was learned during missionization. In the missions members of these different cultures melted together to form a new Mission Indian culture that was district from anything found outside of the missions.
Spanish explorers and missionaries traveling towards San Antonio noted numerous encounters with the native peoples on the lower Medina and San Antonio rivers, they identified a number of ethnically distinct bands or groups who spoke a similar dialect and shared a similar culture, including the Payaya, the Pastia, the Pampopa, the Sijame, the Cauya, the Semonam, the Saracuam, the Pulacuam, and the Anxau. The seasonal rounds of some extended to the margins of the Gulf Coast; others periodically probed the higher country on the southern part of the Edwards Plateau. Many spent their summers among the enormous fields of prickly pear cactus on the South Texas Plains, harvesting the ripe fruits and joining with others in work, trade, and celebration.
The Payaya of the Medina River
The earliest expeditions which entered the area prior to the establishment of the Missions were led by Alonso de Leon (1686-1690), Fray Damian Mazanet (with de Leon in both 1689 and 1690, and Teran in 1691), Don Domingo Teran de las Rios (1691) Espinosa, Olivares, and Aguirre (1709). All of these encountered a people living in the Medina River valley – the Payaya.
Mentioned in many 17th and 18th century documents, the Payaya were associated with a broad area that included San Antonio and probably the southern edge of the Edwards Plateau. They lived in groups which varied in size, often seasonally, as small family bands of a few dozen people came together with other bands who all spoke the same dialect and, collectively saw themselves as one people, or what the Spanish often called naciones, and we might call tribes.
Like the other naciones with whom they shared a language, they were mobile hunters and gatherers, but while they shared cultural traits with other Coahuiltecan speakers, they also likely had their own unique habits that made them the "Payaya” and not “Pachuache” or “ Sana.”
Between the years 1688 and 1717, various Spanish expeditions found the Payaya in camps along the western and northern margins of the South Texas Plains. Given the fact that several times the Payaya were found camped in modern Bexar and Medina counties, it is likely that this was a core part of their homeland. Keep in mind that the Spanish view of the native world was rather narrow: Spanish expeditions tended to follow the same northeast/southeast line of travel from the Rio Grande to San Antonio and then on to east Texas that was first taken in 1690. Thus, their documentation of the overall Payaya territory was incomplete. The natives' actual range may have been much broader than we know.
Spanish accounts make it clear that pecans were an important food source. The Spanish found the Payaya at locales where they were gathering pecans, sometimes in “great quantities.” While the type of nuts being gathered in great quantity were not specified, the presence of the Payaya in Bexar and Medina counties makes this clear. Even today pecan groves continue to be prominent along the Medina River. Fray Espinosa describes pecans in detail in his encounters with the Payaya in the region in 1709. Given that pecan trees in each area tend to produce crops only every second or third year, the Payaya could not have counted on abundant harvests each year. One way they stored excess pecans for later use was by placing shelled pecans in small skin bags or threading them on long strings. Both methods would allow for easy transport from one camp to another.
The Payaya seem to have maintained close friendships or alliances with certain other naciones, including the Pampopa, Cauya, Semomam, Saracuam, Pulacuam, and Anxau. Although the Spanish documents never specifically state that Payaya were friends or allies of other groups, we can infer this based on the groups they were seen camping or traveling with.
Thus, we know the Payaya—and other small groups of the South Texas Plains—through the shadowy and spotty view of Spanish documents. The known documents offer only a few details about their range and their hunting and gathering lifeways. Although definite archeological evidence of the Payaya has been difficult to pin down, no evidence has been found that contradicts the notion that they consisted of small familial or multi-family bands that moved seasonally through the Bexar County and South Texas area.
Mazanet identified six groups along the Medina River near LaCoste in 1690: the Tilpayay (Payaya), the Cauya, the Semonam, the Saracuam, the Pulacuam, and the Anxau (Xauno). These groups may have shared an encampment, or rancheria, at this time.
In 1691, Teran encountered a Peyaye (Payaya) rancheria in the vicinity of the San Antonio River. He commented that the Payaya were a docile and affectionate people and friendly to the Spaniards. They had erected a tall wooden cross in the midst of their rancheria. Mazanet reported that they encountered the Indians at the place known to the Indians as Yanaguana and which was named San Antonio de Padua by the Spaniards. Mazanet noted that the Payaya were a very large nation. Their settlement consisted of small clusters of shelters dispersed among a “natural open area” in a wooded locality. Both men made note of the large numbers of buffalo on the level plains near the Medina, which they called “Panapay” (Penapay). European “trade goods” in the form of rosaries, pocket knives, cutlery, beads, and tobacco were distributed to the Indians. Some of these artifacts have been found in archeological sites in this region; native-made chipped-stone tools for meat and hide processing, such as hide scrapers and knives, also have been found in late sites in the areas.
In 1709, the Espinosa-Olivares-Aguirre expedition again encountered the Payaya on the Medina River. Southwest of its juncture with Elm Creek, members of the party carved the year 1709 into the sandstone to commemorate their expedition. Later travelers left their mark, carving other dates (1814) as well as names and brands, into the sandstone. The rock art site also contains possible prehistoric petroglyphs indicating that the spot has long been the locale for crossing the creek in both prehistoric as well as historic times. The site (41BX836) is one of few archeological sites supported by archival documentation that can be directly linked with an early entrada, the encampments of the aboriginal Native Americans, and contact between the two.
Chroniclers of the expedition noted that the Indians were not very numerous, suggesting that sometime between 1690-1709, the group may have been reduced. The expedition crossed the Medina River on April 11, 1709. In a clearing on the north bank of the river, they found a rancheria of the Payayas and later, while traveling down the river, encountered other Payayas as well as five Pampopa who were going to the rancheria of the Payayas. The party then crossed the Medina a second time (to the south bank) and arrived at the rancheria of the Pampoas (Pampopas), where they found a guide to accompany them on the next leg of the journey.
The harvesting of pecans, which were readily available along the San Antonio and Medina Rivers, seemed to be especially important to the Payaya. Pecans were important not only as a seasonal food in the fall, but as a resource that could be stored in preparation for times of scarcity. Espinosa describes the Payaya digging storage pits for the unshelled nuts. On the Medina, he recorded that one springtime encampment was occupied for at least 12 days.
The Payaya were referenced in numerous documents dating from 1688 to 1789, below are the variant spellings: Mepayaya Nepayaya Paia Paiaia Paiaies Paialla Paiaya Pailhailles (French) Paillailles (French) Pajaja Pallalla Pallaya Payaes (Payaez)Payagua Payai (Payaies) Payaia Payaja Payalla Payas Payatas Payay Payaye (Payayes) Payayos Paytay Pazaga Peyaya Peyaye Piyai Tilpaya Tilpayai Tilpayay (Tilpayayaes)
Pastia and Pampopa
After having crossed the river on April 24, 1709, the expedition encountered the Pampopas as well as the captain of the Paxti (Pastia) nation.
The Pastia and Pampopa groups inhabited portions of the lower Medina River drainage as early as 1709 (Espinosa 1930:4-5). They had cordial relations with neighboring Payaya prior to 1720. Espinosa noted a Payaya encampment in southwestern Bexar County on the north bank of the Medina River where the river flows eastward before flowing southeastward again, possibly modern LaCoste. Farther eastward approximately eight miles, a Pampopa settlement was identified. As individuals from the two camps were apparently mixed, friendly interactions are assumed. Espinosa also states that the Pampopa were camped at this location for at least 12 days in the spring. Little else is known of these groups except the general territorial foraging range of the Pastia and/or Pampopa extended about 85 miles south of San Antonio toward the great bend of the Nueces River and perhaps farther.
No observations of a ceramic tradition or plan cultivation have been discovered for these groups. Some Pampopa later entered Mission San Jose y San Miguel de Aguayo after 1720, but non-missionized groups were still recorded in the surrounding area in 1727. A least one possible Pampopa/Pastia-related site has been identified in the vicinity of the Medio Creek confluence with the Medina.
The Pampopa, one of three Indian groups for which Mission San José was founded in 1720 (Valdéz 1720:17-18), were apparently a fairly numerous group. It is clear that not all of the Pampopa entered Mission San José, for in 1727 some 500 Pampopa were said to be living on the Nueces River in the vicinity of present Dimmit and La Salle Counties (Sevillano de Paredes 1727:42-43). Their territory is known to have extended from the lower Medina River southward across the lower Frio River to the Nueces River. Some of the Pampopa entered Mission San Juan Bautista of northeastern Coahuila, and a few seem also to have entered Mission Valero at San Antonio. García (1760) identified the Pampopa as speakers of the Coahuilteco language.
The Pastia were closely associated with the Pampopa (see above), shared the same territory, and probably spoke the same language, Coahuilteco. An unknown number of Pastia entered Mission San José with the Pampopa in 1720. Bolton (in Hodge 1910 Vol. II:93) errs in stating that the Pastia were present at Mission Concepción; he mistook two personal names for ethnic group names.
On the return trip of the Espinosa expedition from the Colorado River in 1720, eight to ten Indians of the Sijames nation were observed between the Arroyo of Leon (Leon Creek) and the Medina River.
In the spring of 1709, Espinosa noted approximately 500 individuals of these groups camped on the San Antonio. It is assumed that this represented a gathering of bands rather than a semipermanent occupation. Campbell and Campbell's research indicated that a band of Sulajam were identified and occupied portions of the San Antonio River south of San Antonio de Bejar in 1708. Other groups noted in the historical record as inhabiting the San Antonio area are, Aguastaya and Mesquite, however, little else is known about these groups.
Cabeza de Vaca lived among another group, the Mariames, for some 18 months (although not by choice). The Mariames followed a hunting and gathering strategy based on the exploitation of contrasting sets of resources found in two geographically separated terrains.
For the greater part of the year, they lived in the lower Guadalupe River valley, hunting along the coastal plain, gathering pecans along the river, and other resources. Both deer and bison were among their prey, according to the Spaniard's account. One "hunting" method he witnessed involved setting fire to the prairie grasslands and chasing fleeing deer into the bays and forcing them to swim until they became exhausted and drowned. Not very "sporting" as we would see it, but hunting wasn't a sport, it was life or death.
In the summer, the Mariames moved dozens of miles inland to the west to the prickly pear fields, where they stayed for months to harvest ripe tunas. While there they gathered land snails to supplement their diet, a meager caloric addition at best. But rats, rabbits, and snakes would have been on the menu as well. In the hot, dry summer months, they squeezed tuna juice into holes in the ground and used it as an earth-flavored beverage. During their summer time at the tuna fields, the Mariames met with other groups, such as the Avavares, with whom they traded for items such as wooden bows for hunting.
Mariame encampments—rancherias—were described as a succession of small circular huts made of four bent poles covered with woven mats made of plant fiber. After the land's resources had been exhausted in one spot, these simple structures could be easily disassembled. The parts that were difficult to make (eg., the mats) were packed up and moved to the next camp. Cooking was done in small pits or on open hearths, but many foods were eaten raw, all organic, all natural.
Hunting and Gathering on the South Texas Plains
Food resources in the grassy plains and brushlands of South Texas were richly varied, and these helped to define the subsistence strategies of the various Coahuiltecan groups. One of the most important staples for the native peoples of the region was the nopal, or prickly pear cactus. Vast concentrations of prickly pear were noted in the historical record in several areas of the South Texas Plains. In the 19th century one traveler described a concentration along the Nueces River as “immensely large and branching through which nothing can pass…no man, nor beast will attempt to penetrate them.” Other concentrations were seen in modern Live Oak, Duval, Jim Wells, Nueces and Kleburg counties.
Cabeza de Vaca and his companions, who lived several years with native groups along the Texas Gulf Coast, described traveling inland in late spring and early summer each year to gather and eat the tunas as well as their pads. In his Relacion de los Naufragios [Account of the Shipwreck] published by the Spanish court in 1555 and republished in 1906, Cabeza de Vaca described the harvesting of these odd fruits, noting that such seasonal occasions were also an important time for social interactions and trading with other native groups:
“This is a fruit that is of the size of an egg, and they are red and black and of very good flavor. They eat them three months of the year, in which they eat nothing else, because at the time they gathered them there came to them other Indians from farther on who brought bows, to trade and barter with them.”
When Cabeza de Vaca and his companions stayed with the Arbadaos and the Cuchendados, it was the beginning of the tuna season and many were ill with hunger and anxiously awaiting the ripening of the tunas. Nonetheless, despite their scarce food resources, the Arbadaos took the Spaniards by the hand into their dwellings and fed them, a kindness that would be welcomed today. The food they fed them were unripened tunas, which were bitter and hard to digest, and roasted pads of the prickly pear. They also gave the men two dogs in exchange for nets and other items such as the skin Cabeza de Vaca had used as a blanket at night.
Another food resource mentioned when the travelers were in the settlement of the Cuchendados was the mesquite bean, which was processed to provide a type of flour that could be mixed with other foods. The bean was also used in a ceremony that is described by Cabeza de Vaca. Adult males pounded the seed pods in a pit in the earth, mashing them until they were very fine. The finely ground seeds were then mixed with earth in a basket, and water was added. All members, including the Spaniards, then ate the gruel which, although sweet, greatly distended their stomachs.
The Spanish explorer provided a few other rich details about the two groups. As noted above, the Arabadaos extended their hands in friendship to the strangers even though they were in a season of scarce food resources. The Cuchendados also treated the men with care, providing food for them, and also hosting a ceremony for them. Cabeza de Vaca tells us: “The Indians [Cuchendados] made great celebration for us and among themselves very great dances and songs as long as we were there. And at night when we would be sleeping at the entrance to the camp where we were…six men would keep watch over each one of us with great care.”
The reasons why the Cuchendados took such care with the four Spanish is never made clear and we wish more details had been given. Perhaps the Cuchendados knew enemies were nearby and they were protecting both the Spanish as well as their own people. Perhaps the presence of the four was a novelty that gave the Cuchendados greater esteem. Or, less kindly, perhaps they thought to keep the four with them indefinitely.
When the Spaniards left the Arbadaos and the Cuchendados, Cabeza de Vaca recalled, both groups wept. While such weeping might be expected if family members were leaving on a long journey, it seems to be an unusual occurrence when you have only known the travelers for a short time. And, it was sufficiently unusual that the Spaniards remembered this detail several years later after they had survived an incredibly difficult journey.
Other personal glimpses are provided in the Spaniard’s account, significant because they clarify the roles and abilities of women in one group. He reports that women from another nacion south of the Rio Grande were in the Cuchendado settlement at the same time as the Spaniards. In fact, these women guided the Spaniards to their settlements south of the river. Since neither the Spaniards nor the Cuchendados thought this odd, apparently women traveled on their own with some frequency. Moreover, the Cuchendados told the Spaniards that there was “no trail” to the women’s settlement. In other words, the women must have navigated across the region from one settlement to another by following the terrain and natural landmarks. That was simply their way of life, but when we think of traveling on foot, without the modern conveniences of hotels, cars, GPS units, and highways, it gives us pause—the lives of these ancient men and women was a lot more challenging than "hunting and gathering" implies.
Absorption and Extinction
By the early 1700s, the Spanish had begun establishing missions for the Indians of south Texas and northeastern Mexico. Although there are voluminous records of native families, their marriages, baptisms, and conversions, as well as journals of the priests describing the trials and triumphs of the various mission populations, there is not a great deal that can shed direct light on specific groups. For the most part, native groups that entered the missions were remnant groups whose societies had been ravaged by disease, reduced by warfare, and pushed in every direction from intruding peoples from the outside, European and Native American. Many survivors from disappearing groups joined with other groups, further diluting and distorting their cultural identities. Others intermarried with the Spanish, as anthropologist Mardith Schuetz has demonstrated.
Some small native groups, such as the Cacaxtle, had turned to raiding Spanish settlements along the Rio Grande, emulating the larger and more formidable Plains groups. Drawing the attention of the Spanish military, the Cacaxtle were effectively annihilated in two battles. During the second, fought in 1665 in modern-day Kinney County, the natives fought from within a defensive fortification built of tree trunks, branches, and prickly pear plants. During the battle, a lone native woman reportedly played a flute, perhaps to buoy the spirits of the Cacaxtle warriors, but in effect, sounding the death knell of her people.
Following Cabeza de Vaca’s journey in the early 1500s, only a few hundred years passed before the indigenous peoples of the South Texas Plains had lost almost all ethnic identity and were, effectively, culturally extinct. Although their languages were no longer spoken, those native peoples who survived the Mission era were absorbed within the Mexican communities that formed around the abandoned missions. Some of their genes and memories were passed on and today there are several "resurgent" groups who trace their heritage to the Coahuiltecans of yesteryear, including the "American Indians in Texas at Spanish Colonial Missions" and the "Tap-Pilam-Coahuiltecan Nations."
Archeologist and anthropologist Alston Thoms suggests that the concept of "cultural extinction," as it applies to geographic Cahuiltecans, should be viewed in relative terms. He points out that elements of their lifeways survive to the present, including foodways (e.g., nopal and tuna), religion (Native American Church), and other behavior, and that some Coahuiltecan words are embedded in rural Spanish. In short, he argues that aspects of geographic Coahuiltecan culture survived long after their hunter-gatherer lifeways and languages ceased to exist and that such cultural survival is manifested by resurgent groups such as Tap Pilam.