Native Americans chose Waco for water and abundance, like others

Published: Jul. 8, 2018 at 11:30 AM CDT
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Waco has a long and storied history after the white man showed up, but not many, even locals, have explored what happened in these parts long before then.

The Hueco, or Huaco, Indians, members of the Tawakoni tribe which was, and still is, part of the Wichita Nation, had been living in established communities along the Brazos River and other rivers for more than 2,000 years before the first European encountered them, Wichita tribal history says.

They thrived and multiplied and expanded for generations, Gary McAdams, historian for the Wichita and Affiliated Tribes, said.

Neil McLennan was the first Anglo to buy property in the area when he settled his family near the South Bosque River in 1838, then soon later sold the property to Jacob De Cordova, who hired a former Texas Ranger and surveyor named George B. Erath who in 1849 designed the first block of Waco Village.

Shapely P. Ross built the first house in town and his daughter was the first child born in Waco – the first white child, because thousands of Native American children had been born here over the previous few thousand years.

It was native people who inhabited this spot on the globe and their history and tradition is what laid the foundation for what we know as home, and pretty much, as Texas.

In his book “The Indians of Texas,” historian and author W.W. Newcomb wrote: “The peoples who inhabited present-day Texas at the dawn of historic times are even less well known by the public than most North American Indians and consequently there are probably more myths, absurdities, and falsehoods connected with them than with the natives of any other state.

“There is good reason for this ignorance and misunderstanding: most Texas tribes disappeared many years ago, some before Americans entered what is now Texas,” Newcomb wrote.

“This has meant that ethnographers—those anthropologists who describe primitive cultures—have not been able to gather firsthand facts about most Texas Indians,” and “what is known about their habits has to be gleaned from the written accounts left by the soldiers, missionaries, and explorers who first visited them,” he wrote.

Related archaeological sites just a few miles upriver, referred to as the Horn Shelters 1 and 2, are among “the oldest sites showing routine habitation ever found in North America,” said Charlie Walter, director of the Mayborn Museum Complex, at Baylor, in an article published on in March 2017 detailing the artifacts found there.

Dr. Michael Collins, a Research Associate Archaeology Professor at Texas State University in San Marcos, said the Horn Shelters provide special evidence because researchers have found DNA in the remains of burials discovered at the site that could provide a look deep into Native American history.

Scientists already have established the two burials being studied from there date back 12,500 years.

There are “signs of Native American life everywhere here,” Walter said.

A faction of the Wichita people, a Midwestern Native American tribe that inhabited northeastern Texas, known popularly as the Hueco, also spelled Huaco, lived here.

Those who first encountered them described their village resting on a high limestone bluff on the west side of the Brazos River with abundant cold springs, a description much like that of Emmons Cliff or Lover’s Leap, in Cameron Park.

Lover’s Leap has its own Indian legend.

They historically spoke the Wichita language, a dialect built on the more ancient Caddoan and Pawnee languages, and within that Wichita language structure the Huecos had their own local dialect.

The land here was just what they needed, abundant with wildlife, rivers teeming with fish; fertile, black soil that lent itself to very productive agriculture and a climate that was temperate and balanced, not much different than it is today, where landowners raise cattle and farmers grow plentiful crops for sale.

Four Wichita tribes, the Waco, Taovaya, Tawakoni, and the Wichita proper, today are federally recognized with the Kichai people as the Wichita and Affiliated Tribes (Wichita, Keechi, Waco and Tawakoni).

Waco Lake Site is the closest identified Hueco village site to present day Waco, Wichita and Affiliated Tribes (Wichita, Keechi, Waco and Tawakoni) historian Gary McAdams said, and at that site researchers have discovered “evidence of use by native people from 2,000-500 BC.”

McAdams said there are other documented sites in the area including the Gault site, a Clovis-age site near Georgetown that has rendered thousands of artifacts, the Graham-Applegate site, also in Williamson County where researchers have found evidence of native populations abandoning the centuries-old atlatl and dart for the new technology of the bow and arrow, and the J. B. White site, in Milam County, found to be most intensively used in the Late Prehistoric period, from about 1,400 to 700 years ago.

Tribal history dates much farther back than recorded history and descendants of the Huecos learn their own traditions through programs initiated by the tribal council based in Anadarko, Oklahoma.

According to Wichita legend, it all started like this: “After the man and woman, he was the morning star and she was the moon, were made, they dreamed that things were made for them,” Tawakoni Jim in The Mythology of the Wichita, wrote in 1904 of the Indian tales of creation.

“And when they woke they had the things of which they had dreamed, the woman was given an ear of corn. It was to be the food of the people that should exist in the future, to be used generation after generation,” Tawakoni Jim explained.

The man, legend says, was given a bow and arrows so he could hunt and provide meat for his wife and their family, according to information provided on the nation’s webpage.

The Wichita people were successful hunters and farmers, skillful traders and negotiators, that ranged from San Antonio, in the south to as far north as Great Bend, Kansas.

Ancestors of the Wichita lived in the eastern Great Plains from the Red River in Arkansas north to Nebraska for at least 2,000 years before outside contact, anthropologists agree.

Early Wichita people were hunters and gatherers who gradually adopted agriculture, then around 900 A.D. developed farming villages on terraces above the Washita and South Canadian Rivers in present-day Oklahoma.

It was the women who organized these 10th-century communities where they cultivated several varieties of maize, or corn, beans, and squash, marsh elder and tobacco, which was ritually important.

Men hunted deer, rabbits, turkey, and, increasingly, bison, caught fish and collected mussels from the rivers.

Women stored harvested corn after it was roasted, then sun-dried and they cut pumpkins rinds into long, thin strips that after they were dried were woven into mats and other goods, which they used but also traded to the Comanches or Kiowas in exchange for dried buffalo meat.

The dried corn and pieces of pumpkin also were used in soups and stews or sometimes provided as side dishes.

Preserved foods were stored in buffalo-hide bags in underground cache pits until they were needed.

That matriarchal stability, archaeologists say, allowed Native American communities to flourish between 1250 and 1450 A.D. as local populations grew and villages of up to 20 houses were spaced every two or so miles along the rivers.

F. Todd Smith, in the first in a series of academic works, “The Wichita Indians: Traders of Texas and the Southern Plains, 1540-1845,” addressed the early history of Euro-American relations with the Wichita.

Smith, associate professor of history at the University of North Texas-Denton, was chronicling early tribal history of what is now the State of Texas and southern plains region.

He writes “Lives built on agriculture and commerce would be usurped by European and later American political conflicts and imperialism over the next 300 years,” and “War and disease would devastate a proud people and leave them a shadow of their former selves”.

Indian tradition holds when first encountered by Francisco Vasquez de Coronado in 1541, the Quiviran ancestors of the Wichita lived in large grass-house villages where women tilled the fields, babies strapped to their backs and older children tagging along behind, while the men hunted buffalo and other game.

The villages were easily recognizable by their beehive-shaped houses, 20 to 25 feet tall and sometimes as big as 30-feet in diameter, with pole supports, that typically were covered with rushes, or buffalo hides.

The houses could accommodate a family of 10 to 12 people, including a woman and her husband, their unmarried children, as well as their married daughters and sons-in-law, and their grandchildren.

Family groups were built around a woman’s family, not her husband’s, and it was the woman’s daughters who stayed within the structured family group; her daughter’s husband who “moved in,” and the her sons who “moved out” when they reached a proper age.

Modern historians estimate when Coronado encountered the Wichita, there may have been as many as 200,000 Indians living among the various tribes.

They formed a loose confederation of related peoples on the Southern Plains, including such bands or sub-tribes as Taovayas (Tawehash), Tawakonis, Huecos who historians believe were the Yscani/Iscanis of earlier times), and Guichitas or Wichita Proper.

The Toyah Phase in Central Texas is described in a book entitled “The Toyah Phase of Central Texas,” edited by Nancy A. Kenmotsu and Douglas K. Boyd, which “demonstrates that these prehistoric societies were never isolated from the world around them.

“Rather, these societies were keenly aware of changes happening on the plains to their north, among the Caddoan groups east of them, in the Puebloan groups in what is now New Mexico, and among their neighbors to the south in Mexico.”

On a journey eastward from the Rio Grande Valley, probably in the Blanco River Canyon near Lubbock, Coronado met a people he called Teyas who might have been related to the Wichita and the earlier Plains villagers.

The Teyas, if in fact they were Wichita, were probably the ancestors of the Iscani and Hueco, archaeologists say.

They were related by language and culture to the Pawnee, with whom they traded routinely and were at mutual peace for generations.

The French called the Wichita peoples Panis Piqués or Panis Noirs (Black Pawnees), because they practiced tattooing, especially their faces, and bodies with solid and dotted lines and circles.

The Wichitas referred to themselves as "raccoon-eyed people", in their language Kitikiti'sh or Kirikirish, because of the tattooed marks around their eyes.

Other tribes had descriptive names for them as well, called Kírikuuruks/Kírikuruks, or "bear-eyed people" by the Pawnee, the Arikara referred to them as Čirikuúnux, which was a reference to the Wichita practice of tattoos, and the Kiowa knew them as Thoe-Khoot, "tattoo faces".

They wore clothes made of tanned animal hides, which the women prepared and sewed, and routinely adorned their garments with beads, deer and elk teeth and turquoise.

The Hueco probably were first encountered by Europeans when in 1718 Frenchman explorer Guillaume de L'Isle showed a place on his map entitled “Carte de la Louisiane et du Cours du Mississipi,” he called “Quainco”.

The spot was at the junction of “Riviere Rouge” and another then-unnamed tributary, probably the confluence of the Bosque, that modern cartographers believe is what became Waco.

Scholars say Riviere Rouge later was re-named Rio de los Brazos del Dios, River of the Arms of God, by the Spanish, and the Brazos part stuck.

The Waco people were a subdivision of the Tawakoni tribes and research indicates the Hueco village was flanked by two other Tawakoni villages, one called Quiscat, the other Flechazos.

Those spots were recorded again when another French explorer, Jean-Baptiste Bénard de la Harpe, travelled through the region in 1719, and the people he called the Honecha or Houecha could be the Hueco.

Quiscat was a prominent 18th Century Indian tribal chief of the Tawakoni Indians and, in the later 1700s, he “embarked on a voyage to San Antonio in a bid to negotiate an end to hostilities with Spain which, between 1690 and 1821, had governed Texas as a colony named "Kingdom of Texas".

Quiscat's name subsequently was given to the primary Tawakoni village on the Brazos “in the Vacinity of present-day Waco.

“The village, also referred to by its Spanish name, ‘El Quiscat’, was situated on the river's west side. It sat on a bluff overlooking an agglomeration of springs and, during the period, had approximately 750 inhabitants,” the TSHA article says.

At least two other explorers visited the area, Athanase de Mézières in 1772, and Pedro Vial spent several weeks in the area in 1786 while he recovered from injuries.

De Mézières’ report came after he visited the Tawakoni tribe “for the purpose of cementing a treaty recently made with them by the governors of Texas and Louisiana,” AccessGeneology says.

One of their villages was then on the west bank of the Trinity, that branch of the river today called Tehaucana Creek, and there he recorded 36 houses where about 120 warriors lived, ”with women in proportion and an infinite number of children.”

The other village, of 30 families, was 30 leagues away on Brazos river, at Waco.

“In 1778 and 1779 Mezières made two more visits to the Tawakoni. One village, containing 150 warriors, was then on the west side of the Brazos, in a fertile plain protected from overflow by a high bank or bluff, at the foot of which flowed an abundant spring,” he reported.

“Eight leagues above was another village of the same tribe, larger than the first, in a country remarkable for its numerous springs and creeks.

Vial, (c. 1746 in Lyon, France – October 1814 in Santa Fe, New Mexico), was an explorer and frontiersman who lived among the Comanche and Wichita Indians for many years.

“He blazed trails across the Great Plains to connect the Spanish and French settlements in Texas, New Mexico, Missouri, and Louisiana and led three Spanish expeditions that attempted unsuccessfully to intercept and halt the Lewis and Clark Expedition,” TSHA says.

Stephen F. Austin, in 1824, wrote the Waco village was 40 acres large, with 33 grass houses and approximately 100 men, who planted 200 acres of corn, in fields enclosed by brush fences, and as late as 1829 the village was protected by defensive earthworks.

Also, in 1824, Thomas M. Duke was dispatched to investigate the region after the Hueco people tried to defend themselves and their lands from encroaching settlers.

In his report to Stephen F. Austin, Duke described the Hueco village: “This town is situated on the West Bank of the River. They have a spring almost as cold as ice itself. All we want is some Brandy and Sugar to have Ice Toddy,” Duke reported.

“They have about 400 acres planted in corn, beans, pumpkins, and melons and that tended in good order. I think they cannot raise more than One Hundred Warriors.”

Austin, in 1825, signed a treaty with the Huecos, choosing not to destroy the Indian village in retaliation for attacks on settlers, and eventually the Indians gave up their camps and moved farther north on the Brazos River, near Fort Worth.

Anthropologist Jean-Louis Berlandier recorded 60 Hueco houses in 1830 remained near the original village site.

It was another tribe of Indians that sealed the Hueco’s fate when in 1837 the Cherokees, a group who had feuded with the Huecos for years, so routinely plundered their camps the Huecos just packed up and left.

There is a state historical marker at the site where the last Hueco village was, it rests on the lawn at 701 Jefferson Avenue, beneath a huge grove of old growth oak trees.

At its base is a second marker that corrects a mistake on the original that took 76 years to update.

The Hueco tribe also had a village, though much smaller, located on the Guadalupe River in the Texas Hill Country.

In 1835, 1846 and 1872 the Wichita signed treaties with the U.S. and the last also established a reservation in Indian Territory, to which they would be removed.

In 1872 they were moved to a reservation and were gone.

In 1902, under the Dawes Allotment Act, the Wacos became citizens of the United States.

Sad as the history of the Wichita told by Smith may be, the proud people’s story is far from over.

“They continue to endure despite the degree of their suffering,” Smith wrote.

“This is a lesson that goes beyond a history book, however well-written.”

Tawakonis Wichita village on the Brazos River in Texas was forced to move after losing an estimated 500 of 1,200 residents to disease brought by new comers.

Another outbreak of disease in 1778 caused the combined population of the prosperous Taovayas and Guichitas Wichita villages on the Red River to drop from over 3,000 to about 2,000.

According to Smith, other Wichita communities experienced 90 percent fatality rates during the same time period from small pox.

Depleted by disease and attacks by the Osage and Apache, the Wichita could not withstand the onslaught of European and American invaders, as well.

Today a division of the U.S. Department of the Interior, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, is tasked “to enhance the quality of life, to promote economic opportunity, and to carry out the responsibility to protect and improve the trust assets of American Indians, Indian tribes and Alaska Natives,” BIA’s mission stament says.

For 185 years the federal government has regulated the affairs of Native Americans, and history shows over that time some of the department’s policies were designed to “subjugate and assimilate American Indians and Alaska Natives,” but now BIA focuses on “policies that promote Indian self-determination.”

Some Native Americans have a different view of the government and some of their views date back 185 years, too.

BIA’s website says DoI adopted the name “Bureau of Indian Affairs” on September 17, 1947.

DoI records also show over the agency’s existence there have been 45 Commissioners of Indian Affairs, six of whom have been Native American, including the one serving today, Director Bryan Rice, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma was appointed in October of 2017.

The Wichita and Affiliated Tribes, today a confederation of Midwestern Native Americans, consists of the Wichita proper, Waco, Keechi, and Tawakoni bands, Terri Partin, president of the Wichita and Affiliated Tribes, said.

“The Wichita people once lived in the areas from around Wichita, Kansas, all through Oklahoma and down to Waco, Texas,” Partin explained.

“The most significant point in our history is when the Wichita, Waco, Keechi, and Tawakoni people were forced to give up our land.”

Partin said today there are 2,953 enrolled tribal members but only one, and she is 89, is a fluent speaker of the Wichita language.

Doris McLemore, Partin said, still cooks breakfast for tribal staff members and still teaches the original language.

When the State Historical Commissions marker at 701 Jefferson was updated, a group of members of the Wichita Nation, including the president, came to Waco for the ceremony.

It all was arranged by McLennan Community College anthropologist Linda Pelon, who said after the event she hopes familiarity between Wacoans today and their tribal fellows can grow into a deeper relationship between them.

Ed’s Note: Information used in this article was gleaned from a number of sources that include: Wichita and Affiliated Tribes (Wichita, Keechi, Waco and Towakoni) , Tonkawa Tribe official website, the Caddo Nation archives, AccessGeneology website, Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Bob Bulloch Museum, in Austin, Texas State Historical Association, University of North Texas, Texas State University, in San Marcos, The Mayborn Museum at Baylor University and several City of Waco resources.