Prehistoric and Early Historic People and Environment in the Corpus Christi Bay Area
Robert A. Ricklis
Texas Archeological Research Laboratory
The University of Texas at Austin
The history of human settlement along the shores of Corpus Christi Bay and in the surrounding area is a story of change, both in the coastal environment, and in ways early people used the rich resources of the area's bays and lagoons. If we imagine the bay area without the present sprawl of modern commercial and residential development, we would see in our minds eye an environment which looks much as it did when the area was home to the Karankawa Indians, and when it was first settled by early Mexican and Texan ranchers. But the Corpus Christi Bay estuary has evolved over the last several thousand years, and the natural environment, as we know it today, is the product of millennia of dynamic geological and ecological change.
Before 10,000 YRS B.P., the Corpus Christi Bay estuary did not exist. At the peak of the last Ice Age (called the "Pleistocene" by geologists), around 20,000 B.P., much of the world's water supply was captured within massive continental glaciers. Sea level was 100 meters or more below its present position, and the Gulf shoreline was far east of its modern location (Brown et al. 1976). As global temperatures warmed at the end of Pleistocene around 18,000 B.P., glacial ice began to melt, causing sea level to rise. Geologic studies show that by around 9,000 B.P. rising sea had begun to flood the river valleys along the Texas coastline, thereby creating the early forms of Corpus Christi bay and the other major bays found today along the Texas coast (Frazier 1974; Anderson and Thomas 1991; Anderson et al. 1992; Thomas and Anderson 1994).
The modern bay system evolved over the next few thousand years, as sea level continued to rise, although a slower rate. Between 9,000 and 3,000 B.P., sea level rose unevenly, with periods of stable or slowly rising sea level alternating with times of rapid rise. Recent geologic studies suggest that more or less stable sea level existed between about 8,000 and 7,000 B.P., then again between around 6,000 and 4,000 B.P., and finally, during the last 3,000 years or so, when the sea has been at about its modern level (Anderson and Thomas 1991; Thomas and Anderson 1994).
The Archaic Period
The major time periods during which prehistoric people lived on the bay shorelines, and harvested the natural food resources provided by the estuary, are roughly the same as those periods when sea level is believed to have been more or less stable. This is probably because stable sea level generally tends to favor an abundance of aquatic life. The gradual accumulation of clay, sand and silt on bay bottoms causes the formation of broad areas of shallow-water vegetation and marshes. Decaying plant material in these areas provide organic nutrients which are important for sustaining life in the estuary (Odum 1971; Whittaker 1975; Perlman 1980). With abundant nutrients, the bays and lagoons supported large populations of crustaceans, mollusks and fish, which in turn provided a rich source of food for prehistoric peoples.
Archaeological studies at sites around Corpus Christi and Nueces Bays show that prehistoric Native Americans camped along the shorelines as early as 7,500 B.P. (Ricklis and Cox 1991; Ricklis 1993; Ricklis 1995). This earliest period of occupation falls into a time interval designated as the "Archaic" by archaeologists (Willey and Phillips 1958). In Texas, the Archaic began around 8,000 B.P. and lasted until the appearance of the bow and arrow and pottery between about A.D. 500 and 1000 (Campbell 1960; Corbin 1974; Hester 1980; Story 1985).
Shoreline campsites of the period from 7,500 to 6,800 B.P. are small, and do not contain many artifacts. This suggests that the coast was visited mainly by small bands of people who lived in short-term camps while they exploited oyster reefs and other kinds of shellfish beds. The few artifacts found include cutting and scraping tools fashioned from the thin, hard shells of the sunray Venus clam (Ricklis 1995).
Very few archaeological sites in the area date to between about 6,800 and 5,900 B.P. Apparently, there was little human presence during this period. Geologic evidence suggests that sea level may have been rising rapidly at this time (Paine 1991; Thomas and Anderson 1994), so that the food-rich shoreline shallows would have been inundated and too small in area to offer an abundance of resources for prehistoric peoples.
By around 5,900 B.P., however, the bayshores were once more attractive for human settlement. Many archaeological sites have been discovered that fall into the period between 5,900 and 4,500 B.P., when sea level was probably fairly stable (Brown et al 1976; Thomas and Anderson 1994). Typically, sites of this period contain dense deposits of discarded shells of species such as oyster and Rangia flexuosa clams. There is evidence for fishing during this period, as well, as shown by the remains of black drum, red drum, spotted seatrout, Atlantic croaker and saltwater catfish. At some sites, discarded tools show that camps were often occupied long enough for a range of activities to take place. Artifacts include chipped flint dart or spear points, probably used for hunting, as well as flint scrapers. Shell tool types (Ricklis 1988, 1993, 1995) include sunray Venus clamshell knives/scrapers and oyster shells in which holes were punched, probably for attachment as netweights (Campbell 1958).
A gap in the settlement of the shorelines by prehistoric people occurred between about 4,500 and 3,000 B.P. There is geologic evidence for rapid sea level rise during this period (Paine 1991; Thomas and Anderson 1994). Once again, the vegetated shallows and marshes, so important for production of nutrients, may have been greatly reduced in area, with the result that there was not a ready abundance of food resources to attract shoreline residence by sizeable numbers of people.
By around 3,000 B.P., sea level had stabilized at close to its modern position, and the bay environment began to take on its present form. With stable sea level, wave action and nearshore currents in the Gulf deposited sand and shell to form the chain of long, narrow barrier islands which are a prominent feature of today's coastline. Behind the barrier islands, river-borne sand, silt and clay sediments partially filled the bays and lagoons, creating broad shallow-water areas and marshes along lagoonal shorelines and around the head of Nueces Bay and the Nueces River Delta. The life cycle of the plant communities in these areas provided a rich source of organic nutrients for the estuarine food chain in the form of decaying plant detritus. The broad, vegetated shallows became ideal protective nursery areas for the fish species which historically have abounded in the bays and lagoons (e.g., Lorrio and Perret 1980; Matlock 1980; Perret et al. 1980; Reagan 1985; Sutter et al. 1986).
Probably for these reasons, prehistoric people began to live on the bay and lagoon shores more frequently after about 3,000 B.P. A growing reliance on fish is shown by dramatic increases in the numbers of fish remains in archaeological sites dating after about 2,000 B.P. As the estuary became an increasingly rich source of food, the population of coastal Indian groups increased, as shown by larger campsites with thicker deposits of camp debris than in earlier times. Hunting was still an important subsistence activity, as indicated by various types of chipped stone dart points and bones of deer and other animals in refuse deposits.
The Late Prehistoric Period
The Late Prehistoric Period began by around 800-1000 A.D. when the Native American people living in the Corpus Christi Bay area began to acquire new technologies. The bow and arrow replaced the older dart and spear thrower as the main hunting weapon and pottery, a technology introduced from the north (Campbell 1961), came into common use. By around A.D. 1200 pottery was typically decorated or coated with asphaltum, the natural black tar which originates in oil seepages in the floor of the Gulf of Mexico and washes ashore on the barrier islands. This same kind of pottery was made by the Karankawa Indians of historic times (Campbell 1961; Newcomb 1961, 1983; Ricklis 1996). Its presence on Late Prehistoric archaeological sites shows that the Karankawa were living in the region for several hundred years-- if not considerably longer-- before the arrival of the first European explorers (Ricklis 1992a, 1996).
During Late Prehistoric times, the rich resources of the estuary were of great importance to native peoples. Fish bones are found in tremendous abundance on archaeological sites of the period, showing that species such as black drum, red drum, spotted seatrout and Atlantic croaker had become important dietary staples (Ricklis 1995, 1996). Large numbers of perforated oyster shells, probably used as net weights, suggest that fish were commonly harvested in nets. Shellfish such as oyster, lightning whelk and bay scallop continued to be gathered. Bones of deer and bison are common as well, showing that hunting of game animals was also economically important (Ricklis 1992a, 1992b, 1996).
Studies of the growth patterns in shells and fish remains provide clues to the seasons of the year in which different kinds of resources were used (Aten 1981; Smith 1983; Carlson 1988; Ricklis 1988, 1996; Cox and Cox 1993; Cox 1994). Large shoreline fishing camps were occupied mainly in the fall through winter and early spring. This may correspond to the fall and winter-early spring spawning cycles of the largest fish species, red drum and black drum. During the spring and summer, much of the population left the shorelines to set up hunting camps along the lower reaches of the Nueces River and other streams flowing into coastal bays (Ricklis 1992a, 1996). Studies of animal bone refuse at these sites show that the main sources of meat at hunting camps were white-tailed deer and buffalo. Although traces of plant foods have yet to be found, written records made by early Europeans explorers tell us that various roots, tubers, prickly pear cactus, as well as nuts such as pecans and acorns, were important.
The kinds of artifacts found at archaeological sites reveal a good deal about native technology during the Late Prehistoric period (Ricklis 1996). The abundant clays of the area were used to make well-fired pottery jars and bowls, as well as ceramic smoking pipes. The environment also provided raw materials for making a wide range of tools and ornaments. Arrowpoints, knives and hide scrapers were chipped from flint from gravel beds along larger streams about 50 kilometers from the coast (Ricklis and Cox 1993). Cobbles of flint and quartzite served as hammer stones. Shell was used to make arrowpoints, cutting and scraping tools, net weights and fishing tackle, hammers, and woodworking tools such as gouges and adzes (Campbell 1952, 1960; Mokry 1980). Shell was also used for making ornaments such as beads and pendants. Tools were made from the leg bones of deer, and beads were fashioned from bird leg and wing bones which were cut and often highly polished. Basketry, made of perishable fibers, has not survived, but the use of baskets is proven by finds of clay and asphaltum which bear clear impressions of woven baskets (Campbell 1952; Ricklis 1995). The natural asphaltum found on Gulf beaches was used as paint for decorating pottery, as a sealant for water-proofing pottery jars, and as a glue for attaching flint points to arrows and attaching knives and other tools to wooden handles.
The Early Historic Period
The first European to leave a record of native life on the Texas coast was Cabeza de Vaca, who was shipwrecked and marooned on the upper part of the Texas coast in 1528, possibly at Galveston Island (Covey 1983). Cabeza de Vaca's account shows that native people in the area lived on the island during the fall and winter, subsisting mainly on fish and plant roots gathered from the lagoonal waters on the back side of the island. In the spring, the Indians moved to the mainland, where they gathered oysters from the shoreline, and probably hunted and gathered plants as well.
The Karankawa Indians, who lived around Corpus Christi Bay and along the coast at least as far north as the Colorado River (Newcomb 1983; Ricklis 1996), were encountered by various European explorers and Spanish missionaries and soldiers beginning in the late 1600s. Contrary to popular myth, the Karankawas were not savage cannibals and scavengers. In fact, they met both early French and Spanish explorers and colonists in a friendly manner (though were quick to retaliate when they were attacked), and had an intimate knowledge of their environment and its resources.
Early records about the Karankawa are in many ways sketchy, but enough was written down to give a general picture of the native lifeway. These Indians lived in large fishing camps of several hundred people during the fall and winter, and broke up into small bands of 50 or so people who set up camps along rivers and creeks during the spring-summer season (Ricklis 1992, 1996). The bays and lagoons of the coast offered a rich harvest of fish to the Karankawa, and large huts were devoted to storage of fish. The abundance of fish provided the economic basis for the congregation of large groups of people during the fall and winter. Indian houses were dome-shaped, pole-frame structures covered with hides or mats. Dugout canoes were made for transportation on the rivers, bays and lagoons behind the barrier islands, but were unsuited for travel in the open sea. Hunting, and even some fishing, was with carried out with the bow and arrow (Newcomb 1983).
European Colonization of the Coastal Prairies
The first European effort at colonizing the central Texas coast region was in 1685. In this year, the French explorer, La Salle, established a small settlement called Fort St. Louis near Matagorda Bay. The colony was ill-fated. From the beginning, La Salle alienated the local Karankawa by stealing several of their dugout canoes. In 1688, the colony suffered from an outbreak of smallpox, and shortly thereafter the Karankawas sacked the settlement and killed or captured the survivors (Cox 1905).
Fearing further French settlement, the Spanish authorities in New Spain (Mexico) established a string of missions and presidios in Texas. The earliest mission near the coast was Espiritu Santo, originally built near the ruins of La Salle's colony. This mission was move to the Guadalupe River valley near present Victoria in 1726, and finally, in 1749, to the banks of the San Antonio River at present-day Goliad (Bolton 1915).
Espiritu Santo was first intended as a mission for the coastal Karankawas, but when the captain of the presidio attacked a group of Indian families living at the mission, the Karankawa retaliated and decades of conflict followed. The Spanish were persistent, however, and in 1754 established the mission of Nuestra Señora del Rosario for the Karankawas. This mission had little success, and by the 1780s, the Karankawas and Spanish forces were again at war (Gilmore 1984).
Perhaps because they were also at war with Apache and Comanche groups by the 1780s, the Karankawa made a treaty of peace with the Spanish colonists in 1790. Historical documents show that this was the beginning of some 40 years of peace and alliance between the Karankawa and the Spanish colony. In fact, the final Spanish mission of Nuestra Señora del Refugio, established in 1795 at the site of present-day Refugio, Texas, became a focal point for conversion of many Karankawas to Christianity (Ricklis 1996).
In spite of changes which took place in Karankawa culture during this period, the Karankawas continued for the most part to live according to their traditional way of life. Although at peace with the Spanish, they never became true mission Indians, and continued to make their living as they had for countless generations, mainly by hunting and collecting the rich bounty of fish and shellfish in the coastal estuaries.
The peaceful interaction between the Karankawas and the Spanish colony led to the gradual acceptance of a Christian world view and adoption of some European customs by the Karankawas in the early 1800s (Ricklis 1996). This trend was abruptly ended, however, as revolution in Mexico expelled Spanish authority and the newly formed Mexican government granted large tracts of land to cattle ranchers. By the 1850s, the Karankawas had been driven from their homeland, and many probably fled to northern Mexico. The modern era of settlement of the Coastal Bend area thus began with the closing of the last Spanish mission at Refugio 1830 and the disappearance of the Karankawas during the next two decades.
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