The tribal affiliation and language of the Teyas is unknown, although many scholars believe they spoke a Caddoan language and were related to the Wichita tribe who Coronado found in Quivira. Apparently, Teyas was the name they were called by the Rio Grande Pueblo Indians.
In 1541, the Spanish conquistador Francisco Vásquez de Coronado led an expedition onto the Great Plains from the Rio Grande pueblos in New Mexico. Coronado’s objective was to find a rich country called Quivira.
Traversing the Texas panhandle Coronado met two groups of Indians: the Querechos and the Teyas. The Querechos were nomadic buffalo hunters, almost certainly Apaches, and they inhabited the Llano Estacado. The Teyas lived in the canyons below the escarpment on the eastern edge of the Llano. The Querechos and Teyas were enemies. The discovery of Spanish artifacts from an archaeological site 35 miles northeast of Lubbock makes Blanco Canyon near the headwaters of the Brazos River the likely place where Coronado first encountered a large settlement of Teyas.
Culture of the Teyas
After this first contact, Coronado traveled an additional four days and encountered a settlement called Cona that extended for three days travel along a small river in a canyon two or three miles wide. It is unclear whether Coronado followed the Brazos downstream or journeyed to a different canyon to visit Cona.
"The country was well occupied," said the chroniclers. The Teyas were described as nomadic buffalo hunters who lived in tents. However, they had additional resources. The canyons had trees and flowing streams and the Teyas grew or foraged for beans, but the Coronado chroniclers state they did not "sow corn, nor eat bread, but instead raw meat." The Spanish noted the presence of mulberries, roses, grapes, nuts (probably pecans) and plums.
The Coronado chroniclers described the Teyas as intelligent and formidable archers. One of them shot an arrow that passed through both shoulders of a bison, "which would be a good shot for a musket." The women were well-dressed and modest, covering their whole bodies by wearing a petticoat beneath a fringed cloak with sleeves. One of the women was "as white as a Castillian lady except that she had her chin painted like a Moorish woman." Coronado commented that they "tattoo their bodies and faces, and are large people of very fine appearance."
One of the intriguing events was Coronado's meeting among the Teyas an old blind bearded man—a beard being a rarity among Indians—who said that he had met four Spaniards far to the south. He was probably talking about Cabeza de Vaca who with three shipmates made his way across southern Texas nearly a decade before Coronado.
Who were the Teyas?
Scholars differ in their guesses as to the identity of the Teyas and their language. Some have speculated that they were Apache.
Other scholars believe they were related to the Rio Grande Pueblos, perhaps speaking a Tanoan language. They may have later become known to the Spanish as the Jumano. It is possible, however, that Jumano was only a generic description of Plains Indians rather than referring to a distinct tribe. The Teyas had close trade relations with the Pueblos but Coronado was told that, in the 1520s, they destroyed several Pueblo villages in the Galisteo basin near present day Santa Fe, New Mexico. That implies that they were numerous, powerful, far ranging and that they participated in the politics of the Pueblos, thus strengthening the case that they were Tanoans.
However, a narrow plurality of experts believe that the Teyas were speakers of a Caddoan language and related to the Wichita peoples Coronado subsequently found in Quivira in central Kansas. It is possible that the Teyas were not full-time nomads of the Plains but also inhabited farming villages further east. It was common among farming Indians of the region to venture onto the plains for extended buffalo hunts. The remains of many contemporary farming villages (Wheeler Phase), believed to be Caddoan, have been found by archaeologists near the Washita River in southwestern Oklahoma. The proximity of the Teyas to the Washita villages is suggestive of a relationship. The description of the Teyas as painted and tattooed also points to them being Caddoans. The Wichita were called "Raccoon People" for their custom of tattooing around their eyes, a custom the Teyas shared.
Although most authorities believe that the name "Teyas" derives from a Pueblo word, there is an intriguing similarity with "Tejas" the Caddoan word that means "friend" and is the origin of "Texas."
It is also possible that the Teya were none of the above, but a Coahuiltecan or Tonkawa group, most of whom resided in southern and central Texas. The old man who said he met Cabeza de Vaca gives credence to a southern origin of the Teyas.
It is unlikely the ethnic identification of the Teyas will ever be determined, but, if so, it would be most useful in untangling the complexities of the proto-historical period on the southern Great Plains. It is possible that the later Escanjaque Indians, Aguacane, and Iscani descend from the Teyas.
What Happened to the Teyas?
The Teyas—or at least their name—disappeared from history soon after Coronado encountered them. Their likely fate was to be pushed out of their west Texas home by the advancing Apaches. If their descendants were later met by the Spaniards at a different location they were not recognized as the people Coronado encountered.
- Flint, Richard. No Settlement, No Conquest, Albuquerque: U of NM Press, 2008
- Flint, 158
- Winship, George Parker (Ed. and Translator), The Journey of Coronado, 1540-1542, from the City of Mexico to the Grand Canon of the Colorado and the Buffalo Plains of Texas, Kansas, and Nebraska, As Told by Himself and his Followers. New York: A.S. Barnes & Co, 1904, 69-71, 215
- Winship, 232
- Riley, Carroll L. Rio del Norte. Salt Lake City: U of Utah Press, 1995, 191-192
- Flint, 157; Drass, Richard R. and Baugh, Tomothy, G. "The Wheeler Phase and Cultural Continuity in the Southern Plains." Plains Anthropologist, Vol. 42, No. 160, 198-200
- Dorsey, George Amos. The Mythology of the Wichita, Washington: Carnegie Institution, 1904