From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Coahuiltecan territories in the 16th and 17th centuries
Total population
merged into other groups by 1900[1]
Regions with significant populations
San Antonio, South Texas, U.S.; Nuevo León, Tamaulipas, and northeastern Coahuila, Mexico[1]
Coahuiltecan languages
Indigenous religion, Roman Catholicism

The Coahuiltecan were various small, autonomous bands of Native Americans who inhabited the Rio Grande valley in what is now northeastern Mexico and southern Texas.[1] The various Coahuiltecan groups were hunter gatherers. First encountered by Europeans in the 16th century, their population declined due to European diseases, slavery, and numerous small-scale wars fought against the Spanish, criollo, Apache, and other Indigenous groups.

After the Texas secession from Mexico, Coahuiltecan peoples were largely forced into harsh living conditions. In 1886, ethnologist Albert Gatschet found the last known survivors of Coahuiltecan bands: 25 Comecrudo, 1 Cotoname, and 2 Pakawa. They were living near Reynosa, Mexico.[2]

The Coahuiltecan lived in the flat, brushy, dry country of northern Mexico and southern Texas, roughly south of a line from the Gulf Coast at the mouth of the Guadalupe River to San Antonio and westward to around Del Rio. They lived on both sides of the Rio Grande. Their neighbors along the Texas coast were the Karankawa, and inland to their northeast were the Tonkawa. To their north were the Jumano. Later the Lipan Apache and Comanche migrated into this area. Their indefinite western boundaries were the vicinity of Monclova, Coahuila, and Monterrey, Nuevo Leon, and southward to roughly the present location of Ciudad Victoria, Tamaulipas, the Sierra de Tamaulipas, and the Tropic of Cancer.

Although living near the Gulf of Mexico, most of the Coahuiltecan were inland people. Near the Gulf for more than 70 miles (110 km) both north and south of the Rio Grande, there is little fresh water. Bands thus were limited in their ability to survive near the coast and were deprived of its other resources, such as fish and shellfish, which limited the opportunity to live near and employ coastal resources.


Spanish colonists created the name Coahuiltecan, derived from Coahuila, the state in New Spain where they first encountered Coahuiltecan peoples. This name was derived by the Spanish from a Nahuatl word.


This map shows (in orange) the proximity of Coahuiltecan peoples in Texas, although most authorities would not include the Karankawa and Tonkawa as Coahuiltecan.

The Coahuiltecan languages are a collection of related languages.[3] It should not be confused with the Coahuilteco language. The Coahuiltecan languages are extinct, but there are efforts by scholars such as Jessica L. Sánchez Flores (Nahua descent) to revive them.[4]

Linguists have suggested that Coahuiltecan belongs to the Hokan language family of present-day California, Arizona, and Baja California.[5] Most modern linguists, however, discount this theory for lack of evidence; instead, they believe that the Coahuiltecan were diverse in both culture and language. At least seven different languages are known to have been spoken, one of which is called Coahuiltecan or Pakawa, spoken by a number of bands near San Antonio.[6] The best-known of the languages are Comecrudo and Cotoname, both spoken by people in the delta of the Rio Grande and Pakawa. Catholic Missionaries compiled vocabularies of several of these languages in the 18th and 19th centuries, but the language samples are too small to establish relationships between and among the languages.[7]

The Karankawa and Tonkawa were possibly linguistically related to the Coahuiltecan.[8]


Over more than 300 years of Spanish colonial history, their explorers and missionary priests recorded the names of more than one thousand bands or ethnic groups. Band names and their composition doubtless changed frequently, and bands were often identified by geographic features or locations. Most of the bands apparently numbered between 100 and 500 people. The total population of non-agricultural Indians, including the Coahuiltecan, in northeastern Mexico and neighboring Texas at the time of first contact with the Spanish has been estimated by two different scholars as 86,000 and 100,000.[1] Possibly 15,000 of these lived in the Rio Grande delta, the most densely populated area. In 1757, Spanish chroniclers recorded a small group of Africans living in the delta, apparently refugees from slavery.[9]

Smallpox and slavery decimated the Coahuiltecan in the Monterrey area by the mid-17th century.[10] Due to their remoteness from the major areas of Spanish expansion, the Coahuiltecan in Texas may have suffered less from introduced European diseases and slave raids than did the indigenous populations in northern Mexico. But, the diseases spread through contact among indigenous peoples with trading. After a Franciscan Roman Catholic Mission was established in 1718 at San Antonio, the indigenous population declined rapidly, especially from smallpox epidemics beginning in 1739.[11] Most groups disappeared before 1825, with their survivors absorbed by other Indigenous and mestizo populations of Texas or Mexico.[1]

Culture and subsistence[edit]

Settlement and housing[edit]

Texas historian Jennifer Logan wrote that Coahuiltecan culture represents "the culmination of more than 11,000 years of a way of life that had successfully adapted to the climate and resources of south Texas.”[12] The peoples shared the common traits of not farming, living in small autonomous bands, and having no political unity above the level of the band and extended family. They were nomadic hunter-gatherers, who carried few possessions on their backs as they adaptively moved to acquire seasonal food sources without depleting them. At campsites, they built small circular huts with frames of four bent poles, which they covered with woven mats. Adapted to the warm climate, they wore minimal clothing. At times, bands came together in large groups of hundreds of people, but most of the time their encampments were small, consisting of a few homes with a few dozen people.[13] Along the Rio Grande, some Coahuiltecan lived more sedentary lives, perhaps constructing more substantial dwellings and using palm fronds as a building material.[14]


Prickly pear cactus grew in huge thickets in the south Texas brushlands. The pads, nopales, and fruit, tuna, were an important summer food for the Coahuiltecan.

Coahuiltecan peoples hunted deer, bison, peccary, armadillos, rabbits, rats, mice, snakes, lizards, frogs, salamanders, and snails for meat.[1] They fished and caught shellfish.[1] Fish was probably most important as food for groups living near the Rio Grande delta.[15]

Most foods could be eaten raw, but they used an open fire or fire pit when cooking.

Plants provided most of their diet. Pecans were an important protein source, gathered in the fall and stored for future use. They cooked the bulbs and root crowns of the maguey, sotol, and lechuguilla in pits, and ground mesquite beans to make flour.[16]

Prickly pear was an important summer food, from its paddles to its fruits. It also provided water when that was resource was scarce.[1] In the winter, plant roots provided important sustenance.[1]

Most of the Coahuiltecan seemed to have had a regular round of travels in their food gathering. The Payaya band near San Antonio had ten different summer campsites in a 30 square-mile area. Some of the Indians lived near the coast in winter. [17]


Little is known about the original religion of the Coahuiltecan. They came together in large numbers on occasion for all-night dances called mitotes. During these occasions, they danced and took peyote as medicine.


The meager resources of their homeland resulted in intense competition and frequent, although small-scale, warfare.[18]


16th century[edit]

In the early 1530s Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca and his three companions, survivors of a failed Spanish expedition to Florida, were the first Europeans known to have lived among and passed through Coahuiltecan lands. In 1554, three Spanish vessels were wrecked on Padre Island. The survivors, perhaps one hundred people, attempted to walk southward to Spanish settlements in Mexico. All but one were killed by the Indians.[19] In the early 1570s the Spaniard Luis de Carvajal y Cueva campaigned near the Rio Grande, ostensibly to punish the Indians for their 1554 attack on the shipwrecked sailors, more likely to capture enslaved people.

In 1580, Carvajal, governor of Nuevo Leon, and a gang of "renegades who acknowledged neither God nor King", began conducting regular slave raids to capture Coahuiltecans along the Rio Grande.[20] The Coahuiltecan were not defenseless. They often raided Spanish settlements, and they drove the Spanish out of Nuevo Leon in 1587. But they lacked the organization and political unity to mount an effective defense when a larger number of Spanish settlers returned in 1596. Conflicts between the Coahuiltecan peoples and the Spaniards continued throughout the 17th century. The Spanish replaced slavery by forcing the Indians to move into the encomienda system. Although this was exploitative, it was less destructive to Indian societies than slavery.[21]

17th century[edit]

Smallpox and measles epidemics were frequent, resulting in numerous deaths among the Indians, as they had no acquired immunity. The first recorded epidemic in the region was 1636–39, and it was followed regularly by other epidemics every few years. A 17th-century historian of Nuevo Leon, Juan Bautista Chapa, predicted that all Indian and tribes would soon be "annihilated" by disease; he listed 161 bands that had once lived near Monterrey but had disappeared.[22]

18th century[edit]

Spanish expeditions continued to find large settlements of Coahuiltecan in the Rio Grande delta and large-multi-tribal encampments along the rivers of southern Texas, especially near San Antonio.[23] The Spanish established Mission San Antonio de Valero (the Alamo) in 1718 to evangelize among the Coahuiltecan and other Indians of the region, especially the Jumano. They soon founded four additional missions. The Coahuiltecan supported the missions to some extent, seeking protection with the Spanish from a new menace, Apache, Comanche, and Wichita raiders from the north. The five missions had about 1,200 Coahuiltecan and other Indians in residence during their most prosperous period from 1720 until 1772.[24] That the Indians were often dissatisfied with their life at the missions was shown by frequent "runaways" and desertions.[25]

Spanish settlement of the lower Rio Grande Valley and delta, the remaining demographic stronghold of the Coahuiltecan, began in 1748. The Spanish identified fourteen different bands living in the delta in 1757. Overwhelmed in numbers by Spanish settlers, most of the Coahuiltecan were absorbed by the Spanish and mestizo people within a few decades.[26]

19th century[edit]

After a long decline, the missions near San Antonio were secularized in 1824. The Coahuiltecan appeared to be extinct as a people, integrated into the Spanish-speaking mestizo community. In 1827 only four property owners in San Antonio were listed in the census as "Indians." A man identified as a "Mission Indian," probably a Coahuiltecan, fought on the Texan side in the Texas Revolution in 1836.

20th century[edit]

In the community of Berg's Mill, near the former San Juan Capistrano Mission, a few families retained memories and elements of their Coahuiltecan heritage.[citation needed] In the late 20th century, these families united in public opposition to the excavation of Indian remains buried in the graveyard of the former Mission. Archeologists conducted investigations at the mission in order to prepare for projects to preserve the buildings. In the words of scholar Alston V. Thoms, they “became readily visible as resurgent Coahuiltecans.”[27]


Numerous bands made up the Coahuiltecan peoples. They include the:

Heritage groups[edit]

Several unrecognized organizations in Texas claim to be descendants of Coahuiltecan people. These organizations are neither federally recognized[28] or state-recognized[29] as Native American tribes.


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k "Coahuiltecan Indians". Texas State Historical Association. 26 September 2019. Retrieved 1 July 2023.
  2. ^ Powell, J. W. 7th Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology, 1885-1886. Washington: GPO, 1891, p. 68
  3. ^ Logan, Jennifer L. "Chapter 8: Linguistics," Reassessing Cultural Extinction: Change and Survival at Mission San Juan Capitstrano, Texas. College Station: Center for Ecological Archaeology, Texas A&M, 2001.
  4. ^ "Coahuiltecan Language". Indigenous Cultures Institute. Retrieved 1 July 2023.
  5. ^ Newcomb, Jr., W. W. The people/Indians of Texas: From Prehistoric to Modern Times. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1961, pp. 32–33.
  6. ^ Logan, Jennifer L. “Chapter Eight: Linquistics", in Reassessing Cultural Extinction: Change and Survival at Mission San Juan Capistrano, Texas. College Station: Center for Ecological Archaeology, Texas A&M, 2001
  7. ^ Salinas, Martin. Indigenous people of the Rio Grande Delta. Austin: University of Texas Press, pp. 142-47; "Pakawa", Catholic Encyclopedia.,
  8. ^ Moore, R. E. "The Texas Coahuiltecan people", Texas Indians [1], accessed 16 Feb 2012
  9. ^ Salinas, p. 30, 138
  10. ^ Foster, William C. Spanish Expeditions into Texas, 1689-1768, Austin: University of Texas Press, 1995, p. 12.
  11. ^ ”Pakawa tribe”[permanent dead link], Catholic Encyclopedia; accessed 16 Feb 2012
  12. ^ Logan, Chapter 9
  13. ^ Newcomb, pp. 29-47
  14. ^ Salinas, p. 122
  15. ^ Salinas, p. 116
  16. ^ "South Texas Plains".
  17. ^ “Coahuiltecan Indians.”, accessed 18 Feb 2012
  18. ^ Newcomb, p. 46, 54-55.
  19. ^ "Padre Island Spanish Shipwrecks of 1554", Handbook of Texas Online; accessed 21 February 2012
  20. ^ "Carvajal y de la Cueva, Luis de"[permanent dead link], Handbook of Texas Online, accessed 21 February 2012
  21. ^ Salinas, pp. 15-16
  22. ^ Foster, William C. Spanish Expeditions into Texas, 1689-1768. Austin: U of TX Press, 1995, pp. 12, 262-263
  23. ^ Salinas, pp. 24-26; Foster, p. 57
  24. ^ "Pakawa Indians"[permanent dead link], Catholic Encyclopedia, accessed 22 Feb 2012
  25. ^ Thoms, Alston V. "Historical Overview and Historical Context for Reassessing Coahuiltecan Extinction at Mission St. Juan", Reassessing Cultural Extinction: Change and Survival at Mission San Juan Capistrano, Texas, College Station: Center for Ecological Archaeology, Texas A&M U, 2001, pp. 35-36
  26. ^ Salinas, pp 30-68
  27. ^ Thoms, pp. 37-44
  28. ^ "Indian Entities Recognized by and Eligible To Receive Services From the United States Bureau of Indian Affairs". Indian Affairs Bureau. Federal Register. January 21, 2022. pp. 7554–58. Retrieved 1 April 2022.
  29. ^ "State Recognized Tribes". National Conference of State Legislatures. Archived from the original on 25 October 2022. Retrieved 1 April 2022.

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