Indigenous People on Buffalo Bayou and Beyond

“The Atakapa-Ishak are not extinct”

Oct. 11, 2021

Updated Oct.13, 2021

Thousands of years before land speculators like the Allen Brothers arrived in 1836 or slave traders Jim Bowie and Jean Lafitte set up shop on Galveston Island around 1817 or even the Spanish conquistador Cabeza de Vaca shipwrecked on the island in 1528, there were people living around Buffalo Bayou and the prairies, forests, rivers, and bays of the Texas Gulf Coast.

At least 13,500 years ago, predecessors of the Akokisa people were living in what is now coastal Texas. At the time the coast, along with major rivers flowing across it, extended a hundred miles further out, land and channels now covered by water. Sea level then was hundreds of feet lower.

Major Native American Cultural groups of the Texas-Louisiana Gulf Coast, c. 1700, Worrall, A Prehistory of Houston, p. 436

But inland, Buffalo Bayou and other rivers and streams were flowing along the same winding, forested paths that now carry their waters to the gulf (unless they’ve been stripped and channelized). Incised into the landscape by the drainage of the sea at the end of the last glaciation period some 20,000 years ago (no glaciers in Texas), “basically these rivers and creeks are where they were in the late Pleistocene (some 12,000-20,000 years ago),” said geologist/author Dan Worrall at a recent talk on the lifeways of the Akokisa at the Houston Botanic Garden.

We know this in part because Early Paleoindian Native American artifacts have been found along the banks, showing that the streams were there at least 13,000 years ago, he said.

Living Well on the Land

The Akokisa were a branch of the Atakapa-Ishak, who lived (and still live) along the upper coast of southeast Texas and southwestern Louisiana. The Atakapa spoke a unique language that was distinct from the Karankawa, for example, the people who lived further down the coast. Like the Karankawa, the Atakapa were divided into different groups, communities organized in large part around the different river basins.

Around 1700, the native people of southeast Texas were thought to number some 4,000-5,000. But by 1800 the Atakapa population in Texas had suffered a catastrophic collapse, largely due to disease brought by Europeans. Spanish missionaries tried to teach them agriculture, despite the fact that the native people were healthy and thriving, doing just fine hunting and gathering a rich, varied diet, and lightly managing the prairies and forests with controlled burning. (In fact recent research shows that Native Americans were healthier before the introduction of agriculture.)

“They lived on the land very well,” said Worrall.

Worrall’s big new book, A Prehistory of Houston and Southeast Texas: Landscape and Culture, documents in extensive technical detail the evolution of the landscape and the people who lived here long before European settlement.

The Akokisa and their predecessors ate seasonally and locally, of course: oysters and clams, alligators, turtles, and fish, seabird eggs, wild grapes and berries, persimmons, pecans and acorns, the tuberous roots of cattails, arrowheads, and greenbriar, among many other flowers and plants, edible and medicinal. They left behind vast middens of shells and fish bones. As well as bison kill sites along creeks and bayous.

In the fall and winter they moved inland to hunt bison and deer on their traditional hunting grounds on the Katy Prairie at the headwaters of Buffalo Bayou in what is now northwest Harris County. The bison migrated seasonally during the winter from the interior Texas plains, moving through the tallgrass prairie on their way south to the coast to graze on the lush salt grass (except during dry periods, points out Worrall).

Buffalo Bayou, along with other bayous and streams, was surrounded then by vast riparian and flatland forests, particularly extensive north of the bayou. European settlers in the nineteenth century cut down much of the timber to create cropland on the fertile floodplains. Beyond the forest to the south of the bayou was tallgrass prairie. Further to the west there was prairie and savannah dotted with oak trees.

Driving Over a Cliff

Worrall describes how the native people hunted bison by driving them over steep banks into gullies and creeks along the far reaches of Buffalo Bayou and its tributaries, for example near the modern day Barker and Addicks reservoirs and along White Oak Bayou. They had bows and arrows only after 800 AD: before that they had to get closer to the animals to throw darts using atlatls. After 1600, they had horses too. But before that, they walked and ran.

They also burned the prairie to manage it for hunting and provide sweet young shoots for the bison, and they apparently burned parts of the forest too to keep out undergrowth. (Worrall, Prehistory of Houston, pp. 64-66)

They built dugout canoes for river travel (“easier than smashing through blackberry vines”). They used alligator fat as insect repellent. They tattooed their faces and bodies and used red ochre to paint their faces for cultural identification and perhaps for sunscreen, says Worrall.

Many miles upstream they built a four-foot high burial mound on Buffalo Bayou in what is now Terry Hershey Park just below Barker Dam. Known as the Addicks Mound, it was destroyed by the US Army Corps of Engineers in 1946-47 during construction of the dam. It was one of nine archeological sites recorded in the area in the 1940s before construction of the dams and rectification of the upper bayou. (p. 20)

Portrait of an Atakapa man, Alexandre de Batz, 1735

The Prehistory book, published this year, is a sort of prequel to Worrall’s 2016 history, Pleasant Bend: Upper Buffalo Bayou and the San Felipe Trail in the Nineteenth Century, which describes the Europeans, including Worrall’s relatives, who settled along Buffalo Bayou from what is now downtown, River Oaks and Memorial Park, all the way out to what is now Barker and Addicks reservoirs and beyond. They built timber and grist mills, inns, cotton plantations and cattle ranches, much of it facilitated by slave labor.

In 1851 Worrall’s Morse relatives, Mississippi planters, founded Pleasant Bend, a vast cotton and timber plantation that at one time extended from the south bank of Buffalo Bayou into what is now River Oaks, Tanglewood, Post Oak-Galleria, and even parts of Southside and West University Place. (p. 1) They are buried in the Morse-Bragg cemetery on South Wynden Drive across the bayou from what is called the Old Archery Range, site of a nineteenth century nursery and brick factory, now part of Memorial Park. The Memorial Park Conservancy, along with the Uptown Development Authority, is developing plans to strip the trees, grade and landscape the banks of this section of the historic public park.

 A New Way of Understanding the Old Way of Managing the Land

Worrall points out that in the last twenty years there has been re-evaluation of how the indigenous peoples managed the land. Though the Atakapa were hunter-gatherers and there is no evidence they grew crops, other groups, such as the Caddo in east Texas, grew corn, beans, and squash. (See also here.)

The last known historic sighting of the Akokisa as a large group occurred around the above-mentioned Addicks Mound, which is close to a number of other significant archeological sites. The group used to visit the property near the future Barker Reservoir, once their home but then owned by Joel and Elizabeth Wheaton through an 1831 Mexican land grant. The Wheatons established a frontier inn and prominent bayou crossing for the San Felipe to Harrisburg wagon trail. Worrall points out that the displaced Akokisa may have joined their tribal Bidai kin along Cypress Creek to the north but continued to visit the site of their birth. (Worrall, Prehistory of Houston, p. 126)

The property was purchased by the Habermachers in 1869. The native people were still visiting their ancestral home, camping near what was then known as the Habermacher Crossing. But in 1875 there was a severe winter, as well as an epidemic, and many died. “This was the last time that a large tribe ever came,” Kate Habermacher told The Houston Chronicle in an interview published Feb. 13, 1949. (Worrall, p. 125)

A small family group of Akokisa or Bidai lived until the early 20th century along Cypress Creek where Jones Park is today.

Not Extinct

But there are still descendants of the Akokisa band living in the greater Houston area. The Akokisa are part of the larger Atakapa tribe, which maintains a website in Louisiana.

“We, the descendants of the Atakapa-Ishak Indians exist unrecognized and misnamed under various names of choice like Creoles, Creole Indians, and Creoles of Color,” notes an entry on the tribe’s website. (See also here.)  “The term ‘colored’ has clouded our racial identity.  Atakapa-Ishak descendants show a wide range of complexions. … Many Atakapa-Ishak no longer know their correct racial identity.

“The Atakapa-Ishak are not extinct.”