Indigenous Peoples in Austin

Until the arrival of European explorers in the sixteenth century, hundreds of tribes lived and moved in and out of the area now known as Texas. Interactions with European settlers, and later with Texans, would considerably alter the lives of these indigenous people with long-lasting consequences. The Coahuiltecan people were the original habitants of the area now known as Austin and Central Texas. Later, the Tonkawa, Comanche, and Lipan Apache were known for their habitation here. Today, most descendants from these tribes live in Oklahoma and Texas.

19th Century Map

Aproximate areas of Indian groups in Texas during the nineteenth century.

Archeology in Texas

Evidence of early indigenous groups in Texas more than 16,000 years ago.

Ethnolinguistic Map

Ethnolinguistice distribution of
Native Texas Indians


More Information Coming Soon! 

The Tonkawa

The group that became known as the Tonkawa was an assembly of independent bands, including the Tonkawa, the Mayeyes, and other smaller groups. There are some indications that the Tonkawa were driven to settle in central Texas by the Comanches and the Lipan Apache, where they came to hunt game including bison, deer, and rabbit. While the Tonkawa may have encountered Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca during his exploration of the land now known as Texas in the sixteenth century, their first documented interaction with Europeans was with French settlers at Fort St. Louis in the seventeenth century.

Portrait of John Williams, a Tonkawa Indian

Painting by José Cisneros. Image courtesy of the University of Texas at El Paso Library Collection. Via the Bullock Museum

Christian Missions

The Tonkawa encountered Spanish missionaries, who established missions for the tribe along the San Gabriel River in the 1740s. The Spanish established missions throughout the state of Texas with the goal of converting Native Americans to Catholicism. According to The Texas Indians, “Backed by the Spanish military, Franciscans rounded up scores, even hundreds of Indians, often from different nations and bands, and herded them into missions. Here they were not only forced to attend Mass, taught Catholicism as well as the Spanish language and culture, but also compelled to work for the missionaries” (78). These early interactions ended up being extremely detrimental to the health of the Tonkawa people, according to the Historic Round Rock Collection. It states, “The tribe’s decline began in the eighteenth century when many of them contracted smallpox while living on a Spanish mission in 1779. The epidemic killed as much as half the tribe. 

Allies and Enemies

With the arrival of Anglo-American settlers in the Texas area in the early nineteenth century, the Tonkawa entered a new era of relations with both white settlers and other indigenous tribes. According to the Texas Handbook, the Tonkawa established a cordial relationship with their Anglo-American neighbors and allied with them against the Comanche. After the Texas Revolution, the Tonkawa continued to aid Texans in their struggles against other tribes in the area, in some cases serving as scouts for the Texas Rangers. Thomas W. Dunlay writes about Tonkawa military cooperation with white Texans in “Friends and Allies: The Tonkawa Indians and the Anglo-Americans, 1823-1884.” By the middle of the nineteenth century the Tonkawa were forced onto reservations by white settlers. In the 1860s, the tribe was moved to Washita Reservation in Oklahoma in what the tribe currently refers to as the “Tonkawa Tribal Trail of Tears.”

Map from the Tonkawa Tribe web site.

The Comanche

Comanche photo from

The Comanche were originally a mountain tribe, who roamed the Great Basin Region and later the plains of eastern Colorado and western Kansas. After the introduction and rapid incorporation of horses, the tribe moved further south in loose bands, and much of Texas, including Central Texas, became part of their domain. The Comanche remained nomadic throughout their early history, and particularly relied on buffalo for food, clothing and shelter. The Texas Handbook provides extensive information on the history of the Comanche in Texas and discusses their clothing, language, and horsemanship. 

The Comanche War

The nineteenth century was a time of great transition for the Comanche people. While the newly installed Mexican government pursued peace with the tribe, the arrival of Anglo-American settlers signaled conflict. By the time of Sam Houston’s presidency, Texas-Comanche were highly conflictual. Border Land: The Struggle for Texas documents violent encounters between members of the Comanche and the Texas Republic, describing attacks and skirmishes in 1839 and 1840. The second president of the Texas Republic, Mirabeau Lamar, established a policy of total termination or expulsion of all Texas Indians except the Alabama-Coushatta after he took office in 1838. Texas Monthly details Lamar’s commitment to expelling free black and Indigenous people in “The Problem with Mirabeau Lamar.” Lamar’s policies would lead to what is now known as The Comanche War, started in early 1840. The Texas State Library and Archives Commission explains the conflict on its Native American Relations in Texas site. On March 19, 1840, Comanches arrived at what was supposed to be a peaceful meeting with Texas government officials but were ambushed by Texas soldiers.

Picture of Quanah Parker

Quanah Parker, c. 1890

Continued Conflict

Texas joined the Union in 1845 and Comanche leaders worked with the federal government to establish peace. However, the continual encroachment by white settlers into Comanche land led to more confict. Reservations were established for the Comanche in 1854, while some Comanche bands remained living on the Texas frontier. In 1859, the reservation Comanches were forcibly moved to Oklahoma (then referred to as “Indian Territory”). Texas Monthly published an article entitled “Last Days of the Comanche” in May 2010, discussing conflicts in the 1870s, when Comanche bands not housed on the reservations continued to confront Texas troops. The life of the “last and greatest Comanche leader,” Quanah, is discussed in an NPR story, “The Rise and Fall of the Comanche Empire.”

The Comanche Nation

Established in the mid-twentieth century, the Comanche Nation is now governed by the Constitution of the Comanche Nation. The Comanche Nation’s main headquarters are located near Lawton, Oklahoma, and the tribe currently counts 17,000 enrolled tribal members. In 2017, thirty members of the Elder Council from the Comanche Nation returned to Austin to remember the tribe’s history in the area. The visit was documented on Austin Found: Exploring the Past in Photos. The Comanche Nation: Lords of the Plains website presents the structure of the tribal council, news and events about the tribe, and information about the preservation of the Comanche Nation Language.

The Lipan Apache

The Lipan Apache migrated to Texas in the seventeenth century as one unit, and then divided into two divisions, the Forest Lipans and the Plains Lipans. The Official Website of the Lipan Apache Tribe of Texas provides a history of the tribe, starting with its entrance into the land that would come to be known as Texas. According to this site, “The Lipan tribe traditionally contained from 10 to 14 bands, each of which was composed of a number of rancherías, or groups of extended families. Each ranchería leader, or sub-chief, owed allegiance to the chief of the band, who dictated the migrations of the rancherías, declared war and negotiated peace.” The Lipan relied heavily on buffalo for food and also hunted deer, rabbits, and smaller poultry to supplement their diet. For more on the Everyday Life of the tribe, visit The Lipan Apache Tribe: Our Sacred History. During the eighteenth century, the Lipan Apache continuously found itself in conflict with the Comanche, who pushed the tribe closer to Central Texas.

Map of Apache People of the Southwest

Apache People of the Southwest

Various Encounters

Native American Family

The Spanish created missions for the tribe in the eighteenth century, but the nomadic Apache rarely called the missions their permanent home, visiting them only occasionally. After Mexico gained independence in 1821, government leaders worked to establish peace with the Lipan Apache, and the two worked together to confront the more dominant Comanche. The newly established Texas government signed a treaty with the Lipan Apache, and military Rolls housed at the Texas State Library and Archives Commission show that some Lipan Apache also served as scouts for the Texas Rangers in the 1830s. However, their alliance ended in 1842, whereafter many of the Lipan left Texas to travel to Mexico. There they joined the Mescalero Apache tribe and participated in raids across the Texas-Mexico border. This era was marked by clashes between the Lipan Apache and the Texas Army. According to the Texas Handbook, “in 1873, Col. Ranald S. Mackenzie led a force of 400 soldiers into Mexico to destroy the Lipan villages. His army killed or captured virtually all of the surviving Lipans, and they were deported to the Mescalero Reservation in the Sacramento Mountains of New Mexico, which had been assigned to the Mescaleros in 1855 but not officially established until 1873.”

Contemporary Austin

In contemporary Austin, the most prominent organization dedicated to the preservation and celebration of American Indian culture is Great Promise for American Indians, founded in 1991. The organization presents and supports programming showcasing the traditions and heritage of American Indian people, provides education on American Indian history, and sponsors the annual Austin Powwow and American Indian Heritage Festival. For more information on Austin Powwow and Great Promise for American Indians, visit

In San Marcos the Indigenous Cultures Institute preserves the cultures of the Native Americans indigenous to Texas and northern Mexico, collectively known as Coahuiltecans. One of the Institute’s main areas of focus is the repatriation of ancestral remains held by research institutions so that ancestors may be given a proper burial. The Institute also encourages people who now identify or are labeled as “Mexican American” to reclaim their indigenous roots.


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A recent discovery of a stone point with a broken tip at an archaeological site in Central Texas confirms that indigenous groups were present in the area now known as Texas at least 16,000 years ago. For more on archeological discoveries in Texas, visit the Bullock Museum, which displays the stone tip in its “Becoming Texas” gallery.

For more information on Texas Tribes, visit:

According to Deborah Lamont Newlin in The Tonkawa People: A Tribal History from Earliest Times to 1893, “The history of the Tonkawa prior to the eighteenth century is fragmental and speculative” (4). Newlin posits that the Tonkawa lived in what is now known as Texas during the fifteenth century, though the Texas Handbook claims that they actually migrated to this area during the seventeenth century.

Deborah Lamont Newlin cites conflict with white Texans as the reason for the reservation system in Texas, as well as its ultimate failure to remain a viable option for the Tonkawa people. She writes, “The government was unable to settle successfully the Texas Indians upon an agrarian reservation mostly because of the antagonism of white Texans who insisted upon carrying out their hatred toward the Indians” (90). The current Tonkawa Tribal Reserve can be found in Kay County, Oklahoma. The tribe maintains a website called Tonkawa: The Tonkawa Tribe Official Website, where there are sections dedicated to the tribe’s history, culture, government, and current news.

The Texas State Library and Archives Commission explains the conflict on its Native American Relations in Texas site. Set off by a meeting that turned violent on March 19, 1840, The Comanche War included a series of battles occurring throughout 1840. According to the Texas State Library and Archives Commission, the war ended on October 1840, when “Colonel John H. Moore led a force into Comanche territory and attacked their village on the Red Fork of the Colorado River. Moore's troops killed about 130 warriors and took 34 prisoners. With this devastating loss, the Comanches moved away from the Texas frontier and turned their raiding attentions to Mexico.”

Unlike the other tribes who previously frequented the area that would become known as Austin, the Lipan Apache do not have their own independent reservation. The tribe continues to be led by a chairman and a tribal council, and there are currently 3,400 registered members of the tribe, as well as 8,000 unregistered family members. For more about current issues facing the Lipan Apache, visit Our Sacred History: Who We Are.