Texas Plains Trail Region

Participant in the Texas Historical Commission's
Texas Heritage Trails Program

American Indian Heritage

Three men in American Indian dress
Tigua Indian Cultural Center, El Paso


In the first known chronicle of American Indian life in Texas by outside sources, the shipwrecked survivors of Spanish explorer Cabeza de Vaca's party report that they were confronted with a rhythmic entreaty of shouts, claps, and pebble-filled gourd rattling by indigenous peoples, perhaps members of what we now call the Karankawas or the hunter-gatherers of the Coahuiltecan region. This took place in 1535, a considerably late date for a record of indigenous populations, particularly considering that the earliest evidence we have on hand so far of an occupied Texas rolls us back about another 12,000 or more years.

The lucky settlers and pioneers already residing in Texas during its transformation to statehood may be considered the first true Texans in name but the territory surrounding them had already been populated for millennia. Archeologists continue to search for and study material clues of these early Texans such as discarded stone tools, cookfire remnants, traces of long-gone houses, plant and animal food remains, and symbols painted or incised on rock shelter walls. In the absence of written records, these are the only clues that can shed light on the prehistory of the peoples occupying Texas territory. History, however, is more thorough thanks to the journals of de Vaca and other explorers, to ethnographers and anthropologists, as well as to the ancestors of Native tribes like the Kiowa, Comanche, Apache, Kickapoo, Caddo, and Tigua, who can recall their heritage in oral histories and traditions. Newly discovered archeological evidence, in fact, places the earliest known human inhabitants in North America right here in Texas. Depending on how we look at it, the term "Native Texan" may have taken on a whole new meaning.

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Read more about American Indians in the Handbook of Texas Online.