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SOUTHEAST TEXAS INDIAN HOMELAND:
THE BURIAL MOUNDS OF OLD PORT NECHES

By W. T. Block

Reprinted from Beaumont ENTERPRISE, June 30, 1977; February 5, 1984.
Sources: Consult footnotes in W. T. Block, A HISTORY OF JEFFERSON COUNTY, TEXAS, FROM WILDERNESS TO RECONTRUCTION (Nederland: 1976), Ch. II, fns. 1-54; W. T. Block, SAPPHIRE CITY OF THE NECHES: A HISTORY OF PORT NECHES, TEXAS, FROM WILDERNESS TO INDUSTRIALIZATION (Austin: Eakin Press, 1987). Ch. I, fns. 1-18.

If one were driving today in the vicinity of the rubber industry of Port Neches, Texas, it would take an imaginative mind to conjure up a vision of Indian teepees and burial mounds at that site. Yet 200 years ago, that was the location of the only Indian village in Jefferson County, and nearby stood the mounds where they had buried their dead for centuries. By 1800, the six huge mounds, comprised of clam, conch, and oyster shell, were each about fifty feet wide, 15 to 20 feet high, and about 100 yards long when viewed by the first French fur traders along the Neches River.

Thomas F. McKinney, the river's first cotton keelboatman and steamboatman, discovered the weed-covered burial mounds while moving bales of cotton from Nacogdoches County to Sabine Lake. His 7-square-mile, Mexican land grant at Port Neches, dated April 26, 1831, mentions nothing about the mounds or the presence of Indians, leaving one to surmise that the Indians had migrated or become extinct before McKinney arrived.

Tribal traditions held that the Attakapas tribe once inhabited central Louisiana, and the early Frenchmen named the area around Lafayette "Poste des Attakapas." After being sorely defeated in battle in that vicinity, the tribesmen fled westward, occupying the mosquito-infested, marsh regions between Vermilion Bay, La., and the San Jacinto River in Texas to a depth of about 30 miles inland. From descriptions of skeletons in the Port Neches mounds, the Attakapas apparently displaced members of the Karankawa tribe, causing them to move farther southwest near Galveston. Although speaking dialects of the same language, the Attakapas were subdivided into six minor tribes, as follows: the Orcoquisas, Deadose, and Bidais on the Trinity; the Nacazil, or Naquize, on the lower Neches and Sabine rivers; and the Carcashus,Cocos and Apelusas in Southwestern Louisiana.

The habitat of the Karankawa tribe after 1800 was the coastline from Galveston Island to Corpus Christi, but a Spanish source of 1777 maintained that they accompanied the Attakapas "whenever they can on their robberies." However, a pitched battle between the Karankawas and about 200 of Jean Lafitte's pirates in 1818 caused the Indians to desert Galveston Island and move farther to the southwest.

Although both tribes possessed a stone-age culture in a hunting environment, their physical attributes were poles apart otherwise except for their flat heads. The best source for the Indians of Texas described the Attakapas as possessing "bodies stout, stature short and heads of large size placed between their shoulders." The same source described the Karankawas as being "tall, well-built (and) muscular." That the latter description very nearly matches another, which follows, suggests that Karankawas were buried at Port Neches as well, and indeed must have antedated the Attakapas tribe at that location.

Capt. Jack Caswell of Beaumont, who made several trips to Grigsby's Bluff (Port Neches) to haul shell from the Indian mounds aboard his steamboat, published this description in the Galveston "News" of Dec. 28, 1896, as follows:

"We brought these shells up on the old steamboat "Rabb." It took us a long time to handle them, and we made some curious discoveries. We found several perfect skeletons in the banks, and the people that once lived in them must have been seven feet tall. We took a bone from a lower leg and held it by Captain Rabb's (leg), and he is six feet, and the bone was six inches too long for him. We supposed they were the old Flathead Indians, as the skull from about an inch above the eye socket turned straight back and was as flat as a pancake clear to the rear end of the head. The skeletons were arranged in such a manner as to indicate that they were all buried at once and that Grigsby's Bluff (Port Neches) was a favorite happy hunting ground for the once extensive tribe of Flathead Indians . . ."

Actually, several tribes scattered out between Texas and Alabama have been called "Flathead Indians" derisively because of tribal practices of lacing head boards too tightly and thus disfiguring the skulls of newborn infants. Although it has achieved a patina of truth, tales of Attakapas cannibalism all stem from a single source, Simars de Belle Isle, whose stories were published 250 years ago in Europe at a time when sensationalism about the New World was in vogue. The French naval officer was stranded on Galveston Island between 1719 and 1721. He was later captured by the Orcoquisa tribe, and he claimed that they made him eat dried human flesh. Other French officials, A. de Mezieres and J. B. de Bienville, supported Belle Isle's account, but apparently were quoting from old French publications. At any rate, they sent their French fur traders to trade among the Attakapan tribes for years.

Two Louisiana historians take exception to the tribe's reputation as wandering cannibals. Fred Kniffen claimed they were "undeserving" of their anthropophagic reputation, and Lauren Post asked, "How did Belle Isle avoid the pot and the spit and live to write about them?" And indeed, French and English fur traders lived on the Attakapan rivers for 100 years with apparently no fear of gracing the Indians' stew pot!

Bernardo de Galvez, the Spanish governor of Louisiana, reported in 1779 that the 140 Attakapas warriors, recruited into his army during his incursions against the English on the Mississippi River, "created no disturbances."

The Rev. Fr. Augustin Morfi, a Spanish priest and author of the first history of Texas to 1779, visited the Port Neches village in 1777 and also drew a crude map showing the Nacazil village on the west side of the Neches and another on the Sabine River. Morfi wrote much in his journal about their backward, non-agrarian culture, their bent for plundering shipwrecks, and their trade with the English, but he said nothing about cannibalism.

The Port Neches village was maintained principally as a year-round base for pregnant squaws, the infirmed, and the elderly, and as a winter home due to its adequate supply of firewood and fresh water. Otherwise, the tribe broke up into family units during the warmer months, occupying the coastal areas around Sabine Pass and Johnson's Bayou, La., where alligators, fur animals, sea food, and shell fish flourished.

The Attakapans' diet consisted principally of alligators; flounders, mullet, and red fish; and oyster, clam, and conch shell fish (hermit crabs), plus any other small game, such as marsh rabbits, that they might snare, spear, or shoot. In the winter months, the warriors filled their cypress, dug-out canoes with a variety of shell fish and paddled them back to Port Neches. After boiling and eating them, the refuse shell became garbage and the staple ingredient of their burial mounds.

The Indians also slew larger game as well, for great herds of deer, as well as bears, panthers, and wolves, roamed the sea rim marshes of Sabine Pass and the sea cane brakes and 'cheniers' of Southwest Louisiana before 1850. John Prescott, during his 1970 excavations of Attakapas fire pits at Johnson's Bayou, La., has revealed a great deal about their eating habits.

The Attakapas warrior knew no peer at spear-fishing, raking oysters, or killing alligators. The latter was cooked on beds of charcoal and heated stones, and the oil was collected by incising cavities along the backbone. The Attakapans rubbed the oil on their bodies to repel mosquitoes, causing them to emit a particularly offensive odor.

Tribal structure was very lax, each chief ruling his village and the adjacent waters. They were not subservient to any centralized authority. Around 1775, Calcatchouk (or "Crying Eagle"), Mermentau, Laccasine, and Celestine le Tortue were the principal chiefs of the Louisiana branches. Chicouansh was chief of the Nacazil tribe, whereas Canos, El Gordo, Mateo, and Calzones Colorados were chiefs of the Trinity villages.

House-building was also quite primitive. In the Lake Charles, La., vicinity, the tops of small trees in a circle were bent over and tied together with deer thongs. Then deer skins, sewn together, were tied down in umbrella fashion to provide for only minimal protection from the elements.

According to the Houston "Telegraph" of June 2, 1841, the six burial mounds at Joseph "Grigsby's plantation, twelve miles below Beaumont," contained a variety of artifacts, weapons, pottery shards, and bones, and no similar mounds were known to exist anywhere in Texas except "Bradshaw's Mound near Nacogdoches." Grigsby's slaves leveled one mound for use as a foundation for the plantation house and slave cabins. The second mound was leveled for construction material when Confederate Fort Grigsby was built nearby in October, 1862. Between 1865 and 1893, three more mounds disappeared, as shell hauled to Beaumont by steamboat to build the streets and railroad rights-of-way throughout the county.

When William Kennedy, the Texas state geologist, visited Grigsby's Bluff in 1893, he reported that the single Indian mound there was "about 150 yards long, from 15 to 20 yards wide, and from 10 to 15 feet high," and contained "remains of human workmanship in the shape of broken pottery, arrow heads, etc." (AMERICAN GEOLOGIST, 1893, XIII, 269). In 1905, a published biography of Grigsby recorded that the shells at Grigsby's Bluff "were carried there by the aboriginal settlers of the land. Pieces of human bones and animals have been found there, and specimens of broken pottery, blackened by fire, are found among the shells." F. Stratton's STORY OF BEAUMONT recorded how the Beaumont pioneers often searched for arrow heads at Grigsby's Bluff, and the Galveston "News" of 1885 and 1886 described the excursion voyages of steamboats from Beaumont, Orange, Sabine Pass, and Johnson's Bayou which came to Grigsby's Bluff each July 4th to picnic, fish, fry fish, play baseball, and hunt Indian artifacts.

After 1700, the decline and extinction of the Attakapas tribe seemed to have been predestined. The Attakapans numbered about 3,500 then, dwindling to 175 in 1805 in Louisiana, and to only nine in 1908. In 1806, the Louisiana tribes petitioned the Spanish governor to resettle in Spanish Texas, but there is no record in Pichardo's TREATISE ON THE LIMITS OF LOUISIANA of that year that any such migration took place.

Likewise, there is no record of any Texas Indian treaty with any Attakapas tribe at either Bird's Fort of Tehuacana Creek in 1843 and 1844. Most of the Deadose and Bidais tribes died of small pox about 1800, and the 30 or 40 survivors had been absorbed into the Brazos Reservation tribes, and were later resettled in Oklahoma.

In 1820, Juan A. Padilla, a Spanish official, claimed that the Orcoquisa, Bidais, and Nacazil tribes still contained 800 Indians, a figure grossly inflated because Padilla was quoting from Morfi's journal of 1777. However, Padilla did leave the only record which describes the Neches River Indians by tribal name, but at a time after they were already long extinct, as follows:

"The Nacazil live on the Neches River near the lagoons where it empties into the sea. They number about two hundred. Their customs are simple. They are fond of hunting and fishing; they frequent the sea coast and visit Atascosita when our troops are stationed there.They are skilled in the management of canoes and they go in them to Opelousas and Calcasieu with their products. They drink all kinds of liquors of which they are very fond."

Concerning the ultimate demise of Port Neches' Nacazil tribe, the century-old mystery remains unsolved. Certainly one possibility was the hurricane of 1780, acknowledged as the worst Caribbean killer of all time. Striking almost every island in the Antillean chain and destroying two entire British and French naval fleets, preparing to do battle, the storm killed 50,000 people, mostly in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Santa Domingo, before blowing itself out on the Texas Coast. In June, 1785, at a time when the Nacazil warriors would be at the sea coast, Don Jose de Evia's expedition mapped and sounded Sabine Lake and its tributaries. His journal noted the presence of some Indians on the Calcasieu River, but it made no mention of Indians near Sabine Lake and the Sabine and Neches Rivers. About 1962, machinery grading a new road bed in south Cameron Parish, near Grand Chenier, plowed up thousands of Indian skeletons, buried altogether in a sandy marsh ridge. Obviously, they had met death by some violent means, probably drowned by a tidal wave of a hurricane. Hence, some unknown act of God probably accounted for the abrupt disappearance of the Nacazil tribe as well.

For lack of any evidence to the contrary, as well as the fact that no presence of Indians is recorded in the earliest Jefferson County archives, the Mexican land grants after 1825, or the Atascosita Census of 1826, the writer concludes that the Attakapas tribesmen in Jefferson County were extinct by the time of the first Anglo settlement here in 1824. One pioneer, Gilbert Stephenson, crossed Jefferson and Orange counties on foot in 1824 without seeing a single human. And William Fairfax Gray, a straggler of the Runaway Scrape, spent a night at Grigsby's Plantation on April 20, 1836, a visit well-recorded in his diary, but he made no mention of the presence of Indians there.

Today, only occasional arrow heads and pottery shards remain to be found, usually along the shores of Sabine Lake, mute testimonials indeed to the highly-skilled fishermen who occupied Port Neches, Texas, more then two centuries ago.

Copyright 1998-2012 by W. T. Block. All rights reserved.
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