The Aboriginal Inhabitants
To estimate the time span of the occupancy of Jefferson County, Texas by aboriginal inhabitants is extremely difficult, but the best available sources indicate a period of 2000 years. Dr. D. J. Millet of McNeese State University, who is an authority on the history of Southwest Louisiana, believes that the Attakapas Indian tribe arrived in that area about the time of the birth of Christ. But the Atakapas never signed any treaties with the federal government of foreign countries. They didn't leave any written histories behind and were diluted by surrounding cultures as time marched on.
The only known and complete Attakapan vase, of which the writer has knowledge, was excavated at Johnson's Bayou, Louisiana, four miles east of Sabine Pass, Texas, in 1970. The curator of anthropology at Louisiana State University has identified the dark brown and beautifully incised artifact as belonging to the "Marksville Culture," dated between the years one and 500 A.D. However, this does not eliminate the possibility that the Attakapas tribe arrived at a later date, and was preceded by other aborigines.
The domain of the Attakapas Indians during the 18th century did not include the locality or political entity known as "Poste des Attakapas" around Lafayette, Louisiana. Instead, this tribe inhabited the region of the Gulf Coast between the San Jacinto River in Texas and Vermillion By, Louisiana to a depth of about thrity miles inland. Tribal traditions held that the Attakapan warriors once were sorely defeated in battle near Saint Martinsville, Louisiana, and thus may have fled to the marsh territories along the coast, which were shunned by other tribes.
The Texas tribes along the Trinity River, the Orcoquisas (Akokisas), Deadose, and Bidais, were marginal Attakapans, who differed from their Louisiana cousins only in their dialet of language. One writer has speculated that it may have been the Orcoquisa tribe that held Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca as a captive in the year 1528. At any rate, the South Texas coast, differing from the latter principally in language and physique, the Karankawas being "tall, well-built, muscular," whereas the Attakapans are described as possessing "bodies stout, stature
short, and heads of large size placed between the shoulders."
From the time of their earliest contact with Europeans, the Attakapas tribe bore the unsavory reputation of being cannibals, and the tribal name does mean "man-eater" in the Choctaw language. This reputation stems principally from an account published in Paris in 1758, which described the adventures of Simars de Belle-Isle, a French naval officer, who was held captive for two years by the Orcoquisa tribe. Belle-Isle denied much of the original account, but a subsequent version published in Paris in 1768 by Jean-Bernard Bossu claimed to have been prepared from Bell-Isle's own manuscript.
Bell-Isle was one of five officers of the French frigate Marechal d'Estees, who went ashore on Galveston Island in 1719 to supervise the filling of water casks. For some unknown reason, the vessel's captain sailed away without them, leaving four to die slowly of starvation, and the sturdier Belle-Isle as the lone survivor. Shortly afterward, he was taken prisoner by a war party of the Orcoquisa tribe. Belle-Isle suffered many indignities, was given as a slave and husband to an old widow, but eventually he was adopted into the tribe as a full-fledged warrior. The Frenchman claimed that the Orcoquisas killed and dried the flesh of Indian prisoners, which was frequently offered to him as food. With the assistance of a friendly Hasinai Indian, Belle-Isle made his escape in 1721, and rejoined the French forces of Louis de Sant Denis at Natchitoches, Louisiana.
Subsequent French officials, Athanase de Mezieres and Jean Baptiste de Bienville, supported Belle-Isle's account, as did the Spaniard Nemesio do Salcedo, but they were quoting from secondary sources. However, the Spanish governor of Louisiana, Bemardo de Galvez, did not hesitate to include 140 Attakapan warriors from Calcasieu Parish, Louisiana in the Spanish army, which attacked British forces along the Mississippi River and in West Florida in 1779. Galvez wrote "the Indian allies, likewise, created no disturbances." Also, French traders continued to barter with the Attakapas tribe throughout the eighteenth century with no apparent fear of being eaten.
Fred Kniffen, a contemporary Attakapan historian, claims that the tribe was "undeserving of their ancient reputation as wandering cannibals." So does Lauren C. Post of San Diego State College, who asked "how did Belle-Isle avoid the pot and spit?" According to Post, no case of Attakapan cannibalism was ever reported during the long period of French and Anglo occupancy of Western Louisiana.
Father Augustin Morfi, a Spanish priest of Nacogdoches, visited the Attakapas villages in Jefferson and Orange counties during 1777. Although he reported objectively on the primitive state of their culture, Morfi made no mention of cannibalism in his journal entry, which follows:
Although the Atacapas [sic] are to be regarded as dependents of Louisiana, they are numbered among the Texas nations because of the ease with which they changed their domicile, particularly since they are united with the Orcoquisas, with whom they form almost a single nation. They are friends of the Carancahuases [sic] whom they accompany whenever they can on their robberies. They live at the mouths of the Nechas and Trinidad Rivers, along whose banks they wander, without a fixed domicile; they neglect the cultivation of their fertile lands, occupy themselves with and live from robbery when they can manage to do so, or from the game which abounds in the forests. The nation is few in number and very cowardly, nor doesn't employ its arms except against beasts or the unfortunates who are shipwrecked.
Father Morfi accompanied Antonio Gil Ybarbo's expedition to Jefferson County in July 1777 to investigate the presence of Englishmen on Spanish soil. At that time, the English surveying sloop Florida was mapping and sounding the Sabine River, Sabine Lake, and the Sabine Pass, and both the English and the Spanish recorded some information about the villages, one on each side of the Neches River near its mouth. He noted that the Indians in the western village had traded with the English on two occasions and "were supplied with the goods." The English map, which shows the wreckage of a Jamaican ship in the Sabine Pass, recorded the rescue of three stranded sailors, and the plundering of the wreck by "the savages."
Although Father Morfi's map identified the Jefferson County Indian village as bing Attakapan, it is possible that it belonged to the Orcoquisa group, for the Bidais tribe once informed Joaquin de Orogio, Spanish captain at Bahia, that the Orcoquisas "occupied the country from the Neches to a point halfway between the Trinity and the Brazos. The lower Neches River Indians were also known by the tribal name of Nacazil. That the Spanish used the names "Orcoquisa" and "Attakapas" almost interchangeably is apparent in a letter to Juan Maria, Baron de Ripperda, a part of which reads:
The Orcoquisa Indian trader has told the captain of Militia...that a stranded English vessel was found in the mouth of the Rio de Nechas and that the English have given presents to the nearby Apelusas and Atakapas Indians. The said captain of militia [Antonio Gil Ybarbo] went at once with thirty of his men...Going directly to the pueblo of the Orcoquisas, he learned from that that the English had withdrawn He went on to inspect this place...with two paid guides from the said orcoquisas...and later came upon the stranded vessel...completely abandoned, although the Atakapas Indians who were supplied with their goods said that the English had left three of their number guard the vessel...
Utilizing Morfi's map and other sources, the evidence at hand strongly indicates that Port Neches, Texas, known earlier as Grigsby's Bluff, was the former site of the Attakapas Indian Village in Jefferson County, and may have been occupied by that tribe for several centuries. In 1841, the Houston Telegraph and Texas Register published an account of the six ancient burial mounds at Grigsby's Plantation, on the west bank of Neches River, 12 miles below Beaumont." The newspaper stated that Joseph Grigsby's slaves had leveled some of the mounds, each twenty feet high, sixty feet wide, and 200 feet long, as a site for Grigsby's residence and barns. The report added that the burial mounds contained strata of seashells interspersed with layers of crude vessels," broken earthenware, human bones, which crumbled to dust as soon as exposed to the air.
Another article confirmed that one of the six mounds survived until 1893. A visiting geologist in that year reported that "the mound at Grigsby's Bluff...is 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 points, etc." An article published in 1905 added that the shells at Grigsby's Bluff "were carried there by the aboriginal settlers of the land. Pieces of human bone and animal have been found there, and speciments of broken pottery, blackened by fire, are found amount the shells." Since the Attakapan village was small, it is logical to assume that many centuries elapsed while the large quantity of conch, clam, and oyster shell, which the Indians had carried by dugout from Sabine Lake, accumulated in the mounds.
When Father Morfi referred to "the ease with which they changed their domicile," he meant that the Attakapans had seasonal, nomadic habits. Typically, the Indians of Jefferson County broke up into small bands during the summer months to occupy the marsh ridges along the coast, where seafood existed in abundance. They lived in communal existence only during the winter months when they paddled back to their village to be near an abundant supply of firewood.
Although Attakapans were adept at use of the bow and arrow, they were unerringly proficient at hurling the fish spear, so much so that the warriors could stab small fish but ten inches long at a distance of twenty paces." They used a shorter dart and torchlight to spear flounders at night, and a rake made from two poles to loosen oysters from the reefs. Still another Attakapan delicacy was alligator meat, which was procured by spearing the reptiles through the eyes. The carcasses were then cooked upon beds of charcoal and heated oyster shells, and incising entrenchments in the flesh around the backbone collected the alligator oil. The oil was used as fuel for lanps made from conch shells and dried moss. The Attakapans also used alligator oil on their bodies to repel mosquitoes, a practice which caused the tribesmen to emit a particularly offensive odor.
One historian - Joseph O Dyer of Lake Charles, Louisiana - believed that the Attakapans obtained their pottery from the Caddo tribes to the north, and their "conical of globular oil jugs from the Karankawas." If this is true, then their intertribal trade was extensive, for the shores of Sabine Lake are still lined with broken shards of Attakapa pottery, the most frequently found vestige of their erstwhile existence. Also illogical is the belief that the Attakapans were forced to obtain their oil jugs from the Karankawas, a tribe whose culture was equally primitive. While the Attakapans undoubtedly obtained some of their pottery through barter, evidence observed by the writer has indicated that the tribe could heat their cooking pits to white-hot temperatures sufficient for firing clay, an abundance of which exists throughout Jefferson County. Whether of their own workmanship or not, existent shards indicate that Attakapan pottery was often of large size, up to five-gallon capacity, and that it was well-fired and utilitarian. Although not ornate in appearance, it was often attractively incised.
As is often the case with primitive cultures, the Attakapans had a complex assortment of tribal traditions and social customs. Their rules regarding bigamy and incest were similar to those of Anglo-Americans. Attakapans practiced a nature religion and believed that their ancestors had originated in the sea. Tribal fathers changed their names at the birth of the first child, becoming "father of" plus the name of the child. If the child died, the original name was resumed.
In general, women held a much inferior position in the village. Because males outnumbered females, Attakapans sometimes bartered for wives with other tribes. They may have unwittingly practiced infant skull deformation because of the type of headrest that they used. Women performed all menial labor, including the building of the elevated shell mound where the chief's abode was constructed. Female attire was simple, a deer skin with a neck hole in the center and gathered with thongs at the waist. During pregnancy, mothers-to-be were isolated in a single hut in the village and cared for by the older women in the tribe.
Attakapan tribal structure was extremely loose with no centralized authority. Each local chief ruled his village and the waters adjacent to it. During the mid-eighteeneth century the chiefs of the four Orcoquisa "rancherias," or villages, were named Canoes, El Gordo, Mateo, and Calzones Colorados. In Southwest Louisiana, the once large Attakapan village on Lacassine River was abandoned in 1799, and the Indians moved to the Mermentau River village. In 1819, the last Attakapan village in the Lake Charles Louisiana vicinity" contained forth miserable, dirty huts, the chiefs and shaman's being on an oyster mound, and somewhat larger in size."
From existent lexicons of their language, Dr. Herbert E. Bolton was able to establish that the lower Trinity River tribes were actually Attakapan in derivation, not Caddoan as had been previously thought, and that their language contained only minute dialectal differences from the language of the eastern Attakapans. In 1885, Dr. Albert Gatschet utilized two old squaws to prepare a vocabulary of the language spoken in the Lake Charles vicinity. Jean Berenger, a French sea captain, prepared a similar vocabulary from members of the Orcoquisa tribe. "which differed but slightly from the dialet of Lake Charles."
In an account by O.B. Faulk, in The Last Years of Spanish Texas, he noted that in 1806, three hundred Attakapan families petitioned for and received permission from the Spanish to re-settle in Texas on the northern waters of the Sabine River.
Exactly how and when the Attakapas tribe vanished from Jefferson County may always remain an unsolved mystery, but the writer believes that their disappearance was rapid and possibly calamitous in nature. Florence Stratoon, in the Story of Beaumont, recounted the tales of elderly persons, who claimed that mounted Indians still existed in the county as late as 1860.