Published on October 24, 2012 by Amy
The Wichita spoke a Caddoan language. They formed a loose confederation of related peoples on the Southern Plains, including such bands or sub-tribes as Panis Piques, Taovayas, Guichitas, Tawakonis, Iscani, and Wacos. They were related by language and culture to the Pawnee with whom they enjoyed close relations.
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The Wichita lived in fixed villages notable for their large, domed-shaped, grass-covered dwellings, sometimes up to 30 feet in diameter. The Wichita were successful hunters and farmers, skillful traders and negotiators. They ranged from San Antonio, Texas in the south to as far north as Great Bend, Kansas. A semi-sedentary people, they occupied northern Texas in the early 18th century. They traded with other Southern Plains Indians on both sides of the Red River and as far south as Waco. For much of the year, the Wichita lived in huts made of forked cedar poles covered by dry grasses. In the winter, they followed American Bison in a seasonal hunt and left their villages behind. All parts of the bison were used for clothing, food and cooking fat, winter shelter, leather supplies, and medicine. They returned in the spring to their villages for another season of cultivating crops.
The Wichita were known to tattoo their faces and bodies with solid and dotted lines and circles. They called themselves “raccoon-eyed people” (Wichita Kitikiti’sh) because of the tattooed marks around their eyes. They wore clothes made of tanned hides, which the women prepared and sewed. They often decorated their dresses in elk teeth.
In 1541 Spanish explorer Francisco Vázquez de Coronado journeyed east from the Rio Grande Valley in search of a rich land called Quivira. In Texas, probably in the Blanco River Canyon near Lubbock he met a people he called Teyas who might have been related to the Wichita and the earlier Plains villagers. The Teyas, if in fact they were Wichita, were probably the ancestors of the Iscani and Waco, although they might also have been the Kichai, who spoke a different language but later joined the Wichita tribe. Turning north, he found Quivira and the people later known as the Wichita near the town of Lyons, Kansas. He was disappointed in his search for gold as the Quivirans appear to have been prosperous farmers and good hunters but had no gold or silver. There were about 25 villages of up to 200 houses each in Quivira. Coronado said: “They were large people of very good build” and he was impressed with the land which was “fat and black.”
“They eat meat raw like the Querechos and Teyas. They are enemies of one another…These people of Quivira have the advantage over the others in their houses and in growing of maize”.
The Quivirans apparently called their land Tancoa (which bears a resemblance to the later sub-tribe called Tawakoni) and a neighboring province on the Smoky Hill River was called Tabas (which bears a resemblance to the sub tribe of Taovayas).
Sixty years after Coronado’s expedition the founder of New Mexico Juan de Oñate visited a large village of Wichita. Oñate journeyed east from New Mexico, crossing the Great Plains and encountering two large settlements of people he called Escanjaques (possibly Wichita) and Rayados, most certainly Wichita. The Rayado village was probably on the Walnut River near Arkansas City, Kansas. Oñate described the village of containing “more than twelve hundred houses” which would indicate a population of about 12,000. His description of the village was similar to that of Coronado’s description of Quivira. The homesteads were dispersed; the houses round, thatched with grass and surrounded by large granaries to store the corn, beans, and squash they grew in their fields. Oñate’s Rayados were certainly Wichita, probably the sub-tribe later known as the Guichitas.
What the Coronado and Oñate expeditions showed was that the Wichita people of the 16th century were numerous and widespread. They were not, however, a single tribe at this time but rather a group of several related tribes speaking a common language. The dispersed nature of their villages probably indicated that they were not seriously threatened by attack by enemies, although that would change as they would soon be squeezed between the Apache on the West and the powerful Osage on the East. European diseases would also probably be responsible for a large decline in the Wichita population in the 17th century.
In 1719, French explorers visited two groups of Wichita. Bernard de la Harpe found a large village near present day Tulsa, Oklahoma and Claude Charles Du Tisne found two villages near Neodesha, Kansas. Coronado’s Quivira was abandoned early in the 18th century, probably due to Apache attacks. The Rayados of Oñate were probably still living in about the same Walnut River location. Archaeologists have located a Wichita village at the Deer Creek Site dating from the 1750s on the Arkansas River east of Newkirk, Oklahoma. By 1757, however, it appears that all the Wichita had migrated south to the Red River.
The most prominent of the Wichita sub-tribes were the Taovayas. In the 1720s they had moved south from Kansas to the Red River establishing a large village on the north side of the River in Jefferson County, Oklahoma and on the south side at Spanish Fort, Texas. They adopted many traits of the nomadic Plains Indians and were noted for raiding, trading, and (reputedly) cannibalism. They had a close alliance with the French and in 1746 a French brokered alliance with the Comanche revived the fortunes of the Wichita. The village at Spanish Fort was “a lively emporium where Comanches brought Apache slaves, horses and mules to trade for French packs of powder, balls, knives, and textiles and for Taovaya-grown maize, melons, pumpkins, squash, and tobacco.”
The Wichita and their Comanche allies were known to the Spanish as the “Norteños” (Northerners). In 1759, in response to the destruction by the Norteños of the San Saba Mission the Spanish undertook an expedition to punish the Indians. Their 500 man army attacked Spanish Fort but was routed by the Wichita and Comanche. The Spanish suffered 19 dead and 14 wounded, leaving several cannons on the battlefield, although they claimed to have killed more than 100 Indians.
The alliance between the Wichita, especially the Taovayas, and the Comanche began to break up in the 1770s as the Wichita were lured into cooperation with the Spanish. Taovaya power in Texas declined sharply after an epidemic, probably smallpox, in 1777-1778 killed about one-third of the tribe. After the Americans took over their territory as a result of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 and the independence of Texas in 1836, all the related tribes were increasingly lumped together and dubbed “Wichita.” That designation also included the Kichai of northern Texas who spoke a different although a related language.
The principal village of the Wichita in the 1830s was near the Wichita Mountains of Oklahoma although the Tawakoni and Wacos still lived in Texas and were moved onto a reservation on the upper Brazos River. They were forced out of Texas to a reservation in Oklahoma in 1859. During the Civil War the Wichita allied with the Union side. They moved to Kansas, where they established a village at the site of present-day Wichita, Kansas. In 1867 they were relocated to a reservation in Oklahoma in the area where most of them continue to reside. On June 4, 1891, the affiliated tribes signed an agreement with the Cherokee Commission for individual allotments.