It is a tradition of popular folklore in the Texas
that the name of the Llano River was derived from a little-known
Indian tribe called the Chanas. Not very much is known about the
as a culture. Time has chosen to forget this once proud people, leaving us
with only a few passing memories recorded in rare and ancient texts.
But the Chanas were very real... a living chapter of Texas history
who's story deserves to be told. Who were these elusive people,
these former kings of the Texas Hills?
If you go to most any guidebook on North American Indian tribes,
you will probably not find a listing under the name Chanas. Most historians and
anthropologists know this tribe as the Sana or Zana people. However, the name of the tribe
was pronounced "Chanas". The Spanish and French travelers who explored Central
Texas in the 17th and 18th centuries used numerous variations on the spelling of the
tribe's name, but we can be sure that they were all referring to the same group of
It is quite likely that the Llano River really did get its name from
the Chanas people. The word llano, in Spanish, has a very specific meaning: plain. Anyone
who has ever driven through the Riley Mountains, in the heart of the Llano Uplift, can
tell you that the Llano River certainly does not flow through a plain! Some historians
disagree that the Llano River was named for the Chanas, as it has often been assumed that
these people tended to inhabit an area further south and east than the Llano country.
However, the Chanas appear to have been a wandering people, roaming across the hills and
arroyos of Central and South Central Texas, following the diminishing herds of bison. As
well, population pressures from the invasion of the larger Lipan-Apache and Comanche
tribes in the Llano Uplift more than likely pushed the Chanas people permanently out of
the region by the early to middle 1700's.
It was sometime shortly after the year 1716 that the Llano River first
became known as the Río de los Chanes. In 1756, when Bernardo de Miranda y Flores entered
the Hill Country in search of the fabled Los Almagres Mine (later known in legend as the
San Saba Mine) he referred to this river as the Río de los Chanas. By 1789 it was known
as the Yanes, then in 1796 as the Llanes, and finally by 1808 it had received the name
Llanos. However, the region was traveled infrequently and some explorers were referring to
it as the Río de los Llanos as early as 1772 and as the Río de los Chanas as late as
1796. It is important to remember that the word llano, in Spanish, is pronounced
"ya-no". With this in mind it is easier to understand how the river, and the
modern city and county, all received their name.
The Chanas people were a sub-group of the Indian tribe that would be
known, by the close of the 18th century, as the Tonkawa. In order to understand the
culture of the Chanas people one must look to what we know of the Tonkawas for guidance.
It is believed that the Chanas spoke a variation of the same language used by the Tonkawas
in more recent times. This language is largely unrelated to any of the others found in the
area of Central and South Central Texas. At least one prominent historian believes that
this language is akin to that of the Coahuiltecans, a larger tribe who lived further south
on the Texas Gulf Coast. However, as we have a limited knowledge of the Coahuiltecan
language, this theory is little more than a guess. It has been suggested, as well, that
the Tonkawa languages are related to the Hokan linguistic family found on the Pacific
Coast! It is for this reason, among others, that the Chanas and their other pre-Tonkawa
kin are believed to be the direct descendents of some of the earliest people to enter the
New World from Asia. In view of one Tonkawa myth, which states that the ancestors of the
tribe were separated, in long ages past, from another group of mysterious kindred that
lived "on the other side of the big water" further south, this is a compelling
idea. Who were these kindred, known as the Yakwál or "Drifted People"? Perhaps
they were the Aztecs or Toltecs, or perhaps a race of people even more ancient.
Europeans first encountered the Chanas in the year 1690 when Father
Damián Massenet discovered a band of them living, along with some other Tonkawa groups,
about 25 miles northeast of San Antonio in the vicinity of a streambed known as the Arroyo
del Cibolo. The homeland of these peoples was referred to by the Coahuiltecans as Xoloton,
and as Bata Coniquiyoqui by the tribes of the east. The significance of these names have
long since been lost to history.
While the Chanas seem to have been a relatively peaceful people, who
got along quite well with the Spanish invaders, it is interesting to note that they did
not seem to be on good terms with everyone. In 1716 Domingo Ramón reported that the
Chanas were considered to be enemies of the Tejas people. The Tejas are the tribe of
Indians from whom the state of Texas gets its name--and they were famous during Spanish
Colonial days for their friendliness!
The Chanas built up a rather close relationship with the Spanish. In
1721, it was delegates from the Chanas tribe who reported on Louis Juchereau de Saint
Denis' activities in Texas. Saint Denis was the French commandant of Natchitoches in
Louisiana. He had called a meeting of thirty of the most prominent regional Indian tribes
just a few miles away from San Antonio. When the Marqués de San Miguel de Aguayo passed
through San Antonio, shortly thereafter, he gave the Chanas presents as a reward for
providing this valuable information regarding a possible threat. Aguayo also reported
that, at the time, many of the Chanas were living in the area of what is modern-day San
By the year 1740 members of the Chanas tribe had begun to take up
residence in San Antonio. They chose as their home what would become the most famous
mission complex in all the United States: Mission San Antonio de Valero, better known as
the Alamo. It is reported that many of these Chanas people had been mingling and
intermarrying with other Tonkawa bands before entering into mission life. Up until around
the year 1749 the Chanas continued to drift into the Valero. By 1793 the Chanas were
listed as one of the most prominent tribes at the mission. They are referred to in the
mission records under the name "Zana", but these are none other than the Chanas.
By the time Spanish rule ended on this continent the Chanas were known
collectively, along with other bands who shared their culture, as the Tonkawa tribe. The
word Tonkawa, itself, is a Waco word that simply means "they all stay together".
The Tonkawas referred to themselves as the Tickanwatic or Titskanwatitch, which means
something like "the most human of the People". It seems that pressure from other
tribes, namely the Comanches and Lipan-Apaches, along with decimation of the bison herds
and a decreased population due to European diseases, created a need for these tribes to
form a more intimate alliance. Not all of the Chanas culture seems to have faded with the
organization of the larger Tonkawa tribe, however. The Tonkawas utilized a system of
totemic kinship. That is to say, they organized themselves into clans based on descendency
from some mythical creature or other legacy. One of these clans was the Sanux. It is quite
likely that Sanux is simply a variation on the Chanas-Sana-Zana theme, and that the
members of this clan were the direct descendents of the Chanas people.
The descendents of the Chanas people, as members of the Tonkawa tribe,
went on to blaze a colorful trail in the annals of Texas history. The Tonkawa were noted
ritualistic cannibals. They performed several ceremonies in which they consumed the bodies
of conquered enemies. They also venerated the scalp of the fallen victims as especially
Although fewer in numbers than many of the other Texas tribes, the
Tonkawas were able to distinguish themselves in battle. Some of them even fought on the
side of the Texas forces during the Mexican War of the 1840's. As well, Tonkawas were
noted Indian scouts for the United States military throughout the latter 19th century.
Many Tonkawas chose to live in the vicinity of Federal installations during this time
In 1859 about 245 Tonkawa were relocated to Fort Cobb in Indian
Territory (Oklahoma). They were sent to live on the Wichita Reserve along with several
other unrelated tribes. Sadly, in 1862, many of these Tonkawas were murdered by other
tribes during what has come to be known as the "Great Massacre". After this
wholesale decimation of the tribe, many Tonkawas wandered throughout Texas, some choosing
to settle at Fort Belknap. The Tonkawas had mingled heavily with the Lipan-Apaches since
about 1820, and the group at Fort Belknap was a mixture of these two tribes. Finally they
were assigned their own reservation lands in northeastern Oklahoma in 1884. They settled
there, establishing a governing body and other social systems common to self-determinate
reservation life. However, the tribe was but a mere shadow of its former self. Descendents
of the tribe are still active in the community of Tonkawa, in Kay County, Oklahoma, namely
through the Tonkawa Tribal Committee. As well, a separate band of "Great
Massacre" survivor descendents was reported living north of Sabinas, Mexico in 1927.
However, this author has been unable to determine the present-day status of these people.
It has been estimated that as many as 40,000 Texans living today can
trace their ancestry to the Tonkawa tribe. Needless to say, this is a diffused mix of
people, most of whom are more Anglo or Hispanic than Tonkawa. This author is one such
descendant, tracing ancestry from the Lipan-Tonkawa mix. So in essence, the legacy of the
Chanas people, as well as the other members of the Tonkawa tribe, lives on in many of us
today. Our Xoloton or Bata Coniquiyoqui--our homeland--may very well lie somewhere deep
within the Texas Hills. If you feel an especial kinship to the grandeur and beauty of that
place then, just maybe, the spirit of the Chanas lives on within you too.
This article is warmly dedicated to Gary and Eric of the Dabbs Railroad Hotel, Llano,
and to the brothers and sisters of the Titskanwatitch Tribe of Texas.