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Kings of the Texas Hills:
The Elusive Chanas of the Llano Uplift  
by Jerry C. Drake

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It is a tradition of popular folklore in the Texas Hill Country 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 Chanas 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?


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        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 Indians.

    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 Marcos.

    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 prized trophies.

    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 period.

    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, Texas,

and to the brothers and sisters of the Titskanwatitch Tribe of Texas.