As a volunteer at the Museum of South Texas History in Edinburg, I am privileged with time to spend looking deeper into the artifacts and displays there. As I have long been interested in the day to day lives of people in all eras of history, the marvels of the museum provoke my informed imagination.

Neil Cassady

Museum volunteer

It’s A Hard Luck Life

Purchased from Alamy Stock Photo

The Coahuiltecan Indian diorama at the Museum of South Texas History always reminds me of the saying “Geography is Destiny.” The geography of the Rio Grande Delta certainly created a harsh destiny for those people. The river was no Nile. The banks were covered in dense thickets of prickly riparian trees and shrubs. Some of the inhabitants of those dense thickets were deadly.

Mesquite Tree South Texas / Texas Beyond History File Hinojosa

Jaguars, Black Bears, and rattlesnakes could kill you. Small children were most at risk. A young child, in the thicket, following a twisted game trail would appear as an easy meal to a large or even a medium sized predator, like a bobcat or coyote. Of course, the rattlesnake has no intention of eating a child. Rattlesnakes just lash out in the deadly blind fury of fear.

Coahuiltecans must have kept their children close.

Lone Star Tick / Wikimedia Commons

Chigger / Wikimedia Commons

Being an occasional item on the large mammal menu was tough enough, but the Coahuiltecans were a prime entrée for numerous small critters from which protection was almost impossible. Lice, fleas, mosquitos, gnats, ticks and chiggers were a constant bane. Biting ants, stinging scorpions, and venomous Brown Recluse and Black Widow spiders were lurking everywhere. Fungi, like ringworm, colonized their skin; as did numerous species of helpful and harmful bacteria. The Indians must have felt itchy all of the time.

Honey Mesquite / Wild Edible Texas

Even today, human beings quest daily for carbohydrates, fats, and protein to avoid starvation. In the time of the Coahuiltecans, carbohydrates were in short natural supply in the thorn scrub country. Mesquite beans are an excellent source of carbohydrates. Mesquite flour has a sweet mo-lasses taste, so it has an advantage of flavor over Sabal Palm hearts, Sotol hearts, and Yucca hearts. Palm hearts must be baked for a long time to render them edible. Fruits provided carbohydrates, but as with mesquite beans, were only available seasonally.

Sabal Palm / Wikimedia Commons

Prickly pear cactus fruits (Tunas), black Mexican Persimmons (Chapotes), and Hackberries must have been a marvelous treat for the Coahuiltecans. One can imagine a group of Indians finding a fruiting persimmon tree. There must have been excitement. Perhaps, the group camped directly around the base of the tree to deter nocturnal competitors such as opossums, raccoons, rats and mice. Or, just maybe they stationed an older boy as sentry by a small fire. One can envision the children assigned to harvest the next day, while mothers did other tasks, like baking a sotol heart. There was nothing to be done about daylight insect competitors, but an older boy with a strong throwing arm may have been ap-pointed to drive birds away by chucking sticks at them. That boy would probably be trying to bring a bird down to add to the feast and to his prestige. Toddlers would be on the ground with the stick thrower. Other children would climb about the tree filling little deerskin pouches with ripe fruit. That night dinner must have been pretty good. Two rabbits and a large rattlesnake are sizzling on the spit. Mesquite ashcakes baking in the coals would taste earthy sweet. The women have staked out sticks with smashed persimmon stuck on them. The dried fruit will be trail food on the trek to the next resource.

Black Persimmons / HomeBrewTalk.com

Some children have been hunting on their own. Five twigs with grasshoppers impaled on them stand at the edge of the fire’s heat. Their meal has plenty of carbohydrates and protein, but no fat. The snake and the rabbits are fat deficient. Tomorrow the men will hunt raccoon which will drip with fat when roasted. The sotol should be ready to eat. Tomorrow will be a good day. People go on.