The Taensas lived in villages in the area now known as Louisiana, Alabama, and possibly Texas. While there is speculation that they interacted with explorer Hernando de DeSoto in 1541, members of the 1682 La Salle Expedition made the first recorded observations about the tribe. Like most native groups living in Louisiana, the Taensas’s population began to decline after their initial contact with Europeans. While attrition from disease, slave raiding, tribal consolidation, and warfare greatly reduced their numbers, the Taensas were a mobile and adaptable people who remained a discrete cultural entity into the 1930s. Though the two are sometimes confused, the Taensas people were distinct from the Avoyel-Taensas people of northern Louisiana, who consider themselves “similar to the practices of the southern Hopewell tribes of the Ohio River Valley.” Instead, the Taensas people were linguistically and culturally related to the Natchez.
Tribal Structure and Culture
The Taensas lived in villages governed by a chief, defined their ancestry matrilineally, and lived by farming, hunting, and trading. Henri de Tonti, who served as René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de la Salle’s lieutenant on the 1682 expedition, favorably described their village on the banks of the Mississippi River at St. Joseph Lake, in modern-day Tensas Parish. Praising the quality of their “cabins” and temple, Tonti indicated that the buildings consisted of mud-covered walls with cane-thatched roofs, and were “adorned with paintings.” He also noted that the Taensas possessed many well-crafted items, including the chief’s finely woven white clothing and a variety of wooden furniture, “delicately worked cane mats,” as well as distinctive religious figurines made of wood and clay.
Like other groups along the central Mississippi River, the Taensas lived under an authoritarian chief in a hierarchical society. Early descriptions suggest that slaves served the chief and his family. While French missionary François Joliet de Montigny witnessed human sacrifice among the Taensas, including the sacrifice of infants in a fire when the temple was ignited by lightening, missionary Paul Du Ru wrote about the ritual suicides of family and friends when a chief died: “No chief dies without a dozen of his most loyal friends killing themselves to be buried with him.” After death, the chief’s body was interred in the temple, which housed many small religious figurines along with an eternal flame; access was restricted. Noted for ceremonial devotion, the Taensas made offerings to the small religious objects in the temple.
Though the French described the Taensas as farmers who raised and lived off of corn, there is also evidence that they were involved in extensive trade networks along the Mississippi River. At least some members of the Taensas spoke Mobilian jargon, a pidgin language used by various Native Americans who conducted trade along the river. They were involved in the salt trade. Tonti described the tribe as having items such as exotic feathers and copper plates, acquired through trade. Scholars have also speculated that their frequent moves may have been orchestrated to control vital trade routes.
Despite their evident domesticity, the Taensas were known for their ability to move villages quickly and resettle as needed. The reasons for these moves remain difficult to define, but seem to indicate a desire to control either food sources or trade routes. Often these migrations brought them into conflict with neighboring tribes. Their village on St. Joseph Lake, for example, apparently was built after 1690 when they had driven out or killed others living on the Ouachita River. Fearing the encroaching Yazoo and Chakchiuma, the Taensas moved again in 1706 at the invitation of the Bayagoula; however, the Taensas then turned on their hosts, killing many and driving the rest away from the area. Around 1719, the Taensas relocated to Bayou Manchac. After the Natchez Massacre changed the diplomatic landscape of Louisiana in 1729, they went to an area north of Mobile Bay, in spite of the fact that the French crown granted the tribe land at the head of Bayou Lafourche on the Mississippi River.
When the Spanish claimed Louisiana in 1762, the colonial government tried to relocate the Taensas farther west, on Spanish lands between the Sabine and Trinity Rivers. There are indications that few if any Taensas actually went; instead, most sought to retain their control over their lands north of Mobile Bay. After Americans gained control of the area around Mobile, however, the remaining Taensas moved to the Red River near the community of Boyce in present-day Rapides Parish, and allied with the Apalachee. Both the Taensas and Apalachee sold their holdings in 1803. The Taensas then relocated to Bayou Boeuf in present-day Terrebonne Parish.
In 1812, the Taensas moved to Bayou Tensas near Grand Lake in today’s Cameron Parish. From here, they became closely associated with settlements of the Chitimacha. While their territorial identity began to disappear after 1812, the Taensas language was still spoken within these settlements in the latter part of the nineteenth century, and individuals still distinctly identified themselves as Taensas into the 1930s.
Apparently, the Taensas chose their allies strategically, based on their immediate economic and political needs. While they shared similarities with the Natchez and lived in close proximity to them, they remained hostile to these neighbors. Indeed, they had almost no enduring associations with other groups, choosing instead to make and break alliances as needed. The Taensas pledged their loyalty to the French and then the Spanish, and many converted to Catholicism while living under these regimes. They seem to have largely avoided the English, who raided the Taensas for slaves beginning in the late 1600s.
Tribal Decline and Assimilation
Though never a particularly large tribe, population statistics for the Taensas vary considerably. In 1703 Montigny estimated that there were 300 men and 150 families in the St. Joseph Lake settlement. In 1723, the number of Taensas was recorded on a Chickasaw map at around seventy warriors. A village below Manchac consisting of Taensas, Pacanas, and Mobilians reportedly had a total of thirty gunmen in 1773. It is clear that, like most native Louisiana groups, the Taensas suffered severe population decline after European contact. Scholars indicate that within three generations after La Salle’s appearance, the populations of all native groups on the river plummeted nearly 90 percent.
The Taensas language received attention beginning in the 1880s, when Frenchman Jean Parisot produced a series of documents owned by his grandfather, Haumonté of Plombiéres, that appeared to be written in a distinctive Taensas language. In 1885, however, Daniel G. Britnon wrote a book arguing that the documents were forgeries. American anthropologist and linguist John R. Swanton sided with Brinton in 1908, identifying discrepancies in the forgeries and placing the Taensas’s language within the Natchesan language group instead, a placement confirmed as recently as 2004 by Ives Goddard of the Smithsonian Institution.
Cite This Entry
Chicago Manual of Style
Marasco, Sue A. "Taensas Tribe." In KnowLA Encyclopedia of Louisiana, edited by David Johnson. Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, 2010–. Article published January 12, 2012. http://www.knowla.org/entry/1195/&view=summary.
Marasco, Sue A. "Taensas Tribe." KnowLA Encyclopedia of Louisiana. Ed. David Johnson. Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, 12 Jan 2012. Web. 21 Jan. 2017.
Would you like to learn more about this topic from books and other reading materials?
Gallay, Alan. The Indian Slave Trade: The Rise of the English Empire in the American South, 1670–1717. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2002.
Goddard, Ives. “The Indigenous Languages of the Southeast.” Anthropological Linguistics 47, no. 1 (Spring 2005): 1–60.
Waselkov, Greg, Peter H. Wood, and Tom Hatley, editors. Powhatan’s Mantle: Indians in the Colonial Southeast. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2006.
Kniffen, Fred B., Hiram F. Gregory, and George A. Stokes. The Historic Indian Tribes of Louisiana, from 1542 to the Present. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1987.
Journal of Paul du Ru, February 1 to May 8, 1700. Missionary Priest to Louisiana. Translated with an Introduction and Notes from a Manuscript in the Newberry Library. Chicago, IL: The Caxton Club, 1934.
Swanton, John R. “The Language of the Taënsa.” American Anthropologist, n. s. 10, no. 1 (January–March 1908): 24–32.