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Chronicles of Oklahoma
Volume 6, No. 2
June, 1928
THE NAMING OF THE CANADIAN RIVER

JOSEPH B. THOBURN

Page 181

In Oklahoma there are three Canadian rivers, known and designated respectively as the Canadian (and not uncommonly as the South Canadian), the North Canadian and the Deep Fork of the Canadian. There is also a county of that name and a town called Canadian. In addition to these, there are townships, schools, churches and sundry business enterprises which carry the word Canadian as a part of their respective official names. Directly or indirectly, all of these designations have been derived from the name of the Canadian River. But how did it happen to be so named? And who named it? And when? And where? And why? Although these questions have been often asked, yet it has been seldom that an answer to any of these has been even attempted. Aye, more, most of them can only be answered by inference.

One pronouncement upon this subject, which has been accepted as authentic in some quarters, was that of Dr. E1lliott F. Coues, a many-sided man of versatile attainments, who was a physician and surgeon by profession and a naturalist by inclination and practice. Rather late in life, he evinced an active interest in the early history of the region west of the Mississippi, editing and annotating for publication the journals of Lewis and Clark and of Zebulon M. Pike and also the manuscript narrative of Jacob Fowler. In his edition of “The Explorations of Zebulon Montgomery Pike,” he appends an editorial note concerning the derivation of the name of the Canadian River, which reads in part as follows:1

“‘Canadian,’ as applied to the main fork of the Arkansas, has no more to do with the Dominion of Canada in history or politics than it has in geography, and many have wondered how this river came to be called Canadian. The word is from the Spanish Rio Cañada, or Rio Cañadiano, through such a form as Rio Cañadian, whence directly, ‘Canadian’ r., meaning ‘Cañon’ r., and referring to the way in which the stream is boxed up or shut in by precipitous walls near its headwaters.




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Unfortunately for Doctor Coues’ deduction in this instance, he utterly failed to present any evidence to the effect that there was or ever had been any stream in New Mexico known locally as the “Rio Cañada” or as the “Rio Cañadiano.” Moreover, he entirely disregarded the fact that, in its upper course, in New Mexico, the Canadian River never was and is not now locally called by that name, but, on the contrary, has always been known as the Rio Colorado, or Red River. What is even more significant is the further fact that the words Cañadian and Cañadiano do not occur even in the more comprehensive Spanish dictionaries or lexicons. The Spanish word cañada, literally translated into English, signifies “a small or narrow, gorge, or a sheep path, in a steep place,” or, in other words, a gully, an eroded channel or diminutive canyon, too insignificant in size or proportions to be deemed worthy of distinction by an individual name.

The Spanish-American people of New Mexico always gave the name of Rio Colorado (i.e., Red River) to the stream which is known in Oklahoma and Texas as the Canadian, and it is still so designated, either in its Spanish or English form, on modern atlas maps of New Mexico and is commonly so called by the people of that state. Any attempt to ascribe the origin or derivation of the name Canadian, as applied to this river, to a Spanish-Mexican source, therefore plainly lacks a foundation in the element of fact.

In examining the evidence bearing upon this subject, it is well to admit that an official map of the Republic of Mexico, published after the war between that country and the United States,2 has the Canadian River indicated as Rio Cañadiano, while the North Canadian is called Rama Norte del Rio Cañadiano, literally, the North Fork, or branch, of the Canadian River, both being thus distinguished below the international boundary line (100th Meridian). It is noticeable, however, that above the boundary line, the last mentioned stream is identified as the Rio Rajo, which was the name commonly applied to that stream throughout its entire course by the Spanish-Mexican people of that period. Moreover, it is also noticeable that in neither instance is the sound of the Spanish ñ (n-y) indicated in the word Canadian, thus leading to the




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natural inference that the names, as thus used, must have been derived from Anglo-American sources.

The first settlement established in Canada was that of Champlain, at Quebec, in 1608. Three-quarters of a century later, before the first English colonial settlements had extended as far west as the Alleghenies, Canadian-French pioneers had paddled their canoes up the St. Lawrence, skirted the shores of the Great Lakes, threaded the channels of the small tributary rivers of Illinois and Wisconsin, crossed by portage to those of the Mississippi and descended to “the Illinois country,” where they planted two settlements—Cahokia and Kaskaskia—on the eastern banks of the great river. A generation later, the first French explorers—La Harpe and Du Tisne—had penetrated the primeval wilderness, across the bounds of the present state of Oklahoma. Within a few years thereafter—just about two centuries ago, in fact—the French traders began to make their way up the channels of the Arkansas and Red rivers with stocks of goods for the Indian trade, going wherever a canoe could be paddled or a batteau pushed with setting poles.

One local trading center of considerable importance was located on the Arkansas River, a few miles south of the Kansas boundary line, in what is now Kay County. Another was on both sides of Red River, in the southeastern part of Jefferson County, Oklahoma, and the adjacent section of Montague County, Texas. Besides these two principal streams, several of their numerous tributaries were likewise navigated in canoes or other light craft. These included the Poteau, the Canadian, the North Canadian, the Deep Fork, the Illinois, the Neosho or Grand, the Verdigris, Cimarron and Nescatunga (known also as the Grand Saline and now called the Salt Fork), all of the Arkansas River system, and the Little River, the Kiamisha, Boggy, Blue and Washita, all of the Red River system. Most of the men who were employed by the traders were voyagers (i.e., experienced canoe men) from Canada, the rest being from the Illinois settlements. Practically all of them were American-born and many of them were descended from pioneer French colonists who had settled in Canada nearly if not quite a century before.

These voyageurs were a gay, light-hearted set, inured alike to hardship and danger, yet ever as ready to battle with

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flood or savage foe as they were to sing and dance when the danger was past. For the sake of protection as well as because they were decidedly gregarious in a social way, these voyageurs generally made their long river journeys in companies of at least ten or a dozen, if possible, with two or three men to each canoe, and especially was this the case on the upstream voyage, when they had cargoes of merchandise, for the Indian trade, to be transported against the current of the river. These Creole French traders, trappers and voyageurs left their indelible impress upon the geography of Oklahoma, as the names of many rivers, creeks and mountains of the state bear abundant witness to this day, even though some of these have been more or less corrupted since the disappearance of the French language as the prevailing tongue of trade in this region, more than a century ago.

If the Canadian derivation of the name of the Canadian River is to be challenged, what shall be said of the derivation of the name of the Illinois River, in Eastern Oklahoma? (It is perhaps not lacking in suggestiveness that, although Doctor Coues mentioned the Illinois River of Oklahoma and even described this stream, he did not attempt to account for the derivation or significance of its name)3 It was not so named by the Indians (Osage) who ranged over that section of the country at the time of its exploration and commercial exploitation by the French, as they called it the Ne-eng-wah-kon-dah, which is by interpretation, Medicine Stone River. How, then, did it come to be rechristened Illinois River? The answering inference is plain, namely, that it must have been either named in honor of their own loved homeland of “Illinois Country” by Creole French voyageurs from the settlements at Cahokia or Kaskaskia, or else it was so named in their honor by their fellow boatmen who were from Canada. Under no other possible explanation can the naming of this eastern Oklahoma stream, in the first half of the eighteenth century, be accounted for in a satisfactory way.

If this beautiful mountain stream, the Illinois River of Eastern Oklahoma, which is so unlike the sluggish Illinois River, which is tributary to the Mississippi, in the state of the same name, thus came to be called Riviere des Illinois—liter-




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ally, “the River of the Illinoians”—why was it not likewise possible, or even probable, that the larger tributary, which discharges its floods into the Arkansas from the opposite direction, a few miles lower down, was not named in a similar manner, either by or out of compliment to a group of voyageurs from la belle Canada of the far north, being called des Canadians, meaning, literally, the River of the Canadians?

It would seem, therefore, that the original Canadian title to the river, which the Osages called Ne-sout-che-brara, should have been at least as good as was the Illinois title to the stream which the people of the same tribe called the Ne-eng-wah-kon-dah.

—JOSEPH B. THOBURN.




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