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Chronicles of Oklahoma
Volume 7, No. 2
June, 1929
SOME GEOGRAPHIC NAMES OF FRENCH ORIGIN IN OKLAHOMA

BY MURIEL H. WRIGHT

Page 188

Early French records prove that French explorers had, made expeditions up the Arkansas River and the valley of the Red River into the country now included in Eastern Oklahoma, by the end of the first quarter of the eighteenth century. The explorer’s were very soon followed by Canadian, Illinoisan, and Acadian—all French—traders and trappers who not only visited Oklahoma on trading expeditions but also set up their camps on the banks of some of the streams, remaining during the trapping and hunting seasons to procure the furs and pelts that they later sold at the settlements on the Ohio River, or on the Lower Mississippi. Even during the Spanish rule of the Province of Louisiana, beginning in 1763, the French traders and trappers, who had lived in the Province for many years, were the dominating influence in the fur trade within the country drained by the Arkansas River and its tributaries, and, also, within the section lying immediately north of the Red River.

The French traders and trappers gave names to many of the streams and mountains in Oklahoma. It should be noted that these names reflected the details and human interests of their daily life, besides marking the unusual occurrences that befell the traders on their expeditions. It would prove that these men not only came once and named the streams and mountains, but also returned and called them by the same names, with the results that many of the names became fastened and have remained on the map of Oklahoma even until to-day.

In ascending the Arkansas River, the first stream of considerable size west of the Oklahoma boundary, is the Poteau. This word is French for "post." It is more than likely that a post or stake was planted near the mouth of this river as a marker, possibly for a trading concession. A similar incident which may be cited as an illustration, was related by La Harpe in the account of his expedition in 1719, who mentioned having set up a post carved with the arms of the French king, at a lame Caddoan village, near

Page 189

the present site of Haskell, Oklahoma. A large branch of the Poteau is the Fourche Maline, from the French words fourche, meaning "fork," and maline, meaning "treacherous"; thus designating the Fourche Mahne, as the "treacherous Fork of the Poteau." On the lower course of the Poteau is the Cavanol Mountain. Cavanol is a corruption from the French word caverneux, meaning "cavernous."

In continuing up the Arkansas, a small creek on the south bank is known as Cache Creek. Cache was a term used by French traders and trappers to express the act of concealing, covering, or burying, especially for the purpose of hiding property from the Indians.1

Further west, and still on the south side of the Arkansas is the Sans Bois Creek. In French, sans bois means without wood.

On the north bank of the Arkansas, a few miles west of the eastern boundary of Oklahoma is Sallisaw Creek. This name is a corrupt form of the French word salaison, meaning "salt provision." Many years ago, the story was still told about some of the French traders who salted buffalo meat on the banks of this creek, while on one of their first expeditions up the Arkansas.

Then next comes Vian Creek from the north. This name is obviously from the French word viande, meaning "meat." Small herds of buffalo were reported to be in the vicinity of this creek as late as 1820.

The Illinois River was very probably named from the fact that a party of French traders from the Illinois settlements from Kaskaskia and Cahokia, on the Upper Mississippi, established their camp on this river. It was thus distinguished, more than likely, from the Canadian River, which about the same time was named from the fact that a party of traders from Canada had camped on the banks near its confluence with the Arkansas. The name "Illinois" is from the Indian word ILiniwek, the plural of ilini, meaning man; its plural termination ek, being changed to ois by the French. The "Iliniwek" was applied to an Algonquian confederacy composed of the Peoria, Piankeshawe, Kaskaskia,



Page 190

Cahokia, and Wea Indian tribes, formerly living in parts of Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, and Missouri.

Above the Illinois River, another stream flows into the Arkansas from the north, called the "Bayou Manard." The word "bayou" is from the French baie, meaning "bay." Manard is a misspelling of Menard, the name of a French family of Kaskaskia, prominently connected with the early fur trade in the West.

Likewise, Darden Creek, also known as Elk Creek, a branch of the Arkansas, flowing from the west through Muskogee County, was named after the Darden family, early French settlers of Arkansas Post, who were identified with the western fur trade. The name of Darden Creek has been locally corrupted into "Dirty Creek," by some of the white settlers of recent years.

In the northern part of Oklahoma, the last great branch of the Arkansas from the west, in this state, is called the Salt Fork. This stream up to within the last seventy years, was known as the Grande Saline, from the French words grande and saline, meaning "great salt (river).2

The broad waters of the Neosho (Osage for "bright water"), the well known river on the north bank of the Arkansas, was called the "Grande Riviere" by the French, the word grande, meaning "wide." The Grand, or Neosho River was navigable for the pirogues, or dugout canoes, and the bateaux of the French traders from its upper sources. Later, keel boats loaded with produce from Southwest Missouri descended the Cowskin, or Elk River and the Grand River for the Lower Arkansas region. The Neosho, or Grand was also navigable for the small steamboats that ascended the stream to the lading at Fort Gibson, after the establishment of that post in 1824.

A large branch of the Neosho, or Grand River, from the east has an interesting name. It is called Spavinaw Creek. This name is a corrupt spelling of the French words spe’e, an obsolete form of ce’pee’, meaning "young growth or shoots of wood;" and a form of the French adjective vineux, meaning "vinous, or wine colored," referring to the young, reddish colored growth of the groves of black-jack, post oak, and red



Page 191

oak trees in the vicinity of Spavinaw Creek, in the springtime.

A neighboring stream of the Neosho, or Grande River and, also, a branch of the Arkansas, is the Verdigris. This name is from the words vert, meaning "green," and gris, meaning "gray." The Verdigris River was probably so named by the French because of the greenish gray color of the rocks in the channel of the stream.

In ascending the Red River, the first large tributary in Oklahoma is the Kiamichi River, the source of which is in the range of mountains known by the same names. There has been much conjecture over the derivation and the meaning of "Kiamichi," which has always been thought to be of Indian origin. Efforts toward interpreting its meaning as a Choctaw word have thus far proved futile. The Bureau of Ethnology would imply that the word is from the language of the Caddo Indians, the "Handbook of American Indians" listing it as the name of a village of the Caddoes, which contained about twenty families, located at the mouth of the Kiamichi River in 1818.3

Another source aside from its possible Indian derivation, has not received much, if any, consideration. In the French language there is the word kamichi, meaning "horned-screamer," a species of water bird of the order Alectorides, to which cranes, rails, and related species belong. From this it would seem that "Kiamichi," is directly from kamichi (pronounced nearly ka-mē-shĭ). It is more than probable that the French noted the "whooping cranes"4 on the banks of the stream in the spring of the year, and erroneously





Page 192

called it the "horned screamer," the latter being, more correctly, a South American bird of the same order.5

In the records that have been written during a period covering nearly a century and a quarter, the name of the Kiamichi River has been spelled in many different ways. Doctor John Sibley, in his letter to the Secretary of War, in 1805, describing the course of the Upper Red River, told about the "Kiomitchie." Thomas Nuttal, the noted botanist and scientist, in his "Journal" describing his visit to Red River in 1819, related his experiences in the valley of the "Kiamesha." Other ways of spelling the name include "Cayameechee," "Kimeshi," "Kimichy," and "Kimishi." In the annual reports of the Commission to the Five Civilized Tribes (Dawes Commission, 1893-1905), the name of the river is given the Latin form, "Kiamitia." The Bureau of Ethnology, doubtless following the decision of the United States Geographic Name Board, has adopted the spelling "Kiamisha." With all respect to the authorities in the matter of establishing the spelling of geographic names, yet it seems that the meaning and derivation of the name of the river has been somewhat hazy. The form nearest its local pronunciation, "Kiamichi," has found favor on the latest maps.

The next large confluence of the Red River from the north, is Boggy River. Doctor John Sibley said in 1805, that this stream was called the "Vazzures" by the French. This name is evidently a corruption of the French name derived from the adjective vaseux, meaning "boggy or miry," referring to the deep mud in the bottom of the channel. From the meaning, it is evident that the English speaking traders named the river from a translation of its French name.

The third branch of the Red River from the north, in Oklahoma, is Blue River. This was called the "Eau Bleu" by the French, from the words eau, meaning "water," and bleu,



Page 193

meaning "blue," the latter referring to the clear blue water in the stream.

The name of the Washita River, another large branch of the Red River from the north, is an adaptation and a corruption of the name Faux Ouachita, the river having been thus distinguished by the French from the true Ouachita, an Arkansas stream which is tributary to the Red River several hundred miles lower in its course. Faux means "false" in French. The name Ouachita was probably derived from the Choctaw words owa, meaning "hunt," and chito, meaning "big." The Choctaws spoke of a hunt far away from their country as "a big hunt," or "owa chito."

In very early days, the Choctaws crossed the Mississippi and traveled west to the region of the Ouachita River (Arkansas and Louisiana), on their "owa chito" for buffalo, but as the large game disappeared from that section, they ascended the Red River to the valley of another tributary nearer the Great Plains on their owa chito.6 When the French began their explorations of the Red River during the first half of the 18th Century, they heard the Choctaws tell about their owa chito on the lower tributary. Later, the Choctaws doubtless told the explorers of their other owa chito on the tributary in the far West. However, when the first French expeditions arrived on the banks of the upper tributary of the Red River, which had been described to them by the Choctaws, they found the appearance of the stream so different from that of its lower tributary, that they called it the "Faux Ouachita" (i.e., "False Ouachita") to distinguish it from the true Ouachita. Upon the arrival of the English speaking people in the valley of the Red River, they adopted the French name for its most extensive tributary in what is now Oklahoma, giving the first word its translation, "false," and retaining the owa chito, or Ouachita in the corrupt spelling, "Washita." The Washita was still called the "False Washita," as late as the Civil War.



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