American River Names

Dr. John E. McLaughlin mclasutt at
Tue Apr 3 15:13:03 UTC 2001

As an Americanist, I'd better put in my 2 cents.  The Gulf Coast of the SE
U.S. was one of the most densely populated regions of North America
aboriginally, even more than California's central valley.  It was also quite
diverse linguistically, including known (and almost all unrelated) languages
such as Coahuilteco, Cotoname, Comecrudo, Karankawa, Tonkawa, Western
Atakapa, Eastern Atakapa, Caddo, Adai, Tunica, Natchez, and Chitimacha west
of the Mississippi Delta down to just beyond the mouth of the Rio Grande
(there are a couple others around the mouth of the Rio Grande, but I can't
remember them right now).  No one can tell how many other languages may have
been there, but were unrecorded before becoming extinct.  Unfortunately,
this area was also one of the first regions entered by Spanish and French
explorers carrying measles and smallpox along with them.  There was a
serious amount of depopulation surrounding this, but just as serious was the
Spanish attitude toward Indians in general during the 17th and 18th
centuries.  The Indians of this region were considered pagans, so that their
languages were heathen by nature.  There was some attempt among the Spanish
to write catechisms in the languages (thus our only records of Coahuilteco,
Cotoname, Comecrudo, and Aranama), but the attempt was piecemeal and most of
these languages went without any records whatsoever before the languages
were extinct due to disease, slavery, and the forced assimilation to
Spanish.  The languages of almost the entire northeastern quadrant of Mexico
are virtually unknown to us and are long extinct.  In this environment, I
think it's more of a question of conquerors' attitudes, technological
superiority, and speed of conquest, than of any population density issue.
Indians were generally destroyed rather than conquered in these areas.
This, combined with the prevaling religious attitudes, meant that native
names were not preserved along the Texas and Louisiana coastlines.  In West
Texas, to the contrary, the population density was always tiny, yet there
are no fewer Comanche names in that area than there are native names along
the Gulf Coast.  But overall, the native names throughout Texas (indeed,
throughout the United States) are not the names that the Natives applied to
a particular place (as, for example, "Danube" is the name the locals called
the river and later waves of people just kept calling it that), but Indian
words or names that whites thought were cool and applied to a new place
(e.g., "Quanah" and "Nocona", town names in northwest Texas that are not
Native place names, but Comanche names applied to white towns, in this case,
the names of "Quanah Parker" and his father "Peta Nocona", famous Comanche
war chiefs).  Here in Utah, there are only a handful of Native place names
that are actually pre-White retentions, and these are all in regions where
the Spanish were at the outer limits of their reach at the northern end of
the Old Spanish Trail in central and eastern Utah.  However, these names are
all mountain ranges and not rivers (Wahsatch, Oquirrh, Uintah, Mt.
Timpanogos).  The rivers all bear European names (Green, Colorado,
Duschesne, Strawberry, Jordan, Spanish Fork, Weber, Provo, Bear, etc.).

John E. McLaughlin, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, English
Utah State University

Program Director
USU On-Line Linguistics

(435) 797-2738 (voice)
(435) 797-3797 (FAX)
mclasutt at

-----Original Message-----
From: Indo-European mailing list [mailto:Indo-European at]On Behalf
Of David L. White
Sent: Thursday, March 29, 2001 10:18
To: Indo-European at
Subject: American River Names

[ moderator snip ]

        Thank you; my Spanish dictionary is rather bad.
        But before someone else brings up a few points on this, I might as
well do it myself...
        The prevalence of Spanish river names might be attributed to very
low poplation density of Indians in Texas, the idea being that the Spanish
explorers and presumed namers encountered rivers more often than natives
(likely enough, actually).   This probably has something to do with it, but
in East Texas (which might as well be Alabama, in more ways than one) the
population density was, as far as I know, not any lower than in SE America
generally.  The resident Caddoes (sp?) were mound-building famers of the
usual sort.  Yet Spanish river names occur there too.  Furthermore, the
names of tribes are (almost?) all native, indicating that the Spanish were
perfectly well able to find out what the native word for some thing or group
was and apply it when appropriate.  The name "Waco" (and "Hueco"?)  for
example, is from Tonkawa, and the Tonkawas were about as marginal as tribes
got.  Yet evidently some Europeans bothered to talk to them, rather than
regarding them as non-existent.  Moving westward, my impression is that the
valley of California was rather densely populated (by Amerindian standards),
yet the same phenomenon of (largely) Spanish river names occurs there.
        So though low population density probably is a factor, I doubt that
is can be considered decisive.

Dr. David L. White

More information about the Indo-european mailing list