American River Names

David L. White dlwhite at
Thu Mar 29 17:18:27 UTC 2001

>>        Hydronyms are more reliable than other "nyms", but even hydronyms
>>can point in the wrong direction.  For example, most of the river names of
>> Texas, for example Trinity, Brazos, Colorado, Pedernales, Llano, San Marcos,
>> Blanco, Guadalupe, and San Antonio (not sure about Sabine, Neches, and
>> Nueces), are Spanish.

> Sabine is probably from Mexican Spanish sabino "type of pine
> tree/conifer" but possibly from French sapin "fir, spruce (or the like)"
> --it's in the heart of the piney woods. Sabino also exists as a first name
> among Mexicans, so it could be from that.
> Nueces is "nuts". If you walk down Nueces St. in Austin in the
> Fall, you'll notice peopling gathering pecans from all the trees planted in
> honor of the name
> Neches does not seem to be Spanish AFAIK--although in Tejano slang
> it means "nothing, no way!" e.g. Tejano <<No truje neches.>> for standard
> Spanish <<No traje absolutamente nada.>>

> Rick Mc Callister
> W-1634
> Mississippi University for Women
> Columbus MS 39701

        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

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