The pursuit of geo-oddities is a passion of mine, but not my only one. History, and by extension personal history (genealogy) is another. Sometimes the two intertwine. I’ve known of a family line tangential to mine that’s associated with the early history of Canadian, Texas beginning with its founding in 1887 and extending into the early 20th Century. I always thought Canadian was an unusual name for a town so completely isolated and removed from anything resembling Canada but I’d never examined its etymology. I guess I was curious but not quite that curious. Maybe Canadian settlers wandered down to the Texas Panhandle around that time and founded a town.
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I was wrong. Well, maybe not completely wrong, but the situation is entirely more complicated than my mental supposition led me to believe. I’d forgotten about it frankly, until I poked around a map of Oklahoma recently and spotted Canadian County. It wasn’t that far away from Canadian, Texas; maybe 150 miles straight-line. Certainly two Canadians so far away from Canada yet close to each other stood a good chance of being related. I noticed a river valley that squiggled between the two points and beyond. That proved to be the solution.
Canadian, Texas; Canadian County, Oklahoma; and the less-populated Canadian Township and town of Canadian found elsewhere in Oklahoma are all named after the Canadian River. I also found additional examples through the U.S. Board on Geographic Names, one of my favorite resources.
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The Canadian River starts in northeastern New Mexico, cuts across the Texas Panhandle, and meanders through much of Oklahoma’s girth before joining the Arkansas River, finally marching towards the Mississippi River and into the Gulf of Mexico. It’s not more than a string of mudflats and quicksand for much of its length.
Nobody really knows why it’s called the Canadian River. Local inhabitants offered several theories over the years. Variations appear all over the Intertubes presented as fact.
- It’s similar to the Spanish word cañada which can mean glen or gully and, well, Spanish people were all over New Mexico and Texas. The problem with this theory is that there isn’t any actual evidence of Spanish-speaking visitors ever using this term to describe the river.
- The river takes a northeastern jog as it cuts across the Texas Panhandle, leading some to postulate that perhaps an early explorer thought it flowed into Canada. Evidence is lacking and it seems rather far-fetched.
- French-Canadian trappers and traders made it down here during the first half of the Eighteenth Century. Perhaps they wanted to honor their homeland.
The best analysis on its etymology I found online was published in the Oklahoma Historical Society’s Chronicles of Oklahoma in 1928. It provided circumstantial evidence that discounted the first two theories and promoted the third.
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.
The Illinois River is another example mentioned in the article, not the major tributary of the Mississippi River found in the state of Illinois, but a different one that springs from the Ozark Mountains in Arkansas and flows into northeastern Oklahoma. The theory is that French-Canadians from Kaskaskia (see my Kaskaskia page) affixed the name to a new waterway they encountered during one of their trading expedition. The same might apply to the Canadian River — which already had its name by the Eighteenth Century — and thus by extension to many things Canadian in New Mexico, Texas and Oklahoma.
Is it an artifact of a vast trading network that covered most of the continent interior, or is it an odd coincidence? The answer remains unknown.