Random Canadian

On March 3, 2011 · 5 Comments

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.

Canadian River Watershed
SOURCE: Wikimedia Commons under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license

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.

The Forgotten River Capital

On August 20, 2008 · 1 Comments

Mortals try to control nature and generally fail. I love it when people select rivers for boundaries. Invariable river flood, carve new channels, and people pretend it never happened. The old boundary remains in place with a chunk of territory now sitting on the far side of the river, fully separated from its homeland. I covered just such an instance several months ago, in the town of Carter Lake, Iowa.

I’m also fascinated by the rise and fall of settlements, especially those that seemed so promising as they began, only to disappear from memory. I once wrote about Belmont, the first capital of Wisconsin, which now exists only as two historic buildings perched on the corner of a cornfield along a winding rural road.

Imagine how pleased I was to be able to mashup both themes into a single topic. How about a former state capital sitting on the wrong side of a shifting river?

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This is Kaskaskia, Illinois. It has an amazing but relatively unknown history. French explorers arrived here by the Seventeenth Century. A village arose on this spot along the Mississippi River by 1703. Perhaps seven thousand inhabitants lived here a hundred years later, a remarkable population for the time. For that entire century it served as a commercial hub and a gateway to points further west.

Kaskaskia became the territorial capital of Illinois when it formed in 1809, and remained the capital upon statehood in 1818. The capital stayed in Kaskaskia another three more years until it moved to Vandalia, a more centrally located town.

Kaskaskia was well-established and successful. So what happened?

The population of Illinois and surrounding states began to expand greatly as settlers streamed across the Appalachian Mountains. They fanned out throughout the plains and formed towns that would soon eclipse Kaskaskia both in size and significance. The Mississippi River then delivered death blows, destroying much of the town in 1844 and again in 1881. The 1881 flood resulted in a permanent shift of the river channel, and suddenly Kaskaskia was sitting on the Missouri side of the Mississippi, totally separated from the rest of Illinois.

Flooded, beaten, cleaved, and forgotten, only 9 residents remained in Kaskaskia at the 2000 Census (well, 36 if you count the surrounding farmland). The town with so much promise that so dominated the surrounding terrain for more than a century, important enough to become the chosen capital for a newly established state, slipped into complete and utter obscurity.

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