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HomeNL-2019-03 Brazos

How did the Brazos River get its name?
March 2019
by John Rich

A few months ago I posted a message to my family on Facebook which mentioned the Brazos River, west of Houston.  The wife of a cousin, Maria, who is from Chile and whose native language is Spanish, responded that the word "Brazos" means "arms" in Spanish, and that this was an odd name for a river.  And so it seems.  What is the explanation for this odd river name?

The Brazos is the 11th-longest river in the United States at 1,280 miles from its headwaters in New Mexico to its mouth at the Gulf of Mexico.  It is also the longest river in the State of Texas at 840 miles, and drains a land area of 44,000 square miles, an area the size of the state of Pennsylvania.

Brazos River
  Brazos River

Originally, the Brazos River was called "Tokonohono" by the Caddo Indians of east Texas.  This is known from preserved accounts of 17th century French explorer R
ené Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle (that's the name of just one person!). La Salle explored the Great Lakes region, the Mississippi River, and the Gulf of Mexico. He is best known for a 1682 expedition in which he canoed the Mississippi River from the the Illinois River down to the Gulf of Mexico, claiming the entire Mississippi River valley for France.

La Salle must have had trouble pronouncing the Caddo name "Tokonohono", because he instead named the river "Maligne".  "Maligne" in French has numerous possible translations, which include things like; 
ghastly, appalling, detestable and abominable.  You get the idea of the common theme here.  La Salle obviously didn't care much for the Brazos River.

Later accounts from early Spanish explorers 
call it "Los Brazos de Dios", or "The Arms of God". 

These early Spanish explorers initially confused the Colorado and Brazos rivers, since they generally run parallel to each other and are only about 30 miles apart.

Oddly, the name Brazos was probably first applied to the present day Colorado River, by 
Alonso De León in 1690.  So, the present day Brazos was called the Colorado, and the present day Colorado, was called the Brazos.  Are you confused yet?  So were the Spanish cartographers.  At one time they thought that the Brazos and the Colorado were really the same river, unsure that there were actually two different rivers. They also thought that the Colorado River in Texas was the lower end of the Other Colorado River that runs from Colorado to Baja, and this is why they were given the same name, thus confusing thousands of future recreational water enthusiasts. And both the Other Colorado and the Brazos run "red" in color due to the muddy silt or red sandstone that washes into the water, thereby explaining the name "Colorado", which means "colored red" in Spanish.

Caddo Indian La Salle   DeLeón

The names of the Brazos and Colorado were then finally interchanged during the period of Spanish exploration, and became well-established before the end of Spanish Texas, and the arrival of Anglo Texans in the 1820's.  

Are you keeping up?  Here's a recap.  The modern Brazos River was originally called "Tokonohono" by the Indians, then "Maligne" by the French, then "Colorado" by the Spanish, who finally settled on "Los Brazos de Dios". So, "Colorado", which means "red", was originally justly applied to the muddy modern Brazos, but when it was switched to the modern Colorado, we now have the name of a muddy "red" river applied to a clean water river.  All this across 200 years of time, three cultures and languages, and three famous explorers.  Makes sense?  It's as clear as the muddy Brazos!

Brazos map 1718 Guillaume L'Isle Brazos map 1728 Francisco Álvarez Barreiro - small Brazos map 1835 Thomas Gamaliel Bradford - small
1718 French map by
Guillaume L'Isle showing
the Brazos River as
"la Maline" and combining
the San Marcos and
Colorado Rivers as one.
1728 Spanish map
by Francisco Barreiro
showing the Colorado and
Brazos Rivers combined
into one as "Rio Colorado
o de los brazos de dios". 
1835 American map 
by Thomas Gamaliel Bradford
showing the Brazos and
Colorado Rivers as we know
them today. 

So, why did the Spanish choose to call it "Los Brazos de Dios"?  Yeah, that was the original question, and it's about time I finally get to it.  Thank you for your patience.

There are several legends explaining why it was given this name, as follows.

The first and earliest story is that Spanish explorer Francisco Vázquez de Coronado and his men, wandering through Texas searching for the Seven Cities of Gold, were about to perish from lack of water.  The Indians guided them to a stream, which the men then named Brazos de Dios for it's life-saving water.  But they never did find the Seven Cities of Gold.

Another account tells of a Spanish ship tossed about by a storm in the Gulf of Mexico that had exhausted its supply of drinking water. The sailors were parched with thirst, lost, and unable to determine which direction they should go to find land, when one of the crew noticed a muddy streak in the water. Yes, that's a good sign of the Brazos.  The ship followed the streak to the mouth of a wide river, and sailed up the river, where the sailors drank fresh water and were saved. In gratitude they christened the unknown stream Brazos de Dios.

A third account occurs in the 1760's, when an extreme drought made it impossible for the Spanish miners on the San Saba to continue work. They had heard that the drought was even worse toward the south. So, they headed north-east toward the Waco Indian village where there was a never-failing stream. Many of the men and beasts died en route, and the precious bullion was buried, but the few who finally reached the stream named it Brazos de Dios.

And there you have it - that's how the Brazos River got it's name.  The common theme with each story involves the river being the first source of water fit to drink by desperate people in need of nourishment.  Remember that theme, the next time you're cursing the Brazos' steep muddy riverbanks trying to get your canoe out of the river at the end of a paddle trip.

Wait... was that buried bullion ever recovered, or is that still out there somewhere?

~ ~ ~ ~ ~


The author, John Rich