11/3/14 – What’s in a Name? A Brief History of the “Colorado River”November 3, 2014
The mighty Colorado River has not always been known as such. SHRA researchers were recently examining plats made by General Land Office surveyors along the Colorado River and discovered that the river has only been known by that name since 1921. The 1884 map shown below is a section of the original survey plat for Township 10 South, Range 104 West of the sixth principal meridian, located in far western Colorado in an area that is now part of the McInnis Canyon National Conservation Area. The map prominently shows the Grand River where we know the “Colorado” flows, and this peaked our curiosity about the river’s name.
Survey Plat, T10S R104W, 1884[i]
The Colorado Plateau has likely been inhabited for 12,000 years, so we expected the history of the river’s name to go back just as far. The area was explored by the Spanish in the 16th century, and explorer Melchior Diaz named the river Rio del Tizon, or “firebrand river,” a name that stuck for some 200 years. In 1743, however, cartographer Jacques-Nicolas Bellin labeled the river’s main stem the Rio Colorado, or “red river,” on account of its red silt load. An era of great confusion followed, thanks to the long stretches of the Colorado and Green Rivers that went unexplored until the mid-19th century. The rivers were dangerous to navigate, so it remained unclear which branches were rivers unto themselves, which were tributaries, and whether or not any river truly traveled from the Rocky Mountains all the way to the ocean. As a result, many names – Colorado, Green, Grand – were used to describe different stretches of the same river.
As explorers ventured further into the canyonlands of Colorado and Utah, they discovered that the upper Colorado split into two main tributaries: the Green River, which flows through Utah, and what was called the Grand River since the mid-1800s, which flows through Colorado. The section of river on the 1884 plat above was on this stretch known as the Grand.
The confluence of the Green and Colorado (previously Grand) Rivers.[ii]
So what happened in 1921? Many people, especially in Colorado, still referred to the Grand River as the Colorado River. And one Colorado Congressman, Edward Taylor, felt especially strongly about the issue, arguing that the Grand River was “in reality the main stream of the Colorado River” and should be officially designated as such.[iii] In a hearing before the Interstate and Foreign Commerce Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives, Taylor argued that while the Green River was the longer branch, the Grand River contributed more water to the Colorado River. He called the name Grand River “a meaningless misnomer . . . merely an adjective . . . a very commonplace name,” and felt it a great injustice to the state of Colorado that the river after which the state was named was called something else within that very state’s borders.[iv]
Renaming the Grand River, 1921[v]
Thus, Congress voted to change the river’s name, and just as Taylor had hoped, the citizens of Colorado were able to “fondly and proudly welcome our greatest river as our great State stream under the name that is dearest to every Coloradan’s heart.”[vi]
– Naomi Heindel
Editor’s Note: From time to time, SHRA comes across fun, interesting and notable items in the archives that we think would be of interest to our readers but that don’t warrant a longer blog post. This piece is one of a series of vignettes that we hope will bring some of these discoveries to life. If you’re looking for one of our longer pieces, click on “Features” under “Categories” in the left navigation column.
[i] General Land Office Survey Plat, Township No. 10 South, Range No. 104 West of the Sixth Principal Meridian, 1884
[ii] “Make a Great Map Poster With GoogleEarth,” PosterBrain Blog; “Green Colorado Confluence,” www.airphotona.com
[iii] “Renaming of the Grand River, Colo.: Hearing before the Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce of the House of Representatives,” 66th Congress, 3rd Session, H.J. Res. 460, Feb. 18, 1921
[iv] “Renaming of the Grand River, Colo.: Hearing before the Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce of the House of Representatives,” 66th Congress, 3rd Session, H.J. Res. 460, Feb. 18, 1921
[v] Barkley, Alan E. “A ‘Grand’ River No More: Naming the Colorado,” Water Resources Archive, Colorado State University
[vi] “Renaming of the Grand River, Colo.: Hearing before the Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce of the House of Representatives,” 66th Congress, 3rd Session, H.J. Res. 460, Feb. 18, 1921