History offers many names for the Rio Grande

Letter from Virgina M. Simmons

Geography – November 2001 – Colorado Central Magazine


On my bookshelves, the best summary of names for the Rio Grande is found in Carroll L. Riley’s Rio del Norte: People of the Upper Rio Grande from Earliest Times to the Pueblo Revolt (University of Utah Press, 1995). Riley begins with the names used by Pueblo Indians in New Mexico when the Spaniards arrived. Puebloan descriptive names testify to the fact that this was the largest stream they knew.

Coronado’s party called it the Guadalquivir, but in 1582 the Espejo expedition called it the Rio del Norte. Compared to Spanish lands in Old Mexico, this river was way up north, after all. In 1590-91 de Sosa’s expedition called the river by the same name, until, seeing it downstream near Del Rio, Texas, he called it the Rio Bravo (“strong river”). Nevertheless, when Oñate came in 1598 to colonize today’s New Mexico, the name Rio del Norte was already the established designation of the river he followed northward. The map of Enrico Martinez, drawn in 1602, shows the Rio Conchos (which flows out of Mexico below El Paso), and below the Concho’s mouth is the Rio Bravo while above that junction is the Rio del Norte.

This story is getting a bit long, so to make it short: By the 1700s some Spanish maps were using the name Rio Grande del Norte, and people quibbled about calling it the Rio del Norte or the Rio Grande until the late 1800s, when the whole waterway was known as the Rio Grande.

As for the “Brazo,” meaning “arm,” I sympathize with Ed about the problem of reading a screen while wearing split-level glasses. But I can’t refrain from extolling the scenic and historic Brazos River area of northern New Mexico. If anyone has never ventured into this area, go. You will find two arms of the Brazos River, forming a tributary of the Chama River. In the backcountry east of the village of Brazos (just north of Tierra Amarilla) are Brazos Canyon and Brazos Lake, probably littered with hunters just now. Architecture in the Hispanic villages of this region is unique. Be sure to turn off the highway into the neighboring village of Los Ojos, too, to see some fine Hispanic weaving, produced and sold at a co-op called Tierra Wools.

By the way, I sympathize with Martha about having to write a substitute editorial concerning September 11. So did I and it was hard, but not nearly as hard as the work of many others.

Virginia McConnell Simmons

Del Norte