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Not that Colorado: The muddy, winding story of how the Texas' Colorado River got its name

The Colorado River winds toward downtown Austin, as seen from Pennybacker Bridge.
Michael Minasi
KUT News
The Colorado River winds toward downtown Austin, as seen from Pennybacker Bridge.

When Katy Moore was 9 years old, she took a rafting trip down the Colorado River. She started outside Las Vegas, though the river itself begins in the state of Colorado and flows through the Grand Canyon all the way down to northwestern Mexico.

Now, 33 years later, Moore lives in Austin. Sitting atop the peak at Mount Bonnell on a recent spring day, she looked down at the river below her, also known as the Colorado, and started wondering about that long-ago rafting trip.

“How is that the Colorado River and this is, too?” Moore asked.

She’s not alone. Countless visitors and new arrivals to Texas have confused the Texas Colorado River with its better-known counterpart west of the Rockies.

“Why is the river that flows through Austin called the Colorado when it starts near Abilene and never touches the state of Colorado?” listener Charles Taylor asked ATXplained.

The answer starts with the meaning of the name, then gets even weirder.

Once upon a time in Texas

To explain the case of the two Colorado Rivers, let’s go back to the late 1600s.

After French colonists arrived in the region now known as Texas, the competing Spanish began expeditions to quickly claim territory. French and Spanish cartographers started naming the rivers here.

In the 1690s, Spanish explorer Alonso de León named a river "El Rio Colorado" (“the Red River”) for its muddy waters, bleeding reddish hues from the clay soil beneath the waves.

Other rivers with the same red water got the same Spanish name.

There are “Rios Colorados” in Chile, Argentina, Bolivia and Costa Rica, to name a few. In the U.S., there are many rivers dubbed the “Red River” for similar reasons.

But, the most famous Colorado River, the one that created the Grand Canyon, does not appear to have been named after the color of its contents. It was initially called the “Grand River.” It got a name change in 1921 to honor its state of origin: Colorado.

Colorado was not even recognized until 1876, which means the river in Texas was named not just before the other Colorado River, but before the state of Colorado was even a thing.

And it gets weirder.

'The Arms of God'

It turns out that the Texas river we now call the Colorado River is not the same river de León noticed and named in the late 1600s.

After the Colorado River in Texas was named, colonists soon named another nearby river “Los Brazos de Dios” or “the Arms of God.”

Some think it earned its name because the river —like a blessing from God — provided drinkable water for thirsty settlers. Another theory holds that the Brazos River was named for its many tributaries, or arms, known as brazos.

But, like many explorers back in the day (see: Christopher Columbus), the Spanish and French got confused about what bodies of water they were near.

A 1718 map by a French cartographer shows a river labeled “Rio de San Marcos ou Colorado,” (literally “San Marcos River or Arms of God River”) combining the San Marcos and Colorado rivers situated in the center of present-day Texas.

Historians assume the present-day Brazos was at one point also named “La Maligne” by the French settler René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, as shown in the 1718 map.

A map from 1727 appears to further the confusion, now showing a combined “Río Colorado o de los brazos de dios,” (“Colorado River or Arms of God River”) placed in northeastern Texas.

At some points the Colorado and Brazos rivers stand just 30 miles apart, which could be the reason for the combination of the names.

It appears that cartographers settled on which river was called what by 1835. But, by then, the river that had originally been called the “Brazos” was dubbed the “Colorado” and the original “Colorado,” with its muddy red waters, was now called the “Brazos.”

That’s why the Brazos River in Texas is often more muddy and red, or colorado, while the current-day Colorado River often has clearer waters despite its name.

And still, neither of them are near the state of Colorado.

The 'other' river still measures up

While the Colorado River in Texas might be the “other” Colorado, it’s regarded as the “lifeblood” of the state, said Clara Tuma, a spokesperson for the Lower Colorado River Authority.

Tuma said reservoirs like Lake Travis, Lake Buchanan and Lake Austin — collectively known as the "Highland Lakes" — are created by dams along the river in Central Texas.

They provide vital water resources for Texans.

“The Highland Lakes provide water for industries, for residences, for businesses and for agriculture in the lower basin when water is available,” she said. “They serve a myriad of uses and provide water really to our entire region.”

Some of the water is also distributed to other areas outside the Colorado River watershed, like Corpus Christi and Round Rock.

Aside from the water supply it provides, the Colorado River finds itself winning as the longest river within just Texas, coming in at 862 miles long. Altogether, there are more than 7,500 miles in the Colorado River Basin, including the streams, rivers and creeks that feed the river.

The river flows from northwest Texas near Lubbock, down southeast past Austin and into the Gulf of Mexico’s Matagorda Bay.

What’s in a name?

While Tuma doesn’t get asked too often about both rivers, she understands the questions people may have about their names.

“There’s room for some confusion, since there are two rivers with the same name,” she said. “But [the Texas Colorado River] was named the Colorado River first, and the other river is bigger. So, all can live together in harmony.”

Of course, the section of the Colorado River that sits in downtown Austin, its waters held back by the Longhorn Dam, is often called something else completely: “Lady Bird Lake” or “Town Lake,” for traditionalists.

It’s enough to make you wonder if this is the most confusingly named river in Texas.

“They call it a lake but it's really just a river that's dammed,” said Russel Larsen, enjoying the Hike and Bike Trail that runs along the river on a recent spring day.

“I get confused about Lake Austin and Lake Travis,” he added. “Which is which?”

But that’s a question for another day.
Copyright 2024 KUT News. To see more, visit KUT News.

Elisabeth Jimenez