The Nueces River rises in two forks in north central Edwards County and northwestern Real County (at 29°56' N, 100°00' W) and follows a southerly and southeasterly course of 315 miles to its mouth on Nueces Bay (at 27°50' N, 97°29' W). It drains an area of 16,800 square miles and carries an annual runoff of some 620,000 acre-feet. Fed by headsprings on the Edwards Plateau, the East Prong from Real County joins Hackberry Creek from Edwards County to form a portion of the Real-Edwards county line. The stream flows thence through a canyon of remarkable beauty paralleling Ranch Road 335. Joined in western Uvalde County by the Nueces West Fork, which rises in Edwards County and crosses the northeastern corner of Kinney County, the river descends from the plateau through the Balcones Escarpment. It continues its generally southeast course through the relatively flat terrain of the Gulf Coastal Plain to its mouth. After passing through Zavala, Dimmit, and La Salle counties, it turns northeast through McMullen County. Its major tributary, the combined Frio and Atascosa rivers, joins the Nueces near Three Rivers, Live Oak County. The Nueces then turns back southeast to form the county line between Jim Wells and San Patricio and San Patricio and Nueces counties. The rivercourse and drainage basin are in a predominantly rural area. Corpus Christi (pop. 262,092), situated at its mouth, is the only metropolis. Uvalde (pop. 15,086) is the second largest town in the entire watershed. Major impoundments in the Nueces watershed include Choke Canyon Reservoir and Lake Corpus Christi. The Choke Canyon lake, on the Frio River four miles west of Three Rivers, is a joint project of the city of Corpus Christi and the United States Bureau of Reclamation, providing water for municipal and industrial uses, recreation, and flood control. With shoreline in Live Oak and McMullen counties, it has a conservation storage capacity of 690,000 acre-feet. Lake Corpus Christi, impounded by Wesley E. Seale Dam four miles southwest of Mathis, is in the Lower Nueces River Water District. It furnishes water for recreation, municipal, and industrial and mining uses, as well as generation of electric power.
The Nueces River, although not explored in its entirety until the eighteenth century, was the first Texas river to be given a prominent place on European maps. It is identifiable as the Río Escondido ("Hidden River"), which first appeared on a 1527 map attributed to Diogo Ribeiro, signifying the obscure location of the river mouth behind its barrier island (see SPANISH MAPPING OF TEXAS). It was to this river that René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle-confused by the period's inadequate maps-sailed in 1685, believing that it was the Mississippi. Four years later, in 1689, Alonso De León, marching from Coahuila to find La Salle's settlement, crossed the Nueces in what is now Dimmit or Zavala County and named it Río de las Nueces ("River of Nuts") for the pecan trees growing along its banks. The (Coahuiltecan?) Indians called it Chotilapacquen. In 1691, Domingo Terán de los Ríos acknowledged De León's name for the river, yet gave it a different one-San Diego. Fray Damián Massanet, on the same expedition, called it San Norberto, for having arrived there on that saint's feast day. In January 1707, Martín de Alarcón, serving his first term as governor of Coahuila, perceived the Nueces as a tributary of the Rio Grande. He had walnut trees cut to make dugout canoes, with which he intended to reach the Frio River by descending the Rio Grande to the Nueces mouth and ascending the Nueces. Such a voyage was never attempted, yet Alarcón's erroneous concept endured until 1747. In March 1707, Alarcón sent Capt. Diego Ramón of San Juan Bautista Presidio to the Nueces to punish raiding Indians and recruit natives for the missions. Ramón traced out the rivercourse in what is now Dimmit and La Salle counties and fought the hostiles at two locations. Still, while the stream was often crossed in this sector, its connection with the river whose mouth remained hidden away in Nueces Bay was not recognized.
It was the 1747 exploration related to the founding of the Nuevo Santander colony that established the link. Capt. Joaquín de Orobio y Basterra, exploring between the San Antonio River and the Rio Grande, reached the lower Nueces and recognized it as an extension of the river crossed farther upstream by the Old San Antonio Road. He gave the name San Miguel Arcángel to the bay system (Nueces and Corpus Christi bays) into which the river empties. The Nueces thereafter became the boundary between the provinces of Texas and Nuevo Santander. A Spanish villa was planned near the Nueces mouth, now part of a new colony. Villa de Vedoya, had it become a reality, would have been the first European settlement on the river; but it died aborning, the victim of poor planning and long supply lines. More than a dozen years later, the first Nueces River settlements came into being far upstream, in the rocky canyon of the future Real and Uvalde counties. These were the "El Cañón" missions, San Lorenzo de la Santa Cruz and Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria, founded in 1762 as successors to the failed Apache mission of Santa Cruz de San Sabá.
Early in the nineteenth century, a private fort, Ramírez, was built on the south bank of the Nueces in what is now southern Live Oak County, probably on a family land grant from the king of Spain. After 1821, the Mexican government made numerous grants in the Trans-Nueces, reaching to the river itself. In 1830, a Mexican fort, Lipantitlán, was established on the Nueces near San Patricio. In 1842 it served the Republic of Texas for defense against Mexican invaders. Later, two frontier posts of the United States Army were built on the right bank, Fort Merrill (1850) and Fort Ewell (1852), in Live Oak and La Salle counties. In the meantime the beginnings of Corpus Christi had been made with an 1832 trading post, which got a boost from the arrival of Gen. Zachary Taylor's army in 1845. From the Texas Revolution to the end of the Mexican War, the Trans-Nueces had been disputed territory. Establishment of the international boundary at the Rio Grande by the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo proved to be a key to development. Still, years of struggle remained before the Nueces Strip-the region between the Nueces and the Rio Grande-was tamed.
Rich in history, the Nueces today flows through a rural region of diverse agriculture. After rising in the Edwards Plateau, noted for wool and mohair production, it descends through the Winter Garden area (Dimmit and Zavala counties), where late-winter and early-spring vegetable crops are grown under groundwater irrigation. Much of its course lies through the Brush Country, where such species as mesquite and prickly pear-the legacy of over-grazing-have traditionally presented a challenge to taming the land. Gradually, the tangled growth has yielded in some areas to modern technology, and diversified farming and ranching enterprises have developed. Every county along the Nueces course except Kinney and Real claims significant mineral production. This consists largely of oil and gas, but Uvalde County is noted for asphalt and stone. The upper Nueces watershed, embracing the Tricanyon area of the Nueces, Frio, and Sabinal rivers, is notable for its scenic beauty and appeal to outdoorsmen, especially for hunting of white-tail deer and turkey and fishing in the flowing streams. It is a favored area also for hiking, camping, and nature study, especially around Lost Maples State Natural Area near Vanderpool and Garner State Park near Concan. Of importance for water sports are the two lakes, Choke Canyon and Corpus Christi, each with its state park. Lipantitlán State Historic Site, overlooking the lower Nueces, provides a glimpse of the area's history in the revolutionary period. At the Nueces mouth, Corpus Christi is recognized as a major resort area, especially for fishing and water sports. Mustang Island State Park, on the barrier island enclosing Corpus Christi Bay, is also the gateway to Padre Island National Seashore. Served by the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, the port of Corpus Christi, which exists because of the Nueces River, handled more than 60,000 short tons of cargo in 1990, second only to Houston among Texas ports.