Red River

By: Diana J. Kleiner

Type: General Entry

Published: 1952

Updated: May 1, 2019

The Red River is in the Mississippi drainage basin and is one of two Red Rivers in the nation. It is the second longest river associated with Texas. Its name comes from its color, which in turn comes from the fact that the river carries large quantities of red soil in flood periods. The river has a high salt content. The Spanish called the stream Río Rojo, among other names. It was also known in frontier times as the Red River of Natchitoches and the Red River of the Cadodacho (the Caddo Indians). Randolph B. Marcy and George B. McClellan identified the Prairie Dog Town Fork as the river's main stream in 1852. If one accepts their judgment the total length of the Red River is 1,360 miles, of which 640 miles is in Texas or along the Texas boundary. The drainage area of the river in Texas is 30,700 square miles. In 1944 Denison Dam was completed on the Red River to form Lake Texoma, which extends into Grayson and Cooke counties, Texas, and Marshall, Johnson, Bryan, and Love counties, Oklahoma, and was once the tenth-largest reservoir in the United States. Principal tributaries of the Red River, exclusive of its various forks, include the Pease and Wichita rivers in north central Texas, the Sulphur River in Northeast Texas, and, from Oklahoma, the Washita. The Ouachita is the main tributary in its lower course.

The Red River of Texas heads in four main branches: the Prairie Dog Town Fork, Elm Creek or the Elm Fork, the North Fork, and the Salt Fork. Water from the river's source in Curry County, New Mexico, forms a channel, Palo Duro Creek, in Deaf Smith County, Texas, which joins Tierra Blanca Creek northwest of Canyon to form the Prairie Dog Town Fork of the Red River. This main channel flows east through Palo Duro Canyon, then across the rest of the Panhandle. The Prairie Dog Town Fork forms Palo Duro Club Lake and Lake Tanglewood in Randall County before it crosses southwestern Armstrong and northeastern Briscoe counties. Out of the canyon and into broken country, it flows eastward across central Hall and Childress counties for 160 miles. When the Prairie Dog Town Fork crosses the 100th meridian at the eastern line of Childress County, its south bank becomes the state boundary between Texas and Oklahoma and thus the northern county line of Hardeman and Wilbarger counties. Twelve miles northeast of Vernon the North Fork joins the Prairie Dog Town Fork to form the Red River proper (at 34°24' N, 99°32' W). Elm Creek, or the Elm Fork of the Red River, rises in northern Collingsworth County and drains into the North Fork of the Red River near the Greer-Kiowa county line in Oklahoma south of Altus Reservoir. The Salt Fork rises in north central Armstrong County, crosses part of Oklahoma, and joins the Prairie Dog Town Fork at the extreme northern point of Wilbarger County, Texas, sixteen miles northwest of Vernon. At this junction an ancient buffalo trail and the Western Trail once crossed the stream. Below the junction of the North Fork and the Prairie Dog Town Fork, the Red River proper continues to mark with its south bank the state line between Texas and Oklahoma and thus forms the northern county line of Wilbarger, Wichita, Clay, Montague, Cooke, Grayson, Fannin, Lamar, Red River, and Bowie counties. The river becomes the state line between Texas and Arkansas at the northeastern corner of Texas. Afterward, it leaves Texas and enters Arkansas, then continues eastward, forming the northern boundary of Miller County, before turning south-southeast to form the eastern boundary of the county. It then flows southeast across Louisiana. It forms the line between Caddo and Bossier parishes and then proceeds southeast across Red River and Natchitoches parishes, forms portions of the lines between Natchitoches and Grant and Grant and Rapides parishes, crosses northeastern Rapides and northwestern Avoyelles parishes, forms parts of the lines between Avoyelles and Catahoula, Avoyelles and Concordia, and Concordia and Pointe Coupe parishes, and finally reaches its mouth (at 31°01' N, 91°45' W) on the Mississippi River forty-five miles northwest of Baton Rouge and 341 miles above the Gulf of Mexico. Though the river once emptied completely into the Mississippi, more recently a part of its water at flood stage flows to the Gulf via the Atchafalaya.

In the summer of 1541 the Coronado expedition explored the upper reaches of the Prairie Dog Town Fork in Palo Duro and Tule canyons. In the summer of 1542 the Moscoso expedition crossed the Red River in Louisiana on its way into East Texas. In 1690 Domingo Terán de los Ríos crossed Texas from southwest to northeast and reached the Red River, possibly as far down as the great raft and the Caddo Indian settlements in the area of present Texarkana. French traders used the river as an approach to establish a lucrative trade with the Caddos and associated tribes by the early eighteenth century. Farther up the river the Taovaya Indians had villages near the site of Spanish Fort in what is now Montague County, villages that in the middle eighteenth century were under French influence and flew a French flag. Diego Ortiz Parrilla, in charge of a Spanish punitive expedition, was defeated at the villages in 1759. In 1769 Athanase de Mézières was appointed lieutenant governor of the Natchitoches District with jurisdiction over the Red River valley. He was to suppress the traffic in stolen horses and Indian captives centered in the Taovaya villages, whose inhabitants by 1772 were trading with Englishmen from the east and Comanches on the High Plains. In 1778 Mézières visited the Red River villages and proposed a Tlascalan Indian settlement among them. Neither this proposal nor a suggestion in 1792 that a Spanish mission be built on the Red River was carried out. In 1841 the Texan Santa Fe expedition mistook the Wichita River for the Red River. In 1852 Randolph Barnes Marcy commanded an exploring expedition to the headwaters of the Canadian and the Red rivers, and a year later published a report on the trip, Exploration of the Red River of Louisiana in the Year 1852. The Red River War of 1874–75 ended Indian hostilities in the area.

The Red River has been a boundary almost since the first Europeans came to the area. In the 1700s the river was generally regarded as the dividing line between France and Spain, and a royal cedula in 1805 proclaimed the river the northern and eastern boundary of the Spanish province of Texas. After the Louisiana Purchase by the United States, several expeditions were sent up the Red River to explore that tributary of the Mississippi, and a struggle began between the United States and Spain over where the boundary should be. In 1804–05 William Dunbar explored the river as far up as the mouth of the Washita. In 1805 Dr. John Sibley supplied the United States with a detailed description of the area up the river and westward as far as Santa Fe, New Mexico. The Red River was again formally set forth as the northern boundary of Texas in the Adams-Onís Treaty of 1819. This treaty, as ratified by Spain and the United States in 1821 and by Mexico in 1822, established the Red River as the southwestern boundary of Louisiana-as far northwest as the 100th meridian, "as laid down on the Melish Map." Illegal infiltration continued across the river into Texas until the opening of Anglo-American colonization in 1821, when the river became the thoroughfare by which many pioneer settlers moved into Texas. Others came down the military road to Fort Towson and crossed the river at Jonesborough and Pecan Point. Many settlers along the river raised cotton in the rich blackland of Northeast Texas, despite its tendency to overflow, and the Red River County area was sufficiently settled to send delegates to the Convention of 1836.

The Republic of Texas recognized the Red River as a boundary when, in an act of December 19, 1836, Congress made the eastern boundary coterminous with the western boundary of the United States, as fixed by the treaty of 1819. The area between the true 100th meridian and the 100th meridian according to the Melish Map extended from the Red River north to 36°30" latitude and was more than 100 miles in width, embracing an area of 16,000 square miles. According to strict construction of the treaty of 1819, this strip belonged to Texas. The Supreme Court of the United States, however, on March 16, 1896, held that Texas was stopped from claiming this strip, for the following reasons: (1) In the Compromise of 1850, wherein Texas ceded all territory north of 36°30" latitude and west of the 100th meridian, Texas had agreed to the true meridian and not the Melish meridian. (2) The true 100th meridian had been made the eastern boundary of Lipscomb, Hemphill, and Wheeler counties when they were legally formed. (3) The true 100th meridian as ascertained had been acquiesced in, recognized, and treated as the true boundary by various acts of Texas, and both governments had treated it as the proper boundary in the disposition they made of the territory involved. The view was virtually conceded as to all the strip, except for 3,840 square miles east of the true 100th meridian and between the forks of the Red River. The United States contended that the line following the course of the Red River eastward to the 100th meridian met the meridian at the point where it intersected the lower fork of the Red River; Texas contended that her boundaries extended along the Red River to the point where the upper fork intersected the 100th meridian. In other words, the question was which was the main fork of the Red River. The Supreme Court held that the disputed territory belonged to the United States. The decision, known as the Greer County case, resulted in the loss from Texas to what is now Oklahoma of 1,511,576 acres. A quarter of a century later another argument between Texas and Oklahoma occurred when oil was discovered in the bed of the river. With the extension of the Burkburnett Townsite pool, known as the Northwest Extension, it was discovered that a part of the pool lay in the bed of the Red River. This brought up the old question of Indian headright titles and caused a controversy that reached the Supreme Court and resulted in fixing the boundary of Texas at the bluff on the Texas side. Militia of both Texas and Oklahoma, together with the Texas Rangers , engaged in several battles. The bridge was burned, oilfield equipment destroyed, and property confiscated.

The Red River has been significant also in commerce and transportation. Though its variable current and quicksands menaced settlers, gateways into Texas were established at Pecan Point and Jonesborough in Red River County, Colbert's Ferry and Preston in Grayson County, and Doan's Crossing in Wilbarger County. Indian trading posts on the river became the termini of important trails. In 1836 Holland Coffee had a post on the Oklahoma side at the mouth of Cache Creek; in 1837 he settled at Preston Bend in what is now northern Grayson County, Texas. Abel Warren had a post in northwestern Fannin County in 1836, one on the Oklahoma side of the river near the mouth of Walnut Creek in 1837, and a later post at the mouth of Cache Creek. The Central National Road of the Republic of Texas was surveyed to reach the Red River six miles above Jonesborough at Travis G. Wright's landing, then the head of navigation on the Red River. In 1853 Colbert's Ferry was opened across the river in northern Grayson County for the route that was subsequently used by the Butterfield Overland Mail, the partial direction of which had been determined by Randolph B. Marcy in his exploration of the Red River in 1852. Early crossings were made at Rock Bluff, Doan's Crossing, and Colbert's Ferry. As far as navigable, the river provided an outlet to New Orleans from Northeast Texas, and it became a highway for cotton, farm products, and eventually cattle boats. Sternwheelers, sidewheelers, and showboats plied the river alongside keelboats and pirogues. Before the railroad era, steamboats regularly navigated the Red River from New Orleans to the site of present Shreveport, but navigation of the upper river was hampered by the "great raft," a mass of driftwood and trees that obstructed the channel for seventy-five miles. In 1834–35 Capt. Henry M. Shreve removed the raft, but the river was not kept clear, and by 1856 the logjam again obstructed the river for thirty miles above Shreveport, backed up the waters of Big Cypress Creek to form Caddo Lake, and so made Jefferson the principal riverport of Texas until the removal of the raft again in 1874.

With the westward movement of the frontier and the establishment of the cattle trails to the north, the Red River became an obstacle to cross on the way to market. Cowboys relied on well-used crossings such as Ringgold, Red River Station, and Doan's Crossing. Above Clay County the Red River provides recreational use only in periods of heavy run-off. The Wichita joins the Red River in Clay County, and from this point downstream the river is used for recreation year-round, though quicksand is common. From Denison Dam at Lake Texoma to Arkansas the river flows through remote, wild country. The Ouachita National Forest and a portion of the Kisatchie National Forest of Louisiana lie within the Red River basin. As a boundary, the Red River remained in dispute as late as 1987. See also BOUNDARIES.

Peter Zachary Cohen, The Great Red River Raft (Niles, Illinois: Whitman, 1984). Harry Sinclair Drago, Red River Valley (New York: Clarkson-Potter, 1962). Carl Newton Tyson, The Red River in Southwestern History (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1981). C. A. Welborn, History of the Red River Controversy (n.p.: Nortex, 1973).

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Diana J. Kleiner, “Red River,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed August 18, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

May 1, 2019