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The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture

Red River Bridge War
(20381.10, Stan Oliner Collection, OHS).


The Spanish named it "Rio Rojo." Frontier travelers called it the Red River of Natchitoches, or the Red River of the Cadodacho, after the Caddo Indians. By the 1830s maps identified it as the Red River.

The Red River links the Great Plains with the Mississippi River Valley. Prairie Dog Town Fork, the main branch, emerges thirty miles south of Tucumcari, New Mexico, crosses into the Texas Panhandle and cuts the Palo Duro Canyon near Amarillo, Texas, turns southeast until it crosses the 100th Meridian, and meanders south of Harmon, Jackson, and Tillman counties where, just south of Frederick, it joins the North Fork, which originates in Carson County, Texas (at 34˚42´ N, 103˚07´ W). The Red continues as the south border of Cotton, Jefferson, Love, Marshall, Bryan, Choctaw, and McCurtain counties, curves at the "Great Bend" into Arkansas, and then drops into Louisiana, finally emptying into the Mississippi River (at 31˚01´ N, 91˚45´ W). Capt. Randolph B. Marcy, who identified the source of the North Fork in 1852, estimated the Red's length at 2,100 miles, but later measurements vary between 1,217 to 1,360 miles. The river's total drainage area in Oklahoma is twenty-three thousand square miles.

The Red passes through the southwestern Oklahoma plains, with its short native grasses and scrubs, an area suitable for ranching and wheat farming. As the river cuts into gypsum, copper, granite, and red clay formations, the water acquires a red tint and a bitter taste. Annual rainfall of less than twenty-two inches means normal water levels restrict river navigation. The river also bisects the Cross Timbers vegetation zone from east to west and receives the waters of the Washita River as that stream flows into Lake Texoma. The Kichi and Taovayas tribes had lived in this area long before they were contacted by Europeans.

Below Lake Texoma the Red River receives water from the rivers draining southeastern Oklahoma through the Coastal Plain. The Clear Boggy, the Blue, and the Kiamichi rivers feed the Red clear, sweet water. Caddo people, with their distinctive mound-building culture, have lived just north of the river in Oklahoma and Arkansas since precontact times. Spain had begun trading early with the Native groups, and in the early decades of the 1700s French adventurers Bénard de la Harpe and Louis Juchereau de St. Denis traded with people along the river. Beginning with the Enterprise in 1831, steamboats ferried cotton, grain, and passengers between Fort Towson, Fort Washita, and the Gulf of Mexico.

From the early seventeenth Spain and France debated the Red as the boundary separating New Spain and New France. Later, by the Adams-Onís Treaty of 1819, the Red became the southern border of the Louisiana Purchase. In 1923 the U.S. Supreme Court established the south bank as the border between Oklahoma and Texas.

Lake Texoma, created by a dam that was completed in 1938–44, is the only dam on the Red River, although there are other dams and lakes on tributaries that feed the Red. The lake, located generally in southern Marshall County and between Marshall and Bryan counties, impounds the waters and provides flood control and recreation. The nation's largest lake to be administered by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Lake Texoma has a significant economic impact in south-central Oklahoma.

Glen Roberson


"About the Red River Basin" (Wichita Falls: The Red River Authority of Texas, 2000).

Lois E. Albert, An Archeological Survey Along the Red River: The Kemp Bottoms Area, Bryan County, Oklahoma, Resource Survey Report No.19 (Norman: Oklahoma Geological Survey, 1984).

Andrew Bunyan Hadley, "Oklahoma's Red River Boundary, 1927," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 44 (Autumn 1966).

Carl N. Tyson, The Red River in Southwestern History (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1981).

Don G. Wyckoff and Linda R. Fisher, Preliminary Testing and Evaluation of the Grobin Davis Archeological Site 34MC-253, McCurtain County, Oklahoma, Resource Survey Report No. 22 (Norman: Oklahoma Geological Survey, 1985).

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The following (as per The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition) is the preferred citation for articles:
Glen Roberson, “Red River,” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry?entry=RE007.

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