Great Plains Studies, Center for


Date of this Version

Fall 1983


Great Plains Quarterly Vol. 3, No. 4, Fall 1983, pp. 246.


Copyright 1983 by the Center for Great Plains Studies, University of Nebraska-Lincoln


In this book Carl Newton Tyson recounts the role of the Red River in southwestern history from the time that Spanish explorers discovered the stream to the modern era. Flowing some twelve hundred miles from its origin on the Texas high plains, it drains about one-tenth of the continent before emptying its waters into the Mississippi. Claimed by Spain as a result of Coronado's marching across its upper reaches in 1541, it became a river in dispute from about 1700, when Frenchmen appeared along its lower reaches. In fact, it became a conduit for expanding the French empire westward. The trade of the French with the Wichitas and other tribes living along its banks effectively ended the Spanish claim to the river's central and lower portions.

The role of the Red River as a boundary was the product of the Treaty of 1819 between Spain and the United States, which inherited the French claim as a result of the Louisiana Treaty of 1803. But this event did not end boundary disputes. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Oklahoma, the inheritor of the American-French claim, and Texas, the inheritor of the Spanish claim, disputed where the line went along the river: down the center versus along the southern bank. The author carefully analyzes the origin of these disputes and chronicles their resolution.

Tyson also treats major explorations of the watershed of the river, such as those of Randolph B. Marcy in the 1850s. For along time the lower Red was a transportation highway, though for years an immense logjam, simply called the Great Raft, blocked navigation north of Louisiana. In 1832 the United States government began efforts to break the raft; but so large was the task that these attempts were not successful until 1873. Tyson also recounts events of the Civil War on the river. The bungled Union attempt to wrest control of the Louisiana portions of the river from the Confederates was much like the perambulations of the grand old Duke of York "who had ten thousand men; he marched them up the hill and he marched them down again." Based on primary and secondary sources, the book is a worthwhile contribution to southwestern history.