The origin of the name Canadian is still a mystery to most residents, though several theories have drifted about over the years. The most common hypothesis is that the river city is named after the river which flows from our northern neighbor, Canada. Though it is probable that Canadian’s co-founder, O.H. Nelson, was influenced by the raging water’s namesake, the truth of the matter is that the Canadian River is actually a tributary of the Arkansas River that flows from the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of Colorado, not Canada. Unfortunately, the derivation of the Canadian River’s name is also ambiguous. However, with any unsolved mystery, there is plenty of speculation on how the river got its name. The first documentary evidence appeared on John C. Fremont’s route map in 1845 where the river is referred to as “Goo-al-pau or Canadian River” from the Kiowa and Comanche name. In the journal of Lt. J.W. Albert of the U.S. Army later that year, Albert wrote that they “made an excursion to the river and the great canyon through which it flows and from which is derived from the name Cañada, or the Canadian River.” Cañada (pronounced canyada) is of Spanish origin, and means boxed in, shut-in, valley, or canyon. More than likely, this comparison derives from the steep canyon walls that box in the river in New Mexico. American linguist William Bright more recently declared that Canadian comes from “Rio Canadiano, a Spanish spelling for the Caddo [Indian] word káyántinu, which was the Caddo’s name for the nearby Red River.” This would make sense considering that in 1541, Spanish conquistador Francisco Vasquez de Coronado referred to the Canadian River as Rio Colorado, or Red River.
There is also the theory that the river is named after French-Canadien mountain men. Trappers from Hudson Bay (in Canada) were sent to the Rocky Mountains in the early 1800s by trading companies to hunt, trap, and collect furs. At the end of the season, the “Canadiens,” as the Spanish and Indians called them, would convene at the headwaters of a river near Taos to drink and swap tales and furs before heading to town to winter. Because this river was the regular gathering place for the Canadiens, the river was eventually dubbed the Canadian River.
If you want to know more about the history of Canadian, stop by the River Valley Pioneer Museum – either their website or visit the museum in person.
Content written by Kate Estrada