it comes to how the Devils River got its name, the Devil’s in the details.|
Bierce did not include a definition for the Devils River in his 1911 classic the
“Devil’s Dictionary,” but as a hell of a hand at arranging English words in an
amusing order, the famous journalist doubtless would have had fun with writing
an entry for the Southwest Texas river.
a long-time newspaperman, the first thing that would have caught Bierce’s attention
in pondering a humorous definition for the scenic if difficult-to-traverse stream
is that the accepted usage of its name is without an apostrophe. What the Devil?
Referring to the river without using the possessive is strange, since attributing
the stream to the person supposedly presiding over the nether world is how the
river got its name in the first place. |
Well, maybe. Actually, that apostrophe
only has to do with how some people think the river got its name.
| When a group of Spanish
explorers traveled along the river in 1675, it may have already have had a name.
Splashing across the Rio Grande on May 11 that year, a party of soldiers and friendly
Indians rode into Texas to scout a hilly region then known as the “Sierra Dacate”
that is believed by historians today to have referred to the rough country along
the Devils River. During the first week of the trek, the expedition came to a
river the Indians called the Dacate.|
“Dacate” does not show up
online as a Spanish word, so it may be an Indian word or a phonetic of an Indian
word. No matter its origin or meaning, the name didn’t last.
a manner of speaking, the Devil took it, the river was known for a time as the
San Pedro. Saint Peter, of course, was Simon Peter, one of the twelve apostles
later beatified by the Catholic Church. Since the first Europeans to see the ruggedly
beautiful river were Spanish explorers, they must have come up with that name.
After Spain lost its claim on Texas and the area became part of the new Republic
of Mexico, it is possible that citizens of the nascent nation occasionally traveled
across the river, and further possible that one of those visitors came up with
the idea of naming the stream for Peter. But again, no specific information on
this has come to light. Whatever led to the naming of the river for one of the
apostles, the Devil didn’t darken the picture until the 1840s.
1848, former Texas Ranger Capt. Jack
Hays led a party westward to explore a good route from San
Antonio to El Paso.
and his 70-plus men reached the river, not an easy trip then and not much easier
even today, he supposedly reined his horse and surveyed the river and the rough
terrain on either side of it before famously prounouncing:
hell. This is the Devil’s River.” As in suggesting that the river belonged to
the Devil, hence the need for an apostrophe.
opinion became codified when a San
Antonio newspaper called the Western Texian printed Hays’ December report
to Col. Peter H. Bell. The operable line in that document is:
the difficulties we had in extricating ourselves from the deep revines and mountains
which encompass it for many miles from its mouth, we named it Devil’s River.”
as he did the research that went into his book “Devils River: Treacherous Twin
to the Pecos, 1535-1900,” Midland
writer- historian Patrick Dearen dug deep. One of the things he found was that
contrary to legend and Hays’ own written claim, someone else mayt have come up
with the idea of naming a Texas river in honor of Lucifer.|
diary of noted Texas pioneer Samuel Maverick, who rode with Hays
on his 1848 expedition, Dearen found where Maverick referred to the river as the
Devil’s as early as Sept. 21 that year when he wrote: “Mouth of Devil’s river.
As Dearen observed:
“The casual way he noted the stream’s name seems unusual for a river never before
known by that designation until that very day. Add to this Hays’ claim that he
and his fellow riders named the river only after experiencing difficulty upstream,
and it’s clear that the two men’s accounts contradict one another in regard to
the party’s first use of the word ‘devil’s.’”
Dearen goes on to speculate
that the river may already have been known by at least some people as the Devil’s.
Indeed, as he notes, there’s a folk tale that at some point a lovelorn Indian
girl leaped to her death from one of the river’s high bluffs. Learning the horrible
news, her father the chief supposedly uttered: “The Devil’s River.”
the river got its name, the disappearance of the apostrophe is equally curious.
© Mike Cox
- September 6, 2012 column
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