The Canadian River is the largest tributary of the Arkansas River. It is about long, starting in Colorado and traveling through New Mexico, the Texas Panhandle, and most of Oklahoma.
The Canadian is sometimes referred to as the South Canadian River to differentiate it from the North Canadian River that flows into it.
The river rises on the east side of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains
, at approximately , in remote southwestern Las Animas County, Colorado
, approximately 1.5 mi (2.5 km) north of the New Mexico
border. It flows ESE across the border, then south, passing west of Raton, New Mexico
. It forms a deep canyon south of Springer, New Mexico
. At its first dam
at Conchas Lake
, the river turns eastward. It is also dammed at Logan, New Mexico
, where it forms Ute Lake
. From there it crosses the Texas Panhandle
, dammed at Sanford, Texas
, where it forms Lake Meredith
. The canyon the river carves through eastern New Mexico and the Texas Panhandle is the northern border of the Llano Estacado
, separating it from the rest of the Great Plains
. From Texas the Canadian continues eastward into Oklahoma, passing just south of Oklahoma City
. At Eufaula, Oklahoma
, it is dammed once again, forming Eufaula Lake
, its largest. About downstream it joins the Arkansas River, about west of the Arkansas
Much of the time the Canadian is just a slow trickle bounded by red mud flats and quicksand. When sufficient rain has fallen, the river can carry substantial amounts of water.
It is unclear why the river is called the Canadian. The name may have been given to the river by early French hunters and traders who came from Canada
. The upper part was called Rio Colorado by the Spanish. Some researchers think early explorers believed the river flowed into Canada. It does flow northeast through part of the Texas Panhandle. In 1929 Muriel H. Wright wrote that the Canadian River was named about 1820 by French traders who noted another group of traders from Canada had camped on the river near its confluence with the Arkansas River.
The name could be of Spanish origin from the word cañada (meaning canyon), as the Canadian River formed a steep canyon in northern New Mexico and a somewhat broad canyon in Texas. A few historical records document this explanation. Generally, the French origin of the name is considered more probable.
By the Treaty of Doak's Stand in 1820, the Canadian River was made the northern boundary of the Choctaw Nation. Early emigrants to California followed the south bank of the Canadian to Santa Fe. In 1845 the river was explored by Lieutenants James William Abert and William G. Peck of the U.S. Army Corps of Topographical Engineers. Their journey was chronicled in the Journal of Lieutenant J.W. Abert from Bent’s Fort to St. Louis, first published in 1846. The Texas Ranger Division also was active in the area.