The Gateway to the Southwest

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Wooden stakes used for an erosion control project in the 1930s and 1940s still line the Red River at Fulton, Arkansas

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Today, the Red River forms an internal barrier in the United States, and it's first and foremost considered a "southern river." After all, there is a Red River of the North between Minnesota and Canada, and our river is simply its geographically opposite counterpart, right?

Nope. The Red River of the North has its own fascinating history, but the Red River of the South stands truly on its own when it comes to North American history.

Home to the Caddos, Wichitas (including their several dispersed and decentralized tribes), and Comanches, the Red River became the boundary between New Spain and New France once the European colonizers invaded. It served as another international barrier, albeit not well protected, when the U.S. purchased Louisiana Territory from the French (who had just gotten the territory back after a treaty with Spain) in 1803. The river's purpose was in dispute, however. As the Red River comprised the southern-most stream that entered the Mississippi, it was the natural frontier between New Spain and the nascent United States. But the Americans believed the Sulphur River was the actual boundary as it emptied into the Red River below the stream, and the Spanish believed the river to belong to them west of Louisiana, where the river had been traditionally Spanish. By 1819, the Adams-Onis treaty settled this dispute, or one should think.

Anglo Americans, many of whom were slavers, didn't necessarily care about international borders. They flocked to the lands in the Louisiana Purchase, and settled all around southwestern Arkansas Territory. Seeing this supposedly "empty land" (it wasn't!) as a relief valve, the U.S. government forced the resettlement of several tribes, including the Choctaws and Chickasaws, in this territory as well - this area would become Indian Territory. Dispossessed people from the Shawnee and Delaware tribes also came to the Red River to claim Spanish land grants, as did Anglo Americans who didn't want to live in the United States any longer. Towns and roads appeared along the river and in the prairies surrounding it. The river, though, was not well guarded. Outlaw gangs and native raiders (Caddos defending their homelands, Osages, and Comanches) terrified settlers, necessitating outposts like Fort Jesup, Fort Towson, and Fort Washita.

All the while, people were streaming into the Southwest, called so because for Americans in the early 19th century, this corner of the Louisiana Territory was indeed, geographically, the country's southwest. But the Red River was also a culturally southwestern feature. In Louisiana, it is a typically meandering southern stream, ringed by plantations and an economy/society built on slavery and later, by cotton production. Upstream past Fulton, the Red River runs from west to east, where the Cross Timbers and Grand Prairie create a landscape for ranches and cattle drives. At its birthplace in Palo Duro Canyon, the Red River is surrounded by steep rocks, deep caverns and desert scrub, a far cry from the live oaks, pines and alligators closer to its mouth.

This geographic change was also reflected in the river's course. Above Natchitoches, the oldest city in the Louisiana Purchase, the continent's biggest log jam, called the Great Red River Raft, hindered commerce into the west. The first federal removal by Captain Henry Shreve and his crew brought navigation to the river, opened it up for settlement further upstream, and beckoned a lot of men to the region, who sought revolution against Mexico in the hopes of expanding slavery westward by claiming Texas. The Red River became a staging area for the Texas Revolution of 1836 and then, ten years later, for the Mexican - American War from 1846 to 1848.

The Red River that runs between Texas and Oklahoma and through Arkansas and Louisiana has a history of all of its own, one that truly unique from other histories in North America. Here, there were clashes against aboriginal people and colonial powers from Spain and France; then, there were clashes between U.S. Americans, Spain, the Caddos and Comanches. Two Trails of Tears terminated here. The region became a battle ground in the trans-Mississippi West during the Civil War and an incredibly violent place against African Americans in the ninety years after the Civil War. When the industrial age came, the Red River saw its importance wane, and much of its history lost.

The Red River is a conduit to the history of where the Old South met the New West - a gateway to the Southwest.