December 16, 1497: Rivers, The Good, The Bad, and the Wha?

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A Brief History

On December 16, 1497, Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama passed the Great Fish River in what is now South Africa on his voyage around the Southern tip of Africa to reach India by sea, a previously not accomplished feat by European sailors.

Digging Deeper

Europeans named this river The “Great Fish” River to differentiate it from The “Nambian Fish” River.  (You would think ALL rivers are “Fish” River!)  The Great Fish was previously called Rio do Infante after the European that first visited the river in the 1480s (Joao Infante).  The main tributary of the Great Fish River is the Groot Brak River, named by Dutch settlers.  A great many rivers are named after the fish found there, such as Sturgeon, Carp, Perch, Salmon and the like.

Often times rivers get to keep their native names, while at other times new explorers or settlers rename the rivers based on the name of a person, a characteristic of the river, or an event that happened at the river.  Normally, when 2 rivers meet, the resulting larger river is supposed to take the name of the larger river that met with the smaller river.  Using this standard, the Ohio River is larger than the Mississippi where they meet, and the rest of this mighty muddy river should by rights be called the Ohio.

When the British settled North America they often named rivers after reigning monarchs, such as the James River, the River Charles and the like.  Native American names such as Ohio, Cuyahoga, Potomac, Monongahela and the like are spread across the US today, while in areas where the Spanish originally settled many rivers have Spanish names.  Not surprisingly, Canada has many rivers named by the French, such as Fleuve St. Laurent (what we call the St. Lawrence) and the Rideau River.

Names like Rio de la Plata (River of Silver) invoke the riches once found there (South America), while the Perfume River of Vietnam got its quaint name from the fragrant flower blossoms that fall into it in the Autumn.  (Vietnamese call it the Song Huong.)  There is a place in Alaska called Funny River, which not so funny had a bad fire in 2014.  Just to keep people guessing, the Hula River is not in Hawaii, but in Romania.  In Australia, they have an Alligator River, and Australia does even have alligators!  Actually, it is 3 rivers, the East, West and South Alligator River, all of which have crocodiles but no gators.  (The Alligator River in North Carolina has gators.)

Some other goofy named American rivers include the Neversink (NY), Frying Pan (CO), Poo (NE, and for the record, I will not check this one out!), Loyalsock (PA, this is probably named after the one sock in a pair that does not disappear in the laundry), Merrymeeting (NH), and the Pudding (OR).  The D River (OR) is only 440 feet long, so it apparently does not need more letters.  8 Mile River, 40 Mile River and Salmon River are probably self explanatory, but we are hoping Dickshooter Creek is not! Snake River can be either the winding course it takes or someone found a snake in it.

Ohio has some descriptively named rivers, such as Clear River, Clear Fork (of the Mohican), Rocky River, Sandy Creek,  Pee Pee Creek (presumably, do not drink from this creek!).  Others are named for the critters explorers found there, such as Racoon Creek, Turtle Creek, Beaver Creek, Margaret Creek (why was she in the creek?), Rattlesnake Creek and Wolf Creek.  How did the Mad River get its name?  (You look that one up!)

Then there are the rivers that get name changes every so often.  Perhaps you have heard of the famous 1957 movie, The Bridge on the River Kwai?  This river is called Khwae Yai River, or the Si Sawat River.  Originally considered part of the Mae Klong River, it got its new name in the 1960s due to its fame from the film!  What we call the Yellow River of China is actually the Huang He, formerly referred to as the Huang Ho.  Other names given to this 6th largest river are “China’s Sorrow” and “Scourge of the Sons of Han.”  Just this year in New Zealand bitter controversy erupted over a proposal to change the name of Mighty River to Mercury River, and this is not even a real river, but a business!  The Danube passes through many countries, and each has a separate name for it.  Original Slavic people called it Great Water.  (Note: The Flint River in Michigan could easily be called the Not So Great Water.  Just sayin’)  There is an organization in Minnesota bent on changing the name of the Rum River (probably kin to Whisky River) to its Indian name, Wakan.  (You pick the “proper” spelling.)  Even Jerry Rivers changed his name to Geraldo Rivera…

Question for students (and subscribers): If you know of any hilarious names of rivers, creeks, streams, or other flowing waters, please share them here with your fellow readers.  If you have any suggestions for changing the name of a river, let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Frater, Alexander and Colin Jones.  Great rivers of the world.  Hodder and Stoughton, 1984.

Penn, James.  Rivers of the World: A Social, Geographical, and Environmental Sourcebook.  ABC-CLIO, 2001.

The featured image in this article, a photograph by Xufanc of landscape near the Great Fish River, is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.


About Author

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.