A Brief History
On July 14, 1789, Scottish explorer Sir Alexander Mackenzie finally reached the mouth of the river named later after him, a failed attempt to find a route to the Pacific Ocean. The Mackenzie River is the longest river in Canada, and is the second longest North American river system (to the Mississippi), flowing for 1080 miles into the Arctic Ocean. Here we list 5 North American Rivers Named After a Person. Since most rivers are not named after people, those that are drop off considerably in size/length after those listed here.
1. Mackenzie River.
Born in 1764, young Alexander Mackenzie was a bit young to fight with his father and uncle in the American Revolution (on the British side), and was sent to Montreal for safety. Alexander became a member of the North West Company, a fur trading concern, and was sent by the company to Lake Athabasca in Saskatchewan. There Alexander found the local Natives describing how the large river system in that area (called Dehcho by the Natives) flowed to the Northwest. In the hope of finding a Northwest Passage to the Pacific, Alexander led an expedition in 1789 to find the mouth of the river, but unfortunately, the river emptied into the Arctic Ocean and not the Pacific. It is believed Mackenzie may have given the great river the English name, “Disappointment River,” but other men named it the Mackenzie River in honor of Alexander. Mackenzie made other explorations in Canada and was knighted for his papers published on the subject. He served in the Canadian legislature and died in 1820 in his native Scotland at the age of 56. The length of the entire flowage of the Mackenzie River System is 2635 miles (second to the Mississippi System’s 3877 miles). The average discharge is 349,968 cubic feet of water per second.
2. Columbia River.
The largest river in Northwest North America, the Columbia flows for 1243 miles from Columbia Lake in British Columbia, Canada, to the Pacific Ocean on the border of Washington and Oregon in the US. Obviously, the name derives from Christopher Columbus, the Italian sailor sailing for the Spanish crown that is given credit for “discovering” America. The average discharge at the mouth of this mighty river is 265,000 cubic feet of water per second, the most water passed into the Pacific Ocean by any North American river.
3. St. Lawrence River.
Explored by French explorer Jacques Cartier on the Feast day of St. Lawrence, Cartier named the river that drains the Great Lakes Fleuve Saint-Laurent, French for St. Lawrence River. Other European explorers had already ventured into the Gulf of St. Lawrence (probably even Vikings) prior to Cartier, but it was Cartier that ventured up the river first. St. Lawrence of Rome was a Christian martyr executed by Roman Emperor Valerian in 258 AD, and may have been born in Valencia, Spain. The name of the St. Lawrence River (partially in the United States, mostly in Canada) remains the 6th oldest European named place in the United States. Since 1959 when the St. Lawrence Seaway was completed, the river gives access to the Great Lakes by ocean going ships. The average discharge is a whopping 590,000 cubic feet of water per second.
4. James River.
Not to be confused with the river in Virginia, we are discussing the James River of the Dakotas. Originally called (in Native language, unpronounceable by this author) The Unnavigable River, the French explorers that found it called it Riviere aux Jacques, or “James River” in the English translation. An attempt to rename the river the Dakota River in the 1860’s was unpopular, and the river retained its name. We do not know the exact Jacques or James the river is named after, but the 710 mile stream does bear the name of a person. The James River flows into the Missouri River, making it part of the great Missouri-Mississippi System. (Note: That “other” James River flows for 348 or 444 miles entirely within the Commonwealth of Virginia, depending on how it is measured.) The average discharge for the James River is a paltry 646 cubic feet per second, tiny by comparison to the other rivers listed here, but the maximum discharge is a more impressive 29,400 cubic feet per second. On the other hand, the flow can drop to 0 cubic feet per second!
5. Nelson River.
This 400 mile river drains Lake Winnipeg in Manitoba and flows into the Hudson Bay, connecting several smaller lakes along the way. As the drainage of Lake Winnipeg, the Nelson can be considered part of the Saskatchewan, Red and Winnipeg River Systems. Its average discharge is 83,686 cubic feet per second. The Nelson River got its name in honor of a ship’s captain that died at that location, the name bequeathed by a Welsh explorer, Sir Thomas Button, who had wintered at the mouth of the river in 1612. Not coincidentally, a Fort Nelson was also located at the mouth of the Nelson River, a fur trading outpost of the Hudson’s Bay Company. Today, disputes have arisen over the use of the river for hydroelectric power.
Question for students (and subscribers): What rivers would you add to the list? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Carmer, Carl, Hervey Allen Carmer, Leslie Roberts, et al. The Mackenzie; (Rivers of America). Rinehart & Company, 1949.
Mead, Robert Douglas. Ultimate North: Canoeing Mackenzie’s Great River. Doubleday, 1976.
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