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What the Devil?

How the Devils River got its name (but no apostrophe).

By Mike Cox

When it comes to how the Devils River got its name, the devil’s in the details.

Ambrose Bierce did not include a definition for the Devils River in his 1911 classic Devil’s Dictionary, but the famous journalist — a hell of a hand at arranging English words in an amusing order — doubtless would have had fun writing an entry for the Southwest Texas river.

With Bierce being a longtime newspaperman, the first thing that would have caught his attention in pondering a humorous definition for the scenic (if difficult-to-traverse) stream is that the accepted usage of its name is without the expected apostrophe. What the devil? Referring to the river without using the possessive is strange, since attributing the stream to the entity supposedly presiding over the netherworld is how the river got its name in the first place.

Well, maybe. Actually, that apostrophe has to do with how only some people think the river got its name.
When a group of Spanish explorers traveled along the river in 1675, it may 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, believed by historians to refer 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.

Devils River

Fed by numerous clear springs, the Devils River cuts through the rugged country of Southwest Texas

Before the devil took it (in a manner of speaking), the river was known for a time as the San Pedro. St. Peter, of course, was Simon Peter, one of the 12 apostles later beatified by the Catholic Church. Since the first Europeans to see the ruggedly beautiful river were Spanish explorers, it’s probable that they came up with that name.

After Spain lost its claim on Texas and the area became part of the new Republic of Mexico, the citizens of the nascent nation occasionally traveled across the river, so it’s 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.

In the fall of 1848, former Texas Ranger Capt. Jack Hays led a party westward to explore a good route from San Antonio to El Paso. When Hays 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 pronouncing: “St. Pete, hell. This is the Devil’s River.” Therefore suggesting that the river belonged to the devil, hence the need for an apostrophe.

Hays’ opinion became codified when San Antonio newspaper The Western Texian printed Hays’ December report to Col. Peter H. Bell with this noteworthy line included: “Owing to the difficulties we had in extricating ourselves from the deep ravines and mountains which encompass it for many miles from its mouth, we named it Devil’s River.”

As he conducted research for Devils River: Treacherous Twin to the Pecos, 1535–1900, Midland writer-historian Patrick Dearen dug deep. One surprising find was that contrary to legend and Hays’ own written claim, someone else may have come up with the idea of naming a Texas river in honor of Lucifer.

Examining the diary of noted Texas pioneer Samuel Maverick, who rode with Hays on his 1848 expedition, Dearen found that Maverick referred to the river as the Devil’s as early as Sept. 21 that year when he wrote: “Mouth of Devil’s river. 14 [miles].”

“The casual way he noted the stream’s name seems unusual for a river never before known by that designation until that very day,” Dearen observed. “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.”

However the river got its name, the disappearance of the apostrophe is equally curious and has never been explained. But you’ve got to expect at least a little bit of unsolved mystery with a wonder like the Devils River.

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