How Did the Brazos Get Its Name?

The Brazos River has long been celebrated in American culture. Marty Robbins, Lyle Lovett and John Hiatt were among the many who have sang about the river, and it has been featured in critically praised works by writers such as Cormac McCarthy and John Graves.

One would be hard pressed to find a Texan, or anyone for that matter, who hasn’t heard of the Brazos. Fewer though might know how the 840-mile-long giant that rolls across Texas got its name.

Brazos is Spanish for “arms,” short for “Los Brazos de Dios” or “the arms of God.” According to the Handbook of Texas Online, the river had gone by that name as early as the 1700s, well before the end of the Spanish colonial period.

Many legends account for how the river got its name. In one story, the Spanish conquistador Francisco Vázquez de Coronado and his team encountered the river as they fruitlessly searched for a fabled golden city. As Coronado and his men wandered in West Texas, dying of thirst, Indians guided them to a stream, which they joyously dubbed “Los Brazos de Dios.”

In another tale, the river was given its name by a group of Spanish sailors who survived a storm in the Gulf of Mexico but ran out of fresh water far from a familiar port. The thirsty crew followed a muddy streak in the seawater, eventually finding the wide mouth of the Brazos, and salvation.

And finally, another thirsty group, this time miners parched during a drought in the late 1700s, were led by Indians to the river at what is now Waco, site of the Brazos River Authority’s headquarters. Many in the group died, and the miners’ golden cargo was buried as the group neared Waco.

The legendary gold was apparently never recovered.