French America

The French Roots of the Platte River

In a testament to North America’s French heritage, many regions, towns, mountains, and rivers in the United States have French names. Every month, French-American author Anthony Lacoudre untangles their fascinating history. This month, we explore the Platte River, which winds across Nebraska.
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© Mathieu Persan

The Platte River – its junction with the Missouri River, just south of Omaha, to be exact – long represented a symbolic frontier for explorers, just as sailors would use the equator. Located two months away from St. Louis by boat, it used to divide the Lower and the Upper Missouri in the 19th century and was the farthest known point of the New World.

Norman explorer Etienne de Veniard, Sieur de Bourgmont, was the first European to venture so far West. Having moved to New France at the age of 19, he worked as a tanner on the Ohio, commanded Fort Pontchartrain on the site of the future city of Detroit, deserted his post, and tried his hand at trapping and fur trading. In 1714, he was recruited by the governor of Louisiana, Antoine Lamothe-Cadillac, to sail up the Missouri River.

His reports enabled Parisian cartographer Guillaume de L’Isle to publish the very first map of the region, which is currently kept at the French Ministry of Defense archives in Vincennes. Beyond the “Ecanzé River,” the future Kansas River, “lies a wide river that the French and the savages call Nibraskier,” wrote the explorer. The word was an adaptation of Ne-braska, meaning “flat water” in the Otomanguean languages. The river, which was temporarily called “Rivère des Panis” in reference to a local Pawnee tribe before the name Platte was adopted on new maps, meanders across Nebraska without waterfalls or rapids for more than 310 miles.

Upstream, two equally calm waterways meet up to create the Platte River: the North Platte, which runs through Wyoming, and the South Platte, which originates in Colorado and flows through Denver. From the 1820s onwards, this configuration made it the main access route to the Rocky Mountains for trappers and travelers coming from the east.

 

Article published in the April 2022 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.

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