The Trinity River carries no shortage of baggage. Look no further than the current election cycle. Sure, the hated Trinity River toll road is dead and gone, but the runoff between State Rep. Eric Johnson and council member Scott Griggs is still being framed in some circles as a showdown between deep-pocketed backers of the toll road and an anti-boondoggle crusader.
As we have written over and over, the Trinity’s history is defined by failed efforts to tame a force of nature generations of Dallasites have spent little time appreciating or understanding. Perhaps we went wrong even earlier than that. Perhaps our Trinity problems go all the way back to the name.
The name Trinity River derives from Spanish explorer Alonso De León, who first encountered the southern stretches of the river in his travels through Texas in 1690. He called it La Santisima Trinidad, even though earlier French explorers had simply called it “The River of Canoes.” A year after De León’s expedition, another Spanish explorer, Domingo Terán de los Rios, called the river Encarnación de Verbo. But Trinidad—or Trinity—stuck around, and when further Spanish explorers came poking about its banks, local Native American tribes let them know that the Spanish were calling their river Trinity.
That, of course, is not what the Native Americans called it. The Trinity had two names to Texas’ original inhabitants. The Caddos living in what would become North Texas called the Trinity “Arkikosa.” While down near the coast, the same river was known as “Daycoa.”
I began reading some of this history last week when I was pointed to this new report published by a group called Dallas Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation. The goal of the report is, in part, to correct the historical record with regards to how we understand the racial history of Dallas. The report is not intended to be a full history of the city, but it effectively recounts a number of little-known facts about Dallas’s past that illuminate how central race and violence are to this city’s founding and growth. For example, the first bill of sale issued in Dallas County was for Jane Elkins, an enslaved black woman. Elkins also became the first woman legally executed in Texas, when she was hung in front of the Dallas courthouse in 1853.
Few people know the name Jane Elkins. There are no streets named after her or monuments memorializing her suffering and sacrifice. That’s because Elkins’ story is not part of the official history of Dallas. According to that history, John Neely Bryan arrived on the shores of the Trinity River and set up a trading post. With a lot of guile and gumption, that post became the centerpiece of a new city on the prairie—a city that had no real reason to exist but which built itself up nonetheless through hard work and determination.
The Dallas Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation report dispels this myth as well. Before Bryan set up his shop on the banks of the Trinity, he was part of a military force preparing the way for white settlement. In 1841, an army led by General Edward Tarrant massacred Caddo Indians on the banks of the Trinity and drove the tribes from the place then called the “Land of the Three Forks.” Tarrant’s army also included other men whose names would be lent to North Texas’ counties, people like John Denton and John Reagan.
“Why is the Caddo Indian massacre led by General Tarrant on the banks of the Trinity in 1841 not remembered in the founding of Dallas?” writes Gail Thomas, Founding Fellow of the Dallas Institute and former head of the Trinity Trust in her essay “Dallas, Stirrings of Culture,” which is quoted in the new report. “The Caddo Village massacre freed up the land to be bought and sold. Its inhabitants gone, Bryan was free to stake his claim to the land.”
The question strikes to the heart of how we understand Dallas’ history and identity. The Dallas Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation argues that Dallas is built upon two foundations: stolen land and slave labor. Until we understand how these twin ignominies helped shape Dallas, argues Jerry Hawkins, Executive Director of Dallas TRHT, we won’t be able to truly move the city to a “vision of a Dallas without racism.”
This kind of historical confrontation is in keeping with Dallas’ ongoing efforts to address the symbolic power and lingering meaning of its many monuments to the Confederacy. Seen in the light of this new report, those monuments clearly demonstrate how a particular interpretation of the historical record has been emphasized, championed, and monumentalized, while the reality of the past has been edited to erase the violence and theft that is central to the Dallas story.
In recent months and years, the names of schools and streets that honor this racist past have been called into question. The city has determined it appropriate to change the names of John B Hood Middle School and Stonewall Jackson Elementary. Why stop there? Why not go all the way back to the beginning—to the founding? Dallas was founded, you can argue, when Bryan and his fellow soldiers massacred the Caddos on the banks of the Trinity River.
But the Caddos didn’t call the river Trinity. They called it Arkikosa. That confusion of names seems to speak to the greater legacy of Dallas’ uneasy and misunderstood relationship with its river. Perhaps one way to correct and heal this relationship is to return the river its original name. Perhaps it is time we begin to call the Trinity the Arkikos River once again.