West of the 100th meridian, the river meanders through the Panhandle with Texas spanning from each side. As the water crosses the imaginary longitudinal line and heads east, the river separates states as the southern bank of the river becomes the northern border of Texas. While now it separates Texas from Oklahoma, the river was once a national boundary in the brief amount of time that Texas was a sovereign nation.
After the civil war, when the cattle industry helped revive reconstructionist Texas, the boundary waters proved to be a formidable obstacle for cowboys and cattle alike.
“This boundary river on the northern border of Texas was a terror to trail drovers, but on our reaching it, it had shallowed down, the flow of water following several small channels...” wrote Andy Adams in his 1903 book The Log of a Cowboy. “But the majestic grandeur of the river was apparent on every hand,--with its red, bluff banks, the sediment of its red waters marking the timber along its course, while the driftwood, lodged in trees and high on the banks, indicated what might be expected when she became sportive or angry. That she was merciless was evident, for although this crossing had been in use only a year or two when we forded, yet five graves, one of which was less than ten days made, attested her disregard for human life.”
On a warm June day, I meet historian Jeff Bearden near the banks of the Red River at the old Doan’s store - precisely the location that Adams writes about. Less than a mile across the prairie, graves lie on private ground where Adams once rode.
“When the war between the states was over, the Texas economy was in ruins and the only thing we had was cattle,” Bearden explains while standing in the shade of the old adobe building. “To recover, Texas sent its cattle north to the markets up the Chisholm Trail and the Great Western Trail. In 19 years, some 6 million head of cattle crossed the river here.”
As we talk, I realize that much of our identity as Texans and the way that others look at us was formed right here on the banks of the river. Jeff agrees.
“The money from those cattle came back to the state and helped Texas recover and the lore of the cowboy was born. What was once considered a lowly agricultural worker, the great cattle drives that crossed here elevated the cowboy to legendary status.”
Later, I find myself further downstream on a hill overlooking where the Chisholm Trail crossed the river in Montague County. Unmarked stones jut awkwardly from the earth and stand memorial to more unknown cowboys who died on the trail and were buried along the banks. At the site of the old Red River Station and staring over the river valley, all is quiet and I contemplate the fact that unlike most major Texas rivers, no towns are built on the banks. The Brazos has Waco, the Colorado cuts through Austin, the Guadalupe, the Trinity, and the Rio Grande all have towns on their banks. The Red River, curiously, has none. For reasons, I cannot explain, the river, save for Lake Texoma, cuts unabated through open country across northern Texas.
At this point, I am roughly halfway down the river and as I travel from west to east, the countryside becomes greener and the trees taller and more dense. My whole life, I’ve lived along the river - the first half was spent in Fannin County and the second half in Childress County. For the past eighteen years I’ve driven up and down the river spending time in both places and have seen the natural changes along the river. I’ve seen cultural changes as well.