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The Cimarron River (highlighted in red) flows through four states in the American West.
The Cimarron River extends 698 miles (1,123 km) across New Mexico, Oklahoma, Colorado, and Kansas. The headwaters flow from Johnson Mesa west of Folsom in northeastern New Mexico. Much of the river's length lies in Oklahoma, where it either borders or passes through eleven counties. There are no major cities along its route.The river enters the Oklahoma Panhandle near Kenton, crosses the southeastern corner of Colorado into Kansas, re-enters the Oklahoma Panhandle, re-enters Kansas, and finally returns to Oklahoma where it joins the Arkansas River at Keystone Reservoir west of Tulsa, Oklahoma, its only impoundment. The Cimarron drains a basin that encompasses about 18,927 square miles (49,020 km2).
The river's present name comes from the early Spanish name, Río de los Carneros Cimarrón, which is usually translated as River of the Wild Sheep (literally, 'River of the Feral Rams'). Early American explorers also called it the Red Fork of the Arkansas because of water's red color. Early explorers and map-makers called it by several other names, including Grand Saline, Jefferson (in John Melish's 1820 U.S. map), Red Fork, Salt Fork, and Salt River.
In northwestern New Mexico and in western Oklahoma, the river is known as the Dry Cimarron River. This is by contrast to a wetter Cimarron River flowing further west through New Mexico. The Dry Cimarron River is not completely dry, but sometimes its water entirely disappears under the sand in the river bed. The Dry Cimarron Scenic Byway follows the river from Folsom to the Oklahoma border. In Oklahoma, the river flows along the southern edges of Black Mesa, the highest point in that state. As it first crosses the Kansas border, the river flows through the Cimarron National Grassland.
The quality of Cimarron water is rated as poor because the river flows through natural mineral deposits, salt plains, and saline springs, where it dissolves large amounts of minerals. It also collects quantities of red soil, which it carries to its terminus. Before the Keystone Dam was built, this silt was sufficient to discolor the Arkansas River downstream.
The first Europeans to see the Cimarron River were apparently Spanish conquistadores led by Francisco Vásquez de Coronado in 1541. The Spanish seemed to do little to exploit the area. The Osage tribe claimed most of the territory west of the confluence of the Cimarron and the Arkansas as theirs. In 1819, Thomas Nuttall explored the lower Cimarron and wrote a report describing the flora and fauna that he found there. In 1821, Mexico threw off Spanish rule and William Becknell opened the Santa Fe Trail.
Cimarron River near Guthrie, Oklahoma at flood stage. Photo provided by National Weather Service.
Historical notes of interest
One branch of the Santa Fe Trail, known variously as the Cimarron Route, the Cimarron Cutoff, and the Middle Crossing (of the Arkansas River), ran through the Cimarron Desert and then along the Cimarron River.:144,148Lower Cimarron Spring on the bank of the river was an important watering and camping spot.
In 1831 Comanche Indians killed Jedediah Smith (a famous hunter, trapper, and explorer) on the Santa Fe Trail near the Cimarron River. His body was never recovered.
In 1834 General Henry Leavenworth established Camp Arbuckle (Fort Arbuckle) at the mouth of the Cimarron River. This fort, later known as Old Fort Arbuckle, was only active for about a year, and its former site is now submerged beneath the Arkansas River. It should not be confused with the later Fort Arbuckle in Garvin County, Oklahoma.[a]
Historic sites along the river include the ruins of Camp Nichols, a stone fort built by Kit Carson in 1865 to protect travelers from raids by Plains Indians on the Cimarron Cutoff. It was located near present-day Wheeless, Oklahoma.[b]
On September 18, 1906, a bridge across the Cimarron near Dover, Oklahoma Territory, collapsed beneath a Rock Island train bound for Fort Worth, Texas from Chicago. The bridge was a temporary structure unable to withstand the pressure of debris and high water. Replacement with a permanent structure had been delayed by the railroad for financial reasons. Several sources report that over 100 persons were killed, although this figure is disputed. The true number may be as low as four.
^"Dover". Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture. Oklahoma Historical Society. Archived from the original on July 28, 2010. Retrieved 2010.
^Goins, Charles Robert; Goble, Danney (2006). Historical Atlas of Oklahoma. University of Oklahoma Press. p. 119. ISBN0-8061-3482-8.
^Sencicle, Lorraine (January 2008). "Dover Oklahoma". The Daughters of Dover: Dover around the world. Dover, England: The Dover Society. Archived from the original on September 21, 2010. Retrieved 2010.
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Dary, David. The Santa Fe Trail: Its History, Legends, and Lore. New York: Penguin, 2002 (Reissue). ISBN0-14-200058-2
Hanners, Laverne; Ed Lord. The Lords of the Valley: Including the Complete Text of Our Unsheltered Lives. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1996. ISBN0-8061-2804-6
Hoig, Stan. Beyond the Frontier: Exploring the Indian Country. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998. ISBN0-8061-3052-0
Schumm, Stanley A. Channel Widening and Flood-Plain Construction along Cimarron River in Southwestern Kansas: Erosion and Sedimentation in a Semiarid Environment. Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1963. ISBN B0007EFJLY
Schumm, Stanley A. River Variability and Complexity. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005. ISBN0-521-84671-4
Stovall, John Willis. Geology of the Cimarron River Valley in Cimarron County, Oklahoma. Chicago, 1938.
Woodhouse, S. W. (Eds. John S. Tomer, Michael J. Brodhead). A Naturalist in Indian Territory: The Journals of S.W. Woodhouse, 1849-50 (The American Exploration and Travel Series, Vol 72). Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1996. ISBN0-8061-2805-4