How the Rio Grande Almost Killed an American President

Rio Grande River flowing through a canyon

A History of the Rio Grande

As the fifth-longest river in the USA, the Rio Grande (or the Río Bravo for our friends in Mexico) is known for its importance to Big Bend National Park’s wildlife. Its journey begins in Colorado, then it runs through New Mexico and Texas, crosses the border, and flows through Durango, Chihuahua, Coahulia, Nuevo León, and Tamaulipas. After that 2,000-mile road trip, it finally hits the Gulf of Mexico.

While the river’s voyage through the countryside is mainly peaceful (not counting the rapids, of course), its journey through history is much less so. Did you know that a shift in the river’s path in the 19th century almost caused the assassination of both the US and Mexican presidents? No wonder it’s called the Rio Grande (“big river” in Spanish)—it’s certainly caused a splash! We’ve called Big Bend home for over 30 years, but we’re just a small dot on this mighty river’s long journey through land and time.

The Rio Grande Through Time

Back in the day, the Rio Grande was a key resource in the lives of Native American tribes like the Coahuiltecan, Jumanos, Lipan Apache, and Comanche.

1536: For the first time, the Río Bravo appears on a map made by Spanish explorers.

1563: The earliest European mining and agriculture settlements start to call the Rio Grande home.

1830s: The river becomes the center of the border dispute between South Texas and Mexico. It then transforms into a common escape route for Texan slaves after Mexico abolished slavery in 1828.

1884: The Rio Grande officially becomes the border between Mexico and the US.

1889: The International Boundary and Water Commission is established to monitor the US-Mexico boundary and the river’s movements. Since it serves as the border between the two nations, any movement in its path also causes a change to the border.

1899: Gradual changes in the river’s position and flooding lead to the Chamizal Dispute over a 600-acre area between El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua. This land eventually became US territory.

1909: As a result of the Chamizal Dispute, William Taft becomes the first US president to meet with a Mexican president and travel to Mexico. An assassination attempt against President William Taft and longtime Mexican dictator Porfirio Díaz was thwarted when the assassin was captured and disarmed just a few feet away.

1964: The Chamizal Convention Act of 1964 resolves the US-Mexico border dispute.

1967: President Lyndon B. Johnson meets with President Gustazo Díaz Ordaz on the border to formally proclaim the settlement of the boundary. The settlement included the construction of a four-mile concrete channel to prevent a change in the Rio Grande’s path.

1978: The river is established as a Wild and Scenic River, giving it the protection it needs to flow freely along the Big Bend National Park.

1997: The Rio Grande is declared an American Heritage River.

2001: For the first time on record, the river doesn’t make it to the Gulf of Mexico. Various factors impact the river’s flow, like less rainfall, irrigation, and invasive species. That’s why some days we use canoes instead of rafts.

Today

Today, the 20th-longest river in the world is also one of the ten most endangered. The Rio Grande is still vital to its communities and visitors: agriculture, mining, and recreation are the three top industries along this river and form the base of our local economy. It’s our responsibility to keep it thriving! That’s why we encourage everyone to come and experience this powerhouse and its serenity and feistiness on one of our tours—gaining an appreciation for both the beauty and history underneath your canoe is the first step to taking care of it.

Come see the Rio Grande for yourself and become a part of its history! A float trip with Far Flung Outdoor Center is the best way to really dive into the experience (in our professional opinion). Think you can go it alone? Take a look at our river mileage chart and plan your own adventure—just you and the Rio Grande. Be sure to come back and tell us her secrets!

You’re always welcome at Big Bend National Park! If you have any questions or are interested in getting to know more about the Rio Grande, let’s chat. Just send me an email at greg@bigbendfarflung.com.

— Greg