Rio Grande (US river)

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Rio Grande

Rio Grande, a river that rises in the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado and flows south past Santa Fe and Albuquerque as it bisects New Mexico. Near El Paso/Ciudad Juarez, it gradually bends and begins a southeasterly flow toward Brownsville, Texas, and, finally, to its mouth in the Gulf of Mexico. The 1845 annexation of Texas by the United States precipitated a boundary dispute with Mexico, in which Mexico maintained that the Nuences River (to the north of the Rio Grande) formed the southern border of Texas. Both sides amassed troops to defend their claims, and the 24 April 1846 clash at Carricitos convinced the U.S. Congress to vote for war (the Mexican-American War). Today, the river forms the boundary between Mexico, where it is known as Río Bravo, and the United States, between El Paso and the Gulf of Mexico.

Although it extends 1,885 miles and drains an immense region, the Rio Grande has become a mere trickle in some places, or is entirely dry. Irrigation demands and the needs of increasing populations along its banks have siphoned off any excess flow. The upper Rio Grande in New Mexico was settled by the Spanish as early as the seventeenth century. In recent years, the populations of cities along the Mexican side of the river have mushroomed as manufacturers take advantage of low Mexican wages and proximity to U.S. markets to set up Maquiladoras (assembling plants). In the past several decades, the Rio Grande has been the final obstacle for hundreds of thousands of Mexican and Central American immigrants looking for work in the United States or fleeing war and poverty in their own countries.

See alsoChamizal Conflict; United States-Mexico Border.


Paul Horgan, Great River: The Rio Grande in North American History, 2 vols. (1954).

Pat Kelley, River of Lost Dreams: Navigation on the Rio Grande (1986).

Additional Bibliography

Kearney, Milo, and Anthony K. Knopp Studies in Rio Grande Valley History. Brownsville: University of Texas at Brownsville and Texas Southmost College, 2005.

Los Caminos del Río: the Roads of the River: Legacies of the Borderlands. Austin: Texas Department of Transportation and Texas Historical Commission, 2004.

Westerhoff, Paul. The U.S.-Mexican Border Environment: Water Issues along the U.S.-Mexican Border. San Diego, CA: San Diego State University Press; Tempe AZ: Herberger Center for Design Excellence, College of Architecture and Environmental Design, Arizona State University, 2000.

                                     J. David Dressing

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Rio Grande (rē´ō grănd, rē´ō grän´dē), river, c.1,885 mi (3,000 km) long, rising in SW Colo. in the San Juan Mts. and flowing south through the middle of N.Mex., past Albuquerque, then coursing generally southeast as the border between Texas and Mexico, making a big bend (see Big Bend National Park), and eventually emptying into the Gulf of Mexico at Brownsville, Tex., and Matamoros, Mex. Other paired towns along the river are Laredo, Tex., and Nuevo Laredo, Mex. and El Paso, Tex., and Juárez, Mex. The river, known in Mexico as Río Bravo del Norte, is unnavigable except near its mouth, but is now often reduced to a trickle there by drought and the drawing off of water upstream.

The Rio Grande is an important source of internationally regulated irrigation, a use it has long been put to. Pueblos were thriving on its banks N of Las Cruces, N.Mex., and the Native Americans were practicing irrigation of the arid country, when Spanish explorer Francisco Vásquez de Coronado arrived (1540). Today, dams on the Rio Grande are used for irrigation, flood control, and regulation of the river flow. Elephant Butte Dam (completed 1916) and Caballo Dam (completed 1938) in New Mexico create reservoirs that serve large areas. Further downstream N of Del Rio, Tex., is the Amistad Dam (completed 1969); it is 6 mi (9.7 km) long and impounds a huge reservoir; Amistad National Recreation Area is there. Below Laredo are Falcon Dam (completed 1954) and its large reservoir. Near the mouth of the Rio Grande is the irrigation-dependent citrus-fruit and truck-farm region commonly called the Rio Grande Valley and developed principally in the 1920s. An agreement between the United States and Mexico in 1944 provided for future distribution of the river's water, but in drought years the amount reaching the United States is often less than what is called for under the treaty.

Shifts in the river's channel have led to border disputes between the United States and Mexico. Parts of its bed have been stabilized by canalization, and an international border commission mediates disputes. The 114-year controversy over the location of the border at El Paso was finally settled in 1968 when the water of the Rio Grande was diverted into a concrete channel. A 191-mi (307-km) section of the river on the American shore below Big Bend National Park is protected as the Rio Grande Wild and Scenic River (see National Parks and Monuments, table).

See R. E. Riecker, Rio Grande Rift (1979); P. Horgan, Great River: The Rio Grande in North American History (2 vol., 1984).

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RIO GRANDE, a North American river, thirteen hundred miles of which form the boundary separating the United States and Mexico. It is the fifth longest river in North America. It rises in the San Juan Mountains in southwestern Colorado and flows generally southward through New Mexico until it reaches El Paso, Texas. It then flows generally to the southeast until it empties into the Gulf of Mexico at Brownsville, Texas, and Matamoros, Mexico.

After the Louisiana Purchase, American expansionists claimed the Rio Grande as the southern and western border of the territory covered by that purchase, but Spain successfully insisted on the Sabine River as the border. After Mexican independence from Spain in 1821, numerous American colonies sprang up in Texas. Still, dispute over the Texas-Mexican border was one of the main causes of the Texas Revolution in 1835–1836.

The Texas Republic maintained that the Rio Grande constituted its southern and western boundaries. The United States inherited those claims with the annexation of Texas in 1845, but Mexico's unwillingness to accept the river as the boundary was an immediate cause of the Mexican-American War. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the war, recognized the river as an international border.

The Rio Grande is not important as a trade route, but its waters have long been important for irrigation in the arid southwest. In prehistoric times, the Pueblo of New Mexico built elaborate irrigation systems. In modern times, irrigation water from the Rio Grande supports the commercially important citrus and truck farm regions in the Rio Grande Valley in both Texas and Mexico. Cooperation between the two countries has resulted in various irrigation and flood-control projects, the most spectacular being the vast Amistad Dam.


Francaviglia, Richard, and Douglas W. Richmond, eds. Dueling Eagles: Reinterpreting the U.S.-Mexican War, 1846–1848. Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press, 2000.

Kelley, Pat. River of Lost Dreams: Navigation on the Rio Grande. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986.

Rivera, José, A. Acequia Culture: Water, Land, and Community in the Southwest. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1998.

Donald W.Hunt/a. e.

See alsoGuadalupe Hidalgo, Treaty of ; Rivers ; Spain, Relations with .

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Rio Grande (Rio Bravo del Norte) River in North America. It rises in the San Juan mountains of sw Colorado, USA, and flows s through New Mexico. It forms the border between Texas and Mexico, and empties into the Gulf of Mexico just e of Brownsville, Texas, and Matamoros, Mexico. One of North America's longest rivers, it is unnavigable and is used for irrigation and hydroelectricity. Length: c.3035km (1885mi).

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Rio Grande ★★★ 1950

The last entry in Ford's cavalry trilogy following “Fort Apache” and “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.” A U.S. cavalry unit on the Mexican border conducts an unsuccessful campaign against marauding Indians. The commander of the lonely outpost, Lt. Col. Kirby Yorke (Wayne), plays no favorites when his only son, Jeff (Jarman Jr.), arrives as a new recruit and is soon followed by Yorke's estranged wife, Kathleen (O'Hara). Featuring an excellent Victor Young score and several songs by the Sons of the Pioneers. 105m/B VHS, DVD . John Wayne, Maureen O'Hara, Ben Johnson, Claude Jarman Jr., Harry Carey Jr., Victor McLaglen, Chill Wills, J. Carrol Naish; D: John Ford; W: James Kevin McGuinness; C: Bert Glennon; M: Victor Young.