How the Republican River Got Its Name

December 2, 2021 NEBRASKAland Magazine

Have you ever wondered how the Republican River got its name? Gov. Frank Morrison, a Democrat, used to tease his Republican friends by asking, “Is it because it’s so shallow or so crooked?”

Jokes aside, the connection to the party seems obvious, doesn’t it? With few exceptions, Nebraska has been majority Republican since the Civil War.

But look at the center of this 1839 map detail from Mitchell’s School and Family Geography. The Republican Fork had its name long before the Republican Party was organized in the 1850s.

Might the name refer to Jefferson and Madison’s followers? Opposing Hamilton’s Federalists, they usually called themselves Republicans or sometimes Democratic-Republicans.

Map from 1839 showing the “Republican Fork.” History Nebraska, Forke map #52

But the name is older than that, too. At least by the 1780s, the river was known to French traders as “Fourche des Republiques” — the Forks of the Republicans. Who were the Republicans? The people living there at the time were a band of Pawnees who called themselves “Kitkehahki,” the Little Earth-Lodge people.

For reasons not entirely clear, French traders began referring to the Kitkehahkis as the Republicans. At that time, a “republican” was anyone who believed in government without a king or aristocracy. Perhaps the Kitkehahkis’ ways impressed the traders as an alternative to their homeland’s highly centralized monarchy. Desire for a republic was gaining strength in France — as King Louis XVI was soon to find out.  ■

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