For those who have a rudimentary knowledge of Spanish, traveling Texas becomes more interesting because the Spanish names of places reveal, or hint at, their histories. Sometimes just translating Spanish names enlightens or shifts perceptions.
For instance, “Alamo” means “cottonwood,” as in cottonwood trees. It was named after the hometown of the Mexican soldiers who served there in the early 1800s. They were from Alamo de Parras.
I live near Los Fresnos, Texas, which means “the town of the ash trees.” It’s nice to know that.
San Antonio itself, translated, is “Saint Anthony.” The Spanish explorers who came upon the river and springs there in 1691 arrived on the feast day of Saint Anthony, June 13, and used the occasion to honor him by giving that lovely area his name and blessing.
Corpus Christi has a similar naming story. Corpus Christi is Latin for “Body of Christ.” The city was named for the feast of Corpus Christi, which is 60 days after Easter. That is the day that explorer Alonso Álvarez de Pineda first laid eyes on the sparkling, tropical bay.
The Battle of San Jacinto, in English, would be the “Battle of Saint Hyacinth.” The battle was fought near the San Jacinto River which was named either for the hyacinths that grew there so bountifully, and bloom so beautifully, or for Saint Hyacinth, the patron saint of weightlifters and those in danger of drowning. Perhaps it was named for both.
Many merely wide places along the trail became small towns and were named for the original attractions that put them on the map.
Encino, Texas, 46 miles north of Edinburg, is such a case. “Encino” means “oak.” In the 1800s it had an ancient, sprawling oak tree that provided much-appreciated shade for travelers and cattle. In fact, range cattle gathered beneath it so much that they created a large depression in the ground there. Thus, it was more properly known as El Encino del Poso, “the oak in the hole.” Encino became a stagecoach stop and is today a sprawling village of 71 happy rural souls. Sadly, the namesake tree died long ago. Had the place been named by white settlers, it would likely have been named Oakville.
Palacios, the enchanting town on the Gulf of Mexico, means “palaces.” There are some lovely homes there, but no palaces. The town’s original name was Trespalacios. It was named for the first governor of the Mexican state of Coahuila and Texas, José Félix Trespalacios.
Refugio, originally Nuestra Senora del Refugio, was anglicized as simply “Refurio.” But the name loses its meaning in the English pronunciation. “Refugio” means “refuge” and the name indeed tells of its historical – and even present– significance.
Well over two hundred years ago it was a refuge for travelers. It was a safe haven for those traveling across the frontier to San Antonio or Austin’s colonies, or those traveling south to Corpus or Matamoros. They could rest there and stock up on supplies. Today, it still functions as a refuge. It is the halfway point between the Rio Grande Valley and Houston. For its size, it has an unexpectedly large number of restaurants, gas stations and hotels teeming with travelers taking a break from their journeys.
El Paso, most people know, means “the pass.” It was the natural pass between two mountain ranges and was traditionally known as “El Paso del Norte,” “the pass of the north.”
The Nueces River, meaning “the river of nuts,” was so named because of the plentiful pecan trees that grew along its banks.
Agua Dulce of South Texas has a sister city in West Texas – Sweetwater. Same name, different languages. Both were named for what was a highly prized type of water in those days. Sweet water, as distinguished from brackish or salty water, was, naturally, greatly preferred. It was the sort of attribute Chambers of Commerce could use to market a town, or just name it for.
Here’s some homework for you. See if you can figure out what “Pecos” means. It’s a hard translation to pin down, with more twists and turns than the river itself has.
Buena suerte, amigos.
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Stories From Texas, UTRGV Digital Library, The University of Texas – Rio Grande Valley. Accessed via https://scholarworks.utrgv.edu/storiesfromtexas/