The Kiamichi River is a river in southeastern Oklahoma. A tributary of the Red River, its headwaters rise on Pine Mountain in the Ouachita Mountains near the Arkansas border. From its source in LeFlore County, Oklahoma it flows approximately 177 miles (285 km) to its confluence with the Red River south of Hugo, Oklahoma.
The exact origin of the word Kiamichi is a matter of debate and may never be fully known. Most accounts say the word is French for “horned screamer” or “noisy bird,” a reference to woodpeckers or other birds living along the river’s banks. The spelling of the modern word was not standardized until the twentieth century, making its origin more difficult to determine. The Antlers News, a newspaper published in Antlers, Oklahoma (then Antlers, Indian Territory) first used the spelling “Kiamichi” in November 1900—prior to this it, along with other authoritative sources, spelled the name of the river as “Kiamichia” or “Kiamitia”.
Muriel H. Wright suggested that Kaimichi may be from the French word kamichi, which meant “horned screamer”, and possibly referred to the whooping cranes along the river. Other spellings of the name have included: Kiomitchie, Cayameechee, Kiamisha, Kimesha, Kimichy, and Kimishi.
For much of its journey the river flows through the picturesque and highly defined Kiamichi River valley, framed by mountains of the same name. Pine Mountain, at approximately 2,600 feet (790 m), is the highest, although the mountains lining its course, such as Flagpole Mountain at Clayton, are significant, rising generally between 900 feet (270 m) and 1,800 feet (550 m). At Antlers the river meets the massive geological formation known as Standpipe Hill, forcing its turn to the southeast. From Antlers to the Red River the Kiamichi is generally characterized by flowing through a broad alluvial plain, particularly on its approach to the Red.
The river or its tributaries is impounded by two lakes: Sardis Lake and Hugo Lake. Sardis Lake, named for the small settlement displaced during its construction, impounds Jack’s Fork Creek. Hugo Lake, named for the nearby town of Hugo, impounds the river itself. Both are flood control reservoirs built and operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Additional, smaller dams have impounded the waters of the tributaries over time, mostly for the purpose of powering sawmills and other light, localized industry.
Notable geological features of the Kiamichi River valley include McKinley Rocks, the Potato Hills, Rock Town, and Lost Mountain.
Major tributaries of the Kiamichi River include Anderson Creek, Big Cedar Creek, Buck Creek, Buffalo Creek, Gates Creek, Jacks’ Fork Creek, Pine Creek, Tenmile Creek and Waterhole Creek.
The area of the river’s watershed is 1,830 square miles (4,700 km2).
The Kiamichi River defined its region during prehistoric days. Its valley provided the only convenient means of traversing the region from north to south—much as now—and Native American peoples used it as a corridor. The Native Americans who lived in the region prior to European colonization of the Americas were generally Caddo, who were nomads. The powerful Caddoan Mississippian culture based at Spiro Mounds held sway over the Kiamichi River valley, which formed a part of its trade network.
Archeological finds across the Kiamichi River basin attest to early life in its valley. A prehistoric fish weir, or trap, in the river in Pushmataha County, excavated by the , is a particularly revealing site. Ancient Indians diverted the flow of the river with walls of stone to create a chute into which fish would flow. Radiocarbon dating of charred hickory and pecan hulls found at the site indicate a date of approximately 1,200 BC. Also found were stumps of cypress trees, a tree which has not grown in that portion of the county in perhaps hundreds of years.
Over 220 archeological sites have been identified in Pushmataha County alone, indicating how widespread ancient and more recent settlement was in the region prior to European settlement. Of those sites, three date from at least 8,000 years ago; 145 date from between 2,000-8,000 years ago; and 22 date from between 500–1000 years ago.
Discovery by Europeans occurred in 1719, when French explorer Bernard de la Harpe explored the Kiamichi River valley. French explorers were quickly followed by French fur trappers; they named most of Oklahoma’s rivers.
American explorers followed French ones, and were the first organized scientific surveys of the Kiamichi River. Thomas Nuttall traversed the Kiamichi and Little River valleys in 1819 and Stephen H. Long explored the Kiamichi River in 1821. Nuttall and Long were the precursors of empire; the region was actively settled by Choctaw Indians displaced from elsewhere in the United States starting in 1832.
After the relocation of the Choctaw Nation to the Indian Territory in 1832, the river defined the political boundary or border between counties and districts. Forming an easily recognizable geographic frontier, it served in this capacity until Oklahoma’s statehood in 1907, when the Choctaw Nation ceased to exist and its political subdivisions were eliminated. A Choctaw county was named after the river, although generally using the Choctaws’ spelling, Kiamitia. The river formed the eastern boundary of Jack’s Fork County and Kiamitia County, and the western boundary of Cedar County and Towson counties.
Navigability of the Kiamichi River was an important goal but proved elusive due to a massive logjam in the Red River which prevented river traffic from going much beyond Nachitoches. In 1825 the Arkansas legislature petitioned the United States Congress to remove the Great Raft, as the logjam was called, so that boats could ply the Red River as far west as the mouth of the Kiamichi and the newly established Fort Towson. Within several years, the Army Corps of Engineers had done so.
Security along the Red River, the United States’ (US) international frontier with the Spanish Empire was a concern, and the US established a chain of forts along the border. Fort Towson in the Choctaw Nation was one. It was built on Gates Creek near the mouth of the Kiamichi. A military road was built from Fort Smith to Fort Towson through the valley of Little River, switching to the Kiamichi River near its southern terminus.
During the American Civil War, the last Confederate Army troops to surrender did so at Fort Towson on June 23, 1865. The Confederate States government had disintegrated by this time, and its individual armies surrendered one by one. While the surrender of Robert E. Lee at Appomattox, Virginia signaled the end to the conflict, it did not truly end until the surrender of the last fighting Southern troops at Fort Towson.
Transportation in the Kiamichi River valley was revolutionized between 1882 and 1887 with the construction of the St. Louis and San Francisco Railroad, commonly known as the Frisco. Part of a national network connecting Fort Smith, Arkansas with Paris, Texas, the train paralleled the Kiamichi River from Talihina to Kellond, a small settlement three miles north of Antlers, Oklahoma. With the train came the telegraph and later the telephone.
The coming of the Frisco stimulated settlement by European Americans and European immigrants in the Choctaw Nation. Population centers formed around each of the railroad’s station stops. The river was important as a source of fresh, plentiful water for the trains, several of which ran daily. Frequent Frisco service encouraged developers to come for resource extraction. Timber companies and individual loggers soon moved in. They cleared the old-growth forest in the Kiamichi Mountains over the next several decades. Forestry remains the area’s chief industry. Numerous rail spurs were developed from the Frisco outward along the creek valleys stretching away from the river, and large saw mill operations became common for processing the lumber.
During World War II, a training flight conducted by Britain’s Royal Air Force—flying from a base in Texas—went awry in poor weather and two planes crashed. One crashed into the south slope of White Rock Mountain above Moyers, Oklahoma, and another crashed on Big Mountain between Moyers and Kosoma. Two fliers lost their lives in the latter crash. School children from Rattan, Oklahoma erected a monument to them, the AT6 Monument, on Big Mountain in 2000.
Also during World War II, the U.S. Navy honored the river with the launch of the USS Kiamichi, hull number AOG-73, built by St. Johns River Shipbuilding in Jacksonville, Florida. She launched on August 17, 1945—just three days after the surrender of Japan—and was canceled on August 29. A Klickitat-class gasoline tanker, she was later completed for International Tankers of Panama but was renamed Transmere in 1951 and in 1952 sold to Colombia and renamed Sancho Jimeno.
In August 1975 the Kiamichi River came to national attention when two elephants escaped from a circus in Hugo, Oklahoma and were hunted for days in the bottomland of the river. They were found at Hugo Lake.
Fishing and hunting are common along the river, as is boating. American Whitewater, a private organization, defines seven miles of the river near Big Cedar as a “Class II-III rapid“. In these upper reaches of the river kayaking is a popular sport among tourists from nearby cities. In Hugo Lake boating and camping are popular. Sardis Lake has yet to be tapped for large-scale tourism, but its campgrounds are heavily used and some boating and waterskiing takes place.
In 1988 Congress created the Upper Kiamichi River Wilderness. Located at and below the headwaters of the Kiamichi River at Pine Mountain and Rich Mountain, the wilderness now encompasses 9,754 acres. It is part of the National Wilderness Preservation System. A portion of the river’s watershed is also protected by the Ouachita National Forest.
Three federally designated endangered species occupy the river valley – the Indiana bat, red-cockaded woodpecker and leopard darter. It is also home to a variety of mussels, including several that are somewhat rare.
The Kiamichi River has been studied since at least 1894, when the first scientific fish collection was made at Walnut Creek at Albion, Oklahoma. This collection netted 36 different kinds of fish. Since construction of Sardis and Hugo dams in the 1970s and 1980s the river has suffered in environmental quality. Its mussels decrease significantly below the inflow from Sardis dam, and almost extinguished as a species below the inflow from Hugo dam. Nonetheless 101 species of fish still survive, and in some cases thrive, in the river.
- U.S. Geological Survey. National Hydrography Dataset high-resolution flowline data. The National Map Archived 2012-04-05 at WebCite, accessed June 3, 2011
- (George Shirk, Oklahoma Place Names, p. 117; Encyclopædia Britannica, entry for Kiamichi River; Antlers News, November 22, 1900.)
- Wright, Muriel H. “Some Geographic Names of French Origin in Oklahoma.” Chronicles of Oklahoma. Volume 7, Number 2, pp. 188-193. Accessed March 5, 2016.
- (“Oklahoma’s Past—Pushmataha County,” Oklahoma Archeological Survey, [www.ou.edu/cas/archsur/counties/push.htm])
- (Historical Atlas of Oklahoma, plate 13)
- (Historical Atlas of Oklahoma, p. 16.)
- (Historical Atlas of Oklahoma, p. 38.)
- (Grant Foreman, “River Navigation in the Early Southwest,” The Mississippi Valley Historical Review, June 1928, p. 47.)
- (Historical Atlas of Oklahoma, p. 64.)
- American Presidency Project, John F. Kennedy, speech #441, presidency.ucsb.edu
- “The Great American Elephant Hunt,” vault.sportsillustrated.cnn.com, August 4, 1975,
- (Mark Pyron, et al., “Fish Assemblage Structure from 20 Years of Collections in the Kiamichi River, Oklahoma,” The Southwestern Naturalist, September 1998, pp. 336-343; Jimmie Pigg and Loren Hill, “Fishes of the Kiamichi River, Oklahoma,” Proceedings of the Oklahoma Academy of Sciences, 1974, pp. 121-123.)
- Southwest Paddlers – Kiamichi River
- Oklahoma Digital Maps: Digital Collections of Oklahoma and Indian Territory