One of the most important regions of avian biogeography of the Great Plains is the Niobrara River. Historic studies have discovered and revealed bird hybridizations and range extensions for certain species along the valley of its running water.
Another interesting aspect of the effervescent river are the origins of its name, so indicative of its natural character.
When the Lewis and Clark expedition passed the mouth of the river, a journal entry in 1804 state: "the Rapid River, or, as it is called by the French, la Rivere qui Court. This river empties into the Missouri in a course S.W. by W. and is 152 yards wide and four feet deep at the confluence." This was translated into the "the river which runs," based on a translation of the French derived some other original source, perhaps from a local Indian tribe or based on the characteristics of the river itself. A editorial footnote for the name states that the name has been "corrupted into Quicoure, Quicurre, Quicure, Quecure, sometimes 'Quicum' by misprint."
The name as it is currently presented appears to be a derivation based on the language of the Omaha or at the time two centuries ago, the "Omawhaw" Indians. These native people had a territory along the Missouri River, but knew of the predominant river to their west.
In an account about these people in 1820, the journals from the U.S. government expedition led by Stephen M. Long refer to this river. Decisions were being made in the spring on which route to follow in their western explorations beyond the Engineer Cantonment, and the valley of this river was being considered.
"If it be decided to depart immediately, the subject to be taken into view will be the direction, extent, and object of our route; whether it would be proper to ascent the Running-Water creek, (Ne-bra-ra, or Spreading water), or the Platte, Ne-bres-kuh, or Flat water)," ...
An later entry, referred to same river using the name "Quicourre."
These are some of the oldest known references to the river, with the most similar spelling to the currently used Niobrara name, as it was designated on the 1823 map of the region explored during the expedition.
More than three decades later, another government expedition of 1855-1857 referred to the river as the Niobrara:
"The Niobrara being a stream heretofore unknown, and one in which the people of Nebraska feel much interest, I shall describe it in detail," were the first words from the lengthy and descriptive paragraph. Several of the tributary waterways were discussed using their names based on their tribal designations.
In 1866, a missionary on a route from Fort Randall, crossed the Missouri River and came to an agency associated with the Ponca Tribe. "When the sun was low we crossed the Niobrara, or Running Water, as it is called here. The name is Ponca, and properly means Swift Water, it is said. It is broad and shallow and swift, with moving sands in the bottom, - an ugly stream to cross," according to the letter written by Mr. Riggs.
By this era, the name Niobrara River was firmly in place and would continue to be the recognized and proper name for the waterway.
Further information on the origins of the name would subsequently get published, especially in a revealing account about the history of place-names used in the state of Nebraska.
"The name is an approximation of the Omaha-Ponca designation of Ni obthatha ke. This name was given in reference to its characteristic spreading during freshets over its flood plain. Ni means 'water,' and obthatha or ubthatha denotes, 'spreading'; the article ke refers to something in a horizontal position, and in connection with the name of a stream it carries the connotation of a stream flowing through a plain. The meaning thus would be 'water spreading and flowing through a plain,' 'Spreading Water River,' or briefly, 'Spreading River,' 'Wide River,' names descriptive of a condition that holds true in the lower course of the stream.
For the Dakota, the river was called "Mini tanka Wakpa. The word mini is their word for 'water,'; tanka is the equivalent of 'big,' 'great,' 'grand,' and in connection with a stream it embodies the idea of 'a wide stream'; wakpa is their word for 'river.' It has been translated as 'Big River' or "Grand River' and 'Big Water.' For the contemporary Dakota tribe, the Niobrara is called the "Mniblaska, meaning 'Flat Water' because it is a wide shallow stream."
The Pawnee name, according to this place name history, was Kits'kakis, hence the name would be swift or "Rapid River." This tribe, resided along the lower Loup, or Wolf River, along the eastern Platte River, and actually would probably have occurred along the rapid river to a very limited extent.
For the Cheyenne, the name was "Hisse yovi yoe," the "sudden, or unexpected river," or "surprise river" based on tribal members unexpectedly coming across the river during historic times, according to the place name history denoted by George Bird Grinnell. There was no waterway apparent, yet it suddenly occurred. This would have been in the western portion of the river's valley.
The spreading waters of the Niobrara River would most likely refer to the dynamic shift in the character of the channel. This river is one of many faces as it enter the state of Nebraska at its western boundary, and flows eastward.
For the western Lakota and others of this historic era, the river in its western extent was a subtle channel hidden in its valley. There was little to indicate its presence until being closely approached.
Botanist Joseph N. Nicollet went past the river in 1823, and called it "Eau qui court", as shown on the subsequent map "Hydrographical Basin of the Upper Mississippi River" issued in 1843. Nicollet was perhaps the first cartographer for the newly created Topographical Engineers. This is an interesting map for the number of Indian names shown for the different waterways.
The name "Ni-obrarah" was, however, the prominent name used, probably because this name had become the prominent moniker by this time in history.
A Dynamic river
With an increasing flow, the river etched across the land an incised valley, where the waters ran in a constricted channel beneath bluffs of sandstone created by the pervasive cuts of flowing springs or tributaries caused by the flow of groundwater established in the grassland dunes of the sandhills.
As the river drops along eastward, its channel features change. In the modern era, this it known to occur in the lower third of the river valley, but historically there were no predominant landmarks such as geographic longitude, county boundaries or settlements to use as reference points.
It would have still, nonetheless, been obvious that the river spread across the floor of its valley as it extended further eastward. The west had its relatively narrow and deeper channel where the constricted and rapid flow of the waters. Eastward of 100o latitude, the broader valley allowed the channel to have a greater width with a shallower depth. This would be a perfect indication of a "spreading water river," a change because of geomorphology, rather than a name derived due to any high flow from rare seasonal "freshets" where water would spread across a constricted floodplain.
Whatever the origin, the river as it was known was certainly known to the tribes of the region. The details are all history, and are an interesting subject for any aficionado of one of the most unique rivers of the northern plains.