The New River: Fact or Fiction

View of the New River from Grandview

Human beings are curious by nature. There is an innate desire to find answers to complex questions. It is as if this is part of our DNA. Particularly of interest to us, are the future and the past. We question what the future will look like and how we can shape it. We question what really happened in the past and wonder what information was lost through the transfer of time. While accurately predicting the future might only be a reality in science-fiction movies, piecing together events from the past is equally difficult. There are several reasons. The difference between perception and reality is the truth and many times people accept perception as the truth. Myth becomes more exciting to tell than fact, and eventually myths become facts themselves. As the years of time pass away, evidence both tangible and intangible disappears leaving our curiosity unsatisfied.

Those questions bring us to the New River. Visitors coming to New River Gorge National River have many queries that simply have no right answer or no wrong answer. Many visitors have heard that the New River is the second oldest river in the entire world, and certainly the oldest river in North America. Many people question why, if it is indeed the second oldest river in the world, it is called the New River. Another question frequently posed is, "why are the New and the Kanawha not the same river?" The purpose of this article is not to separate fact from fiction, like oil on water, but rather to paint a picture showing both sides of the argument. All three questions will be examined with arguments for and against weighed against each other.

The New River is the Second Oldest River in the Entire World.

Fact- Not many rivers can lay claim to the fact that they are older than the mountains wherein their course lies. Most rivers that have their beginning in mountains, slide off their crest and then follow at the base of the mountains. That is not true with the New. Its two forks converge in North Carolina and then continue to stay within the crest of the Appalachians throughout the river's duration--basically, eroding and cutting through the middle of the mountains as they rose up. Many scientists believe that when the Appalachian Mountains were formed, the New River simply rose up with the mountains, and that is why the New River remains in the crest of the mountains. Many scientists also believe that the Appalachian Mountains are the oldest mountains in the world. It is possible that the New River is older than any mountain range in the entire world. Finally, the New River's mountain contorting course has exposed rocks that are over 1 billion years old.

Fiction- The New River is older than most rivers, but is it the second oldest in the world? There is a scientific argument that the New River might not even be the oldest river in its formation state of North Carolina. The French Broad River also rests on the crest of the Appalachian Mountains. Like the New River, it cut through the Appalachians as they rose. Like the New River, it is deprived of ancient fossils that many younger rivers have. It is generally accepted that the Nile is the oldest river in the world, yet based on geological evidence, the Finke River in Australia can also make a claim that it is the oldest river in the world. If you do not base your claim on geological evidence, the Nile and Tigris-Euphrates rivers were the cradles of the beginning of civilization and are considered by many to be the first rivers created on Earth. Furthermore, Pete Lesing's article: raises questions about whether the New River is one of the oldest in the world. One of the last points of the many that he makes, states that, on average, major rivers in the United States erode one foot every six thousand years. The Grand Canyon is estimated to be around 5 to 10 million years old, yet the New River Gorge is only 1/3 of the depth of the Grand Canyon. Could the Colorado River be older?

Was the New River named the New River because it was a New River?

Fact- The New River has been linked with numerous different names during our brief history in juxtaposition, with itself. It has been called the Wood, Wood's, Woods, Kanawha, The Great Kahnaway River, and the Cohnaway rivers by various different maps and legends. One legend has it that various Native American tribes nicknamed it the "River of Death" and the "River of Evil Spirits." How did one of the oldest rivers, possibly on Earth, get the oxymoron of a name such as it has? It has been documented that Colonel Abraham Wood, a noted English Fur trader, sent two men, Thomas Batts and Robert Fallam into what was then the unexplored outreaches of territorial Virginia. Discovering a river that they had never seen before, Batts and Fallam wrote "new river" on the map that they had drawn, and, without editing the map, turned it to the map maker, and thereafter the New River forever kept its name.

Fiction- Since no one knows actually why it is named the New River, could we also not speculate that it could have been called the New Virginia River, or the New Woods River and the map printer let his lapse create a new name. Or, could we speculate that since the New River is ever changing, that it was called the New River because every time you look at it, it's literally a new river.

Are the New and Kanawha not the same river?

- There is no sound logical scientific explanation or historical explanation to declare a separation between the Kanawha and New Rivers. Just after the North and South Fork of the New River meet near Northern Ashe County, North Carolina, they meet the Mouth of Wilson River at the North Carolina-Virginia Border. The New River is wider and has a larger volume-- the Mouth of Wilson is considered a tributary of the New River. The Little River meets the New River right before Claytor Dam. The New River is wider and has a larger volume-- the Little River is considered a tributary of the New River. In West Virginia, the Bluestone River meets the New River just before Bluestone Dam, the New River is wider and has a larger volume-- the Bluestone River is a tributary of the New River. A few more miles down-river, the Greenbrier River meets the New River, the New River is wider and has more volume-- the Greenbrier River is a tributary of the New River. At Gauley Bridge, West Virginia, the New River meets the Gauley River. The New River is wider and has more volume than the Gauley River--the two rivers meet and form the Kanawha River. Why does that make sense? Native America tribes such as the Shawnee, the Cherokee, and the Iroquois considered the Kanawha and New to be the same river. Early explorers and politicians considered the rivers one in the same. Author of the Declaration of Independence and 3rd President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, had this to say about the two rivers, "The Great Kanhaway is a river of considerable note for the fertility of its lands, and still more, as leading towards the headwaters of James River. Nevertheless, it is doubtful whether it's great and numerous rapids will admit a navigation, but at an expence to which it will require ages to render its inhabitants equal. The great obstacles begin at what are called the great falls, 90 miles above the mouth, below which are only five or six rapids, and these passable, with some difficulty, even at low water. From the falls to the mouth of Greenbrier is 100 miles, and thence to the lead mines 120. It is 280 yards wide at its mouth." Cleary, one of the most influential men in the history of the world did argue that both rivers should be one.

Fiction- Thanks to University of West Virginia professor Dr. Steve Kite, a Fluvial Geomorphologist, we have some possible answers why the rivers are separated by name. At Kanawha Falls, very close to Gauley Bridge, there is a physical barrier that physically separates the rivers. Early explorers and even today's rafters cannot navigate this obstacle. Kanawha Falls, though unofficially, also represents a cultural barrier. The entire course of the West Virginia part of the New River is in Southern West Virginia. Southern West Virginia historically had strong ties to the confederacy, despite West Virginia splitting from Virginia to join the Union. Conversely, the Kanawha lies in an area that was more supportive of the Union. Many argue that West Virginia is the only state to be part of three different regions in the United States. Officially it is in the Mid Atlantic region. However, you could make a strong case that southern West Virginia is part of the South East and that Northern West Virginia is part of the North East. Physical, psychological, and cultural boundaries amongst West Virginia also extend to our greatest river. Hence, we have two names for the same river.

Last updated: February 26, 2015

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