Pasatiempo - - IN OTHER WORDS -

I In the spring of 1778, Span­ish car­tog­ra­pher Bernardo de Miera pub­lished a map of the South­west that would guide the ex­pe­di­tions of the era’s lead­ing ex­plor­ers for 70 years. Known as the Plano Geográ­fico, Miera’s work mapped out the Colorado Plateau and Great Basin re­gions with un­prece­dented ac­cu­racy. It es­tab­lished the lo­ca­tion of springs and moun­tain ranges and mapped the where­abouts of In­dian tribes and Span­ish set­tle­ments. The map was so in­flu­en­tial that sub­se­quent car­tog­ra­phers ap­pro­pri­ated much of his work to make their own maps of North Amer­ica, in­cor­po­rat­ing Miera’s suc­cesses and fail­ures whole­sale.

“Be­fore Miera, no map­maker had lived in the colony,” his­to­rian John L. Kes­sell writes. “What maps there were of the King­dom and Prov­inces of New Mex­ico be­yond the pop­u­lated Río Grande Val­ley of­fered scarcely more than ran­dom, hearsay ge­og­ra­phy.” The Univer­sity of New Mex­ico pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus will read from his new book Whither the Wa­ters: Map­ping the Great Basin From Bernardo de Miera to John C. Fré­mont (Univer­sity of New Mex­ico Press) in a talk on Wed­nes­day, April 26, at Col­lected Works Book­store.

Kes­sell knows his sub­ject well. In 2013, the Univer­sity of Ok­la­homa re­leased his bi­og­ra­phy Miera y Pacheco: A Re­nais­sance Spa­niard in Eigh­teenth-Cen­tury New Mex­ico. But at a book sign­ing four years ago, a reader pointed out an omis­sion in the bi­og­ra­phy, ask­ing Kes­sell what in­flu­ence the Plano Geográ­fico had on later car­tog­ra­phers of the re­gion. “I had to say, damn, I don’t know,” Kes­sell said. The his­to­rian went back to the ar­chives to an­swer the ques­tion.

The re­sult is this slim, el­e­gantly de­signed vol­ume that traces how 19th-cen­tury ex­plor­ers of the South­west such as Alexan­der von Hum­boldt and Ze­bu­lon Mont­gomery Pike used and ap­pro­pri­ated Miera’s maps, even down to copy­ing his mis­takes. Af­ter all, Miera’s work passed on an er­ror of the high­est or­der — his other­wise ac­cu­rate map in­cludes a se­ries of rivers con­nect­ing the Great Salt Lake to the Pa­cific Ocean, a fan­tasy that sub­se­quent map­mak­ers would per­sist in repli­cat­ing.

In 1803, the Prus­sian ge­og­ra­pher Hum­boldt leaned heav­ily on the Plano Geográ­fico to com­plete his am­bi­tious project of map­ping out the en­tirety of New Spain. “Hum­boldt was a sci­en­tist ba­si­cally, draw­ing the most ac­cu­rate map of New Spain ever,” Kes­sell said. “His map ac­knowl­edges the car­to­graphic work of two Span­ish royal en­gi­neers, but he doesn’t say that th­ese en­gi­neers just copied Miera’s work with­out giv­ing him credit. It was map­maker’s iden­tity theft.”

The map’s in­flu­ence only con­tin­ued to grow af­ter Hum­boldt’s 1804 visit to Wash­ing­ton, D.C., where he de­liv­ered a copy of his map to the sit­ting pres­i­dent, Thomas Jef­fer­son. “By the dawn of the nine­teenth cen­tury, Bernardo de Miera’s honest hy­dro­graphic mis­con­cep­tions are firmly rooted in the col­lec­tive imag­i­na­tion,” Kessler writes.

While it was pro­duced a few months too late for use by the Lewis and Clark ex­pe­di­tion, Hum­boldt’s map caught the in­ter­est of Pike, who was dis­patched by Jef­fer­son in 1806 to sur­vey the far reaches of the ter­ri­tory ac­quired in the Louisiana Pur­chase. The new ad­di­tion to the U.S. in­cluded the north­east por­tion of present-day New Mex­ico; the rest of the cur­rent state, along with most of Texas and a vast swath of land west of the Rockies, was claimed by Spain. Taken pris­oner in Santa Fe and brought to the Mex­i­can city of Chi­huahua for his unau­tho­rized ex­cur­sions into Span­ish lands, Pike pro­duced a map of New Spain’s hold­ings west of the Mississippi that “so nakedly pla­garized Hum­boldt’s manuscript map that the lat­ter com­plained to Jef­fer­son.”

Pike’s map ev­i­denced Miera’s con­tin­u­ing in­flu­ence well into the 19th cen­tury. Un­for­tu­nately, Miera’s mis­read­ing of the trib­u­taries of the Great Salt Lake grad­u­ally led to myths of a great western river, dubbed the Río de San Bue­naven­tura. This en­tirely fic­tional river held sway over a new gen­er­a­tion of U.S. map­mak­ers and ex­pe­di­tion lead­ers.

In 1822, car­tog­ra­pher Henry Schenck Tan­ner pro­duced A Map of North Amer­ica, which is stun­ning in its ac­cu­racy — save for its de­pic­tion of the imag­ined San Bue­naven­tura River cours­ing out of cen­tral Utah and en­coun­ter­ing no re­sis­tance from the un­rep­re­sented Sierra Madre moun­tain range

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