ADVENTURES IN SOUTHWESTERN CA
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