Miera y Pacheco was first European to map the Four Corners

Thursday, April 19, 2018 2:16 PM
Miera y Pacheco drew the first map of our local rivers, including the Animas, Florida, Piños and the San Juan, which he christened the Rio de Nabajo. On his map, he named the San Juan Mountains the Sierra de Las Grullas, or mountains of the cranes, because of the many migratory birds and cranes that flew over and through the San Luis Valley.
University of New Mexico professor emeritus Dr. John L. Kessell’s new book, Whither the Waters, is about the maps of Bernardo de Miera y Pacheco, a Spaniard who created the first maps of the Four Corners and Colorado Plateau in the 18th century. Kessell has also taught classes at Fort Lewis College.
Miera y Pacheco was interested not just in rivers, drainages and mountains, but also in native inhabitants. He was an early ethnographer. He mapped Hopi villages and the “provincia” of the Navajo.
Of all the Hispano figures in Colorado history, mapmaker Bernardo Miera y Pacheco was chosen to be represented in stained glass in the Capitol in Denver by the Colorado Centennial-Bicentennial Commission in 1976. Artwork by Carlota D. Espinosa.
One error in Miera y Pacheco’s map, which was repeated by other mapmakers who had never journeyed across the Colorado Plateau, was the assumption that the lake we know as the Great Salt Lake became a westward flowing river. It did not, but explorers and fur trappers would search for such a river for more than a century.
Mapmaker, farmer and artist Miera y Pacheco not only created the first map of the Colorado Plateau, he carved this altar screen in 1761. Photo by Blair Clark, courtesy of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe.
Cartographer Miera y Pacheco’s 1778 “Plano Geographico” map has topographical features and delightful artistic sketches, such as an image of a blindfolded pope in a carriage pulled by twin lions.

More than 200 years ago, friars Dominguez and Escalante traveled north from Abiquiu, New Mexico, in search of a route to Spanish missions at Monterey in Alta California.

Their travels are well-known. What is less known is information about the short, scrappy Spaniard who accompanied them, taking notes, drawing pictures, befriending Native Americans and complaining about the priests’ overbearing attitudes. An artist, he would become a mapmaker and give us the first map of the Four Corners and the Colorado Plateau.

At only 5 feet, Bernardo de Miera y Pacheco (1713-1785) could easily be overlooked. But that would be a mistake. Indefatigable and resourceful, Miera had all the attributes of an adventurer exploring the Spanish frontier, with a thirst for knowledge, a willingness to endure freezing nights, cold mornings, blistering afternoons and a desire to learn from Native Americans.

He would become an early ethnographer and provide the first assessment of where Navajos and Utes lived in the canyons, mesas and mountains of the Southwest. A devoted family man, he was rarely home. Instead, he walked and rode on Indian trails, learning, assessing, trying to understand the culturally complex world around him. But who really was Miera y Pacheco? Born in Spain, how and when did he get to Mexico and how did he eke out a living on Spain’s northern frontier, “the ragged edge of Christendom”?

HHHI’ve followed Miera across the Four Corners. I’ve traced him from Abiquiu up to Durango on the La Posta Road. I’ve followed him northwest toward Moab, traveling above the Abajo Mountains in Utah. I’ve been to Divide Creek in Garfield County, where the expedition may have crossed the Colorado River. I’ve hiked his footsteps in Canyon Pintado, named by the friars, as they journeyed north toward Rangely. I’ve crossed the Green River with them at Jensen, Utah, and stood at Musket Springs, which they named, east of Vernal.

There, Miera patiently waited with his braying burros, his lack of fresh food, dust on his clothes, his saddle bags, his beard. The overheated friars in their dark wool cassocks complaining again about their Ute guides, occasionally running fingers over their rosary beads, muttering prayers, staring into the relentless western sun. I’ve followed Miera across the Colorado Plateau. I knew the route, but not the man.

Distinguished Spanish colonial historian and La Plata County resident Dr. John Kessell set out to uncover the life of this mysterious mapmaker who spent a decade in El Paso but was then lured by the governor of New Mexico to Santa Fe in the mid-1750s as an alcalde major, or a minor government official. Miera would die there of natural causes 30 years later.

Kessell became intrigued by Miera. A retired emeritus professor from the University of New Mexico and a former research historian for the National Park Service, Kessell has written classics, such as Mission of Sorrows; Kiva, Cross and Crown; Friars, Soldiers, and Reformers and the magisterial Spain in the Southwest: A Narrative History of Colonial New Mexico, Arizona, Texas, and California.

In six volumes, he edited with colleagues the journals and letters of don Diego de Vargas, a project that required two decades of research. Kessell’s numerous awards include the Orden de Isabel la Catolica, Cruz de Oficial from the king of Spain. I’ve seen the framed document and admired his medal.

“It’s like a knighthood for research,” he says as we sit in his house with a view of the La Plata Mountains beyond his spacious deck.

Finally, in retirement, he gathered the facts for a biography, Miera y Pacheco: A Renaissance Spaniard in Eighteenth-Century New Mexico. He thought he was finished with the peripatetic Miera who had been a friend and confidant of the powerful, brooding governor and soldier Juan Bautista de Anza. But at a book-signing, Kessell was asked the significance of Miera’s maps. How did they change the way we see the Southwest and how did they influence exploration and travel across the Colorado Plateau?

HHHNever one to duck a challenge, Kessell chased the ghost of Miera one more time. The result is a magnificent new book, Whither the Waters: Mapping the Great Basin from Bernardo de Miera to John C. Fremont. At long last, Miera has received the credit due him, and Kessell has given us a valuable gift – the gift of place, an understanding of where we live and the local nomenclature we take for granted. It was, after all, Miera y Pacheco who cemented for us with his paints and parchment the names we know and live by – the San Juan River, the Rio de las Animas, the Piedra, the Pine, the Florida, the La Platas.

Miera gave us Chaca, now Chaco, Canyon. The full name on his map for the Piedra River was Rio de Piedra Parada or Standing Rock, meaning Chimney Rock, now a national monument.

“My impression is that many of the names, especially the secular names, like the La Platas and the Rio de Los Pinos, were first applied by Hispanic New Mexican traders who came north to trade with the Utes,” Kessell says. Miera put rivers and mountains on his map, forever naming geographic features where we live. “By 1778, Miera was the most knowledgeable person in the kingdom who understood New Mexico’s human and physical environments,” Kessell says.

Despite what Kessell discovered about Miera, as an historian, Kessell also knows what has been lost. “We do not have an original of the first map he drew in May 1777, only copies. The original we cite was his revision in 1778,” held by the British Museum. Dutifully, Miera drew native peoples in their locales and habitats. Yet when the Spanish royal engineers copied Miera’s work, “they left out the Indians Miera had so carefully placed on his map,” Kessell says.

Miera prophesized opportunities in the Great Basin that would have changed the Spanish Empire. He found and drew the Great Salt Lake, though he erred in combining Salt Lake and Utah Lake in an hourglass shape.

Miera named the Green River the Rio de San Buenaventura, though that name did not stick, and he whetted appetites for countless explorers by drawing in a westward-flowing river, the Rio de Tizon, that others later projected ran to the Pacific. No such river existed, but explorers would search for it well into the 19th century.

The land that Miera traversed in northern Utah could have profited the Spanish colonies, if they had settled the Salt Lake Valley, but by the 1780s,“Spain was so overextended that there was a void which the Mormons moved into,” Kessell says.

“The map produced by the Dominguez-Escalante Expedition was one of the landmarks in the cartographic history of the North American West. It would influence other maps for more than a generation,” writes Richard Francaviglia in Mapping and Imagination in the Great Basin. “Today, the sprawling Salt Lake City metropolitan area stretching north and south along the Wasatch Front seems inevitable, but Miera’s prophecy deserves credit as visionary,” he says.

Despite Miera’s errors, his map “represented the first attempt of any European to portray cartographically, from personal experience, the complex upper Colorado River basin,” says cartographic historian Carl Wheat. In Whither the Waters, Kessell combines the work of Miera with the 1845 map made by the mercurial and twice court-martialed, self-promoting Capt. John C. Fremont, who was often led by the nose by mountain men like Kit Carson. Fremont’s map superceded Miera’s, but it, too, had mistakes.

HHHI’ll give the cartographic credit to Bernardo Miera. We love to explore the Colorado Plateau because it has more national parks, national forests, national monuments, wilderness areas and Native American reservations than anywhere on Earth. As a mapmaker, Miera saw it on paper in his mind’s eye – squinting into the sun, naming where we live. He gave us the mountains we climb and the rivers we run.

Andrew Gulliford is an historian and an award-winning author and editor. Reach him at

If you go

Dr. John Kessell will give a lecture about Miera y Pacheco and autograph copies of his new book, Whither the Waters, at 1 p.m. April 28 at the Animas Museum, 3065 West Second Ave., Durango.