Most people in Dolores have heard of the Dominguez-Escalante expedition, the Spanish explorers who came through the area in 1776 and named the Dolores River.
But few know about Bernardo Miera y Pacheco, a famous artist and mapmaker who accompanied the Spanish priests on their quest to find a route from the missions of Sante Fe to California.
The story of Miera y Pacheco’s life and his art was recently told by John Kessell, an author and professor emeritus at the University of New Mexico.
Miera y Pacheco was a sculpture, painter and cartographer, the latter during the days when people were so convinced there were rivers from the Rockies to the Pacific Ocean that they drew them onto maps, even though they were never found.
Kessell is campaigning to have Utah Lake near Provo renamed for Miera y Pacheco, who created a map of the expedition that included one of those rivers conveniently flowing west from the lake toward the Pacific.
Now the Spaniard’s maps adorn museum walls, and his sculptures are featured at the Church of Cristo Rey in Santa Fe and at the Zuni Pueblo visitors center.
“Each map was more artistic than the last,” Kessell said. “Back then, this area was not Mexico or America, it was New Spain.”
Miera y Pacheco, at age 63, dutifully recorded the “discoveries” made by the expedition, including the Piedra River, which means “standing rock” in Spanish. It was named for nearby Chimney Rock. He accurately recorded locations of the Los Pinos, the Florida, the Animas, and the Dolores rivers.
“When they got to the Dolores, Miera rode on ahead and disappeared into Summit Canyon and was missing for some time,” Kessell said. “They named it Miera’s Labyrinth.”
They continued onto the Green River and to modern-day Provo, where Miera wrote that the view “was the most pleasing and beautiful sight in all of New Spain.”
From Provo, the group surmised they had 340 more miles to the coast. Actually, it was twice that far, “and nobody knew about the Sierra Madres at the point,” Kessell said.
Against Miera y Pacheco’s wishes, they turned back toward Santa Fe, meeting Utes along the way and traveling through Hopi country.
“They did not reach Monterey, and their preaching had scant effect during the four-month horse-pack trip,” Kessell said.
Upon meeting the Colorado River at a point now under Lake Powell, the expedition took 12 days to find safe passage. And then Miera y Pacheco became ill from the hot weather.
“It was the charity of the Paiute tribe that healed him,” Kessell said. “It was the first time Indians had seen Spaniards this far west.”
Miera y Pacheco and his original maps of the area survived, although with some amusing distortions. The Green River for example is shown on the western side of the Wasatch Range. And then there are those wishful rivers flowing to the Pacific for which boat building supplies were carried for on the trip.
“They were going to paddle from the Great Salt Lake, to LA,” Kessell said. “It was not until 1845 when maps showed no river. It is interesting, the long influence of the Miera maps.”
Miera y Pacheco did however debunk the belief at the time of a great inland sea in the West.
“What had been appearing on French maps, was actually dry land,” Kessell said.
Miera y Pacheco’s maps had the panache of an artist, featuring leaping buffaloes, scenes of native people and religious art. A copy of his 1776 map is on display at the British Museum. Much of the Southwest is labeled by Spain as the Quivira region.
“Why not rename Utah Lake Laguna de Miera,” Kessell said. “He deserves commemoration.”
His recent book about the subject is called Miera y Pacheco: A Renaissance Spaniard in Eighteenth-Century New Mexico.
Kessell’s presentation was sponsored by Crow Canyon Archaeological Center and the Southwest Colorado Canyon’s Alliance.