Bernardo de Miera y Pacheco

The name Bernardo de Miera y Pacheco is better known amongst art historians than amongst surveyors. As an 18th century Santa Fe artist, art historians consider him one of the founders of New Mexico’s santero tradition, whose painted retablos and carved santos earned him a place in Southwestern religious art. Yet Don Bernardo was New Mexico’s greatest mapmaker (considering his limited resources), who drew the earliest comprehensive maps of the region at a time, when our part of the world was largely tierra incognito.

Bernardo de Miera y Pacheco was born August 4, 1713 in the Valle de Carriedo in the Cantabrian Mountains of the province of Santander, in the far north of Spain, about 20 miles south of the port-city of Santander. His father was a captain in the Cantabrian Cavalry, and the son received an education as a military engineer that included cartography and field astronomy. Like many of his peers, the young officer went to Spanish America, where we find him in 1741 in Chihuahua when he married Maria Estefania Domínguez de Mendoza. The marriage produced two sons, Anacléto (Cléto) and Manuel, who were to become prominent New Mexico citizens.

In 1743 Miera y Pacheco moved with his family to El Paso (today: Cd. Juarez, Mexico). Promoted to captain, he was put in charge of the military detachment that accompanied Padre Juan Menchero on his 1747 attempt to convert and settle the Navajo at Cebolleta. The expedition started in El Paso and turned west from the Jornada to the headwaters of the Gila, thence north to Acoma and Cebolleta. While the good Padre’s efforts were doomed to failure, captain Miera y Pacheco retrurned with the first map of that wild and largely unexplored country. A couple of years later he mapped the Rio Grande from El Paso downstream to the junction of the Rio Conchos, even today a remote, ruggedly scenic, and little known stretch of the river.

In early 1756 New Mexico governor Marín del Valle lured him to Santa Fe with an offer of an alcaldía mayor, installing him as mayor of the pueblos of Pecos and Galisteo. The viceroy in Mexico City, frustrated by his lack of geographic knowledge of the northern frontier, had ordered his six northern governors to produce detailed maps. Marín knew that Don Bernardo had become an accomplished mapmaker. That he also was an artist, painter, merchant, and something of a jack-of-all-trades, who even tried his hand in casting cannons, was of little interest to the governor. He was not to be disappointed. After accompanying the governor on several inspection trips during the second half of 1757, Miera in the spring of 1758 drew an elaborate, richly decorated map of the entire “kingdom”, only one of several he would produce over the next quarter-century.

The map covered New Mexico from 30 degrees latitude in northern Chihuahua to above Taos, which Miera placed about a degree and a half too far north. On the east side he shows the Pecos below the junction with the Gallinas River, and on the western extreme, in a contraction of the true location and only about 200 miles west of Santa Fe, the Hopi villages in an exaggerated bend of the Colorado River he calls “R. grande de Nabajô”.

The map included in several legends a description of the entire province, its twenty-two pueblos, population statistics, livestock numbers, and men and military equipment available for defense. Miera probably drew several versions of his map, including a colorful presentation-model painted on a thirty-by-fourty-inch cotton cloth, and dedicated to his patron, Governor Marín. An original copy that was sent to the viceroy in Mexico City and there deposited in the archives, where it was last seen and photographed in 1930, has since disappeared.

During the following two decades Miera devoted himself primarily to artistic and commercial endeavors. In 1768 he was granted a league of land (4,106.66 acres after the General Land Office got through with it) near Cebolleta (rechristened Seboyeta in 1885 by the Post Office), a grant called Cañada de los Alamos, but he remained a citizen of Santa Fe.
Bernardo de Miera y Pacheco’s next major accomplishment as geographer arose from his enlistment as a mapmaker in the Dominguez-Escalante expedition. Fray Francisco Atanasio Domínguez had come to New Mexico on an inspection trip of the Franciscan Missions. In April 1776, while in Santa Fe, he learned of a project by another Franciscan, Father Vélez de Escalante, to establish a northern route to the port of Monterey. The two friars decided to make the journey together. Escalante too was a native of the mountains of Santander and had no problem engaging his fellow montaño to command the accompanying soldiers and make a map of the route.
The party of fourteen left Santa Fe on July 29 and headed northwest. In western Colorado they discovered and named the Dolores River. Near present Rangely they turned west, travelling through eastern Utah until they reached Utah Lake. Turning south to near present Cedar City they decided that they were now due east of Monterey (they were about 100 miles too far north) and could turn west. But by now it was the first week in October, it was starting to snow, they had already eaten their cattle and started to eat their mules, and they decided to return to Santa Fe. Continuing south, on November 26 they reached Zuni Pueblo and were back in Santa Fe by January 2, 1777. Thanks to mapmaker Miera the expedition was not entirely a failure, for he returned with maps that would be invaluable for those who would eventually follow. 

In 1779 New Mexico Governor de Anza went on a campaign against the Comanches and Miera promptly made a map that covered an area 150 miles wide, centered on the Rio Grande from Sant Fe north to the Arkansas River. The map showed de Anza’s route, including his campsites, and the two locations where he gave battle. It may have been Miera’s last map.

When Bernardo de Miera y Pacheco died in Santa Fe on April 11, 1785, New Mexico lost a man who knew more about the geography of the Southwest than any man before him, and for nearly a century after him. Copies of his maps had been taken to Mexico City where they were examined in 1803 by Alexander von Humboldt, who made use of the information they provided in preparing his own maps of Spanish America. When von Humboldt was the guest of President Thomas Jefferson a year later, he freely shared his cartographic knowledge with the President, who was especially interested in the limits of Louisiana. In Washington Miera’s work was further copied by American mapmakers who, in keeping with the custom of the times, made no mention of that great New Mexico geographer when they published “their own” maps.

Bernardo de Miera y Pacheco’s work has been mentioned as being one of New Mexico’s “best kept secrets”. I would like to see the members of the surveying profession of this State to lift the vail from this secrecy, to point with pride to our 250-year-old mapping tradition, and to remember a true New Mexico pioneer.