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  • Whither the Waters: Mapping the Great Basin from Bernardo de Miera to John C. Fremont by John L. Kessell
  • Richard Flint
Whither the Waters: Mapping the Great Basin from Bernardo de Miera to John C. Fremont. By John L. Kessell. ( Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2017. Pp. 102. Color plates, notes, bibliography, index.)

Celebrated historian of Spanish colonial Mexico and the American Southwest John L. Kessell has, for more than four decades, maintained a special interest in Bernardo de Miera y Pacheco. Throughout the second half of the eighteenth century, don Bernardo, a peninsular Spaniard, [End Page 336] served as a sometime military engineer and cartographer at the Janos, Paso del Norte, and Santa Fe presidios in New Spain's provincias internas.

Despite Miera y Pacheco's obvious effort to display trustworthy, accurate information on his maps, he could not exclude mistakes entirely. One of his truly colossal errors, which was wholly or partially repeated thereafter by numerous mapmakers (including such illustrious names as Alexander von Humboldt and Zebulon Pike), forms the core of Kessell's Whither the Waters.

In late summer 1776, Miera y Pacheco was one of a party of ten men who set out northwestward from the New Mexican capital of Santa Fe with the goal of establishing an overland route from there to Monterey, the new capital of the Spanish province of Alta California. With a tool kit consisting only of quills, paper, an astrolabe, and a compass, Miera y Pacheco recorded data and produced sketch maps that would be used later to draft a comprehensive map of the route the group hoped to identify on the ground: his "Plano Geográfico" of 1777 and 1778.

These were the first Europeans to penetrate the topography of what we now call the Great Basin. Unknown to them, many small, rugged mountain ranges, as well as the great spine of California, the Sierra Nevada, stood between them and their goal. Just before heavy snow convinced the group to give up the hope of reaching Monterey, the DomínguezEscalante expedition, as it has become known, encountered a large geographical basin containing sizable rivers and what they interpreted as two huge lakes. Miera y Pacheco recorded the names of the lakes as Laguna de los Timpanogos (in reality the combined waters of the Great Salt Lake and Utah Lake) and Laguna de Miera (the intermittent Sevier Lake). No one in the party actually circumnavigated the lakes or saw all the rivers. Instead, the party relied on imperfectly translated and understood information provided by local Ute Indians. Most importantly for further hopes of reaching Monterey at some later date, flowing out of the Timpanogos was a great river (a misidentified tributary stream of the lake) that Miera y Pacheco projected as flowing all the way to the Pacific Ocean. That promised an easy water route to the California coast.

As late as 1816, New York cartographer Henry Schenck Tanner produced a map that Kessell describes as "wildly popular" (63) that labeled the "supposed course of a river between the Buenaventura [Salt Lake Basin] and the Bay of [San] Francisco" (65). It wasn't until 1843–1844 that John C. Frémont and his topographer Charles Preuss were able to accurately map the vast stretch of territory from Oregon to Southern California, and from the Pacific Coast east to the Wasatch Range. They demonstrated finally that a water connection across the Great Basin to the Pacific was a figment.

With Whither the Waters, John L. Kessell has provided historians and [End Page 337] those interested in the history of the interior West with a lavishly illustrated cautionary tale about cartographic inference and its persistence even in the face of contrary experience. As careful as Bernardo de Miera y Pacheco generally was as a mapmaker, his hasty assumptions made mistaken successors.

Richard Flint
University of New Mexico


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