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  • Whither the Waters: Mapping the Great Basin from Bernardo de Miera to John C. Frémont by John L. Kessell
  • Eric Perramond
John L. Kessell
Whither the Waters: Mapping the Great Basin from Bernardo de Miera to John C. Frémont
Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 2017. xi + 102 pp. Maps, notes, appendices, references, and index. $29.95 paper (ISBN 978-0-8253-5823-3). $80.00 cloth (ISBN: 978-0-2959-9505-2).

Historian john kessell adds to his earlier 2013 book on Bernardo de Miera y Pacheco, an important artist, cartographer, and figure of colonial New Mexico. He distinguishes this slim and beautifully illustrated volume as an addendum, but it is more than a tack-on treatise to his earlier work.

Whither the Waters continues to illuminate Miera y Pacheco’s cartographic contributions. The 55 color plates included in the volume are stunning and make the work valuable for historians, cartographers, and colonial-period cultural scholars. Alone, they make the book worth purchasing. Yet Kessell does not stop at the simple excavation of these valuable primary visuals. He clearly and concisely makes the case that Miera y Pacheco’s cartographic work influenced, often erroneously, later cartographers and explorers of the Great Basin region. Kessell continues to provide scholars and readers with some of the best interpretive work on primary sources focused on the Greater Southwest and, in this case, the Great Basin as we label it today.

The heart of this volume is focused on Miera’s mapping work for the Domínguez-Escalante expedition of 1776 and its enduring legacy and impact on later cartographers. Setting off from Santa Fe, New Mexico, Miera joined two Franciscan missionaries and ten others in attempting to chart a course to California. The brief expedition, between late July and November of that year, failed to find a passage. Nevertheless, Miera’s work captured the route pursued through the Colorado Plateau, Four Corners, and Great Basin regions. The resulting cartography revised a terra incognita for the Spanish Crown with annotations on biophysical features and cultural groups they encountered. A careful analysis of Miera’s initial Plano Geográfico (1777, made in Santa Fe, New Mexico) reveals how certain embellishments made on a 1778 version while in residency in Chihuahua were then influential in later colonial maps. At the outset, Kessell notes his interest in tracking the first mention of Chaco Canyon, the eleventh-century archaeological ruins in northwestern New Mexico, and offers that Miera’s 1778 map labeled the place name “Chaca,” not far from where Chaco Canyon is located.

What resulted was a richer cultural cartography with some fundamental mistakes where rivers were, or were not, located. These errors were then perpetuated in later maps by military cartographer-engineers Costansó and Mascaró in 1779, as well as Alexander von Humboldt’s more well-known map of Mexico in 1810. The central egregious error which survived unscathed for nearly 70 years was a mythical Río San Buenaventura magically flowing west out of the Great Salt Lake. There is no such river. This tracing of Miera’s cartographic influence is useful in teaching how error begets error when left unchecked [End Page 275] and how these mistakes can become reproduced so easily by cartographers working with available documents instead of on-the-ground familiarity and knowledge.

Later explorers such as Zebulon Pike and John Charles Frémont were clearly influenced by early chronicles and maps they could find. Pike’s map published in 1810 was clearly derivative of von Humboldt’s work completed nearly a decade earlier. These later maps were more bluntly instrumental, focused on territory and land, rather than the detailed cultural work of Miera. These earlier works all reproduced the errors embedded into the Spanish cartographer’s map of the Great Basin. These cartographic misconceptions survived yet another 30 years. Frémont’s work in 1842–1845 was the result of multiple western expeditions, with rich cartography by Preuss, correcting many of the mistakes made on Miera’s earlier maps. No river flowed west out of the salt lakes, and the Frémont map also noted the distinctions between the Great Salt Lake and...


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