kess43774“Miera y Pacheco – A Renaissance Spaniard in 18th Century New Mexico” by John L. Kessell

University of Oklahoma Press, $29.95, 194 pp.

John Kessell will talk about “Miera y Pacheco” at 1 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 25 at Bookworks, 4022 Rio Grande NW, Albuquerque; at 2 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 31 at the conference of the Hispanic Genealogical Research Center of New Mexico. Talk is free and open to the public. (in the Marriott Pyramid, 5151 San Francisco NE, Albuquerque); at 6 p.m. Sept. 20 at the Durango Corral of Westerners, Strater Hotel, Durango, Colo.; at 10 a.m. Sept. 28 at COAS Books, 1101 S. Solano Dr., Las Cruces; and at 1 p.m. Oct. 5 at El Rancho de las Golondrinas, in the village of La Cienega (south of Santa Fe off I-25).

By David Steinberg

Historian John Kessell would like you to think of Bernardo de Miera y Pacheco as an intelligent, creative man with diverse interests.

Or as the subtitle of his new book’s declares – “A Renaissance Spaniard in 18th Century New Mexico.”

What did Miera do to deserve such an admiring description? Plenty.

For one, Miera, born in Cantabria, Spain, was a mapmaker in New Spain. The front jacket of the book shows details of his map of “Plano de la Provincia interna de el Nuebo Mexico. Yes, Nuebo.

He was a religious artist. Look at the photograph of his bulto of St. Joseph with the Christ Child on the back of the book’s dust cover. He also made altar screens, retablos and paintings.

Kessell’s book tells of Miera’s talents as an engineer and militia captain on Indian campaigns, as a merchant, a miner, a metallurgist, and a rancher.

“He is an utterly remarkable individual,” Kessell said in an interview. And this is an utterly remarkable and readable biography.

However, in his various talks on the book, Kessell is focusing on Miera’s position as the cartographer on the famous Dominguez-Escalante Expedition of 1776.

The author’s talks share thos title “Miera y Pacheco – Dominguez and Escalante’s Unruly Cartographer”

The author said Miera might have been “unruly” from the viewpoint of the two Franciscan friars leading the expedition that left Santa Fe heading for Monterey, Calif.

But considering the fact that Miera was 63 years of age, “he was seemingly indefatigable,” Kessell said.

Other qualities didn’t endear him to the friars: “Miera was often impatient, got ahead of the group, almost got himself lost,” Kessell said.

During the journey, he suffered from recurring stomach aches, and one point the pain became so severe that Miera, joined by severe other members of the expedition, “ducked into a Paiute hut one night. The friars heard chanting. It seemed that a Paiute medicine man was trying to cure Miera’s stomach problems. Next day, when the friars found out Miera sought help from the Indians, they had a fit.

As the book states, “This was precisely the sort of behavior, the priests reprimanded,  that made preaching the truth of the gospel among these infidels ‘more difficult each day.'”

The expedition’s purposes were to bolster the defense of New Spain’s territory and religious conversion. But the 12-member party never made it to California.

A snowstorm hit them in early October in Utah. With horses and pack animals sliding in wet, heavy snow, the friars proposed turning back, Kessell said, though Miera was furious. He wanted to press on. The members of the expedition drew lots; the majority voted to head back.

Had the expedition followed Miera’s advice, Kessell said, “All would have frozen to death like the Donner Party 70 years later. They didn’t know the Sierra Nevada. They couldn’t possibly have made it.”

Kessell,a professor emeritus of history at the University of New Mexico, explained in an email how he came to write this biography of Miera.

I first thought of a life-and-times study of Bernardo Miera y Pacheco in the early 1970ss as U.S. Bicentennial project, but it never went anywhere.  I then got diverted by Diego de Vargas and others.  When, a couple of years ago, a colleague asked about the earliest mention of Chaco Canyon on a Spanish map, that set me back on don Bernardo’s trail.  On his awesome map of the Dominguez-Escalante expedition of 1776, his ‘Plano Geographico,’ preserved today in the British Library, Miera placed ‘Chaca” precisely where it belongs.  The map absolutely fascinated me.  Realizing at the time that there was no biography of the versatile Spaniard, whose 300th anniversary is this year, I decided to write a modest biography.

Not coincidentally, the University of Oklahoma Press published Kessell’s book on Aug. 4, the 300th anniversary of Miera’s birth.

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