Miera y Pacheco: A Renaissance Spaniard in Eighteenth-Century New Mexico

Miera y Pacheco: A Renaissance Spaniard in Eighteenth-Century New Mexico

by John L. Kessell

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Remembered today as an early cartographer and prolific religious artist, don Bernardo de Miera y Pacheco (1713–1785) engaged during his lifetime in a surprising array of other pursuits: engineer and militia captain on Indian campaigns, district officer, merchant, debt collector, metallurgist, luckless silver miner, presidial soldier, dam builder, and

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Remembered today as an early cartographer and prolific religious artist, don Bernardo de Miera y Pacheco (1713–1785) engaged during his lifetime in a surprising array of other pursuits: engineer and militia captain on Indian campaigns, district officer, merchant, debt collector, metallurgist, luckless silver miner, presidial soldier, dam builder, and rancher. This long-overdue, richly illustrated biography recounts Miera’s complex life in cinematic detail, from his birth in Cantabria, Spain, to his sudden and unexplained appearance at Janos, Chihuahua, and his death in Santa Fe at age seventy-one.

In Miera y Pacheco, John L. Kessell explores each aspect of this Renaissance man’s life in the colony. Beginning with his marriage to the young descendant of a once-prominent New Mexican family, we see Miera transformed by his varied experiences into the quintessential Hispanic New Mexican. As he traveled to every corner of the colony and beyond, Miera gathered not only geographical, social, and political data but also invaluable information about the Southwest’s indigenous peoples. At the same time, Miera the artist was carving and painting statues and panels of the saints for the altar screens of the colony.

Miera’s most ambitious surviving map resulted from his five-month ordeal as cartographer on the Domínguez-Escalante expedition to the Great Basin in 1776. Two years later, with the arrival of famed Juan Bautista de Anza as governor of New Mexico, Miera became a trusted member of Anza’s inner circle, advising him on civil, military, and Indian affairs.

Miera’s maps and his religious art, represented here, have long been considered essential to the cultural history of colonial New Mexico. Now Kessell’s biography tells the rest of the story. Anyone with an interest in southwestern history, colonial New Mexico, or New Spain will welcome this study of Miera y Pacheco’s eventful life and times.

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“In Miera y Pacheco, master narrative historian John L. Kessell reveals the multiple careers of don Bernardo de Miera y Pacheco, cartographer, artist, and keen observer of eighteenth-century New Mexico. This is a long-overdue biography, and it is essential reading for understanding an extraordinarily gifted man who led a remarkable life in the late Spanish colonial period.”—Richard Flint, author of No Settlement, No Conquest: A History of the Coronado Entrada

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University of Oklahoma Press
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Miera y Pacheco

A Renaissance Spaniard in Eighteenth-Century New Mexico

By John L. Kessell, Bernardo de Miera y Pacheco


Copyright © 2013 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-5079-6


Estefanía's Prometido

AT ANY REMOTE MILITARY POST, on any frontier, in any age, a wedding broke the monotony of daily routine. So it was at the presidio of San Felipe y Santiago de Janos, on the distant northern frontier of New Spain, on May 20, 1741. Of the dozen or so fifty-man presidial garrisons scattered in the continental loneliness westward from the Bahía del Espiritu Santo on the Gulf of Mexico to Fronteras in northern Sonora, Janos actually looked like a fort. The flat-roofed adobe quadrangle, with stubby towers at the corners, hunkered down among dry volcanic hills in the northwest corner of today's Mexican state of Chihuahua. Farming (wheat, corn, fruit trees, and vines) was possible in the constricted valley east and west of the post along the seasonal Río de Janos.

The military engineer who stepped off a meticulous plan of the place a quarter-century later, in 1766, noted that the compound was by then "almost in ruins," except for the captain's house and the church, which had been rebuilt. Settlers' homes strung out along irrigation ditches in both directions. The unreliable Janos arroyo bowed into a big bend south of the fort, allowing a dug channel to carry water from an upstream headgate to reentry below. Flat-topped mesas broke the northern horizon.

On that Saturday in May 1741, soldiers' wives and daughters surely had decorated the presidial chapel within the limits of available finery. Candles lighted its dark interior, and bunches of spring flowers sprang from every niche and flat surface. There must have been music, from guitars and a violin at the least. This wasn't just any wedding of an enlisted man's daughter. The eighteen-year-old bride, a local Janos girl, must have been a beauty, for she had caught the eye of a light-skinned, native-born Spaniard, a peninsular, often favored (and resented) in the colonies.

María Estefanía de los Dolores Domínguez de Mendoza, whose aristocratic name all but hid her humble birth, claimed descent from a proud New Mexican family that had fled two generations earlier before the Pueblo Indian Revolt of 1680. Her parents, veteran Janos soldier Salvador Domínguez and Ana Fraguagua, wore their best. Both the bride and groom's mothers, as fate would have it, were named Ana, thought to be a good omen.

Estefanía's prometido, or fiancé, was twenty-seven and short by any standard—about five Castilian feet (slightly shorter than five English feet)—blue-eyed, with a straight nose and rosy fair complexion. A physical description of him thirty-eight years later, in 1779, revealed that his chestnut hair and full beard were graying, but even then he bore no notable scars or physical disabilities.

A native of the Valle de Carriedo in the verdant northern mountains of Santander, Bernardo de Miera y Pacheco seems to have been the only son of don Luis María de Miera Villa and Isabel Ana Pacheco. Years later, addressing a job application to Carlos III, Bourbon king of Spain (1759–88), Bernardo would cite his father's service as captain in raising at his own expense a militia company of Cantabrian cavalry under the conde de Aguilar in the War of the Spanish Succession (1700–13). Bernardo's paternal grandfather had served the Crown as alcalde of the Valle de Carriedo; the family enjoyed status among their neighbors. Why Luis María's firstborn son left home for the Spanish Indies remains a mystery.

Isabel Ana's father (Bernardo's maternal grandfather) was equally illustrious. Don Antonio Pacheco, governor of the province of Novara in Italy and colonel of the Tercio de Lombardía, had given his life, according to Bernardo's family service record, during the siege of Mantua in the same war. That conflict, which enveloped nearly all of Europe and set the Bourbon dynasty on the Spanish throne, ended in 1713, the year of Bernardo's birth.

* * *

The hills of Cantabria echo with the surname Miera. A river born of arroyos tumbling down from the higher mountains carries the name, as does a village on its banks. A number of sturdy masonry buildings scattered over the green valleys still bear on their facades stone-carved coats of arms featuring the distinctive armas de Miera. Almost all versions feature a castle tower with a ladder leaning against it, two crossed keys floating to the upper left or an arm sticking out of the window clutching the keys, an equilateral cross below, a tall pine tree, and sometimes a pair of greyhounds. Such proud heraldic emblems graced the home in Saro of Spanish literary giant Lope de Vega's father; the great house of Miera in Selaya; and, only minutes from Bernardo's front door, the sprawling Franciscan Conceptionist Convento de la Canal, founded in the mid-seventeenth century by don Domingo Herrera de la Concha y Miera, courtier of Felipe IV. Anyone passing by the convento could always tell the time of day by the polychrome sundial set in its front wall.

In the summer of 1712, a year before Bernardo's birth, census takers listed, household by household, the thirty-seven families who made up the village of Santibáñez, a scattered cluster of stone, tile-roofed farmhouses. In one of them resided "Don Luis de Miera and his wife Isabel and daughter, members of the lower nobility [hijosdalgo]; he is a householder [vecino]." But then all of Luis's neighbors were noble in the same sense. That is, they paid no taxes, pechos y derechos, an ancient privilege granted to citizens of this and many other regions of northern Spain.

By the mid-nineteenth century, Santibáñez, a village without a town council, numbered 89 houses, 96 vecinos, 3 fountains of "very good water," and a total population of 535. The most common maladies were fevers and pains in the side. The land, of middling quality, produced grains, flax, vegetables, and pasturage for beef and dairy cattle. You could catch trout and eels in local streams and hunt deer and rabbits in the hills.

Licenciado don Francisco Antonio de Arce, long-serving parish priest of Santibánez, baptized the first child of Luis María de Miera Villa and Isabel Ana Pacheco in the modest, single-nave parish church of San Juan Bautista on May 1, 1712. They named her Manuela Antonia. When Isabel found herself pregnant again, the couple decided to renew their marriage vows at a mass of velaciones, or nuptial benediction, which took place on February 21, 1713. In lieu of the traditional thirteen coins, Luis pledged two hundred gold doubloons to his wife. During the ceremony, a veil or yoke covered Luis's shoulders and Isabel Ana's head. With her hand in his, they vowed to educate their children in the Catholic faith and to encourage their sons to become priests.

Not six months later, on Sunday, August 13, family and friends again climbed the steep slope to their church in what fellow villagers termed Santibáñez Arriba. The occasion this time was the baptism of Luis María and Isabel Ana's nine-day-old son, born on the fourth, feast of Santo Domingo. Father Arce's entry in the baptism register read "Bernardo Pascual Joaquín." The name Bernardo was never in doubt. Thirty-three-year-old Luis María and his younger brother Bernardo, seventeen, were especially close, more like father and son; the baby would be called Bernardo after his uncle. Their saint's day, feast of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, followed a week later, on August 20. Young uncle Bernardo stood proudly as godfather at the baptism of his namesake.

The child's other names, Pascual and Joaquín, Father Arce must have suggested to the parents from his santoral, or calendar of saints' days. Paschal II had become pope on August 13, 1099, and the feast day of Joaquín, traditionally the husband of Ann and father of the Blessed Virgin Mary, fell on August 16. As a grown man, Bernardo ignored his other two baptismal names, even on official correspondence.

As the boy grew up in the close, intermarried valley—so many Mieras, Villas, Arces, Camperos, de la Conchas, Ruiz de Rabalcabas—he participated in the vital events that brought joy and sorrow to his family. Before he was three, another sister, María Antonia, made her appearance, then three years later, Jacinta Manuela Antonia. Since Manuela Antonia was also the name of Bernardo's older sister, she had probably died. Infant mortality was all too common, and the designated "burial place for infants" grew crowded.

He had just turned eight when uncle Bernardo married Ángela Ruiz Castañeda, a girl from the village. Related to the third degree of consanguinity, the couple had received the appropriate episcopal dispensation. The groom committed one-third of his estate to his new wife. Their nephew Bernardo was fourteen in 1727, when Ángela gave birth to twins; one died within days and the other struggled for two months before succumbing as well.

Nothing is known of Bernardo's early education. He learned a great deal, we can safely assume, from his accomplished father and likely from the parish priest. They probably sent the promising youth to a nearby church school or seminary. In New Spain, he would do the same with his first son, but neither Miera, father or son, became a priest. Hence, from the summer of his baptism in 1713 in Spain to the spring of his marriage in 1741 in America, Bernardo de Miera y Pacheco's life remains a perplexing and intriguing void.

For what reason, in what year, and on what ship did he take passage to the Spanish Indies? Some of these details he must have revealed to Estefanía's father as he sought her hand; if the prenuptial investigation required by the Church and the military ever turns up, it should supply a more complete history of the groom to date. As a native of the mother country, Miera was required to secure a special dispensation to marry in the New World, submitting, for example, certification of his baptism or presenting witnesses who had known him either in Spain or after his arrival in America.

It's tempting to imagine young Bernardo as a spellbound twenty-year-old, standing all of five feet tall, watching from the deck of a frigate such as the forty-gun Francisco Javier as the white-walled port of Cádiz slipped away on January 8, 1734. Outbound and inbound trans-Atlantic vessels smuggled quantities of contraband goods and not a few unlisted men and women—not exactly polizones, or stowaways, but rather undocumented passengers lost to the record as port authorities listed legal pasajeros a Indias.

The boldest name inscribed that day on the Francisco Javier's formal roster of passengers was don Juan Francisco de Güemes y Horcasitas, a hard-bitten soldier newly appointed as governor of Cuba; he was also an hidalgo from Cantabria and one year younger than Bernardo's father. (Although Juan Francisco was from Reinosa, several valleys southwest of Santibáñez, numerous Güemes families resided in the Valle de Carriedo during the first half of the eighteenth century.) Governor Güemes's license to embark gave the names and physical descriptions of his five-member personal entourage—from a pockmarked, fifteen-year-old nephew to his thirty-year-old secretary—along with that of his highborn, twenty-four-year-old wife, "well built, white, black-haired." But of course, there was no hint of the young Miera.

At some time in his youth, Bernardo probably attended a military college, either in Spain or Mexico, or apprenticed himself early on to study engineering and cartography. He also demonstrated talent for sketching, painting, and sculpture. Although later commanders would name him "engineer" on campaigns, Miera seems not to have attained regular military rank until near the end of his life. Why did he emigrate? Was it a pull—an offer from someone in America he simply couldn't refuse, and if so, from whom? Or was it a push—a failed first marriage, some family tragedy, a scandal? If he had committed an unspeakable crime and taken flight, the names on his baptismal and marriage certificates surely would not have matched.

Back home in Santibáñez, his uncle Bernardo died in 1738 at age forty-two. Fellow parishioners laid him to rest "in the main chapel on the epistle side at the entrance to the sacristy." He left two legitimate sons, Ángel (who died two years later) and Manuel, and one "natural son named Luis." The two brothers, Bernardo and Luis, had kept their pact, each naming his firstborn son for the other. Bernardo's burial entry makes no mention of his wife Ángela. A will, recorded three months after his death, provided for masses devoted to his guardian angel, his name saints (Bernardo, Antonio, and Ambrosio), and the souls in Purgatory. Fifty of the masses were to be celebrated at the neighboring Convento de la Canal. How, when, or where Bernardo de Miera y Pacheco learned of his uncle's death is nowhere recorded.

Next his father passed, only five months after Bernardo and Estefanía's wedding. The parish priest in Santibáñez, who had word on October 23, 1741, that his parishioner had died in Madrid, did not know if don Luis María had received the last rites or left a will. He didn't say why the elder Miera was in Madrid, but apparently a number of his neighbors traveled regularly to the capital. Nor could the priest in Santibáñez remember the two surviving children's names, only that one, a male, was absent in "el Reino de Indias," and the other, a female, resided in Valencia. Isabel Ana must have predeceased her husband, since no immediate family member remained to inform.

* * *

The celebrant at Janos of Bernardo and Estefanía's wedding in May 1741, Bachiller don Tomás Antonio Becerra Nieto, personified the ingrown nature of presidial society. The priest's father, Captain Antonio Becerra Nieto, had commanded Janos for twenty years, from 1713 until his death in 1733. Tomás Antonio had baptized the first child of his sister María Rosa Becerra Nieto and Alférez Juan Bautista de Anza at Janos in 1725. Anza had gone on to a stellar career as captain of the neighboring presidio of Fronteras. Still-current news on the frontier in 1741 was Anza's shocking death and apparent scalping in an Apache ambush the year before. Later in New Mexico, Miera would answer to the slain Anza's more famous son.

At the Miera-Domínguez nuptials in 1741, Becerra Nietos were everywhere. Don José acted as marriage sponsor, and don Pedro stood as a witness. Some of them may have conjoined in a shivaree. Banging on copper pots and pans made an ungodly din and firing a black-powder mortar or two could waken the dead. Imps among the revelers might even have sneaked a goat into the wedding night quarters or plugged the chimney.

Whether the newly married couple made their home at Janos for a time or moved to San Felipe el Real de Chihuahua, some three hundred miles southeast, where Estefanía had family, is uncertain. Church records show their first child, Anacleto (Cleto) Bernardo de Miera y Pacheco, was baptized in Chihuahua on April 30, 1742, a discreet eleven months after the wedding. The priest probably suggested Anacleto, for the third pope (feast day, April 26), whose name in ancient Greek meant "he who has been called." For another reason we can't guess, Bernardo had never been confirmed. Hence, on August 22, availing themselves of the bishop's presence in Chihuahua, father and son received the sacrament together.

Later, when applying for a merced, or land grant, in New Mexico, Bernardo mentioned moving from Chihuahua to El Paso. For sure, by the time Salvador Manuel, the Mieras' second son, was born in 1743, don Bernardo had relocated his family to the primitive but thriving town and presidio of El Paso del Norte, gateway to upriver New Mexico.

Forty-two years later, by the time Governor Anza certified in Santa Fe that don Bernardo de Miera y Pacheco had "died naturally" on April 11, 1785, doña Estefanía's adaptable Spanish husband had expressed himself artistically more notably, worn more hats, planned more projects, drawn more maps, known more Indians, and explored more of the boundless Kingdom and Provinces of New Mexico than any other vecino before or after him.

Although his name lacked the "sturdy alliterative snap" of Kit Carson, and little contemporary recognition came his way, Bernardo de Miera y Pacheco embodied the very heart and soul of eighteenth-century Hispanic New Mexico.


Just Long Enough in El Paso

WITHOUT KNOWING IT, THE MIERA family's move from Chihuahua to El Paso in the early 1740s coincided with a local economic upturn, and their departure for Santa Fe in the mid-1750s put them on the camino real north just as it deflated. During the Mieras' residence, "El Paso del Norte," in the words of historian Rick Hendricks, "was demonstrably more important economically than the colonial capital, Santa Fe."

El Paso and Santa Fe were worlds different. Strung beadlike for twenty miles along the Río Grande del Norte, the combined communities of the El Paso district accommodated a racial potpourri of three to five thousand souls, outranking Santa Fe several times over. Besides the town and presidio, the region comprised five missions, hundreds of mostly small vineyards (numbering an estimated 250,000 vines by 1755), and ranches and farms—even a few properties rightly called haciendas. More than three thousand feet lower in elevation and blessed by a growing season two months longer, the area already enjoyed a wider than local fame for its grape products—vinegar, raisins, sweet wines, and brandy.

The Mieras with their two infant sons must have lived amid the town's scattered adobe dwellings and meandering dirt streets, which mocked the neat grid-pattern for New World communities reiterated in 1573 by Felipe II. Away from Santa Fe's spacious plaza, swampy ground and hilly terrain rendered the capital even less orderly than its southern counterpart. El Paso's Presidio de Nuestra Señora del Pilar y Señor San José—an urban fort in contrast to Janos—consisted physically of no more than the captain's strung-out quarters and a cramped guardhouse. The soldiers and their families lived round and about the settlements, which made their speedy muster a local joke.


Excerpted from Miera y Pacheco by John L. Kessell, Bernardo de Miera y Pacheco. Copyright © 2013 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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