Cartographers have been making bad maps for centuries

A new volume of maps shows the evolution of how we understand geography.

  • Miera, "Plano Geographico," copy, Santa Fe, 1777.

  • Tree and serpent copy of Miera's 1777 map.

  • Bernardo de Miera y Pacheco, “Plano Geographico, de la tierra descubierta, nuevamente,” Chihuahua, 1778.

    The British Library Board, London, Add. Ms. 17.661.D.
  • José Antonio Alzate Ramírez, "Nuevo Mapa Geográfico de la America Septentional," 1768.

    Courtesy of Barry Lawrence Ruderman Antique Maps
  • Juan López, "Mapa Geográfico de las Provincias al N. de Nueva España," 1803, after Francisco Álvarez Barreiro, "Plano corographico e hydrogeographico de las Provincias de el Nuevo Mexico," 1728.

    Courtesy of Barry Lawrence Ruderman Antique Maps


In the late 18th century, Spanish cartographer Bernardo de Miera y Pacheco created a series of maps. The most notable was his “Plano Geographico,” based on explorations of the Colorado Plateau and Great Basin. While the map was highly influential, it also included some errors that other cartographers went on to perpetuate over the next seven decades. Most glaringly, de Miera showed a major river flowing west out of the Great Salt Lake. No such river exists.

In Whither the Waters, which author John L. Kessell sees as an addendum to his earlier biography of de Miera, Kessell places de Miera’s map in historical context and traces its influence over time. This slim volume illuminates the evolution of our understanding of a complicated and rugged geography over time — and the human flaws of the hands that helped that understanding along. 

Whither the Waters: Mapping the Great Basin from Bernardo de Miera to John C. Frémont
By John L. Kessell
120 pages, paperback: $29.95.
University of New Mexico Press, 2017.