The fabled San Buenaventura river: it must exist because it had to
December 18, 2017 9:25 AM   Subscribe

In 1776, two Franciscan missionaries Atanasio Domínguez and Silvestre Vélez de Escalante sought to find a land route between Santa Fe in Nuevo México to Monterey in Alta California. They were part of a ten-man expedition including Bernardo de Miera y Pacheco (Meira) acting as the cartographer. On September 13, they encountered a southwest-flowing tributary of the Colorado and named it San Buenaventura after the catholic saint Bonaventure. From there, the initial depiction of the river (large copy) was repeated and warped, extending west to the Pacific Ocean, repeated in various forms up through 1844 (Google books preview). Given the lengthy history of the river's existence on maps, even President Polk was reluctant to let the fabled river disappear.

Historian Bernard DeVoto wrote of the Great River of the West: “It must exist because it had to. The logic of deduction from known things required it to, and so did the syllogism of dream — both on no grounds whatever.”

The southwestern desert seemed too large to exist without some water, somewhere, and the San Buenaventura seemed as good a candidate as any. Later cartographers extended the river to the Pacific Ocean, creating not only a lengthy supply of fresh water, but also a path west. Unfortunately, there was a mountain range in the way.

But that didn't stop cartographers from including a west-bound river, following the example set by Meira. Thomas Jefferson got a copy of that map in 1804, a “Map of New Spain” from Alexander von Humboldt, Prussian polymath, geographer, naturalist, explorer, and influential proponent of Romantic philosophy and science (previously, twice), a month after Jefferson sent Lewis and Clark to find a water route to the Pacific through the northwest, which lead to documentation of an overland route to the sea.

Zebulon Pike tried to replicate the Lewis and Clark expedition in the southwest, in part to document the geography, and in part to better understand the Spanish settlements. He mapped the region, but appeared to possibly copy elements that first appeared in the Miera map, probably because he hadn't visited that much of the region. Still, his report of exploration and adventure, published as Exploratory travels through the western territories of North America : comprising a voyage from St. Louis, on the Mississippi, to the source of that river, and a journey through the interior of Louisiana, and the north-eastern provinces of New Spain ; performed in the years 1805, 1806, 1807, by order of the government of the United States (, were engaging enough to be translated into Dutch, French and German, spreading stories of the climate and resources. Notably, he includes a specific location for the entrance of the Buenaventura into the Pacific Ocean, at "39° 30' north latitude." But that error was not his alone. In fact,
Every major commercial map published of the region in the first half of the nineteenth century (Gbp), starting with English cartographer Aaron Arrowsmith in 1810 (and again in 1814) through the (1839) map by David Burr, show a Buenaventura River draining the desert.
Scottish-born Philadelphian John Melish even drew in the "supposed concourse of a river between the Buenaventura and the Bay of Francisco" in his c1816 map Map of the United States of America : with the contiguous British and Spanish possessions, helpfully filling in some of the blank space on the map. Similarly, Henry Tanner relied on others, particularly Humboldt, as seen his maps from 1823 and 1825.

For decades, mapmakers were unanimous in endorsing a San Buenaventura, but couldn't agree on its location. This debate was finally concluded with the Bonneville Expedition that saw a group of men travel and explore from the Great Salt Lake to the Pacific Ocean. This group included Zenas Leonard, an American mountain man, explorer and trader, whose journal was published as Narrative of the adventures of Zenas Leonard (A.o), wherein he states
There is a large number of water courses descending from this mountain on either side -- those on the east stretching out into the plain, and those on the west flow generally in a straight course until they empty into the Pacific; but in no place is there a river course through the mountain. (A.o)
His journal was published in 1839, but it was the report from John Charles Frémont, published in the April 1891 edition of Century Magazine, that is credited with finally ending the search for a major west-bound river in the American southwest.
A river, the "Buenaventura," indicated upon a map furnished me by the Hudson's Bay Company as breaking through the mountains, was found not to exist. (Hathi Trust)
As noted in Richard Heggen's Underground Rivers (A.o), "Fremont's ended hope for a trans-Rocky waterway and for a time the name "Buenaventura" was
applied to the Salinas River," as you can see on J. H. Colton's Map of California, Oregon, Texas, and the Territories adjoining from 1849 and Julius Hutawa's Map of Mexico & California from 1863.

In the end, Buenaventura exists as a place in that the name is used to label various towns and municipios, but no river has that name today. On the other hand, the Dominguez-Escalante Expedition left its mark on the southwest, with placenames and locations you can visit, similar to the legacy of Zebulon Pike, Benjamin Bonneville, and John C. Frémont.
posted by filthy light thief (11 comments total) 45 users marked this as a favorite
Inspired by the introduction to Melissa L. Sevigny's Mythical River: Chasing the Mirage of New Water in the American Southwest, a fascinating book that looks at the dreams and problems of "new water," particularly in arid regions.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:35 AM on December 18, 2017 [1 favorite]

Having read Cadillac Desert I'm not surprised to find imaginary rivers conjured up in the great American desert.

White people in general seem to have had a difficult time accepting the reality of conditions in the American West, and popular ideas of how water existed and flowed were often rooted more in fanciful ideas about what should be, or about humanity's special place in the universe, than what actually is.

Around the same time that people were chasing the Buenaventura river, one of the prevailing ideas about rainfall among white people was that the simple act of white people moving into a desert and starting to farm would force rain to fall. The idea of land where farming just wasn't going to work was seen as preposterous, as an affront to the right and proper working of the universe, and a denial of manifest destiny and divine providence.
posted by sotonohito at 10:01 AM on December 18, 2017 [13 favorites]

The idea of land where farming just wasn't going to work was seen as preposterous, as an affront to the right and proper working of the universe, and a denial of manifest destiny and divine providence.
You're not kidding. I've long been fascinated by the thinking behind "Rain follows the plow."
posted by Nerd of the North at 10:45 AM on December 18, 2017 [7 favorites]

Wonderful FPP, FLT!

Although I was familiar with it as a place name, I was not aware of the extensive history of this mythical river in CA and the Western US. Thanks - looking forward to exploring these links.

For anyone interested in reading accounts of the "exploration" of California in the 1860's (post-Gold Rush, post-statehood, but still relatively unknown and unexplored), I highly recommend William Brewer's published journal, Up and Down California in 1860-1864. Brewer was one of the chief surveyors for the Whitney Expedition to explore California and map the Sierra Nevada mountains. He and his crew trekked all over the Sierras, on foot and horseback, climbing and naming many previously unclimbed and unnamed peaks as they went. They covered a lot of ground, and from Brewer's descriptions seemed to enjoy a hardy and challenging time of it. It's an extended first person account and it IMO makes for a very informative and satisfying read.
posted by mosk at 10:52 AM on December 18, 2017 [2 favorites]

Flagged as Fantastic!!
posted by Fizz at 12:10 PM on December 18, 2017

It's fascinating how much detail is put into these maps even when they're describing a completely fictitious geographical feature. The San Buenaventura meanders, just like a real river. I'm imagining all these early explorers looking at each other, saying, "But the bay is huge--how'd we miss it?"
posted by Halloween Jack at 12:25 PM on December 18, 2017 [6 favorites]

whoa, mind blown.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:04 PM on December 18, 2017

I mean looking at California from space, it's obvious that there couldn't be a east to west river. But back then? There was room in imaginary California for such a figment of desire. Like so much in the selling of the West. Thank you for posting this.
posted by happyroach at 11:33 PM on December 18, 2017 [1 favorite]

Hm. Framed on my wall I've got a map of North America dating to 1845. I'll have to check when I get home if I've got an imaginary river on it.
posted by Quindar Beep at 6:51 AM on December 19, 2017

Notably, he includes a specific location for the entrance of the Buenaventura into the Pacific Ocean, at "39° 30' north latitude."

Hmm, so, a little south of Mendocino then? There are definitely rivers emptying into the Pacific there, but nothing of this size (obviously).

I found this interesting from the Wikipedia link on San Buenaventura:
In an accompanying note to king Charles III of Spain, Miera recommended building several missions in the area and mentioned the possibility of a water way to the Pacific Ocean, via the Buenaventura or the Timpanogos River; the river Miera depicts on his map as flowing west from the Great Salt Lake (GSL). Although Miera documented a correct description of the GSL given to them by the indigenes[9] the Spanish assumed that what they thought had been described was incorrect and interpreted their description of the "extremely salty" lake as the ocean[10] and assumed the description of the river flowing from "Lake Timpanogos" which is the Jordan River flowing between Utah Lake and the Great Salt Lake, as a waterway to the Pacific.
In other words, the rumor about a river flowing west to the ocean at least partially originated when explorers discounted the Utah Native Americans' description of a "salty lake" and assumed they meant the Pacific Ocean.
posted by salvia at 7:04 AM on December 19, 2017

Quindar Beep, you should compare it to a map of rivers in North America, because a map of that age may have multiple imaginary rivers, or mislocated rivers.
posted by filthy light thief at 7:07 AM on December 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

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