Pedro Vial, master explorer


A native of Lyons,France,named Pierre Vial made something of a splash in late colonial New Mexico. In spite of his extraordinary adventures blazing trails for Spain, he is scarcely remembered now.



When Vial first surfaced in the late 1770s, he was living among the Wichita Indians on the Red River of Texas. It was said at the time that he spoke their language and those of neighboring tribes, including the Comanches.

Pedro Vial, as he was known to Spaniards, carried on a lively trade with the Indians. He also won renown as a blacksmith,operating a forge among the Wichita repairing their muskets and producing steel lance heads.

The native people believed he possessed supernatural powers and called him Manitou, a common word among Indians meaning a deity who controls nature.

In 1784, the Spanish governor of Texas summoned Vial to San Antonio, Texas, which was then the provincial capital. Once there, he was informed that since he had no license to engage in Indian trading, he would not be allowed to return to the Red River.

Remaining in San Antonio, Pedro Vial worked at blacksmithing until 1786. In that year,he boasted that he could blaze a trail from there to Santa Fe, since none had ever existed. The Texas governor gave him permission to try.

On Oct. 6, the Frenchman departed San Antonio with a single servant a struck north. Reaching the Red River and his friends, the Wichitas, he negotiated with them on behalf of the governor who hoped to develop friendly relations.

Then, Vial turned west across the Panhandle toward new Mexico. Severe winter weather on the plains slowed the pair’s progress.

When they became lost, friendly Comanches guided the all the way to Santa Fe. Vial rode into the plaza on May 26, 1787. The trip had consumed more than seven months.

Santa Feans were astonished to learn where the wayfarers had come from. Gov. Juan Bautista de Anza congratulated them. And Vial presented a Spanish flag from San Antonio to the commander of the Santa Fe presidio, Manuel Delgado.

It had truly been a history-making journey. But as historian John Kessell judged, it came to nothing: “Poor San Antonio had little that anyone in Santa Fe wanted, and vice versa, so no regular traffic developed between the two.”

At this time, the New Mexican capital had a population nearing 4,000, that was twice as much as San Antonio’s.

Vial looked around, liked the place, and decided to stay. He acquired a seven-room adobe residence, but was often absent. Learning of his skills in exploring and communicating with the Indians, the governor found numerous long-distance missions to assign him.

In the summer of 1788, for example, Pedro Vial set out to chart a new trail all the way to Natchitoches in western Louisiana. Accomplishing that, he returned to Santa Fe by way of San Antonio, covering in all 2,500 miles.

Vial’s most celebrated journey, perhaps, was the one that took him to St. Louis beginning in 1792. It proved a harrowing ordeal because he suffered serious sickness and a seven-week brutal captivity among the Kansas Indians, barely escaping alive. However, he made it to St. Louis and returned.

During the period 1804-1807, Vial participated in three expeditions from New Mexico north to the Missouri River. Their intent was to intercept and challenge the Lewis and Clark party, thought to be encroaching upon Spanish territory. The efforts failed.

On Oct. 2, 1814, a sick Pedro Vial drew up his will in the Santa Fe presidio. He died soon afterward. The original document is still preserved in New Mexico’s Spanish Archives.

In it, Vial declared that he had not been married nor did he have children. He stated, though, that the only legitimate heiress of all his property was María Manuela Martín. She was to receive the house, some furnishings and a handful of blacksmithing tools. We have to guess their relationship.

Pedro (Pierre) Vial was buried inside the Castrense, the old military chapel on the south side of the Plaza. New Mexicans thus honored him for his epic travels.