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VIAL, PEDRO (ca.1750?-1814)

Explorer Pierre Vial was born in Lyons, France, around 1750. Little is known of his early life, and he first emerged in 1779 at Natchitoches, where Spanish authorities were impressed with his knowledge of the interior. Apparently, he had been a fur trader on the upper Missouri River before coming south. Vial would spend much of the remainder of his life in the employ of the Spaniards, and he entered their records as Pedro Vial. He served as an interpreter and agent to various tribes for the government. However, it was as an explorer that he distinguished himself. In 1784 Texas governor, Domingo Cabello y Robles, sent him to visit the tribes along the Red River. As would be his habit, Vial traveled into Comancheria with only one companion, Francisco Chaves. Cabello was pleased with Vial's effort and in 1786 charged him with blazing a road from San Antonio to Santa Fe. The government wanted to connect San Antonio, Santa Fe, and Natchitoches to strengthen the northern frontier.

Vial again traveled with only one companion, Cristóbal de los Santos. Despite the governor's admonition to find the most direct route, Vial went northward and visited his friends the Taovaya at the twin villages along the Red River. An unnamed illness struck him, and he tarried there until he recovered. He then followed the Red and Canadian rivers westward into New Mexico, reaching Santa Fe in late May 1787. The detour to the Red River had added hundreds of miles to the trip, and the route was not a viable link between San Antonio and Santa Fe. Nonetheless, the party returned to Natchitoches by way of the Red River and paused briefly in Louisiana before returning to San Antonio. Vial then traveled back to Santa Fe once more. By the end of 1789 he had covered thousands of miles exploring present Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Louisiana. Although San Antonio, Santa Fe, and Natchitoches remained isolated outposts, Vial's feats were remarkable.

However, Vial was not finished. In 1792 he blazed a road from Santa Fe to St. Louis, probably using the Cimarron and Arkansas rivers as guides across the present Oklahoma Panhandle and Kansas. He returned to New Mexico the following summer. Almost three decades later William Becknell would travel a similar route, opening the Santa Fe Trail.

Pedro Vial obviously had no desire to settle down. He never married or acquired a permanent home. He seemed equally at home with the Spaniards or the many tribes he visited. He had lived several years with the Taovaya, and in the late l790s he resided with the Comanche, possibly helping to facilitate trade between that tribe and the Spaniards of New Mexico. Subsequently Vial lived near St. Louis. Around 1803 he returned to Santa Fe, and he died there in 1814.


BIBLIOGRAPHY: Carlos E. Castañeda, Our Catholic Heritage in Texas, 7 vols. (Austin, Tex.: Von Boeckmann-Jones, 1936-1958). Noel Loomis and Abraham P. Nasatir, Pedro Vial and The Roads to Santa Fe (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1967). Carl N. Tyson, The Red River in Southwestern History (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1981).

Carl N. Tyson

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