Pedro Vial was one of the most important pathfinders in the American Southwest. His most important accomplishment was blazing the Santa Fe Trail, connecting New Orleans and Santa Fe, New Mexico. He was also involved in an abortive attempt by the Spanish to halt the Lewis and Clark expedition, traveling overland to try to persuade local Native Americans to stop the explorers before they could accomplish their mission.
Vial was born in Lyons, France, in the middle part of the eighteenth century, probably in 1746. Little is known of his childhood, but it is likely that he moved to North America while in his late teens or early twenties, based on comments he made about being familiar with pre-Revolutionary America. Unfortunately, there is virtually no certain knowledge of his life before 1779, when he first became known to the Spanish government in New Orleans and Natchitoches.
He appears to have remained on the move for the next several years, reaching San Antonio in 1784 and living among some of the Native American tribes at times. Because of his experiences with the Taovayas Indians, in the spring of 1784 the Spanish government asked him to learn what he could of the Comanche Indians, associates of the Taovayas. Vial spent the next several months with the Comanche, returning to San Antonio that autumn. The next year, the Spanish governor asked him for help again, this time to find the most direct route between San Antonio and Santa Fe.
Vial set out with a single companion, making notes on distances, directions traveled, Indians encountered and their numbers, and other pertinent information. At some point it is thought he became ill, straying from the most direct path towards the north. After spending some time with the Taovayas, he continued on along the Red and Canadian Rivers, reaching Santa Fe about six months after departing San Antonio and traveling about 1,000 miles (1,609 km). Staying in Santa Fe for nearly a year, Vial returned to San Antonio via Natchitoches, then returned to Santa Fe again, for a round-trip distance of nearly 2,400 miles (3,862 km) in just over 14 months.
In 1792-93 Vial journeyed again to Santa Fe, this time ending up in St. Louis. From St. Louis to New Orleans was simply a boat ride down the Mississippi River, so Vial had effectively connected Santa Fe with not only San Antonio, but St. Louis and New Orleans, too. By so doing, he had forged a trail that linked the major political and economic centers of the Spanish and French territories in the New World.
The enormity of this accomplishment is difficult to imagine in today's world of quick, easy, and convenient transportation. Vial had covered over 2,400 miles, much of it on foot across desert, mountains, and plains. He successfully traversed lands claimed by several Native American tribes, many of which were not friendly to Europeans. All of this was accomplished with little or no help, while hunting for the food and water needed for survival.
For the next several years, Vial appears to have worked for the Spanish authorities in their New World territories, acting as interpreter and liaison with the Native American tribes. For a short time after returning from St. Louis, Vial lived with the Comanche, but he eventually moved back to the St. Louis area. He returned to Santa Fe in 1803, apparently living there until his death in 1814.
P. ANDREW KARAM