Museum of West exhibit focuses on explorers of Grand Valley

Explorers found their way to the Grand Valley for hundreds of years, and for the most part, they were believed to have passed through on their way to someplace else.

More and more, though, the Grand Valley, and the imposing Grand Mesa overlooking it, appears to have been the destination instead of a mere way station to some other, more significant locale.

Just what lured Aztecs as early as the 1400s and Spaniards in successive waves to the Grand Valley is the subject of an exhibit at Museum of the West, “Distant Cities in the Mist: The search for lost kingdoms,” which opens Friday in the downtown museum at 462 Ute Ave.

The idea isn’t to demonstrate that treasure lies somewhere beneath the pi&#241on and juniper of western Colorado, but to acknowledge that explorers over hundreds of years have been lured to the area by that very belief, said David Bailey, curator of history at the Museum of the West and the director of the Western Investigations Team.

The exhibit will show how “myth and legend fit together” to shape people’s perceptions of the world around them, Bailey said.

Dominguez and Escalante ostensibly were explorers looking to convert the natives of the rough high-desert lands west of the Rockies, as well as find a way to Monterey, when they passed through in 1776.

Those reasons, although real enough, were window dressing, at least for one of the friars, who had much more in mind.

Escalante was looking for Spaniards who lived north of the Colorado River, also called el Rio del Tizon.

“Their discovery would be very useful to religions and the crown both to prevent any attack upon the kingdom, if they are foreigners, and to incorporate them with ourselves if they are, as they say, Spaniards,” Escalante wrote in 1776, according to a translation of his letters.

The exhibit includes excerpts of Escalante’s letters to his church and royal superiors.

Reports of Europeans in the American Southwest had credibility for the Spaniards because of the search for Cibola, the legendary seven cities of gold. The seven cities were linked to the legendary 714 A.D. escape of seven Catholic bishops across the Atlantic from Muslim conquerors.

One of the displays in the exhibit is a 1587 hand-drawn and colored map of the New World by cartographer Juan Martines showing Cibola in what is now known as western Colorado at 39 degrees north latitude. In other words, the Grand Valley and Grand Mesa.

In 1765, Juan Rivera led an expedition through Utah and western Colorado, passing through the regions held by the Ute Tribe.

The Spaniards weren’t alone in believing there was more to western Colorado than high deserts, mountains and the junction of the Colorado and Gunnison rivers, Bailey said.

As early as the 1400s, the Aztecs sent a party north in search of the Aztec home. It’s a place, intriguingly, Bailey said, where the Aztecs believed their ancestors emerged from seven caves.

Where they ended up isn’t known, but the Aztecs were fond of western tanagers, birds whose heads turn red when they feed on certain insects found between 8,000 and 10,000 feet on Grand Mesa.

The exhibit points out similarities between Aztec and Ute mythology, Bailey said.

The Utes told the tale of a battle between giant thunderbirds that lived atop Grand Mesa and a giant serpent the birds destroyed when they found the serpent had devoured their eggs.

The last surviving Aztec temple at Malinalco, Mexico, plays off similar themes, depicting birds perched above a cave. In Aztec mythology, an open serpent’s mouth is the symbol for a cave.

The convergence of the Spanish lust for gold and empire and the Aztec’s apparent fascination with western Colorado, “It all adds up,” Bailey said. “But does it?”

There is no city of gold in the Grand Valley, no temple anyone has found atop the mesa. But there are hoaxes.

The exhibit includes the elegantly carved tablet found in 1968 by Vic Jensen atop the Uncompahgre Plateau, one that seemed to depict the Aztecs as they saw themselves, and a message, perhaps, in serpentine writing.

The tablet was cut by Jack Daniel Stirling in the 1950s and was found among several other artifacts. It wasn’t until last year that it was known Stirling had planted it among four caches of “artifacts” on the plateau to fool amateur archaeologist Al Look.

The exhibit also includes a rare replica of the Chalice of Antioch, a goblet displayed at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair as being the Holy Grail. The chalice was “one of the big legends of the early 20th century,” Bailey said.

All that Indiana Jones stuff came from somewhere.

The chalice now is believed to have been made some time in the 6th century A.D.

Just as Rivera, Escalante and perhaps the Aztecs, as well as Bailey, found in the search for a lost kingdom, there always is a distant city in the mist.

At the apparent end of the search, Bailey said, “I want you to feel like I felt.”

“Distant Cities in the Mist: The search for lost kingdoms” takes the visitor along the paths Spaniards and Aztecs took to the Grand Valley.

At the end of the exhibit are two seemingly unrelated displays, one an aerial view of Grand Mesa, the other the Aztec symbol for the god of war. Slide the Aztec symbol atop the photo and draw your own conclusion.

There are clues aplenty in the Grand Valley to what people expected to find. Proofs, however, are harder to come by.


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