Dispute on Grand Mesa challenged priests Dominguez and Escalante
Editor’s note: This is the second of two columns on the Dominguez-Escalante expedition.
When the Dominguez-Escalante expedition arrived on Grand Mesa at the beginning of September 1776, Fray Francisco Atanasio Domínguez and Fray Francisco Silvestre Vélez de Escalante faced the first major test of their determination.
Sabuagana Utes whom they met then vehemently opposed the Franciscans’ plans to travel northwest. It was too dangerous because of hostile Comanches in that direction, the Utes said.
Additionally, the Utes convinced the expedition’s just-hired guide, a young Laguna Ute from the region around Utah Lake who was visiting the Sabuaganas, to abandon the Spaniards.
But the two priests would not be dissuaded.
“Thereupon they (the Utes) yielded,” Escalante wrote in his journal for Sept. 2. A young chief “talked to the rest, saying that since they had (previously) consented to our going forward and the Laguna had promised to guide us, it was useless to impede us any longer.”
The Sabuaganas provided fresh horses to the expedition, and the Laguana guide reluctantly agreed to continue.
The trip from Santa Fe to Grand Mesa, beginning on July 29, 1776, had been tedious, but with few major obstacles. The men left the New Mexico capital with plenty of horses and mules, as well as cattle to butcher along the way.
The expedition met its first Ute Indians on Aug. 23 on the southern end of the Uncompaghre Plateau. The Ute man and his family were members of the Tabeguache band, which like the Sabaguanas, were ancestors of the Uncompahgre Utes.
On Aug. 26, 1776, the expedition descended the north side of the Uncompahgre Plateau to the river the Utes called “Ancapagri,” a little south of today’s Montrose.
They followed the river downstream toward its confluence with the Gunnison River, then headed eastward and crossed the Gunnison somewhere east of Delta.
Near there, they met their first Sabaguana Utes on Aug. 30, along with the Laguna Ute who agreed to lead them to Utah Lake.
They traveled up the Gunnison and its North Fork, past the present site of Paonia, then turned north at either Hubbard Creek or Muddy Creek and began to climb Grand Mesa.
Here, they had met 80 Sabuagana Utes, “all mounted on good horses,” Escalante said, and followed them to the Utes’ camp high on the mesa. The exact location is unknown.
Dominguez gave a lengthy speech about Christianity and the evils of polygamy. The Utes listened politely, but did not embrace the friars’ religion.
The Ute leaders argued that night and again the next morning against the Spaniards continuing northward.
After their disagreement with the Sabuaganas was settled, the expedition continued across the mesa to Plateau Creek. From there, the group went up Kimball Creek to Battlement Mesa, then dropped down either Wallace Creek or Alkalai Creek to the Colorado River between De Beque and Parachute.
Only near the end of this circuitous crossing of the mesa did Escalante realize there was a much more direct route they could have followed from the Gunnison River, probably up Whitewater Creek and northeast over the Mesa.
“Another road comes in here,” Escalante wrote on Sept. 4, as they camped near Kimball Creek. From the Gunnison River, the other trail “runs straight across (Grand Mesa) and it is only half as long as the one we have been following.”
The expedition moved onward. The friars met more Sabaguana Utes near the mouth of Roan Creek and learned that the Comanches formerly in the north had left the area, removing that danger.
In a few days, they had crossed the Book Cliffs and reached Douglas Creek. In a canyon here, the group spotted ancient Indian rock art high on a cliff. “For this reason,” Escalante said, “we called this valley Cañon Pintado” or Painted Canyon.
By Sept. 13, they had arrived at the Green River near today’s Jensen, Utah. Ten days later they reached Utah Lake, south of Salt Lake, where they met bearded Ute Indians.
Escalante wrote that the region around the lake would be ideal for Spanish settlement. He said the Laguna Utes who lived there were eager to accept Christianity and welcome Spanish settlers.
On Sept. 29, they arrived at the Sevier River near Mills, Utah, where they met more bearded Utes. They continued south and west.
On Oct. 5 they camped on the Beaver River north of Millford, Utah, where they abandoned the idea of going to California.
There were a number of reasons. The weather had turned bad, with snow for several days. Two scouts sent to search for a pass through the western mountains couldn’t find one. Their Laguana guide ran off.
But there was dissention in the group.
Mapmaker don Bernardo Miera y Pacheco, interpreter Andrés Muñiz and others were furious at the thought of turning back.
Even so, on Oct. 11, following an impassioned speech by Dominguez about the dangers of proceeding westward, they voted to return to Santa Fe.
So they struggled southeast across rugged country on either side of the Utah-Arizona border, running low on food. It’s not clear when they ran out of cattle, but on Oct. 23, they killed and ate the first of several horses.
On Oct. 26, they camped near Lee’s Ferry on the Colorado River and began a frantic, 11-day search for a suitable place to cross the swift-running water.
Finally, on Nov. 7, they descended a steep canyon trail and made it safely across the river about 20 miles upstream from Lee’s Ferry. The Crossing of the Fathers, as it’s called, is now covered by the water of Lake Powell.
On Nov. 17, they reached the Hopi pueblo in north-central Arizona, which Escalante had visited more than a year earlier. A week later, they arrived at the Zuni Pueblo west of Albuquerque.
From there, snowstorms delayed their journey. But they persevered and finally reached Santa Fe on Jan. 2, 1777.
Information for this column came from “Pageant in the Wilderness” by Herbert E. Bolton; “Juan Rivera’s Colorado – 1765” by Steven Baker; “Dominguez-Escalante National Historic Trail,” draft study by the National Park Service, 1981; and Dave Bailey with the Museums of Western Colorado.