Remarkable expedition far from failure
Editor’s note: This is the first of two columns on the Dominguez-Escalante expedition.
Two hundred forty years ago today, two Franciscan friars arrived in Santa Fe with eight companions. They had spent five months in wearying horseback travel crossing parts of Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico. They had covered roughly 1,700 miles.
On Jan. 3, 1777, Fray Francisco Silvestre Vélez de Escalante turned over to his superiors a journal of the expedition he led with Fray Francisco Atanasio Domínguez. “Everything stated in this diary is true and faithful to what happened and was observed in our journey,” Escalante wrote at the conclusion of his detailed journal.
Despite their long trip, the friars did not travel as far as Monterey, California, the ostensible goal of the expedition. Consequently, many people since have said they failed in their mission.
However, there is compelling reason to believe that reaching California was never the main goal of their trip — at least not as far as Escalante was concerned.
In a letter dated July 29, 1776 — the day the expedition left Santa Fe — Escalante said he proposed the journey to determine whether there really were bearded Europeans living beyond the Colorado River, as Ute Indians claimed, “but not to go as far as Monterey.”
Indeed, the route the expedition took to Utah Lake didn’t make sense if the primary goal was to reach Monterey.
Escalante also said the goal of reaching Monterey with 20 men or fewer “has never seemed attainable to me.” However, to appease religious and government leaders, Escalante added that there was a slim chance of making it to California.
Although there had been Spaniards in New Mexico since 1598, with a brief absence following the 1680 Pueblo Revolt, a permanent Spanish presence in California began only in 1769.
In 1774, authorities in Mexico asked the Franciscans to assist the government in finding an overland route from New Mexico to Monterey. Dominguez and Escalante were both enlisted.
Dominguez was born about 1740 in Mexico. In 1775, he was sent to the New Mexico province to inspect the Franciscan missions there and to study possible overland routes to Monterey.
Escalante, 10 years younger than Dominguez, was a native of Spain who had come to Mexico City in 1767 and was sent to New Mexico in 1774. He was assigned to the Zuni Pueblo west of Albuquerque.
Although nominally second-in-command of the 1776 expedition, Escalante was more experienced traveling in Indian country. And his letters show he was promoting such an expedition well before Dominguez reached New Mexico.
In 1775, Escalante traveled west to Hopi pueblos in today’s north-central Arizona. There, he met a Havasupai Indian whose people lived near the Grand Canyon. He told Escalante the canyon was impassable and the only Indian tribes beyond it were hostile.
Therefore, Escalante wrote to another friar in August 1775, the overland route to Monterey could not go due west from New Mexico, through Hopi country.
Escalante suggested an expedition of 20 men could head northwest through the country of the “Yutas,” or Utes, toward California. In the process, they could determine if there were bearded men living there who might be descended from members of the Coronado expedition of 1540.
This was a persistent rumor in Mexico, although Escalante said he didn’t believe it. However, if it were true, he said, “This discovery would be of utmost utility” to the government and religious leaders of Spain.
Explorer Juan Rivera had tried to find the bearded ones 11 years earlier, when he led two expeditions from New Mexico into what is now western Colorado. He only made it as far north as the Gunnison River near present-day Delta.
Escalante clearly knew of Rivera’s efforts and hoped to do what Rivera could not.
Dominguez and Escalante found bearded men, but not Europeans, when they reached Utah Lake in late September of 1776.
Describing the Timpanogos band of Utes who lived near Utah Lake — Escalante also called them Lagunas — the friar said, “They have good features and most of them have heavy beards.”
On Sept. 30, 1776, after reaching the Sevier River and meeting other Utes, Escalante wrote, “These people here have much heavier beards than the Lagunas … In features they look more like Spaniards than like the other Indians hitherto known in America … It is they, perhaps, who gave rise to the reports of the Spaniards” living beyond the Colorado River.
Expedition member and mapmaker don Bernardo Miera y Pachecon included drawings of the bearded Utes on one version of the map he made of the journey. (See drawing on this page.)
Some Utes, such as the Pahvants living near the Sevier River, wore mustaches and beards when Mormons arrived more than 70 years later.
Searching for European-looking people may not be the only reason the friars veered as far north as they did. A desire for religious converts and new lands for Spanish settlement might also explain why they didn’t follow a more direct westward path through the Grand Valley and across the San Raphael Swell.
The friars were partially successful in meeting those goals. The Laguna Utes not only accepted Christianity, but urged the Spaniards to return to build missions and live among them. Some Paiutes also were ready to convert.
But the proposed missions never materialized. After the Dominguez-Escalante expedition, Spanish authorities lost interest in the Colorado-Utah region and its residents.
It would be almost 50 years, after Mexico obtained its independence from Spain in 1821, before a reliable overland route from Santa Fe to California would be established. It came to be known as the Old Spanish Trail.
Information for this column came from David Bailey of the Museums of Western Colorado; “Pageant in the Wilderness by Herbert F. Bolton; “Juan Rivera’s Colorado – 1765,” by Steven Baker; “Letters of Velez de Escalante,” in “The Missions of New Mexico,” by Fray Francisco Atanasio Domínguez.