In July 1776 a ten-man exploration team left Santa Fe, New Mexico and headed north. They were trying to find a route to Monterey, California, that would connect these distant parts of the Spanish Empire. Two Franciscan priests led the expedition: Fathers Francisco Atanasio Domínguez and Silvestre Vélez de Escalante. Their six-month journey is known as the Domínguez-Escalante Expedition.
Meanwhile, back in Philadelphia, the Continental Congress approved the Declaration of Independence, beginning the American Revolution.
More of the story
This was not the first Spanish expedition to travel through Utah, but we know a lot about it because of Father Escalante’s diary. From his journal, we know that the party traveled north through what is now Colorado. They entered Utah from the east near the present town of Jensen, Utah, around September 11, 1776. Traveling westward, the group crossed the Wasatch Mountains through Diamond Fork and Spanish Fork canyons. Utah Valley, with its many mountain-fed streams and rich soils, impressed them.
A diverse party
The expedition reflected the different cultures that came together in New Spain. It included men who were born in Spain, Mexico, and New Mexico, as well as three Utes who served as guides. The party was journeying through lands claimed by Spain, but the people living there were Ute, Paiute, and other Native American peoples.
A boy guide: At a Ute village in Colorado, the fathers met a 12-year-old Timpanogot boy who was originally from Utah Valley. He joined the expedition as a guide. The fathers gave him the Spanish name Joaquin, and the boy traveled the remaining 1,700 miles with them. He later joined the Catholic Church.
A hospitable welcome
When the expedition reached Utah Lake, they met the Timpanogots Utes who lived there. The valley had abundant water sources, and the Utes harvested fish, hunted, and farmed. Thanks to the three Utes who were part of the expedition, the Timpanogot people welcomed the group. The priests taught them about Christianity and promised to return, but never did.
The group headed south along where I-15 is today. In October, they camped in Iron County–in what is now called Escalante Valley. They decided they could not reach Monterey with winter coming on. So they turned south and headed back toward Santa Fe.
When they reached the Colorado River and the steep rock walls of Glen Canyon, they searched for twelve days for a way to cross the river. They finally crossed on November 7, 1776. This spot is now called Crossing of the Fathers, but they called the canyon Sal Si Puede—Get Out If You Can.
They reached Santa Fe on January 2, 1777.
Utah’s first documents.
Escalante’s detailed diary described plant and animal life, geography, and the appearance, dress, and foods of the Ute and Paiute people who lived here.
Another member of the group, Don Bernardo Miera y Pacheco, drew an important map of the area. Even though it was not totally accurate, Miera’s map is the first European map of what is now Utah.
Together with the journals of the Juan Maria Antonia Rivera expedition, the Escalante diary and Miera’s map are the earliest written documents to capture what Utah was like before the era of settlement.