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Silvestre Vélez de Escalante

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Silvestre Vélez de Escalante

The Dominguez-Escalante Expedition was conducted in 1776 to find an overland route from Santa Fe, New Mexico to Spanish missions in California. Francisco Atanasio Domínguez and Silvestre Vélez de Escalante, Franciscan priests, and Don Bernardo Miera y Pacheco, a cartographer, traveled with eight men from Santa Fe through present day western Colorado to Utah Valley, now in the state of Utah. Along the journey they were aided by three Timpanog Ute guides. Due to hardships experienced during travel, the group did not reach Las Californias, but returned to Santa Fe through Arizona. The maps and documentation of their expedition aided future travelers. Their route became part of the Old Spanish Trail from Santa Fe.

The expedition

The Dominguez-Escalante Expedition was conducted in 1776 to find a route from Santa Fe, New Mexico, to Spanish missions in California, such as the Spanish presidio at Monterey in Las Californias. On July 29, 1776, Francisco Atanasio Domínguez led the expedition from Santa Fe with fellow friar Silvestre Vélez de Escalante and cartographer Don Bernardo Miera y Pacheco.[1] The initial part of their journey followed the route taken by Juan Rivera eleven years earlier into Ute country of southwestern Colorado.[2] Three Timpanog Ute guides led them through northern Colorado, to Utah and back to Santa Fe.[1] They were the first white men to travel the route through much of the Colorado Plateau into Utah and back through Arizona to New Mexico.[3] During the course of their trip, they documented the route and provided detailed information about the "lush, mountainous land filled with game and timber, strange ruins of stone cities and villages, and rivers showing signs of precious metals."[4][5]

Present-day New Mexico

Santa Rosa de Abiquiú, July 30

The first night of the journey they stayed overnight at the Santa Clara pueblo, north of Santa Fe,[6] and from there they "traveled nine leagues, more or less, and arrived at the pueblo of Santa Rosa de Abiquiú, where because of various circumstances we remained on the 31st without traveling, and where by means of a Solemn Mass we again implored the aid of our most holy patrons."[1]
From Santa Rosa de Abiquiú pueblo, they traveled north and northwest to a location near present-day Dulce, New Mexico.[7]

Present-day Colorado

Mesa Verde, August 10

From Dulce, they made their way into present day Colorado through Arboles, Ignacio, Durango and Hesperus.[7] They camped at the base of the La Plata Mountains near the current Mesa Verde National Park in southwestern Colorado. Escalante wrote in his journal, "Father Fray Francisco Atanasio [Domínguez] awoke troubled by rheumatic fever which he felt in his face and head since the day before, and it was desirable that we make camp here until he should be better, but the continuous rains, the inclemency of the weather, and the great dampness of the place forced us to leave it. Going north, and having traveled a little more than half a league, we turned to the northwest, went on a league and then swung west through valleys of very beautiful timber and abundant pasturage, roses, and various other flowers. After going two leagues we were again caught in a very heavy rain. Father Fray Francisco Atanasio became worse and the road impassable, and so, having traveled with great difficulty two more leagues to the west, we had to camp on the bank of the first of two little rivers which form the San Lazaro, otherwise called Rio de los Mancos. The pasturage continues in great abundance. Today four and a half leagues."[8]
The men camped alongside the Mancos River, on a few miles below where it runs into Mesa Verde.[8] The river was named from the word manco meaning "one-handed" or "crippled" after one of the men fell into an river, injuring his hand.[9]

Escalante and Domínguez Pueblos, August 13

Near present day Dolores, Escalante and Domínguez found and recorded Anasazi ruins in southwestern Colorado, the first white men to do so. Escalante Pueblo and Domínguez Pueblos, named for them, are located at the Anasazi Heritage Center.[9]
As recorded of other potential settlement locations, Escalante noted the area's bounties: beautiful surroundings supplied with water, pasture, timber wood and fire wood. The men traveled north, staying west of the San Juan Mountains. They crossed the Dolores River several times and then camped along its banks northeast of present-day Cahone. They met up with two Native American slaves, whom they called Genízaro and Coyote. The men left their pueblo without notice to join the group. One man was named "Felipe", the other "Juan Domingo". Although they were not needed, the expedition took them on.[10]
The expedition continued west and northwest, crossing the Dolores River. They traveled through a canyon before they came to an area near current Egnar and traveled along the San Miguel River to an area about five miles west of Nucla. The land became increasingly arid, with less pasture land and insufficient water for the horses, and the canyons difficult. Having seen signs of settlements which they called rancherias and realizing that they needed assistance, they explored for Utes who might serve as their guides.[10]

Nucla, August 23

Northeast of Nucla, where the San Miguel River meets the Dolores River, the group met a member of a Ute tribe. They camped along a creek of the San Miguel River and then traveled east through the Uncompahgre National Forest onto the Uncompahgre Plateau. They went to an area near Montrose and met with a Ute chief. Learning of the location of Timpanog tribe members, they resumed in a northwesterly direction to Olathe, crossing the north fork of the Gunnison River and coming to what is now Hotchkiss.[11]

Bowie, September 1 - obtained guides

Continuing travel in a northeasterly direction, the expedition made its way to the area of Bowie, encountering eighty Utes on horses, most of whom were from the village that Escalante and Dominguez sought. Some of the group went with them to the Ute village where there were about thirty "tents". Father Dominguez met and embraced the chief and his sons. Members of the village were gathered and Dominguez through Muñiz, the interpreter, preached. He also expressed concern about plural marriage and naming people for animals, which he announced to be a lower form of life than man. One of the Ute guides was named "Silvestre", whom they called a Laguna, a Timpanog Native American from the Utah Lake region. The Utes strongly encouraged the expedition to turn back, for they would face Comanches on their trip west, and harm that befell them might be blamed by the Spanish governor on the Utes. In response, they told the Utes that they need to press forward to find a lost Father Garces and that God would look out for them. Violating the agreement and spiritual purpose behind the journey, and in fear of the travel through Comanche territory, the interpreter Andrés Muñiz and his brother Lucrecio traded extra goods they had brought for guns.[12]

Bowie, September 2 - resumed westward travel

Having arranged for guidance and travel to resume westward, they traded their horses for some of the Utes' horses and reached an agreement to continue the expedition, guided by "Silvestre" and a boy they named "Joaquin". The men headed out through what is now National Forest Service land, including the Grand Mesa National Forest, to the south side of Battlement Mesa. Three Ute woman and a child that they met exchanged for piñon nuts some berries that they had been drying in the sun. The group crossed the Colorado River at Una, Colorado, at which point it ran west and southwest and met the Dolores River, one of its tributaries. The group met some Utes who helped resolve a difference of opinion with the guide "Silvestre" about the best next route to take and, to the great relief of some of the men, were told at a small Ute encampment of Comanche movement eastward, away from the area where they would be traveling. The men came upon a dangerous, high hill that "Silvestre" had warned them about; it was steep with loose rocks that caused a few mules to fall down its side 20 or more feet and required the men to make a strenuous walk to the top. They had traveled on the Roan Plateau and in the southern end of Douglas Canyon. From the top of a high ridge "Silvestre" pointed to the north, to the land of the Comanches, and to the west, to the land of his people in Utah Lake Valley.[13]

Rangely, September 10

Having traveled north and west, the expedition made its way into what is now Rio Blanco County, Colorado, named for the White River, which runs through the county into Utah at its western border. After weeks of mountain, canyon and mesa travel, the land here was flatter and they followed a buffalo trail that was heading in the direction in which they wished to travel.[14]

Present-day Utah

Yampa Plateau, September 11

With their provisions running low, a few men successfully chased and killed a buffalo on the Yampa Plateau in present Uintah County, Utah. Traveling northwest, they next they came upon Green River and Split Mountain, which they described as follows: "Here it has meadows abounding in pasturage and good land for raising crops, with facilities for irrigation. It must be somewhat more than a league wide and its length may reach five leagues. The river enters this meadow between two high cliffs which, after forming a sort of corral, come so close together that one can scarcely see the opening through which the river comes." They camped off the Green River near present-day Jensen, Utah. At a stand of six cottonwoods, Lain carved his name in one of the trees, with the year 1776 with a large cross and two small crosses. Heading southwest from Jensen, the expedition noticed fresh horse tracks which they determined to be Comanche following a Ute buffalo hunting party. They camped at Horseshoe Bend of the Green River and then headed west to current Myton where they found ruins of a pueblo. Continuing westward they camped near Duchesne, Fruitland, and Soldier Springs. The route from Jensen to Soldier Springs was roughly along the current U.S. Highway 40.[15]

Uinta National Forest, September 20

The expedition traveled westward through the present Uinta National Forest, from Strawberry Valley, along Fifth Water Creek and Diamond Creek, to Wanrhodes Canyon. They experienced difficult traveling conditions: cool temperatures, blustery winds and varying types of hazardous terrain; soft ground with holes that caused the horses to sink, dense groves of cottonwood and shrubs, and defiles. As the expedition moved slowly in the difficult terrain, "Silvestre", anxious to reach his home, pressed ahead of the expedition many times, so that the main group compelled him to stay with them.[16]
On September 22, not far from Wanrhodes canyon, "From the top of the last ridge we saw in front of us and not very far away many columns of smoke arising in the same sierra. The guide Silvestre said that they must have been made by his people who were out hunting. We replied to them with other smoke signals so that if they had already seen us they would not take us to be enemies and thus flee or welcome us with arrows. They replied with larger smoke signals in the pass through which we must travel to the Lake, and this caused us to believe that they had already seen us, because this is the most prompt and common signal used in any extraordinary occurrence by all the people of this part of America… And about two o’clock in the morning, the hour when according to [Sylvester’s] opinion there might be one or more Indians close at hand, he made a long speech in his language, giving them to understand that we were peaceable people, friendly and good."[17]

Utah Lake, September 23

Silvestre and Joaquin were given woolen cloth and red ribbon which they used to adorn themselves before entering the village of their people. Silvestre tied the cloth around his head, with the long ends hanging down his back, and wore a cloak that had been given to him earlier. The men traveled out of the canyon, into a meadow and entered the Utah Lake Valley, and the lake which they called the Lake of the Timpanogs. The saw many plumes of smoke and meadows recently burnt or still burning, which they took to mean that the Timpanog Utes believed they were Comanches or another hostile Native American tribe. After they had camped near present Spanish Fork, a small contingent including Silvestre, Joaquin, Muñiz and Domínguez traveled ahead to a native American village on the Provo River, north of Provo and east of Utah Lake. Men came out to meet them, brandishing weapons, but as soon as they recognized Silvestre, the men from the expedition were warmly welcomed and embraced. The native Americans were greatly surprised to learn that they had traveled safely through Comanche territory. The purpose of the visit was explained, including the desire to share their faith. Dominguez asked for another guide to continue their search for Father Garces. Joaquin would continue on the journey as well as a boy they named "Jose Maria". The fathers gave gifts to the tribe and received a large quantity of dried fish for their travels. Understanding the desire of the expedition to return, the tribe offered the use of their land to build houses for other Spaniards who might which to join them on their lands after they completed their journey.[18]
The Utah Lake Valley was described by Escalante as conducive to settlement. The temperature was comfortable day and night. There were four rivers, large meadows for farming, and sufficient fish, fowl and animals for hunting, wood for homes and fires, pasture land for horses and more. Because of the abundance of fish, the Timpanog tribe are described as "fish-eaters". Although they heard of Salt Lake Valley, the expedition did not travel there.[19]

Payson, September 26

The group left Silvestre's village near Spanish Fork on September 25 and traveled southwest. They camped next at sites near Springville, Payson, Starr, Levan and Scipio. The route from Springville south to Scipio is essentially the route of current Interstate Highway 15. They came across several small groups of native Americans along the way, most of whom were quite friendly and social. Some of the men had thick beards and were thought to look more in appearance like Spanish men than native Americans; Men of this tribe were friendly, helpful and gracious and like "Sylvester's" tribe, encouraged the Spaniards to return. After Scipio they had difficulty finding pastureland and water fit for drinking. At times the only water that they could find was water made salty by the region's salt beds, which made the horses ill. Pasture land had become increasingly scarce. To add to their troubles, "Jose Maria" walked off one morning to return to his village, disappointed by the ill treatment of one of the servants.[20]

Beaver River Valley, October 5

A cold wind blew in followed by heavy snowfall, hail and rain that prevented travel for several days. Conditions were very uncomfortable, with no wood to create a fire. Once they attempted traveling the horses were bogged down or fell down in the snow-covered mire. Dominguez and Escalante weighed the risks of continuing their expedition to California: all the mountains that they would need to pass to get to California were covered with snow. If they continued with hardships, their last guide, "Joaquin" might desert them, too. They reflected that the missionary goals for the trip had been met; they had invitations to return for future settlement. Thus, they decided that rather than heading west, they must begin heading south and return to Santa Fe. Heading south, they met with greater success; the ground was not so difficult for the horses to travel as the previous day and they camped near current Milford. There snow had melted into a pool of water and there was pasture land for the horses. This was the end of the territory of their friends, the long-bearded Utes.[21]
They came upon members of a native American tribe who were quite suspicious of the group of men. Mostly as a means to lead the men away from their tribe, the chief and another man led the expedition from an area near present Kanarraville to an area near present-day Pintura where the guides silently left the Spaniards. They continued their journey south towards Toquerville. Although several days of travel had been quite hot, they came upon mild weather, green meadows and an area where a native American tribe grew maize. Near Hurricane the land became sandy, making travel difficult for the horses, and that day they did not find pasture land or water. They camped next on lands southwest of Hurricane near the border of Arizona.[22]

Present-day Arizona

Mojave Desert, northwestern Arizona, October 16

The expedition wanted to travel south to the Colorado River but learned from eight native American men that although they were not far from the Colorado River it was unapproachable, surrounded by a great, deep canyon (the Grand Canyon). Out of provisions, they sacrificed one of the horses for food and the next day sought water. Miera was ill, unable to eat and nearly unable to speak. Near Diamond Butte, they came upon five native Americans, called Yubuincariris, who showed them to an area of good water and took a few men back to their village to trade for some food, wild sheep, prickly pear and grass seeds. The native Americans also shared information about other neighboring tribes. Although they knew nothing of Monterey, they had heard of the travels of Father Garces.[23]

Paria River, near the Colorado River, October 22

The expedition continued to experience difficulties due to illness and lack of water, pastureland and supplies as they made their way east across what is now the state of Arizona, sometimes heading north enough to cross into what is now Utah. Many stops were made along the Paria River canyons and plateau, Wahweap and Glen Canyon.[24]
The men returned to Santa Fe[4][5] by way of Arizona, skirting the Grand Canyon, and passing through the badlands of western New Mexico.[1]

Old Spanish Trail

The maps and information resulting from the expedition provided useful information for future travel and their route from Santa Fe to the Salt Lake Valley became known as the Old Spanish Trail.[25]


Francisco Atanasio Domínguez

Fray Francisco Atanasio Domínguez was born about 1740, and at the age of 17 joined the Franciscan order in 1757. In October 1772, Domínguez was at the Convent of Veracruz as Commissary of the Third Order. He arrived in Sante Fe on March 22, 1776, in present day New Mexico, of the Mexican province to inspect the Custody of the Conversion of St. Paul and investigate opening an overland route from Santa Fe to Monterey, California.[1] Upon Francisco Atanasio Domínguez's return to Santa Fe and Mexico City, Domínguez submitted to his Franciscan superiors a report that was highly critical of the administration of the 'New Mexico' missions. His views caused him to fall out of favor with the Franciscans in power, leading him to an assignment to an obscure post at a Sonoran Desert mission in the Sonora y Sinaloa Province in northern Mexico.

In 1777 returned to Mexico and was the chaplain of presidios in Nueva Vizcaya. In 1800 he was at Janos, Sonora, Mexico. He died between 1803 and 1805.[1]

Silvestre Vélez de Escalante

Silvestre Vélez de Escalante was born in Trecino, Spain about 1750. When he was 17 he became a Franciscan in the Convento Grande in Mexico City. In 1774 he came to present day New Mexico in the Mexican province; He was first stationed at Laguna pueblo and then in January 1775 assigned as a minister to the Zuni. In June 1776 he was summoned by Domínguez for the expedition to California and remained in New Mexico for two years following the expedition. He died at the age of 30 in April 1780 in Parral, Mexico during his return journey to Mexico City for medical treatment.[1]

Silvestre Vélez de Escalante was known for his journal, in which he described the expeditions he went on. Escalante namesakes include Escalante Desert, Escalante River, Escalante (town), Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, and the Escalante Elementary & High schools (Rio Arriba County, New Mexico). According to historian David Leighton, Escalante Road, in Tucson, Arizona, long believed to be named after Silvestre Velez de Escalante, is in fact named after the Escalante family, whose origins in Tucson date back to 1880 with the arrival of Trinidad, Manuel and Miguel Escalante, who came from Sonora, MX.

Don Bernardo Miera y Pacheco

Don Bernardo Miera y Pacheco, a native of Valle de Carriedo, Mantanas de Burgos, lived in Chihuahua before he moved to El Paso in 1743. From 1754-56 he lived in Santa Fe. Multi-talented, he was an army engineer, merchant, Indian fighter, government agent, rancher and artist. It was his experience as a cartographer that made the expedition historic when he published a map of the expedition in 1778 and a report on the expedition, which is included in Herbert E. Bolton, Pageant in the Wilderness: The Story of the Escalante Expedition to the Interior Basin. He is also known for his artwork, including a painting of St. Michael on an altar screen in Santa Fe’s chapel of San Miguel and statuettes that were in the Zuni church.[1]

Timpanog Utes

Fathers Dominguez and Escalante named three Timpanog tribe Ute Native Americans who joined the expedition as guides:[1]

  • "Silvestre", named after Silvestre Escalante, from present day Utah was the main Native guide from Colorado to Utah. Because of his recognition with his and other Ute tribes, the explorers enjoyed safe passage.
  • "Joaquin", a 12 year old boy, joined the expedition with Silvestre as a guide. After leaving Silvestre's village, near present Provo, Utah, Joaquin assisted the explorers on their return trip to Santa Fe, New Mexico. He was baptized there in the Catholic Church.
  • "Jose Maria", the joined name of the Bible's Joseph and Maria, joined the expedition in Silvestre's village. Like Joaquin, Jose Maria was a boy, probably also about 12 years old. He did not complete the journey to Santa Fe; when he saw the terrible treatment administered to one of the servants, he returned to his village.

Other explorers

Other men who began the expedition in Santa Fe include:[1][6]

  • Don Juan Pedro Cisneros, Alcalde mayor of Zuñi Pueblo
  • Don Joaquin Lain, a native of Santa Cruz in Castilla la Vieja and citizen of Sante Fe at the time of the expedition. He died in 1799.
  • Lorenzo Olivares from La Villa del Paso, a citizen of El Paso at the time of the expedition
  • Andrés Muñiz from Bernalillo, New Mexico served as an interpreter with the Utes language. He was part of Juan Maria de Rivera's expedition to the Gunnison River in 1775.
  • Lucrecio Muñiz was the brother Andres Muniz, from Embudo, north of Santa Fe.
  • Juan de Aguilar was born in Santa Clara, New Mexico.
  • Simon Lucero, a servant to Don Pedro Cisneros, may have been Zuni.

See also





  • Joseph Cerquone: In Behalf of the Light. The Domínguez and Escalante Expedition of 1776. Denver, Colorado 1976.
  • de Escalante, Silvestre Vélez. "Dominguez-Escalante Expedition Journal (1776)". American Journeys. Retrieved June 20, 2011.
  • David Leighton, "Escalantes worked kilns, ranches and homesteaded," Arizona Daily Star, August 6, 2013

External links

  • Original map of the Dominguez-Escalante Expedition route
  • Old Spanish Trail map, with several alternate routes
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